The Mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien:
A Spiritual Analysis
of Tolkien's Fiction
by Greg Wright

This page was created on December 04, 1999
This page was last updated on June 3, 2005

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.

The 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;
Do you disagree?  There's probably good reason.  Check out the author's Essay Notes for responses to some frequent comments!
and that the question of Tolkien's faith—and its relationship to his fiction—has never really been settled.

TOLKIEN'S FICTION

To 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.

Mythology, 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 happen.

It 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.

Fantasy, 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 nonetheless.

This 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.

However, 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.

That 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.

In 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:

"This 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."

Following 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.

Or 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 fantastic world.

Before 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 story.

It 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!

TOLKIEN'S FAITH

It 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 suspend disbelief.

But 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?

Let 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.

While 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.

Tolkien 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 Gandalf.

Naturally, 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,
Do you disagree?  There's probably good reason.  Check out the author's Essay Notes for responses to some frequent comments!
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?

Yes, 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.

It 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 mythologies.

SO WHAT'S THE POINT?

And 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.

But 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.

Consider 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.

"In 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.

The 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.

The 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."

Following 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.

The 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 own destiny."

If 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.
Do you disagree?  There's probably good reason.  Check out the author's Essay Notes for responses to some frequent comments!
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 himself.

CONCLUSIONS

Tolkien's 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!

The 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.

So 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.

So 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?

So 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?

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