A world built with faith

A young girl enjoying her Elvish cosplay, image from Pixabay

I recently reread The Lord of the Rings. What a pleasure it was to return to Middle-earth. Once again I was entranced by the timeless power of the story, the beauty of Tolkien’s language, his remarkable skill with dialogue, his wonderful characters and most of all his extraordinary world-building.

Yet there is a missing element in that world-building – the complete absence of religion in Middle-earth (or more properly, Arda, since Middle-earth is in fact one continent and not the whole world). Fantasy writers often include detailed belief systems in their imaginary worlds, including CS Lewis, at one time a close friend of Tolkien’s and a keen supporter of Tolkien’s work (indeed, without Lewis nagging Tolkien to finish the book, The Lord of the Rings might never have seen the light of day.)

The only time we ever see some kind of formal religion in Tolkien’s universe is during the Second Age, on the island kingdom of NĂºmenor. There the NĂºmenoreans practice a monotheism even more austere than that of ancient Israel, until they get corrupted by Sauron, the titular villain of The Lord of the Rings. (Sauron, like his mightier master Morgoth, is a fallen angel, an immortal spirit who defies the will of God, or Eru as he is named in Tolkien’s mythology. You’ll have to read The Silmarillion to find out more …)

Tolkien had a reason for writing his imaginary world this way:

“'The Lord of the Rings' is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” (Letter 142, The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, HarperCollins, 1981)

Tolkien’s deeply held Catholic faith deserves a post of its own but here I want to focus on his literary device of creating a religion-less world where God is hardly ever named yet subtly present. Tolkien’s ‘good guys’ (and gals) have virtuous souls and their virtue is rich and compelling. This includes the earthy, endearing Hobbits, the dignified Dwarves, the noble Rohirrim and the equally noble Gondorians, but most of all we see that virtue in the Elves, the firstborn race in this universe, created before Men, and arguably the closest to Eru (God), although Elves can also be rebellious and feisty (which of course makes them more interesting). All of Tolkien’s principal characters have important moral choices to make, and they all have a strong moral compass. But most of all it’s the Elves, with their hidden, enchanted realms and their constant yearning to return to the Blessed Realm, who embody a deep sense of spirituality and transcendence. Then there is Gandalf, another immortal spirit, who understands his mission as a messenger of divine wisdom and providence.

Perhaps a dilemma for a Christian writer of fantasy fiction is to create a convincing world of angels and spirits without inadvertently falling into the trap of idolatry (bearing in mind that they are writing fiction and not theology). Tolkien created a whole pantheon of angelic beings who either fulfil God’s will or defy God, in a world that is full of a bittersweet longing for what lies beyond… a God-light shines all the way through it.

Food for thought, for those of us who enjoy other worlds in fiction.

I am the administrator for the education and learning office of the United Reformed Church. I am also an Anglican lay minister. I wrote a devotional for the anthology ‘Light for the Writer’s Soul’, published by Media Associates International, and my short story ‘Magnificat’ appears in the ACW Christmas Anthology Merry Christmas Everyone.

Post a Comment