The Lord of the Rings is virtually a test case for a definition of Christian Literature, since it contains not a single reference to religion in general, much less Christ or Christianity in particular—yet many critics (and Tolkien himself) have asserted that it is centrally Christian in conception and execution. Tolkien went even farther: in a December 2, 1953, letter to Father Robert Murray, he asserted that the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings was unconscious at first, but then conscious in revision. As the setting of The Lord of the Rings preceded Christianity by several thousand years, Christian references would be anachronisms, and pagan references contrary to spiritual truth would also run counter to the vital truths Tolkien was trying to articulate in his novel.
In many ways this dilemma was exactly the one faced by Tolkien’s favorite Old English writer, the Beowulf poet. Critics before Tolkien had seen that heroic classic as a clumsy and anachronistic mishmash of Christian and pagan ideas, or as a pagan masterpiece spoiled with Christian excrescences. Tolkien, in his famous monograph “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936), instead suggested that the Christian poet knew he was conveying pagan legend and that Beowulf’s heroic morality resonated more with Christianity than later critics would think. The Beowulf poet’s solution to the tension was Christian commentary on...
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