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  • But What Did He Really Mean?
  • Verlyn Flieger (bio)

“A coherent personality aspires, like a work of art, to contain its conflicts without resolving them dogmatically”

—Judith Thurman.1

Almost from the date of its publication, The Lord of the Rings has been subject to conflicting interpretations, appealing equally to neo-pagans who see in its elves and hobbits an alternative to the dreary realism of mainstream culture and to Christians who find an evangelical message in its imagery of stars and light and bread and sacrifice. Tolkien was more patient with enthusiasts of both sides than many authors would have been, but he was also ambiguous, even contradictory in stating his own position—for example in his letters as to whether there was intentional Christianity in The Lord of the Rings, or in his essay “On Fairy-stories” (written before The Lord of the Rings but strongly influencing it) whether elves (aka fairies) are real.

Thus he could tell one correspondent that The Lord of the Rings was “fundamentally” religious and Catholic (Murray, Letters 172) and another that he felt no obligation to make it fit Christianity (Auden, Letters 144). He could, in “On Fairy-stories” both as published and in its rough drafts, argue for elves as real yet on the same page—sometimes in the same paragraph—call them products of human imagination. He could in one breath talk about Faërie as an actual place and in the next say it was the realm of fantasy. There are many such turnabouts, reversals of direction that not only make him appear contradictory but invite contradictory interpretations of his work, permitting advocates with opposite views to cherry-pick the statements that best support their position.

One result of this ambiguity is that the same cherries can be picked by both sides to support contending positions. For example, the same passage in a letter to Robert Murray is cited by Joseph Pearce to defend Tolkien’s Christian orthodoxy (Pearce, Man and Myth 109),and by Patrick Curry to support his intentional paganism (Curry 109, 117–18). Maybe this is what Tolkien intended. Maybe not. Michael Drout’s 2005 article “Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism” points out that the “over-reliance of critics upon the Letters guides Tolkien scholarship down the narrow channel” of finding a single theological meaning in Tolkien’s works (21). Hoping to find broader avenues of meaning, I have divided [End Page 149] my discussion into three sections, the first on the question of intentional Christianity in his fiction, the second on the ancillary reality (or not) of elves and Faërie, and the third on the related meaning of his term Faërian Drama. The question in my title, “But What Did He Really Mean?” is not intended to provide an answer, but to use the ambiguity as a guide to what may have been issues as unresolved for Tolkien as they were for his admirers.


I will begin with the question that has caused the most controversy among Tolkien’s readers, critics, and scholars—whether Tolkien consciously built Christian references and imagery into his work, especially The Lord of the Rings. As with any correspondence, Tolkien tailored his letters to their particular addressees. His most definite—and most negative—statement came in a 1951 letter to Milton Waldman of the Collins publishing firm. The letter was written to persuade Collins to publish Tolkien’s fictive mythology, the Silmarillion, together with the then-unpublished The Lord of the Rings, and it is therefore more descriptive and rhetorical than conventionally chatty. Persuasion notwithstanding, it is important to note that although Waldman was a fellow Catholic, Tolkien did not use shared Catholicism or even shared Christianity as a selling point for his work. On the contrary, he went in the opposite direction, telling Waldman that what disqualified the “Arthurian world” as England’s mythology was that it was “involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.” He conceded that “myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth … but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary world,” which explicitness seems to him “fatal...