There is certainly no reference to religion in the traditional sense in The Lord of the Rings (there are not Churches or Temples to be found), let alone specifically Catholicism, but Tolkien’s letters make it clear that such organized religion is not necessary for him to consider his work “fundamentally . . . . Catholic.” There is an interesting passage in a letter to Michael Tolkien in which J.R.R. Tolkien writes that “you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers; and that means professionals: priests and bishops – and also monks. The most precious wine must (in this world) have a bottle” (Letters 337). This statement suggests that, for Tolkien, the critical aspect of religion is separate from its institutions, the wine inside an often imperfect bottle. Although these institutions are vital in our world, in other circumstances they may not be. Further, Tolkien elaborates in another letter that “the religious element [of The Lord of the Rings] is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” rather than in any sort of religious institution (Letters 172). Thus, it seems quite clear that, for Tolkien, any religious or Catholic element is inherent in the story’s fabric rather than in any obvious, explicit discussion in the story.
How then might Tolkien consider his work fundamentally Catholic? Certainly there are surface nods to the Catholic tradition; the date of Sauron’s fall is said to be March 25th, the date commonly assigned to the crucifixion of Christ. There are a variety of obvious themes that also evoke Catholic ideas. Sam’s trek up Mount Doom carrying Frodo, who himself is bearing the burden of the ring, draws to mind Christ’s journey under the cross at his crucifixion; it must be noted however that, as Frodo in some senses fails in the last stage of his journey, a sharp departure from the story of the crucifixion, this similarity does not descend into religious allegory. The invocations by various characters in The Lord of the Rings of the name “Elbereth” and Tolkien’s treatment of the Lady Galadriel is reminiscent of Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary, particularly before the second Vatican Council (when The Lord of the Rings was written). Indeed, Tolkien himself mentions this similarity in one of his letters, writing that he owes “much of [the] character to Christian and Catholic teaching and the imagination about Mary” (Letters 320). He goes on to also to write however that “actually Galadriel was a penitent,” again emphasizing that while parallels exist between Catholic teaching and Tolkien’s imagination, he does not rely on allegory in any way. The language Sam uses to describe Lembas is highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s description of the Eucharist in his letters and various Biblical passages. “The lembas had a virtue without which [Sam and Frodo] would long ago have lain down to die,” Tolkien writes. “[T]his waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as [they] relied on it alone” for “it fed the will, and it gave strength to endure . . . beyond the measure of mortal kind” (Lord 1036). Of the Eucharist, Tolkien writes that it is the “only cure” for failing faith, made more potent by “frequency,” with seven times a week being “more nourishing than seven times at interval” (Letters 338-339). Lembas and the Eucharist are both curative and made powerful through reliance upon them. The entire concept of thinking of bread in this manner also has close ties to various biblical passages in which Jesus refers to himself as the “bread of life” that will grant eternal life to those who eat of it (John 6). Thus, although Tolkien insists that his work is not meant to be allegorical, certain surface similarities and deeper religious symbols are evoked in his works.
Tolkien’s insistence that his work is “fundamentally” Catholic, as well as his statement that religion has been interwoven into the very fabric of the story, suggests that he was considering the religious element of his story on a deeper level. In one of his letters he writes that the “purpose of life . . . is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all means we have, and be moved by it to praise and thanks” and that “devoted study [of the Universe] may be one of the ways of honoring him” (Letters 400). In short, Tolkien seems to advocate increasing our understanding of the world around us as a method of praising God and so fulfilling our purpose in life, a purpose which, Tolkien writes in the same letter, can only be found in relation to God. If Tolkien believed that fulfilling the purpose set out for oneself by God involves experiencing the world around oneself and so coming to know God and praise him, then Frodo and Sam’s quest in The Lord of the Rings might have called to mind a pilgrimage of sorts to Tolkien. Certainly, Tolkien believed in the power of journeys to shape people until new and better versions of themselves. After discussing the profound transformative effects of journeys on people who undertake them, Tolkien likens man to a “seed with its innate vitality and heredity, its capacity to grow and develop” and “in some degree also” to “a gardener” who can change himself through act of will. It is for this reason, he goes on to say, that the hobbits were sent on their journey (Letters 239-240). Through their journey they come to know the world and are thus shaped by it, something it is entirely plausible Tolkien would have seen as a religious experience.
Thus, it is certainly possible to find evidence for the profound religious influences Tolkien professes his work to possess. Whether Tolkien himself would have held that the influences mentioned above are what makes his work “fundamentally” Catholic is another question entirely. Other than some mentions of the Virgin Mary in his letters, Tolkien does not discuss at length links between prominent Catholic imagery—the Eucharist and the Crucifixion—and his work. Further, the religious link that can be made to the hobbits’ journey is only one possible interpretation of such a transformation. Certainly, people in stories, myths, and legends—everything from Lyra in Pullman’s His Dark Materials to Marlin in Finding Nemo to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—often go on quests and discover truths, but such journeys need not be tied to religion or Christianity specifically.
Holy Bible. The New American Bible, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2010.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflen, 2000, New York.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. HarperCollins E-Books, 2002.