J.R.R. Tolkien Offers an Antidote Against New Forms of Paganism in the West

Tolkien’s world of thought could be the ideal bridge between the vague longings of modern youth and the truth of Christian tradition.

‘Tolkien’ (photo: Petr Kahanek / Shutterstock)

This article is an adaptation of a lecture, “Tolkien, Heroic Christianity and the Dangers of Neo-Paganism,” delivered at the Sept. 17-19 EWTN Gotland Forum in Sweden.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most important and influential vectors in the transmission of Christian culture and transcendence from the earliest ages to our own era, and it is probably not a coincidence if currently there is a true battle raging around the interpretation and reappropriation of Tolkien’s work. Originally begun with the playful idea of creating, out of speculative etymologies and invented languages, a “mythology for England,” which had lost its actual Anglo-Saxon soul with the Norman Conquest, Tolkien’s work quickly evolved into an imposing “secondary creation,” which was deeply anchored in his Catholic faith and raised many of its author’s personal questions to an archetypal mythological level, where they were symbolically answered.

Tolkien’s work, because of its complexity and traditionalism, is a veritable treasure trove for today’s conservative; and it is astonishing that the opportunities arising from this have not even begun to be recognized, especially in view of Tolkien’s immense popularity with young people. God as a historical actor; good and evil as non-negotiable values; honor, loyalty and duty as the highest virtues; clear social hierarchies; gender roles dependent on natural law; insight into the ultimate futility of human hybris; beauty and suffering as mutually dependent values; deep mistrust in all political institutions coupled with a hope for the return of the king — Tolkien’s world of thought, if we look at it closely, actually stands for everything that is considered “politically unacceptable” in the 21st century, and could be the ideal bridge between the vague longings of modern youth and the truth of Christian tradition.

For many of these seekers in quest of their identity, Tolkien’s heroic Middle-earth, with its apparent immanence of the divine, represents an ideal projection surface for neopagan longings — a flagrant misunderstanding that completely fails to recognize the fundamentally Christian dimension of Tolkien’s secondary creation. For Middle Earth is only pagan at first sight: the “Valar,” to whose honor even the late Gondorians in “The Lord of the Rings” “silently raise their cups to the West,” are only subordinate, angelic figures who owe their power solely to the creator god Iluvatar, as does Morgoth, their diabolical antagonist, who nevertheless only unwittingly contributes to the fulfillment of good. Characteristic for the spiritual development of Middle-earth — and in a symbolic way also for that of the “real” cosmos — is also the increasing withdrawal of the supernatural from the real world: while the Valar initially controlled the fate of the world in the flesh, they then withdrew into the enclosed Valinor, which was then completely removed from the earth and finally only connected to this world through messengers, sorcerers and finally the Son of God. Similarly, evil: after its powers have been fully absorbed into the material world through the creation of various monsters and then the spreading of lies, it matters little that first Morgoth, then Sauron leave the actual world: The struggle between good and evil has merely shifted from the physical to the spiritual plane in accordance with the Creator God’s plan of salvation, as is also shown by the manifold allusions to Christian revelation that pervade Tolkien’s work. 

Thus, “paganism” is only one stage within a more comprehensive plan of salvation, and if the clear-cut frontlines of that “heroic” age may appear quite attractive from today’s perspective and so much easier to deal with than the present spiritual war within our souls, a return to such a past would not only be a perverse regression, but also a betrayal of our salvation mission and, moreover, an undertaking that is not only obviously artificial but also problematic, wrong, even dangerous.

“Problematic,” because the deliberate “construction” of a religion by selectively picking out agreeable elements from the sparse scraps of our tradition is not by chance reminiscent of the formation of those other alternative identities (such as genderism, veganism, New Age, Extinction rebellion, etc.) that have splintered our modern world into a variety of artificial and rival parallel societies: The construed return to a fictitious “authenticity” is, therefore, no real contribution to overcoming the present problems, but rather only a symptom of our “malaise in culture” and is not by chance reminiscent of Denethor’s wish to return to the barbaric burial customs of the ancient rulers from the time “before a ship ever sailed here from the West,” because “the West has failed.”

“Wrong,” because paganism only became a “religion” when it met Christianity: before that, it was an unquestioned collection of the most diverse rites and legends, which required no “faith” but mere action, and which was tied to the experience of nature to such an extent that doubt about the “truth” of those ideas could not even arise. Only the incomparably more complex (because more philosophical) claim to truth of Christianity together with its complex Old Testament background gave rise to the problem of faith in the first place, behind which there is no going back from the spiritual horizon of the 21st century. 

And “dangerous,” because every contact with the divine, if it does not want to remain a mere superficial lifestyle, is at the same time a game with danger: anyone who enters into honest contact with the divine must also reckon with an answer, and everyone should be aware that such an answer, in the pagan context, can turn out not only positive but also negative.

But even more essential: paganism was abolished by Christianity almost everywhere in Europe more than 1,000 years ago, and a disruptive return to pre-Christian conditions would not only be unnatural, it would also completely misjudge the actual nature of that “abolition.” Hegel already explained that this term has a threefold meaning: not only that of mere negation, but also that of preserving important components of the old in the new and finally that of elevating the old element to a higher level. A return to the pagan status quo ante would thus not only be a step backward in every respect; it would also bear the danger of abandoning, together with Christianity, all those central elements of genuine, original paganism that are still alive here, and replacing them in favor of a chimerical artificial religion derived entirely from contemporary thought, which would paradoxically have less to do with the sensibilities of genuine pagans than what has been preserved of them without interruption in Christianity: Whatever was true, important and healthy in Germanic paganism has been transcended and thus lives on in Christianity.

This is certainly one of the reasons for the fascination of Tolkien’s work, for instead of offering mere backward escapism or passing entertainment, as so many fantastic authors do, he has succeeded in designing a world in which the seemingly pagan, i.e. extra-Christian or pre-Christian, elements are sensibly arranged in relation to the legends of the West, the narrative material of the Old Testament and, most of all, the Christian history of salvation. Thus, despite its apparent strangeness, Middle-earth is an integral part of Western culture; a mythology entirely tailored to our (northwestern) European view of the world and of humanity: loving the world Tolkien created is thus by no means a symptom of escapism, but in reality an indication of the rejection of a culture-destroying, counter- and underworldly modernity and an unconscious longing for a condensed, even transcended summary of what it once meant to be a Western man.

For Tolkien, two elements seemed to be central to depicting the soul of this somehow alternative, re-created, inner or transcended West. On the one hand, his work is permeated by that constant, Western “Faustian” striving that also takes on very concrete form in Middle-earth in the form of the “hesperialist” longing of the Elves and humans for the “West” and that culminates in the figure Earendel, who assumes a hinge function between Middle Earth, the Nordic Sagas and the Christian tradition, as his name is present as well in the Edda as in the “O antiphon” of the Advent liturgy in order to refer to the morning star. 

On the other hand, courageous perseverance in a hopeless position should be mentioned as a further characteristic of Tolkien’s image of Western man — a trait that is not only reflected in the “Nordic” spirit of the Germanic sagas so important to Tolkien, but is also genuinely Christian. For since man and creation (in Middle Earth as in the West) are afflicted with the stain of evil and the fall from grace, any striving for permanence, knowledge or beauty is under divine protection, but at the same time doomed to failure and can only be brought to fulfillment by an act of grace, by a divine intervention from outside. The heroic tradition of the Nordic West must therefore have seemed to Tolkien like an anticipation of that Christian thought, so it is no wonder that the two complement rather than contradict each other in Tolkien’s secondary creation.

It would, of course, go beyond the scope of this short essay to point out in detail all the pagan customs and world-feelings that were also adopted in the “real world” by the Christianity of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages — and, let it be said, in most cases quite voluntarily, if one considers, for example, that those Germanic peoples who inherited the Roman Empire had for the most part already converted to Christianity without being subjected to direct political pressure: The conversion from paganism to Christianity was voluntary and will therefore not have taken place under the auspices of a painful “loss” of one’s own tradition, but rather under that of gaining an additional spiritual dimension. And even though, at the beginning, paganism and Christianity stood unconnected next to each other, as is clear in the uneasiness of many early heroic sagas revisited by Christian scribes (such as “Beowulf,” which is so important to Tolkien), they grew together step by step into a genuine symbiosis and thus created the actual foundations of Western culture as it emerged, in the European heartlands, since the Carolingian and especially the Ottonian periods.

It is only a small but essential step from the pagan to the Christian hero, namely that of incorporating the moral dualism between a good and evil that was not yet problematized in Germanic heroic epic poetry, and that was not only morally but also transcendentally anchored; a deficiency which, by the way, also applied to the Greek literature: while the pre-Christian hero, Nordic or Greek, had the “tragic” choice between two values mutually exclusive, though generally both of equal legitimacy, leading thus to a manly, but “tragic” fight (and generally fate), the Christian hero’s fight is anchored in a clearly structured moral universe. For while the behavioral framework of the pre-Christian hero was rooted in tradition and convention, but not in transcendence, if we recall for example Antigone or the Nibelungs, the Christian hero’s main task is to identify the morally “right choice,” and his otherworldly reward will not be dedicated to his mere perseverance in outer fight, but to his inner effort for purity.

From the Christianization of the legends around the Celtic King Arthur and his court over the Germanization and Heroization of the Gospels in the Saxon “Heliand” to the incorporation of the Grail material into the High Medieval chivalric novel, all these endeavors to unify Germanic heroism and Christian interiority present a new ideal of man and society, which combined the radical self-responsibility and loneliness of the pre-Christian hero and the ideal of combative defiance even against the greatest superior power with the ideal of the “quest,” the striving for transcendent fulfillment, the highest moral self-demands and active charity in the service of the weak — all traits that are also common to Tolkien’s heroes from early Beleriand to the “Fellowship of the Ring” of the late Third Age.

The fact that this religious-heroic ideal of man gradually receded into the shadows of society at the beginning of the modern era was therefore hardly due to the influence of Christianity, as is often read in neopagan milieus, but rather to the materialist priorities of the newly arising bourgeois society on the one hand and the territorial hunger of the new Machiavellian sovereigns on the other. Nevertheless, the ideal of Christian chivalry would continue to shape the education and self-image of the Western elite until well into the 17th century, despite changes in the framework conditions, and would organically transform into the type of the “gentil’uomo,” the “gentilhomme” and finally the “gentleman” — an ideal that was to meet its end in the trenches of the First World War and the totalitarian excesses of the Second World War, and which today receives the coup de grace through its ideological discredit as “old white man.”

Only the link to this heroic Christian tradition, but never its rejection, can therefore make it possible to overcome the present crisis of civilization and help the West to experience at least a worthy conclusion of its aging civilization despite all internal and external distresses. From this perspective, the fact that the memory of the earliest, “Heroic” and “Nordic” days of our culture is once again dawning in our late times is perhaps even a positive sign suggesting that in the worst times of need, we might be able to grow some last strength from the hidden depths of our subconscious. But such a strengthening must not take place at the price of a rejection of what actually constitutes our culture: Western Christianity, with all its ups and downs, is and remains the ultimate framework that has enabled Western man to find the way toward transcendence, the ultimate goal of mankind, over the last thousand years.

David Engels is a Belgian historian, research professor at the Instytut Zachodni in Poznan, and holder of the Chair of History of the Roman World at the Université libre de Bruxelles. He is the author of numerous books, translated into a dozen languages, including Decline, The Crisis of the European Union and the Fall of the Roman Republic — Historical Analogies, Renovatio Europae: For a Hesperialist Renewal of Europe, Que faire? Vivre avec le déclin de l'Europe.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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