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: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.