Tolkien Not Religious?

Arts & Letters Daily had a link to a City Journal article about religious symbolism in science fiction, which attempts to claim that there has been a recent swing toward Christian symbolism in the genre (at least, in movie and television SF– the only books mentioned are forty-ish years old). There are a number of problems with it, but the most jarring has to be this paragraph:

One reason that Disney finally made a movie out of C. S. Lewis’s Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005 may be that popular fantasy has become increasingly religious at heart. Peter Jackson’s brilliant film adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, on the other hand, probably don’t fall into the category of messianic fantasy, despite a quick episode in which the wizard Gandalf experiences a sort of death and rebirth; Tolkien’s chief inspiration was political, not religious, and Jackson remains faithful to that intention.

Huh? Are you talking about the same books that Kate is re-reading?

I mean, it might be less overtly religious than The Lion, the With, and the Wardrobe, but that’s not a high bar to clear…

Comments

  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 27, 2009

    Traditionally, very little Science Fiction dealt with Religion, while a major segment of Fantasy and Horror was predicated on Religious beliefs.

    To oversimplify, Science Fiction is Materialist in essence, about a science/engineering/technology universe in which there is very little room for God. Fantasy and Horror, on the other hand, often depend upon an explicit border between Natural and Supernatural, and on the distinctions between Good and Evil, and are therefore essentially about God or His absence.

    H. P. Lovecraft pointed out in “Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” that religion was a local Earth custom, like Royalty, which had no significance whatsoever in other parts of the astronomical universe. James Blish strove, in fiction and critical essays, to establish exactly the opposite point of view. His masterpieces of Theological Science Fiction are: the “After Such Knowledge” series:
    * Doctor Miribilis [Dodd Mead, 1971]
    * Black Easter [Doubleday, 1968; Dell; Avon]
    * The Day After Judgment [Doubleday, 1971]
    * A Case of Conscience [Ballentine Books, 1958; Walker, 1969]

    As Darrell Schweitzer says in “God and All That” [Aboriginal Science Fiction, Summer 1998]: “Sure, there had always been stories about brave explorers landing on Mars and finding a humanoid culture there which is sort of like African/Aztec/Samoan culture only less interesting, where the priest-ridden natives are bent on sacrificing the pith-helmeted — er, I mean space-suited — strangers to the Great Ghod Ghu. But let’s get real. Serious SF about religion began to slip through the pages of ‘Astounding’
    circa 1940…”

    http://www.magicdragon.com/UltimateSF/thisthat.html#theo

  2. #2 datamuse
    March 27, 2009

    Huh. I remember going to see Return of the King with my mother, who is a lifelong Catholic and has never read the books (stylistically they just aren’t to her taste, though she enjoyed the movies a lot). Afterward she made some comment about some bit of symbolism or other in the film; I forget the exact example.

    “Well, Tolkien WAS a Christian,” I said.

    “Oh, yes,” she replied. “You can tell that right off.”

    Heh.

  3. #3 Matt Fulghum
    March 27, 2009

    The funny thing is that Tolkien tried to keep politics and religion out of the Lord of the Rings as much as possible, which is evidently visible from reading the Foreward to both editions of the novel (from the 1987 collectors edition print by the Houghton Mifflin Company, yay legal stuff).

    To explain, I present a somewhat cut down foreward (which is left in the book for a reason):
    “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither alleorical nor topical… The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of te tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted… little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.”

    And on the note of religion in the novel:
    “… I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigneed, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I thhink many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

    Sorry for the wall of text, but I think this pretty clearly lays out Tolkien’s stance on things. Any religious or political connections seen by the reader are based on how they interpret and apply the story to their lives and histories. While some parts of Tolkien’s experience have no doubt leaked into the story, which he acknowledges happens to every writer, he did not intend the story to be a reflection of history or religion.

    This is the first 6 pages of the book. Why does everyone skip it?

    The only character in the book that I can really see any serious religious connotations in is Tom Bombadil, who Tolkien himself didn’t seem too terribly happy about, but was left in anyway in order to keep continuity.

  4. #4 Alex
    March 27, 2009

    The Silmarillion does read like a religious text, with a lot of similarities to the Book of Genesis as well as various European mythologies. However, that’s sort of inevitable in a book that chronicles the creation of the world, the origin of the deities (Iluvatar, Valar, etc.), the origin of evil (the satanic figure of Melkor) and the rise of the human race.

    I don’t know that I’d consider the Silmarillion as being particularly Christian relative to its genre.

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 27, 2009

    I prefer Tolkien to C.S. Lewis as literature, because Lewis strikes me as a brilliant guy who is manipulating me to promote his Christian belief, while Tolkien doesn’t seem to give a damn what I believe. Tolkien is responsible for C. S. Lewis’s conversion, albeit not to the brand of Christianity that Tolkien belonged.

    Back when Philosophy departments were dominated by Moral Philosophy professors and and Theology professors, Clive Staples Lewis [29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963, the date of death being the same as that of John F. Kennedy], known to his friends including J. R. R. Tolkien as “Jack,” known to this generation primarily as the C. S. Lewis who wrote those Narnia books adapted into these movies)
    distinguished between debates about a “right to not be killed,” as subtly but crucially different from the “right to exist.”

    His example used an axiom of Angelology (really, Google that word) that Angels, being immortal, can’t be killed, even by God.

    Hence he asked the nuanced question: “can an Angel who exists be caused by God retroactively not to have existed?”

    He gave Old Testament and New Testament citations, some of which support “Yes” as an answer and some of which support “No.”

    He then sidestepped the Angelology and asked if Rome could be caused not to have been built.

    All this was to answer a snailmail from a lady (this being during World War I) who wanted to know if it was theologically reasonable for her to pray that her son, who had been in a battle and was thus either alive or dead, but the news of the outcome of the battle had not reached her, could be alive. That is, although God knew if he was alive or dead right now, could she expect God to respond to her prayer that the son be alive, whether or not in some tense not in English he had been dead but would be not having been dead?

    Clive Staples Lewis, not using Propositional nor Predicate nor Modal Logic, answered that he believed that God could, being omnipotent, undo causality. But, he suggested, God chose NOT to break His own laws, for essentially Aesthetic reasons, consistency being Beautiful.

    So far as I know, when Godel gave an axiomatization of the Ontological Argument, he did not factor in a sub-theory of God’s aesthetics.

    Philosophy departments have changed rather substantially. Whether Logic is taught at any given university by the Math department, the Philosophy Department, the Computer Science department, or the Electrical Engineering department is mostly a matter of historical accident. I was denied the right to teach Logic once when I was a Math professor, because the Dean of Arts and Sciences did not consider
    Logic to be Math!

  6. #6 JohnV
    March 27, 2009

    Man I didn’t notice anything like that from the lord of the rings movies. Never made it through the books. Then again, my pallet may have been tainted from reading A Canticle For Leibowicz. Other than that book I haven’t even really noticed christian symbolism in the science fiction books I read aside from when Orson Scott Card bludgeons me over the head with it.

    Maybe I’m to well indoctrinated to pick up on it? If that was the case I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised. Now I have something else to think about as I work through my reading backlog.

  7. #7 jon
    March 27, 2009

    OK, there is Christian imagery in LOTR, especially Strider. But, just say zomg! it’s a christian book is caddy oversimplification.

    The pagan imagery, as well as Neo-Platonic imagery, overwhelm the subtle Christian symbols. Since the Silmarillion sets the theological backdrop for the case, you can see it better there.

  8. #8 F-L
    March 27, 2009

    I don’t know that I would call it messianic fantasy, though, unless that’s supposed to cover all archetypal hero stories.

  9. #9 Scott Belyea
    March 27, 2009

    Tolkien’s writings never struck me as religious/Christian.

    My suspicion is that the so-called Christian elements in LOTR are due to the reality that both LOTR and the Bible use very old elements which are near-universal – rebirth, quest, fall from grace, and so on. One could easily head into Joseph Campbell territory here.

    Much of Lewis, however, strikes me as explicitly and clearly Christian.

  10. #10 Joe Shelby
    March 27, 2009

    Tolkien, as anybody who even casually had the dvd “making-ofs” in the background at any point, was not making an allegory for anything, not Christianity (where-as Narnia books 1 and 7 are very intentional allegory to Gospel of John and Book of Revelation), nor politics of any particular war (like either WW1 he served in nor WW2 his son did).

    That the events of the wars have similar ties to the events in the books is partly from the fact that everybody still writes from experience, and the experience of mechanized warfare (as shown in the mobilization of Orthanc) certainly has parallels to the mechanization he went through during the first war. Similarly, it is undeniable the connection between the two languages he most studied (Welsh and Finnish) and the elvish languages he developed.

    But beyond that, his intent was creating a mythology, not a religion or a text that parallels one. That there are some situations that also exist in Christian myth can be easily explained by the fact that they are archetypal situations that happen in almost EVERY mythology. Christianity hardly has a monopoly or patent on resurrection stories. Just because there’s a resurrection of a major “good” character does not make that character an allegory for Christ.

    That Silmarillion reads like a religious text is because, in finalizing this historical part of his mythology, that is how a myth is best presented, particularly since when working on that, he was finalizing the mythology of history that his “contemporary” (3rd Age) characters had developed from. The vagueness and legendary aspect of it was intentional, as if he was writing not works that we should read, but the works that his (human and elf) characters would have read in their own libraries.

    But that doesn’t mean he was creating a religion for us, nor does it mean he was trying to intentionally make us draw parallels between it and Christianity.

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    March 27, 2009

    Tolkien’s famous passage about disliking allegory is referring to a very specific definition of allegory as a one-to-one correspondence between items in the story and items in some other story or philosophy. In that sense, it is absolutely true that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory for Christianity.

    However, that does not mean that the work does not contain any Christian elements. Far from it– in fact, the entire story is profoundly influenced by Tolkien’s Catholic faith, from the fiddly details of the chronology (the Fellowship leaves Rivendell on Christmas Day, and the Ring is destroyed approximately when Easter would fall) to the ultimate resolution of the story. There are references throughout the story hinting at a higher purpose to events, and Frodo’s ultimate failure and accidental salvation are deeply Catholic in character. It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that you can’t fully understand the story without understanding Tolkien’s religion.

  12. #12 Scott Belyea
    March 27, 2009

    It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that you can’t fully understand the story without understanding Tolkien’s religion.

    I suggest that this is indeed an overstatement.

    Tolkien uses elements of myths which have existed in many cultures and which predate Christianity.

  13. #13 Mary Kay
    March 27, 2009

    Oh heavens, Christian symbology and archetypes are all OVER Tolkien’s work. He was, IMHO, a much better writer than Lewis so it’s subtle and less obvious. Our particular culture (20-21 century USA) is so steeped in Christianity that noticing subtle portrayals of its tropes is like asking fish to notice water. It is there though. Tolkien was very devout and could not, again IMHO, have created but a Christian world.

    Also, I find it interesting that one commenter above assumes that religion and mythology are different things. No, not really. They’re both attempts to make sense of/explain the world with stories.

    MKK

  14. #14 dr. dave
    March 27, 2009

    #12 just above beat me to the punch. It’s not that Tolkien is borrowing themes and imagery from Christianity specifically, but rather that Christianity has borrowed from the same bucket of symbols and themes that every mythological system does, including that concocted by Tolkien.

  15. #15 Mary Kay
    March 27, 2009

    Oh, and that article you quote from? Well, I wouldn’t pay much attention to someone who seems to think Gandalf is the trilogy’s Christ symbol.

    MKK

  16. #16 Alex
    March 27, 2009

    Thinking about it more….

    If you read the Silmarillion it seems like he tries to combine monotheism and paganism into the same story, and gives the advantage to monotheism. In his creation story there is one God above all (Iluvatar) and while the Valar resemble a pagan pantheon they are subservient to Iluvatar, and are basically angels carrying out Iluvatar’s plan.

    So while he works from many sources, his mythology is ultimately fitting pagan stories into a monotheistic framework.

  17. #17 Heraclides
    March 27, 2009

    The only character in the book that I can really see any serious religious connotations in is Tom Bombadil,

    Incidentally, I believe this is one character that was left out of the Jackson movies entirely.

    My suspicion is that the so-called Christian elements in LOTR are due to the reality that both LOTR and the Bible use very old elements which are near-universal – rebirth, quest, fall from grace, and so on.

    My feeling too. I’ve always thought—naïvely, I’m not an expert on Tolkien!—that his writing was mostly influenced by his war, travel, history research and linguistics experiences, than any particular attempt at meaningful allegory, religious references, etc.

    Joe Shelby: just read your post after writing this, and my thoughts are roughly the same.

  18. #18 Kim
    March 27, 2009

    I’m surprised that nobody has brought up Tolkien’s Letters. There are a lot of explicit discussions of his religious beliefs (and how he reconciled them his writing).

  19. #19 Badger3k
    March 28, 2009

    I’d really be surprised if Gandalf was a Christ-Character, since he plays very little role in the ultimate determination of the Fate of men (and elves, dwarves, and the rest). If anything, ir turns out that Gollum gave his life for everyone else, even if it was not too willing. If only his cup had been taken from him….Maybe Whacko Mel could do “The Passion of the Gollum”?

    I have no idea how a “higher purpose” idea is Catholic, as it has been around in mythology and philosophy for hundreds of years (if not thousands) before Christianity crawled from the mud. It’s pretty much par for humanity to believe such a thing. Growing up Roman Catholic, I’m not sure how an “accidental salvation” fits into the theology either.

    Besides that, though, I’d agree that a lot of fantasy writing is religiously oriented. Much of mythology is the same way. The good writing keeps the authors beliefs out of it – Lord of the Rings was better in the movies than the books (sorry, yell at me all you like, but reading all three books was so, so boring – and half the characters I had no connection with, I could see them tortured and not care), but the when watching Lewis’ work, I kept waiting for Kirk Cameron to come out with a banana.

  20. #20 MadGastronomer
    March 28, 2009

    My understanding is that, while Tolkien had intentionally avoided the kind of specific allegory Lewis employed, he said (sorry, I’d give references if I could, I don’t have anything handy, I suspect it’s in his Letters) that he had intended his work to be a Christian work, in that he was inspired by his faith, and he hoped that it would inspire other people of faith. He quite intentionally based his symbolism on the Catholic symbols he valued. I’m with Chad; understanding Tolkien’s faith is very important to understanding the depth of his work.

    Fortunately, I don’t care about understanding it all that deeply. I just want to enjoy it.

    What I don’t get is why people feel like they need to take that away, why some people need to deny the Christian symbolism the author intended. Does it in some way lessen their enjoyment? Why? I’m a Neopagan, and I acknowledge the Christian underpinnings of both Middle Earth and Narnia, and I still enjoy them both. Do these same people also feel a need to deny the religious inspiration for the Sistine Chapel or the Halleluia Chorus? Why shouldn’t those of us who are not Christian enjoy the many fine things that Christianity has inspired, without denying their creators a large part of their lives?

  21. #21 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 28, 2009

    My recall of my wife’s comment to me and our son in the car back from breakfast with Physicist friend is: “I heard Tolkien in a live interview on BBC radio. He was asked why God was not in Lord of the Rings. He answered: “God is on every page.’”

    My son wondered if Smeagal is the Christ figure, or if that’s split evenly between the 3 ringbearers on Mt.Doom. I said that Gollum is akin to Christ making the wrong decision on The Last Temptation. My son points out that Samwise and Frodo could not have been more religiously clad than on Mt.Doom, where every stain, every tear in their clothing was the result of obstacles overcome on the Stations of the Cross/Ring.

    Son and wife dismiss Gandalf as Christ figure, as he was died and reborn as Mythology, not as Theology.

    MadGastronomer@#20: we agree that a great day would have us sitting in the Sistine Chapel while the Halleluia Chorus is performed and we’re re-reading The Lord of the Rings.

    I loved the Silmarillion, as the Genesis of LOTR, but neither wife nor sun could get through it.

  22. #22 Jan
    March 28, 2009

    Piffle! People of the book have never let reality interfere with their world view before. Why is today any different. They see God every where in every thing because that is what they want to see. That they relentlessly try to co-opt morals and values as being singularly their domain or that their myths are unique does not make it so.

  23. #23 MadGastronomer
    March 28, 2009

    I’m sorry, Jan, which bit is piffle? Certainly neither morals nor mythology are exclusively Christian, but if Tolkien intended LOtR to be a Christian novel, then isn’t it just as bad of those of us who are not Christian to say it isn’t as it is for a Christian to claim something that isn’t?

  24. #24 Jan
    March 28, 2009

    IMO, the bulk of Plotinsky’s article was revisionist apologetics, and yes, piffle. Alas, I cannot cite sources, but none of the interviews I have heard with Tolkien had any discussion about God or Christ figures.

  25. #25 MadGastronomer
    March 29, 2009

    My recollection is that Tolkien wasn’t talking about putting in God or Christ figures, but rather about characters exhibiting Christian values.

  26. #26 Joe Shelby
    March 29, 2009

    Ah, but what are “Christian Values”? How are they different from any other culture that contends that it is The One True Moral?

    There are times I think Douglas Adams was making a religious statement when he wrote about the Kricketmen, who believed in “peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family, life, and the obliteration of all other life forms”.

  27. #27 llewelly
    March 29, 2009

    I’d really be surprised if Gandalf was a Christ-Character, since he plays very little role in the ultimate determination of the Fate of men (and elves, dwarves, and the rest).

    It’s not that Tolkien wrote Christ into LOTR. You won’t find Aslan stalking about in the Misty Mountains. Rather, Tolkien took attributes Christians associate with Christ, and distributed them among LOTR’s many characters. Gandalf got the Resurrection. (Frodo’s recovery from the spider bite was almost like a resurrection.) JVP already talked about the Christ-like attributes of Frodo, Samwise, and Gollum.

  28. #28 MattR
    March 29, 2009

    FTA:

    [S]ome of this generation’s most successful sci-fi and fantasy movie franchises follow an essentially Christian plotline.

    I think it would be fairer to say that the Bible, along with other literature—including sci-fi and fantasy—follows storylines which are universally recognisable. Christianity is merely an easily identifiable benchmark in our culture; there’s nothing inherently ‘Christian’ about the ‘Christian plotline’.

    As for the whole Lewis v Tolkien: I remember noticing the overtly Christian overtones when I saw the old BBC series of TLTWTW. I would have been no more than 10 (probably 7 or 8), so it must have been pretty obvious. As for Tolkien, it was never so up front. Luddite, sure; Christian, meh.

  29. #29 Tolkien fan
    May 5, 2009

    I think that some episodes in LOTR can be considered as political, but also as religional. In depends on the personal attitudes of an individual who watch this movie.
    As for me I can’t say that there is no religional implication in the book and in the movie also.

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