Friday, May 27, 2011

Tolkien for the Agnostic

            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.



  1. Thanks for such an interesting post!

    I guess I just want to point out a related perspective. I too grew up in a Catholic household, but what I find most interesting about the books is not its Catholic nature but its strong evocative, spiritual nature. I was re-reading the last several chapters of the Return of the King and its very emotional, even if you re-read it within a couple weeks of the readings. There is a feeling of great empathetic sorrow followed by great joy. There is a sensation of longing for the completion of a journey, coupled with an unbearable desire for the companionship of the journey to never end. I think one of the saddest parts of the whole book is when they say that the fellowship would never be assembled again, because it ends the spiritual journey.

    Yes, it is a truly spiritual piece, but it also has one flaw. You must exit out of it. But the incredible thing is that Tolkien didn't leave us with a never-ending magical place journey, he left us with a finite spiritual journey in an endless world.

    Charles Martino

  2. Being agnostic myself, I see exactly where you’re coming from. I’m so glad you decided to write about this because honestly, after last week’s class it’s something I found myself struggling to deal with too. I always missed the religious symbolism in LOTR and I think a huge reason is that I was never looking for it. Upon closer inspection, as you point out, one feels almost stupid for having been so insensitive to its presence.

    It’s striking how the book is able to convey both religious and secular messages and that’s probably why the book has such wide appeal. We are able to carry away such different messages, depending entirely on what we choose to look for in the book and how we interpret its meaning. Negating for a moment all the letters and supplementary texts we’ve read this quarter, if I were to rewind to the beginning and approach it as merely a fantasy book as I first did, the description of Frodo’s cloak would seem merely a necessary detail and Sam carrying Frodo an emotionally fitting act crucial to the narrative and thematic development of the story. And ultimately, despite the symbolic meanings that can be derived, reading LOTR as simply as a story as one can is essential for me because it is in that that I derive the most joy and relevance to myself and my views. As this class draws to and, I guess we all run the risk of over-analyzing and deconstructing the story and being able to isolate ourselves from that may be a greater challenge than we think.

    - Tarika

  3. I am so glad that you brought this up! As a thoroughly nonreligious person I have been struggling since the beginning of class with the religious themes and intentions we have been uncovering in the text. Since the first class when talked about Tolkien’s belief in the power of subcreativity to glorify god and found myself asking, “what if I believe that the world had no creator. What then? Where is value in fantasy creation?”

    Latent and or overtly religious intentions do not bother me in other books. I have read parts of the bible, and confession of St. Augustine a well as religious texts and works of literature that address religion from a variety of other religious traditions with great interest and without concern. However, LOTR holds a special place in my heart. This story has been both dear and powerful to me since my father first read it aloud to me as a child. It was a strange experience to realize that something I found so personally important was deeply steeped in a set of beliefs that I have definitely rejected. However I have come decision that the main thematic threads in LOTR, including mortality, different types of love, creativity, and free-will can of course be approached religiously but they also transcend religion. In the end, these themes are fundamentally human concerns. They tend to take on religious color because religion is the medium through which many people ponder and address the fundamental problems and questions that come along with humanity. Tolkien explored these questions in a way that agreed with his particular flavor of Catholic theology. However he does not inject his religion (too) overly into the story and the themes he plays with in his stories are pertinent to people of all spiritual or nonspiritual backgrounds. All people are faced with the inevitability and the unknown of death like the numenoreans. Like Sam and Eowyn, many people grapple to find their proper role in the greater picture. I personally feel moved by beautiful songs and artistic creations even without the belief that we are created in the image of a creator and therefore feel the tragedy of the passing of the Elves out of middle-earth. Tolkien looks to Catholicism for the answers to his questions but these questions hold a power that is not dependent on the readers’ belief in Catholocism or in any other religion.


  4. I must say, I loved the idea of being “tricked into reading a religious text,” mostly because that’s exactly how I felt years ago when my dad told me that Narnia’s Aslan was actually Jesus. At the time this irritated the hell out of me, but over the years I’ve realized something very important about that line of thinking, which basically comes down to the idea that religion is what you make it.
    Sitting in class on Wednesday I was struck by just how religious our discussion of Tolkien could be seen as: we attend group sessions on a weekly basis where we discuss one familiar text in great detail in order to discover deeper truths about it with the possibility of those truths opening up new and better avenues in our own lives and ways of thinking. Sound familiar? And yet, I don’t think any of us would say that the Lord of the Rings is our religion, which makes me curious as to what exactly religion is if you can carry out all the actions and yet still not have it be religion.
    Some of my interpretation on this came from your point that the characters ponderings are rarely of a religious nature, but rather of a human one…which…to a great degree I feel is the same thing, just taken in different ways. For example, in writing the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took a number of very human traits, developing languages, and cultures, all with the aim of trying to make a realistic sub-creation, and yet it came out “religious.” My theory on that is that it happened because that is how Tolkien viewed the world, thus, consciously or unconsciously, that is how his portrayal of human concerns had to come out. So, if we want to attempt to understand the world and the work as Tolkien did, then we are reading a religious text, in a way, but, as none of us are actually Tolkien, we are free to let his work shape our worldview in any way we choose, and if it’s religious or not is entirely up to us.


  5. Something about Lord of the Ring's religious symbolism did not bother me as a kid. I was also raised in a Catholic family and went to Catholic school. Like other commenters, I also turned away from it very deliberately. This had all occurred by the time I read LOTR for the first time in the seventh grade. Lembas reminded me of the eucharist, and I saw some vague Christian symbolism in Frodo's journey, but it didn't bother me in the same way that say, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe bothered me. I couldn't stand that book's obvious Christianness: a lion representing Jesus (cue young me rolling eyes at the obvious choice of a lion) who sacrifices himself for a traitor etc. The difference in my reception of the two works is probably a result of the authors’ respective intents. Lewis’s is its core an allegory while Tolkien specifically avoided allegory. I could read Tolkien as merely a great story with tons of symbolism- much of it being universal. Lewis I could not read without thinking about it being an allegory. Although I’m much less hostile towards religion than I used to be, I still have to say I prefer Tolkien’s aversion to allegory: it allows for a universality that just can’t be as present in purely allegorical works.


  6. As a fellow agnostic, I really like the points you make that The Lord of the Rings speaks to people “both religious and secular alike” and that one does not need to be religious to fully appreciate the work.

    Meaning is a personal and individual discovery. Thus finding meaning is the independent domain of the reader; once the work passes out of the authors hands, the reader is free to find whatever speaks the most to him or her. The book is not constrained by the author’s original intent. Its for this reason that works of art like the Lord of the Rings or Hamlet are so enduring; even after the author is dead and times have changed, new generations of readers continue to relate the work to their own personal lives and discover their own meaning.

    Certainly, the author (consciously and unconsciously) includes their own meaning and parts of themselves in the work. As can be seen from the close connection between Tolkien and preceding mythology and literature, Tolkien has included many timeless themes and motifs that have enchanted people for thousands of years. One of the themes that Tolkien wove in – perhaps the one most important to him – was the Christian overtones. However, the fact that the Christian message was the most important to Tolkien does not mean it needs be the most important to us. The fact that Tolkien had one interpretation of The Lord of the Rings doesn’t make my reading of it any less “true” or meaningful.

    Reading people’s comments, there seems to be a feeling of betrayal. Seeing religious meaning revealed in a book we loved as (atheistic and agnostic) children, we feel almost like we were played for fools. However, I would counsel against seeing things this way. Tolkien wrote about what is most meaningful to him, doing so as an act of love rather than an attempt to proselytize. We all love LOTR – and I hope that understanding the religious aspects of LOTR will allow me to love it even more, even if I choose to take a different message from it.


  7. I enjoyed your post very much and my comment is in no way meant as a criticism of its content; rather, it should be taken as my own personal tangent which was inspired by this post. As an English major, I have had a hard time letting go of the idea of allegory in Lord of the Rings. It’s not even that I am particularly invested in the idea of LotR being an allegory for anything, but I have spent the majority of my time in classes where works of literature are taken as they are, and things the author has said regarding their work (outside of the diegesis which they have created) need not be taken into consideration when analyzing.

    We have spent a lot of time in class discussing what it is that makes LotR different from other works of fantasy literature and historical works, but is it simply somehow different from all of literature as a category? Undeniably, a very interesting reading can be done of LotR while taking into consideration Tolkien’s abhorrence of the idea of LotR as allegory. But, if we are forcing ourselves to accept this idea, then is it really fair to allow ourselves to brush over the inherent religiosity of the book and allow for other, more secular readings? I just think that the way people read is very interesting and wonder why, it seems, as a whole we are able to give more deference to the anti-allegory argument than to the Christian argument.

    -A. Klooster

  8. Beautifully put! I, too, am grateful to you for this post, both for the wisdom with which you approach your own response to the arguments we have been making in class and for giving your fellow students an opportunity to express their concerns. As I said at the beginning of the quarter, I hoped very much that in our exploration of Tolkien's purpose in writing the LotR (insofar as we can discern it through comparison with his other works and from what he says about it in his letters) you would not find the process alienating if it presented you with interpretations that you had not brought to your own experience of the work. I am very happy to hear that you still enjoy the work for the pleasure and (vicarious) sorrow it brings, but I do wonder this: has learning that Tolkien thought his work "fundamentally religious" changed at all your perception of religion? Put another way, if you can love a work whose author thought of it as an exercise in worship, does that change your idea about what it means to be religious at all?


  9. To MEH,
    As an atheist by upbringing and not for any particular religious or political statement, I often find faith an objectively admirable quality. At the same time, the personal practice of faith is something entirely foreign to me.

    I really like that you bring out how Tolkien's purpose for creating this legendarium is a form of Catholic worship. However, from my perspective, our discussion of the many religious themes in the work has been an enlightening experience, and one that reveals to me another way in which people display their faith. Now, it is very difficult for me when rereading to not look for religious themes. However, I do not see this as a distraction from how I interpret the work. Rather, it is an excellent window into the relationship between a person of faith and their God, and shows me the incredibly profound role that faith can play in one's way of thinking.


  10. I completely agree with you when you say that one doesn’t have to be religious to grasp Tolkien’s message. It’s one of the things that I find most fascinating about LOTR; books that have the ability to grasp an audience of such diversity as they have. When I first read the books, I didn’t read it as anything other than what it is: a fantasy epic; no religious, philosophical, racial or social context. But at this point, this far into the course, I can honestly say that there’s much more to it than just faerie.

    Having been raised a Christian, there’s a natural instinct within me that longs to see the Hand of God in everything; Lord of the Rings was no exception. You mention seeing the old world anew through the lens of fantasy; for me, it’s the lens of Faith. I find that because of this, I see and regard LOTR in a different way than I used to. I find myself being constantly amazed by the God-given gift of sub creation. In a way, I see LOTR as one of Tolkien’s form of praise towards God; a form of praise that was completely within his ability to create and share with the world.

    -Selene M.

  11. I, too, greatly appreciated this post.
    What is interesting, though, is that the world of Middle-earth has surprisingly little religion in it. True, in times of need, certain characters will invoke the name of Elbereth -- but deeds aren't done in the name of Eru/Iluvatar. The "worship" that occurs in the LotR might be more akin to what Christians call worship of 'false gods,' such as Gimli's worship for Galadriel, who is only a religious figure in her connection to Christianity, not the religion of Middle-earth.
    Although Tolkien intentionally wove threads to connect the primary and secondary realities throughout the tales, the allusions to Christianity - whether "conscious" on Tolkien's behalf or not - seem to be much more obvious compared to other primary-secondary reality connections.
    Also interesting is that with the Silmarillion, we have the story of Arda's creation, complete with all of the characters who played roles therein. The fact that characters in LotR are real descendants of the characters in the Silmarillion gives their cosmogony a very different relationship to the world than the creation story in the Bible.

    I'm not entirely sure what to make of all of this, but again, I do appreciate the idea that while Tolkien was a deeply religious writer, his readers can appreciate the books and the messages therein on many levels.

    Jen Th

  12. Adding another voice in praise both of your post and the comments you've's interesting to read everyone's thoughts on this (very personal) topic. I grew up in a household nearly entirely without religious influence, and so religious imagery and symbolism, not to mention influence on subcreations like Tolkien's, is something I'm not in practice of looking for (and probably wouldn't recognize even if I was). That said, religion as a social force is very interesting to look at particularly because, as EKC said, its a medium through which people approach 'the big questions.' I appreciate Tolkien's work, despite now recognizing the Catholic undertones, precisely because it adds another layer to the already extremely complex legendarium. As we've seen throughout the class, the books can be read on nearly any level desired by the reader, and in that regard the legendarium would be lacking as a whole if there were no dealing with religion, and likewise it would be bizarre to ask for that without the author's personal feelings being involved. I admire the way Tolkien is able to ask and explore the 'big questions' of morality and existence, free-will, etc. in a way that structures a basis for faith within the sub-created world, explores the questions on a level applicable to the reader, and also incorporates his own religious belief without bashing us over the head with it (too blatantly).
    I can appreciate his exploration of these human questions in the texts, and use these to investigate my own conceptions of these questions, without necessarily accepting or being overly bothered by his answers.

  13. Religion has value to the irreligious as well. I understand the feeling that you may have experienced when you say you felt 'tricked' by the book. However, the symbolism is merely echoing another story. I wasn't raised Christian and am not a Christian therefore for me the story of Christ has never been some sort of historical truth. It has been a story. A story similar to that of the Lord of the Rings in that it is a story from which I derive a lot of value. I see both as beautiful. I think that one can be irreligious and instead of ignoring the religious symbolism (or being aware of it yet choosing to ignoring it) one enjoys the story all the more. Perhaps there is a stigma of deception that one feels as someone that has abandoned the faith. But coming from someone who was raised a tepid Hindu--I find the religion in Tolkien's works as something that adds to it and makes it all the more beautiful.

    R Rao

  14. To go along with what everyone has been saying thus far, I too never quite noticed the religious tones of the LOTR and had difficulty thinking of it as a book inspired by religion, especially when it is never overtly mentioned. I'm a Unitarian Universalist and something we seem to always keep in our minds, rather than doctrine or scripture, is simply that all people are on a journey to reach some form of spirituality, which can simply be a feeling of completeness or a feeling of fulfillment within ones life. This is the way I like to see the LOTR because it makes me feel content to understand life as a journey, and a very apparent one in this particular work.

    The religious symbolism is something that I find interesting as simply a relateable aspect of the work--something that brings us back to the familiar from that which can feel very foreign. I believe all religion is based in universal human truths which are only interpreted through the lens of a particular doctrine or means of interpretation as presented by different religions. Tolkien is inextricably connected to this work and I think there is no better way to see it than to recognize certain religious symbols. I believe the prism metaphor is perfect for the way that Tolkien views his work and in presenting the story in such a way, you are only further reminded of these universal truths which need not be nailed down to this or that religion, they can be simply viewed through that lens as one of many interpretations of the same content.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. I love your argument that Tolkien’s religious message is universal! I think “religious in theme, rather than content” describes it perfectly. I myself am not any flavor of Christian and, living in a society in which Christianity is so prominent, I find it a little wearing at times. But I, like you, find so many things to love in Tolkien’s work, so many things that I find in common with my own religious feelings, that I can read Tolkien as a text involving religion, without needing to feel like it’s beating me over the head with Catholicism. I loved Tolkien’s comment in his famous letter to Milton Waldman (which I always think of as “the Silmarillion letter”) that a major problem with Beowulf was that is existed in a Christian world and was, therefore, not sufficiently removed from our primary reality to constitute a great national mythology. I think this comment speaks to the fact that Tolkien didn’t want to impose Christianity where it didn’t fit; he wasn’t trying to proselytize through LotR. I find that comforting.

    You make a good point that, while the symbolism is obvious if you think about, it’s easy to enjoy Tolkien’s work and not think about that aspect. Like the strong symbolism at the end of Frodo and Sam’s quest, which you rightly point out is not allegory for all its close parallels; many parts of it may perfectly match passages from the Bible, but the intention was not for them to represent the Bible, but rather to reflect what is good in the Bible and what best fits the story. I agree that the fundamental ability to be moved by loss, sacrifice, renewal, and beauty is not religious, but human, and therefore shared by us all.


  17. Since you don't say which sacraments you received, you leave me to guess. I say Marriage, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and I can't guess the fourth.


  18. I was so happy to see this post here, as well as all the comments; I thought I was the only one! While I found that it was extremely interesting to look at the religious overtones in Tolkien's works, I too was worried that I would never be able to read it for the story, for the characters, and would only be analyzing it for its influences (that I would forever be stuck outside the beam, could I say?). I was not raised Catholic or even Christian, but as a Reconstructionist Jew, which is kind of between Conservative Jews and Reform Jews with a bit of hippie-isms and feminisms thrown in. So when I first read LoTR, I didn't see any of the religious overtones - Galadriel as Mary, their encounter with Tom Bombadil as Baptism, the lembas as waybread, etc., all initially flew over my head. As an agnostic, I was almost irritated with the emphasis that was put on the religious overtones, for are the stories and themes in the Bible not simply more elements in the soup? Why so much time going over the Christian mythos and why not the Norse, or any of the other mythologies that may have influenced Tolkien? Of course, that Tolkien himself believed in Christianity much more than in the other mythologies is what makes it more important, but as someone who doesn't put any more stock in the Holy Ghost than in the Tooth Fairy, I had trouble with it. Because of this, I was really happy to hear a defense of a non-religious reading of Tolkien. Thank you!


  19. I find it interesting that a fair number of non-theist commentators are dealing with the religiosity of Tolkien's work by distancing themselves from it--saying, for example, that the questions it considers "are not religious, but human." I would amend this to "are religious, and therefore human." I see religion as the means, through thought and ritual and social communion, by which we make sense of our relationship to the divine--by which I mean the vast non-human Other we all face as we go about the world. The Lord of the Rings is a religious text not just because it uses the symbols of one specific religion, but because it directly deals with questions of this Other, such as death, evil, and grace.

    Incidentally, I'm a staunch atheist, and I've also spent a lot of time thinking about what it means for me to love--even to regard as scriptural, in some ways--an intentionally Catholic work like Tolkien's Legendarium. The best that I've come up with is that the God that Tolkien understands and communicates about through Catholic symbols (the Virgin, the communion wafer, eucatastrophe) is in some fundamental way the same as the sense I have of a mysterious and uncreated universe. Yet I worry then that I'm appropriating a set of symbols that does not and could not ever belong to me. Am I doing a disservice to Tolkien by using his work (in which, say, is based upon belief in a benevolent, conscious God) to better apprehend what I believe to be uncaring universe? Do we truly stand in the same beam of light?


  20. Thank you for writing this post. As someone who is strongly atheist to the point where I find most books with religious undertones disgusting when we started the Catholicism in Lord of the Rings I was most upset. I had often avoided the Narnia books and preferred His Dark Materials which mirrored my beliefs more aptly. When I had to read St. Augustine in Philosophical Perspective. I was disgusted and dismissed it as overly religious sentiments without giving it much thought but loving Enlightenment and Existentialist thinkers.

    The revelation that Lord of the Rings has religious undertones, whether deliberate or not, was something I really struggled with throughout the course. And as Tolkien I’m sure would be proud of, The Lord of the Rings this quarter has taught me more than just where the Elves came from and who Elbereth is. I know have come away with this understanding that literature with religion in it isn’t trying to convert me, it’s merely another way at experiencing the world. (granted a way that is extremely foreign to me). I may not pick up on the religious symbolism with Frodo and Sam at the end. But I can appreciate the innate religion in Middle Earth, and how they seem to understand there is a force bigger than them and they just accept that. While I may not agree with this concept I can to begin to understand something about my world from looking at The Lord of the Rings in this way. This fairy story has taught me more about than just Elves and Dwarves and Rings and Swords. It has taught me how to see religion as more than just a corrupting evil force tearing our world apart.


  21. I have always felt that the purpose of English classes, especially high school English classes, is purely to scour for deeper meaning inside classic works of literature. Sometimes it is worth it. There may be some theme that relates to our lives or the era in which the author lived in. But much of the time, delving into double meanings in every word as if it were overly complicated poetry ruins the literature for me. It just seems like teachers put it in the curriculum in order to get us to read the classic works and have something to discuss about it to last the length of time it takes to read the work.

    But it does not feel wrong to look into the roots of Tolkien’s language and stories. It seems to me like we are learning more about the author than the creations of that author. There are countless influences on legends of Middle Earth and most of them come from the personal life and opinions of Tolkien, which is most of what we learn about from all of his supplemental posthumous works. Therefore, what I get out of learning the religious influences in The Lord of the Rings is an insight into the mind of the creator. It is a lesson in what Tolkien values most and where he finds his creativity. I agree with this blog post in that you do not have to go beyond what is on the surface level of a story to get something out of it. However, any meaning is just another reader’s interpretation of the similarities of the sources of the writer’s creativity and work.

    Alex Allen

  22. I liked reading your post which answered a lot of the same questions I was having. The first time I read through the books and watched the movies I did not catch any of the religious undertones and it was not until this class pointed them out that I was able to realize exactly how many there actually were. Like you said, I feel like a lot of the symbolism used is entirely universal (sacrifice, death, good vs. evil and light vs. dark) which are used so widely that I didn't even notice them at first. When I came to realize that a lot of the themes used in the Lord of the Rings could be seen as Christian I wondered how it would change my views of the books. It was the same feeling I had when I read C.S. Lewis and discovered the entire thing was (intentionally) and allegory. However, neither of these stories were “ruined” in that I still enjoyed them for exactly the same reasons as before: great characters, epic fights, beautiful landscapes, and a suspenseful story. I liked your conclusion in the end with tying everything back to his Letters and the “well-known man.” I am thankful that Tolkien was able to give such a great voice to such universal themes in a way that no one else has (or will?) accomplished.
    Brian W.

  23. Thank you for such a beautiful post! As someone raised Protestant who has turned away from the Church, I was somewhat hesitant to approach the Tolkien's Catholic beliefs both because of my Protestant background and my personal problems with organized religion as I matured. I agree with someone's comment above that having been raised a Christian, there's a natural tendency within me to look for religious undertones and symbolisms, sometimes even despite my better instincts. Even so, reading Lord of the Rings was a refreshing experience because despite Tolkien's personal beliefs, Arda is surprisingly absent of religion. Of course, characters, particularly Elves, invoke the name of Elbereth in a act akin to prayers, but it's no coincidence, I think that when Sam invokes Elbereth in the Shelob episode, the text was left in the original Sindarin, which leaves the actual meaning of what he recited vague for the casual reader. Also, while one could possibly make the argument for Varda/Elbereth as a figure who functions in much the same ways as Virgin Mary does in Catholicism in terms of prayers, the fact remains that there isn't a centralized, organized religion in Middle Earth, and Eru/Iluvatar isn't the center of the spiritual lives of the people of Middle Earth. I agree with your comments on Tolkien as a "prism" of the light of God; instead of actively seeking to construct a fundamentally Christian story, the truth is closer to that the story can't help but become a Christian one because of Tolkien's beliefs.
    Ultimately, I think you're absolutely right when you say that one doesn't have to be religious to grasp Tolkien's message. Yes, it's a deeply spiritual piece--or even a religious one, if you want to go that far, but to see the spiritual elements in their entirety, one must exist out of the story. To use the beam analogy, it's no less valid a pursuit to step outside and look along the beam and see what one might have missed while fulling immersed in the story, but at the same time, what shape our love of Tolkien's work isn't the analysis, but the captivating experience of reading and entering into Tolkien's words and the world he created with it. Despite the spiritual elements, we as readers are free to enjoy the mythology and take the religious and secular messages in it as we will.
    Kudos, I think, to Tolkien's staunch stance against allegories. Not to name names, but I think our enjoyment would have been much different should there have been obvious examples of "X is Y" in Tolkien's legendarium, Y being religious figures/concepts or not.
    - CZ

  24. Dear MEH,
    I am actually coming at this text also as a lapsed Catholic, though the number of Sacraments I underwent were slightly fewer. I therefore agree with you that one need not be religious, let alone Catholic, to enjoy a tale of salvation.
    I would like however to resist even the hint of the idea that one needs to ignore anything to avoid a Catholic-influenced interpretation. For it is a matter of interpretation and, as I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the ‘intention of the author is not crucial or even necessary for the development of an interpretation.
    Furthermore, to acknowledge that LoTR is fundamentally religious and Catholic is to acknowledge the source of these ideas in text and not to say that the meanings they generate when recombined in a secondary reality are born out of Catholicism, nor that their enjoyment signifies a sympathy with Catholic dogma. Rather, let it be remembered that the first, and therefore primary, reaction to the text is the consistency of the secondary reality without the recognition of Catholicism.
    You are right, then, to say that Tolkien’s ‘message’, insofar as he had one, is universal. LoTR is very much about faith-faith in the mortals of Middle Earth—and this can be apprehended by any human who has known life.

    Mattías Darrow.