The Spiritual Core of The Lord of the Rings

Friday, April 17th, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien may have been a devout Catholic, but there is no religion in The Lord of the Rings:

There is quite obviously no organized religion in the sense of doctrinal beliefs, separate castes of priests, even places of worship. Nor do the characters ever mention a god or gods, resort to prayer, or even swear oaths and make imprecations that invoke the names of deities. And although there are gods in the creation myths of The Silmarillion, who are therefore presumably lurking somewhere in the cosmic background of the story in Lord of the Rings, they play no active or recognized role in the latter story, while even in the creation myths of The Silmarillion their relationship to the Chil-dren of Ilúvatar is somewhat distant, especially from men, and grows more so over time. Indeed, the god most involved in the affairs of the Children, Melkor/Morgoth, has by the beginning of the Lord of the Rings long since been vanquished, and the focus of the dark powers is his lieutenant Sauron, who although powerful, is never attributed with divinity of any sort.

Imagine seeing Tolkien’s work through another lens:

It would be relatively easy, as a hypothetical counter-example, to construct a Buddhist reading of the Lord of the Rings. One would not even need to note the interesting coincidence that the paradise of a dominant sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Pure Land sect, is conceived of as being a land in the far west, like the mostly inaccessible lands west of the Grey Havens. A more Zen reading could focus on the transitory nature of all things (including the Third Age) as an explanation for the moments of what might well be called Enlightenment that many of the characters ?nd in small, everyday moments, as well as for the sorrow they feel at the departure of friends and Ages, a clear sign of attachment to the impermanent and therefore illusory things of the world. The problem here is that the sorrow is presented not as a problem but as a core feature of the world, so this reading, like Christian readings, works only at a level of abstraction high enough to elide the crucial details, that is, at a level of ideas common to many religions.

Middle-earth is not a created medieval world so much as a world created by a medievalist:

The difference is that for a medievalist,the world he studies—and is fascinated by, and may come to love — is gone, whereas for medieval people their world was inescapably present. For the medievalist, the important world is a past age, the evidence for whose existence is fragmentary, incomplete, degraded, and often lost. For medieval people, the evidence for their world was abundant and ever-present. Even those medievalists who recognize that we live today in a more comfortable material world and a more politically egalitarian one may feel a touch of nostalgia for the past, or a sense of melancholy that a vanished world cannot be accessed directly. Medieval people, of course, felt no such thing, because their world had not vanished, nor did they expect it to.


  1. Graham says:

    I’m not sure they have understood the ontological status of Valar and Maiar the way I always did, which I thought I had taken from Tolkien and mainstream commentary.

    Although the age of the Valar, higher angels or greater gods depending on whether one likes a Christian or a Norse pagan aesthetic, was largely ended in Middle Earth with the First Age, that Age clearly ended with the direct intervention not only of the Valar but of Iluvatar. There were elves, at least, in the Third Age who had been alive at the end of the First Age and knew of these events first-hand. That is substantially more tangible evidence of divine powers and much more evidence of their active intervention than we in this dimension have ever had for our religions.

    The Second and Third Age certainly were dominated day to day by lesser beings. Even so, I thought it still mainstream to take Sauron and all of the Istari as Maiar. All of whom played driving roles in history, obvious to all observers. Indispensable players. There were elves with Maiar blood in them, and I think that also extended to the Men of the Half-Elven including the line of the Kings. In other words, a subset of a divinely touched race with magical powers who had in addition divine blood and greater powers, and a spin off line of humans with divine blood [a notion Greeks and Norse recognized] and for whom the Divine Right of Kings was a biological reality.

    This was a world in which religion, narrowly understood as the presence of hierarchy/institution, dogma and ritual, may have been absent. But religion, understood traditionally as the set of beliefs about the cosmos, the world, and life, and the narrative surrounding these things, was not absent. It was omnipresent and verifiable by witnesses.

    Were our world like that, perhaps we would not have any organized clerical traditions either, certainly not so many. If the verifiable tradition were the Christian story, even Christianity might not have a “Church” as such.

    I think the question is therefore not the [to me extraordinarily simpleminded] one of whether or not there is a priestly caste preaching doctrine in a building, as , “Is this is a what a world would look like whose cosmology was physically visible among them every day?”

    The Buddhist approach would seem a more fruitful line- its traditions have offered both a variety of scaled divine beings of their own, and accommodated those Buddhism found in each country it touched. Although the moral and spiritual message in Tolkien may not be Buddhist, these elements of his structure could be compared to Buddhism. But, then, that too would make it a world “with” religion, not without it.

  2. Stephen Morillo says:

    As the author of the article commented upon here, I must say that I find this an interesting comment, and that I would admit that “priests and churches” is not the only nor even the best test of whether there is spirituality in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It is a test revealing the lack of “organized religion”, which is a sub-point of my argument. I would readily grant, however, that there is spirituality with a creation myth and so forth. But the real question I was looking at is not whether there is religion/spirituality in Middle Earth, but whether that religion/spirituality is specifically Catholic. It seems to me that the commenter’s argument in fact supports this aspect of my argument.

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