"One point: Frodo's
attitude to weapons was personal. He was not in modern terms a 'pacifist'.
Of course he was mainly horrified at the prospect of civil war among
Hobbits; but he had ( I suppose) also reached the conclusion that physical
fighting is actually less ultimately effective than most (good) men think
it! Actually I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do
not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat'- though it
contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some
samples or glimpses of final victory."
--Letter to Amy Ronald , 15 December 1956
"With regard to The
Lord of the Rings, I cannot claim to be a sufficient theologian to say
whether my notion of orcs is heretical or not. I don’t feel under
obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian thought and
belief, which is asserted somewhere. . . . Frodo asserts that the orcs are
not evil in origin."
--Letter to W.H. Auden, 12 May 1965
“Theologically (if the
term is not too grandiose) I imagine the picture to be less dissonant from
what some (including myself) believe to be the truth. But since I have
deliberately written a tale, which is built on or out of certain
‘religious ‘ ideas, but is not an allegory of them (or anything
else), and does not mention them overtly, still less preach them, I will
not now depart from that mode, and venture on theological disquisition for
which I am not fitted. But I might say that if the tale is ‘about’
anything (other than itself), it is not as widely supposed about
‘power’. Power-seeking is only the motive-power that sets events
going, and is relatively unimportant, I think. It is mainly concerned with
Death, and Immortality; and the ‘escapes’: serial longevity, and
to Rhona Beare, 14 October 1958
As Tolkien famously
asserted, LOR is not meant to be an allegory, that is a text where objects
and characters serve to represent other times and places or where abstract
principles are personified. Instead, it is feigned history, which has
applicability in any number of times and places. As a Roman
Catholic, Tolkien came to understand that his work had theological
implications, as well as resonances with his religious beliefs, though did
not see himself as a theologian and thus was willing to risk things
imaginatively. If Tolkien could not avoid that his fictional works,
mostly 'about themselves,' had to possess a theological realism within his
feigned cosmos, neither was he seeking to set forth a theology of elves or
evil or kingship.
Since we have discussed
much of this already this semester, I don't intend this to be exhaustive;
nonetheless, there are certain ideas worth exploring further or reiterating
again. The following themes and patterns do suggest how Middle-earth's
ethos and cosmos exist within an implicit metaphysic:
& Mercy: The pity of Bilbo saves many, as Frodo comes to
learn, as does Sam (764, 1270ff.) For Tolkien, pity results in mercy
not in a Nietzschean belittlement of others. It is a successful leap
of the imagination to understand another's wretchedness and to refusal
to act on the supposed right to judgment or vengeance that one has. In
that sense, while it is emotional, it is not simply emotion; rather,
it is the basis of justice. Gandalf even pities Sauron's slaves.
Frodo's extends mercy to Saruman even to the very end.
Despair, & Obedience: One of the key themes of LOR, especially
in Books 5 and 6. In Tolkien's hands, the northern "theory of
courage" takes on profound theistic meaning. The obedience of
characters to their mission in the face of despair is part of the
metaphysical meaning and purpose of the quest:
1024-1025--Despair as a weapon of the Enemy
1055--Éomer's refusal to give into a loss of hope in battle
1163--Sam going on despite loss of hope
1170-1171--Sam's refusal to hear any more the arguments of despair.
1217--Théoden is praised for one who rekindles hope
in Beauty: While some beauty is deceptive, the beauty that is
possessed by Lothlórien, Ithilien, Galadriel, and Arwen is a reminder
of the greater beauty of Eru. For example, Sam learns that the stars
exist beyond the Shadow of the Enemy, and this knowledge gives great
escape and spiritual power (1132; 1149).
While free will is important to the characters' moral development, as
some look to luck as an independent power, the fate and doom of
characters is part of their purpose and vocation: not only does Frodo
have a fate given him (325), so does Gollum (1189).
Sacrifice: Tolkien has written several letters that discuss how
Frodo's failure at the Cracks of Doom should nonetheless be seen
within a salvific pursuit. (The LOR Reader's Companion helpfully
gathers these together, so we'll consult it in class, pages 616-619.)
& Intercession: Along with the role that the Valar take in The
Silmarillion and the invocations of Elbereth, the incarnate angelology
found in an istari like Gandalf (and indeed in the fall of
Saruman and Sauron) is worthy of theological reflection. Like Grendel
and his mother, Tolkien's angelic and demonic beings take on embodied
An important theme in LOR, especially the temptations to use wrongful
power for good purposes. Compare the way that Gandalf, Galadriel, and
Faramir turn away from the ring, while Boromir does not, as neither
does Gollum nor even finally after long resistance, Frodo. Likewise,
compare the difference in Aragorn and Denethor's use of the palatíri.
These temptations are set within the cosmic struggle between good and
Common Life: Some have gone so far as to see in the Elves of
Rivendale a kind of Benedictine monastic order, pointing to the common
life, place of song and study, as well as the spiritual life and its
restorative power. This analogy is partially helpful at best since the
Elves of Middle-earth are artists, not contemplatives per se. Yet
there is something to recognizing a kind of power in their common
life, as another sort is in the Shire. Certainly, the nature of the
company (the fellowship) and the wisdom of trusting in the Hobbit's
friendship rather than the "wiser" choice of power itself
has a set of spiritual assumptions.
Not only in the beauty of natural realms and in Elvish culture, grace
and goodness is experienced by the characters in bodily
existence--food, drink, baths, laughter, sleep, as it is in amidst
suffering. The presence of something indefinable holy comes again and
again throughout LOR.
Longing: While in earlier conceptions of the Silmarillion myth,
Tolkien included a "second prophecy of Mandos" of an
eschatological apocalypse and restoration for the Elves at Arda's end,
he came to reject that and left the Elves only with the uncertainty of
what would happen to them if Arda were ever unmarred. This uncertainty
surely lies at the heart of Tolkien's understanding that mainly concerned
with Death, and Immortality; and the ‘escapes’: serial longevity,
and hoarding memory.” (cf. 841, 1224) This pattern can also be seen
in the way Tolkien left several possible endings for the members of
the fellowship open in his larger fictional apparatus: "The Sea
Bell" is called Frodo's Drem; Sam, even Gimli are allowed
to go to the Blessed Lands; Aragorn lays down his life like the Virgin
Mary's Assumption; etc.
Admittedly, this is such an obvious pattern in Tolkien it hardly bears
mentioning, but it is an absolutely fundamental theological commitment
of his, and the novel would not be what it is without its repeated
eucatastrophes (e.g. 1182,
(Typological) Participation: Tolkien's claim at the end of
"On Fairy Stories" that the Christian gospel contains
a true fairy-story, which is the essence of all fairy-stories
, sets other eucatastrophes within its baseline
Incarnation is the eucatastrophe of human history.
I also reminded me of a sudden vision
(or perhaps apperception which at once turned itself into pictorial form
in my mind) I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St
Gregory's before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant' Ore was being
held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it
suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was
my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray
from the Light which both held and lit it.
(Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but
the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light
was in itself a line, and the line was Light).
And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing
interposed between God and the creature, but God's very attention
itself, personalized. And I
do not mean 'personified', by a mere figure of speech according to the
tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person.
Thinking of it since- for the whole thing was very immediate, and
not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of
joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote
was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love) -
it has occurred to me that (I speak diffidently and have no idea whether
such a notion is legitimate:
it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the
poised mote) is a finite parallel to the Infinite.
As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is
a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person
(that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.
--Letter to Christopher Tolkien 7-8 November, 1944