The Catholic origins of The Lord of the Rings and other truths about J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” J.R.R. Tolkien himself admitted. And although the movie carrying his name highlighted the fact that Tolkien grew up in a Catholic environment and showed some of the experiences that would inspire his writings, it did not show how his deep Catholic faith served as one of the most essential inspirations in the creation of his most famous books. In fact, his writings are inundated with allusions to the Catholic faith.

The Denver Catholic spoke with Joseph Pearce, Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of Faith & Culture and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, about this matter. He has written several books on Tolkien, including a biography titled Tolkien: Man and Myth and Frodo’s Journey: Discover the Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings.

“Tolkien is what I call a ‘cradle convert,’” Pearce said. “So, he’s not strictly speaking a cradle Catholic, but a convert, in the sense that he was received into the Church when he was 8 years old, following the reception of the Church of his mother… and he remained a practicing Catholic to his death.”

His mother died when he was only 14 years old after suffering persecution for becoming Catholic, something he always admired about her.

“In consequence of her conversion, the family was plunged into penury, and Tolkien, into his dying day, considered his mother a martyr for the faith,” Pearce said.

Since his father had died when he was four years old, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory became his legal guardian: Father Francis Morgan.

Thus, it is no surprise that his deep Catholic faith was enshrined in his works — yet not as a secondary trait, but in such an essential way that it made his greatest book, The Lord of the Rings, “a fundamentally religious and

Catholic work.”

Here are a few examples Pearce highlighted that illustrate how Tolkien’s Catholicity was the leading factor of the story of Middle Earth.

Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The ring’s destruction and the crucifixion

Tolkien gives the game away allegorically when he has the ring destroyed on March 25. For Catholics, this day marks the solemnity of the Annunciation or the Incarnation. But also, traditionally, the Church has believed that the historical date of the crucifixion itself was March 25. Tolkien, who was a Medievalist, certainly knew that.

By connecting the destruction of the ring with the destruction of sin, we can see that the ring can be seen as synonymous with sin, and therefore, the power of the ring is the power of sin. Also, the necessity of bearing the consequence of sin sacrificially is the very heart of the story.

The three Christ figures

Frodo is a Christ figure as the ring-bearer. If the ring is seen as synonymous with sin, the bearing of the ring is like the carrying of the sin. Christ bore the burden of sin by carrying the Cross. In other words, Frodo is a Christ figure by carrying the burden of sin as Christ carried the Cross.

Gandalf is a Christ figure in his death, resurrection and transfiguration. The wizard lays down his life for his friends at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and is later resurrected as Gandalf the White. His transfiguration is evidenced in the part where his friends first see him in his resurrected form, but his garments are so white and dazzling that his friends are forced to cover their eyes and Gandalf is forced to wear a gray cloak over the white.

Aragorn is the third major Christ figure because he is the true king. As true king, he has the power to descend into the land of the dead and to have power over the dead themselves — to release the dead from their curse. Of course, this reminds us of Christ’s descent into hell after his crucifixion to liberate the souls of the dead.

Every-man figures

Tolkien said that fairy stories and all good stories hold up a mirror to man — they show us ourselves.

Boromir, for instance, who is the only human representative in the Fellowship of the Ring, shows the fact that we are susceptible to trying to use the power of evil supposedly for good. As Boromir learns, evil means can’t be used to a good end — it’s impossible to use the power of the ring to defeat the power of the ring.

Faramir, his brother, is the one who says that he would not pick up the ring if he saw it lying on the side of the road, and that he would not snare even an Orc with a force hood. In other words, he would not tell the smallest lie to the devil himself. Faramir shows the alternate to Boromir, that we’re called to sanctity, to perfection, to be Christ-like and to treat evil with contempt.

Gollum shows us what happens if we allow ourselves to be possessed by the power of evil. Instead of the “good Hobbit” we are meant to be, Gollum shows us the corrupted version. The ring makes him an addict to the power of sin, selfishness and pride. He’s no longer able to give himself sacrificially to others because he’s too self-obsessed.

Lembas bread and the Eucharist

Tolkien gives a linguistic clue to how the Lembas bread is a figure of the Eucharist. In one of the Elvish languages, Lembas means “Way Bread.” This reminds of the Viaticum, the Blessed Sacrament taken to the sick, which basically means “for the way.” In the other Elvish language, Lembas means “Life Bread” or “Bread of Life.” The book also mentions that this bread feeds the will more than it feeds the body.

Pearce speculates in his book Frodo’s Journey that Tolkien, being a practicing Catholic, would have heard about the many Eucharistic miracles that were happening around the time he was writing the book. Hearing about how someone could live on the Blessed Sacrament alone could have motivated him to write that Frodo and Sam lived on nothing but Lembas bread as they were walking through Mordor.

If there is still any doubt about Tolkien’s deep Catholic faith, here is just one example of his personal letters, this one written to one of his sons:

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…”

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”