J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth. By Bradley J. Birzer.
The Gospel According to Tolkien: Vision of the Kingdom in Middle Earth. By Ralph C. Wood.
I’m writing a bit too late to break the news that J.R.R. Tolkien, was, in fact, a devout Catholic, who firmly believed in the eternal truth of the Christian faith. In 1896 Mabel Tolkien was widowed and left with two boys, John Ronald and Hilary, to raise by herself, as neither her own family nor her in-laws were willing to provide her or her sons financial support because of her choice to convert to Catholicism. By 1904, Mabel died from complications arising from diabetes, and the boys were left in the care of Father Morgan, their mother’s friend and confessor. J.R.R. Tolkien later wrote that he considered his mother a martyr for the faith; relinquishing that faith would have been unimaginable to him.
But while the religious nature of the man is beyond question, the religious nature of his writings is still fair game. Tolkien’s writings have recently enjoyed a renaissance due to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings. Some movie critics have conjectured that the trilogy struck such a strong chord in the U.S. because of the story’s timeless central conflict: the struggle between good and evil. But although Tolkien wrote that “The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” the Christian nature of Tolkien’s works was overlooked until quite recently. Tolkien’s legacy was greatly influenced by the fantasy genre, filled with grizzled wizards, loin-cloth-wearing heroes, and buxom elfin maidens that followed in his wake. As an unfortunate result, the serious side of Tolkien’s writings was all too often forgotten. Recent scholarship, however, has brought to light the Christian foundations of Tolkien’s masterwork. Bradley Birzer, author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and Ralph C. Wood, author of The Gospel According to Tolkien, both argue in their books that, as Tolkien claimed, the theological, ethical, and moral underpinnings of Middle Earth are Christian at heart. Both authors draw upon works outside of The Lord of the Rings, such as the Silmarillion and “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” as well as Tolkien’s academic essays and personal letters. Both authors examine Tolkien’s views on divinity and evil in the context of the Christian faith he loved and the pre-Christian Norse lore he studied.
In Sanctifying Myth, a short analysis of Tolkien’s life and writings, Birzer uses the biographical method of literary analysis, which means that his book is neither an in-depth biography nor an in-depth literary criticism. The book is therefore quite well-suited to the casual Tolkien reader who has not read much more than The Lord of the Rings, and desires a quick introduction to the books’ background. Birzer allows Tolkien to speak for himself through extensive quoting of his letters and essays, as well as through reporting numerous anecdotes about the Oxford don. The book is well researched; Birzer’s extensive citations allow any curious reader to find the works upon which he draws. The more serious Tolkien scholar, however, will find Birzer’s book slightly repetitive, since the author summarizes many of Tolkien’s lesser known books, as well as the arguments of well-known commentaries (e.g., Barry Gordon’s interpretation of Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn as fulfilling the Old Testament roles of prophet, priest, and king).
Birzer’s thesis is that Tolkien’s goal in the creation of his mythologies was to make a story that, as it were, “baptized” the best aspects of European pagan religion. Birzer’s thesis shows great insight into Tolkien’s character, since as a medievalist, Tolkien was in the intellectual company of Christians who had attempted to do the same, such as St. Augustine , St. Boniface, the Venerable Bede, and the anonymous author of Beowulf. Birzer’s book barely skims the surface of these connections; another work by this author that more deeply delves into the same thesis would be a very interesting read.
In The Gospel According to Tolkien, Ralph C. Wood compares the moral, ethical, and theological views expressed in Tolkien’s works on Middle Earth to those in the Christian Bible, managing to be quite engaging, enjoyable, and original along the way. “Tolkien’s work,” contends Wood, “is more deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian.” In Tolkien’s classic essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” he proposes that as creation is the domain of the Creator, the artist and the poet’s task is therefore to make something which reflects eternal Truth, a process which he dubs “sub-creation.” Tolkien applied his theory to his own work, avoiding overt allusions to God and organized religion, and shunning any hint of allegory. Instead, Tolkien’s goal was to allow the fantastic, the miraculous, and the providential events in his stories to themselves point to the involvement of a greater being in the workings of the narrative. Any reader of Lord of the Rings is therefore free to see or to be blind to God’s involvement in the story, just as he or she is free to accept or reject God’s workings in the real world. By allowing his audience the liberty of choice, Tolkien has “sub-created” a world that reflects one of God’s greatest gifts – free will.
Wood and Birzer also comment upon Tolkien’s vision of evil and the similarities to Augustine’s definition of evil as privato boni, the absence of good. The most potent metaphor that Tolkien employs to describe evil is the Shadow, the absence of light. As Birzer writes:
By placing evil in the background of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has created an evil that is outright ominous, for it seems to be everywhere, pervading the entire landscape of Middle Earth, surrounding the Fellowship from all sides.
Bizer and Wood also observe that Tolkien’s conception of evil is not a sort of Manichaean dualism. In Middle-Earth, evil is not an independent force; it does not have the power to create, only to mar and twist what has been created by Eru (the deity whose name means “the One” in Tolkien’s Elvish language). In a particularly beautiful moment from The Lord of the Rings, which both Wood and Birzer highlight, the hobbit Sam sees a star in the midst of the darkness of Mordor and senses that “the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” Wood compares the passage to the first letter of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Birzer gives great attention in each chapter of his book to Tolkien’s relationship with C.S. Lewis. Both men were friends for many years, and were members of the Inklings, a small literary club founded by Lewis at Oxford . In one of the better chapters of Birzer’s book, “The Nature of Evil”, the author uses a comparison between the characters of the two men to good effect. Tolkien strongly disapproved of Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which testifies to Tolkien’s strong aversion to the study of evil. This aversion explains Tolkien’s avoidance of exploring the psychology of his villains, a feature of his writing that has been a favorite target of certain critics. These critics label the villains as “one-dimensional,” since it seems they are morally perverse without any motivation (as if Sauron’s bad nature could be explained by his not being hugged often enough as a child). Birzer uses this anecdote to illustrate Tolkien’s firm beliefs that evil and the Evil One are a reality, not a fairy tale, and that the study of Evil invites it into one’s life.
Wood, in his book, spends much time investigating the parallels between evil in Middle-Earth and in the Bible. He compares the murder of Deagol by Smeagol, the hobbit who is eventually twisted into the creature Gollum, to the slaying of Abel by Cain. He also compares Smeagol’s attempt to justify this wicked act (the Ring, he said, was his rightful birthday gift), to the fruitless attempts of Adam and Eve to justify their disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Wood’s best example of Tolkien’s Christian understanding of evil is the way that the dilemma of free choice in Middle-Earth reflects the dilemma of free choice in the Gospels. Christ’s yoke is gentle, but bearing it requires humility—Jesus taught that no man can serve two masters, for choosing a master other than God is idolatry, and choosing oneself as master is vanity. Through this vain pride, individuals are truly enslaved by evil. The same principle is also at work in Middle-Earth: the “Enemy” enthralls and ensnares people by appealing to their sense of pride and love for power, in the end trapping them in abject, debasing, degrading servitude. The “free peoples of Middle Earth” stand in contrast to the orcs, goblins, trolls, and men who have allied themselves with Sauron. The Ring, which first seduces with illusions, eventually coerces and bullies in order to enslave the will of its bearer. Wood notices that the hobbit Sam is able to defy the illusions that attempt to sway him because of his humility, whereas powerful characters, such as Gandalf and Galadriel, are more easily tempted because their inherently powerful natures tend to create in them a false confidence.
The Christian understanding that evil is less potent than goodness has no parallels in the cosmologies of the Greeks, Romans, Norse, or Zoroastrians: most of the major deities in Indo-European cultures have a “good side” and a “bad side.” Tolkien’s mythology, however, explicitly revises this dualistic conception. Tolkien’s divine order, as outlined in the first chapter of the Silmarillion, describes how Eru sent down twelve Valar (“powers”) to act as regents over the Earth. Iluvatar, the alternate title of Eru, means, “All Father.” “All Father” is the etymology of the Roman deity, Jupiter; the most common epithet of the Greek god Zeus, Zeus Pater (PIE *dyeus-*peter); and also the epithet of the Norse god Odin. Although the Valar are explicitly beneath Iluvatar in the order of the universe, they display many parallels to the gods of pagan myth. Ulmo, lord of the sea, reminds the reader of Poseidon; Mandos, lord of the dead, of Hades; Yavana, lady of growing things, of Demeter; Aule, the smith, of Hephaestus. All of these gods seem, at first glance, to be but pale reflections of gods in the pantheons of Norse and Greek myth.
The gods Melkor and Varda, however, are both characters that seem to be based on Biblical figures. Melkor, whose name means, “he who arises in might,” is very similar to Lucifer, the fairest of all angels before the fall. Both Lucifer and Melkor’s greatest sins are pride and disobedience, and both become princes of darkness. Tulkas, who throws Melkor into the Void, reminds readers of the archangel Michael, who strove against Lucifer and threw him down from heaven. Varda, or Elbereth, the Star-Kindler, is reminiscent of Mary, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Rev 12:1) as she is venerated in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Both are compassionate Queens of Heaven.
And, most importantly, Tolkien’s Valar are never dualistic. The War Valar, who could not decide whether to join with Melkor or fight against him, were ultimately deleted from the story altogether. All the Valar, save Melkor, are very attuned to the will of Eru, and perform their duties with grace and dignity. In contrast to Norse or Greek gods, the Valar are either wholly good or wholly evil, much more akin to angels and demons as described by the Bible than to pagan gods. Wood observes that when Frodo and Sam call upon Elbereth in the lair of Shelob the spider, “The Queen of the Valar seems to be praying through them as much as they are praying to her,” as both hobbits call for her intercession unconsciously, as if they are impelled to pray by something outside of themselves.
At the heart of Christianity lies the struggle for salvation from evil, with the climax of the story as Christ’s resurrection. Although it seemed that malice had triumphed by killing the Son of God, Christ redeemed death and removed its sting. Tolkien’s writings, which emphasize that darkness is only a shadow, and that light will in the end prevail, is very unlike the teleological outlook of the Greeks, who saw the gods as warring powers of good and evil, or of the Norse, who held that their warring gods would ultimately destroy other in a great, final battle—and, in fact, is very different from the teleological outlook of much of the modern world, skeptical as we are about things like Good, Evil, and the possibility of redemption. But there is something yet about this ancient story that resonates deep within our souls, even if we might not always be able to place our fingers on it. Tolkien placed his hope for God’s salvation and deliverance from evil at the center of both his life and his stories, and it is this message, in the end, that has endeared The Lord of the Rings to generations of readers, touching as it does a deep and hidden chord in all of our hearts.