Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision
J. R. R. Tolkien is best known for his fantasy stories The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Many people are unaware of his devout Catholic faith – he was a daily communicant – and even fewer are aware of the fundamental importance of his faith on his creative work. I am aiming here to show that – even though it can be enjoyed without any knowledge of Catholicism – his work is deeply imbued with a ‘sacramental’ vision, ie. that throughout the stories a metaphysical and ethical framework is consciously employed which is deeply Catholic. I am particularly indebted to Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth , by Craig Bernthal, and The Power of The Ring by Stratford Caldecott, for helping to lead me deeper into the Catholic Mystery which shines through the legendarium of Tolkien. Tolkien saw the supreme importance of the Blessed Sacrament. There is little doubt that this most orthodox of Catholic believers saw Christ’s eternal sacrifice, present on all the altars of the world, as the sustaining source for his work.
A quick overview of Tolkien’s birth and early life:
- Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa – 1892
- Father died, returned to England – 1896
- Obtained scholarship to King Edward’s Birmingham – 1903
- Mother died – 1904
- From 1904 – 1911 because of the death of both of his parents Tolkien came under the guardianship of Father Francis Morgan at the Birmingham Oratory.
So what do I mean by his sacramental vision? It is simply that whilst any fantasy writer can employ symbolism, Tolkien’s symbolism was raised to the highest level through its understanding of the Catholic mystery – that is, that if bread and wine can become Christ, then the whole of reality has been hallowed and can be a sign of a future ultimate victory over the forces of death and corruption – “All things made new”. Tolkien purposefully included no actual religious elements in The Lord of the Rings, as he wanted the religious element to be absorbed into the story and the symbolism. We will see exactly how the story conveys this religious sense.
Note that both his parents died by the time he was 12. This would have a profound effect on his work – and his notion of evil and suffering, which we will look at later. At an early age Tolkien showed an aptitude for languages, and would invent his own with his friends. He later became a philologist, and the fantasy worlds he created were partly the result of working out the logic of the languages that he had invented.
In terms of faith, apart from his love of the Mass, the time at the Oratory also gave him a strong grounding in Thomist metaphysics, and certainly this was a key element in the way he portrayed evil, death, immortality and many other things in his stories. The Silmarillion was begun first in 1917 whilst he was in the trenches, and never completed – he worked on it his whole life. Tolkien called it his legendarium – a body of myth out of which would grow The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
One simple way that the Eucharist can be seen as having an impact on Tolkien’s work is in the elvish bread called Lembas that is given to the members of the fellowship by Galadriel, the elven queen. It has an almost supernatural virtue of being able to sustain endurance by eating a small piece. Lembas means ‘waybread’ which would be a good description of viaticum ‘food for the journey’.
Sacramental vision – Galadriel’s gifts
I want to give some more examples of the sacramental nature of the stories. At a certain point in the story the fellowship – a group who have come together to destroy the One Ring – an evil means of control created by the dark lord Sauron – have come to a place on their journey where they can rest. Evil forces are gathering for the final battle, but in this wood, called Lothlorien, no evil can find them, because of the goodness of the Elves, and particularly of Galadriel, the Elven ‘queen’, who is a type of the Virgin Mary.
(A word about the Elves – certain kind of Elves and other characters such as Gandalf the wizard are best seen as analogous to angels in LOTR – they have a higher mission, and may have some sense of the future as agents of divine providence). So Lothlorien is a kind of Marian sanctuary, a place of refreshment, light and peace, where the weary pilgrims can find the strength to continue the battle.
Tolkien was clear that his Middle-Earth is not a different world, but our own world pre-history, and I believe was deliberately echoing ideas of England as ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’ here. The gifts that are given are important because Galadriel can partly foresee the future, and knows what each will need the most in the coming struggle. So Sam is given Elven rope, Frodo, a phial containing the light of Elendil, a star, and so on.
If a sacrament was to be associated with this it would clearly be confirmation – the giving of strength, the conferring of gifts of the Holy Spirit. There are seven gifts given here, and they are linked to virtues that the fellowship need such as courage, wisdom and so on. So here we have an example of Tolkien’s use of the sacramental worldview in his story-telling.
Tolkien became conscious of and developed the strong Marian resonance of Galadriel. In fact when it comes to veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he emphasises its role in his own creative development: “...Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”
Sam’s gift of elven rope has been seen indeed as a reference to the Rosary. In a later scene, Frodo and Sam are struggling towards the cracks of Doom, and Frodo falls off a cliff in the darkness, he is stuck on a ledge, and Sam cannot see at all and is unable to help him up. Frodo reminds Sam about the rope, and he pulls him out of the abyss. For Catholics, the Rosary has played an analogous role as a spiritual ‘rope’ as a means to enter heaven and as a means of fortification against adversaries, spiritual and temporal. This is vividly illustrated by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the fresco of the Last Judgement, where a rope which is clearly also a rosary is used by one person to assist souls to salvation.
Magic and Machinery
So it might make sense to talk about the realm of Lothlorien and the powers of people like Gandalf and Galadriel as ‘magic’ – and this is where many Catholics become slightly concerned about fantasy writers like Tolkien. Doesn’t all this talk of magic and spells encourage impressionable young minds to become interested in occultism?
My answer would be that there is a real danger that some fantasy stories contribute to a kind of unhealthy distortion of the truth and superstition. For instance, in the Star Wars series, and in many other fantasy stories, a kind of Gnosticism prevails, in which good and evil are equal powers. But if true ‘magic’ is only obedience to the will of God and the grace that flows from this , then evil ‘magic’ in Tolkien is the result of the promise of the serpent in Eden – that we shall be like gods, by using our cunning and not through obedience.
All of which is really to say that evil magic is domination of the natural world through science and technology loosed from any sense of moral principle – the culture of death. Evil magic is exemplified in the figure of Saruman, the wizard who aligns himself with Sauron and uses technology to create twisted creatures called orcs through torturing and debasing the other races of elves and men. He also creates great machines of war through destruction of the natural world, by cutting down trees and wounding the earth.
Hobbits and the Shire
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” Famously Tolkien was marking papers one summer and there was a blank one on which he wrote this line – the rest of the story came about as an effort to discover what hobbits were.
Hobbits were creatures of simple tastes who liked the good things in life, food, drink and pipe-weed. The Shire where the hobbits live is a place of plenty, a preindustrial rural idyll modelled on the area of the Midlands where Tolkien grew up. Hobbits famously enjoy six meals a day, including ‘second breakfast’.
In Tolkien’s vision, the growing, preparation and enjoyment of food take up most of the hobbits’ time—and serve a much higher purpose than the mere utilitarian re-fuelling of Mordor’s orcs or modern society. The meals of the hobbits and the elves have social, even spiritual, purposes, helping to cement the bonds of friendship and strengthen the soul for hardships to come. In this, Tolkien is echoing an ancient spiritual tradition that extends back through his own Catholic faith, and the Anglo-Catholicism of his friends at Oxford, all the way through the Jewish and Christian testaments.
The elaborate family Sabbath and Passover meals are central to Jewish religious practice. The central act of Christian worship in the majority of denominations, the Eucharist, is essentially a ritualized meal and a re-enactment of the Last Supper. To put it simply: What and how we eat matters … and there is a vast chasm existing between the nourishing, fresh, locally grown food eaten in the Shire (and in most traditional societies)… and the manufactured, pre-packaged, artificial “food products” consumed by the harried worker-bees of consumer society.
Good and Evil
Tolkien understood that while history lasts there will always be an admixture of suffering and evil; think of the parable of the Tares. However, this is not to admit pessimism or despair, because evil has no real substance; it is simply a privation of good. This is the Augustinian doctrine which the Church has long upheld. We can see it easily in Lord of the Rings when we look at the Ringwraiths – and fail to see them! They are invisible, as their very being has been eaten away by evil. Equally think about how Bilbo describes himself as feeling thinner, like butter spread over too much bread, after long possession of the Ring – evil eats away at the good – is parasitic upon it.
There are many truths about evil portrayed in Lord of the Rings. Evil is self-destructive – look at what happens on Mount Doom to Gollum. Evil is blind to its own weakness and possesses little imagination – Sauron’s inability to see the Hobbits wandering into the heart of his lands, because of their very insignificance – it takes Gandalf in his goodness to see the important part the hobbits will play in world history.
The good creation has undergone a Fall in Middle Earth – elves have been twisted into orcs, the once-proud cities of Bree and Minas Tirith each fall prey to their own evils, the former only discovered when the hobbits return home. Even the Shire has been affected by the evil – they have to do their own job of res toration.
The final clue in this epic journey is the word Tolkien invented to describe what he saw as a good quality in a fairy-story – and that word was eucatastrophe, this being the notion that there is a “sudden joyous ‘turn’” in the story, where everything is going well, “giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy”, whilst not denying the “existence of dyscatastrophe – of sorrow and failure”. It also reminds us that catastrophe can be reversed.
Matthew Livermore is an RE teacher at St. Benedict’s School, Bury St. Edmunds. He
has written A Level study guides on philosophy of religion, and is currently writing a
book on pilgrimage and the Marian Option