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Triplex Munera: The Offices of Priest, Prophet, and King in The Lord of the Rings
It has been seen by readers of The Lord of the Rings that the characters of Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn are similar to Jesus Christ in His threefold office of Priest, Prophet, and King. This is commonly referred to as the Triplex Munera or Munus Triplex – the threefold office. The purpose of this essay is to examine what such similarities are: “Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king.”(CCC, 783) We shall also follow St. John Henry Newman's understanding of the threefold office in order to understand the specific tasks each office pertains to.
We recognize that Tolkien did not intend his work to be an allegory. Rather, our view is that these characters are a reflection or analogous to his Christian beliefs. In one of his letters, Tolkien states “That there is no allegory does not, of course, say there is no applicability. There always is...there is I suppose applicability in my story to present times.”1 It is our intention to use this applicability in this essay. We will offer a close reading of the text and elaborate as to how each character fits into a certain category: Frodo as Priest, Gandalf as Prophet, and Aragorn as King, and how they all reflect Christ in these offices. We shall also see that each office is not exclusive and that a character may have more than one.
II. Frodo as Priest
Frodo most closely resembles Christ's priestly office. A priest is one who offers sacrifice. St. John Henry Newman writes of Christ's office as a priest: “He performed the priest's service when He died on the Cross, as a sacrifice; and when He consecrated the bread and the cup to be a feast upon that sacrifice; and now that He intercedes for us at the right hand of God.”2 Christ is the greatest exemplar of the priesthood, for in Him the sacrifice and the offerer of the sacrifice are one and the same. Jesus takes upon Himself all sin in order to destroy it. Sin is represented by the Cross that He carries to Calvary. As the Catechism says while referencing how Melchizedek is a prefigurment of Christ: “...Christ, the unique 'high priest after the order of Melchizedek'; 'holy, blameless, unstained,' 'by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified,' that is, by the unique sacrifice of the Cross.” (CCC, 1544) A priest's duty is to offer sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the Mass which is a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. Frodo's actions are quite similar to those of Christ, especially those of Christ during His Passion. The Catechism explains this Sacrifice:
The ministerial priesthood not only has the task of representing Christ-Head of the Church-before the assembly of the faithful, but also of acting in the name of the whole Church when presenting to God the prayer of the Church, and above all when offering the Eucharistic sacrifice. (CCC, 1552)
After Bilbo goes to Rivendell and leaves the Ring to his nephew, Frodo is counseled by Gandalf to travel to Rivendell to seek further advice. Frodo does this and attends the Council of Elrond. While there, it is determined that the Ring should go to Mordor and there be destroyed. There is then a discussion of who is to take the Ring and destroy it. Frodo offers to take it saying “'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way.'”3 Elrond responds by telling him that it is a heavy burden and that no one is forcing him to take the Ring and that he does so freely.
It is clear from the Gospel of John that Jesus enters into His Passion willingly. John tells us: “Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, 'Whom do you seek?'” [emphasis added] (John 18:4) He freely takes on Himself the sins of the world and offers Himself as a sacrifice in expiation for them. Again, Jesus says in St. John's Gospel: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10: 17-18)
Frodo takes the Ring (Sin) upon himself and is taking it to Mount Doom to destroy it and free the peoples of Middle-Earth from the power of Sauron. Frodo's path to Mount Doom even echoes the Biblical account of the road to Calvary. Joseph Pearce makes this connection in his book Frodo's Journey: “Yet if the wearing of the Ring is the act of sinning, the carrying of it is equivalent to the carrying of the Cross or to the carrying of our own individual crosses. On a level, therefore, we can see Frodo as a Christ figure, the Cross-bearer, who saves the world from sin through his act of self-sacrifice...”4
On the way to Mount Doom, Frodo is weary from being attacked by Shelob and Gollum and as he climbs he stumbles and falls. His loyal servant Samwise Gamgee must come to his aid and help him carry this burden. But Sam cannot carry the Ring for it is not his vocation. In one of his letters, Tolkien says that Frodo has a specific vocation: “Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be highminded, and has (as it were) a vocation.”5 This vocation is to be the Ringbearer and destroy it. The only thing Sam can do is help carry Frodo. Tolkien describes the moving scene:
'Come, Mr. Frodo!' he cried. 'I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he'll go.
As Frodo clung upon his back, arms loosely about his neck, legs clasped firmly under his arms, Sam staggered to his feet; and then to his amazement he felt the burden light. He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so.6
This reminds one of Simon the Cyrene who was commissioned to help Jesus carry His Cross for He was too weak to make it to Calvary and His death before Crucifixion would deprive the Roman soldiers of their sadistic pleasure in watching Him die a slow agonizing death: “And as they led him [Jesus] away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross to carry behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26)
Ultimately, however, Frodo (unlike Christ) fails in the end and Gollum is the one who inadvertently completes the mission. Frodo is similar to the priestly vocation of Christ because he offers himself as a victim. He is the one offering the sacrifice of himself in order to save the world just as Christ offered Himself as the Paschal Victim.
III. Gandalf as Prophet
The prophetic office is that of instructing, teaching, and guiding. Newman describes it: “Christ exercised His prophetical office in teaching, and in foretelling the future;—in His sermon on the Mount, in His parables, in His prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem.”7 The Catechism calls it the “teaching” office of bishops and priests:
Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task "to preach the Gospel of God to all men," in keeping with the Lord's command. They are "heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers" of the apostolic faith endowed with the authority of Christ. (CCC, 888)
This was at the core of the ministry of the prophets in the Old Testament but also at the core of Jesus' own ministry in the New Testament. Gandalf's primary duty in Middle-Earth is to offer counsel and guidance. Tolkien describes him as a kind of “Guardian Angel” for Middle-Earth. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes “But afterwards it was said among the Elves that they [the Istari or wizards] were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should rise again, and move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.”8
Again, in another letter dealing with the wizards Tolkien writes that their primary purpose is to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them. They thus appear as 'old' sage figures.”9 Tolkien further explains that Gandalf's death and resurrection are still ordered toward this mission but that Gandalf's power has greatly increased because of it:
So Gandalf sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned...Of course he remains similar in personality and idiosyncrasy, but both his wisdom and power are much greater. When he speaks he commands attention; the old Gandalf could not have dealt so with Théoden, nor with Saruman. He is still under the obligation of concealing his power and of teaching rather than forcing or dominating wills, but where the physical powers of the Enemy are too great for the good will of the opposers to be effective he can act in an emergency as an 'angel' – no more violently than the release of St Peter from prison.10
His job then, is not to take matters into his own hands and do the work of free peoples of Middle-Earth but rather to counsel and guide them along the path to victory and peace. Tolkien's description of Gandalf is also very similar to Jesus. Jesus, being God could have used His power to command others to do His bidding. Jesus, however, respects the free will of man and does not infringe upon this. He teaches and guides one to do His will since it is ultimately what is best for us whether we know it or not.
Gandalf's counsel to both Bilbo and Frodo is a prime example of his mission and prophetic office. After Bilbo vanishes at his birthday party, he returns to his home and Gandalf meets him there. Their discussion becomes heated when Gandalf tries to persuade Bilbo to let go of the Ring and leave it for Frodo. Bilbo then accuses Gandalf of calling him a thief. Gandalf responds: “'I have never called you one,' Gandalf answered. 'And I a not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, like you used.'”11
After Bilbo leaves the Shire, Frodo returns to Bag-End and lives in relative peace and comfort. Gandalf returns intermittently until a span of nine years had elapsed. When he returned this time, he had a good deal to teach Frodo about the Ring. Tolkien writes that “He [Frodo] pressed him for news of himself and the wide world, and soon they were deep in talk, and they stayed up far into the night.”12 Gandalf proceeds to tell Frodo the entire story of the creation of the Rings of Power and the fall of Sauron.
Indeed, it is Gandalf's counsel at the Council of Elrond that the Ring should be destroyed once and for all that leads to the entire quest of the Fellowship:
'Not safe for ever' said Gandalf. 'There are many things in the deep waters; and the sea and lands may change. And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.'13
Gandalf's wisdom and counsel figure prominently throughout the Council of Elrond. He also, however, offers counsel to both Théoden and Denethor, the latter of which refused and ultimately paid by his own folly for not doing so.
Saruman, Gandalf's counterpart, clearly does not live up to his prophetic office. This is seen when Gandalf arrives at Orthanc for aid:
'”Yes I have come,” I said. “I have come for your aid Saruman the White.” And this title seemed to anger him.
'”Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!” he scoffed. “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.”14
It is somewhat ironic that Saruman accuses Gandalf of involving himself in the affairs of Middle-Earth. Was this not the task of the Istari? Gandalf seems to be the only one who actually fulfills his prophetic duty (although Radagast does makes a brief appearance he does not seem to aid Gandalf or the free peoples of Middle-Earth). Instead of scoffing at Gandalf's request, Saruman should have offered his counsel, not that it would have been any good since Saruman had already been corrupted at this point. Saruman fails where Gandalf succeeds in administering his prophetic office.
Before entering the Mines of Moria, there is a curious scene of debate that takes place. Here Aragorn acts as a prophet and warns Gandalf against going into Moria:
'I will,' said Aragorn heavily. 'You followed my lead almost to disaster in the snow, and have not said a word in blame. I will follow your lead now – if this last warning does not move you. It is not of the Ring, nor of us that I am thinking of now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!'15
Gandalf does not seem to blink an eye at this – almost as if he already knew that he would have to sacrifice himself and knew that he would come back again – a type of death and Resurrection moment similar to that of Christ.
All of this shows us that Gandalf is an obvious wisdom figure in The Lord of the Rings. His task is to help teach and guide Elves, Men, Dwarves, and even Hobbits in their battle against Sauron. When his task is done and Sauron is defeated, he returns to the Undying Lands.
IV. Aragorn as King
The office of Kingship has to do with ruling and leading. Again, Newman offers insight into Christ's exercising of this office: “And He [Christ] showed Himself as a conqueror, and a king, in rising from the dead, in ascending into heaven, in sending down the Spirit of grace, in converting the nations, and in forming His Church to receive and to rule them.”16 The Catechism offers a brief explanation of this office as it applies to bishops:
The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern the particular Churches assigned to them by their counsels, exhortations, and example, but over and above that also by the authority and sacred power which indeed they ought to exercise so as to edify, in the spirit of service which is that of their Master. (CCC, 894)
Jesus exemplifies the office of Kingship by leading and guiding His disciples and having power over health, sight, demons, etc. Aragorn is Tolkien's character that most closely fits into the office of Kingship. Indeed, Aragorn is extremely similar to Christ and His authority in many ways. From what follows, it will be seen that Aragorn's authority is not limited to the physical realm but extends even into the spiritual realm as well. This is, of course, similar to Jesus' Kingdom when He tells Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
It is revealed at the Council of Elrond that Strider is not merely a ranger from the North. He is indeed the rightful king of Gondor and heir of Isildur:
'And who are you, and what have you to do with Minas Tirith?' asked Boromir, looking at wonder at the lean face of the ranger and his weather stained cloak.
'He is Aragorn son of Arathorn,' said Elrond; 'and he is descended through many fathers from Isildur Elendil's son of Minas Ithil. He is chief of the Dúnedain in the North, and few are now left of that folk.'17
In Sacred Scripture, God sets up the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem. All the Davidic Kings also share in the priesthood. The Psalms state: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (Ps. 110:4) Many have interpreted this to be understood as David telling his son Solomon that the Kings of Jerusalem can exercise the office of the priesthood. This is further evidenced by David's wearing of priestly garments: “And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod.” (2 Samuel 6:14) It is clear from the Gospel accounts of Jesus' lineage that Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus is a descendant of David and would therefore imply that He is both a king and priest.18
In Tolkien's Legendarium, the kings of Númenor share a similar privilege. They lost it, however, until Aragorn becomes King of Gondor. Tolkien explains in one of his letters written to Robert Murray the semi-religious aspects of the Númenóreans:
Also when the 'Kings' came to an end there was no equivalent to a 'priesthood': the two being identical in Númenórean ideas...It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Luthien and the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His name (or title) be again more often heard. But there would be no temple of the True God while the Númenórean influence lasted.19
Aragorn then, following in the footsteps of his royal lineage would also be considered a priest just as Christ has not only the office of kingship, and prophecy but also the priesthood.
After Gandalf's demise in Moria, the charge of leading the Fellowship falls to Aragorn. After running back from the bridge of Khazad-Dûm, Aragorn cries “Come! I will lead you now! We must obey his last command. Follow me!”20 This is a clear example of Aragorn's kingly authority. The Ringbearer does not take charge nor the Leogolas of the Eldar but Strider the Ranger who is much more than that.
Aragorn's authority as King is clearly seen when he takes the Paths of the Dead. While they are passing through, the Dead appear and come before the Grey Company. Aragorn asks them why they have come:
'Oath breakers, why have ye come?'
And a voice was heard out of the night that answered him, as if far away:
'To fulfill our oath and have peace.'
Then Aragorn said: 'The hour is come at last. Now I go to Pelargir upon Anduin, and ye shall come after me. And when all this land is clean of the servants of Sauron, I will hold your oath fulfilled, and ye shall have peace and depart forever. For I am Elessar, Ilsildur's heir of Gondor.'21
Aragorn can command the Dead Army to fight for him against Sauron because of his royal lineage and authority. The Dead Army was bound to obey the King of Gondor by oath. Those subject to the royal authority are bound to follow it not only in a temporal plain of existence but even in a spiritual and not material one.
Another instance of Aragorn's Kingship being eerily similar to that of Jesus is in the Houses of Healing. There he enters Gondor in secret and by night in order to help heal the wounded from the Battle of Pelennor Fields. One of the wise women of Gondor, Ioreth states that “'The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.'”22 This wise saying is similar to what Jesus says in the Gospel of John regarding the witnesses to His being sent by God and therefore witnesses to His authority: “But the testimony I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works I am doing, bear witness to me that the Father has sent me.” (John 5:36) It is interesting to note that Aragorn's kingship also involves service to the sick. This is yet another similarity with Jesus: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Matthew 20:28)
Within the House of Healing, many including Faramir, Éowyn, and Merry, were sick with a disease that the healers in Gondor could not cure: “But now their art and knowledge were baffled; for there were many sick of a malady that would not be healed; and they called it the Black Shadow, for it came from the Nazgûl.”23 When Aragorn arrives, he is able to cure this sickness. When he comes to Faramir he says “'Here I must put forth all such power and skill as is given to me.'”24 After he has mixed the kingsfoil into a broth he tells Faramir: “'Walk no more in the shadows, but awake! You are weary. Rest awhile, and take food, and be ready when I return.'”25 One cannot help but think of Jesus raising Jairus' daughter:
Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 41-43)
All of these examples illustrate Aragorn's authority provided by his kingship. Aragorn's authority and power are not excluded merely to the physical realm of commanding soldiers and leading the Fellowship. As is seen by his ability to command the armies of the dead and to heal those stricken by the sickness of the Nazgûl, Aragorn's authority is also non-corporeal.
It has been seen that all these characters that we have discussed in this paper have been an imperfect reflection of Jesus Christ and exemplify His threefold office of Priest, Prophet, and King. It is curious to note that oftentimes there is an overlap between the three offices. Sometimes Aragorn acts as a prophet or a priest and yet is still a king. Gandalf sacrifices himself as a victim on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Each office is not excluded by the other. In Christ, all three offices are one and act as one.
As with all literary analogies, the characters of The Lord of the Rings fall short of Jesus Christ Himself and His threefold office. They do serve, however, as an excellent example to elucidate, in a popular way, the Church's teaching regarding the Threefold Office of Christ and, therefore, can be valuable in pastoral situations.
1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (New York: William Morrow, 2000), 262. Hereafter abbreviated as Letters.
2 St. John Henry Newman, Sermons on Subjects of the Day, Sermon 5, The Newman Reader accessed May 2, 2023, https://www.newmanreader.org/works/subjects/sermon5.html
3 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 270. Hereafter abbreviated as LOTR.
4 Joseph Pearce, Frodo's Journey (Charlotte, North Carolina: St. Benedict's Press, 2015), 122.
5 Letters, 105.
6 LOTR, 940-941.
7 Newman, Sermons, Sermon 5.
8 J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 359-360.
9 Letters, 202.
10 Letters, 202-203.
11 LOTR, 34.
12 Ibid., 46.
13 Ibid., 266.
14 Ibid., 258.
15 Ibid., 297.
16 Newman, Sermons, Sermon 5.
17 LOTR, 246.
18 Cf. Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.
19 Letters, 206-207.
20 LOTR, 331.
21 Ibid., 789.
22 Ibid., 860.
23 Ibid., 860.
24 Ibid., 863.
25 Ibid., 866.