I turned away from Catholicism after being raised in a family that attended Mass weekly and said Grace at the dinner table every night. I received four of the seven sacraments before making the very conscious decision to leave the Church. Not surprisingly, this was also around the time that I adopted the Lord of the Rings as my favorite book, and the movies as a kind of scripture that I could recite passages from. Because of my own rejection of Catholicism, I struggled with the idea on Monday of Tolkien’s work being “fundamentally religious and Catholic.” I felt betrayed, even, because my favorite fantasy work was imbued (intentionally or not) with this religious message from a religion that I had fled from. Did this mean that I would forever read the Lord of the Rings with my eyes open for religious symbolism? Would I forever see the Passion in my head as Frodo and Sam, the heroes of my adolescence, struggled up the side of Mount Doom? Would I never read it as fantasy again, and see only the religion that I turned away from? Would the fantasy be forever ruined for me? In this post, I will argue that one can read LOTR for itself, without the religious undertones, and still glean the same message from it. While Tolkien’s purpose was Catholic, his message is universal.
The Lord of the Rings is religious in theme, rather than content, because aside from characters’ supplications to Elbereth – which are, admittedly, frequent – the characters do not display overtly religious behavior. They do not speak of God, heaven, or hell, except to wonder what happens after death. Their ponderings are not necessarily religious, just human. As someone who does her best to ignore religious undertones in writing, I never picked up on the symbolism of, for instance, the Mount Doom chapter: Sam carries Frodo as Simeon carries Christ’s cross; Frodo’s finger, which betrayed him by putting on the Ring, is cast off like “the hand that offends him”; the Hobbits eat lembas, “waybread of the Elves,” like the viaticum, the Communion; the Hobbits are barefoot, and Frodo is dressed in a simple robe tied with a rope; and so on. I felt like a fool for not seeing Tolkien’s rather obtuse symbolism. Had I been tricked into reading a religious text and thinking it was just fantasy?
I don’t think that Tolkien intentionally included all of this symbolism in the final chapters, because that would border on allegory – and we all know what Tolkien thinks of allegory. It’s more likely that though some of it was intentional, he unconsciously included the rest, because Tolkien always saw the world through a religious lens. In Letter 142, he even notes that its initial religiosity was unconscious, though later deliberate. The religiousness is “absorbed into the story,” rather than being overt. His purpose in and motivation for writing was religious, so it will naturally flow through into the writing itself. After all, as Flieger notes, Tolkien recognized himself as the prism through which the light of God shone, rather than the light itself. A prism can’t help but reflect the light. If this is not the way one, as a reader, sees the world, it does not have to be the way one reads the LOTR. If it offends, the overtly religious symbolism can be ignored without losing meaning of the work. Interpreting the symbols as religious is only to read the book as Tolkien thought of it, and we should not be confined by that.
But this symbolism is not the primary reason for why Tolkien considers LOTR a religious book. Frodo and Sam’s journey up Mount Doom can be compared to the Passion and the subsequent Resurrection, which Tolkien describes as the ultimate eucatastrophe. Tolkien coined this term for “that sudden joyous turn,” just as all hope is lost, that leads to a “fleeting glimpse of joy” to “deny universal final defeat” (“On Fairy Stories,” 86). But it brings both joy and sorrow – the kind of ending that brings tears. And, of course, the eucatastrophe of LOTR is the moment when the Ring is finally destroyed, Frodo and Sam are saved, and the world rejoices. It is simultaneously the happiest and most tragic ending to the book, because one celebrates the downfall of Sauron while weeping for Frodo’s incredible sacrifice. One does not have to be religious to appreciate the eucatasrophe – anyone with an appreciation of goodness and happy endings can benefit from this.
Finally, we discussed on Monday Tolkien’s third religious purpose in the book. “What is the meaning of life?” Tolkien is asked by a curious young reader in Letter 310. He responds, after deliberation, that it is ultimately to praise God and his “sole right to divine honor.” The Lord of the Rings is, in effect, praise for God’s creation. Tolkien’s undertaking as a subcreator is undeniably driven by his religious roots. He understands that his book is threatening because it is a Creative endeavor, and in writing it, he risks mimicking God (mimicking, not copying, because humans cannot perfectly subcreate as God has because of the Fall). According to Tolkien, because we are made in the image of God, we are also made to subcreate.
This brings us back to one of the initial themes of the class. According to Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories,” one purpose of fairy stories is not just escapism, but a recovery: seeing the world anew in all its beauty after viewing it through the lens of fantasy. At the end of a fairy story, we feel refreshed and see the world in a new light with a new appreciation. In his effort to praise God and his Creation, Tolkien has created Middle Earth, and through it, we can more fully see, love, and praise the world. For the secular reader, this is not necessarily a religious experience – one must only have an appreciation of the beauty of the world and all of God’s creations (regardless of to whom you want to attribute the creation of these things) to benefit from the ultimate purpose of the Lord of the Rings. Appreciation and celebration of beauty are not purely religious activities, so the purpose of the book is not lost on we secularists.
The Lord of the Rings speaks to people, both religious and secular alike, for the reason that the “well-known man” identified in Letter 328, when he insists that Tolkien must have seen the pictures that he shows him. Tolkien gave voice to universal themes that the man saw in the pictures – indeed, themes that all would identify in the pictures, because they, like LOTR, have touched upon some universal truth of humanity. I wish we knew what those pictures were, and what themes they had evinced, and I wonder if we would see the same things, having read LOTR so closely. Regardless, we’ve all come to this class because the book speaks to us with a profound message, whatever that message might be. Tolkien’s message was religious, but as readers, we do not necessarily have to be religious to grasp it. While we are literary analysts and critics, we must acknowledge the religiosity of the book, but as readers, if this is not important to us, we can get the same message out of it.