…I thought it worthwhile to indulge my love of Tolkien and have an argument as the Man himself might have done down at the Bird and Baby over a pint. The piece I am rebutting is quite lengthy, but it has some interesting parts (notably an interview with Tolkien published in an utterly obscure typewritten newsletter in 1966), as well as a number of stunningly wrong-headed misreadings of Tolkien’s remarks on matters theological and speculative (such as his views on the reincarnation of Elves). And since this is my blog and I can do whatever I like with it, I thought I would take the next few days celebrating the births of Bilbo and Frodo with an extended indulgence of my love for the man, his fiction, and his Faith
The piece I am responding to is by an atheist named Jonathan Poletti, written to land as many punches as possible on flat-footed Fundamentalist Christians, that manages to misread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and his intensely Catholic religious views) about as badly as I have ever seen anybody misread just about any text. It is entitled, “No, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t Christian” and it immediately starts off by making a category error due to Poletti’s donning (as so many atheists do) the One Ring of Flat-Footed Fundamentalism in his struggle to defeat his Christian enemies.
Christians have a long history of trying to claim J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” as basically a Christian text.
With the new Amazon adaptation, The Rings of Power, there’s sure to be more rounds of it—all oddly disconnected from facts. Let’s take a look at Tolkien’s religiosity and the godless book that he wrote.
Curiously, “godless” = “not Christian”, since Poletti will later concede that Tolkien’s legendarium indeed admits of monotheism, as well as angelic beings and such like. This strongly indicates that, like many an ex-Christian Fundamentalist, Poletti still reflexively and unconsciously equates belief in God with belief in the Christian tradition and, indeed, with that particular narrow spectrum of Christianity called biblical fundamentalism. It would come as a shock to, say, Maimonides or Mohammed that a work of literature that is not Christian is perforce “godless”. But it is as natural as breathing for Fundamentalist Christians—and ex-Christians—to say such things.
And along with this confusion, Poletti opens with a huge and baseless assumption, also redolent of the Fundamentalist mind: namely, any story which is not a blatant Christian allegory or filled with mentions of ecclesial trappings cannot therefore be “Christian”.
In the fantasy world Middle-earth, there is no religion.
This seems like a problem to people trying to see The Lord of the Rings as a “Christian” work. As the literary critic Edmund Fuller noted:
“In this story there is no overt theology or religion. There is no mention of God. No one is worshipped. There are no prayers…”
There is the Standing Silence of the Men of Gondor. There is Frodo crying out to Elbereth and Gilthoniel. But yes, “the religious element” as most Westerners mean it “is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” of LOTR, as Tolkien himself says. That is a far different thing than saying there is no religious element present in the book or that the story is “godless”. A sponge that has absorbed water is the opposite of, not the same thing as, a dry sponge.
We can add to the list. In Middle-earth, there are no churches, or clerics, or prophets, or temples, or holy ground. Or scriptures. Or God, or gods.
Elements of prophecy and mysterious powers at work in Middle Earth are all through the story, hinting at a Providence guiding events. Bilbo was “meant” to find the Ring and therefore Frodo was “meant” to have it. Boromir has prophetic dreams. Ancient prophecy says that “no man” can kill the Lord of the Nazgul. Gandalf’s heart tells him that Gollum still has a part to play. And the entire backdrop of the drama of Middle Earth is the creative will of Eru/Iluvatar and the ordering and providential work of the Valar. Indeed, Tolkien explicitly calls Gandalf an “angel incarnate”.
Tolkien didn’t want his work associated with any religion.
He said so, over and over. In a 1955 letter to his publisher, he pushed back against efforts to ‘interpret’ his work:
“It is not ‘about’ anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political.”
He wrote a fan in 1958:
“As for ‘message’: I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me! I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I find personally attractive.”
There was clearly something spiritual about his fantasy world. He could refer to it being a bit religious—with ‘religious’ in quotes.
In another letter he called Middle-earth “a monotheistic world of ‘natural theology’.”
That does not mean ‘Christian’.
Of course Tolkien did not want his work to become the basis of a “deplorable cultus”: an alternative religion to the one he actually professed. That is why he creates a world situated in a legendary Other Time, before any revelation beyond what is contained in Nature has been given. But that does not mean the Catholic beliefs of this most intensely Catholic of minds does not find expression in the novel. This is the insuperable problem Poletti is setting himself, for Tolkien plainly says of himself “I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic” and of his work that it is a fundamentally religious and Catholic piece of fiction.
Tolkien wasn’t regarded as a ‘Christian writer’.
This is a point made by Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis himself. In a review of The Lord of the Rings, Lewis wrote that “there are no pointers to a specifically theological, or political, or psychological application.”
For many readers, that was the appeal. As the Tolkien scholar William Ready noted in 1969:
“One of the great things in favor of Tolkien, in the opinion of many of his readers who have rejected formal religion, and they are in the millions, is that there is no religion in The Lord of the Rings…”
Poletti, like a true Fundamentalist, cannot distinguish between a Christian writer (preachy narratives, ham-fisted allegory, stories as illustrated sermons) and a writer who is a Christian. This is Poletti’s core blunder, to which he will return again and again. For of course a book need be neither allegorical nor filled with references to Church or liturgies to be suffused with the Catholic faith of the writer. Tolkien absolutely understood this. Replying to a Catholic priest who thought Tolkien’s Legendarium has a “positive compatibility with the order of Grace” and who thought Galadriel reminiscent of Mary, Tolkien replied:
I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; 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. 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 references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
The lack of anything but the most simple religious practices (e.g. the Standing Silence of the Men of Gondor before meals) is not due to a lack of God (Eru/Iluvatar in the cosmology of Middle Earth), nor to a lack of what are essentially supernatural angelic beings (the Valar who are tasked with the governance of Middle Earth). Rather, Tolkien (true to his legendary rendering of a good world afflicted by the fall of Satan/Morgoth) wishes to portray a world in which creatures are deeply estranged from and have lost sight of “the Secret Fire” (an allusive reference to the Holy Spirit) Gandalf serves. It is a good, but fallen world, which awaits some final redemption, but which exists before that redemption has even begun to be revealed.
All this is given in hinting allusive language, not because Tolkien does not believe his Catholic faith, but because he is trying to create a profoundly pre-Christian and indeed pre-Abrahamic world existing in Other Time that has not even begun to be given revelation that will only come with the Age of Men: our age, the Fourth Age. He is creating an imaginary history, but it is an imaginary history set in our world. As he repeatedly reminds us, “Middle Earth” is simply another name for our world, not some other planet.
Meanwhile, Tolkien famously has a “cordial dislike” for allegory and had “always done so ever since [he] grew old enough and wary enough to detect its presence”. His preference is for “history, real or feigned” because History permits “applicability” (which lies in freedom of the reader), while Allegory resides in the “purposed domination of the author”. So while Galadriel is free to resemble Mary (and clearly does for Tolkien and his correspondent), he does not draw a picture of Galadriel and tell us “THIS IS ACTUALLY MARY” as Lewis, for instance, (and to Tolkien’s deep dislike) does with Aslan and Jesus.
But for Poletti, all literature, in order to be Christian, must be exactly this flat-footed, because that is how all Fundamentalists, Christian or atheist, approach literature, whether biblical or otherwise.
It must therefore follow that not only are Christians (who take Tolkien at his word that LOTR is Catholic) stoopid, but Tolkien himself is either stoopid, mentally ill, or a liar (as we shall see in more detail in coming days).