Tolkien’s Defence of Christendom
by Mark Wegierski
[This essay is based on a presentation co-authored with Wojciech Szymanski, M.A., which was read at the Fantastic Literature Conference 2016 (Religious Topics in Fantastic Literature) at the University of Lodz (Lodz, Poland), September 19-20, 2016.]
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is widely regarded as the archetypal author of fantasy in the modern period, or what is called “high fantasy”. Some have said that Tolkien both inaugurated and closed out the high fantasy subgenre, since anything that follows him is bound to appear derivative. Over the years, there has been a wide-ranging debate on whether Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (originally published in three volumes in 1954-55) are “pagan” or “Christian” in spirit. The presence of the Elves and other fantastically imagined races, as well as the veneration of nature, are said to make these works more “pagan” – rather than rooted in Christian monotheism.
In real life, however, Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. There have been a number of works tracing Tolkien’s Catholic inspiration for the so-called Middle Earth legendarium, or the Arda Mythos as it is sometimes called. Notable among these works is Craig Bernthal’s Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth (Second Spring Books, 2014). Given the psychological matrix of devout Catholicism from which Tolkien’s works sprang, it would hardly be surprising if his creative endeavours did not carry at least a tinge of Christian underpinnings.
To quote Bernthal:
One of Tolkien’s great appeals to readers is that he offers a world replete with meaning at every level. To read and reread Tolkien is to share his sense of wonder and holiness, to be invited into the presence of a “beauty beyond the circles of the world”. It is to fall in love with a universe that has a beginning and an end, where good and bad are not subjective choices, but objective realities; a created order full of grace, though damaged by sin, in which friendship is the seedbed of virtues, and where the greatest warriors finally become the greatest healers.
The vision enunciated by Tolkien could be termed “pre-modern”. It hearkens back to the idealized Middle Ages of Christendom, to a world – as Tolkien put it — of “less noise and more green”.
Obviously, Tolkien’s works did not arise ex nihilo. There was a societal and cultural context out of which his works sprang. Tolkien was deeply shaped by pre-World War One Britain, a society where propriety and decorum and so-called civilized values were still upheld. That society was to be sorely tested by the Great War, in which Tolkien fought heroically. The original inspiration of the hobbits was said to be the ordinary British “Tommies” who were living in the trenches (“holes in the ground”). This elevation of hobbits representing so-called ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights of courage is one of the main themes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
At the same time, Tolkien had a profound appreciation of the role of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy, which he saw as being increasingly under attack in Britain. The Elves were clearly “natural aristocrats”. Also, part of the vision of Tolkien as a Catholic living in the British Isles was a sense of tragedy. For centuries since the time of Henry VIII, Roman Catholics had faced varying degrees of persecution in the British Isles, especially under Oliver Cromwell. The fact that the Elves are increasingly harried and diminished throughout the unfolding of the Middle-Earth legendarium may be a reflection of this sense that Roman Catholicism was increasingly attenuated in the British Isles. Oliver Cromwell could be seen as a possible inspiration for the figure of Sauron. Indeed, as Lord Protector, he has been considered a precursor of the twentieth century dictators.
For certain Roman Catholics, the British Isles were under the occupation of a hostile, usurping dynasty, the Hanoverians. The yearning for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty was epitomized by the Jacobite Rising of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart). The romantic resonance of the historical desire for a Stuart restoration may play a part in an over-arching theme of kingship in The Lord of the Rings. The third volume, indicatively, is titled, The Return of the King. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a tension existed between the wish to be a “good Englishman”, on the one hand and the desire to be a “good Roman Catholic” on the other. The dynamic arising from the attempt to resolve this contradiction was one of the origins of the Arda mythos.
Tolkien’s works had certain precursors. Britain was the locus for the Arthurian legends and their literary renderings. Tolkien had read George Macdonald’s and William Morris’s fantasy works. He also had high respect for “Beowulf”, the great Old Anglo-Saxon poem. Another influence was the epic poem “The Ballad of the White Horse” (1911) by G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), portraying an idealized King Alfred. Much of Tolkien’s creativity was shaped by his interactions with the Inklings group, especially C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), whose own children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia appeared in seven volumes between 1950-1956 – beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Like many great classic works of dystopia, science fiction, or fantasy, Tolkien’s works are driven by the specific invented terms and languages used in them. The invention of language is a vital element of what Tolkien called the “subcreation” of a world, and Tolkien placed an enormous amount of effort into the construction of specific vocabularies. Nearly all of the special words appear in the ongoing flow of the text, without being italicized. Of course, these special languages are not created ex nihilo – they are based on languages formerly used in human societies. His most prominent invented language, two varieties of Elvish – Quenya and Sindarin, — were based on a combination of Latin, Old Norse, Old Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Finnish elements, to name just the most prominent influences. The relation of the Elvish languages to the Middle-Earth setting at the time of the War of the Ring is analogous to that of Latin to the various European cultures in more modern times.
Tolkien’s writing can be compared to the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, typified by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. While the latter can be considered a response to an over-regulated and over-bureaucratized world, it also contains an element of cheapness, vulgarity, and gracelessness, especially in the less salubrious examples of this subgenre. The contrast with Tolkien’s own writings could not be more striking.
Some have argued that Tolkien’s promulgation of a “warrior-ethic” is more pagan than Christian. One sees in these works a robust, stalwart fight against various enemies. Heroic resistance to one’s enemies is often said to be a pagan, not Christian trait. Indeed, the various denominations of Christianity today are often weak in facing their adversaries. They seem to be talking all the time about “forgiveness”, about “turning one’s cheek”, and so forth.
The key to understanding that these works of Tolkien as actually more Christian than pagan in spirit is that they refer to an earlier phase of Christian history, to the defence of Christendom. The notion of Christendom hearkens back to the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, when most Europeans lived within an over-arching religious-political-cultural complex that permeated their lives to an extent unimaginable today. Christendom was also something that had to be robustly defended. Over the course of close to 1,500 years, European history was punctuated by a series of great battles and sieges that held back various (mostly) Eastern adversaries. Here, one indeed finds a stalwart, robust resistance to various enemies. One can think of such decisive conflicts as Chalons (451 AD), Tours (732 AD), the Great Siege of Malta (1565), the sea-battle of Lepanto (1571), and the siege and battle of Vienna (1683). Much of this conflict was a struggle against the Ottoman Turks, who were deemed “the sempiternal enemy of Christendom”.
In British history, likewise, there were three conflicts that seemed to fit the template of “defending civilization”. First of all, there was the stand of the legendary King Arthur and what remained of Roman Britain, against the Saxon invaders. Secondly, there was the later resistance of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred – the only English monarch surnamed “the Great” — against the Danish Vikings. And thirdly, there was the struggle of Irish King Brian Boru against the Vikings.
There is little doubt that Tolkien’s writing was meant to echo in many readers’ minds, several instances of the heroic resistance of “the men of the West” against various enemies. The defence of Christendom is evidently the conceptual template for the defence of what Tolkien, in these fictional works, calls “Westernesse”. The adversaries of Westernesse attack from the south and east, as was historically the case in Europe. Also, Tolkien names one of the southern powers, the Corsairs of Umbar – which obviously brings to mind the Barbary Coast Corsairs – that had plagued Mediterranean Europe for centuries. And he calls the tribes of men recruited by Sauron, the Southrons and the Easterlings.
In The Lord of the Rings, as in Europe’s historical battles for survival, the struggle, first against Morgoth, and, subsequently against Sauron, stretches across millennia, with many great battles and sieges. The struggle reaches a crescendo when Minas Tirith stands against the hordes of darkness. Both the historic and fictional struggles can be described as epic in scope.
The Middle Earth legendarium is ostensibly set in the dim prehistory of our current Earth. Tolkien claims to be working from some ancient manuscripts which have come into his possession. The time-frame of the works is thus said to be occurring before the period of historical Christianity. This allows the heroic resistance to evil to be portrayed without being explicitly tied to revealed religion.
Tolkien portrays hordes of monstrous, evil creatures (in addition to the tribes of men recruited by Sauron) on the march against the forces of good. This does not correspond to any “realworld” situation – as the greatest enemies of men have been other men. Perhaps Tolkien’s point is that human beings in themselves, living in their human societies, have a choice to become either more like the demonic orcs — or more like the angelic elves. This suggested typology of angelic elves/demonic orcs points to moral universalism – as all human beings can make a choice for good or evil.
In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Tolkien offers a typology of resistance to evil that does not explicitly invoke revealed religion – but at the same time valorizes such virtues as heroism, loyalty, friendship, and modest romantic love. Thus, it opens up the possibility of making these virtues attractive to those persons in late modernity who have fallen away from revealed religion, as well as those who are still believers. The absence of revealed religion means that the works can appeal to all persons of goodwill, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. When writing the works, Tolkien very consciously downplayed elements of fictive religions, especially in regard to the free peoples. In his later years, Tolkien became worried that the works could constitute something like a basis for a cult, which was certainly not his intention. In the 1970s, Tolkienian fantasy became the mainspring of fantasy role-playing games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons (released in 1974).
Another argument for the Christian, rather than pagan, nature of these works, is the figure of Boromir, in The Lord of the Rings. Boromir is the most obviously Nietzschean figure in the Fellowship of the Ring. He argues that the power of the Ring should be used to oppose all the enemies besetting the Free Peoples. His succumbing to the lure of the Ring could be read as a warning against the exercise of an unbridled “Will to Power”.
Whereas paganism mostly concerned itself with the thoughts, feelings, and actions of supposedly great men and women of high station, a respect for humble people has been identified as part of the intellectual heritage of Christianity. In historic Christendom, it was held that persons of all classes had a role to play in defending and upholding Christian society. Medieval morality-plays often featured a poor man going to Heaven, with the rich man who had held him in contempt, going to Hell. What Pope Francis has called the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” has been viewed by some cutting critics (notably Nietzsche), as nothing but a “slave morality”. Tolkien’s exaltation of the humble hobbits is clearly Christian in inspiration.
It appears that one of Tolkien’s goals in writing these works was to try to encourage a Christian-patriotic revival, in the face of various evils of the late modern world. Presumably, by reading his works, people would become aware that better, higher, and more noble things could be aspired to. Nevertheless, Tolkien had a capacious and imaginative mind. He welcomed various putatively positive tendencies, regardless of which part of the spectrum they came, exhibiting an affinity for elements of the 1960s counter culture. Indeed, one the greatest breakthroughs of the popularity of Tolkien’s works occurred among U.S. college students of the 1960s. This could be characterised as a convergence between “bohemian Toryism” and the hippies.
In 1978, the iconoclastic fantasy and science fiction writer, Michael Moorcock, published a cutting critique of Tolkien and similar fantasy writers, under the title “Epic Pooh”. He claimed that these works embraced a typology similar to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, meant to comfort rather than challenge. He considered it a literature of escapism which refuses to deal with the issues raised by the real world. However, Tolkien was certainly well aware of “the crisis of late modernity”, and seemed in fact to want to offer a positive and healthy antidote to it.
While his work can certainly inspire ecological and cultural resistance to the more negative aspects of late modernity, it lacks the dimension of a nuanced critique when it comes to current-day technology, and its impacts on the human person and psyche. Such critiques are more properly the province of dystopian and science fiction subgenres like cyberpunk.
The political geography of Middle Earth, as noted above, is almost entirely that of historical Europe. The forces of freedom are centered in the west, while the invasions come from the south and the east. So, Tolkien could be accused of being “Eurocentric” and “too Christian”. However, these aspects of the works have not been a barrier to their diffusion and enjoyment around the world.
Sociologist Mark Wegierski is a science fiction and fantasy aficionado. He writes from Toronto