Updated: 5 days ago
The Rings of Power, Amazon's prequel to LOTR, based on JRR Tolkien's Second Age material is an interesting example of adaptation. This isn't a blog on fantasy lit, so I'll let others to explore how The Rings of Power is adapting Tolkien's writing. What I'm interested in exploring here is how Tolkien (through the Silmarillion, LOTR, and other writings) and adaptations of Tolkien (like The Rings of Power) adapt biblical concepts, stories, and themes.
By the way, if you haven't watched The Rings of Power, consider this a spoiler warning, since I'll be discussing Tolkien's works which may contain spoilers for the plot. Also, if you don't have Prime:
LOTR, Tolkien, and the Bible
Before we get too far into the details, let's clarify why it's worth exploring Tolkien's works through the lens of Bible adaptation and Christian faith. After all, there are plenty of elements in The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other writings - creatures like elves, orcs, and dragons, and magical objects like the rings of power - that are obviously not inspired by the Bible. But in one of his letters JRR Tolkien famously noted:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.
A lot of ink has been spilt over what exactly Tolkien means by calling LOTR a Catholic work. Unlike CS Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, LOTR is not an allegory (a genre that Tolkien found distasteful), nor does it contain references to explicitly religious practices or beliefs. As Tolkien goes on to explain in the same letter,
I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.
I won't try to offer a robust understanding of all the ways that Tolkien embeds biblical and catholic ideas into the fundamental nature of his world. For that, I'd suggest checking out The Nature of Middle Earth (Amazon Link), which explores some of these parallels in detail. What I want to focus on specifically is how biblical elements have been absorbed into the very shape of key stories in Tolkien's mythos. And to do that, we need to begin "in the beginning."
The Valar, the Divine Council, & the Creation of the World
Long before Tolkien wrote LOTR, he had begun work on a collection of myths and fantasy history known as the Silmarillion. The Silmarillion is kind of like the Bible of the elves. It begins like Genesis does with the creation of the world by God (whom the elves call Eru Ilúvatar) and it goes on to give a sweeping overview of ancient history that explains how God's good purposes for the world have been derailed by Satan (whom the elves call Melkor or Morgoth).
The Ainulindalë, the creation story given to us in the Silmarillion, bears a number of similarities and differences from the biblical account. Like Genesis, God exists independently before the creation of the world. He creates the world "ex nihilo" (from nothing) by saying "let there be" (or "ëa" in elvish), out of sheer generosity and abundance (in contrast to various pagan myths in which the world is made as a result of conflict or in order to serve the gods). God is clearly in control of all things and able to direct them according to his ultimate purpose.
Although the Bible depicts God as the primary actor in creation, it also suggests that there may be other beings present and active. Most notably, when God creates humans, he declares:
"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26 ESV)
Commentators have long debated whom God is referring to when he says "us." Some Christians have taken this as an Old Testament hint at the Trinity, but most OT scholars believe this is actually a reference to a group of spiritual beings known as "the Divine Council" that we see show up in a handful of other places throughout the OT (e.g., Job 1:6, Psalm 82).
Although the role of the Divine Council hasn't been fully appreciated by Protestants until relatively recently [see Dr. Michael Heiser's The Unseen Realm (Amazon Link)], Tolkien was much more attuned to this reality. Medieval Christians had a significant interest in the Divine Council because they saw it as a way the harmonize their biblical beliefs with the rich mythology they had inherited from Greeks, Romans, and Norse [see CS Lewis' exploration of Medieval astral theology in The Discarded Image (Amazon Link)]. As a Medieval scholar, Tolkien drew on both the biblical concept of the Divine Council and later Medieval ideas in his depiction of creation. While the Ainulindalë depicts God as the primary power behind creation, Tolkien also gives a significant role to God's divine council (whom the elves call the Valar).
Although the presence of other spiritual assistants during the process of creation is biblical, what makes the Ainulindalë most distinct from Genesis is the focus it places on the Valar. The Valar are not merely watching Eru act, as one might suspect when reading Genesis. Rather, in the Ainulindalë Eru is depicted as a maestro orchestrating the Valar in the singing of a great song. But the Valar aren't simply obeying notes on a sheet of music; they are improvising based on their own innate understanding of Eru's will and purpose. Along the way, the greatest of the Valar, Melkor (Satan), attempts to taken control of the song and subsume the unique melodies of the other Valar under his own blaring music, and initially he draws some Valar away from the song that Eru intended. But ultimately Eru weaves his music around Melkor's in such a way that Melkor's effort to rebel only magnifies the beauty of Eru's theme. After the song is finished, Eru reveals to the Valar that their song isn't just for fun; it's a kind of soundtrack/pattern that the world and all of history will follow. He then gives existence to this world by saying "let it be" and delegates the everyday governing of the world to the Valar who have remained loyal to him.
Obviously, there's a lot there that isn't in the Bible, and so it may be a stretch to call the Ainulindalë a Bible adaptation. That being said, Tolkien provides a context for understanding why his creation story is so distinct from the story we get in Genesis. The Silmarillion establishes that, although elves and men are both "children of Ilúvatar," they relate to him in distinct ways. Whereas faithful men can relate to Eru directly and have a very distant relationship to the Valar, elves are closer to the Valar and relate to God indirectly through them. Thus, Tolkien's world provides a frame for understanding why humans might have a more exclusively God-centered perspective on creation while the elven story of creation gives more attention and focus to God's Valar assistants.
Adam, Abraham, the Quendi, & Numenor
Within the biblical story, God's efforts to bless the world follow a clear pattern. Instead of directly blessing everyone all on his own, God calls an individual and promises to bless the world through him and his descendants. This pattern begins in Genesis, when God creates Adam and calls him to be fruitful and multiply and rule over the world. In order to carry out this mission, Adam is given a blessed existence in the Garden of Eden, with the understanding that he will protect the blessing of Eden and spread it across the entire world. This same pattern the repeats on several occasions, most notably when God calls Abraham out of Ur and promises to give him a great family that will bless the entire earth. The Israelites (Abraham's family) are given a blessed existence in the Promised Land of Israel with the understanding that they will protect the blessing of God's presence and spread it to the nations surrounding them.
We see this same pattern at work within the Silmarillion and Tolkien's other works. When the elves are first created, the Valar invite them to come to "the Blessed Realm" (Valinor - which we see briefly in a flashback at the start of The Rings of Power). The elves who receive the call of the Valar (the Quendi) are transformed by their stay in the Blessed Realm and become far greater than the elves who remain in Middle Earth. Although things don't exactly go according to plan, it's clear that Eru's purpose is for the Quendi (like Galadriel) to take the blessing of Valinor and spread it to all of Middle Earth.
This pattern repeats itself in the story of Numenor, which we'll see play out more directly in The Rings of Power. During what's known as the "First Age" of Middle Earth, the elves are engaged in a 400 year conflict with Melkor/Morgoth. When early human nomads end up wandering into the conflict, some take the side of the elves and some take the side of Morgoth. After Morgoth is defeated, the Valar take the humans who sided with the elves and bring them to a special island (Numenor) close to Valinor and offer them a variety of blessings (longer life, greater strength, riches, etc.). Again, things don't exactly go according to plan, but it's clear that Eru's purpose is for the Numenoreans to spread the blessing of their land across all of Middle Earth.
The Fall, the Kin-Slaying, & the Akallabêth
Just as the Bible's depiction of God's efforts to bless the world follows predictable pattern, the way that humans respond to God's call is also very predictable. Time and again, humans turn away from their calling to be representatives of God's blessing and instead seek to become like gods, doing what seems good in their own sight. Instead of bringing blessing to the world, they end up getting themselves exiled from the realm of blessing into the realm of death, and they fall into violent conflict with one another. We see this play out first in the story of Adam and Eve, who are tempted by the Serpent to be like God by taking the forbidden fruit, end up exiled from the garden, and give birth to the first murderer, Cain. The same pattern also plays out several times in the story of the Israelites, who are tempted by the other nations to violate God's commands and end up getting exiled from the Promised Land and in conflict with one another.
Tolkien adapts the biblical story of the Fall in elven mythology of the Silmarillion. After the elves are brought to Valinor, they live in the Blessed Realm for centuries in peace. Unfortunately, Melkor eventually tempts some of the elves into believing that they can be on par with the Valar if they violate a ban on returning to Middle Earth. The elves that Sauron deceives (the Noldor) rebel and kill their close kin (the Teleri) and are exiled from the Blessed Realm into the land of Middle Earth, where they face death in a long war against Melkor. Further amplifying the biblical resonance of the story, a life-giving tree in the Blessed Realm is killed in the course of these events.
Tolkien also repeats the biblical pattern of the Fall in his history of the Numenoreans recorded in the Akallabêth. After the faithful men are brought to Numenor and given numerous blessings by the Valar, they live in peace and prosperity for many hundreds of years. However, they continue to experience death, albeit at a later age, and this becomes an unhealthy preoccupation of some, who envy the immortality of the elves. The humans eventually war against Sauron, capture him, and bring him back to Numenor as a hostage. However, once Sauron is in Numenor, he tempts the Numenoreans into believing that they can be deathless and powerful like the elves and Valar if they violate the ban on traveling to Valinor. The kings of Numenor, deceived by Sauron, kill their faithful kinsmen and sacrifice them to Morgoth, before rebelling against the ban. Again, an important tree is killed in the course of these events. As a result of the rebellion, the rebellious Numenoreans are swallowed by the earth (like the biblical figure Korah) while the faithful Numenoreans are exiled to Middle Earth and Numenor is destroyed.
In his unfinished materials, Tolkien actually began working on a version of the original human fall as well. It diverges from Genesis 3 in significant ways (e.g. humans were a society, not a couple; Morgoth tempts them to worship him vs. eat fruit). Perhaps most significantly, Tolkien questions whether death is a punishment that results from human disobedience or whether instead death is a part of Eru's original plan and the fear of death and estrangement from Eru is the actual punishment.
Other Bible Motifs in the Silmarillion, LOTR, & The Rings of Power
So far, I've covered the most significant ways in which the shape of Tolkien's stories has been influenced and inspired by biblical stories. However, there are several other smaller similarities, which I may explore in a future post if there's sufficient interest. They include:
The Promised Child
Humans Mating with Non-Humans & Having Super Human Children
The Self-Sacrificial Savior
The Hope for a Returning King
The King as Warrior and Healer
The Hope for a New Heavens and New Earth
Suffice to say, Tolkien wasn't kidding when he said that his world had absorbed the stories and symbolism of Christianity. And in many cases he repeats these patterns in ways that resemble how the Bible employs recurring types and patterns.
How The Rings of Power Will Handle Biblical Patterns
So far I've focused primarily on how Tolkien himself took biblical stories and adapted them to fit within his secondary world and imaginative universe. It's probably too early to tell how The Rings of Power will adapt Tolkien's ideas into its own story. However, I do want to make a few observation:
The Elven Storyline
Unfortunately, I suspect that The Rings of Power does not have the rights to adapt the Silmarillion stories that contain most of the Bible-inspired elements of elvish history. While Amazon apparently negotiated for the right to include some Silmarillion material (e.g. Finrod, Morgoth, and Galadriel's very quick summary of life in Valinor and the death of the trees), most sources are suggesting that their rights are primarily tied to Tolkien's Second Age material. We see this at play in how Rings of Power Galadriel narrates the First Age: she very conspicuously doesn't talk about the rebellion of the elves, the kin-slaying, or the fact that they are exiles from Valinor, only able to return as a result of the forgiveness of the Valar. Of course, it's possible that those details were omitted to keep the amount of exposition to a minimum and we'll get more as the series unfolds. The Rings of Power may eventually give us a little more about how the elves were brought to Valinor, but I definitely don't think we'll get a full-fledged creation story.
The Numenorean Storyline
The Rings of Power should have rights to most if not all of the Numenorean story, and so there shouldn't be any legal barriers to including the biblical elements. We just barely met the Numenoreans at the end of Episode 2 and so it's difficult to say much about how The Rings of Power will depict them. That being said, I'm going to assume that we'll get allusions to how they were given Numenor and its blessings as a gift so that they could bless Middle Earth. I'll also be very surprised if The Rings of Power doesn't give us the story of Numenor's Fall, since that's really one of the most significant and interesting events in the Second Age. I doubt we'll get anything about the original Fall of Man, but it's possible that we'll get an Easter Egg reference.
Want to explore Tolkien's 2nd Age in greater depth? Brian Sibley has gathered together Tolkien's 2nd Age Material from various different places into a single volume illustrated by Alan Lee.
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Contributing to The Bible Artist
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If you liked this post, I've done several posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation that you might want to check out, including articles on how The Chosen adapts key biblical characters and discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Season 1 and Season 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.
The Chosen Season 3
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
John the Baptist in The Chosen **Season 2**
Lilith, Demons, & Evil Spirits in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Simon the Zealot & Nathanael in The Chosen ***Season 2***
The Virgin Mary in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 2***
James & John in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Mary Magdalene in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]
Episode 1 Guide: Homecoming
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara