- Tolkien’s Work: Is it Christian or Pagan? A Proposal for a “Synthetic” Approach
Is Tolkien’s work Christian or Pagan? Readers and scholars have been asking themselves this question since The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954. The dispute continues to the present day,1 which is hardly surprising since what is at stake is a theme of fundamental importance in order to understand the work of the Oxford philologist. In this contribution, I would like:
1. to provide a short summary and a schematic list of weaknesses in both the thesis that “Tolkien’s work is Christian” (§2) and its antithesis, “Tolkien’s work is Pagan” (§3);
2. to attempt an interpretative approach (§§4–6) that could explain the tension between Paganism and Christianity that is typical of Tolkien’s work in a unitary and non-contradictory perspective.
My argument should not at all be considered to be of a polemic nature. On the contrary, it should be seen as a serene analysis aimed at promoting additional contributions on the subject. It is therefore with the utmost respect that I will quote only a few of the major authors and only with the aim of exemplifying different viewpoints.
Before entering into this analysis, it is useful to emphasize that the subject under study is not Tolkien as an individual—his biography leaves no doubt about his being a devout Roman Catholic—but rather his works and especially his legendarium.
2. Thesis: Tolkien’s Work is Christian
From this perspective, the legendarium can be seen as a world intentionally containing explicit and exclusive Christian elements such as the Uni-Trinity of God or His Resurrection (see below, §4.b″). When looked at this way, stories and characters are mainly interpreted with reference to the Christian concepts they should portray and, by that, preach. The most radical critic in this respect is certainly Joseph Pearce, followed by many others who share a similar approach: John G. West Jr., Stratford Caldecott, Peter J. Kreeft, Ralph C. Wood, and Nils Ivar Agøy among them. Such an approach shows five main weaknesses. [End Page 1]
2.1. It contradicts “Tolkien’s razor.”
Tolkien thought that the main defect of the Arthurian cycle was that it “is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal” (Letters 144, my emphasis). The same “razor” is used by Tolkien in writing The Lord of the Rings, as he himself tells: “the ‘Third Age’ was not a Christian world” (Letters 220); “I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology” (Letters 355); “I have deliberately written a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them (or anything else), and does not mention them overtly, still less preach them” (Letters 283–84, my emphasis). Not just from these statements (the author can fail in interpreting his own work), but mainly because Tolkien makes wide and consistent use of this razor (see § 5.2), it would be wrong to depict the legendarium as a mythology containing explicit Christian elements, as some critics assert:
Among the chief accomplishments in our growing appreciation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the consensus view that it is indubitably a Christian epic. . . . If Tolkien had enjoyed several more lives beyond his allotted 81 years, he might have extended his mythological project to include the Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.(Wood, “J.R.R. Tolkien,” 117, my emphasis)
We are able to see the relationship between Christianity and the legendarium more as a process. . . . As the focus [of the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth]2 shifted more and more from “stories” to working out in detail the philosophical and metaphysical framework in which they existed, explicit Christianity and Roman Catholic form simply could not be avoided.(Agøy, “The Fall and Man’s Mortality,” 17 and 26, my emphasis)
If this were so, it would be tantamount to Tolkien’s having introduced...