In the comments for my long-form article The Secular Apocalypse: Irreligion, Pop Culture and the End of the World, a reader going by Hunter asks:

What do you think of The Lord of the Rings’ approach (not The Silmarillion but the trilogy) to God and religion? I was always, I won’t say troubled but perplexed at the absence of God and religion there. There is an afterlife, silver shores, but no deity to meet there. For all the minute world-building, that the dwarves and other peoples didn’t have their own gods or religious rituals made it hard for me to visualize, after one looked beneath the dazzling overall beauty of their worlds, how life for them functioned.

The height of any reference to a personal deity in LOTR—the comment that Frodo was “meant” to find the ring—is the kind of pan-spiritual remark that might be at home in many of today’s movies. I guess my question is whether Tolkien himself found that introducing theology into a fantasy story was too sticky a business: that certain figures lining up behind the “good” and certain behind the “bad” was enough for the type of story he was trying to tell, and so whether, speaking specifically about the fantasy films you reference, like the Avengers, it’s not only unproblematic but necessary to the themes such humanist stories are trying to pursue that religious references are left out.

Thanks for the excellent question.

Tolkien famously described The Lord of the Rings, aptly in my view, as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” But it’s true that there is virtually no sign of religious behavior or institutions.

Neither among hobbits, dwarves, elves or men do we see priests, temples, sacrifice, liturgical rituals, or other religious behavior. From The Silmarillion we know that Middle-earth was created by Eru Ilúvatar, but no one in The Lord of the Rings prays to him or invokes him. (Shameless name-drop: I believe the person who first explicitly pointed this out to me was, um, Ian McKellen.)

Why is this?

The reason is twofold, with positive and negative sides.

The negative side is this. The Lord of the Rings, like the whole Legendarium, is set in a pre-Christian and even pre-Abrahamic mythic past, a mythic past that is also a world apart from the primeval mythic history of Genesis. It is a world of pre-Christian European myth redeemed and shaped by Catholic imagination.

This presented Tolkien with a dilemma regarding any possible developed religious system (and, world-building obsessive that he was, had he started to build a religious system, it would have to be a fully developed religion with creed, code, and cult).

Such a developed religious system would necessarily do one of two things. Either it would present tensions and problems regarding Catholicism or else it would transparently be a cipher or allegory for Catholicism.

Tolkien wanted neither. He wanted a world that was both, on the one hand, completely consistent with (and imaginatively informed by) Catholicism and also, on the other hand, not identifiably or transparently Catholic.

Too much Catholicism would undermine, among other things, the revolutionary character of God’s future revelation to the Jewish people and especially the fullness of divine revelation in Christ. There are things that should not be known before their time. It would spoil the whole character of what Tolkien was trying to do. (I’m reminded of the trajectory of the caveman comic strip B.C. in the 1980s when its creator Johnny Hart became more interested in his faith and began infusing the strip with explicitly Christian ideas. It wasn’t “B.C.” any more!)

On the other hand, too little Catholicism in a developed religious system would inevitably wind up introducing some kind of heathenism into Middle-earth, which Tolkien also did not want.

On occasion you can see him straining to thread the needle, as when Denethor growls in The Return of the King that for him and Faramir there will be “no long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.” 

The implication is that cremation, which of course Tolkien rejected, was a “heathen” practice (a word I’m sure Tolkien used advisedly, like “wizard” and “magic,” meaning something subtly different from the normal use of those terms) abolished by the Númenóreans, a high race with close ties to the Elves and having, like the Elves, a certain transcendent, quasi-godlike status that gave Tolkien wiggle room to “correct” pagan human tendencies where necessary. This was as close as Tolkien could come to interfering with the pre-Abrahamaic mythic world he was trying to create.

That’s the negative side. The positive side, to which I’ve already alluded, is that Tolkien wanted to give imaginative shape to Catholic sensibilities — to express it with images rather than in straightforward terms.

Thus, for example, all the evil creatures are corrupted versions of good creatures — orcs are twisted or fallen elves; trolls are distorted Ents; Melkor and Sauron are fallen Ainur; etc. Thus when Sam wonders whether orcs perhaps they live on poison and foul air rather than ordinary food and drink, Frodo replies:

“No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison.”

Thus the character of Galadriel is dependent, as Tolkien put it in letters, upon “Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary,” upon whom “all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”

Thus lembas is described in overtly (but not explicitly) Eucharistic terms, a food possessing

a virtue without which [Frodo and Sam] would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

Thus Frodo and Sam are able to bear the Ring to the very brink of destruction, not because they are powerful but precisely because they are small and humble (“When I am weak, then am I strong”; “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise”).

Thus Frodo finally succumbs on the very edge of the Chamber of Fire in Mount Doom, because fallen mortal flesh cannot resist temptation completely and destroy evil on its own.

And thus Divine Providence arranges that the quest comes to a successful end, not through Frodo’s strength but through Gollum’s treachery — yet this is also accomplished precisely through the mercy of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam, each of whom chose at some point in pity and mercy not to slay Gollum.

Tolkien was right to call The Lord of the Rings “fundamentally religious and Catholic.” And he was also right to recognize that in order to make it “fundamentally religious and Catholic” in the way he wanted it to be, it was necessary to exclude virtually any sign of explicit religiosity.

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