So Tolkien echoes the great medieval stories of the Harrowing of Hell–in which Christ the victorious King unlocks the gates of hell, brings light into the darkness and preaches redemption to the captive souls.
Tolkien wanted to write “a myth for the English people” and he brought his enthusiasm for medieval Anglo Saxon literature into The Lord of the Rings. The story of the harrowing of hell was not only part of Christian apocryphal scriptures and the teaching of the early church fathers, but it was also woven into the poetry of Caedmon and Cynewulf.
Tolkien brings all these strands together and integrates them into his plot line so echoing Christ’s descent into the realm of the dead and his rescuing of the imprisoned souls.
Aragorn likewise brings the dead into the light of life.
Reflecting Christ, Aragorn says that he will go through the Paths of the Dead even if he must go alone for it is his destiny and part of his own re-making, for as he goes through the trial all of his own self doubt and weak leadership evaporates and this test not only helps to bring the victory to the battle for Gondor, but it also makes him the king he was meant to be.
Not wishing to draw the analogy too far, Christ Jesus does not need to be completed to be king, but it is in his passion and resurrection that his kingship is fulfilled by his victory over death and hell.
So what of the realm of the dead now?
The gates that once were locked are open. The great doors of the prison are broken.
Hell is populated, to be sure, but only by those who have chosen to go there.