Tolkien was a deeply religious person. As our creative work necessarily reflects the assumptions we hold, drawn from our personal experience, so his Middle-earth too echoed his religious influences. But as Tolkien himself writes, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’… the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” (Letters no. 142). Therefore his work reflects his philosophy: religion is not simply an institution to adhere to, but an inextricable element of our very way of life and of our being. Thus, if it is possible to read his work without any prior religious background or indeed, without any religious overtones, it is because religion has been distilled into a fundamental driving essence informing our very existence.
Catholicism in particular is a deeply traditional, historical branch of Christianity that relies heavily on the use of formal ritual to express the believer’s faith. Today, we looked at very specific examples of characters—Sam and Frodo in particular—engaging in religious ritual of sorts through their verbalizations. Notably, many of these characters demonstrated no previous knowledge of the sociohistorical context which their verbal invocations first stemmed from; sometimes they did not even know what words they were saying! I found the comment raised in class about this phenomenon paralleling the speaking of tongues interesting. However, I believe that the widespread practice of speaking tongues amongst many believers today is actually a fairly recent development that is part of the charismatic movement. The more traditional reading of Acts 2 (where the disciples spoke in tongues) would establish the ability as given to enable God’s Word to spread. Consequently, one who truly spoke as such would be understood by everyone in their respective native language; that is, that person would not be heard to be speaking something incomprehensible. For “tongues” is a shortening of “other tongues,” or in other words, “different languages.” So I do not believe it likely that Tolkien would have subscribed to the more modern interpretation of “tongues” as used in class today.
Moreover, such an interpretation of Sam and Frodo’s verbalizations overlooks the ritualistic nature of incantations. Our reading on Ancrene Wisse went into excruciating detail about what prayers exactly should be said during a specific occasion. Wisse was also extremely insistent that these specific prayers could only be substituted for under the most extenuating of circumstances, like not having the opportunity to learn said prayer before. This appeals to the ritualistic nature of Catholicism, in that faith may only be acceptably expressed through specific actions and specific words—a far cry from the unstructured, freeform prayer of modern-day believers. Given Tolkien’s love for the form of words, it is likely that he enjoyed this particular aspect of Catholicism. As he writes, “being a philogist, getting a large part of any aesthetic pleasure that I am capable of from the form of words…” (Letters no. 142). Indeed, in strict and formal ritual prayers, the words are arranged to establish a specific intent and aesthetic that ensures right worship and the right expression of faith at all times. It is the best honor we could pay, as insufficient sinners, to God Himself. The manner of Sam and Frodo’s speech would therefore suggest that they are worthy worshipers before a higher power.
But then what do we make of their unconscious verbalizations, and their lack of knowledge of what they were saying before they said it? In class, it was suggested that the words were a culmination of their great inner compulsions; also, that the words indicated their close connection to the Elves and to Elven culture. I largely agree with these, but would also like to push the conclusions further still. Recall that Tolkien did not want his work to be overtly religious, but rather wanted religion to simply be an irreducible component of his reality’s fabric. Likewise, such unwitting verbalizations would imply that knowledge of all right religious ritual is inherent in us, albeit unconsciously. It implies that religion is not so much as invention as it is an extension of what already exists. It also appeals to the idea that a vast body of ritualized knowledge exists, beyond what the story itself tells us in the interests of narrative immediacy. By hinting to the greater existence of a naturalized, rituals-based religion (note, too, that religion has been conflated with worldbuilding itself), it connects the specific characters to the greater history of Middle-earth at large, suggesting that this story is only a fraction of what Middle-earth truly entails.
One question that I have had difficulty answering, but would love to discuss, is why Elbereth’s name is particularly prevalent in these unwitting invocations. I know Tolkien was not one for analogy, but if we follow the God-centric principles of Catholicism closely, it would seem that prayers to Iluvatar should be the most appropriate. Perhaps Elbereth has, like Galadriel, ties to the Virgin Mary (an integral intercessor in Catholicism)? But then Galadriel’s name is never quite invoked in the same way as Elbereth’s. Moreover, generally direct prayers to Iluvatar are not as common as I would have thought. Why would Tolkien have played with the hierarchy within his tales in this way? For a narrative centered so much around the right worship of the right power, why does Iluvatar take such a backseat in the characters’ actual demonstrations of faith?
Carol Ann Tan