Text of a lecture to be given by David (Lord) Alton at the
Catholic Society of Bath University and Bath Spa University College on
Thursday 20th of February 2003
Politicians often get by on precious little knowledge about the
subjects that they have been asked to address. Usually they rely on
knowing marginally more than their audience. This lecture is a
particularly risky endeavour as I can guarantee that most people here
will have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Middle Earth and its origins.
The younger the audience the riskier it gets.
At Christmas last I had a salutary reminder of the perilous journey
on which I am about to embark. As we left the cinema, my twelve-year-old
son gave me a blow by blow account of the discrepancies between the text
of The Two Towers and Peter Jackson’s magnificent screen adaptation.
The Lord of the Rings, which was first published in 1954, has
made Tolkien’s a household name. More than 50 million copies have been
sold worldwide. Much to the chagrin of Tolkien’s many critics the
public voted it Best Book of the Century in 1997 in a survey carried out
by Amazon.com and then again in a survey carried out by Waterstone’s
and Channel 4.
As a teenager I had read The Hobbit but it wasn’t until my early
twenties that I bought The Lord of the Rings. I was 23 and had
just contested my first General Election in an inner city area of
On the back of a three-day-week and a struggle with the trades unions
Edward Heath had gone to the country asking the question "Who runs
the country?" The uncertain result of an almost balanced Parliament
failed to answer the question and it would only be another eight months
before another General Election would be staged. It was over those weeks
that I read The Lord of the Rings.
It had been a difficult time for me personally. Elected as a student
I had served for two years on Liverpool City Council representing an
area where half the homes had no inside sanitation, running hot water,
or bathrooms. Half the streets were still lit by gas lighting and the
massive slum clearance programme meant that day by day many desperate
people came to me with acute social and housing needs.
I had just survived an attempt to expel me from my then political
party for bringing to light corrupt attempts by a colleague who was
trying to rig housing grant applications. I had also received a letter
from the then leader of my party telling me to desist from attacking my
Socialist opponent, the sitting member. I had exposed his parliamentary
record and his failure, over 30 years, to speak or campaign in the House
of Commons about the appalling hardships of his constituents.
I had run up against the Establishment. The MP was a friend of my
leader and I was told to lay off or lose financial support and the
leader’s endorsement. I had accepted the second option.
The Lord of the Rings was therefore a very welcome distraction
from all of this.
Much later I read The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s short stories, my
favourite of which is "Leaf by Niggle."
I also came to Tolkien as someone who as a child, and again as a
student wrestling with his faith, had been captivated by C.S.Lewis.
As an eleven-year-old, the lady who ran our public lending library
pointed me at The Narnian Chronicles and encouraged me to read them.
Later I was devoured The Cosmic Trilogy—and still believe that the
third book, That Hideous Strength,—has a powerful and prophetic
message for our times. Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially Mere
Christianity and The Problem of Pain, helped me to deepen and articulate
my Christian faith.
Lewis’ friendship with Tolkien and with Owen Barfield and the other
Inklings, is the sort of camaraderie out of which creative genius can
flow. It also underlines how friendship on the journey of understanding
helps us all "to go deeper and to go higher" as Lewis
memorably puts it.
As the Inklings gathered at Oxford’s Eagle And Child (the
"Bird and Baby") or in Lewis’s rooms to read aloud their
latest writings were they simply embarked on a literary or, in the case
of Tolkien a philological endeavour, or was there something else at work
I want to divide my talk into four themes:
1. Allegory or more?
2. The Christian Narrative
3. The Political Narrative; and
4. What it means for us now
Allegory of More?
According to the Collins English dictionary, allegory is where
"the apparent meaning of the characters and events is used to
symbolise a deeper moral or spiritual meaning". Nineteen
Eighty-Four or Animal Farm by George Orwell, or Lewis’ The
Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe are good examples of both political
and religious allegory. Tolkien did not actually much care for The
Narnian Chronicles for this very reason.
Tolkien generally spurned allegory as an art form—he even professed
to hating it—so it seems unlikely that his works were intentionally
and fundamentally allegorical.
Indeed, in his Foreword to The Lord of the Rings instead of
allegory he said
"I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied
applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that may
confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one
resides in the freedom of the reader and the other in the purposed
domination of the author."
In his letters he is less emphatic, admitting that,
"…any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must
use allegorical language." (And, of course, the more
"life" a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of
allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is
made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)."
If we were simply to read The Lord of the Rings as an allegory
we would be missing its point. Just as Jesus used parables to take us to
a deeper truth, so Tolkien weaves his stories to take us ever deeper. It
is like peeling off the snake’s skin as stories are revealed within
his stories: each one challenging us, sensitising us, inviting us. And
what is it he wants us to discover?
Humphrey Carpenter’s collection of Tolkien’s letters (Allen &
Unwin 1981) gives us Tolkien’s own answer:
"Of course, Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in
In 1925, G.K. Chesterton had published The Everlasting Man—which
was to have a direct effect on C.S.Lewis’s conversion. In a chapter
entitled "The Escape from Paganism" Chesterton takes us
directly to the Truth:
"Nothing short of the extreme and strong and startling doctrine
of the divinity of Christ will give that particular effect that can
truly stir the popular sense like a trumpet; the idea of the king
Himself serving in the ranks like a common soldier. By making that
figure merely human we make that story much less human. We take away the
point of the story which actually pierces humanity; the point of the
story which was quite literally the point of a spear."
Chesterton adds that faith:
"…is not a process but a story….The life of man is a story;
an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story
The Catholic faith is…a story and in that sense one of a hundred
stories; only it is a true story. It is a philosophy and in that sense
one of a hundred philosophies; only it is a philosophy that is like
Tolkien echoes this in his remark (ibid.):
"So the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life; and
the only intelligible story is an allegory…. the better and more
consistent an allegory is the more easily it can be read ‘just as a
Of the New Testament he says that "The Gospels contain a
fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essences
of fairy stories." This is different from all the others because it
has "entered history" Unlike the other stories "there is
no tale ever told that men would rather find true…to reject it leads
either to sadness or to wrath" (Lecture at St. Andrew’s
Perhaps prefiguring the way in which Tolkien will tackle his epic
tale, Chesterton observes that "Every story does truly begin with
creation and end with a last judgement." All the elements, from the
genesis and "the great music" of The Silmarillion to the
awesome climax at Mount Doom, take us from alpha of creation to the
omega of judgement. This is a story that exists for itself.
Tolkien tell us that:
"The Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally
religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in
the revision". Elsewhere he states "I am a Christian (which
can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic"
(ibid.). In 1958 he wrote that The Lord of the Rings is "a
tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is
not an allegory of them."
So this is more than allegory, much much more; and what were those
"certain ‘religious’ ideas" that inspired Tolkien?
The Christian Narrative
I will turn in a moment to the thematic concepts that Tolkien
develops in his work. Before doing so let me register some of the
obvious parallels that can be drawn with particular characters and
events, while recalling Tolkien’s words that "The Incarnation of
God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to
In the lady Galadriel the reader can be allowed to hear an echo of
the Virgin Mary "Our Lady, upon which all my own small perceptions
of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded" (letter to
Fr. Robert Murray SJ); Galadriel’s grand-daughter, Arwen, also has a
Marian role, saving both Frodo’s life and soul as she utters the words
"What grace is given me, let it pass to him. Let him be
Galadriel bestows upon the Fellowship seven mystical gifts, which are
surely analogous to the seven sacraments, and as such are real signs of
grace, and not mere symbols (and hence this is a specifically Catholic
feature of the book).
Gandalf or Aragorn (and even possibly Frodo) may be seen as
Christ-like: with Aragorn the king entering his kingdom, the return of
whom everyone is expecting; the apparent "resurrection" of
Gandalf when he dies on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum after the fight with
the Balrog; or Boromir’s surrender of his life for his friends in
order to save his companions (made all the more remarkable because of
his earlier attempt to seize the ring by force and by his subsequent
repentance); or Frodo’s willingness both to serve and to carry his
burden. Or, in the provision of lembas, can we not see the Eucharist.
Before the Fellowship depart from Lorien they have a final supper where
the mystical elvish bread lembas is shared, and they all drink from a
common cup. Given Tolkien’s remark that "I fell in love with the
Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have
fallen out again" some comparison with the Last Supper is
inevitable. And it would be strange if Tolkien’s tryst with the saving
bread was not somewhere replicated in his great saga.
Beyond these individual instances are far deeper stories with the
The nature of good and evil
Perhaps the most obvious of these is the struggle between good and
evil. This never-ending struggle is clearly defined by Tolkien’s
faith. In 1956 in a letter to Amy Ronald he wrote:
"I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not
expect "history" to be anything but a long defeat—though it
contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some
samples or glimpses of final victory."
As the ring bearer struggles towards his destiny many die before the
evil forces of Sauron are at last subdued; and even then Saruman remains
at large in the Shire.
Frodo’s self-sacrifice and willingness to take on seemingly
impossible odds reflects a central tenet of Christian belief. The
constant presence of Sauron that is felt throughout the book also
reminds us of the constant threat of evil in our own lives. Frodo and
Gandalf both understand that if they use the ring to overcome the Dark
Lord then they too will become enslaved by evil. For the Christian the
use of evil to overcome evil is a frequent temptation.
The general weakness of humanity (which can be taken to cover not
only mankind, but all creatures in The Lord of the Rings) reminds
us that humanity is fundamentally good, but that those who fall turn to
evil. All that is evil was once good—Elrond says, "Nothing was
evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." We can see the
concept of the fallen human in the orcs—which were themselves once men
and elves—as well as the concept of temptation, which causes someone
In The Hobbit the travellers are warned as they enter Mirkwood, don’t
drink the water and don’t stray from the path. How like all of us, the
descendants of Adam, who when urged not to eat at the forbidden tree or
not to stray from Him who is the Way we so often follow our own path.
The temptation of the Serpent is reflected in Boromir’s temptation
by the Ring, as well as in Gollum’s. In Gollum we also see the idea of
a conscience—he fights with himself, and with his conscience while he
is being tempted. The theologian Colin Gunton was of the opinion that
the way in which the Ring tempts people to use its power is analogous to
Jesus’ temptation by the devil.
Other aspects of evil are also recur in the book. The destructive
nature of evil is there in the Scouring of the Shire, and in the way in
which Saruman’s troops destroy the trees and the timeless quality of
Shire life, something especially abhorrent to Tolkien. The orcs
themselves are cannibals, and are hideous – showing how evil corrupts.
The dark and barren lands of Mordor are the very face of evil.
Connected with this is the self-destructive nature of evil.
After Gollum falls to the power of the Ring, he is consumed by its
power, and he becomes weakened to such an extent that he can no longer
resist it. Even getting close to evil has a subverting effect: take
Bilbo’s reluctance to give up the Ring, and its disappearance from the
mantle piece and reappearance in his pocket. Or, despite his epic and
heroic journey into darkness, Frodo ultimately fails to throw the ring
into the furnace. Here is the powerful mixture of the intoxicating
allure of the forbidden with our human weakness and frailty.
In this part of the narrative we are also reminded of the Christian
virtue of mercy. Sam would have gladly disposed of Gollum whom he sees
as a threat to Frodo. Gandalf commends Frodo for showing mercy and
invokes the belief in providence, that even Gollum may one day have his
moment. As the ring is committed to the depths that providence comes to
Tolkien’s narrative also dwells on unlikely victories over
seemingly intractable and daunting odds such as at Helm’s Deep. Even
when evil appears to be triumphing – such as when Saruman gloats over
what he considers to be the foolhardiness of Aragorn’s troops as they
march towards Mordor, he is defeated by them.
Evil also brings with it desolation and barrenness.
Contrast the destruction of Isengard, and the brutality of the orcs,
with the simple homely life of the Shire—so resonant of Chesterton’s
Merrie England. Contrast the creativity of Iluvatar, the One, and his
first creations, the Ainur, the Holy Ones, with Melkor, "the
greatest of the Ainur" who, like Lucifer, falls as he succumbs to
the sin of pride and seeks to subvert both men and elves (The
Tolkien presents another side to evil too—the fact that inherent in
evil is the desire to dominate, rule and have power over others.
There are other images in the book, which, while not being
specifically Christian, are certainly images of good, or of bad. One
fundamental image that Tolkien repeatedly uses is that of dark and
light. Compare and contrast, for example, The Shire and Mordor
("where the shadows lie")—The Shire which contains so much
of the England Tolkien loved, and Mordor, the dark and sinister land
where Sauron and Mount Doom are to be found, and which contains so much
of the England that Tolkien hated. Compare also the man-eating trolls
and orcs with the elves—the disfigured (fallen) creatures and the
beautiful and immortal elves, who eat the lembas, the mystical bread—the
bread of angels which nourishes and heals. Lembas "had a potency
that increased as travellers relied on it alone, and did not mingle it
with other goods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure."
This allusion reminds us of the manna that fed the people of Israel and
of saints such as Theresa Neumann who survived by eating nothing other
than the holy Eucharist.
Even in his use of names Tolkien’s sign posts take us to places and
people that seem good or bad—Galadriel,
Aragorn, Frodo and Arwen are beautiful-sounding names, whereas
Wormtongue, the Balrog, Mordor and Mount Doom are unlikely to be forces
Tolkien is too good a storyteller to reveal the end of the story too
soon. Just like John Bunyan’s Christian the pilgrim must steer his way
through good and evil and although learning as he travels that evil is
powerful, that it is not all-powerful, and it cannot but fail in the
Death and Immortality
There are of course many other ways in which the Christian message is
voiced in The Lord of the Rings; another is in the depiction of
mortality and immortality.
In 1958, in a letter to Rhona Beare, Tolkien wrote:
"I might say that if the tale is ‘about’ anything it is not
as seems widely supposed about ‘power.’ …It is mainly concerned
with Death and Immortality."
One of the great temptations of today—represented in the battles
over euthanasia, genetics and the immortality craved for through
genetics and cloning—is the powerful temptation (shared by some of the
men and elves of Tolkien’s realm) to artificially manipulate our
allotted span of life and to usurp the role of the Creator. The Ring
Rhyme that opens each volume of The Lord of the Rings reminds us
of the order of Creation and that we cannot cheat our maker:
"Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the
Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…"
The Benedictine monk who told his audience that the purpose of
Catholic schools was to prepare its charges to meet death was not
overstating the obvious. Each of us is "doomed to die".
Because our relationship with the Creator has been fractured, this
becomes for many an event to fear rather than the Christian moment of
reconciliation. The Silmarillion puts it like this:
"Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears
even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and
confounded it with darkness, and brought evil out of good and fear out
The purpose of the quest is to ensure the triumph of good over evil
and hope over fear.
It would be too simple to say that in The Lord of the Rings
men are mortal and that elves are immortal—since elves can either die
in action or of grief, and they "pass to the West", to a sort
of Utopia across the seas, so perhaps it is not quite true to say that
they are immortal (in any event it seems to be a bone of contention
among Tolkien fans so I am doubtless straying into dangerous waters).
Tolkien’s decision not to invent an eternal destiny for the elves
or orcs or dwarves helps him avoid creating a new theology. Men do have
a destiny beyond the grave (and there is no reason to suspect that this
is not a similar destiny to that which Christians believe comes after
death). Tolkien does not put the elves on a par with God. Here, surely,
are the angelic hosts, the cherubim and seraphim, who make up the
heavenly order and whose history sometimes meets our own. Lothlorien is
their domain: and here "no blemish or sickness or deformity could
be seen…On the land of Lorien there was no stain."
Mortality is not shown as being undesirable in comparison with
immortality—whereas mortal men are "doomed to die", elves
are "doomed not to die", not, at any rate, until the earth
itself ends. In the Silmarillion, we are told that each passing year is
more sorrowful for the elves, and that men, being themselves mortal,
have the "gift of freedom", which is itself a gift of God.
The men of Numenor illustrate an interesting aspect of the divide
between mortality and immortality. They begin to become jealous of the
elves and their immortality, but they are told that their mortality was
divinely ordained, and that they should accept what they have been
given. They do not heed this warning, and try to achieve immortality,
but all they can succeed in doing in preserving the flesh of those who
have died, and they become more and more fearful of death, and build
tombs where "the thought of death was enshrined in the
darkness". And while they were still alive, they turned to decadent
ways, "desiring ever more goods and riches"—a cautionary
tale if ever there was one. Here are the living dead who have eaten the
forbidden fruit. Think also of Gollum whose endless and pathetic
wanderings through countless ages are at last ended in his death.
Surely, as Joseph Pearce says in his book "Tolkien, Man and
Myth", the author was encouraging us in the Christian belief that
death "is not the extinction of life, but the fullness of
life"; and none of us can ultimately cheat it. The story seems to
me to be about escape from death through death, and this is the heart of
the Christian narrative.
I was recently in Hanoi.
In a large mausoleum in the centre of the city they keep the
mummified remains of the communist leader Ho Chi Minh. His embalmed body
attracts many secular pilgrims. It reminded me of the glass coffin in
Red Square which houses the earthly remains of the equally dead Lenin.
These coffins are a parody of Christianity.
The whole point of Christianity is that the tomb is empty, there is
no body within. The secular religion of Marxism—and, indeed, all the
stories contained in the other competing ideologies—offers no hope
beyond the grave. Tolkien’s hope was in the resurrection of every man
Resurrection, Salvation, Repentance, Self-Sacrifice, Free Will and
Resurrection is one of the underlying currents in The Lord of the
Rings—Gandalf dies and then comes back again even stronger as
Gandalf the White.
Another of the currents is the idea of salvation. The very future of
Middle Earth is at stake, and the Fellowship wins salvation for Middle
Earth, although not without cost, including self-sacrifice. How potent
are the words of Jesus as we think of Boromir or Gandalf that
"Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his
Repentance should also be considered here; it is clear that the
Christian notion of repentance does exist in Middle Earth. Boromir is
rewarded for his repentance by dying a hero’s death by an orc’s
arrow, and being given a hero’s funeral. All of the fallen characters
are given a chance to repent, although most of them, unlike Boromir, do
not—such as Wormtongue, Gollum and Saruman.
Tolkien shows the sin of pride very clearly; indeed it is the Ring
itself, which portrays the sin of pride. As Pearce says in an interview,
"The possessor of the Ring is possessed by his possession and, in
consequence, is dispossessed of his soul". Gollum is clearly proud
of the ring, and is obsessed with it, and as such is debased and
corrupted. Pearce also says that Frodo’s fight to resist the powers of
the Ring "is akin to the Carrying of the Cross, the supreme act of
Providence and free will are also main tenets of Christianity.
Catholic teaching on free will has always rejected pre-deterministic
Calvinism, where no one has any influence over their destiny. The free
men of the Middle Earth and the hobbits of the Shire are greatly in
evidence in The Lord of the Rings.
Each of us has a destiny and we are free to embrace it or to reject
Cardinal John Henry Newman put it well when he said that there is
some unique task assigned to each of us that has not been assigned to
any other. Elrond tells Frodo that it is his destiny to be a ring
bearer; but this is no pleasurable occupation. Throughout the quest
Frodo’s strength in increasingly sapped by the burden he carries and
which he seeks to be rid of. His stumbling approach to Mordor, under the
Eye of Sauron, are like the faltering steps of Christ weighed down by
his Cross as he repeatedly falls on the path to Golgotha; and like
Christ Frodo is tempted by despair.
Indeed, Frodo does succumb. His free will, hitherto so strong in
resisting the powers of the Ring, gives way to the power of the Ring,
and he cannot bring himself to throw it down into the fires of Mount
Doom. Despite all his inner strength Frodo gradually succumbs to a dark
fascination with the ring and he loses his free spirit and free will the
closer he comes in proximity to Mount Doom – a point made by Stratford
Caldecott in his essay Over the Chasm of Fire: Christian Heroism in The
Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
Enter, stage left, Samwise Gamgee.
Sam is central to a religious understanding of The Lord of the
Rings. Sam is Frodo’s loyal and humble companion. Sam is like
Barnabas, the encourager, who quietly encouraged Paul in his epic
Tolkien said that he had modelled Sam on the private soldiers he
encountered when he served as a second Lieutenant in the Lancashire
Fusiliers at the Battle of the Somme in 1916: "My Sam Gamgee is
indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I
knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself."
Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest hero in the book.
Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, it is he who saves Frodo and
ultimately the Shire. Of course, Mary Magdalene in her first
resurrection encounter with the Lord mistakes Him, too, thinking that he
also is only a gardener. So often we miss what is important about the
people we meet, what matters most.
Like Simon of Cyrene, Sam shares the Master’s burden. He realises
Christ’s promise that those who take up the burden and follow Him will
find the burden lightened. Sam’s burden is lightened as he is
Stratford Caldecott quotes Tolkien as saying that the plot is
concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’—and
the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth. It is, at bottom, a Christian
myth, in which ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’.
Sam is a ‘humble man’, close to the earth, without pretension. For
him to leave the Shire, out of love for his Master, involves a great
sacrifice. It is fidelity to that sacrifice, and to his relationship
with Frodo, that remains that guiding star throughout.
The plans of the Wise and the fate of Middle Earth, however, are
never Sam’s concern. He only knows he has to play his part in helping
Frodo, however hopeless the task may seem. At a crucial moment in Mordor
he must carry the Ringbearer, and even the Ring itself. He moves from
immature innocence to mature innocence: and finally, in his own world
(that is, in Tolkien’s inner world of the Shire), this ‘gardener’
becomes a ‘king’ or at least a Mayor. The fact is that Frodo could
not have fulfilled his task without the continuing presence of Sam, and
he relies utterly on him; yet Sam remains humble always and faithful to
There is also something here of a Catholic love of order, of
tradition and a longing for restoration of that which has been lost.
There are glimpses in the shire folk of the Catholic recusants—bravely
clinging on to their persecuted faith and longing for its restoration.
During the 16 years he was compiling his trilogy Tolkien stayed
regularly at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire—the heart of "the
sacred county" and home of the recusant Shireburn family. He worked
in one of the guesthouses and in one of the classrooms, writing and
drawing. One of his sons, Michael, taught classics at the Jesuit school
and another, John trained there to become a Catholic priest. Although
Tolkien draws on many influences—not least those of his childhood
Worcestershire and the Midlands—a walk along Shire Lane and a detour
to Woodlands where Michael planted a copse in his father’s memory, are
well repaid. Look to the distance where Pendle Hill, associated with the
occult and witch trials, dominates the landscape. At Mass in St. Peter’s
Church Tolkien would have encountered the descendants of the never
wavering recusants who still toil the land and live with simplicity and
Justice, the Suffering Servant, Fellowship, Authority and Healing
It is apparent that the Christian idea of justice is at the heart of
Tolkien’s book, and that everyone gets what they deserve in the end.
For instance, Saruman starts off as Saruman the White, but following his
fall, ends up as Saruman of Many Colours. The order of "rank"
in the wizard hierarchy holds white as the highest, followed by grey and
then brown. Conversely, after his fight with the Balrog, Gandalf,
initially Gandalf the Grey, becomes Gandalf the White. Justice is done.
Another compelling image is that of the Suffering Servant, who bears
much and gives himself so that others may live. Frodo clearly is
representative of this, and he does pay for this with his life in the
end. Frodo has a metaphorical cross to bear, and yet he does it
willingly and humbly. Although he is only one small hobbit, he
nevertheless overthrows the powerful and mighty Saruman, with his
amassed forces—which chimes in with the Christian idea of the large
and powerful being overcome by the seemingly small and insignificant and
weak. There are echoes here of The Magnificat, but it also resonates
with the teachings of St.Francis—the humble, little man of Assisi—,
with the life of the little flower, St.Therese of Lisieux, who taught
that to become greater we must become smaller—and with the works of
Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Fellowship itself is also part of Catholic culture. The Fellowship
and their allies hold together as responsible individuals banding
together in free communities. Contrast this with the homogenous orcs and
uruk-hai, which are almost ant-like in their lack of individuality and
in their collective nature, so much so that they appear not to differ
from each other even by sex or age.
In the Shire and other lands where the "good" live, there
is a social hierarchy, and, some might argue, even a sort of papacy in
the wizard Gandalf—after all, he acts as leader to the free and
faithful people, and he even crowns kings, as did popes of old. Tolkien
himself said of the papacy: "I myself am convinced by the Petrine
claims…for me the Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on
earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does)
ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honour, and put
it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. "Feed my
sheep" was his last charge to St.Peter."
Like Gandalf, Aragorn also points us towards Christian ministry.
Aragorn has Christ-like qualities; he has a kingdom to come into, a
bride to wed. One image that is very powerful is that of the "Hands
of the Healer"—in the Houses of Healing, Aragorn, the King, has
the ability to heal people by touching them with his hands. Another King
had the touch that healed Jairus daughter, the centurion’s servant,
the lepers, the blind man and the sick who were lowered through the roof
at Capaernum. Every Christian’s journey towards perfection is a
struggle to become ever more Christ like.
As we endeavour to read Tolkien’s runes and riddles we stumble
across other clues to the deeper meaning of the story.
For instance, the day on which the Ring is finally destroyed in Mount
Doom happens to be 25th March. Tom Shippey, in his book The
Road to Middle Earth, says that in "Anglo-Saxon belief, and in
European popular tradition both before and after that, March 25th
is the date of the Crucifixion", and it is also the date of the
Annunciation. Days to recall beginnings and endings.
Arguments against The Lord of the Rings representing
A non-Christian reading of The Lord of the Rings often points
to the rather violent and occasionally gory nature of the story, with
the numerous battle scenes. The vivid and gratuitously bloodthirsty orc-slaying
by Legolas and Gimli might offend a pacifist but as part of a just war
against the invasion and devastation of Middle Earth by the evil forces
of Sauron they provoke us to ask legitimate questions about the licit
use of force; and, indeed, the nature of warfare. These are highly
relevant questions in the days of precision attacks by cruise missiles,
aerial bombardment of cities, and the use of weapons of mass
Tolkien never leaves us in any doubt that the elves, men and
especially hobbits are not by their nature warlike creatures—the
idyllic surroundings of Hobbiton and the Shire are not the breeding
grounds of warriors (which contrasts so markedly with the hellish orc
pit where Saruman creates his troops). It is Sauron who initiates the
violence and what follows is self-defence against tyranny.
Another objection is raised against interpreting the text as a
Christian narrative because of the existence and use of magic.
If magic were used to harness and use the supernatural in the natural
world, and uses malevolent forces, it would certainly fail to meet the
test of Christian orthodoxy. Only the forces of evil use black magic in
a bad or harmful way. By contrast, Gandalf’s power comes from the One
who sent him to Middle Earth
There have also been complaints that The Lord of the Rings is
really a masculine work— some have even gone as far as to say that it
is sexist or racist: with the BNP declaring The Lord of the Rings
essential reading. The accusation of sexism seems to me to be a surfeit
of political correctness, hankering for androgyny.
The role of women such as Galadriel, Eowyn and Arwen are by no means
irrelevant. Look at the character of Luthien in The Silmarillion—the
daughter of the Elf King, who follows her lover Beren on his dangerous
voyage, and, indeed, rescues him using her elvish powers—hardly the
passive woman. Indeed, the role of women proves to be crucial.
In any event, Tolkien was, among other things, celebrating the deep
kindred of male fellowship. Cardinal Basil Hume once said, "we need
to reclaim the idea of friendship—friendship for its own sake." The
Lord of the Rings does that. The breaking of the fellowship perhaps
also recalls the saddening consequences of the fracturing of friendship
and community. St. Thomas More mourned the consequences of the
Reformation, not because he was opposed to renewal and reform (quite the
reverse) but because it broke "the unity of life". Tolkien’s
writing celebrates this unity and reflects on the weakened condition of
Middle Earth when the old alliances and unity are broken.
Even if the modern curse of sexism could be proven it could hardly be
seen as being evidence that The Lord of the Rings is not a
Christian work. As for racism, Tolkien does indeed celebrate the
"northern" heritage, but the bad news for the BNP is that
Tolkien detested Hitler and his Nazism and the Aryanism he promulgated.
As the fantasy writer Ursula LeGuin aptly remarked: "No ideologues
are going to be happy with Tolkien unless they manage it by misreading
Once again, it is Tolkien himself who tells us what he was trying to
"I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references
to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the
imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story
and the symbolism".
Joseph Pearce, whose own conversion to Catholicism came when he read
G.K.Chesterton while he was in a prison cell serving a sentence for
inciting racial hatred, views he subsequently renounced, believes that
Tolkien’s sub-creation was a religious world:
"In the eternal sense with which Tolkien is principally
concerned it is a Christian world created by the Christian God who has
not, as yet, revealed himself in the Incarnation and Resurrection."
The Political Narrative in The Lord of the Rings
and Some Lessons For Today
I want to also say a word about the political narrative that is also
concealed in this story.
Although Tolkien denied that Mordor was directly analogous with the
Soviet Union or Nazi Germany we can once again take him at his word—the
word applicability rather than allegory—and consider the world in
which he was writing and, indeed the world in which we live now.
How could we do other than apply the narrative to the sombre and
chilling surroundings of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, to the gulags and
concentration camps, to the war machines that had pummelled European
civilisation into the ground? Tolkien hated tyranny and he looked to the
Free Peoples of the West—men, dwarves, hobbits and elves—to confront
The evil brews of Mengele’s false science and today’s eugenics,
genetic manipulation, human cloning and the rest are all worthy of
Sauron. But the narrative is more penetrating than this. It is also an
account of lost innocence and a cry against rapacious modernity and
materialism. It reflects the sensitive understanding of a man who knew
that although there were moments when nations had to defend their
liberties, war itself could be cruel, brutalising and corrupting.
Even as victory is being celebrated the realisation dawns that life
will never be the same again in the Shire. Sauron has been conquered but
Saruman remains. Isn’t Tolkien reminding us that victories are short
lived and that in every generation new Vikings will be at the gate?
After the Scouring of the Shire by Saruman’s forces, the Shire
undergoes a startling transformation. Gone are the cosy hobbit-holes,
and the pubs and parties, as well as the freedom that the hobbits
enjoyed. In its place are the grim, faceless, concrete blocks so beloved
of the centralised State. Stark buildings are erected, pubs are taken
away, and "rules" appear which the hobbits have to abide by.
Politically Tolkien was of a piece with Chesterton. The latter had
been an old fashioned Gladstonian Liberal who had become disenchanted
with its Edwardian heirs, particularly as they slipped into a creed of
social eugenics. Attacks on Catholic schools, the corruption of
government, brought to a head by the Marconi scandal, and the lack of
radicalism in combating state socialism by encouraging a fair and just
spread in the ownership of property, all contributed to Chesterton’s
refashioning of his political outlook. Influenced also by
ground-breaking Catholic encyclicals, such as Rerun Novarum and Quadragesimo
anno—with their calls for Catholic political action, social
justice, and for workers to be given a share in the rewards of their
endeavours—Chesterton’s Distributism was a creed that was immensely
attractive to Tolkien.
He would also have been familiar with the writings of Jacques
Maritain, the French Catholic philosopher, whose political
interpretation of Natural Law was so influential in the 1930s. Maritain,
the proponent of personalism said that the challenge for post-war Europe
would be to create "a truly human life." If barbarism were to
be avoided, society had to recognise the centrality of the human person,
not the old forms of ‘anarchic individualism’ or the collectivism of
Fascism or Communism. Maritain wrote that it should be "the age of
the people, and of the man of common humanity—citizen and co-inheritor
of the civilised community—cognisant of the dignity of the human
person in himself—builder of a more human world directed towards an
historic ideal of human brotherhood". He wrote that "man must
be recognised as a person, "as a unity of spiritual nature…made
for a spiritual end." In Christianity And Democracy he asserted
that the pagan empire was seeking "to liquidate Christianity and
democracy at the same stroke…freedom’s chances coincide with those
of the evangelical message…The Christian spirit is threatened today in
its very existence by implacable enemies, fanatics of race and blood, of
pride, domination and hate". Is this not also the message of The
Lord of the Rings?
In many respects Tolkien was also the first Green and would doubtless
have been a member of today’s Countryside Alliance. He had an especial
hatred of the deformation of our natural environment and the assault on
our ecology. His love of the trees, and the wondrous creation of the
endangered Ent, is a clarion call against the decimation of our
countryside. The bulldozers and chainsaws hack down the forests and
woodlands, the aircraft spray their defoliants, the factory ships
ruthlessly deplete fish stocks, and the prospectors extract minerals
while destroying flora, fauna and anything else that stands in the way
of the bottom line. We have the effrontery to call this progress.
Imagine a forest where half the trees are dead or dying; or lakes that
as so badly polluted that fish can no longer survive; or great buildings
that have all survived pillage, sackings and war, but are now crumbling
away from the effects of air pollution. Imagine all this and worse. It
is not Tolkien’s grisly world of fantasy but the reality of modern
Imagine a country that allows a baby with a disability to be killed
as it is being born; where 600 unborn are clinically eliminated daily or
a million human embryos have been destroyed or experimented upon; or
where human embryos may be created so that they can be plundered,
disembowelled, discarded and destroyed, and you have an accurate picture
of contemporary Britain—which defeated Sauron but failed to see the
Saruman in its midst. Who needs Orcs in this culture of death?
Schumacher, another of the heirs of these political ideas, the author
of Small Is Beautiful, and a convert to Catholicism, would have
recognised in the Shire the elements of a society where the personal,
the community, the small scale and the sustainable stand in defiance of
globalisation. Small is certainly beautiful in the realm of the hobbits.
He would certainly have approved of the municipalism of Sam Gangee who
becomes the directly elected mayor of the Shire and turfs out those who
have wreaked such havoc. Subsidiarity—a word familiar to the readers
of Catholic social encyclicals—,
the principles of "the common good" and the Disraelian belief
that "centralisation is the death blow of democracy" all form
the basis for good governance in the restored Shire.
Long gone are our once lampooned but secretly rather respected
knights of the shires MPs—men who had often returned from the
battlefields of two wars with an idealistic and patriotic determination
to defend the rule of law and to uphold our liberties and cherished
freedoms. In their place is a new breed of compliant politicians,
drowning in the detritus of spin, and creating a remote elite detached
from both the shires and the urban areas. Political Correctness rather
than Political Courage are its hallmarks.
Cynicism with our institutions and with our political leaders is
creating the circumstances in which many new forms of evil can enter in.
The nihilism that simply sets out to destroy and deride is taking its
toll. Thoreau once said, in a phrase that the Ents would have approved
of, "if you cut down all the trees there will be nowhere left for
the birds to sing." If we go on cutting down our institutions—parliament,
the church, the royal family, the judiciary, and public figures—we
will be left with a barren landscape with nowhere left for the birds to
Tolkien’s writing is both religious and political. Beneath the
fantasy is a manifesto for radical change and an attack on the modern
world. He knows that only the coming of the Kingdom will bring true
victory, and that "history is one long defeat"—but with
glimpses of the final victory which we can help achieve by our own
actions. The Lord of the Rings is a call to engagement, a call to
action. Life in a private hobbit hole may be a very happy private
existence but even that can be threatened by events outside our private
world. It is then that Gandalf comes to summons us into engagement, both
spiritually and politically.
The Lord of the Rings then is a story with many stories
concealed within it. Tolkien’s subtlety is that he lays a trail of
clues for his readers. It is up to us whether we choose to "go
higher and to go deeper." Beloved by the travellers of the New Age
and grandees of Celtic revivalism, by the churched and unchurched, and
by the most extraordinary cross-section of society, The Lord of The
Rings has the power to be evangelical if only the reader scratches
beneath the surface. When fantasy becomes Christian fact the reader is
faced with the same stark choices as Frodo and Gandalf: to collaborate,
to conform, or to contradict.
The final clue in this epic journey is the word Tolkien invented to
describe what he saw as a good quality in a fairy-story—and
that word was eucatastrophe, being the notion that there is a
"sudden joyous ‘turn’" in the story, where everything is
going well, "giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy", whilst not
denying the "existence of dyscatastrophe—of
sorrow and failure". It also reminds us that catastrophe can be
reversed. Hatred and fear need not win; violence need not have its day;
destruction doesn’t have to triumph. Eucatastrophe is the hosanna for
the Prince of Peace, the King of Joy, the Lord of Life—who enters the
stable on the back of a donkey and departs for his Kingdom on the back
Tolkien thought that a story containing eucatastrophe was a story at
its highest function— and the
Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of human history.
Copyright, David Alton
David Alton is an Independent Crossbench member of the House of
Lords. He is Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores
University and a trustee of the Catholic Central Library.