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 pagan values: Tolkien’s solution was to explore those virtues common to pre-Christian and Christian cultures and allow them to shine through in the characters without comment.
Thus, for example, the moral contrast between Denethor, steward of Gondor, and Théoden, king of Rohan, not only illustrates the Christian virtue of hope (which for the Catholic Tolkien is a “theological virtue”) but also a Germanic pagan virtue that Tolkien dubbed the “Northern theory of courage.” Denethor (his name being almost an anagram of Théoden emphasizes the complementarity of the characters) sees no point in fighting impossible odds and seeks suicide. Théoden, on the contrary, relishes the battle precisely because of the impossible odds: It allows him to show his undaunted courage. Yet higher than both is Sam’s transcendent hope in the face of the same impossible odds: He realizes, in singing an old song, that though Sauron has blotted out the sun, the sun is still there, if unseen (a clear image of transcendence). When the happy ending comes unlooked for, Sam feels the movement of what Christian theology calls grace (and Tolkien called “eucatastrophe”).
Another spiritual theme of Tolkien’s fiction that is strikingly Christian (and perhaps particularly Catholic) is what theologians call the “sacramental” view of nature. In many non-Western spiritual traditions and in some Christian denominations, nature presents a spiritual danger: The world we perceive through the senses and the sensual, the flesh, drag the spirit down. It is clear that for Tolkien, nature instead lifts the spirit up. This phenomenon is called “sacramental” because, like the sacraments, nature is a physical reality that points to a spiritual reality.
Perhaps the most striking result of Tolkien’s faith informing his fiction is a favorite attack of hostile critics against The Lord of the Rings: the unabashed clarity of good versus evil in the book. The twentieth century mind, critics like Edwin Muir and Edmund Wilson asserted, rejects a moral vision that sees only black and white and instead demands shades of grey. The immense popularity of Tolkien’s fiction would suggest otherwise.
The Ring: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
Lord Acton in the 1880s wrote, "Power Corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." When Sam urges Galadriel, "I think my master was right. I wish you'd take his ring. You'd put things to...
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