Author's Note, 2004: Since this essay was first published in 1999, I have come to see that several of my conclusions, as stated here, are unclear and, in some cases, incorrect. Since this essay has been so extensively referenced, however—and translated into several different languages—I necessarily stand by its content as a reference work, and as a reflection of my thinking on Tolkien as of 1999. The text of this essay subsequently served as the basis of one chapter of my book, Tolkien in Perspective—and a comparison of this essay with that chapter may demonstrate that I am open to criticism, and willing to change my opinions as further study and insight dictate. For my detailed comments on issues raised over the years relating to the content of this essay, see the Essay Notes page.
impending release of a filmed, live-action version of The Fellowship
of the Ring has prompted religious pundits to once again ask
the question: is the depiction of magic in fantasy healthy for Christian
consumption? The question, of course, is loaded. The issue is not
magic, per se, but the supernatural. And the answer depends both
on one's understanding of the role of the magical in fiction, and the role
of the supernatural in our faith. In the case of The Fellowship
of the Ring, the issue is complicated by the fact that its view
of the supernatural will not be fully stated until the second and
third installments, The Two Towers and The Return of the
King, reach the screen;
and that the question of Tolkien's faith—and its relationship to
his fiction—has never really been settled.
|Do you disagree? There's probably good reason. Check out the author's Essay Notes for responses to some frequent
begin with, let us examine the nature of Tolkien's fiction. J. R.
R. Tolkien's Middle-earth literature, The Hobbit and The
Lord of the Rings trilogy in particular, are usually referred
to—and even marketed—as fantasy. But would Tolkien himself
think of his work as fantasy? Traditionally, the genre of fantasy
has been defined as stories concerned with things which cannot,
or could not, happen. This definition becomes problematic, though,
as it would easily apply to the literature of mythology: modern
rationality tells us that much of the events described in Greek,
Norse or even Judeo-Christian mythology could not have happened
without the aid of supernatural forces that clearly are absent from
the world as we know it.
however, is not fantasy: the purpose of mythology is to provide
a culture with an acceptable explanation for how that culture's
world came to be. The originators of a mythology believed not only
that the events described could happen, but really did
would be convenient to simply levy upon fantastic literature the
requirement that the story be concerned with a world other than
our own, or that it take place only in the present or the future.
But that would introduce unnecessary and equally problematic distinctions.
Consider instead a definition of fantasy proposed by the author
Joanna Russ: fantasy is a journey by a traveler (perhaps the reader)
to a world so beautiful or wondrous that the traveler/reader wishes
to—or does—stay in that fantastic world. This definition excludes
mythology: mythologies are not about an alternate reality, but about
the past of the world that we know.
then, is escapist, while mythology is reality-bound, if obsolete.
Further, the mythology of a fantastic world would still be considered
a proper mythology, if it attempted to explain the origins of that
fantastic world; but it would be fantastic mythology—a fantasy
definition of fantasy, then, would appear—to the reader—to
include The Lord of the Rings. But what about the author's
opinion? Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
are a very small part of the body of Tolkien's life work; by his
own account, they were "based on very elaborate and detailed
workings, of geography, chronology and language." This basis
is, of course, the writings found in The Silmarillion, Unfinished
Tales, and the other volumes of stories and notes which were
published posthumously by Tolkien's son. Christopher Tolkien describes
these works as "the central stories of the mythology"
of Middle-earth which "became long ago a fixed tradition, and
background to later writings." He considers his father's writings
"a completed and cohesive entity" and even suggests that
the historical structure of Middle-earth is an end in itself, and
not the means to an end. The best authority we have on Tolkien,
then, insists that the author viewed his work as a mythology: the
explanation for how the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings
came to be.
before we apply the adjective "fantastic" to Tolkien's
mythology, we must further consider Tolkien's more "scholarly" profession—he was a philologist and noted translator of Middle- and Old-English
works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and
Sir Orfeo. Tolkien's study of the development of the English
language led him to conceive his creation in the same vein: in the
same way that Middle-English modulated into Modern English, so also
(Tolkien conceives) Middle-earth has modulated into the modern world.
is to say: upon first inspection, a person unfamiliar with Middle-English
can see similarities to Modern English, but would presume it a foreign
language; and in the same way, a person unfamiliar with the world
of Middle-earth can see similarities to our present world, but presumes
it foreign to our world. The reader will quickly find, upon pursuing
this analogy, that this is precisely the effect that Tolkien intended;
and just as the budding scholar is surprised to find the richness
of connections between Middle-English and Modern English, the reader
is pleasantly surprised to find that the author purports Middle-earth
to be the earth of our own past.
the foreword to a revised edition of The Hobbit, Tolkien
quotes as the source of his story "The Red Book of Westmarch,"
a convention that he continues to use in The Lord of the Rings.
The language Tolkien uses in describing this source is significant,
as it occurs outside the scope of the text of the story:
account of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch...
so called because it was long preserved in the Undertowers, the
home of the Fairbairns, Wardens of the Westmarch. It was in origin
Bilbo's private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo
brought it back to the Shire, together with many loose leaves of
notes, and during S.R. 1420-1 he nearly filled its pages with his
account of the War. But annexed to it and preserved with it, probably
in a single red case, were the three large volumes, bound in red
leather, that Bilbo gave to him as a parting gift... The original
Red Book has not been preserved, but many copies were made, especially
of the first volume... The most important copy, however... is an
exact copy in all details of the Thain's Book in Minas Tirith...
The Thain's book was thus the first copy made of the Red Book and
contained much that was later omitted or lost."
this passage is a lengthy and detailed history of the various copies
of the Red Book, a kind of manuscript analysis with which students
of the Historical Critical Method are very familiar. That is to
say, Tolkien publishes with his stories the kind of scholarly support
that one finds in modern editions of the Bible or the Koran: the
veracity of the source of the documents is as important as the story
itself, because the reliability of the manuscript lends weight to
the published text. It is conceivable that a person equally ignorant
of the Judeo-Christian tradition and 20th century literature would
be hard-pressed to determine which volume has better documented
sources! This is remarkable, considering that Tolkien's sources
do not exist.
do they? Tolkien is almost inscrutable in his consistency on this
point. When Tolkien discusses the representation of the languages
of Middle-earth in an appendix to The Return of the King,
he blithely explains that he has elected to "represent"
the Westron Common Speech with the use of Modern English, the more
archaic tongue of Rohan by Old English, and so on. He does not say
he modeled Middle-earth's languages on ours; he says he translated
them based on corresponding relationships! Tolkien used the knowledge
of his academic profession to create linguistic and literary connections
between our world and that of Middle-earth, so that the whole of
his work could be viewed as "a compilation, a compendious narrative,
made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and
annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition"—being passed down, finally, to himself. Tolkien scrupulously
presents his fiction as an alternate mythology of our own world—Middle-earth being its primitive ancestor—and not of some
proceeding, it is worthwhile to digress briefly to discuss the Historical
Critical Method in more detail. One of the great theological projects
of the 19th and 20th centuries has been the literary analysis of
the source manuscripts of the Christian Bible. The development of
the Historical Critical Method is a significant outgrowth of this
effort. What the Method purports is that an analysis of various
source manuscripts and their texts will yield a measure of their
reliability. An offshoot of the Method is Source Criticism, which
postulates theories about the true sources of the stories found
the manuscripts that we do have. With respect to the Gospels of
Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Historical Critical Method and Source
Criticism led in the mid-20th century to the postulation of a Q-manuscript:
that is, a now-nonexistent text (possibly only oral in form) upon
which the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were based. The upshot is
that the Q-manuscript, now lost, represents the only really reliable
history of Jesus; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, many academics
claim, are merely politicized, compromised versions of the real
is arguable that what Tolkien's mythology represents, by way of
analogy, is what I shall refer to as the T-mythology. That is, Tolkien's
work was not just intended to portray a convincing mythology of
Middle-earth; rather, it attempts to represent the now-nonexistent
text from which all the major Western mythologies were derived:
Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, Norse and Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien would
not be likely to argue that he simply borrowed various elements
from these mythologies and fused them into a comprehensive unit;
rather, as with his linguistic analysis of Middle-earth, he would
claim that the similarities are natural because the T-mythology
predates the others!
would be easy at this point to conclude the first half of our discussion
by merely observing that his work is still fiction, and that
he knew it was fiction; and so the pretense which Tolkien
maintains is just intended as great fun to help the reader to willingly
understanding Tolkien's aim is key in understanding the cultural
ramifications of his work. Is the willing suspension of disbelief
his aim, or is it the not-so-willing suspension of other beliefs?
us then proceed to the second issue, the nature of Tolkien's faith.
Consider the very mythic characteristics of the T-mythology. Greek
and Roman influences are dominant. The Valar are the equivalent
of the gods of Olympus, being both male and female. Through direct
intervention, they can control the earthly conditions, each being
given his or her own realm of influence. The male gods are: Manwë
the god of the air, and senior in status, like Zeus; Ulmo, the Poseidon
of the seas of Middle-earth; Aulë, lord of the substances of the
earth; Oromë, the hunter; Mandos, the keeper of the halls of the
dead; Lórien, the god of dreams; and Tulkas, the wrestler and war
god. The female gods are: Varda, goddess of light, and bride of
Manwë; Yavanna, the goddess of fruit; Nienna, the keeper of sorrows;
Estë, the healer; Vairë, the Weaver of stories; Vána, the goddess
of youth; and Nessa, the Diana-like sister of Oromë.
there is no one-to-one correspondence between the Roman/Greek and
T-mythology pantheons, the concept and organization is very similar,
even to the lesser orders of divinity: the Maiar, who correspond
to the nymphs, driads and so on. The important similarity is that
the gods of the T-mythology are, at the beginning, intimately connected
to the world and directly influence the course of its events, even
directing battles much as the gods do in The Iliad. Even
the mythology of Atlantis is preserved in Tolkien's Atalantë,
the story of the disappearance of Man's island home in the West.
borrows from Norse mythology as well. The god Aulë is essentially
Thorian in character: the god of the forge and the wielder of the
hammer. It is he who creates the Dwarves, as one would expect since
Dwarves are central to Norse mythology. Tolkien draws the very names
of the Dwarves, and other characters, straight from Norse legends:
Durin, Thráin, Thrór, Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bofur, Dáin—and even
though, the T-mythology is most heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon
mythology. The codes of behavior, modes of dress and of battle,
and style of architecture are highly Arthurian, featuring hordes
of knights in shining armor, fire-breathing dragons in the tradition
of Beowulf, and the "Faerie" land of Aman. The two most dominant
aspects of the T-mythology are very Anglo-Saxon: the Elves themselves,
and the concept of the paradisical West. In Arthurian legend, the
King himself sails into the West and is never seen again; and in
Middle-earth, the land of the gods is in the West: even most Elves
hail in ancestry to the "blessed land" of Aman.
So to what extent does Christian mythology
inform the T-mythology? Much is made of Tolkien's association with
C. S. Lewis,
and the very popular but misguided
presumption is that Lewis' intense Christian spirituality somehow
rubbed off on Tolkien and found its way into his work. But where
is the hard evidence?
|Do you disagree? There's probably good reason. Check out the author's Essay Notes for responses to some frequent
there is extensive Christian symbolism in the text of The Lord
of the Rings; but is this just a natural by-product of Tolkien's cultural
milieu? The only real structural vestiges of the Judeo-Christian tradition
in the T-mythology are first, the concept of one supreme, all-powerful
god, Eru-Ilúvatar, who is above the Valar and not embodied; and
second, the evil one in the world, Melkor, a former vassal who challenges
Eru, corrupts many of the Maiar, and is forever cast from
paradise. However, these influences are more Judeo than Christian: Eru
never condescends to walk the earth in the form of a man and sacrifice
himself to save man; and Melkor is chained and cast into the
void long before the time of Frodo's Middle-earth.
may be argued that Gandalf is a Christ-figure; but Gandalf is not
Eru—he is one of the Maiar—and it is not Gandalf who "saves
mankind," but the Hobbit Frodo! When Gandalf leaves, he offers no
spiritual assistance to men. Indeed, by the Third Age and the time
of the War of the Rings, Eru does not figure in the speech of any
race; and the only overt religious practice of men is a moment of
silence facing West at mealtimes, a practice which recalls Islam
more than Christianity. Whatever similarities the T-mythology has
to the Judeo-Christian tradition are only a means to an end, and
are no more—maybe less—significant than parallels to other
WHAT'S THE POINT?
this is the whole point: if one totally suspends disbelief and accepts
Tolkien's contention that the T-mythology is, in fact, an actual
mythology of earth, two conclusions present themselves. First, it
is conceivable that the whole of Western mythology (Greco-Roman,
Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian, etc.) could have been literary
descendants from the T-mythology. The T-mythology not only explains
how the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings came to be,
but it also posits a common source for the mythologies that other
cultures developed to explain the conditions of their worlds. From
a strictly literary standpoint, this is an astonishing goal magnificently—and fanstastically—realized.
a second, and more significant, conclusion also presents itself:
in conceiving the T-mythology, Tolkien must have seen a need to
create a new mythology for the modern world. That is, he must have
perceived that the existing Western mythologies, including the Judeo-Christian
tradition, failed to account for the world as we know it. Tolkien
was not just satisfied with merely explaining how things got to
be at the time of the War of the Ring.
that the period of the War presents Middle-earth as a time of transition.
Physically, the structure of earth is far from settled. "Those
days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the
shape of all lands has been changed; but the regions in which the
Hobbits then lived were doubtless the same as those in which they
still linger: the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea;"
that is, the British Isles, or Norway. More significantly, however,
is the fact that Middle-earth is undergoing drastic metaphysical
changes: magic exists, yes; but it is fading fast. The T-mythology
is not only the story of how coercive supernatural forces, both
good and evil, came into and shaped our world; it is the tale of
how these magical forces have left our world.
the beginning," so to speak, Eru created Middle-earth, and
the Valar were sent to shape it, to care for its people, and to
battle Melkor-Morgoth and his evil forces. The Valar were in the
world and very intimately related to all its workings. By the time
of the War of the Ring, however, the Valar had defeated Melkor,
withdrawn from Middle-earth, and removed their blessed land of Aman
from contact with earth. They sent as emissaries the Maiar Istari,
the wizards, to finally defeat the last followers of the defeated
Melkor. The only divine presences in the world are the wizards,
Tom Bombadil, the balrog, and Sauron himself.
elves, though in essence immortal, are not divine. They can die
if wounded mortally enough, or if they lose the will to live. For
the elves in Middle-earth, immortality is in fact a curse. They
know that their time is drawing to a close, and that they will soon
have to leave their chosen homes, returning to the land of their
ancestors, Aman; for some, such as Elrond, Celeborn and Galadriel,
this means having to leave a place they have called home for more
than two thousand years. Though they love Middle-earth, they know
that it is not theirs, that ultimately it belongs to the Men. The
full significance of the tragedy is played out twice in the T-mythology:
first, in the prophetic tale of Beren and Luthien; and second, in
the prophecy fulfillment of Arwen and Aragorn. Though long-lived,
Aragorn is still mortal; and when he dies, his Elvish bride Arwen
loses her will to live, and sacrifices her immortality.
episode at the Grey Havens at the conclusion of The Return of
the King foreshadows the full vision of the T-mythology. As
Gandalf says to Aragorn, "Though much has been saved, much
must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended.
And all of the lands that you see, and those that lie round about
them, shall be the dwellings of Men. For the time comes for the
Dominion of Men, and the [Elves] shall fade or depart... The Third
Age was my age. I was the Enemy of Sauron; and my work is finished.
I shall go soon. The burden must lie now upon you and your kindred."
the War of the Ring, almost all of the Elves do leave, and with
them (and the power of the Three Rings) disappear the relative paradise
of Lothlorien and Rivendell; the Ents are doomed to extinction;
Tom Bombadil is never seen again; and eventually, even the Hobbits
disappear, avoiding men "with dismay and... becoming harder
to find." Indeed, the Scouring of the Shire prefigures Modern
social action: it is collective resistance against tyranny that
cures the Hobbits' ills, and magic—at best—only helps the
healing. When Sam Gamgee returns home for the final time, it is
with a certain poignancy; for the world that he returns to is no
longer the world that he knew. The Fourth Age will be far more mundane
than the supernaturally-driven Third Age.
agents of evil have been destroyed, of course; but at the same time,
active, intercessive good has been banished as well. The supernatural
has all but died. Small traces still exist, but even those are fated
to eventually degenerate so as to become all but indiscernible.
The ultimate fate of Middle-earth lies in our present: a world in
which there is little or no evidence of the great forces of the
supernatural that our myths tell us once ruled the earth. As Robert
Foster notes, Tolkien documents "the progressive freeing of
Man from the influence of both Valar and demons to work out his
Tolkien's Christianity informs his work, then, it is an impoverished
Christianity. It is a Modernist Christianity, dominated by rationality,
empiricism and pragmatism. It is an ethical, non-spiritual Christianity.
The T-mythology posits, in fact, a post-Christian world: one that
envisions the Ascension as God's withdrawal from the
world; one that envisions Satan and his servants as thrown down, and
men as the only remaining agents of evil, or good; one that denies
the miraculous, and emasculates the Holy Spirit.
Where is Grace, or
the need for grace? Where is forgiveness? Where is prayer? What we
are left with is an Age in which Man is simply left to master
|Do you disagree? There's probably good reason. Check out the author's Essay Notes for responses to some frequent
work may, indeed, express a yearning for our more spiritual past.
And while we may find that admirable or attractive, we must remember
that, for Tolkien, our spiritual past does not primarily lie in
Christian models but in a more Universalist embrace; that the Christian
mythology inadequately accounts for the world as we know it; and
that contemporary religious practice can only pay lip service to
the supernatural. How can we be transformed by the renewing of our
mind, when it is our mind that tells us supernatural renewal is
beyond our experience? The real danger of Tolkien's fantasy lies
not in seduction to the dark side of spirituality, but in the conviction
that all spirituality is metaphysically barren!
popular reaction to Tolkien's work, however, is part of the Post-Modern—if Humanist—rejection of extreme rationalism. His readers
have not embraced a vision of a spiritually impoverished present;
most readers, in fact, simply endure the closing chapters of The
Return of the King without grasping their significance. Rather,
his readers embrace the hope of recapturing a spirituality that
truly believes that all things are possible, that we are not bounded
in our possibilities by what scientists (or our parents) tell us
can or can't happen.
what can we expect from the forthcoming films? While the visual
elements are likely to satisfy even the most ardent fans, we can
hopefully expect the Modernist interpretation of our spiritual past
to be downplayed, and the Humanist bias to prevail. Specifically,
expect the movies to focus on plot, not on mythic exposition; expect
the divine elements, such as Tom Bombadil, to be downplayed; don't
look for extensive discussion of Providence and Fate at the Council
of Elrond, or Gandalf's closing speech to Aragorn; and don't be
surprised when the third installment ends more like Star Wars
than the Scouring of the Shire.
while we may be relieved that the movies will not be a Modernist
tract convincing the world that Christianity is toothless; and while
we may rejoice that Post-Modernism may yield great hope for faith
in the work of the Holy Spirit, we must also remember that The
Lord of the Rings is neither friend nor foe of Christianity.
After all, if God is for Christianity, who can be against it?
what do you think?
Did this spiritual imagery find its way into The Lord of the
Rings by design? Or was it simply part of Tolkien's cultural fabric,
accidentally creeping into the text? And what about the magic and
wizardry? Is this really healthy spirituality that Tolkien presents?