Interest in the world of Middle Earth is riding high again with the successful Hobbit films currently being released by Peter Jackson a decade after his adaption of the longer story The Lord of the Rings. Both stories, and others (personally I am hoping Jackson takes on ‘The Children of Hurin’), were written by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R. as he preferred, or Ronald to his friends) whom many know was an Oxford professor of philology and mythology. What is perhaps less well known is Tolkien’s approach to his personal faith and his understanding of religion which he infused all his stories, indeed his created world of Middle Earth with.
J.R.R. Tolkien lost his father when he was 4 years old. His mother, Mabel, responded to his death by converting to Catholicism. This resulted in tension and ostracism from her Unitarian and Methodist family with the consequences that she moved her two sons to live in the countryside outside Birmingham and worked hard to sustain them. She provided their early education but succumbed to complications arising from diabetes when Tolkien was 12 years old. The Catholic Church took them in and provided for both boys’ education in good schools. For Tolkien, Catholicism took on “the place in his affections that she had previously occupied.” (Carpenter, 1977, p50)
As is well-documented, Tolkien began to create his world of Middle Earth, and indeed to write the beginnings of what would become ‘The Silmarilion’ during his time serving in the trenches in World War 1 (he was badly injured during the Battle of the Somme). His experiences in the war caused him to become focused on the questions of good and evil in man and the notion of forgiveness, with redemption being the ultimate expression of it.
After the war he was appointed first to Leeds then to Oxford where he remained for the rest of his career. He was joined by numerous scholars and writers the most famous probably being Clive Staples Lewis (C S Lewis author of the Narnia tales). Another was Charles Williams, a poet and author who was fascinated by Christian mysticism and alchemy. These men, along with various others at different points, formed the group known as The Inklings who met once or twice a week in a pub to discuss language, read their current writings and receive criticism and then to debate matters of faith and ideas. Of them all Tolkien was closest to Lewis and was devastated when Lewis turned from his agnostic path back to his Ulster heritage of Protestant Anglicanism.
Although a devout Catholic, Tolkien was critical of any notion of an absolute or universal religion and he frequently chided Lewis for treating religion as a sacred thing that existed in its own right and place in the world. Tolkien lamented that this was a childish understanding of faith. In one of his many letters (he was prolific as a letter writer) to Lewis in regards to his book ‘Christian Behaviour’ he takes Lewis to task for treating all Muslims are being the same as each other, while demanding that they recognise the variety that exists within Christianity. He refers to the use of Muslims as a counterfoil for Christianity as “a stinking red herring” (Carpenter & Tolkien, 1981, p60) by Lewis to disguise the presumption that religion exists because it exists and cannot therefore be challenged or altered. In the same letter he continues to reprimand Lewis for ignoring that irreligious folk live and behave in moral ways as determined by their laws, their society and their own conscience.
Partly in reaction to Lewis and partly because he genuinely believed what he was arguing, his own writings contain no explicit reference to religion at all, but rather they deal with vague matters of faith. He viewed this as a necessary form of freedom if faith was to survive and be relevant in the world (both the physical world he lived in and the imaginary world he created). So, for example, in a letter to W. H. Auden he outlined that he does not deal in absolutes such as good and evil but rather in perceptions. He writes; “The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person to be an abomination. Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants.” (Carpenter & Tolkien, 1981, p243) He reasoned that each acted according to their own perception and so for each their cause was right. He then continues to liken it to his current world of wealthy bosses who rule over the masses who must live in fear and squalor while the state (he later changes this to state-God) promises them that doing so will ensure “peace and abundance and … mutual esteem and trust.” (ibid p244) It is unknown how Auden responded to this as the letter resulted in a personal visit rather than a written response.
For Tolkien religion was a term he was uncomfortable with (and of course he would have known its etymology intimately in a variety of languages) and he did not want the concept of it to be overt in his writings and his imagination. He reasons for doing so were complex, they were bound up with the death of his mother, the experiences on the battle fields of the First World War, and his mistrust of a rising ‘secular’ state that he thought worshipped only ‘damned capitalism, money and power’. He wanted to create as realistic a world as possible, it was to be his gift to his country (to replace his lament that England has no mythology) and for Tolkien religion as a concept was a false one and so had no place in Middle Earth. This cue he took from Old Norse and Celtic mythology in which aspects of faith were suffused within everyday aspects of life rather than a separate institution. (Shippey, 2000, p174) In the midst of the phenomenal writings, the spectacular films there is an important message that continues to speak to the work, interests and purpose of Critical Religion.