The Lord & Lady of the Rings
The Hidden Presence of Tolkien’s Catholicism in The Lord of the Rings
by Stratford Caldecott
With the release in December 2001 of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of a three-movie series based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, public interest in the Oxford don whose private hobby has entranced millions has been rekindled. Yet how many of those who see the film will detect its original author’s Christian inspiration?
For once, this is not a criticism that can be directed against Hollywood for having bowdlerized the text. The author himself, though no admirer of popular American culture, did his best long before his own death in 1973 (as we know from his published Letters) to disguise or extirpate virtually all references to religious practice, and most to religious belief, in his imaginary world. And yet there remains a strong religious presence throughout the written work. Whatever we may think of the movie (and I have not seen it at the time of writing), this hidden Christian presence is worth investigating.
Tolkien’s friend, drinking partner, and fellow “Inkling” C. S. Lewis is well known as a Christian convert and a writer of apologetics. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism is less familiar to us, partly because he did not see himself as a religious writer in the same sense. He did not feel called to enter the lists as a writer on Christian themes, let alone as a theologian or philosopher of religion. Nevertheless, with the posthumous publication in 1981 of his Letters, this side of his life was exposed to view, and it became clear that Catholic belief and sensibility permeated every aspect of his life1—including the writing of the fantasies that were so derided by many of his academic colleagues and that have proved so enduringly popular.
The Letters make interesting reading, also, because of the close integration that is evident there between the author’s faith and his intelligence. Pope John Paul II once famously said, “A faith that does not become culture is a faith that has not been accepted in its fullness, which has not been totally reflected upon, or faithfully lived.” Tolkien may not have been a professional theologian, may not even have seen himself as a religious thinker, but in him we see faith becoming culture, as I hope to demonstrate.
Creation & Temptation
The Lord of the Rings is not a book about religion, but it is the expression of a religious soul working under God. It is an act of “sub-creation,” as Tolkien put it in his famous essay “On Fairy-stories”: It involves the creation of an imaginary world as much as possible along the lines God might have used, had he decided to create it.2 At one point Tolkien describes this as “a tribute to the infinity of [God’s] potential variety.”3
Creativity is indeed one of the major themes of Tolkien’s fiction, including many of the minor stories such as “Leaf by Niggle,” which will not be examined in this essay. The vast, rambling literary tapestry that forms the backdrop for Tolkien’s major work, much of which was only published posthumously in The Unfinished Tales, The Silmarillion, and the multi-volume History of Middle Earth after collation and editing by his son Christopher Tolkien, begins with a creation myth: the “Ainulindalë.” The creation of the Ainur (Angels) by Ilúvatar, the One God, is followed by the proposal of a “musical theme,” which the Ainur then embellish. One of their number, Melkor, jealous of the creative powers of the One, attempts to subvert the theme. Ilúvatar shows the music to the Ainur in the form of a vision of earthly history, and finally brings it into actuality. Entering into it, the Ainur become Valar—gods or guardians—and descend to play the parts they have chosen within it, contending from the outset against the chaos introduced by the dark Angel.
In an unfinished letter,4 Tolkien describes this as “differing” somewhat from most Christian accounts of the Creation, in that the Angelic Fall takes place before the creation of the material world, and consequently a tendency to evil is able to enter into the world “already when the Let it Be was spoken” by Ilúvatar. However, Tolkien has no intention of writing in contradiction to Christian orthodoxy. He is a devout and well-instructed Catholic, a daily communicant. Whether the Angelic Fall takes place before or after the creation of matter (and the Christian tradition is, after all, ambiguous or silent on this point), Tolkien has no doubt that evil is the result of free decisions by a created nature that was good at the outset. Furthermore, while the evil that is done by Melkor may destroy the original design of the Creator and mar the creation at every level, the eventual victory of Ilúvatar is certain, for even the work of the Fallen will somehow prove “a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.”5 In Tolkien’s perspective, history is a “long defeat,” but it ends in a great healing, when “the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright.”
The motif of creation and temptation continues within the history of Arda (the Earth). After the coming into the world of the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, the Elves, a second great Fall takes place. The elvish craftsman Fëanor fashions three great jewels called “Silmarils” and places within them a portion of the light from the two Trees that at that time illuminate the world. The Trees are subsequently destroyed by the Evil One, but Fëanor refuses to yield up the jewels, which alone can heal the Trees and restore their light. Subsequent history revolves around the fate of the Silmarils. They are stolen by Morgoth, who is pursued by Fëanor and his sons. The quest for the jewels and the conflicts it creates among the Elves themselves are the engine that drives much of the early history. The events of subsequent ages, after the jewels themselves are lost in the fires of the earth, in the deeps of the sea, and among the stars, are an echo and a consequence of these great events—the continuation (as Sam observes to Frodo near the end of their particular adventure) of one story that goes on and on, as the free will of creatures is caught up in a music that was conceived before the beginning of time.
Obviously, the story is fiction. Yet the texture of it is somehow faithful to reality. Tolkien wanted to write realistically, in the sense that he was imitating and describing, not the way the world is, but the way God works in the world. Furthermore, while Tolkien’s aversion to allegory is well known, he definitely viewed the symbolism of the story as a way of communicating truth. He did not want to invent something entirely original, but to discover and explore a possible world; and he knew that for a world to be possible it has to reflect in its own substance and design, under whatever marvelous and unexpected forms, the same divine Wisdom and Goodness that we find in this one.6
Beyond the Circles of the World
In 1971, near the end of his life, Tolkien wrote of The Lord of the Rings that “It was written slowly and with great care for detail, and finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief period in History, and on a small part of our Middle-Earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.” On one level he was consciously inventing things; on another he was discovering the nature of the real world, “our” Middle-earth, as he says here. And he was continually puzzling about the relationship between the two.
In Tolkien’s vision, time flows ever downward, and successive Golden Ages are lost in the mists of memory. The Elves manage to preserve islands of unfallen beauty for awhile only by the power of the Three Rings, forged in an age after the loss of the Simarils. Their hearts draw them towards their true home in the Far West, and the time of Men is fast approaching. Yet The Lord of the Rings does, as Tolkien says, evoke a sense of hope, and perhaps even the Christian virtue of hope.
The book is set in a prehistoric period long before the Incarnation, yet because Tolkien had tried to construct his world in a way that would faithfully echo the wisdom of the true Creator, and although “the Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write,”8 he had to ensure that the Incarnation of the Son of God would make sense within such a world. He even at one time constructed a fragmentary prophecy to this effect. The prophecy states that Ilúvatar will one day enter personally into his creation and heal it from within. It may be found in the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” which turns precisely on the question of hope.9 Finrod speaks of a kind of hope called Estel.
Estel, then, means trust in God.10
Of the beginnings of things Tolkien wrote a great deal more than of their ending. I have mentioned the creation myth he constructed, which is extremely beautiful. It is more elaborate than the biblical account, but not in conflict with it. I suppose even the central importance he gives to song and music (as does C. S. Lewis, if you recall Aslan “singing” Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew) may have been suggested to him by those famous lines in the Book of Job: “Where were you . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:4–7) in the Authorized Version, or “when the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody” in the Douay-Rheims.
The Gift of Death
But one important divergence from the Christian description of reality should be noted here, for it may appear to undermine the novel’s “implicit orthodoxy.” Writing in 1954, Tolkien himself is not sure whether or not it could be construed as heretical.11 It is the idea that death is not a punishment for sin, but a great gift and an inherent part of the nature of Man. In The Silmarillion (which may be viewed as an extension of the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and essential to its deeper appreciation), Tolkien gives an account of the Creator’s thoughts as he plans the destiny of Men and Elves. He wills “that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else. . . .” And
By 1958 he had come up with this justification for his apparent departure from the traditional intepretation of the Genesis account of the origin of death, which might at first sound rather feeble:
But then he goes on to make a deeper point, which for me illustrates the way his fiction, though not consciously constructed according to a theological template, becomes a medium for the uncovering of theological and spiritual truth. He writes:
The Order of Grace & the Virgin’s Humility
I have argued that The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally orthodox in intention and spirit. It is permeated with a sense of eternity, of the objective order of good and evil, and of an all-wise Providence: This is all part of that “forgotten sunlight” that serves to awaken us from the sleep of materialism. The spirit of courtesy that we see in Aragorn and Faramir, the respect for women and the determination to protect the weak, the virtues of courage and fortitude and prudence and justice that shine in these noble characters, are patterns of goodness that were learned from the gospel.
This is a world, therefore, in which the Incarnation makes glorious sense. It is a world in which the action of divine grace is very evident: as much so, one might argue, as in the very different fictional works of Flannery O’Connor.
It would be easy, of course, to point out, as many have already (and rightly) done, types and symbols of Christ himself in The Lord of the Rings. Aspects of Christ are present in Frodo (who sacrifices himself for the sake of his world), in Gandalf (who dies and returns from death), and in Aragorn (the true and hidden king).
But Tolkien was also a Roman Catholic Christian, and in this final part of my essay I want to explore another theme that is characteristic of that Roman Catholicism which was so dear to him. It is an aspect of Roman Catholicism that many (including Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis) find alienating, namely, its veneration of the Virgin Mary. But as Tolkien’s Catholic faith was profound and instinctive, it would have been as hard for him to separate the Virgin Mary’s presence from Christ’s as to separate Our Lord from Scripture or the Church.
“I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his Jesuit friend Robert Murray in 1953, just before the first volume of The Lord of the Rings appeared, “and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”14 If this statement is accurate, it is somewhat remarkable. Tolkien’s novel is permeated with beauty, from the natural beauties of landscape and forest, mountains and streams, to the moral beauty of heroism and integrity, friendship and honesty. In what sense could “Our Lady” (to use her Catholic title) be the foundation of Tolkien’s perceptions and understanding of these things? Would this in any case not detract from his relationship to Our Lord, who is surely the true foundation of beauty, as he is of truth and goodness? The Letters themselves do not help us much with this question, except indirectly. It is clear that Tolkien’s devotion to Our Lord was also profound, and in his mind there could be no conflict between the two. But he did not reflect here explicitly on points that might concern an Evangelical reader, for he took the lack of conflict for granted.15
How may we best approach this theme? One way is by first recalling some words the Virgin Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke (1:52): “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” Tolkien’s novel is about many things—including, as we have seen, the fearful mystery of death, the nostalgia for paradise, and the temptations associated with power. But as he himself states, it is particularly about “the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.”16 The Hobbits are the representatives of this humility, and they are raised through adventure and self-sacrifice into the company of princes.17 In his essay “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien cites with approval Andrew Lang’s comment: “He who would enter into the Kingdom of Faerie should have the heart of a little child.”
This quality of innocence and childlikeness, which was reintroduced into the world by Christ and taught in the Sermon on the Mount, is one of the most marked characteristics of the good Hobbits in Tolkien’s tale. It is perhaps one of the main reasons for their universal appeal, and for the wholesomeness and gentleness that makes the book so continually refreshing to the spirit—so much so that many of us return to it year after year, to wash away the encrusted grime of an older, wearier, and more cynical age.
The first way in which “Our Lady” of Tolkien’s Catholicism is present in The Lord of the Rings is, therefore, in the form of humility, which occupies the central place in the hierarchy of virtues within Tolkien’s cosmos. In the Catholic tradition, the spirit of childlikeness and innocence is associated particularly with the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not because she was its source, since innocence (like existence itself) clearly comes from God, and even the human possibility of it has to be won back for us by Christ on the Cross. It is associated with her in Catholic teaching because she is its primary vessel: the human container, the sacred “chalice” as it were, into which the waters of grace were poured, once they had been released by the sacrificial Passion of Our Lord. She is thus viewed as more than a symbol or biblical “type” of the Church; she is its first member, and indeed its most perfect member, having been preserved (by anticipation of her freely accepted role in the Incarnation) from all stain and damage of sin, in order to become a suitable Mother to the divine Child and all the subsequent sons and daughters of the Church.18
There is a second way in which the Virgin Mary is present, and that is through her reflections in certain feminine characters, specifically Galadriel and Elbereth.19 Galadriel is one of the pivotal elvish characters: Bearer of one of the three Rings and preserver of the land of Lothlorien, Tolkien himself calls her “unstained” (a word that Catholics normally only use of the Virgin Mary), adding that “she had committed no evil deeds.”20 In another letter he wrote: “I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary.”21
Yet the workings and reworkings of his manuscript reveal an ambiguity, or an evolution, for in earlier drafts Galadriel was a leader in the rebellion of the Elves against the Valar, the world’s angelic guardians. From this rebellion Tolkien obviously later felt the need to absolve her. In the Unfinished Tales, we find a chapter containing the “History of Galadriel and Celeborn,” in which Christopher Tolkien records the “late and partly illegible note” that is “the last writing of my father’s on the subject . . . set down in the last month of his life.” In this revised history, which he intended to incorporate in the next version of The Silmarillion, Galadriel is not at all involved in the rebellion of the Elves but indeed opposed it, and was caught up in the departure from Aman to Middle-earth through no fault of her own. Thus she was morally as well as “physically” equipped to be the elvish leader in Middle-earth of resistance to Sauron. We see here, I think, the pressure of the Marian archetype in Tolkien’s imagination on the development of the character of Galadriel.
Not quite “immaculate” (without sin), then, in the official version, but to the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, and even to the Dwarf Gimli (who asks for the parting gift of a hair from her head, which he intends to enshrine within imperishable crystal), Galadriel is nevertheless a vision of wisdom, beauty, and grace, of light untarnished.
Galadriel, however, remains an earthly figure. In Roman Catholic devotion and dogma, Mary, having been assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life, has long been venerated as Queen of Heaven and “Star of the Sea.” We find this cosmic aspect of the Marian archetype expressed in the person of Galadriel’s own heavenly patroness, Elbereth, Queen of the Stars, who plays the role in Tolkien’s legendarium of transmitting light from the heavenly places. It is to Elbereth that the Elves sing the following invocation:
Tolkien would have been familiar with one of the most popular Catholic hymns from his childhood, the tone and mood of which are markedly close to those of Tolkien’s song to Elbereth:22
Light & Incarnation
There is a third way in which the Virgin Mary’s presence would be clearly noticed by Catholics in The Lord of the Rings, and it is under the symbol of light. Galadriel’s parting gift to Frodo is a phial containing light from the Morning Star. As one might expect, from the key role this gift is to play in the story, it is a highly symbolic gesture. Not only does it create a further link between Galadriel and Elbereth the “Star-Kindler,” but it also establishes an important connection to the great saga of the Silmarils, which I mentioned earlier. For the Morning Star, in Tolkien’s cosmos, is the light shining from the Silmaril bound upon the brow of Eärendil, the father of Elrond, after he is sent by the Valar to sail the heavens and “keep watch upon the ramparts of the sky” following the defeat and exile of Morgoth.23 It is this light, from an age before the Sun and Moon, that shines in the phial that Frodo carries away from Lothlorien, and which aids him in the conflict with the giant spider Shelob, a creature of darkness who is herself a descendant of Ungoliant, the destroyer of the Two Trees.
Light shining in darkness, representing the life, grace, and creative action of God, is a theme we find in the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, and it is at the very heart of Tolkien’s writing.24 To a Catholic such as Tolkien, who believes Mary to be the universal mediatrix of that grace, she is present implicitly wherever her Son is present; that is, wherever grace is present in the world. For Tolkien, then, the light of the Silmaril, which beautifies whoever wears it, and which is carried by Frodo into the darkness of Mordor, is a reminder of the beauty of the “first creation” before the Fall, and a symbolic anticipation of the new creation that would begin with the Incarnation. For Catholics, the Virgin Mary has all the beauty lost by Eve, the “Mother of the living,” and is therefore the Mother of the world to come.
To a puzzled non-Christian, who tells him that he has created a world “in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp,”25 Tolkien replies:
The final example of Mary’s presence in The Lord of the Rings comes close to the end of the book, when the Ring has been destroyed and Sauron’s work undone. The Ringbearer has fulfilled his mission. As Frodo lies in bed recovering from the ordeal, Gandalf happens to mention the date on which the world’s salvation was achieved and the Dark Lord destroyed. In Gondor, he says, “the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King. He has tended you, and now he awaits you. You shall eat and drink with him. When you are ready I will lead you to him.”
In our world, Tolkien’s “Primary World,” March 25 is the Christian feast day of the Annunciation. It used to be called Lady Day, and was indeed the first day of the year. It is, of course, exactly nine months before Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, December 25—itself the date on which The Fellowship of the Ring is said to have set out from Rivendell. In our world, March 25 is the day when Christ was conceived, celebrated with readings that describe the Virgin Mary’s “yes” to God (Luke 1:38).27
Why choose this date for the destruction of the Ring? Well, think what the Ring represents. The Ring of Power exemplifies the dark magic of the corrupted will, the assertion of self in disobedience to God. It appears to give freedom, but its true function is to enslave the wearer to the Fallen Angel. It corrodes the human will of the wearer, rendering him increasingly “thin” and unreal; indeed, its gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity.
You could say the Ring is sin itself: tempting and seemingly harmless to begin with, increasingly hard to give up and corrupting in the long run. Its destruction, therefore, is a type or figure of the great reversal of sin begun at the Annunciation when Mary welcomed the Word of God into our world. Her fiat, “Let it be to me according to your word,” overturns the human refusal of God’s will that we call Original Sin.28 That sin also resulted in a kind of invisibility, as Adam hid from the Lord in the garden of Eden: “And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, ‘Where art thou?’” (Gen. 3:9).
Beatitudes & Magnificat
In the National Gallery in London is a small panel painting known as the Wilton Diptych. Commissioned by Richard II, it is one of the most precious and mysterious works of art in England. It shows the king kneeling, surrounded by saints, offering the nation to the Virgin Mary, or perhaps to the baby Jesus who is in her arms, reaching out to receive it. The king is surrounded by a barren and forbidding landscape; but at the feet of the Madonna and Child the ground is green with grass and bright with flowers, just as the air around her is thronged with angels.
This is the Mary who is ever-present to Tolkien, at the center of his imagination, who in Catholic teaching is mantled by all natural beauty, the most perfect of God’s creatures, the treasury of all earthly and spiritual gifts. What Elbereth, Galadriel, and other characters, such as Lúthien and Arwen, surely express is precisely what Tolkien said he had found in the Blessed Virgin: beauty both in majesty and simplicity. Majesty, for here we see beauty crowned with all the honors that chivalry can bestow; and as for simplicity, well, what is more simple than starlight?
I have argued that, in addition to the obvious types and symbols of Christ, the Virgin Mary is present in a hidden, implicit way throughout The Lord of the Rings. The way the fragrance of the Our Lord’s Beatitudes and the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin Mary permeates Tolkien’s great work of fiction is typical of the authentic products of a Christian civilization. Works of the imagination are works of the spirit as well as the hand of the artist, and they are “true” to the extent that they convey a sense of the realities of virtue and of grace that determine the pattern of our lives. This is something that The Lord of the Rings achieves, by the literary device of filtering the sagas and epics of northern Europe through a Christian consciousness.
No human work of art is perfect, but it can reach for perfection, and it may be worthy of being assumed into the Kingdom when God raises us up and completes our labor. I have no doubt that Tolkien’s great tale will be one of those we will hear told, or sung, by the golden fireside in that longed-for Kingdom.
3. Letters, p. 188 (153). The page number refers to the British edition published by Allen & Unwin (1981) later reprinted by HarperCollins. Since the US edition by Houghton Mifflin may have different page numbers, I have placed in parentheses the number of the letter in question, throughout these notes.
6. See the footnote in Letters, pp. 193–194 (153), for more detail about the role of religion in the imaginative world of The Lord of the Rings. The famous letter to Robert Murray, S.J., in which he explains why he has cut out most references to religion, to cults or practices, so that “the religious element” may be “absorbed into the story and the symbolism,” is found on p. 172 (142) of the same book.
10. There is no explicit mention of this prophecy in The Lord of the Rings, although the wiser characters (Bombadil and Gandalf) do drop hints about an eventual “healing” of the world at the end of time.
13. Letters, pp. 286–287 (212). In “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” which Christopher Tolkien dates around this time or slightly later (1959), Andreth refers to the fact that Men had known “that in our beginning we had been born never to die.” A large part of the discussion revolves around the question of what this might mean, given the nature of Man as a being composed of body and soul.
17. In my view, Sam Gamgee is the real hero of the book (Tolkien himself says this in Letter no. 131). He is the humblest of all, the closest to the earth, and the one who heals the devastated little world of the Shire with Galadriel’s gift of magic soil when the Quest is achieved.
19. As, one might argue, the Virgin Mary is present in other, non-Catholic works of fantasy literature, such as George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (as the figure of the great-great-great-great grandmother).
22. This has also been noted by Charles Coulombe, in his helpful essay, “The Lord of the Rings—A Catholic View,” in Joseph Pearce (ed.), Tolkien: A Celebration (HarperCollins, 1999). Of course, people had already pointed it out to Tolkien in his lifetime: see Letters, p. 288 (213).
27. The significance of these dates is also noted by Tom Shippey in his recent book, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (HarperCollins, 2000), p. 208. John Saward’s Mysteries of March: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Incarnation and Easter (Collins, 1990) examines the relationship of all the Christian mysteries associated with this date. For ancient authors such as Tertullian, it was also the date of the Crucifixion, and of the creation and fall of Adam.
Stratford Caldecott is the founder and co-director of the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford, and one of the editors of the journal Second Spring.
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