More on the Christian nature of Tolkien’s Legendarium

Continuing our discussion from yesterday of Jonathan Poletti’s Fundamentalist atheist take on Tolkien (“No, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” isn’t Christian”) we find Poletti’s eagerness to assume malicious dishonesty on the part of Christian readers is remarkable, as can be seen in this surprising claim that general Christian ignorance of an incredibly obscure interview with Tolkien in a typewritten fan newsletter published in 1966 can only be explained as a coverup and a “concealment”:

Christians conceal statements that Tolkien made against their claims.

I look through his letters and interviews and find comments about which there’s a discreet silence. In a 1966 interview in the Niekas fanzine, he was asked if his hero Frodo was like Jesus. Weren’t they both ‘saving’?

Tolkien replied: “Well, you know, there’ve been saviors before; it is a very common thing.”

The quest narrative of The Lord of the Rings had seemed to begin in earnest on December 25th. Tolkien was asked: Was this a Christian cue?

He replied that it was “just an accident.”

If any meaning is suggested, he said, then it’d be that his novel was “not a Christian myth anyhow. It was a purely unimportant date.”

As a member of the Vast Christian Conspiracy to Conceal This Interview, permit me to urge you to, by all means, click on the link Poletti provides. It’s a fascinating read and it is, of course, perfectly consonant with everything else Tolkien has to say about his fiction, so I am grateful to him for unearthing it.

And I agree with Tolkien’s assessment, one he makes countless times in his correspondence: LOTR is emphatically not a “Christian myth”. That is, it is not an allegory intended to retell the story of Jesus Christ and none of the events of the story map to the events of the gospels any more than the War of the Ring maps to the events of World War II, nor the Ring to the Bomb. And yet, the claim that this simply cancels Tolkien’s own remark that the novel is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, like the baseless claim that this obscure interview has been “concealed”, is a massive case of base-stealing by an intensely biased fundamentalist atheist propagandist who, as all fundamentalists do, wants to privilege anything that reinforces his prejudices while ignoring everything that does not.

In reality, just as the interview is not “concealed” but simply unknown because it is from an obscure source, so nothing Tolkien says is out of keeping with similar remarks found throughout his correspondence and interviews regarding the applicability of History vs. the purposed domination of Allegory. The reader is left free, as Tolkien intends, to construe the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell on December 25 as he pleases–or not. He himself calls it “pure coincidence” and he ought to know. But he does not (as Poletti does) condemn readers for freely applying the date as they will.

What Poletti does miss (because of his intense need to arraign Christian readers for taking Tolkien at his word about the fundamentally religious and Catholic nature of the LOTR) is that the central date in the book is not December 25, but March 25. And it is not a Christian, but a secular scholar who occupied Tolkien’s chair and who wrote two perceptive books about him who understands the obvious connection between it and Tolkien’s (deeply medieval, deeply English) Catholic faith. Tom Shippey writes in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century:

No one any longer celebrates the twenty-fifth of March, and Tolkien’s point is accordingly missed, as I think he intended. He inserted it only as a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety. However, as he knew perfectly well, in old English tradition, 25th March is the date of the Crucifixion, of the first Good Friday. As Good Friday is celebrated on a different day each year, Easter being a mobile date defined by the phases of the moon, the connection has been lost, except for one thing. In Gondor the New Year will always begin on 25th March . . . One might note that in the Calendar of dates which Tolkien so carefully wrote out in Appendix B, December 25th is the day on which the Fellowship sets out from Rivendell. The main action of The Lord of the Rings takes place, then, in the mythic space between Christmas, Christ’s birth, and the crucifixion, Christ’s death.

Again, this is not allegory. This is applicability. And for Tolkien (as he makes clear in his remarks to the priest about the compatibility of LOTR with the order of grace), such applicability often works for him, without a fundamentalist need to hammer it home for the reader. Because Tolkien is not a Fundamentalist and feels no driving need to write under every picture of a horse that he draws the words “THIS IS A HORSE!” It does not follow from this that he himself is blind to the fact that what he has written is, as he says, “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”.

But Poletti, being a polemicist, is blind to all this. Indeed, he is so blind that he next attempts the remarkable feat of declaring to Tolkien himself that he cannot be a believing Christian since he does not hold the obsessions that characterize American Fundamentalists (whether Christian or atheist) of the early third Millennium.

Tolkien’s work could be read as anti-Christian.

The Lord of the Rings is a story, after all, featuring wizards, magic, and demonic beings. These are usually regarded as religiously offensive subjects.

The novel has deep critiques of men in power. There’s no racism, misogyny, homophobia, compulsory heterosexuality or theocracy — all standard in “Christian stories.”

Discussion of sex — that great Christian obsession — is muted, but Tolkien’s vision is deeply ‘queer’. It centers not on romances between men and women, but on bonds between male Hobbits who ‘read’ as non-masculine.

Politically, Tolkien had called himself an anarchist, and that could be read as the ultimate political stance of his work.

There is no room for theocracy in The Lord of the Rings.

A less ‘Christian’ story could hardly be imagined.

Really? Less Christian than the collected works of Ayn Rand, or His Dark Materials, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses or a hundred other pre-Christian pagan, or anti-Christian post-modern works that two minutes’ thought would bring to mind? It’s overkill statements like this that make clear Poletti is not interested in serious criticism but simply in landing polemical punches.

As to the core claim, one scarcely knows where to begin. Poletti can, of course, use his freedom as a reader to apply the text to his particular dogmas and obsessions.  That is what Tolkien wants every reader to be free to do, even when (as Poletti does) they badly misread the text.  But Poletti’s strange insistence that if Tolkien does not share Poletti’s obsessionS in order to be a Real Christian[TM] is itself a specimen of precisely the “purposed domination” Tolkien rejects.

So, to a man who spent his entire life declaring that he was “a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic”, who extols the Eucharist as the center of his life, and who regards his book as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, Poletti fundamentalistsplains that Real Christians[TM] simply cannot use the literary devices Tolkien employs, that Tolkien’s views of friendship simply must be queer, that distrust of the state simply cannot be Christian (news to the victims of Nero and Diocletian), that all Real Christians[TM] are somehow simply required to be MAGA theocrats, and that therefore he, Jonathan Poletti, knows Tolkien’s mind better than Tolkien himself in declaring him Not a Real Christian[TM]. It is embarrassing to read precisely because it is all so simple.

Poletti continues, exhibiting another trait Fundamentalists often have: the tendency to selectively quote “scholars” in order to score polemical points:

Scholars have found Tolkien’s work is “not Christian.”

Many have written on the subject. Brian Rosebury writes of The Lord of the Rings in Tolkien: a Cultural Phenomenon:

“Not only is Christianity not literally present, there is no surrogate for it or allegorical structure suggestive of it.”

Two scholarly papers are helpful here:

There is mention, they note, of some kind of ultimate deity-force in Middle-earth (“The One”), and a mystic ‘Secret Fire’.

For Christians to search for their religion in Tolkien’s work, as Madsen notes, becomes “a kind of pious occultism,” a drive to find “resemblances and correspondences and hidden meanings…”

Note that the goalposts have moved.  Abandoning the claim that LOTR is “godless” Poletti now argues that it is “pagan”.  There is a case to made for this, at least in part, since Tolkien (like St. Paul and Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis) has no problem with the idea that pagans often have insights and virtues affirmed by the Christian faith.  But Poletti’s polemical fundamentalism can’t acknowledge the compatibility of pagan motifs with Christian ones since he is trying to scrub out the fact that LOTR is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” So the choice is always and only either/or for Poletti.

Again: Of course there is no Christianity literally present in the novel. How could there be since the entire world of the Third Age is long before the Christian revelation or even Abrahamic revelation has been given to us, the people of the Fourth Age? Tolkien is deeply concerned not to create what some of his readers would insist on creating anyway: a “deplorable cultus” of a manufactured religion based on his imaginary world. So he always speaks in allusive language that is “compatible with the order of grace” and connected (as he believes Faerie always to be) with the Primary World through the Eucatastophe at the heart of reality, both divine and human (of which more later).

This is why it is so deeply foolish for Poletti to call LOTR “godless” out of one side of his mouth while conceding that “There is mention, they note, of some kind of ultimate deity-force in Middle-earth (“The One”), and a mystic ‘Secret Fire’.” The last thing that can be called is “godless”. But the cosmology of Middle Earth is, like the geography of Middle Earth, legendarily connected to our world, not “literally”. It is, as Tolkien himself points out, European. But it is not Europe. The Shire is reminiscent of England, but it is not England. Gondor reminds us of Rome, but is not Rome. It has a deity (Eru/Iluvatar) whose Secret Fire or “Fire Imperishable” resembles or reminds us of the Holy Spirit. But it is emphatically not intended to “be” the Holy Spirit because the last thing a Catholic like Tolkien wants to do is a propose an alternative to the actual revelation of the actual God.

All of which has to culminate in Poletti’s impossible attempt to square the circle by moving from caricaturish attacks on fictive and nameless Christians to what must ultimately become his real target: Tolkien himself and his clear statements about his own Catholic faith and the “fundamentally religious and Catholic” nature of The Lord of the Rings.

Of which more on Monday.


One Response

  1. I loved this line (below). It seems pretty cheap to deny the influence of Tolkien’s Catholicism on his fictional world by not finding simplistic allegory he didn’t intend to make.

    “But it is emphatically not intended to “be” the Holy Spirit because the last thing a Catholic like Tolkien wants to do is a propose an alternative to the actual revelation of the actual God.”

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