Many of the elements in the Tolkien books refer to mythological items from religions that precede Christian Catholicism. From Providence to Atonement, and to the Eucharist, and the Struggle against evil – all are present, not because the saga is religiously inclined, but only inasmuch as the manuscript, being universal, accesses mythology’s lowest common denominators.
Readers and experts around the world agree that Tolkien’s most famous publication, The Lord of the Rings, is an epic that touches upon the essence of the religious and magical without ever getting stuck in the dogmatic or denominational part of humanity.
It’s a refreshingly great thing to say about a book as well as the people reading it. A great story into which no one reads personal faiths and religious biases is a rare thing indeed.
One Story To Rule Them All
A fellow Urban Timer disagreed. In reference to an article I recently wrote on Tolkien’s work, he (correctly) identified the fact that Tolkien once said this about his work: ‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.’
The statement caught me by surprise. I was unaware of this angle. How could it be? It didn’t sound right. The man who wrote one of literature’s most spiritual yet intentionally-non-religious sagas surely couldn’t be a devout Anything. He was a lover of man’s spirit, not a dogmatist, right?
One Man, Numerous Thoughts
Let’s take things one at a time.
Firstly, Tolkien’s above statement about his work and how it relates to his faith reveals how he interpreted his own interpretations of the world. There’s no arguing with it. If that is what he said about his work, then that is what he said.
Tolkien also refused to accept comparisons of Frodo to a Christ- like figure. He preferred explanations along the lines of ‘courage of small people against impossible odds.
But Tolkien said many things about many things. In one instance, for example, he referred to his work as ‘an allegory of the human race,’ then, in the same interview, rejected the merit of allegory altogether (see video below), siding with his much-known preference for Applicability (see the previous article’s documentary for his distinction between applicability and allegory).
Tolkien also refused to accept comparisons of Frodo to a Christ-like figure. He preferred explanations along the lines of ‘courage of small people against impossible odds.’
Bearing all this in mind, one cannot but wonder whether Tolkien was referring to something other than Christian Catholicism when he made that specific statement about his writings.
Tolkien The Catholic?
The religiously-inclined Urban Timer who commented on my article was clearly seeing a Catholic underpinning in Tolkien’s work. The reason, as he pointed out, was that there was plenty of Christian i.e. monotheistic process in the text, specifically mentioning divine providence and penance/atonement.
Then he referred me to a relevant link. I clicked and read. (click here for more.)
The piece made some annoyingly interesting points. It was full of examples aligning Tolkien’s work with Christian thematology.
Yet, in my mind, they did not testify to Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism, per se. I regarded them as part of a greater statement the man had made through his extensive writings.
Let’s identify the meaning of the term Catholicism before we proceed:
Catholicism: a term that stems from the Greek Kata (about) and Olos (whole)
–> Katholikos (universal) … i.e. the all-encompassing viewpoint.
Roman Catholicism has certainly lived up to its name. It has successfully encompassed the world.
The Lord Of The Rings, though, much as Catholics wish it, doesn’t fall under their creed’s direct influence. It can’t be ascribed to it so easily, and neither can any of the Middle-earth writings. Tolkien drew enough inspiration from other parts of life in such a way that his work is clearly broader, more Applicable than a Catholic allegory.
It is, in fact, a work impossible to contain solely within any religious denomination, period.
Moreover Catholicism, as great a statement as it may be, is part of an even greater statement. Call it a mere iteration to a spectacular formula of many functions and factors, all of which cover the same essence and core, stretching far beyond any given belief system.
Tolkien’s work has religious undertones, no doubt. But it’s extremely humanitarian at the same time. The Lord of the Rings explores deeply personal and psychological processes, which underscore the human condition. Trials, tribulations, tests, labors, passions, aspirations, dreams, punishments and redemptions — aspects of enormous cultural and spiritual significance.
A note to the wise. These are not just Christian notions. They’re universal.
Religion is universal to humankind. It’s been around since the beginning of civilization, binding it together. The various faiths that have arisen from it stem from the same impulse, gazing at similar horizons. They refer to an afterlife of some sort. They involve divine providence of some kind. They’re underscored by metaphysical forces.
This overlapping nature could be summed up in five words: magic, wonder, awe, extraordinariness, divinity.
Tolkien’s work is certainly all about these qualities. It alludes to a world beyond that of Middle-earth, one from which Gandalf ‘was sent back’ to complete his task.
It takes place in a world where evil resides not only in a specific, hellacious place (Mordor) but also in the soul of every weak and corrupted being, whom the One Ring peels open little by little.
It’s shaped by small people who display surprising resilience to temptation and incredible courage in the face of calamity.
It’s inhabited by people who come together to do the right thing, to each their own, or in accordance with higher laws and ancient allegiances.
Let’s acknowledge these denominators for what they are: religiously-inclined but deeply universal, humanitarian elements underscoring the human condition; factors that embody humanity’s relationship with the metaphysical, the magical, the divine.
A World Of Inspiration
Let’s now say a few more words about these notions. Let’s see how far and wide they reach and how deep they go.
Divine providence, for example. It’s part of all religious belief systems and magical viewpoints. The Gods of Olympus meddled in human affairs all the time, as did the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Norse deities.
Penance — another signature religious notion — can be traced as far back as the Greek mythology, in the stories of Hercules and the twelve tasks. One hero, one journey, a marathon of atonement, the end of which was not death but restitution.
Penance — another signature religious notion — can be traced as far back as the Greek mythology, in the stories of Hercules and the twelve tasks
The epic stand against evil, the outcome of which is glorious victory, is also a widespread religious notion. All faiths have tales of the good among us triumphing over the wicked. The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, for example, makes specific allusions to victors and Kings, which makes it a very specific analogy to the Middle-earth saga.
To cut the long story short, it’s evident that Tolkien’s work was, ‘a personal exploration … of his interests in philology, religion (particularly Roman Catholicism), fairy tales, Norse and general Germanic mythology, and also Celtic, Slavic, Persian, Greek,  and Finnish mythology. Tolkien acknowledged, and external critics have verified, the influences of George MacDonald and William Morris and the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.  The question of a direct influence of Wagner’s The Nibelung’s Ring on Tolkien’s work is debated by critics.’ (source: Wikipedia.)
The Roots Go Wide And Deep
In my opinion there’s even more to Tolkien’s work, which the scholars seem to have missed.
I find fascinating, for example, that they don’t mention Babylon or Assyria in their list of influences. One has only to reference the names of various Mesopotamian Gods (Mukīl rēš lemutti, Šulak, Bašmu, Ušumgallu, Enmerkar, Ua-Ildak) to see a linguistic analog to Tolkien’s universe.
Some claim the phonetic and orthographical resemblance is a direct result of his research on Finnish language and mythology, not Mesopotamian.
But one can’t but note that there are names of locations with direct Mesopotamian roots in Tolkien’s work. Take Uruk, for example, an ancient city in the region, in a country now known as Iraq. The term Uruk was used to describe the Uruk-hai, Isengard’s monstrous warriors.
Uruk was also known as Erech at the time, and ‘Erech’ happens to be the name of ‘a hill near the sources of river Morthond, upon which Isildur set the Black Stone brought by him to Middle- earth from Númenor.’
One name, two variations, both used in the book. Not a coincidence, surely. The ‘Black Stone’ itself is of course quite reminiscent of Islam’s holy rock, which is situated in Mecca, not far from the aforementioned Uruk.
Clearly, there are not just Mesopotamian but also other references in Tolkien’s work. None too clear or direct, yet all too familiar.
It goes without question then, no single religion can lay claim to his saga. His work is not only an assortment of various belief systems, but also a reference to themes ancient and archetypal. One must delve deeper in time to trace the threads weaving his thematic tapestry.
An Age To Presage Ours
Tolkien was careful to address the core of the religiously-inclined but ultimately-humanitarian themes in his work without breaking the religious surface. He did it subtly, undogmatically, through metaphor. Most of the religions from which Tolkien drew his inspiration, ranging from the Norse to the Greek, the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian, are not operative anymore. They’re long gone.
But their influence is very much present in one form or another in Christianity.
Here’s where it gets interesting — and unnerving for dogmatic Christians. The celebration of Christmas, for instance, circa the later part of December. It represents the winter solstice, when the day begins to grow in length and the Sun’s presence in the sky resurges.
Or the Virgin birth, which is nothing other than a recycled version of miraculous birth, a notion present in many religions.
Take the time of Easter and the Christ’s Resurrection, which takes place in spring time, the season when the Northern hemisphere returns to warmer weather and plentitude. (click here for possible etymologies for the word ‘Easter’.)
The list goes on and on.
In other words, Roman Catholic elements — Providence, Atonement, the Eucharist, the Anointed One, the Passion, the Struggle against evil — are present in Tolkien’s work only inasmuch as the manuscript, being universal, accommodates all viewpoints via its access of mythology’s lowest common denominators.
Denominators. Another great, illuminating word. It stems from the Latin Denominare (to name). Denominator: ‘That which gives a name to something.’
Finding these common denominators in any body of work — in this case Tolkien’s — gives meaning to the story’s themes. Being low and common enough, basic enough, ancient and broad enough, they pinpoint all the hybrids stemming from them i.e. the religious/sectarian ‘denominations’ arisen from their principles.
Tolkien The Universalist
Denominators. Another great, illuminating word. It stems from the Latin Denominare (to name)
Let us acknowledge these denominators for what they are: not Roman Catholic elements, not elements of any specific denomination, but the driving forces behind the human condition and its relationship with the metaphysical, the magical, and the divine. Their universality is testament to Tolkien’s vision, who, eager to write a true epic, ventured beyond all faiths, into their founding principles, tapping their core, creating a mythology as close to the human condition as possible.
That was Tolkien’s true catholicism. His universality.
As an afterthought, let me say this: If, by any chance, Tolkien did reference Roman Catholicism intentionally, one wonders whether he did it through the actions and tales of the saga’s’ heroes, or through the activity of Sauron’s All-Seeing Eye (God?) and the One Ring, the One (Catholic – Holy See) Ring To Rule Them All.
See, if one claims a piece of work for oneself, or one’s creed, one becomes associated not just with its glorious points, but also its damning ones.
Food for Catholic thought.
Eyes open, mind sharp.