Apparently there’s an article on Medium that’s been going around saying that Lord of the Rings isn’t Christian. Also, when I was in a TheOneRing.net group, I posted a photo I liked and out of (seemingly to me) nowhere someone tried to argue the same thing.
I responded by saying that yes, Lord of the Rings is Christian, but his works are definitely not limited to people who share the Christian belief.
Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, though it has been thought of in terms that he was “personally” Catholic and didn’t let it influence his works. However, I still think it did – whether it was intentional or not.
For all you video-preferred learners out there, the video versions are up from the new Youtube Channel below!
Part 1 explores the lore and what Tolkien said about his works, including Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Part 2 explores Tolkien’s life and values, and how he developed them.
Disclaimer: It might take more than just a post and two videos to really back up my opinion (or really just what Tolkien wrote about Lord of the Rings being Christian). If you’re still stuck, I recommend checking out his letters, for they are full of information on why and how Lord of the Rings had Christian influences.
However, I don’t want to say that you absolutely HAVE to be Christian to read LOTR, but if you
Table of Contents
- For all you video-preferred learners out there, the video versions are up from the new Youtube Channel below!
- “In the fantasy world of Middle-earth, there is no religion.”
- “Tolkien never said publicly that [the Lord of the Rings] had a religious origin.”
- “A single letter [clarified] Tolkien was a ‘Christian Writer.'”
- “They ignore context.” and, “Tolkien became Catholic because of his mother.”
- “As a young adult, Tolkien all but apostatized.” and “Tolkien continued to nurse a lot of doubts.”
- “Did Tolkien believe in the Bible?” and “The efforts involve a fundamental problem.”
- The bottom line – is Lord of the Rings Christian?
- Why should we care? Why does it matter?
“In the fantasy world of Middle-earth, there is no religion.”
So the article opens up with saying that there wasn’t any elements of religion in Lord of the Rings – like there weren’t any prayers. Sure, Lord of the Rings seemed devoid of prayer, but we do see some symbolism in there (like Lembas and the Eucharist, and some moral opinions as well).
He also backs up a 2013 paper, saying that it combines both Christian and Pagan ideas. I wonder what they meant by that – like The Silmarillion how there is the Valar and Maiar. However, the ‘gods’ that were mentioned mainly alluded to the idea of angels and saints.
Since the Valar and Maiar each were skilled in their own craft – but wouldn’t be after everything as a Christian God would.
Also, there’s an interesting point he makes in saying that it doesn’t seem to have a lot of practical Christian elements such as prayers – or rather, none at all.
While I do acknowledge that Eru Ilúvatar, the name, was not as explicit in Lord of the Rings as it is in the Silmarillion, there’s also a difference in scope between those texts. The Silmarillion was written in a way that is ‘canonical,’ telling of the beginning of time. The Lord of the Rings is written in novel form, focusing on a tale.
“Tolkien never said publicly that [the Lord of the Rings] had a religious origin.”
Yes – it wasn’t allegorical – but he did mention the difference between applicability and allegory. Allegory is when things are directly referenced to something – when you read LOTR, you wouldn’t see a “purposed domination of” aspects of the Christian or Catholic worldview.
Applicability, on the other hand, is when something is inspired by something but is not a direct correlation to something and allows the reader to interpret what it is alluding to. And even with that in mind, the amount of times something in his books alludes to the Catholic Faith is just overwhelming.
While they don’t have to be allegorical, it is highly unlikely that a single piece of work can have absolutely nothing to do with what the author has seen or read before.
“A single letter [clarified] Tolkien was a ‘Christian Writer.'”
It’s ironic that here, he argues that Tolkien did have a Christian faith – though it was mainly in that letter. He later makes this point on that “Christian fans read this as a slam dunk,” instead of paying attention to context.
In that same letter, though, Tolkien says that Lord of the Rings was “unconsciously Catholic,” after facing issues with the priest. Here, I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, as maybe he was trying to argue that just because something is “Christian,” doesn’t mean it is completely and wholly good and pure and shouldn’t be viewed as a “slam dunk.”
However, that quote was only the beginning. It was “unconsciously so at first, and consciously in the revision.” Yes, there may be a lot of things that are viewed as “slam dunks” in regards to Christianity, but that’s beside the point.
The main issue with this argument is that Tolkien doesn’t only clarify his Christian and Catholic beliefs in this letter. I could even argue and say that Lord of the Rings (as this is the subject of this post) and also, for example, the entire Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is a Christian read.
While there are some things he alludes to that seems to take more of a moral stance (and can arguably apply to other religious practices as well), he has also said that, for instance, Lembas reminds him of the Eucharist.
This article, however, explains how Tolkien wrote in a 1953 letter that Galadriel was the ‘Virgin Mary’ or resembled her – and then everyone started using it to claim Christianity in the entire LOTR plot. However, I don’t see anything wrong with the ideal that certain things remind him of the faith that the book is supposed to entail, or how it’s supposed to argue that Lord of the Rings isn’t Christian.
“They ignore context.” and, “Tolkien became Catholic because of his mother.”
I think the letter he was talking about was letter #142, where Fr. Robert Murray, S.J., a close friend of Tolkien’s and a priest, though using context clues, it is clear that he was giving some friendly advice and criticism towards Tolkien’s earlier drafts. He’s asking how it’s going to appeal to other people, or maybe to more directly pinpoint the aspects that he was alluding to.
As for converting because of his mother and the bit about St. Newman, I fail to see what that has to do with the argument that Lord of the Rings isn’t a Christian work. However, it did say that Tolkien was heavily influenced by his mother’s parish, which had strong ties to St. Newman. And He was able to get poor orphans (like Tolkien at the time) to get a good education – which eventually aided in his writings.
“As a young adult, Tolkien all but apostatized.” and “Tolkien continued to nurse a lot of doubts.”
Mr. Poletti wants to make the argument by saying that at one point, Tolkien almost gave up Catholicism (but later returned), never visited Rome or made an effort to study theology, and “deeply loved Santa,” linking to The Father Christmas Letters.
Then later, he mentions two things, that Tolkien disliked many priests and he viewed the Eucharist with great affection. However, I think Mr. Poletti especially took these two points out of context, as those points were just based off Tolkien’s experience of being Catholic. The issues he faced weren’t issues of belief, but more about his perceptions.
Especially concerning the part about the Eucharist, I think was mainly based on both his experience as a practicing Catholic and a fact that Catholics experience the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
But he also didn’t really reference to where in saying that Tolkien “disliked most priests.”
Also, in the next section, Poletti remarks that Tolkien continued to nurse a lot of doubts. However, if he did, I would find it kind of comforting that someone who is known to be very devout still experiences it from time to time, so it’s kind of like just being with me in the situation. Referencing to the 1963 letter – quoting that:
I think it’s more about the conceptual idea of how easy it is to have doubts, since the devil is at work and doesn’t want us to believe.
Then, Poletti continues to say that it was all about his mother. It was all for her that Tolkien was Catholic. Which I also fail to see how that solidifies his argument, since God can call people in different ways, and for Tolkien it was through his mother. It could be a mode of grieving, but it could also be viewed to him as a glimpse of a hidden blessing through some grievous moments he might’ve not been able to notice otherwise.
“Did Tolkien believe in the Bible?” and “The efforts involve a fundamental problem.”
Finally, Poletti makes this case that maybe Tolkien didn’t really believe in the Bible – referencing his concept of the “true myth” when referring to Christianity. However, I happen to think he’s mainly drawing a connection, by saying (either from a gut feeling or experience) that he feels it is true. It’s mainly saying that something can be known to be a myth, but that is experienceable in reality as well.
Then, Tolkien coins the term “eucatastrophe,” which involves a sudden glimpse of truth, and a sudden relief, in letter # 89.
And after that, Tolkien clarifies (in the claim that the Gospels are the greatest Fairy Story) that he doesn’t view it as merely a fairy story, but the greatest, with a moving story that is consistent with his nature. This term was inspired by a sermon he had heard one day at Mass.
As for the next section about the fundamental problem – it will be hard to find a book in general that doesn’t have issues with writing. This is because writers are human, and will have issues surrounding their writing skills, even if they are brilliant writers. It will also be hard to cover every single aspect that it was meant to cover, much like it was hard for this post to cover every single aspect that it needed to cover.
I’m not sure whether it comes off as “just look harder,” but it seems he’s trying to look for something that is just going to be tough to come across in order to pen it as a Christian work.
The bottom line – is Lord of the Rings Christian?
In the beginning I wondered if Poletti is more trying to say that Lord of the Rings doesn’t belong in the Christian genre in the bookstore or that Lord of the Rings isn’t Christian at all. However, it seems he’s trying to argue both ways.
Also especially as it gets closer to the end, I fail to see how he’s making the argument that Lord of the Rings isn’t Christian, especially as he makes a few points and doesn’t expand on them much. Like the ones about how Tolkien’s mother introduces him to the faith, or that whole section on how Tolkien “nurses a lot of doubts.”
Especially the last point – when he’s trying to reference The Silmarillion as one that’s about all these ‘gods’ when Christians are only supposed to worship one God, which is true. However, it goes back to my point earlier in the first section about his claim that Middle-earth has no religion – and how the Valar were mainly specific in their craft like the angels and saints (unlike a Christian God who is skilled in all things).
Why should we care? Why does it matter?
Obviously, it doesn’t matter in the sense that we have to know RIGHT NOW, or have to believe in a certain faith to enjoy Tolkien’s works. We can certainly enjoy them without having a Christian faith, but my personal opinion is that it enhances the experience. It also not only enhances our understanding of each character and why they fit into the story.