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Why Tolkien Says


"The Two Towers", the second part of Peter Jackson's blockbuster film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, was let loose on an expectant nation on Dec. 18, 2002. Over the coming months and years it will be watched by millions of moviegoers throughout the world, most of whom will be unaware that they are watching a film version of what its author called "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work."


Catholics reading interviews with the filmmakers or listening to DVD commentaries might be surprised to hear them calling the story exemplary of pagan virtues. How can they say such a thing?

The work's author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a lifelong devout Catholic who poured his Catholic heart into the witing of the myth that is now captivating a new generation half a century after its first publication. Tolkien insisted that the fact that he was "a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic," was the most important and "really significant" element in his work.


Where's Christ?

If, however, The Lord of the Rings is "fundamentally religious and Catholic," why is Christ never mentioned in its pages? If the Catholic faith is indeed as "significant" as its author claimed, where exactly are the Catholic signs that bestow this significance?

To answer the first of these questions, Christ is never mentioned by name simply because Tolkien's myth takes place many thousands of years before the incarnation. He is not mntioned in The Lord of the Rings for the same reason that he is not mentioned in the Old Testament. He had not yet revealed himself in the flesh and, consequently, is present implicitly through grace, not explicitly in person.

Christ is, however, king of Tolkien's myth, the unfolding of which points to him in much the same way that the Old Testament points to him. To put the matter succinctly, The Lord of the Rings is best understood if it is read through the prism of the Gospel, in much the same way that the Old Testament is best understood if it is read in the light of the Gospel.

Certainly one can read it without such an insight but to do so is to miss the fundamental purpose.

One can read the Old Testament as a Jew, a Muslim or, indeed, as an agnostic or an atheist, but one will not understand the prophetic nature of the old as a prefiguring or a prophecy of the new. One can read The Lord of the Rings as an atheist or an agnosic, or indeed as a New Age neo-pagan, but one will not understand its "fundamentally religious and Catholic" significance. One will be paddling in the shallows of the shadows, instead of plunging headlong into the glorious depths of the light.

"Above all shadows rides the sun," proclaims Samwise Gamgee amid the perilous gloom on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol in The Two Towers, declaring his faith and hope in a power beyond the reach of the Shadow. The hopeful hobbit, like the hope-filled Christian, has no need of despair, even in the midst of the greatest evil. Darkness can never ultimately prevail in the presence of the Sun that never sets.


The Symbols

If, however, Christ is never mentioned by name in The Lord of the Rings, how can we discern his invisible presence?

he most obvious parallel between Tolkien's myth and the Christian truth it reflects so faithfully is in the nature of the quest which constitutes the principal animus of Tolkien's story. The journey of Frodo and Sam into the very heart of Mordor in order to destroy, or unmake, the Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom is emblematic of the Christian's imitation of Christ in carrying the cross of sin.

At its most profound level, The Lord of the Rings is a sublimely mystical passion play. The carrying of the ring the emblem of sin is the carrying of the cross. This is the ultimate applicability of The Lord of the Rings that we have to lose our life in order to gain it; that unless we die we cannot live; that we must all take up our cross and follow him.

All of this would be deducible from the story itself but Tolkien makes the parallel even more explicit.

"I should say," he wrote, explaining the final climactic mments on Mt. Doom, "that within the mode of the story [it] exemplifies (an aspect of) the familiar words: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.'"

As if this were not enough to silence those skeptics who obstinately refuse to acknowledge the overriding Christian dimension in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien makes it even more unmistakable, and unavoidable, in the fact that the climactic attempt to destroy the ring, and in consequence the Dark Lord who had forged it, occurred on "the twenty-fifth of March."

The significance of this date will not escape the attention of Catholic scholars, though it is certainly overlooked all too often by Tolkien's non-Christian admirers. Tom Shippey, an Anglo-Saxon scholar and Tolkien expert, states in his book, The Road to Middle Earth, that in "Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradiion both before and after that, March 25 is the date of the Crucifixion." It is also, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the absolute center of all history as the moment when God himself became incarnate as man.

A Catholic and an Oxford don, Tolkien was well aware of the significance of "the twenty-fifth of March." It signified the way in which God had "unmade"

the Fall, which, like the Ring, had brought humanity under the sway of "the Shadow." If the ring that the hero wants "unmade" at the culmination of Tolkien's quest is the "one ring to rule them all â?¦ and in the darkness bind them," the Fall was the "one sin to rule them all â?¦ and in the darkness bind them." On March 25, the one sin, like the one ring, had been "unmade," destroying the power of the Dark Lord.

Apart from this one crucial parallel, there are of course many other examples of the atholic truth shining forth from the pages of Tolkien's masterpiece too many to mention in one article. It is, however, very comforting in the midst of these dark days that the most popular book of the 20th century and the most popular movie of the new century draw their power and their glory from the light of the Gospel.

Deo gratias.




Joseph Pearce. "Why Tolkien Says The Lord of the Rings Is Catholic." National Catholic Register (January 12-19, 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

The Author

pearcelitJoseph Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. Among the books he has authored are: Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith,  Literature: What every Catholic should know, Tolkien: Man and Myth, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Literary CatholicsRace With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love,  Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and CultureThrough Shakespeare's Eye, J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-EarthUnafraid of Virginia Woolf, Solzhenitsynand Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc. 

Copyright © 2003 National Catholic Register
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