Tolkien’s Catholic Imagination

Great books have much to fear from blockbuster movies. And Peter Jackson’s new film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, set to be released in theaters next month, poses such a threat. Mesmerized by the cinematic eye-candy, the spin-off toys and games, and the fast-food tie-ins, fans who enter J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth for the first time through Jackson’s film might never bother to read Tolkien’s epic. Sadder still, they might never learn about the Catholic imagination that inspired it.

Even among fantasy devotees who recognize Tolkien as the father of the modern genre, few realize that Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” This probably comes as a surprise to most Catholics as well.

Readers of The Lord of the Rings are unlikely to find a “Catholic Middle-earth” by looking for overt references to the Christian gospel or hidden Catholic symbolism—Tolkien rejected this type of analysis—however they will find it by looking at Tolkien’s motivations as a writer.

Hobbies of an Oxford Don

To the outside world, Tolkien was the picture of the obscure Oxford don: bright, jovial, a bit on the chubby side, a fastidious dresser who alternated between sweaters and waistcoats beneath his Oxford tweed jackets. Although he was personable enough, students and other trespassers claimed they could barely understand a word he spoke because he mumbled everything through his omnipresent pipe. In many ways, he was the very picture of the hobbits he wrote about, who preferred the comfort of home to grand adventures.

Like many Oxford dons, he preferred a quiet academic life enriched by a peculiar hobby. Since his boyhood, Tolkien loved inventing imaginary languages and stories to go along with them. His penchant for language and myth drew Tolkien into an academic career. He became a professor of English literature at the University of Leeds and later at Oxford. But even as a full professor, he always found time to work on his “Elfin tongues.”

The history of Middle-earth emerged from his fertile imagination as he created these fictitious languages. Throughout his life, Tolkien wrote, rewrote, and refined pivotal episodes of that history but was never fully satisfied with them. The distractions of life and the magnitude of the work kept him from completing his vision. These scattered writings—posthumously published by his son, Christopher, as The Silmarillion—form the narrative background of Middle-earth. Among the subplots is the saga of the One Ring—a ring that gives its possessor power to command Middle-earth’s darkest minions. The story of its creation and eventual destruction forms the basis for what are now regarded as his greatest works: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

When the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings were released in 1954, 17 years after the great success of The Hobbit, Tolkien had been a professor at Oxford for 30 years and was just four years away from retirement. The renown that had previously eluded him hit like a firestorm in the 1960s, when his books were widely regarded as masterpieces, inspiring a new genre of literature: fantasy fiction. But popular success and the recognition of his peers were not the driving forces of his work. The driving force was always his Catholic faith.

A Mother’s Faith

Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s authorized biographer, characterizes Tolkien’s devotion to the Catholic faith as “total.” Friends knew him as a committed Catholic who was both openly apostolic (he was instrumental in the conversion of C.S. Lewis to Christianity) and privately pious.

Throughout his life, Tolkien found the Eucharist an incomparable solace during the bouts of melancholy and despair he sometimes suffered. The special consolations he received at communion were especially important in the disorienting period when Vatican II was first implemented. He frequently went to confession, though sometimes his troubled self-reflection seemed to approach scrupulosity. When he could not bring himself to confess his sins, he would:be racked by spiritual anxiety—devastated because he could not receive the Eucharist.

No one was more influential in the development of both his faith and intellect than his mother, Mabel. Tolkien maintained that everything he knew, he learned from his Catholic faith, and that he owed this faith to his mother, who, according to Tolkien, “clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it.”

Mabel literally worked herself to death providing for her family after her husband died in South Africa from rheumatic fever when Tolkien was just four. She raised her two sons alone in a suburb of Birmingham, England. During these hardscrabble years, Mabel made two decisions that would shape the rest of the young Tolkien’s life: She raised her sons in the Catholic faith and made sure they had enough education to pursue university careers.

The first task was accomplished with the help of the priests at the Birmingham Oratory. Founded by John Henry Newman in 1859, the oratory had made the traditionally Presbyterian city of Birmingham into a center of Catholic resurgence in late 19th-century England. Mabel had grown up as a Unitarian and spent several years in the Anglican Church. After years of searching for the truth, she was received into the Catholic Church along with her boys at St. Anne’s Church in 1900.

Without a father’s income, however, the task of educating her sons would take some doing because the best schools charged tuition. Also, her decision to become Catholic estranged her from most of her family, who withdrew their financial support. So Mabel did what any resourceful woman with a fine middle-class education would do: She home-schooled her sons until they could pass the entrance exams and receive scholarships at a good private school.

Under Mabel’s instruction, Tolkien was reading by the age of four and learning Latin, French, and German by the age of seven. He took to languages with such precocious zeal that he was eventually accepted at one of the best private schools in England on scholarship. In 1909 Tolkien’s academic career was secured when he was accepted to Exeter College at Oxford.

Unfortunately, Mabel did not live to see the fruits of her labor. In 1904, when Tolkien was just twelve, she died from diabetes, a disease that was then untreatable. Before she died, however, she ensured that her sons would continue to be raised Catholic by asking an Oratorian friend, Rev. Francis Morgan, to become their legal guardian—and by making her Protestant relatives promise they would not attempt to convert the boys.

Tolkien’s faith alone would have to sustain him in her absence. Until the two boys reached their majority, Father Morgan provided for them materially out of his personal resources. These were lean and hungry years for the brothers, but they always held a deep affection for the stern but sensitive Father Morgan. While they were in his care, they never lacked for spiritual or intellectual support.

Father Morgan kept close tabs on his charges, who lived in a boarding house not far from the oratory. Each morning the boys assisted him at Mass and ate breakfast with him in the refectory.

Married Grace

Tolkien fell in love with a close friend, Edith Bratt, when he was just 16. Father Morgan discovered their clandestine love affair when he noticed Tolkien’s grades were slipping. Edith was three years older than Tolkien and a Protestant, so Father Morgan discouraged the relationship; eight years later, he would preside at their marriage.

Because of their different religious backgrounds, the marriage might have been a tragic disappointment, but the Tolkiens turned it into an occasion for grace. Although Edith had agreed to convert to Catholicism as a condition for marriage, she did so grudgingly. Over the years her resentment at having to go to confession grew steadily stronger—until finally she stopped attending Mass altogether and expressed disapproval when Tolkien took their children with him to church.

Since their religious differences proved irreconcilable, the Tolkiens agreed that Edith should begin attending Anglican services again. As a result, her hostility toward the faith of her children and husband disappeared. Despite their difficulties, their mutual devotion to family held their marriage together for 55 years, and they were both delighted when their first son, John, became a Catholic priest.

Eucatastrophe and Mythopoeics

Of all his relationships, Tolkien’s friendship with C.S. Lewis was the most significant to his intellectual growth. These two men sharpened each other’s keen intellects during long walks in the English countryside. The fruits of this lifelong friendship are impossible to measure. Through convivial conversation, Tolkien discovered how he could integrate his Catholic faith with his literary vocation.

When Tolkien and Lewis first met as fresh young dons at Oxford in 1926, they were brought together by a shared love of Norse mythology. They gathered friends around the fire to read epic Norse poetry at their Coalbiter’s Club and later started an ad hoc literary society called the Inklings. The meetings of this small group of friends would inspire both Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

It was their discussions about the relationship between literature and religion, however, that cemented Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis, a friendship that was at the center of Lewis’s conversion from agnosticism. Tolkien brought Lewis around to philosophical theism through patient persistence. His subsequent conversion to Christianity hinged on an argument Tolkien advanced that had special appeal to the myth-minded Lewis. That argument also reveals something important about Tolkien’s understanding of his vocation as an artist.

Tolkien noticed that it was common to all mankind throughout history to create mythologies in order to convey its most central beliefs. It is only reasonable to assume, he argued, that if there was a God, he would convey his revelation in the form of a myth, albeit a myth that was true. Christianity was the most likely candidate for the “perfect myth,” since it shared all the great common elements of the best mythologies.

The gospel account was the “eucatastrophe,” as Tolkien and Lewis came to call it, the happiest of all tragedies, because it satisfies the human heart’s deepest yearnings, including the desire for an epic mythology. But this myth had the added advantage of being historical fact, interpreted through a literary text and poetic tradition.

This insight unfolded for both Tolkien and Lewis an entire literary philosophy of mythopoeics (mythmaking), inspiring them to create new mythologies for our time. They would spend the rest of their lives arguing privately about how such an understanding of myth, religion, and literature could be applied to the art of writing.

For these two frustrated poets earning a living as Oxford dons, there was one obvious consequence of their theory of mythopoeics: They had to start writing popular fiction. If God used narrative to communicate his revelation to man, and man is called to bear God’s image on earth, then one of the most noble vocations is to create new “secondary worlds” in narrative.

A Mythology for England

Although The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia represent the flowering of that agreement about mythopoeics, Tolkien and Lewis disagreed about their religious purposes, which explains why the literary styles they used to create Narnia and Middle-earth are so different.

Lewis, the evangelical Anglican, hoped his stories would bring the reader closer to the truth of the Christian Gospel. As a result, The Chronicles of Narnia bristles with obvious Christian symbolism, allegory, and moments of overt moral and religious instruction. In short, Lewis wanted his writing to be evangelistic.

For the Catholic Tolkien, however, it was more important that Middle-earth was successful as “sub-creation.” Using his vast literary, linguistic, and historical talents, Tolkien created Middle-earth as an act of divine praise. The more convincing Middle-earth was as a real place, the purer that praise would be because it would more closely approach God’s own act of creation.

Unlike Lewis, Tolkien was unwilling to direct his fictive world according to any overt pedagogical design. He believed that the moment readers are made aware of any connections between our world and the “secondary world” of fiction, the literary spell is broken; readers reemerge from the imaginary world and realize that it is “just a story.” Tolkien wanted them to believe that Middle-earth really exists and is not merely a tool for evangelism.

Few readers of The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien hoped Middle-earth would become England’s native mythology. He thought that the Arthurian legends were weak compared with the Homeric epics and Norse legends. Middle-earth, with its inspirational heroics and warnings about the hazards of the will to power, was created to preserve a uniquely English cultural heritage from modernity’s infectious errors.

With this in mind, we can understand why Middle-earth seems to embrace magic and soft paganism. The historical framework for Tolkien’s imagination was England’s pre-Christian past—the scattered and disconnected Norse and Anglo-Saxon legends, with their tales of heroic valor and pagan mysticism. Tolkien purposely set Middle-earth before the advent of Christianity because he feared that it might otherwise lapse into a kind of enervated allegory.

Mining the Moral Geology

Despite this aversion to overt religiosity in his stories, Tolkien always affirmed that his work taught good morals and encouraged his readers to turn to the Catholic faith. He simply refused to acknowledge that this should be the primary purpose of a mythmaker. Instead, Tolkien insisted that all successful “sub-creation” necessarily conveys moral truth, because the only good stories are those that accurately reflect the metaphysical world we live in and the moral choices we face.

So while Tolkien did not intend to preach Catholic moral theology, the moral tectonics of Middle-earth are distinctly Catholic. The evidence for Tolkien’s astonishing theological consistency and thoughtfulness can be found simply by reading at random from his published letters. There Tolkien admits that in creating Middle-earth he carefully constructed a world with the same moral contours as our world, a world created by a god with the same nature as our Creator.

For example, Tolkien carefully avoids painting the struggle between the Free Peoples of Middle-earth and the minions of the arch-villain Sauron as strictly a battle of “good versus evil.” Tolkien’s approach is thoroughly Augustinian: The characters of Middle-earth are distinguished above all by what they love, not where they live. In the fortress-cities of the Free Peoples, Minas Tirith and Edoras, one finds both the noble and the corrupt. Every character can be ruined by pride, and even the most wicked have the capacity for redemption.

Tolkien describes this tension most acutely in the character of Gollum, an obsequious and malevolent seeker of the One Ring, who is torn between a lust to possess the ring and his loyalty to the hobbits. Tolkien carefully portrays Gollum as both a treacherous murderer and a sympathetic victim of his own savagely bent will. Even Sauron, Middle-earth’s Satan, was once a powerful angel-guardian before being corrupted by his evil desires.

Tolkien’s heroes have their faults as well, and we witness their moral tests. The wizard Gandalf and the great Southern prince, Boromir, are sorely tempted by the promise of glory through the power of the One Ring. And the hobbits must struggle with their desire to lay aside suffering and return to the comforts of their homeland, the Shire, rather than deliver the ring to its destruction in the Crack of Mount Doom.

In line with St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Tolkien never falls into the trap of describing a character or object as inherently good or evil. Evil, after all, is an absence—the absence of good—and therefore cannot be embodied by a person or thing.

Even the One Ring, forged by the magical art of Sauron, is never actually characterized as evil in itself. Rather, its power to command the Ringwraiths and the invisibility it confers are regarded as temptations that make the ring too dangerous for it to be used appropriately. The hobbits resist its strongest temptation to mortal sin only because they seem to lack any capacity for vainglory, but they are eventually worn down, physically and spiritually, by the venial sins it inspires.

Throughout the novels, Middle-earth’s ethics and metaphysics are consistent with the moral world we know: Corruption of the will, not magical power or fate, lies at the heart of evil acts. Magical objects—like technology in our own world—are good insofar as they are used for good ends. A willingness to share in suffering is a necessary part of taking up our moral duties.

But does the appearance of Catholic morality make Middle-earth Catholic or merely moralistic? For the distinctly Catholic components, we have to look slightly deeper.

Catholic ‘Accidents’

Tolkien rejected attempts to find Catholic symbolism in his work because he detested “allegory in all its manifestations.” Indeed he frequently chided Lewis for trying to dress Christ up in the lion-suit of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For Tolkien, to look for such correspondences is to miss the point of Middle-earth, which is meant to be a real place and not just some amalgam of historical and religious debris.

Still, Tolkien acknowledged that his Catholic sensibilities unconsciously inspired characters and objects in his imaginative world. In a 1952 letter to Rev. Robert Murray (grandson of the founder of the Oxford English Dictionary and a family friend), he readily admitted that the Virgin Mary forms the basis for all of his “small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity.” It is not surprising, he admits, that the character of Galadriel—a created being endowed with radiant beauty, impeccable virtue, and powers of healing—resonates with the character of our Blessed Mother.

Nor could Tolkien deny that the Holy Eucharist appears in The Lord of the Rings as the waybread (lembas), given by the elves to the hobbits to eat on their journey. The lembas reinforces the hobbits’ wills and provides them with physical sustenance in the dark and barren lands on the way to Mount Doom. As the Church teaches, while the Eucharist still tastes and looks like bread and wine, our sensations shroud a deeper mystery: The Eucharist is truly Christ’s body and blood. So in The Lord of the Rings the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist appear shrouded in the mysterious elements of Middle-earth. The best way to understand this is to see such examples of Catholic symbolism as literary “accidents?’ To leave then out would have diminished the story; they are parts of Tolkien’s effort to make his world complete, true for all times and places.

As an author, Tolkien believed that his stories did in a limited and literary way what a priest does at the consecration: They present us with Christ and the entire story of creation and redemption through common elements of the world—in this case Middle-earth—which is shot through with the Truth of all Truths.

A Heavenly Tree

Perhaps no single work shines as much light on Tolkien’s artistic intentions as his little-known short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” It is Tolkien’s most autobiographical work and provides us with a window into his soul. Niggle is a middle-aged man who has painted a picture of a tree in his spare time. What starts out as just a tiny picture of a single leaf grows into a painting of a tree and then of the surrounding countryside, filling an enormous canvas. Niggle fears he will not finish it before he must begin a long-dreaded train trip from which he will not return. Meanwhile, various distractions and obligations to family, friends, and neighbors leave him very little time to paint.

Sure enough, Niggle begins the journey with his painting unfinished. Before the train takes him to his final destination, it stops at a purgatorial way-station of dreary toil, and he cannot continue his journey until “Two Voices” pass judgment on his life. In the end, they allow Niggle to continue—not because he painted a beautiful tree (as Niggle expected), but because he gave himself in service to the most distracting of all his neighbors, Parish (in whom some see C.S. Lewis).

Niggle’s train finally brings him to an enchanted land. At its center he finds a tree, the same tree he was painting in his studio. But the tree and the surrounding scenery are incomplete, and Niggle is left to finish painting them in. Once finished, Niggle sets off to explore the lands he has created.

This story provides us with a most important Catholic insight: Corporal acts of mercy are every bit as much our vocation as the professional lives we lead in service to God. But Tolkien also tells us something important about his and our—heavenly aspirations: Our vocations are essential parts of our identities. Through them, we will continue to serve and worship God for eternity.

All Catholic readers of The Lord of the Rings share with one another a heavenly aspiration: Someday we hope to journey, like Tolkien himself, across the Middle-earth kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan and into the Shire. There we’ll find Tolkien in his hobbit-hole; he will have been busy in our absence. We’ll sit with him, drinking strong tea or smoking good tobacco, while we listen to him tell us the stories of Middle-earth that he never found the time to finish.


  • Jason Boffetti

    Jason Boffetti has taught political philosophy, Catholic social thought, and American history and government at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida and at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in politics in 2003 from the Catholic University of America with a concentration in political philosophy. Boffetti has been a research fellow in education policy at the Faith and Reason Institute and he has worked for the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Policy Review magazine. He has published articles in First Things, Crisis Magazine, the Review of Politics, and the National Catholic Register. He has written on a range of topics including J. R. R. Tolkien

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