Faith and fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy


J. R. R. Tolkien once described his epic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." Yet nowhere in its pages is there any mention of religion, let alone of the Catholic Church, Christ, or even God. Tolkien’s hobbits have no religious practices or cult; of prayer, sacrifice, or corporate worship there is no sign.

To make matters more difficult, Tolkien was equally emphatic that The Lord of the Rings were not to be understood allegorically. In fact, Tolkien was famously hostile to allegory in general, disliking even the allegorical children’s stories of his friend and fellow Christian C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia. How then can The Lord of the Rings be in any sense described as a fundamentally Catholic work, or even a religious one?

Creation and corruption in Middle-earth

Part of the answer is found in Tolkien’s other great chronicle of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, which recounts the larger mythic context of Middle-earth, beginning (notwithstanding his antipathy for allegory) with a magnificent allegorical retelling of the Creation and the Fall according to Genesis 1-3.

Here Tolkien does name the creator-God of Middle-earth, Eru ("the One," also called Ilúvatar, "All-Father"), as well as the mighty spirit Melkor, who rebelled against Eru and went into darkness. We also learn that Sauron, maker of the One Ring, is himself an agent of this Melkor. Tolkien thus establishes a direct relationship between the theistic, even Judeo-Christian cosmology of The Silmarillion and the war for the One Ring recounted in The Lord of the Rings.

In the latter work itself there is no mention of Eru, nor is there any explicitly religious component to the characters’ behavior. Even so, Tolkien’s Catholic Christian worldview not only stands behind the saga of the Ring in its prehistory, but surrounds and suffuses it in its overarching themes and imaginative structures.

His faith is not the only aspect of Tolkien’s inner life or personal experiences that bears upon the story. Other influences include Tolkien’s love of languages, his early youth in a Shire-like pre-industrial Warwickshire, his love of trees and nature generally and corresponding dislike of engines and machines, and his experiences in World War I, where he encountered plain rural Englishmen performing everyday acts of great heroism.

But it was Tolkien’s deeply held Catholic faith that most profoundly shaped his work. Though he rightly insisted The Lord of the Rings is not an allegorical work, the fact is that Tolkien thought, imagined, and wrote as a Catholic, and his work bears the clear signs of his faith, as he fully intended it should.

"The Shadow mocks, it cannot make"

The Judeo-Christian conception of creation and the fall, and of the preeminence of good over evil, is an important theme not only in The Silmarillion but also in The Lord of the Rings, where we find evil in Middle-earth depicted as a corruption and distortion of prior and fundamental goodness. In particular, just as Melkor and Sauron are fallen Ainur or angelic beings, the evil creatures and races of Middle-earth are always corrupted or distorted versions of the good ones.

For example, there are the trolls, "bred in mockery" of the tree-like Ents; the orcs, corrupted or misbred descendants of the Elves; and the fearsome Nazgûl or Black Riders, wraiths of human kings. Likewise, the evil wizard Saruman is a fallen Istari, and even Gollum is a withered hobbit.

The underlying principle is illuminated in a key exchange between Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins, as they travel through the dark land of Mordor "where Shadows lie," on a mission to destroy the evil Ring. When Sam wonders if the evil orcs eat and drink food and water like ordinary creatures, or if perhaps they live on poison and foul air, Frodo replies:

"No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison."

There is no possibility here, as perhaps there is with the two sides of the Force in George Lucas’s Star Wars films, of a dualistic interpretation of good and evil as equal and opposite forces, yin and yang, twin sides of one coin. In Tolkien’s vision, goodness is primordial, evil derivative; and, whatever tragedies and horrors may be visited upon this world, they shall not have the final word.

This sense of eschatological hope becomes exceptionally clear in one memorable passage during the journey through Mordor, in which Sam has a kind of epiphany:

The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

Mere "defiance" of evil is a natural or pagan virtue (the evil giants will win in the end, said the Norse warriors, but we go to die with the gods). But hope, in Christian thought, is a theological virtue, and it is this eschatological hope that fills Sam’s heart.

"Something else at work"

This sense of hope in Middle-earth is also rooted in an undefined but definite awareness of Providence. The name of Eru may not be spoken in The Lord of the Rings, but his will is evident from the outset, when Gandalf explains to Frodo the significance of the evil Ring being discovered by his uncle Bilbo, a humble hobbit. In that seemingly chance occurence, Gandalf says,

"…there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."

Gandalf can "put it no plainer," of course, because in this story Tolkien wishes to avoid explicit entanglement with religious doctrine. Nevertheless, the underlying idea is clear.

The hand of Providence is seen at various points throughout the drama of the story, but nowhere more clearly than in the climactic scene at Mount Doom, where two central characters struggling with evil both succumb, yet in the conflict of their evil wills not evil but good is served.

In the hands of another writer, such an ending might be seen as coincidental, ironic, absurdist, or even deus ex machina. As written by Tolkien, however, it is the inevitable result of the collision between the inexorable designs of Providence and the limitations of his fallen cast of characters. It is here that Tolkien most emphatically rejects an allegorizing interpretation: Frodo may be a Christ-like figure in many ways, but he is not, like Lewis’s lion Aslan, an allegorical representation of Christ himself. Where Christ triumphed, Frodo fails, yet the designs of Providence are still served.

Echoes of sorrow

Frodo’s ultimate failure at Mount Doom is also important for another reason: It strikes, even on the brink of victory, a note of sorrow and loss that pervades these books.

For all its signs of Providence and eschatological hope, The Lord of the Rings is not the story of ultimate victory of good over evil, but only of one important battle far in a mythical past.

Far from a Revelation-22-like epiphany of eternal glory in which every tear is wiped away, Tolkien’s story resonates with elegiac sorrow and acute awareness of things lost never to be regained. Again and again we are made aware of all that once was and shall never be again (or never again till the world is renewed). The Ents never find their Ent-wives; Frodo never returns to Lothlórien; the Elves depart forever into the West.

All of this is shaped by the author’s consciousness of the fallenness of the world and the inevitable sorrows of this life. "I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic," Tolkien once wrote to a friend, "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."

This is precisely the sensibility that Tolkien’s own "legend" embodies. "Samples or glimpses of final victory" there certainly are, but also sorrow and tragedy and loss. Even in the very end, victory is tempered by signs of sorrow and loss: Frodo’s failure at Mount Doom; the scouring of the Shire; the departure of the Elves.

"Glimpses of final victory"

Despite these climactic sorrowful elements, Tolkien’s conclusion avoids the device of a climactic tragedy or heroic death, like the death of Thorin Oakenshield at the climax of The Hobbit, the prelude to The Lord of the Rings. In that story, Thorin redeemed himself from his obstinacy toward Bilbo by dying valiantly in the Battle of Five Armies.

In The Lord of the Rings, by contrast, no one is required to die in order to destroy the dark lord and his evil ring, or even to perish in the final struggle against him. Frodo and Sam, Aragorn and Faramir, Gandalf and Gimli and Legolas, Merry and Pippin — all survive the final conflict (one supporting character, aged Théoden, does die in battle with the Nazgûul). Of course an important character does perish with the ring and its master, but in doing so he isn’t sacrificing himself, but reaping judgment, being consumed by the evil of his own choosing. In the end, the only true horror is a soul that goes into the fire, and even that serves the designs of Providence.

That Tolkien avoided a climactic sacrificial death in The Lord of the Rings is not due to some failure on his part to appreciate the dramatic merits of such a device, but because in this ending he was doing something different. Some victories come only at the cost of some final sacrifice or loss, but this, Tolkien believed, is not the deepest truth about the conflict of good and evil, and the "final victory" over evil of which legends can offer only "samples or glimpses" turns on no such loss.

The elements of sorrow and fallenness in Tolkien’s ending forbid an allegorical-eschatological interpretation, yet in the absence of a climactic tragedy and the survival of all the companions it’s possible to see "samples or glimpses of final victory."

Indeed, the element of hope is so strong that Samwise can even wonder aloud, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" To which the answer is: Yes, but not here, alas, not now. Here in Middle-earth there is still hard work to be done, future shadows to be fought, and, somewhere in the unspecified future, redemption still to be accomplished by the one whose saving work is only remotely echoed in the great deeds of Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn.

Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn: Priest, prophet, king

In fact, Frodo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey, and Aragorn each in a remote way embody one of the three aspects of Christ’s ministry as priest, prophet, and king. Each also undergoes a kind of sacrificial "death" and rebirth.

The priestly role belongs to Frodo, who bears a burden of terrible evil on behalf of the whole world, like Christ carrying his cross. Frodo’s via dolorosa or way of sorrows is at the very heart of Tolkien’s story, just as the crucifixion narratives are at the heart of the gospels accounts. As Christ descended into the grave, Frodo journeys into Mordor, the Land of Death, and there suffers a deathlike state in the lair of the giant spider Shelob before awakening to complete his task. And, as Christ ascended into heaven, Frodo’s life in Middle-earth comes to an end when he departs over the sea into the mythical West with the Elves, which is as much to say, into paradise.

Gandalf is the prophet, revealing hidden knowledge, working wonders, teaching others the way. Evoking the saving death and resurrection of Christ, Gandalf does battle with the powers of hell to save his friends, sacrificing himself and descending into the nether regions before being triumphantly reborn in greater power and glory as Gandalf the White. As with Frodo, Gandalf’s sojourn in Middle-earth ends with his final voyage over the sea into the West.

Finally, there is Aragorn, the crownless destined to be king. Besides being a messianic king of prophecy, Aragorn also dimly reflects the saving work of Christ by walking the Paths of the Dead and offering peace to the spirits there imprisoned, anticipating in a way the Harrowing of Hell. (The oath-breaking spirits Aragorn encounters on the Paths of the Dead, who cannot rest in peace until they expiate their treason, suggest a kind of purgatorial state.)

"Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!"

As the passion of Christ is dimly echoed in the struggles of Tolkien’s three heroes, so the place of Mary in Catholic faith and piety is reflected in another key figure of Middle-earth: Galadriel, the elven Queen of Lothlórien. Tolkien himself explicitly acknowledged this connection, observing in a letter to a friend, "I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary." In another letter he remarked that it is upon our Lady that "all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded."

Once again, this isn’t to say that Galadriel is an allegorical representation of the Blessed Virgin, any more than Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn are direct representations of Christ. The actual relationship is more subtle: In imagining a glorious and immortal Queen of a paradisiacal realm, and in depicting the devotion of others to her, Tolkien could hardly help drawing on the actual devotion in his religious tradition to a glorified Queen of a divine realm.

Indeed, in being drawn to create such a character in the first place, Tolkien’s imagination was informed and fired by his faith and piety. Had he been, for instance, a Southern Baptist, or a Dutch Calvinist, doubtless Galadriel either would never have existed at all, or would at any rate have been an entirely different figure.

It’s in the devotion she inspires, most especially in the dwarf Gimli, that Galadriel’s Marian resonances are most apparent. Gimli’s heart belongs to his immortal Queen as unreservedly as the heart of St. Louis de Montford or St. Maximillian Kolbe to the Queen of Heaven, and through Gimli the reader, even the non-Catholic or non-Christian reader, has a kind of window into the world of such devotion.

Galadriel is not the only elven Queen with Marian associations. The elvish hymns sung in praise of Elbereth resonate with Marian hymnody; a number of writers have observed similarities between the following lines of Tolkien’s poetry and a well-known Marian hymn Tolkien would have known from childhood.

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western seas!
O light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!…
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western seas.

Note the themes common to these lines and those that follow (the singer as wanderer in a remote land; the far-off Queen as a source of light and guidance; the repeated association of the Queen with starlight and the sea):

Hail, Queen of Heaven, the ocean star,
Guide of the wand’rer here below:
Thrown on life’s surge, we claim thy care -
Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, star of the sea,
Pray for the wanderer, pray for me.

These ethereal queens aren’t the books’ only elvish element with specifically Catholic resonance. The "waybread" or lembas of the Elves, given to the members of the Fellowship in Lothlórien, has clear eucharistic overtones. "Wafers" (Tolkien’s word) of this extraordinary food, we read,

had a virtue without which [Frodo and Sam] would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

Corruption and conversion; weakness and strength

Although Tolkien never explains just how the wearer of the One Ring, at least if he is a titan like Sauron or Gandalf, takes advantage of its power to dominate others, another aspect of the Ring’s power is vividly realized throughout the books: its seductive power over the one who carries it. Gollum was consumed by it, Bilbo begins to suffer its deleterious effects, Gandalf and Galadriel refuse even to touch it, Boromir succumbs to its attraction, and even Frodo battles its allure all the way to Mount Doom before finally falling under its spell. Frodo may be a type of Christ, but only a type, and all types ultimately fall short of the reality.

Side by side with this depiction of the allure of evil is an acknowledgment of the possibility of conversion and redemption. Even Gollum, after years of enslavement and degeneration, seems to respond to Frodo’s mercy by rising almost to the brink of redemption, struggling between good and evil before falling back into darkness.

Boromir, on the other hand, genuinely repents of his moment of weakness, and is redeemed, not only by an act of reparation that costs him his life, but also by making confession of his wrongdoing to another. As for Frodo, he is finally saved not by last-minute repentance, but by a preemptive providence, a strange grace that uses Gollum’s concupiscence to give Frodo another chance. Thus, Frodo’s own mercy to Gollum becomes a factor in his deliverance from the consequences of his ultimate failure.

Why does Frodo eventually succumb to the power of the Ring? A more revealing question might be why he endures against it as long as he does. To put it a third way, why do the great powers of Middle-earth, wizards and rulers of Elves, elect to entrust this most dangerous of artifacts to the keeping of a defenseless hobbit, a creature of comfort and humble domesticity? Why not trust to the strength and cunning of Aragorn, the power of Elrond, the art of Gandalf?

In part, the answer lies in the element of surprise. The Council at Rivendell gambles on sending the Ring straight into Mordor in the keeping of an insignificant creature partly because this is the one move the Enemy would not anticipate.

But there’s more to it. There’s a reason Gandalf finds it encouraging that the mysterious ways of fate brought the Ring into the possession of a hobbit rather than a warrior or wizard or elf, and why, of the mixed fellowship that departs Rivendell for Mordor, Frodo and no other is the Ring-bearer. Frodo’s very lack of power, either physical or mystical, is itself seen as a sign of hope. The powerless can be less likely to trust to themselves, less likely to fall prey to hubris and presumption, more available as instruments of grace or divine action. Tolkien’s unlikely heroes reflect the paradoxes of St. Paul: "When I am weak, then am I strong" and "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise."

Peter Jackson’s films (some spoilers)

With all three films of Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings adaptation at last complete (with the notable caveat of next year’s The Return of the King extended edition release), it is finally possible to take stock of the film project as a whole, and the extent to which the religious significance of the books has, and has not, carried over into the films.

Jackson and his collaborators have been quite candid that, while not sharing Tolkien’s religious beliefs, they brought to the project an awareness of Tolkien’s faith, and a desire to honor his themes and to avoid imposing their own "baggage" onto the films (cf. "The Return of the King: Filmmakers contemplate journey, significance of books and films").

Of course, some of the books’ religiously themed elements are so central that it would be impossible to avoid them altogether without gutting the books. Even so, the filmmakers’ openness to these themes was undoubtedly a helpful factor, and indeed in some cases it seems they have actually gone beyond the text in introducing religiously evocative elements that resonate with and reinforce the story’s existing religious themes.

Christological resonances. One obvious example of an apparently deliberate appropriation by the filmmakers of the Christian resonances of the books is the death and return of Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Gandalf’s self-sacrifice and descent into the nether world in the Mines of Moria during the battle with the demonic Balrog is the dramatic center and major set piece of the first film. The Balrog itself is as hellish as Jackson’s conceptual artists and the Weta effects people could make it: a thing of smoke and flame straight out of the book. In a nice extra-textual gloss, as Gandalf falls into the abyss, we see his arms extended cruciform on either side.

The Christological echoes are even more distinct in The Two Towers with Gandalf’s return. Shining like a painting of the risen Christ, or like the ascended Jesus appearing to St. Paul on the Damascus road, Gandalf the White appears to his followers, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, who like the disciples are at first unable to recognize him. In fact, like Mary Magdalene, they initially suppose him to be someone else. Then, when they do recognize him, Legolas, overcome with joy and awe, drops to his knees.

The Christological story-arcs of Frodo and Aragorn are also in evidence in the films. Frodo walks his via dolorosa or "way of sorrows" to Mount Doom like Jesus making his way to Calvary. As Jesus bore the sins of mankind, Frodo bears a great burden of evil on behalf of the world, and as he approaches the Cracks of Doom the Ring becomes as much a crushing weight as the wood of the cross.

In The Return of the King Jackson gives us Frodo’s death and rebirth, descending into the depths of Shelob’s lair, wrapped in a shroud of spider silk, placed in the "sepulchre" of Cirith Ungol.

Among three central characters, only Aragorn has no death-and-rebirth story-arc in the books — though he does brave the Paths of the Dead and free the restless souls who have yet to make atonement for their earthly sins, a plot thread that is dramatically realized in the film version of The Return of the King.

However, the films invent for Aragorn a death-and-rebirth story-arc not found in the books. In a skirmish with orcs and Wargs, Aragorn falls off a cliff and is borne away by a river, not rejoining his friends until Helm’s Deep. While this whole sequence wasn’t written by Tolkien, and fans may debate the merits of introducing it in the film, on a thematic level the motif of death and rebirth is certainly present in Tolkien, and Aragorn’s status as a Christlike king is reinforced by the expansion.

The films also enhance Aragorn’s Christlike associations with an added scene in the expanded edition of The Fellowship of the Ring that has Marian resonances also.

In this scene we see Aragorn at Rivendell at the grave of his mother. Marking his mother’s grave is a statue clearly reminiscent of Catholic Marian statuary; thus Aragorn’s mother is associated with Mary just as Aragorn himself is associated with Christ. More, Aragorn is honoring his mother in death, as Catholic tradition teaches that Christ much more honored Mary at her death by assuming her body and soul into heaven. (Of course nothing like the Assumption happens to Aragorn’s mother, but then Jesus is a much greater king than Aragorn.)

Elven imagery. The moral order of Tolkien’s world is also reflected in the films’ explicit acknowledgment of the derivation of evil races and creatures from good ones: Saruman says in Fellowship that the orcs "were once elves," the origins of Gollum and the Nazgûl are discussed, and Saruman’s own former goodness is implied — though of the fall of Sauron we hear nothing as yet.

Jackson strikes the right note of elegiac sense of tragedy and loss right from the start, with the first words of Fellowship’s opening voiceover. Gandalf’s cryptic reference to Providence is also in the first film, in very much the same words, though transposed for dramatic effect from Bag End to the Mines of Moria.

As depicted in Jackson’s Fellowship, Galadriel offers little, alas, in the way of Marian resonance — though her depiction in the extended edition is certainly a marked improvement over the theatrical release. Strangely aloof and even ominous in her main scene in the original version of the film, the Lady of Lothlórien is much warmer and gentler in the newly added gift-giving sequence in which the Fellowship resumes their journey. Also, Gimli’s devotion to the Lady, only amusingly foreshadowed in the theatrical release, is finally touched upon in the extended edition, though the subsequent two films unfortunately neglect it entirely.

The lembas of the Elves is also mentioned in the latter two films (and the extended edition of Fellowship), but with little eucharistic resonance, with the possible exception of the fact that Gollum, who is unworthy, cannot eat it. Of the Elves’ liturgical hymn-like poetry there is no sign (though the elvish realms of Rivendell and Lothlórien are heralded by generically ethereal choral arrangements not wholly unevocative of the world of sacred music).

Evil and redemption. One of the most potent themes in all three films is the seductive allure of the Ring. The ring’s power is evoked partly through effective performances from Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Sean Bean, and Ian Holm (and briefly by Sean Astin as Samwise), and partly through Jackson’s canny direction and attention to detail.

This theme reaches its dramatic apex at the critical moment in The Return of the King when Frodo’s Christological resonances give way to mortal weakness and failure. At the same time, there is also the the providential grace that rewards him for his mercy and heroic sacrifice by sparing him the consequences of his actions and giving him the opportunity to repent. (There’s more to say about the film version of this scene, but I will delay addressing this until after the film opens.)

The theme of conversion and redemption is also touchingly realized in Boromir’s final moments in Fellowship, in which the spiritual significance of Boromir’s confession to Aragorn is enhanced by another extra-textual gloss: a ritual gesture of blessing from Aragorn that "almost looks like a pre-Christian sign of the cross," as author Joseph Pearce commented in an interview with columnist Terry Mattingly.

Other glosses. Besides such suggestive details as Aragorn’s ritual blessing gesture and the cruciform posture of Gandalf’s falling body, the films also include explicitly religious themes that, while not present in the books, are fittingly evocative of the religious element of Tolkien’s inspiration.

For example, the films explicitly refer to life after death, and even include an instance of prayer for the dead. In The Return of the King, in the siege on Minas Tirith, Gandalf tells Pippin that death is not the end, and goes on to speak in evocative imagery of the afterlife. In Two Towers, upon hearing that two of his comrades are dead, Legolas utters an unsubtitled snatch of Elvish that a remarkable website on Elvish helpfully translates as "[May] they find peace after death," a prayer that resonates with the Catholic practice of praying for the dead.

Another religiously significant addition is the elf princess Arwen’s intercessory prayer for "grace" to be given to Frodo. In Fellowship, seeking to save Frodo from the forces of Mordor, Arwen prays, like Moses or St. Paul expressing their willingness to be accursed for the sake of God’s people, that any "grace" given to her should instead pass to Frodo to save his life.

The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is an extraordinary cinematic tribute to a great work of Catholic imagination. While not equalling the religious vision of the books, the films honor that vision in a way that Christian viewers can appreciate, and that for non-Christian postmoderns may represent a rare encounter with an unironic vision of good and evil, a moral vision of evil as derivative of good and of the ever-present human susceptibility to temptation. In the landscape of modern Hollywood, The Lord of the Rings is a rare beacon of light.

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