Fundamentally Religious and Catholic
Ever since the world famous books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings first came out, and now following the emerging movie series by the New Zealand film producer Peter Jackson, there has been much discussion about whether the author J.R.R. Tolkien intended to reveal his own very devout catholic faith in the works, or not. If he did intend this, consciously or otherwise, there has also been much discussion about whether this faith is orthodox, or whether it is ‘syncretist ’ with the contamination of many other cosmologies and myths. This article examines these issues in detail.
There is no doubt that Tolkien was a Christian through and through. In a number of places in his work we see his imagination influenced, even if only sometimes subconsciously, by his biblical faith. The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote in a letter to a friend, “is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in revision”. Tolkien once told his student W.H. Auden that the characters he created in the story could embody “in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life”.
Clyde S. Kilby visited Tolkien on 4 September 1964, who told him that he was often given a story as an answer to prayer. Kilby notes that Tolkien commonly referred to Christ as “Our Lord”, and was moved by the degradation of the birth of Christ in a stable with its filth and manure. Tolkien saw this as a symbol of the real nature of holy things in a fallen world. He spoke of his special regard for the Gospel according to St Luke because it includes many references to women. Tolkien gave special reverence to Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus: indeed images of Mary come to mind in the characters of Galadriel and Elbereth.
Although Tolkien may not have been wishing to be explicit, biblical imagery and the principles of the Gospel seem implicit in many places; for example the place of trees at the beginning of creation: central to the Biblical Garden of Eden is the idea of an original state of creation in which a tree is a symbol of divine knowledge: this is also the case in The Silmarillion where the trees of valar are created in the undying lands.
Another example is the personification of wisdom from Proverbs chapter 8. In the figures of Tom Bombadil, the Lady Galadriel, Princess Arwen, and Gandalf we see expressions of the Sophia of God. Tom Bombadil and Lady Goldberry can be compared to two ‘Genesis’ figures who have not fallen: they have retained their original wisdom and humility, have not grasped for ownership of natural things but have sought to be good gardeners and caretakers in the world which they enjoy as a gift. The elves and the ents are similarly unfallen and enjoy a oneness with the natural creative forces of the universe: they still clearly image the characteristics of Iluvatar the All-father who created them as primary beings.
Another example is the Biblical vision of the intermediary role of Angels. When Tolkien was asked what role Gandalf played he replied ‘a kind of angel’. This angel is a sign of solidarity as well aswisdom and is prepared to become involved in the drama and uncertainties of life at risk to his own being.
Still another, the fall of humankind and some angels. Tolkien portrayed his world as a fallen one, before the coming of Christ, which is why evil seems to be capable of covering the whole earth in the form of Sauron, who has fallen from a higher form of being. However as with the first Testament of the Bible there are foretastes of what will come in Christ and there are characters who prefigure aspects of Christ. In the story Christian principles are finally restored even though they are not directly named.
The journey of the Hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings” displays all the aspects of the teachings of Jesus in the Beatitudes. Although they are poor in spirit, the kingdom is restored to them. Even though the Hobbits are sorrowful, they are unexpectedly consoled. Although they approach life with a gentle spirit, they do eventually inherit the earth. Although they often hunger and thirst to see right prevail, they are satisfied. Bilbo and Frodo show mercy to Gollum and receive mercy at the end. Purity of heart does give glimpses of the Divine light. The Fellowship of the Ring are ultimately seeking to restore peace to Middle-earth and they are rightly the children and agents of Eru, Tolkien’s word for God in the Silmarillion. The Fellowship of the Ring suffer terrible persecution for the cause of right but the ring bearers are given a spiritual kingdom to live in.
The Fellowship of the Ring seemed to echo the community life of Christian discipleship. The company of the nine walkers develop a great solidarity. When one of the company suffers, they all suffer, when one rejoices, they all rejoice. To sustain them they eat lembas, the elven bread that seems to resemble the Eucharistic bread that strengthens and restores. The word lembas can be translated as “way bread” or “life bread”. Tolkien wrote that “it fed the will”. The hobbits sometimes offer prayers of deliverance to Elbereth, the Mary-like queen of the stars. The quest the Fellowship are on displays St Paul’s three Christian virtues: Faith in their leader and their mission, Hope that their cause will ultimately be vindicated beyond the walls of the world, and ultimately an undying Love for each other. Frodo and his friends repeatedly offer to lay down their lives for each other having no sure hope of victory.
Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn can be seen to represent different images of Christ: Frodo as the high priesthood of Christ, by bearing the sin (ring) of the world, Gandalf as the prophetic mission of Christ, by challenging, foretelling and enacting, and Aragorn as the kingship of Christ, by sharing the suffering of the people he was called to lead to a new kingdom. Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn all placed themselves in harm’s way for the greater good.
Further it is the obscurity and smallness of the Hobbits that is used to save the rest, if their resilience and vision can be sustained. This is the great theme of the Incarnation, that the world is not redeemed by the power of the Roman Empire or the culture of the Greeks, but from an obscure place called Nazareth where most of the people reject the one who is sent. The biblical record often tells stories of the divine way, which chooses what is foolish to confound worldly wisdom. (1 Cor 1:27).
However, is reading theology into The Lord of the Rings wishful thinking, or worse, an activity of which Tolkien would disapprove because he has said clearly enough that there is “no message” in his tale? Some have also suggested that it is difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with such conviction about a world where God is not worshipped. Nevertheless, a quick look at the basis of all Tolkien’s mythology in chapter one of The Silmarillion suggests otherwise.
“There was Eru, the One, who in ardar is called Iluvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad...”.
Tolkien once responded to Father Robert Murray, SJ, who had seen “The Lord of the Rings” as a story about grace, by saying:
“I know exactly what you mean by the order of grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded”.
However, with typical Tolkien subtlety he goes on to say: “I have cut out practically all references to anything like religion, to cults and practices in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism”.
As Patricia Meyer Spacks says in an essay: “A theological scheme is implied though not directly stated in The Lord of the Rings and it is of primary importance to the work. The fact of freedom of the will implies a structured universe, a universe like the Christian one in that only through submission to the good can true freedom be attained — willing acceptance of evil involves necessary loss of freedom; a universe like the Christian one, further, in that it includes the possibility of grace ... if the trilogy ... deals with a pre-religious age, the fact remains that the author includes in it all the necessary materials for religion. Using a natural theology “Anima naturaliter christiana”, Tolkien saw nature and grace as intimately intertwined in all life.
The whole framework of the ring trilogy as Richard Purtill says “is that of a struggle between good and evil on a cosmic scale, with everyone having to choose one side or another. Furthermore, there is a plan behind what happens; Frodo was meant to find the ring”.
Although God is not mentioned at all in the book, the characters often sense that some providential power, unnamed and unknown, is guiding events but they do not know if the story will end well or badly. In The Hobbit, Bilbo has mercy on Gollum even when Gollum has threatened his life: “It was pity that stayed his hand”. Gandalf later says, “Pity, and mercy: not to strike without need”. Although Frodo had wished that Bilbo had killed Gollum, Gandalf gives a classic Christian explanation which some see as the moral and spiritual turning point of the story as a whole.
“(Gollum) Deserves (death)! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment... I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the ring. My heart tells me he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least”.
This mercy turns out to be the key to the redemption of everything in the last dramatic moments of the journey of the ring on Mount Doom; Gollum has survived through mercy, but then his addiction and obsession turn in on themselves and cause the destruction of the ring of power. This hope comes through faith choices as Richard Purtill explains.
“Frodo rises to greater heights because from the beginning he accepts the burden of the Ring purely for the sake of others. It is no mere adventure that sends Frodo riding out of the Shire, but a willingness to suffer so that others may be saved — a willingness which is tested to the last grim degree on the black plains of Mordor. Frodo is not Christ, the Ring is not the Cross, and the salvation his sacrifice wins is a purely secular salvation. But there are obviously echoes of these greater realities in the fictional “Passion” of Frodo. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, says Christ, and Frodo’s journey is at least an illustration of this... The growth of Frodo in courage and loyalty is clear enough as the story develops.
Tolkien believed that evil in a pre-Christian world like The Lord of the Rings may appear to be very powerful but it is inferior to goodness in one crucial respect: it lacks a holy imagination. The Dark Lord, Saur-on, could not imagine that the hobbits would not use the ring to try to defeat him with force. He could not imagine anyone wanting to destroy such a powerful means of domination. This means his eye is turned away from the long-suffering pilgrimage of the hobbits towards Mount Doom and he does not notice their agonizing progress or their goal until it is too late.
Further, evil is presented in monochrome hues of grey and shadow and darkness, whereas the free peoples of Middle-earth are presented in their colourful diversity and distinctiveness. Evil is presented as a disembodied, lidless eye of flame whose power-crazed gaze is literally one-eyed. By contrast the free peoples of Middle-earth see from many points of view being of very different height, build and race. In the film the spread of the shadow causes those parts of Middle-earth which are dominated by it to lose the beautiful variety of creation and to become enslaved in a relentless and ultimately lifeless reign of domination and absolute rule.
But even where the shadows are thickest, amid the hopelessness a light shines. When Sam sees a star twinkling above the dark clouds of Mordor, Tolkien writes: “The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of that forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach”.
Although Sauron and Saruman promise power and control, all this distortion and warping leads to enslavement. The sin is not to set the will free but to increasingly limit its options in a kind of captivity. To do the good is to enlarge the freedom of the will and the imprisoning power of evil can be broken only by the transcendent power of good. In The Lord of the Rings the surrender of coercive power is achieved through radical self-sacrifice and even death. In this way the gospel that is yet to come is echoed in the story. So too is the company of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring an echo of the band of disciples. The Fellowship will only achieve their mission over evil through companionship and not alone: nine walkers seeking to outdistance nine riders, who are an echo themselves of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In the end Frodo is overcome by the power of the ring and our heroic hobbit is unable to complete his mission. But because Tolkien’s universe is providential and not accidental, redemptive and not destructive, Frodo’s defeat does not bring a complete failure. The evil that came from Sauron finally turns back on itself through Gollum’s addiction, but only because the Fellowship of the Ring has struggled valiantly to the end.
There is no simplistic ‘happy’ ending. The self-giving life does produce a joy at the end, but this joy also sees the Fellowship come to an end and Frodo’s scars remain, even though he and Gandalf set sail for the undying lands. So it is with Christ in Resurrection.
However the theme of joy undergirds this trilogy. Evil seems mostly to have the upper hand, yet the underlying intuition is that this world is created in joy: it cannot always be apparent because it needs to be embraced and guarded. Part of this joy is a longing for home where eating, singing and drinking complement loyalty and duty.
For those of us in the “Fourth Age of Middle-earth”, in the present, we could do no better than end with Tolkien’s words to his son about the Eucharist, the centre of his own 20th-Century Christian faith, which was the centre of his world.
“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which, what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy), can alone be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires ”.
Tolkien has been compared to a jeweler who, having worked on fashioning a beautiful diamond that nature had yielded up to him rough cast from the rocks of ages, and having worked on its fashioning and refining for many years, finally holds the jewel up to the sun, and begins to see ever refracting points of light coming from its many sided and God given beauty.
*The Archbishop of Canterbury’s official representative to the Holy See; formerly the senior Anglican bishop in New Zealand
© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014
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