Whenever people express themselves, it is impossible for them not to shed some light of their personal background and experience onto their target, whether it is art, prose, poetry, film, or discourse. In reading The Lord of the Rings, one could easily grasp the truth that J.R.R. Tolkien’s general background, including his religion (Roman Catholic) influenced the work, but it can also be seen that it took a major, possibly deliberate, role in the crafting the general aura of the epic. Upon further examination, we find that the themes, bases of character and race, and plot structure are overwhelmingly Christian.
While many call The Lord of the Rings a simple “good vs. evil” story, even that aspect of the work has immeasurable depth. The roles of good and evil in the story are never the usual hackneyed, monolithic types that one would be so used to seeing; many times those on the same side oppose one another with reasonable motives for doing so. It is in such a fertile and realistic framework of human action that Tolkien can plant the seeds of his religiously-inspired notion of good. For example, the realm of the hobbits, the Shire, is an existence embodying the virtues of a simple life, one of Christianity’s more emphatic morals, and might also be Middle-Earth’s version of a garden of Eden, though with many more inhabitants. When analyzing the races, we see that the elves have almost a direct allegorical link to Judeo-Christian angels, though made corporeal and destructible (though not easily, as they can only die in two ways, a broken heart, or physical slaughter), a connection brought to light in J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle Earth. Indeed, Heaven itself is represented in the book as the Undying Lands, the realm of the gods. Tolkien writes:
…Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance in the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him … the grey rain-curtain turned to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (ROTK1007)
The characteristics of the realm are very much heavenly in at least the aesthetic aspects (omnipresent light, white features, and choruses in the background) and essentially so in the fact that it is the home of the pantheon of Middle-Earth. One paramount characteristic
of Tolkien’s religiously-inspired notion of good is the fact that it is the origin and basis of all things and evil is sprung, not out of creation, but perversion of that which has been created. This attitude is analogous to Christianity’s view and is most effectively displayed in the story of how the Orcs were Elves once, but taken by evil forces and twisted into their present form. This theme is again found in the Orcs’ language, “It is said that they had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking” (Return of the King p.1105). This example can clearly be related to the story of the downfall of Eden in that it, too, was created without flaw but was then maligned by an alien force.
Those perverted good things also hold very Christian sentiments insofar as the nature of evil. The central tenet of Tolkien’s view of evil is that it is completely void of all powers of creation and can only pervert, tempt, or mislead that which is good. A prime example of the alluring, though shallow, power of evil is Saruman’s chief power, his voice: “Suddenly, another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an
enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard … Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice
speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke within them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves” (TTT 564). Without difference, one can see that in the entire epic, no mention of evil’s creations is ever made, only the perversion of good.
In analyzing locales, the opposite end of the spectrum from the Shire would be the realm of Mordor, a waterless, ash-strewn wasteland whose visage is dominated by a towering volcano, Mt. Doom. The briefest glimpse shows that it is Hell on Middle-Earth and at its center (or lowest circle) is Mt. Doom, the very place that Frodo, bearing a Christ-like burden, must go to save all souls. As explained in J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-Earth, Christian inspiration is again seen in the omnipresence of evil in Tolkien’s work. The fact that it cannot be entirely fended off and is always present, even if on the fringe, is analogous to Lucifer’s never-ending attempts at temptation. The best symbol of this is the eye of Sauron, an ever-present incarnation of the main villain, which can see anything happening anywhere.
An important trait of Christianity’s teachings is that of making the personal effort to ward off evil and become a better person; in short, Christianity values free-will. Once again, The Lord of the Rings demonstrates Christian tendencies as Ralph C. Wood noted, “In a scene that one can hardly imagine happening in C.S. Lewis, Frodo’s free will is completely consumed: he can do no other than answer the summons of Sauron. Only the strange providence at work in greedy Gollum can deliver Frodo from such enormous
evil” (332). It is evident that the removal of free will from a being is tantamount to utter evil in Tolkien’s mind, as being an automaton is slavery.
Aside from direct Christian relations in the text, Tolkien weaves the work with many morals and values belonging to the Christian belief system, a few of which are anachronistic to the “time-period” of the story. Wood holds this to be true, saying, “Tolkien practiced the method of indirection, quietly imbuing his pre-Christian epic with concerns that are obliquely rather than overtly Christian” (318). Indeed, if one were to read a Classic, such as The Iliad, the moral differences would be glaring.
One theme which many claim is the main focus of the story is hope, which is easily construed as analogous to faith, as both are attitudes that keep the head held high under pressure but rely on no concrete evidence. In the short entitled J.R.R. Tolkien- Creator of Middle-Earth on the Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition DVD it is noted that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien creates döppelgangers who never meet, are under the same initial situation, and die within minutes of each other, though they take completely opposite paths in the face of despair. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor is the head of a kingdom under threat and has just learned his son, Boromir, is dead, falls into despair and eventually commits suicide when his nation needs him most. Théoden, the king of Rohan, is also the head of a kingdom under threat, has also learned of a son’s death, Théodred, but instead uses his son’s death as fuel to commit himself to the forces working against Mordor, and dies in battle after nearly sealing victory in battle to save the city Denethor abandoned. Such a juxtaposition of action clearly shows a Christian theme: faith/hope in the face of despair.
Reconciliation is another such virtue in the Christian tradition of “Love thy enemy”. In The Lord of the Rings the proponents of Tolkien’s reconciliation fable are two members of the Fellowship: the Elf prince, Legolas, and the Dwarf lord, Gimli. Their two races have nothing but enmity for each other, but through the toils and trials of the company, the two bond, and eventually become comrades. Tolkien writes, in a timeline in the Appendices at the end or the book, “1541…Then Legolas built a grey ship in Ithilien, and sailed down Anduin and so over Sea: and with him, it is said, went Gimli the dwarf” (1072). Over the sea they sailed to the Undying lands, the resting place of over half the Fellowship, such was their bond.
As a scholar of Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian literature, and as a writer of a pre-Christian epic, Tolkien would have been right in place writing The Lord of the Rings with pagan values. However he does not stick true to the morals of the stories of some of his most beloved stories and instead inserts his own religious view. Wood hits upon one precise example,”…martyrdom became the Christian substitute for pagan courage – the willingness not to kill, but to be killed. Thus does the willingness of the Company of Nine to be led like sheep to Sauron’s slaughter make them far more Christian than pagan in their courage”(330). The pure anachronism of this attitude is shocking in its modernity, as it is really reminiscent of a 1900-era philosophy of pacifism, and it could be said that it might have troubled Tolkien in this respect, a thought which only reinforces how strongly he wanted to imbue his epic with his religion.
Yet another anachronistic Christian theme that takes hold in the text is mercy. This has the best example in a moral lesson from Gandalf when Frodo exclaims,”…What
a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature (Gollum), when he had a chance!” To which Gandalf replies: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well-rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the ring so. With Pity” (58). Tolkien continues not only the theme of mercy, but takes the aforementioned passage and runs with it, eventually remarking that were it not for the merciful actions of Bilbo, the eventual victory over Sauron may not have come to pass.
It is that kind of thinking, the vision of the universe as a contiguous, uninterrupted whole, which is the chief characteristic of Tolkien’s personal religious views which are found in his works. Unlike his colleague and close friend, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien profoundly disliked the idea of a set-in-stone hierarchical system of divinity. This view can be found throughout The Lord of the Rings, especially in the views of magic. Where in much of fantasy literature magic is blunt, developed as a skill, and is inherently otherworldly, in Tolkien’s work it is subtle, and springing from the fabric of existence. A perfect instance of this attitude is shown in the scene in which the Fellowship is given the elven cloaks on their departure from Lothlorien: “’Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder. ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments…Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all things under the twilight of Lorien that we love’” (FTR 361). Make no mistake, these are not ordinary cloaks either, as they can hide their wearers, but in any other fantasy literature, these would undoubtedly be called magical, and it is testament to Tolkien’s strong belief in unbroken reality that explains his
reasoning for including passages such as these. His reluctance to declare something or other magical is obvious when reading the text as such connotations are rarely, if ever,
used, and even when Gandalf or Saruman or any other “angelic” personalities exert supernatural powers, they are not handled bombastically, but rather as something inborn and natural which can simply issue forth from their will. Walter F. Hartt relates that Tolkien’s view of the link between divinity and creation was like a “splintered light” (27) in which the two are neither above or below one another, rather, creation and sub-divinity are just fragmented light from the same source.
A spiritual belief as well as one of Tolkien’s signature literary devices is a term that he coined: eucatastrophe. Jeffrey Mallinson elaborates on this topic: “It is ‘a sudden glimpse of the truth or underlying reality.’ For Tolkien, this underlying reality is the Christian gospel” (9). He also cites a vital view of Tolkien’s, that “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history”. This is central to understanding the meaning in Tolkien’s relationship with the motif. The primary eucatastrophe he uses in The Lord of the Rings is the climax of the story, in which the ring is finally destroyed, just at a moment when nearly every major character is in mortal peril in a last-ditch battle. Where some could (and have) criticized the technique as merely a fancy version of deus ex machina, that literary tool is the heart of eucatastrophe, as the plot’s tension is structured to swell incredibly at the point just before the climax and the unseen or unexpected catalyst sparks the all-encompassing turn of events, much as Tolkien viewed Christ’s existence, and more specifically, His death and rebirth.
After all these enlightening examinations of The Lord of the Rings, it seems almost painfully obvious to what degree Tolkien imbued the epic with his cultural, canonical and personal religious beliefs. At points when reading the text, one could indeed have no knowledge whatsoever of Tolkien, the man, and still be able to rightfully guess many of his own traits, such as his spirituality. To some degree, one must disagree with Tolkien when he insists that his work is not allegorical, as it seems only that he took the Bible, scattered the events and themes, then rebuilt it with little addition, simply a different design.
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