J.R.R. Tolkien and the Catholic Imagination

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a genius.  The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of Catholic literature, and in fact was a big factor in my conversion to Catholicism.  The books are rich in the “sacramental imagination” – seeing the extraordinary behind the ordinary.  In its deep and complex history and its high symbolism, it beautifully tells the story of our Fall and Exile (especially in the Silmarillion, which contains the creation myth and the ancient history of men and elves), and our longing to return to Eden/Heaven.  It is a Christian story that powerfully draws non-Christians into its world, and it does this by concealing its Catholicism.  In fact, Tolkien’s genius was to re-tell the Christian story in a hidden way.  Unlike C.S. Lewis, whose fantasy books were overtly Christian stories, Tolkien purposely hid his Catholicism deep within the story – thus freeing the imagination of the reader from the constraints of centuries of pre-conceived images and patterns. As a result, Tolkien accomplished something remarkable in the history of Christian literature – he made the story of Christianity new again, and wonderful.

To the non-Christian, beginning a discussion about Christianity with the crucifixion and atonement of Christ is a bit like talking about marriage and babies on a first date.  It’s just too much, too soon.  Like courting, a person first needs to be drawn in by the romanticism and beauty of Christianity.  The fact that there is romanticism and beauty in Christianity might be news to some folks!  This is what Tolkien accomplished with the Lord of the Rings.  The essence of his approach is what I described above as the “sacramental imagination”.  This is the ability to see the extraordinary behind the ordinary.  It is a sense of the supernatural, but not like the cartoonish wizardry of Harry Potter, or the “demonic-light” magic of the vampire/werewolf genre.  The supernatural sense of Tolkien is a way of seeing the gleam of eternity behind Creation itself.  It is a sense of permanence amid decay, of light beyond the darkness, and of a true Home waiting at the end of time, where there is no more death and suffering.  It is the recognition of the eternal significance of moral choices, and the effects of those choices, good and bad, in this world.  And it is an affirmation of Divine Providence, and angelic (and demonic) realities.  In short, Tolkien creates an entirely new world upon Catholic/Christian realities, and tells us the story of that world in a way that makes us see those Christian realities in a new way.

Let’s examine just a few images from the book.  The first is the Ring of Power and Gollum.  The Ring was forged by an evil entity called Sauron, a demonic being who was a disciple of Morgoth, Tolkien’s version of Lucifer.  Sauron and Morgoth are Ainur, spiritual beings created near the beginning of time in Tolkien’s mythology.  It was Morgoth that disrupted the harmony of creation, and sowed discord among the other Ainur.  Sauron infuses much of his own power into the Ring, and plans to use it to control all the races of Middle-Earth that possess lesser, though powerful, magic rings.  The words inscribed on the Ring read darkly:

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, And in the darkness bind them.”

The three most important elements of this “creed” of the Ring, so to speak, are “rule”, “darkness” and “binding”.  The Ring will accomplish all three things, allowing Sauron to rule over all Middle-Earth by enslaving its people to his will.  Central to the Ring’s power, therefore, is binding the will of people to Sauron, the great evil spirit.

Anyone who knows even a little Catholic theology should recognize this formula.  According to Catholic doctrine, the human person is a composite of spirit and matter.  Principal to our spiritual powers are abstract reason (or thought) and will.  Reason’s function is to “know”, while the Will’s function is to “love”.  Since God created us, and all things come from God, the best and highest thing to love is God.  The big problem for human beings is that as fallen creatures, we grow attached to all kinds of things that are less than God.  Sometimes, we become so attached to lesser things that it becomes a disordered attachment that consumes all of our love and distorts our reason, e.g., wealth, power, sex, food, etc.  Our Wills, in other words, become enslaved to these attachments.

The Ring is the epitome of an object of disordered attachment, but even more so, because Tolkien imagines the Ring as not just any object, but an evil object created by the equivalent of a demonic spirit.  Almost everyone who comes into contact with the Ring feels a powerful desire to possess it.  The Ring draws men to it by “seeing” the greatest desire of the person and presenting itself as the fulfillment of that very desire.  As such, it is a lie that enslaves men to its power.  Can we hear echoes of St. Paul here? “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity. . .because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. . .” (Rom 1:24-25).

If the Ring of Power is the epitome of disordered attachments that pull us away from God and enslaves us, then Gollum is the epitome of the enslaved soul itself (as are the Nazgul, the Ring Wraiths).  As Tolkien devotees know, Gollum was once a normal, hobbit-like creature named Smeagol.  When his cousin, Deagol, found the ring on a fishing trip on Smeagol’s birthday, Smeagol was so entranced by the gold Ring that he demanded it from Deagol as his birthday present.  When Deagol refused, Smeagol murdered him and claimed the ring.  Over the centuries (for the power of the Ring granted Gollum unusually long life) Smeagol became more enslaved to the power of the Ring, grotesquely illustrated by the transformation of his physical appearance.  He becomes a shriveled, worm-like creature that lives in the dark and feeds on whatever he can scavenge or kill.  The Ring becomes, famously, his “precious”.

This is Tolkien’s image of the human soul enslaved to sin.  Like Gollum, such souls are so attached to their sin that they cannot see the world objectively.  Everything is seen through the prism of their disordered attachments.  Like Gollum, their sin becomes their “precious”, something they are so attached to they will fight to keep it from being taken away from them.  And like Gollum, their Will becomes so enslaved by the attachment that their very nature becomes corrupted, twisted and grotesque.  In fact, we all have our own Gollums inside of us, pulling us toward our own particular attachments.

So we see that the central drama of the Lord of the Rings is a spiritual one, and it is also the same central spiritual drama of humanity in Catholic thought: the struggle of human souls against the temptations of the world, their passions and the Devil.  This is further illuminated by the central protagonists, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.

Frodo and Sam are wayfarers guided on their adventure by the wizard Gandalf.  They are simple, rural hobbits, who enjoy the comfortable and predictable life of the Shire.  Then Gandalf shows up, and they are thrown out of their comfortable life into a grand adventure in which they might fail and possibly die.  There is no doubt that Frodo and Sam’s adventure to destroy the Ring of Power is a profoundly spiritual journey, one filled with trials, temptations and peril.  Their foes are both earthly and spiritual, and the essence of their journey is the same as that for all Catholics: sanctification.  Frodo and Sam are painfully stripped of their attachments to safety and comfort and pushed to give more of themselves for the sake of others.  This is both the example and teaching of Christ: self-sacrifice for the good of others is what real love is all about, it is the message of the Cross.  At the end, Frodo and Sam both believe that they will likely not return from their journey, that they will in fact die in the process of trying to destroy the Ring.  Yet they go forward, in the face of certain death.  This is the Agony in Gethsemane, the point at which we can choose to do the Father’s will and give up our own lives for others, or turn away in order to save ourselves.  Christ told us that those who seek to save their lives will lose it, and those that give up their lives for His sake will save it.  Frodo and Sam choose to give up their lives for others – the ultimate act of love.

What about Gandalf?  It turns out that he is no pedestrian sorcerer.  In fact, he’s not even human.  Those who have read the Silmarillion know that Gandalf has many names, the oldest of which is Olorin, one of the Maiar.  The Maiar are spiritual creatures, like the Ainur, but of less degree.  The Silmarillion states that,

“Wisest of the Maiar was Olorin . . . for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.  In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Iluvatar [God the Father], and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.” Sil 22.

So Gandalf is actually a guardian angel that guides and protects not just Frodo and Sam, but all the enemies of Sauron (remember, another spiritual creature, a powerful “fallen angel”, if you will).  That is how Gandalf the Grey can “die” in his battle with the Balrog (another demon) and return, even more powerful, as Gandalf the White.  He still had work to do in Middle-Earth to see the battle against Sauron to the end.

Again, from a Catholic perspective, all this should be quite familiar.  Frodo and Sam’s spiritual journey is fundamentally a Christian pilgrimage.  As Christ teaches the disciples, it is not the proud and powerful of the world that will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but the merciful and humble (the poor in spirit).  It is Frodo’s humility that allows him to bear the Ring for so long without succumbing to its power.  In fact, Frodo’s humility turns out to be more powerful than all the armies of Sauron.  Furthermore, it is a combination of Frodo’s pity (his mercy) and Divine Providence that saves them in the end when Gollum bites the ring from Frodo’s finger and falls to his death in the fires of Mount Doom just at the moment that Frodo gives in to the power of the Ring.  The bad guy is essentially a demon, and the most powerful good guy helping the hobbits is an angel.  Humility, mercy, sacrifice, love, sanctification, guided by angels, confronted by demons – these are the same spiritual realities of our lives that Catholics are taught in grade school religion class.  Through Tolkien’s world, we see the Catholic life as the grand, heroic adventure it truly is.

The beautiful thing about the Lord of the Rings, then, is not the dressing of elves and dwarves and orcs and goblins, but the Catholicity of his world.  To enter into the Lord of the Rings is to enter into the reality of Catholic doctrine pulled free from our stereotypes and transported into a new world that allows us to see with new eyes.  As such, we see our faith differently, as something romantic and full of adventure.

The gift of Tolkien’s work also allows us to appreciate the Truth of Catholicism.  How can a work of fantasy show us Truth?  Like all good literature, it does so by appealing to our souls.  That is why people who have no idea that the Lord of the Rings is a Catholic work are so drawn to it.  By hiding the overt references to religion and to Christ, Tolkien allowed his readers to respond freely to the moral and spiritual realities of his world without prejudice.  Tolkien knew that there is something fundamental about human beings that we seek good against evil, that there is something magical and wondrous about Creation that provides glimpses of eternity beyond the mundane world, and finally, that we humans have a strange sense of feeling out of step with Creation.  The world is passing away, and we fallen creatures sense that we somehow don’t belong, ultimately, to decay and death.  We long, like Bilbo and Frodo, to set sail from Middle-Earth for the Undying Lands.

But Tolkien also knew that even as the world dies, and all things pass on, love endures (as St. Paul reminds us).  If there is a glimpse of eternity, it is in love.  Tolkien knew that well.  It’s everywhere in the Lord of the Rings.  The ultimate gift of love, the gift of Christ, is the gift of sacrifice.  The Lord of the Rings is filled with the gift of sacrifice.  That is a fundamentally Catholic gift, and it is fundamentally True.


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