THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: J.R.R.TOLKIEN, CATHOLICISM AND THE USE OF ALLEGORY
David Lord Alton
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 Liverpool.
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 here?
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 Truth."
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 of God.
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 life."
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 story’."
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 University, 1937).
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 write".
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 spared."
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 story.
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 to fall.
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 pass.
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 Silmarillion).
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 for good.
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 end.
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 of hope."
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 and woman.
Resurrection, Salvation, Repentance, Self-Sacrifice, Free Will and Humility.
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 friends".
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 selflessness".
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 it.
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 journeys.
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 transfigured.
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 his master.
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 humility.
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 Christianity
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 destruction.
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 him."
Once again, it is Tolkien himself who tells us what he was trying to achieve:
"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 Ringsand 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 it.
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 Europe.
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 sing.
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 of another.
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.