I was rather surprised when Friday’s quick post about Tolkien spawned a lengthy comment thread full of people arguing against the suggestion that The Lord of the Rings is affected by Tolkien’s Catholic faith. I’m no Tolkien scholar, but my impression of the field is that this is simply not a controversial statement, that there is ample material in the reams of letters, early drafts, and other background material showing that this is the case.

On reflection, it seems that there are two things going on here. One is that some people seem to think that a book cannot be said to contain Christian elements unless it contains a single readily identifiable Christ figure. Which is really just kind of sad, in an “I weep for the death of Western culture” kind of way.

The other seems to be a little more particular to ScienceBlogs. Based on the tone of some of the comments, it seems like there’s a very strong element of “Religion is stupid and evil, but I like The Lord of the Rings. Therefore, The Lord of the Rings cannot possibly have any religious content.”

This is also sad in a “death of Western culture” sense, but it also suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of how literature works. The Lord of the Rings is not like Left Behind, which is utterly without virtues unless you accept every detail of the author’s worldview. You’re not required to renounce Tolkien and all his works just because you don’t happen to be a Christian– they’re deeper and richer than that.

And even if you were to go in for the all-or-nothing worldview-based renunciation, you’ve got better and more obvious reasons to cast Tolkien out than the relatively subtle Christian elements. Specifically, the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman of Many Colors:

‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

‘”I liked white better,” I said.

‘”White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

‘”In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”‘

(That’s in the Council of Elrond chapter, page 272 in the battered hardcover edition I have here.)

That’s as clear a rejection of the whole scientific worldview as you’ll find. And the books make it quite clear that Gandalf is right, within the world of the books. Characters who are too concerned with the workings of the material world are invariably bad, and any trace of science or industry is a sign of evil.

This is a deeply silly way of looking at the world, in many ways (and not terribly well thought out, when it comes to the technology and society of the Shire, specifically), but it’s unquestionably part of the books, in the same way that Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs are part of the books. You’re not required to accept either of them in order to enjoy the books, though. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the plot and the world without dwelling on the misguided aspects of Middle Earth. (Indeed, it’s pretty much the only way I can read the books at all…)

You don’t need to be a Catholic or a Luddite in order to read and enjoy the books. But at the same time, it would be foolish in the extreme to insist that the books have neither Catholic nor Luddite elements to them.


  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    March 29, 2009

    I think our problem with saying it has “Christian” (and more specifically, “Catholic”) attitudes and values is that it directly implies that Christianity has the exclusive claim to those values, something the Evangelicals in America WANT us to believe and is their primary weapon in the culture wars we’re so familiar with.

    When did a love of peace become a Christian value? It is something Christ preaches, but hardly something practiced by Christians, including Catholics, in spite of their claims to the contrary.

    When did self-sacrifice for a common good become a Christian value? That is, in the end, the ultimate human universal and EVERY mythology has stories of it, just as they all have stories of resurrections and the act of Redemption.

    So is it possible that Tolkein’s version of “Christian Values” is embedded in the books? Of course it is. But those values are so universal to ALL cultures (when not manipulated by evil leaders) as to make the claim irrelevant.

    Christianity has no exclusive claim to morality, individuality (and the right to be that way – and in fact its history is quite the opposite), redemption, nor Wisdom. A Moral truth simply IS, regardless of the way in which any particular religion expresses it, especially a non-religious way of expressing it.

    That is why I don’t see “Christian” values in the book. I see *moral* values, values I have come to believe are universal.

    [There’s also the collective problem of “Christian values” having lost all meaning to most of us on science-blogs (bloggers and commenters alike), thanks to the reams of stories of liars and thieves acting in His name.]

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    March 29, 2009

    There’s also the issue of the variety of “Christian values” and the way in which such values are extracted and derived from the Bible.

    Take racism, for example. One can look at all the “Smite thee” stuff from Revelation or the Old Testament and think God endorses a superiority of His followers, “chosen people” and all that, or you can look at the truth that exists within the Good Samaritan parable and see that Jesus doesn’t subscribe to any racism.

    Tolkien expresses his distaste for racism in the book (through making the reader dislike its expression at the Council of Elrond and appreciate how The Fellowship resolves it within themselves) and shows a strong moral character. But is that a Christian value or Catholic value merely because Christ preached on the subject once or twice in the Gospels?

    It certainly, like Darwin decades before, puts Tolkein at extreme odds with many others of his generation and his religion (Christian, including Anglican and Catholic).

  3. #3 John Novak
    March 29, 2009

    That passage always irritated me, too; in advancing the sanctity of every thing (because every thing is made by God) it’s a big stepping stone to a mindset where the only path to knowledge is navel gazing.

    But beyond that, I think you’re on the right track, but somewhat too harsh, when you muse about the lack of an overt resurrecting Christ figure being the reason that the books aren’t thought of as religious. The thing is, Tolkien is a subtle writer, and while his books are certainly informed by his religion, they don’t strike me as being overtly Christian, either. It’s an overtly moral story, but not overtly Christian.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2009

    Saruman’s line: “The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.” suggests that he anticipated Sir Isaac Newton on the use of a prism. Or could Dwarf technology make diffraction gratings?

    Clearly, Tolkien was aware of modern Science. He didn’t much like modern technology from an aesthetic standpoint, as seen in his rejection of the vast engineering industrialization by Sauron et al, and favored the Green lifestyle of Hobbits.

    Hence Tolkien’s art is very much in the tradition of Western culture, albeit more backwards-looking than forward-looking, and to ignore his commentary of Beowulf or the Elder Eddas is indeed tantamount to “death of Western culture.”

  5. #5 Tim Walters
    March 29, 2009

    Yeah, when did anti-Manichaeism, reverence for Easter, and salvation through grace become specifically Christian, anyway? Sheesh.

  6. #6 Victor Ganata
    March 29, 2009

    It’s true. Gandalf getting killed and then being resurrected has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Right.

    It’s easy to read a straight-forward anti-science stance from that exchange between Gandalf and Saruman, but I think Tolkien’s stance is a little more complicated, although most of the evidence for it only exists outside of the Lord of the Rings. He doesn’t consider knowledge a bad thing, but how you obtain it matters, and how you use it matters. I imagine most scientists agree that experimentation should be ethical, and that most scientists don’t really want their discoveries to become scourges of the environment or used as weapons of mass destruction.

  7. #7 llewelly
    March 29, 2009

    When did a love of peace become a Christian value? It is something Christ preaches, but hardly something practiced by Christians, including Catholics, in spite of their claims to the contrary.

    The elements of Christian symbolism most frequently recognized in LOTR are not values per se. Consider, for example, the Resurrection of Gandalf. Resurrection is not a value.

  8. #8 Deborah Sabo
    March 29, 2009

    I am involved (in a limited way) with Tolkien scholarship. I’ve done a lot of reading in the vast academic literature devoted to JRRT’s life and work and I attend a couple of annual conferences. For the record, my own interests in Tolkien do not concern interpretation from the theological perspective. I have no religious agenda!

    Many feel that Tolkien identified with the Beowulf-poet. His own essay on Beowulf emphasizes the Christian Beowulf-poet’s admiration for and reuse of a story that depicts the ancient, heroic (and pagan) culture. Tolkien did just the same thing with his own writing. He was a scholar of English philology and an Anglo-Saxonist. His fiction writing and professional research were intimately intertwined; he borrowed many elements from Beowulf and other early Germanic literature.

    Tolkien respected the pre-Christian worldview and lifeway. He was not among those who consigned the unconverted automatically to Hell. He was himself a devoted Catholic, but this is not to say that he lived his entire life without experiencing doubt, or that his approach to his faith was entirely orthodox. He adhered to orthodoxy in terms of religious practice, but he seems to have been inclined toward the ideas of Natural Theology. Tolkien asserted that “human-created myths” contained outlines of the truth. That is, pagan mythologies, from the perspective of a committed Christian such as himself, may not have been directly “divinely inspired,” yet were authentic attempts by human beings to understand the divine, and often approached what God was trying to reveal. Christianity, according to him, was God’s fairy-story that had been inserted into history.

    Gandalf is not, and cannot be, a Christ figure. Gandalf is a messenger, specifically likened to an angelic being (see JRRT’s published Letters). There can be no “Christ” in Middle-earth, because Middle-earth, in Tolkien’s legendarium, was not an imaginary world, but an imaginary time of our own world. Therefore, if Middle-earth were to have a “Christ,” he must be the same one that we know about. (This does not mean there are no characters in LOTR who exhibit Christ-like demeanor or perform Christ-like actions; just that Middle-earth does not have its own “Aslan.”) Tolkien intentionally left overt reference to religion out of LOTR (as much as he could — there are a few allusions to religious practice and belief in LOTR, more in the Silmarillion) precisely because he did not want his tale to be read as an allegory, or as a tract, or as a sermon. He wanted it to read as a fairy-story. The creation story (Ainulindale) in The Silmarillion needs to be understood as a revelation to the Elves.

    Are there references to twentieth century politics in LOTR? Absolutely! No allegory, no blatant analogy, but allusions, references, oh yes. Oh my goodness, that is very complicated and needs a blog of its own!

    Tolkien’s attitudes to technology, the modern world, and to science in particular, were complex, and are lately receiving more attention from scholars of his life and work. It is wrong, and an oversimplification to say that he hated science, or technology, for its own sake. He certainly hated the misuse of same. His life experience can be brought to bear to understand his pessimism about what he saw as increasing and unchecked reliance on and worship of technology in the twentieth century.

  9. #9 Dennis
    March 29, 2009

    I’m not sure that values is necessarily the best word. I think it’s better to suggest that Tolkien’s world and his stories about it are heavily influenced by his Christianity and Christian mythology. That the Christian elements that they contain are not always uniquely Christian, something that I’m sure Tolkien understood far better than most (at a level nearing someone like Joseph Campbell I would bet), does not mean that they are not Christian. That they are also heavily influenced by pre-Christian Western works that Tolkien also spent a large time studying does not erase the Christian influences on his work.

    Also, I’ve always felt that Earendel was much more of a Messianic figure than Gandalf.

  10. #10 Jimmy Groove
    March 29, 2009

    I had the same problem when I found out how religious Orson Scott Card was. I had liked the Ender’s books. And looking back, I could see the influences there very clearly. But heck, I still liked them, and most of the time he kept it low enough key that it didn’t make it unenjoyable.

    That’s the big thing for me. A piece of art can contain some religious references or inspirations and still be perfectly enjoyable, but past a certain point it feels like I’m being preached at and my atheist mind rejects it. A few of Card’s other series go too far in that direction, and I don’t care for them. Likewise, I love a lot of Johnny Cash’s music, but I don’t listen to the more purely gospel stuff.

    Heck, even the Bible has some good, interesting stories with some real value to them. No need to throw out the baby with the bathwater; we can enjoy our culture without buying into all of it.

    Of course, Mr. Shelby is completely right that it is annoying as hell to have Christians or any other group try to claim exclusive rights on certain values and other concepts, but heck, they are gonna do it no matter what we do.

  11. #11 Lassi Hippeläinen
    March 29, 2009

    Of course Tolkien’s faith shows, but he isn’t preaching. He even carefully avoided names that had Biblical roots. He only used invented names, or at least invented etymologies (e.g. Sam comes from Samwise, not Samuel).

    His religion shows in less obvious ways. You could say that LoTR (and Silmarillion) are ancient myths retold to the Christians of Victorian era. For example, the Valar are derived from Olympian and Norse gods, but they are a family-friendly version who don’t get drunk or have sex. And above all is Eru Iluvatar, a very monotheistic being that is nowhere in sight in Greek or Norse pantheons.

    IMHO that exchange between Gandalf and Saruman isn’t religious. Catholics don’t object to science as a principle. But Tolkien had a personal dislike of technology, and it went back to his childhood experiences.

    BTW, Gandalf didn’t die. As an Ainu, he was bound to Middle-earth anyway, and could only return from Mandos. Just like the Elves. There is only one real death: Luthien, who sacrifised her immortality, and left Middle-earth.

    Those who have read Tolkien’s biography by Humphrey Carpenter know how important religion was for him (and why), and how Luthien connects to his wife Edith.

  12. #12 CCPhysicist
    March 29, 2009

    @ #1: When did love of peace and self-sacrifice for the common good become Christian values? At the beginning, when the “red letter” words were repeated, retold, and eventually recorded as part of the set of stories that became the core of Christianity – hundreds of years before the current canon was set and Catholicism came into being circa 325 (IMHO). I can’t think of a better example of the death of Western culture than that very question. Perhaps #1 meant to ask “when did they cease to be Christian values”. If so, ask that question. My short answer would be when it became a State Religion, and one can view some more recent events in that light, even if it was not officially such in the US.

    How did those moral values (and others) find their way into Christianity when they weren’t all present in contemporary Judaism? A good reason to take those courses we call “The Humanities” as part of a liberal arts education.

    Thanks for the pointer to Luddite views in the trilogy. Those views are not uncommon in literature of the post-war era (e.g. Player Piano, published just a few years before LOTR). Mechanized war led to lots of rethinking of the role of technology in society.

  13. #13 j m rowland
    March 29, 2009

    To say that technology and technology-users in the LOTR are always presented as evil is, at best, a gross over-simplification; and, at worst, a failure to understand what was going on in the story (and possibly a failure to understand the nature of technology).

    The Shire and its lifestyle are bucolic, certainly, but also clearly products of agrarian technology. The entire Dwarvish race are represented as master technologists and craftsmen. Gondor was presented as a formerly great civilization whose last remaining cities, Osgiliath and Minas Tirith, were exemplars of the technology of the day. Objects such as the Palantir (seeing-stones) and the rings, themselves, were only represented as MADE objects, the products of learning and craftsmanship. Rivendell, Lorien, and the Grey Havens are all protected by the Rings of Power, created by and wielded by the Elves, separate from and in opposition to Sauron’s One Ring — but products of the same technology.

    The only “evil” uses of technology in the story occur as weapons of war, mass destruction, and oppression, the most technologically advanced of which (apart from those rings made by Sauron) are swords, bow-and-arrow, and siege engines.

    It would be correct to say that the attitude toward technology in LOTR is in alignment with Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently-advanced technology bears a superficial resemblance to “magic.” But it is equally important to remember that all “magical” objects in Tolkien’s legendarium are the products of intense scholarship and high craftsmanship — things that are learned and made and passed along as part of the culture. They are the products of study, not theological or mystical revelation; and Tolkien is never unclear about this.

    The evil characters in LOTR are not evil because they embrace technology, and the “good” characters are not “good” because they reject it (they, in fact, don’t). The only difference between “good” and “evil” users of technology in Tolkien’s story is the purpose for which they choose to use it. It has nothing to do with Luddism, and everything to do with quality of life and pursuit of happiness, vs. oppression, destruction and misuse of power.

  14. #14 Deborah Sabo
    March 29, 2009

    Re #11, Gandalf is not an Ainu. He is a Maia.

  15. #15 MadGastronomer
    March 29, 2009

    Saying that certain values espoused in the New Testament and held by many Christian are Christian values does not imply that they are solely Christian, or that Christians have sole claim to them, no matter what the RTC may say. Just because you infer that does not mean that we are implying it, nor that any such implication is inherent in the words.

  16. #16 Michael I
    March 29, 2009

    Deborah Sabo@14

    Maiar are a subcategory of Ainur.

  17. #17 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 29, 2009

    I mostly accept j m rowland@ # 13 with quibbles.

    Yes, agriculture is technology. So is the family. The risky moral issues come from explosives, water-power, mass production, and metallurgy from stable transuranic elements, or whatever the rings are made of, and Mithril is.


    Genetically engineering is deemed evil, in a Catholic-Frankensteinian way. In The Two Towers, Aragorn observes that the fallen Uruk-hai at Amon Hen were not like any breed of Orc he has seen before. Treebeard speculates that Saruman had crossbred Orcs and Men, a “black evil.”

    Fascination with the most advanced technology is discussed by J.R.R. Tolkien in his users manual on the Palantir Nonlocal Videonet and the Intelligent Distributed Ring Hierarchy. Passing the token to another, Galadriel says (well done in the film):

    “And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

    And then the nice scene-ending couplet:
    “I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West…”

  18. #18 Badger3k
    March 29, 2009

    Wow. I hadn’t been back to that thread since I commented on it, I guess I’ll have to go back. I too see more of Tolkien’s dislike of technology more than religious themes. Resurrection is a staple of mythology going back long before Judaism was a twinkle in a Canaanite eye, and was common around the world. It is not a uniquely Christian mytheme, although in Tolkien’s case it probably was his view. However, since Tolkien was also familiar with Norse mythology, perhaps the Eijnerhar (sp?) and the “rebirth” to fight the last battle, was also part of Gandalf returning (although the concept of “dying” and getting more power is more in line with Christian theology, so this is probably the source of that).

    But, so what?

    Salvation through grace? Who? The way it looks to me, if anything, you had Frodo saved through the works of Sam and Gollum. Hardly what I would call “Grace”. Who else counts?

    But, again, so what? All Fantasy works are based on mythological concepts, and thus, for the most part, based on somebody’s religion. The key point to me is: does the writer proselytize or does he just tell the story? I’ve read (and seen) fantasy (and other genres, including sci-fi) that had religious elements, but they didn’t preach one particular sectarian viewpoint, and to be truthful, most of the values are simple human values common to all people.

    I’ve put down books that preached heavily, but Tolkien was not one of them.

  19. #19 Mary Kay
    March 29, 2009

    How on earth are people failing to see that the Christ figure is Frodo? He gives up what he loves most so that others may have it. If that’s not a sacrificial offering…


  20. #20 milkshake
    March 30, 2009

    The outlook of Hobbit and LOTR is definitely pre-modern and mystic. As a kid I found Hobbit more amusing (less serious and preachy) but even there over Hobbit I was wondering why the orcs and goblins deserved to be so wretched. I thought that being spawned as an intelligent, sensitive but unloved orc must have been a pretty bad fate; there ought to be some wizard-sponsored program to help the progressive orcs with integrating into the dwarf society.

  21. #21 Clay B
    March 30, 2009

    > ‘”White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

    > ‘”In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”‘

    >(That’s in the Council of Elrond chapter, page 272 in the battered hardcover edition I have here.)

    >That’s as clear a rejection of the whole scientific worldview as you’ll find. And the books make it quite clear that Gandalf is right, within the world of the books.

    I agree with Victor in #6. I don’t read Gandalf’s statement as a rejection of science. Certainly you can put ethical, moral, or environmental limits on what science should do without rejecting all of science. Not that these apply to the refraction of light.

    >Characters who are too concerned with the workings of the material world are invariably bad, and any trace of science or industry is a sign of evil.

    The examples that come to mind involve seeking after the wrong kind of knowledge (Saruman’s investigations of the Shadow) and devastation of the natural world (Saruman again). I think this is a repudiation of a specific kind or use of knowledge/science/industry rather than all forms of it.

    I grant that we don’t see much non-destructive industry, other than small-scale things like mills. Certainly there are characters and peoples skilled in practical things like herblore, construction, shipbuilding, etc.

  22. #22 John Novak
    March 30, 2009

    Some scattered thoughts here, some in response to other comments, but generally still on the notion of LotR being a Christian/Catholic work or not. I generally tend to think not, but it’s not an easy call. The reason I tend to think not is that even though Tolkien’s work is heavily informed by Christian/Catholic virtues, those are not unique to Catholicism, and because he doesn’t really depend on the theology and symbolism to get his points across.

    Tolkien’s chief sin for Middle Earth sems to have been some combination of Pride and Hubris– that was Melkor’s original problem, and Sauron’s, and even Saruman’s in thinking he could fight Sauron alone. And to a degree, the way it is presented, I can see the strong elements of Catholic thinking in there. One problem I have with it, though, is that in Middle Earth so many instances of pride and hubris are tied inextricably to making or learning independently that it becomes impossible to ignore. It’s hard to think of significant creative acts in Middle Earth that are not so tainted.

    The Dwarves: Created by Aule, and the impression we got is that Iluvatar would have been right and justified to destroy them, and only his mercy allowed them to live.

    The Silmarils: Nothing more need be said.

    The Rings: Even the Elf-rings were tainted and nigh-unuseable. The rest were purely tools of domination.

    Mithril: Digging for it in order to use it set loose the Balrog.

    Saruman himself: Is a living metaphor for the technology=evil mindset. It’s more vivid in the movie, but all he ever made was misery.

    Galvorn: I wish I remembered the details, but I think the creator of Galvorn was generally held to be an unpleasant fellow, mostly by association with making things.

    Magic: I don’t know that it’s ever said outright, but the firm implication is that if you’re human and use magic, you’re evil, because magic is meant for Elves and Istari, and humans are just too stupid and unwise to use it without self-corruption.

    The only significant acts of creation I can think of that were not tainted from the outset were the original creations of most of the Valar (e.g., the Trees, and then the Sun and the Moon) and maybe the Palantiri. Everything else carries with it the constant drumbeat of, “It’s a made-thing, and is therefore bad; it is discovered knowledge and will therefore corrupt you.” It is very hard not to impute this mindset to Tolkien himself, because it is so consistent.

    So much for vice.

    The chief virtue seems to be an amalgam of faith and (mostly) grace, which is certainly more Christian/Catholic in its outlook than the vice of pride. The whole eucatastrophe thing is at work here, with Aragorn’s sudden unplanned arrival at the end, Gollum being in the right place at the right time, the eagles’ rescue, the end of the battle of Helm’s Deep… in the hands of a lesser author, at least some of those (Aragorn on the black fleet? I’m looking at you) would be deus ex machina, bad plotting events.

    As it is, though, both the Pride/Hubris and the Faith/Grace things aren’t really explicitly Catholic. Pride/Hubris goes back to the Greeks, if not farther, and Faith/Grace is just one riff on fate and destiny, so, while informed by Christian values, I still don’t see the works as overtly so.

    Moreover, what’s really lacking for me is overt Christian symbolism. The closest we really get to a Christ figure is Gandalf transforming from Grey to White. On the one hand, Deborah Sabo is right in the Gandalf didn’t “die” per se, and can’t be resurrected. On the other hand, that’s totally unimportant because from the perspective of the naive LOTR reader, unaware of the greater hierarchy of Valar, Maiar, and so forth…. he died and came back. Reader’s experience trumps distant internal metaphysics. Still, there is no sense that he died in a redemptive sense. At best, he’s a prefiguring of Christ in form only, but even that is weak unless there is evidence for it or a reading that supports it and does something with it which I’ve just missed.

    Likewise, Frodo’s sacrifice doesn’t cut it for me as a Christ figure either, because he fails at the end. The necessary hallmarks of Christ-like sacrifice just aren’t there for me in sufficient measure (or perhaps not in any measure) for me to call this an overtly Christian tale.

  23. #23 Gerrit
    March 30, 2009

    It is interesting to note that only in the case of relatively misunderstood or misrepresented religions are the religious feelings of the author discussed in relation to their work. One reader above brought up Orson Scott Card. It is now become fashionable to dislike Stephenie Meyer’s works for similar reasons. The one acceptable form of discrimination still alive and well in Western Society today is religious. Tolkien himself realized this and championed Jews despite the anti-Semite climate in the early part of the 20th century (see Letters #324 footnote for example).

    Tolkien’s works are religious. The first part of the Silmarillion is fundamentally a creation by intelligent design. Are there Christian symbols in his works? Yes. Some of the above comments show a shortsighted view that claims if readers see Christian virtues in Tolkien’s work that means that Christianity claims to have exclusive rights to these virtues. The reason why scholars have reflected on Tolkien’s Catholicism with relation to his works is not because we can only find transgression, forgiveness and redemption in Catholicism, but to look at those principles through a Catholic lens helps us understand Tolkien and his works better. What makes Tolkien so liked by so many audiences is that many of the struggles, pains, virtues, and joys of his characters are universally lauded—irrespective of religion.

    Can his works be read without inferring religious symbolism? Of course. Can they be read while inferring religious symbolism. Of course. Should any need more convincing evidence, here is an excerpt from a letter written by Tolkien himself:

    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 reference to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (Letters # 142)

    To Tolkien, placing religious ceremonies directly into the narrative would have been redundant. He already wrote religion into the text through symbols and the storyline itself.

  24. #24 Tony Zbaraschuk
    March 30, 2009

    Tolkien’s view in LOTR of how divine providence works, of how the Creator intersects with the created universe, is fundamentally Augustinian: evil is rebellion or misuse of a created good, not a principle in itself. (This is something that shows up all through Middle-earth once you’re looking for it.)

    The problem with created items is not that they are created, but the possessiveness that accompanies them, of holding onto them and saying “Mine!” at the expense of everything else. Aule delights in [i]making[/i] rather than the thing made, or controlling things after he has made them; Feanor’s problem with the Silmarils was not in making them but in valuing them so highly he was willing to kill his kin and mislead two-thirds of the Noldor into helping him on the impossible quest to get them back from Morgoth.

    Neither Frodo nor Gandalf nor Aragorn are Christ, or close to it, but all of them are Christ-like figures in various ways; Frodo as the Suffering Servant, Gandalf as the Prophet, Aragorn as the King whose hands bring healing.

  25. #25 Squirrelloid
    March 31, 2009

    On Luddism:
    On the technology = evil discussion, the palantir are most certainly vessels of corruption in the context of LotR. Sauron’s will holds sway over all of them because he captured the ithil-stone, and Aragorn could only use the palantir from isengard at grave personal risk. And of course, the palantir of minas tirith is notable for its corruption of Denethor – it even specifically misleads him as to the black fleet.

    Further, hobbits are specifically less subject to the corrupting influence of ‘technology’ (re: the one ring) because they eschew ‘technology’. Tolkien seems to think primitive knowledge like agriculture is a different kind of thing than industry, so no, the fact that hobbits farm fields and make plows doesn’t count as a use of ‘technology’ in Tolkien’s worldview.

    On religion:
    The question is not if it has religious themes – of course it does. The question really is ‘which religion?’ It is not helped by the notable similarities of christian tradition to a number of other mythological traditions, tradition Tolkien would have been familiar with.

    In Gandalf’s rebirth I see at least as much of Baldr as Christ. Specifics are off in both regards. Heck, one could also compare to Krishna, although I am less convinced that Tolkien was aware of him. Gandalf’s ‘dies’ and is returned to life ultimately because his aid is needed to defeat evil in the real world, a physical redemption more in line with the Baldr myth than with the spiritual redemption promised by Christ. And that’s really about as close as you can get for parallels.

    In Frodo’s fall and redemption i honestly see more of Odin (who sacrificed an eye for a draught of Kasvir’s blood that gave him wisdom, and hung himself for 9 days to gain knowledge of magic) than Christ. Frodo similarly sacrifices a finger to gain wisdom – admittedly a more painful and introspective wisdom than Odin gained. But conceptually – that learning true wisdom has real cost – is a very similar message, and a very non-christian one, and is identical to the Odin myth.

    One might also finger Gollum as a Loki figure. Tricky and malevolent when under his own power, whiny and grovelling when in the power of others. He is given chances to redeem himself, and ultimately he earns for himself a suitable ‘reward’ for his for his duplicity and malevolence.


    Regardless, disliking either religion or luddism is no reason not to enjoy the work. One doesn’t always have to agree with the message to enjoy how the message is explored (which also sums up my view of the movie Fight Club, for example, and a number of other works of film and literature).

  26. #26 Ruth
    April 1, 2009

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  27. #27 Tolkien fan
    May 5, 2009

    I can’t even imagine a way in which Tolkien concernes the death of western culture. I do not understand why his masterpieces are taken so seriously by religious people.

  28. #28 Edward Baldwin
    February 26, 2010

    Before continuing, I would like to note that the following concerns the content of this blog and does not constitute a personal attack in any way.

    If I have interpreted this correctly, your points can be reduced to the following:

    1. Tolkien and Tolkien’s literary content is anti-science and is fundamentally Catholic and Luddite.
    2. Therefore, Tolkien’s worldview is “deeply silly and misguided”.

    To support these assertions, you have brought forward one quotation: an exchange between Gandalf and Saruman.

    Your first point has already been responded to by several previous comments and thus, it is possible that I may be partially reiterating them here. To begin with, that one quotation hardly proves to be, as you claim, a total rejection of the scientific method and science at all. If anything, it highlights the differences between Saruman’s attempts to gain “knowledge” and those of Gandalf; Gandalf knows and is referring to the fact that there is an ethical way to go about discoveries and experimentation and a non-ethical way. Also featured is a fundamental dichotomy between Evil and Good; whereas the former would study and use what they obtain very wrongly, the latter do not. That is not to say that Good simply shuns and abstains from the exploration and usage of the scientific and technological fields; if anything the fact that Gondorian military might is reinforced by the usage of trebuchets, catapults, and relatively advanced (in the context of The Lord of the Rings) technologies proves this point. And that is not to mention, for instance, the Dwarves and their mastery of the art of (and science behind) metalwork and smithing. Indeed, there are an almost innumerable amount of examples that could be further underscored here from the defences that protected the walls of Gondolin (relatively advanced technologies) to the Elven Rings (tainted technologies not dissimilar to the One, but used for Good, not Evil, and therein lies the chief and the ultimate differentiation).

    As for the Catholicism, I will not deny that one could argue that Tolkien’s faith may have held some influence in his work. However, fudamentally and ultimately, it seems to me that Tolkien’s legendarium remains distinct from such concepts. Once again, there are a myriad of examples of how Tolkien carefully avoided Biblical references such as Sam being derived from Samwise, not Samuel. Furthermore, it seems to me that the claim of Gandalf being a Christ-like figure is quite spurious; Gandalf is not in Middle-earth to sacrifice himself for the sins of the Free Peoples; rather, his purpose is that of an angelic messenger who must unite and rally the Free Peoples to fight against the Evil of their time, and thus guide the victory against Evil not through force, but by advice and counsel. Unlike C.S. Lewis, who blatantly wrote Christian allegory into The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien most certainly does not write allegory and has always disliked it (as he states himself in the Preface to The Lord of the Rings). Rather, he writes applicability; he conveys a message that can be applied to different situations at different times, as opposed to allegory which is simply the presentation of one situation in a modified form. Ultimately, Tolkien’s universe is distinct from any other and is most certainly not, as you say, inherently religious.

    In fact, what actually is deeply silly and very misguided is to attempt to find any single, particular meaning or association (Ex. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-science book, The Lord of the Rings is a Luddite book, The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic book) for Tolkien’s works. Though I say this as respectfully as possible, without any intent of a personal attack, such attempts are doomed to fail by their inherent shortsightedness and gross over-simplification.

    In view of all of the evidence, with all due respect, it seems to me that your assertions of The Lord of the Rings being “Anti-science, Luddite, Catholic, religious, etc.” have been, to say the least, premature and rash. The evidence against such being the case is significantly and substantially clear. The Lord of the Rings is not in the least, for instance, anti-science; it is not an exponent of Christian values, it is not a proponent of Luddite values; it expounds universal moral and good values.

    The only thing that is silly, misguided and foolish in the extreme is to attempt to shortsightedly grossly over-simplify and to rashly associate The Lord of the Rings with anything which it is not.

    Perhaps you should review the texts again and withhold any premature commenting until you are sure that you have understood them.

  29. #29 David
    October 6, 2010

    Tolkien’s Middle earth works are not in any major way influenced by catholicism! If you Americans knew anything about Celtic, Gaelic and Norse mythology you would realize how asinine making such a linkage is. I concede that in his writing style he may have had some monotheistic influence because he wrote it in early 20th century England which in itself ofcoarse will lead to certain comparisons with christianity but in the main Tolkiens magnificent works are largely a pantheistic interpretation of the theologies of Nordic and Germanic Western Europe, Eru is the one yes but the Ainur are gods too. You would be far wiser dropping the links to catholisism and finding information on the early Welsh/Celtic gods such as in the ‘Mabinogion’ and the Nordic writings. Please stop forcing your American christian stamp on European literature, if you want to do that with Mark Twain so be it but please leave ours alone. Thank you.

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