J.R.R. Tolkien, Led Zeppelin and the Annunciation

Yes, there are two paths you can go by — but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on.

A reunited Led Zeppelin in December 2007 at The O2 in London for the Ahmet Ertegün tribute show. From left to right: John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page. On drums is Jason Bonham, the son of the deceased John Bonham.
A reunited Led Zeppelin in December 2007 at The O2 in London for the Ahmet Ertegün tribute show. From left to right: John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page. On drums is Jason Bonham, the son of the deceased John Bonham. (photo: p_a_h, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Mary is the Gate through which Christ entered this world!” —St. Ambrose

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Annunciation as “inaugurat[ing] ‘the fullness of time’, the time of the fulfilment of God's promises.” It is a pivotal moment in human history. As the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) states: “Many holy fathers (Sts. JeromeCyril, Ephraim, Augustine) say that the consent of Mary was essential to the redemption. It was the will of GodSt. Thomas says (Summa III:30), that the redemption of mankind should depend upon the consent of the Virgin Mary. This does not mean that God in His plans was bound by the will of a creature, and that man would not have been redeemed if Mary had not consented. It only means that the consent of Mary was foreseen from all eternity, and therefore was received as essential into the design of God.”

In a celebrated sermon, the twelfth century saint, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, emphasised the drama of what was at stake for all mankind at that moment when the angel Gabriel awaited Mary’s reply:

“The angel awaits an answer. ... We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

The price of our salvation is offered to you ...Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise…This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet… Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God.”

The English writer J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and therefore it should come as no surprise that in The Lord of the Rings he chose March 25 as the date that sees the archdemon Sauron’s end in the writer’s mythology of Middle Earth. Mary’s “Yes” marked the end of the reign of evil in our world, an ending that continues until this day, so Tolkien chose this date, too, to mark the end of an era of deep darkness. This co-incidence has been often been noted by Tolkien scholars.

Perhaps less well-known to many Catholics is the influence that Tolkien’s writings has had upon some of the imagery and lyrics in rock music. This is nowhere more noticeable than with the English rock band, Led Zeppelin.

Formed in late 1968, Led Zeppelin was to become the biggest rock act of the 1970s. The band’s combination of electric blues and heavy bass lines powered them to the top of the music charts on both sides of the Atlantic. There the band cultivated an image inspired no doubt, to some degree, by the legends surrounding one of the original Blues’ men, Robert Johnson. Rumors still abound about Johnson, most notably that he sold his soul to the devil late one night at a crossroads in Mississippi in exchange for becoming the greatest guitarist in the world. Similar rumors persist to this day around Zeppelin.

From the beginning of Zeppelin’s incredibly swift ascent to fame and fortune, the band’s founder and guitarist, Jimmy Page, talked openly of his interest in the occult and of his admiration for the self proclaimed black magician, Aleister Crowley, who had died 21 years earlier in 1947. Page even purchased Crowley’s former home on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland. Page also owned and ran an occult bookshop in London. By the mid-1970s, however, any publicity around his interest in the occult became more muted after a series of tragedies began to strike those associated with the band culminating in the band’s singer, Robert Plant, blaming Page’s occult interests for these happenings. In 1980, after the untimely death, caused by alcohol poisoning, of the band’s drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin was disbanded.

Many have suggested that Zeppelin’s song lyrics are shot through with occult meanings. From a cursory glance at some of the titles and lyrics of the band’s best-known songs and at the imagery employed by the band in its publicity and in its album covers, this would appear to be the case. Perhaps less well known is how much the lyrics and, indeed, the mystique that the band generated was on account of J.R.R. Tolkien and the imaginary world he had created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Many of the band’s song titles will strike Tolkien aficionados immediately as being influenced by the author’s writings: “Ramble On,” “The Battle of Evermore,” and “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

Zeppelin’s best-known song is “Stairway to Heaven.” There are elements within that song’s lyrics that hint at, if not directly point to, the world created out of Tolkien’s imagination. The lyric has, however, never been satisfactorily explained by Robert Plant, the band’s chief lyricist, possibly because it comprises a hotchpotch of images and themes with no coherent meaning. The “lady” seeks the “stairway to heaven” and must buy her way onto it, but it is unclear how she is to do so. Nevertheless, the whole ambience of the “Stairway” is one of mystical journeying, albeit directed more to Middle Earth than toward “a New Earth” (Revelation 21:1).

Although Page’s dalliances with the occult are well-known, few are aware that Plant was raised a Catholic. And, although he was to show no signs of his faith in his work or adult life, the mystical longings within his lyrics allude to a longing for the spiritual, something no doubt influenced by his Catholic upbringing.

All art, however obliquely, points to the truth of the human condition and its need for redemption. Ultimately, this truth is answered in the Truth of the Incarnation and, therefore recalls that moment when the Mother of God said ‘Yes.’ It was that “Yes” that brought with it the possibility of heaven. So the Annunciation marks the moment when the real “stairway to heaven” opened before us: that is, through the Mother of God, a heavenly gateway as sweet as it is real, a “stairway” that does not need money to access for that pathway has already been bought with the Blood of her Divine Son and Savior.

“Mary is called the gate of heaven because no one can enter that blessed kingdom without passing through her.” —St. Bonaventure

This article originally appeared March 25, 2019, at the Register.