Monday, June 2, 2014

The role of right religious ritual in Middle-earth

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


  1. It seems to me, in answer to the hierarchy issue that perhaps the more salient question is: who is the receiver of invocation? In pagan traditions invocation went directly to the gods. Catholic tradition tweaked this a bit, and all prayers lead to God eventually. The Virgin, through the Rosary or other such devotions, is never the one being prayed to directly. Instead prayers to God are often passed through the Virgin, who, in Catholic teaching, intercedes for the person praying, passes their prayer onto God. In a similar way, when characters in Lord of the Rings are invoking the name of Elbereth, they're invoking the name of Illuvatar in the same breath. In Tolkien’s Catholicism and the religious aspects of the beings of Middle Earth, the endpoint of invocation then seems to be, first and foremost, God. Because Elbereth, as kindler of the light of the stars, is closer to the light of Illuvatar than the mortal or earthly dwellers, she is better suited to intercede on their behalf. I think that Elbereth, as a desirable and more humanly relatable figure, seems a logical target for Tolkien as creator to aim his character’s prayers towards. If we are meant to engage fully with creation it makes sense then that we can praise our Creator through the greatest of His creations.

  2. “The role of right” rite, right?


  3. "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."

    I have a few things to say about this, I guess...hopefully some of them will be coherent?

    -As a non-religious person (I'm culturally Jewish, but I've never been religious, I don't know if this is how I'd describe my experience of reading LotR.) Maybe that's because I don't tend to think in religious terms automatically, so the argument just gets confused. I did identify the stuff we talked about in class as...mystical, or ritualistic, or a way of trying to convene with some grander component of the world. But, in a way, the story of the Lord of the Rings is also a grander component of the world. The characters are all forced to navigate and cope with things beyond their understanding (even Gandalf, who's a Maia). The story ties the characters to the world, and, in a way, so does religion. So does any way of trying to make sense of what the world is. I don't think I'd call it a "fundamental driving essence," although I think some people would, unless telling and thinking about stories is also in this category.

    -I think that what we're seeing here, if we're seeing anything at all, is Tolkien exploring his own ideas of religiosity...he's no C.S. Lewis, and he isn't prescribing a "correct" method of religious expression or understanding. It's just that religion is yet another way of understanding certain aspects of the world--and, for various reasons, I think that works differently in Middle-Earth than it does on our Earth.

    Also, re. Elbereth: I think it's important to remember that, as much as some of what we see resembles Tolkien's Catholicism, Iluvatar and the Valar are decidedly NOT Catholic. Communicating with Iluvatar is a difficult thing; it's unclear what doing that even means, sometimes, or how possible it is. But you can communicate with the Valar, at least in old stories (like in the Silmarillion). The Valar are the ones in Arda; they're the ones to talk to, who are connected to it. Iluvatar serves a different sort of role. I need to think about this more carefully, but that's my first instinct.

  4. “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.” I think this is quite astute, and another way of expressing what other bloggers have been calling “universal truths.” I think that there are things that have been ingrained quite deeply in our culture, in terms of metaphors, characterizations, structural elements of story-telling, that derive from explicitly religious contexts, and whether or not one is practicing or acknowledges a faith, we are aware of their resonances and import culturally—because, as you put it, this vocabulary is an “irreducible component of reality’s fabric.”

    Re: speaking words without knowing what they mean or their socio-historic background—there are a number of medieval miracle stories in which someone can miraculously read the Bible, without formal training, or have absorbed the words of the psalms from the very essence of the world without ever having seen or heard them. I agree that this seems to be evincing the same thing you posit here—that the words are part of the fabric of existence, and Frodo and Sam already have these words inside themselves!