Friday, May 26, 2017

The Lord of the Rings: Fundamentally Catholic?

     Of the many insights Tolkien’s letters give into his legendarium, one of the more initially puzzling claims from his letters we’ve discussed in class this quarter is Tolkien’s statement on the inherent religiosity of his work. Namely, in a letter to a close friend about the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes that the work is “of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters 172). What does Tolkien mean by this claim, particularly in light of the fact that The Lord of the Rings clearly lacks organized religion in the manner of the modern world and does not explicitly reference Catholic teachings or writings?
     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.


  1. Of course you're right that a journey / quest doesn't need to be seen through a religious lens and that many stories rely on such devices, but I still think that there are too many nods to Christianity and religion to just write them off as coincidences or as surface similarities.

    We know that Tolkien was devoutly religious and that he tried to go to mass everyday that he could, and we also know that he hated allegory. Given the fact that so much of his time was spent in church (after his mother died it was a priest who took care of Tolkien and his brother) I don't think it would be possible for him to have written such a large work, especially one about a wholly different world, that didn't have religion at its center (visible or not). His dislike for allegory would prevent him from putting in any really overt nods to Christianity and so I don't think we can fault him or say that he did not do what he intended to just because there aren't churches.

    I also think it's important to remember the Silmarillion. The book begins with a creation story that has its own parallels to the Christian origin story and which is fundamentally religious in its own right. Considering that the Silmarillion is what he spent the majority of his life working on and it tells the larger story of the world that Lord of the Rings takes place in, I don't think we can ignore it.

  2. This reflection has helped me to articulate the question that was only beginning to form during our last class – if the world of The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally Catholic, even without priests and churches, then by what would Tolkien justify the presence of such things in our world? In other words, if the religious element of The Lord of the Rings is found in the symbolism and the story, as this post points out, then why is the symbolism and story of this world inferior in that we require the institutional components of religion? Not to be mistaken, I am more than sympathetic to Tolkien’s faith and his desire to weave that into his sub-creation, but our discussion of religion seems to point out that what we have until this point seen only as Tolkien’s strength, his reliance on Incarnation, might actually pose a challenge to lines between his world and ours. After all, Christianity does not confuse Incarnation with pantheism, and I would hardly charge Tolkien with something so grave, but without the boundaries of religion that charge might seem plausible to some. Letter 337, quoted above, includes the somewhat arbitrarily says that “in this world” precious wine must be kept in a bottle, but it is unclear to me why that is the case.
    Perhaps part of the answer might be found in considering the contours of the Numenorean religion, and their fight between idolatry and true veneration. Though the plot of The Lord of the Rings leaves me in some confusion about Tolkien’s view of the contrast between the religious fabric of our world and Arda, if the manner of faith of those ancient men was made more explicit there might be a greater sense of parallel between these worlds.


  3. I am happy to see you continuing to puzzle with the question I posed in class, as I do not think we were able to answer it fully--nor perhaps would Tolkien want us to. My sense is that he was trying to get at the sense of "sacrament"--what it means for the divine to participate in the creation and for creatures to become aware of this divine participation. It is interesting that the absence of institutional structure suggests to most readers an absence of religion: clearly, for Tolkien, the institution was something different from the "right worship" to be offered God. RLFB

  4. This is certainly an interesting question, and I’m not sure there’s a clear answer. The lack of organized religion, as you point out, is one of the most immediate enigmas that arises when considering the place of religion in Middle Earth. Its absence is almost certainly not accidental – in a world as complete and detailed as the world of the Lord of the Rings, it is almost unthinkable that Tolkien would have forgotten to incorporate an institution as fundamental in our world as organized religion. I agree that Tolkien’s statement regarding the issue, that “the religious element [of The Lord of the Rings] is absorbed into the story and the symbolism”, but I wonder if there is more to it as well.

    I’m reminded of something that got brought up in class when we were talking about language: it was mentioned that language itself could be a sort of fall from grace. That is, the need for language indicates that we somehow no longer intuit the world as we were intended: we now need language to mediate our experience. I wonder if the same reasoning can be applied to organized religion in that it is not needed in Middle Earth as they have not experience the same fall that we have. Even from a Catholic perspective, humans have not always needed a church. Indeed, before the Fall, we needed no intermediary between our life here on earth and knowledge of the divine (God walked among Adam and Eve in the garden, for example). Tolkien definitely agrees that the Church is needed for us now. Perhaps instead of asking “why it is there is no organized religion in Middle Earth?”, a more relevant question is “why is it necessary for us?”

  5. After quoting Letters 400 you say that “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”. I would wholeheartedly agree with this statement and say that it seems to me that for Tolkien the purpose of the Lord of the Rings and his Legendarium was just this, to increase our understanding of the world as a method of praising God a thus fulfilling our purpose in life. I think that Tolkien sees his work as fundamentally religious and Catholic because he is fundamentally religious and Catholic and it would be impossible for him to separate his religion from his work. The lack of organized religion in the Lord of the Rings is important as Tolkien’s Catholicism is absorbed into the work rather than being an overt institution in his world. Tolkien’s religion shine through in his story as his characters contemplate and struggle with life, death, immortality, a multiplicity of loves, and goodness. The reason we should think of this as being fundamentally religious and not just one interpretation of a transformation such as in other mythologies or stories is because it is important to understand where Tolkien was coming from when he was writing this story and what his intended meaning was, which from his Letter we can see his work was meant to be fundamentally Catholic. Tolkien’s Catholicism is seeped so deeply into the Lord of the Rings because it is so deeply seeped into his very soul and while we can pick out obvious instances we can spot here of there in the story, it is important to know that at all times praising God and understanding the world in order to praise God was at the forefront of Tolkien’s thinking while writing his Legendarium.