In class we discussed the larger scale aspects of religion in Lord of the Rings- the prayers to Elbereth, the similarity that Frodo’s journey has to a pilgrimage, and the rituals like looking to the West that mirror Christian practices. But as someone unfamiliar with organized Christian practices, when I looked at the impact of religion on Lord of the Rings I saw instead smaller, most subtle influences—not of Catholic rituals but of faith in more general terms. Throughout the book, characters act almost like there is something watching over them, guiding them. Gandalf claims that “there was something else at work” in the discovery of the Ring other than mere coincedance or the Ring’s desire to escape Gollum; he claims that “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought” ( Fellowship 88). It is as if something or someone is watching over the characters. We already discussed free will, but I think this is a different issue than simply having Bilbo be fated to find the ring; Gandalf specifies intent, implying some sort of divinity rather than impersonal fate.
This raises the obvious question: meant by whom? By Eru? That is never really specified, but Eru seems to be rather hands-off when it comes to the governance of Arda. He created the world and let the Valar shape it, and while the world was described in his Music, it is unclear how detailed his intentions really were. Humans, too, are exempt from the Music, and hobbits seem to resemble humans in that regard far more than they do elves. The Valar are by the time of Lord of the Rings even more separate from Middle-Earth; Elrond says that “Those who dwell beyond the sea would not receive [the Ring]: for good or ill it belongs to Middle-earth; it is for us who still dwell here to deal with it” (Fellowship 349). Yet Gandalf alludes to some higher power watching over Frodo.
Tolkien himself references this idea in his letters. He describes the final destruction of the Ring as a “salvation from evil” (Letters 252), reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer’s request for God to “deliver us from evil.” Frodo is, quite literally, delivered from temptation towards evil. He succumbs to it- he fails, as Tolkien emphasizes repeatedly in his letters- but yet is saved from this temptation. Again, the question arises—saved by whom? In the same letters, Tolkien offers some answers to this question. “[Frodo] (and the Cause) were saved- by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury” ( Letters 252). This was not Frodo’s “Mercy,” although it was his pity and forgiveness of Gollum that was a cause; rather it was the “extragavent generosity which the slight easing of, or escape from, the consequence of our own follies and errors represents. And that mercy does sometimes occur in this life” (Letters 253). This is divine mercy, divine forgiveness, not Frodo’s mortal forgiveness.
If Frodo is saved by this divine Mercy, who then is the divinity? At Mount Doom “the Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that ever-present Person who is never named’”( Letters 253). This doesn’t sound to me like the Valar, or even Eru, although in that assessment I may be misguided. To me this sounds like specifically the Christian God, Tolkien’s God, not the in-universe Eru. Tolkien was very careful to avoid actual worship in his stories lest it stray too close to religion and risk blasphemy, but here it seems that his personal religion is expressed quite strongly. When he states that “that mercy does sometimes occur in this life” it is clear that this scene resonated strongly with his personal beliefs.
To call this act of mercy, or the idea that Frodo was intended to have the ring, “divine intervention” seems to have the wrong connotations, but it encapsulates the idea fairly neatly. Perhaps a better term would be “Guardian angel”- this has entirely the wrong connotations as well, but when it is examined through Tolkien’s conception of the term it is surprisingly fitting. For Tolkien the “Guardian Angel” is the representation of divine support. God is “behind us, supporting, nourishing us” and the “bright point of power where that life-line, that spiritual umbilical cord touches… is our Angel” (Letters 66). It is “God’s very attention itself, personalized” (Letters 99). The notion is subtle, and I can’t say that I entirely understand it, but it seems entirely compatible with Frodo’s salvation.
I wouldn’t be completely comfortable saying simply that it was this “Guardian Angel,” this divine support and aid, that gave the Ring to Bilbo and saved Frodo from temptation, just as I would hesitate from identifying a specific character, Eru or otherwise, to credit for Bilbo’s discovery of the Ring. The story was not written as a direct allegory for Tolkein’s beliefs, and the “Writer of the Story” seems to be fundamentally separate from it. Tolkien didn’t write the scene at Mount Doom to clearly demonstrate his ideas about redemption or guardian angels, just like he didn’t mean to specify what exactly intended for the ring to pass to Frodo. Instead, these moments of redemption and faith are embedded in the story, left vague to provoke thought. The inhabitants of Middle-earth is not Christian, but that does not mean that Tolkien’s ideas of faith are lacking. This is what Tolkien means when he says that the Lord of the Rings is a thoroughly Christian text; while he refrains from the more blatant allegory of writers like Lewis, his religious ideas are subtly embodied in the story.