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 new 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: Repenting and renewing our role as shepherds

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Jesus tells the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” contrasting his goodness with the thieves who come only to steal and destroy.  This past week my fellow U.S. bishops and I sought to act as good shepherds by approving three measures to increase our vigilance and prevention of the evil of sexual abuse by bishops, shepherds who have betrayed the flock entrusted to them.

This last weekend we celebrated Father’s Day, which should remind biological and spiritual fathers of their great responsibility of protecting and raising up new life. This mission is further emphasized by the Rite for the Ordination of a Bishop, which says, “In the Church entrusted to you, be a faithful steward, moderator and guardian of the mysteries of Christ. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, be mindful always of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them, and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.” This is the model for all bishops.

But the scandals of Theodore McCarrick, Bishop Bransfield and others have made it clear that our vigilance has not been adequate. To quote from the just-issued “Affirming Our Episcopal Commitment” statement, “We, the bishops of the United States, have heard the anger expressed by so many within and outside of the Church over these failures.  The anger is justified; it has humbled us, prompting us into self-examination, repentance, and a desire to do better.” This sentiment was clear in my interactions with my fellow bishops in Baltimore this past week.

As evidence of our commitment, we overwhelmingly passed a set of directives for the bishops’ conference to implement Pope Francis’ Vos estis lux mundi document on handling abuse by priests and bishops. These directives include the creation by May 31, 2020 of a third-party phone and online system that receives reports of potential violations by bishops, the establishment of a protocol in which the Holy See designates and authorizes metropolitan archbishops to investigate cases of alleged abuse by bishops, and the expectation that the investigating bishop involve lay experts in assisting with these inquiries. For any investigations that falls under my jurisdiction, I will ensure that lay experts are involved, as I’ve done throughout my time as a bishop. As the new directives indicate, I will also appoint a lay person to receive complaints from the third-party reporting system, publicize how to make reports, ascertain the credibility of reports and gather any additional information necessary for an investigation to commence.

I also want to highlight that the bishops overwhelmingly approved protocols for imposing limitations on former bishops who were removed from office for grave reasons and that we adopted a code of conduct for bishops, which explicitly states that the Dallas Charter will now include bishops.

All these measures are in addition to those we have been enforcing since 2002 in relation to preventing sexual abuse of minors by priests. The Archdiocese of Denver has a strong track record of actively working to protect children, including annual audits, background checks of employees and clergy, and a code of conduct that previous bishops and I have all signed, and a robust training program aimed at fostering safe environments for children. The effectiveness of these measures over the past 20 years has made us a model for other institutions seeking to combat abuse.

Pope Francis rightly noted in a January 2019 personal letter to the U.S. bishops that the consequences of our failures cannot be fixed by being administrators of new programs or committees.  They can only be resolved by humility, listening, self-examination and conversion.

My brother bishops and I hope that by obeying the Word of God, seeking the will of the Father and embracing what the Church expects of us, we will imitate Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Read more

Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi can be read at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190507_vos-estis-lux-mundi.html

The USCCB Directives implementing Vos estis can be read at: http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/usccb-general-assembly/2019-june-meeting/upload/usccb-modified-amended-directives-2019-06.pdf

Reach out

Christi Sullivan serves as the Protection Specialist for the Office of Child and Youth Protection and can be reached at 303-715-3241 or Christi.Sullivan@archden.org.

Victims of abuse can reach out to Dr. Jim Langley, the Victim Assistance Coordinator, at 720-239-2832 or Victim.Assistance@ArchDen.org.