Theological Patterns & Themes in The Lord of the Rings


Artistic rendering of  
Tolkien's Quenya translation 
of the Lord's Prayer

"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 hoarding memory.”
--Letter 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:

  1. Pity & 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.

  2. Hope, 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 praise for one who rekindles hope

  3. Faith 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).

  4. Providence: 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).

  5. Kenotic 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.)

  6. The Powers, Mediation, & 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 existence.

  7. Temptation:  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 evil.

  8. The 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.

  9. Sacramentalism: 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.

  10. Eschatological 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.

  11. Eucatastrophe: 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, 1189, 1200-1201).

  12. Mythic (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 : Christ’s Incarnation is the eucatastrophe of human history.

Tolkien the Mystic?

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


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding