J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has enjoyed worldwide popularity, appealing to a wide audience on many levels. What is it about the book that draws so many people into the story? Perhaps it is the culture of Middle-earth, so endued with honor and heroes. It may surprise many enthusiastic readers to understand that one overarching theme running through the books is Catholicism. Stratford Caldecott says that Tolkien cannot help but infuse his story with Catholic elements. That is not to say that they are direct, allegorical correlations but more like a flavor or an atmosphere. In his Touchstone article entitled, “The Lord and Lady of the Rings: The Hidden Presence of Tolkien’s Catholicism in The Lord of the Rings,” Caldecott calls Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth and its people, “faith becoming culture.” Indeed, he has sub-created culture, commenting through his characters on Mary, suffering, the Eucharist, raising the humble, Archangels and Saints, eternity, and Satan. Apologetically, these elements are important because they demonstrate the value of orthodox Christianity in a culture and present Christianity in an appealing and understandable light.
Catholic veneration of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is no secret and certainly Tolkien would have subscribed to this ideal. Two of the characters (but not the only two) who embody the qualities of Mary are Galadriel and Eowyn. Galadriel is beautiful, the greatest of elven women. Catholics believe that Mary embodies all that is truly fair and beautiful. Mary is said to take on the complete beauty of Eve, to fulfill what the Fall ruined. Galadriel seems to Frodo to be “a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.” She is the beauty of the “remote” past and the present. Mary comes after Eve chronologically, yet she embodies all of the beauty of the beginning of human time. Gimli also falls under the spell of Galadriel’s incomparable beauty, saying, “Henceforward I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift.” Frodo is so mesmerized he can only stare and forgets to adequately eat and drink, “heeding only the beauty of the lady and her voice.”
In the Catholic prayer “Memorae”, addressed to Mary, it is noted, “never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.” In the “Hail, Holy Queen” (Salve Regina) prayer, “we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping, in this valley of tears” to Mary to help us in “our exile.” Those on the quest will indeed walk through a “valley of tears,” in an “exile” from their various homelands and need aid along the way. Galadriel gives gifts and honors requests (even future, unspoken requests) of help with these gifts. The glittering phial she gives Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring will “be a light in dark places, when all other lights go out!” Indeed, even to the end of the story does this light shine. In The Return of the King, Frodo and Sam use the same phial to escape the Watchers, calling for Elven blessing as they go.
The story tells us that “only by a hair did they escape,” which is just the gift that was given to Gimli, the dwarf, by Galadriel. This close shave combined with petition brings to mind the last lines of the “Hail Mary”: “pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.” Sam and Frodo seem almost “at the hour of their death” the entire quest. From the moment he gets the Ring, the hour of Frodo’s death looms over his character. Frodo, despondent, groans, “The quest has failed, Sam. Even if we get out of here, we’ve no escape.” Sam uses the gifts (the glass, the Elven waybread) to cheer and encourage Frodo, and the Elven song to drive away the Watchers, but the doom hanging overhead is palpable. The hour of death stands ready to strike.
In Catholicism, Mary is given the title of “Star of the Sea.” Galadriel sings a farewell song to the travellers. Her song is in the “tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea.” She is shimmering while she sings until finally they see only a small light in the distance, over the water. Her mirror is a basin of water in which one can see a sort of knowledge and wisdom. Catholics appeal to Mary for guidance and protection, and in this role as “Star of the Sea,” she leads and guides. Galadriel guides using water with her mirror and leads over the waters as they journey.
Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan, also embodies characteristics of Mary. In the book of Revelation, chapter 12, the woman, generally thought to be Mary, fights the dragon with a child by her side. Eowyn defeats the Witch-king, who can only be slain by someone who is not a man, and she does so with a Halfling by her side.
In the House of Healing, Eowyn meets Faramir. They are together one cold day, and she is wrapped in “a great blue mantle of the colour of deep summer-night.” Mary is often pictured in her “official” color of blue in famous works of art. Eowyn’s cloak has stars upon it, which also harkens to Mary, as she is seen in artwork with a crown of stars around her. (One such example would be The Immaculate Conception by the Italian artist, Tiepolo.)
Faramir has given this cloak to her; it was his mother’s cloak. Mary is the height of maternal virtue. He thinks that Eowyn looks “queenly” in it. Mary is also said to be the “Queen of Heaven.” This is not an allegorical Mary, but certain qualities of Mary are seen in Eowyn in this scene.
Apologetically, knowing Mary in this way helps the reader to understand the importance of Mary to Catholics. In Catholicism, Mary helps the faithful to understand Jesus better. Ergo, if one understands Mary better, one is easier led to Christ. It also gives women a target for which to aim in the ordering of their lives. These women use beauty and power for the good of all around them. They see their role and fulfill it well, even when, as in the case of Eowyn being caged and Galadriel tested with the Ring, it is difficult.
Unlike in some recent American strains of Christianity, Hell, judgment, and Satan are very real and very powerful in Catholicism. Satan the Tempter and twister of truth appears in the character of Wormtongue. He snakes his way into the kingdom of Rohan, attempting to usurp with spells and words of deceit. Even the name “Wormtongue” harkens to the snake in the Garden, who deceived Eve with his words. He has bewitched the King and also tried to cause the ruin of the fair Eowyn. Gandalf chastises Eomer for not realizing that his sister was a target of the deceiver’s tongue as well. The Lord’s Prayer, which is recited daily in the Rosary, contains the lines: “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” Tolkien would have known this prayer and the story of Eden well; perhaps the echoes of it are found here in the character of Wormtongue who tries all he can to entice, deceive, and destroy. In Baptismal vows and Confirmation, the candidate is asked to “renounce Satan and all his works and all his promises.” Throughout the book, characters must choose sides, make vows, and decide with whom to make an alliance.
The very nature of Satan is addressed in the description of the Shadow. Frodo says that the orcs are not made by the evil one, it “only ruined and twisted them.” Satan cannot create and neither can the Shadow; “ can only mock, it cannot make.” This quality of the fallen Satan is seen also in Saruman, who mocks the Hobbits and Gandalf’s protection of them. Saruman sarcastically calls them “hobbit-lordlings;” ironic, because he desires power more than anyone but has been reduced to lower than a Hobbit. In the end, Saruman and Wormtongue fulfill the Scripture, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
Evil is so easily mocked today via memes or articles. In days past, people would have read Inferno and trembled; now some read it as a less than a fairy tale (or dismiss it outright). Even some churches deny that there is an actual Hell or Judgment. In The Lord of the Rings, there are real consequences for all actions – for better or worse. Apologetically, this is essential. If there is no Satan, no real evil, no Hell, no judgment, and no consequences, what does the world really look like? Do we really want to live in a world where there is “no right” and “no wrong”? Not taking evil seriously allows it to breed as in the case of ISIS and in the case of even “small” sin.
The Hobbits are the book’s humble folk. The Shire is a modest, pastoral land dotted with Hobbit homes and gardens. “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit,” and he lived in a village filled with like-minded creatures. They like snacks and breakfasts and get into silly scrapes, fuss, gossip, and celebrate. Samwise Gamgee is of the lower-laboring class. Frodo, who carries the Ring, is of the upper class of Hobbit. The Hobbits serve as Tolkien’s illustration of the principle of raising the humble. Catholicism shows Jesus as the humble servant and calls Christians to enter into this humility. Likewise, we are called to be as children in innocence and dependence on God. Tolkien uses the word “children” to describe the Hobbits through the eyes of other characters. In the book, the Hobbits are often mistaken by men for actual children. Aragorn is looking for Merry and Pippin and instructs Eomer that “they would be small, only children to your eyes.” Trying to even explain what a Hobbit is brings disbelief, as a Rider scoffs, calling them “only little people in old tales and songs.” In The Return of the King, Aragorn and company are riding through the city of Gondor, and a gossipy woman, Ioreth, is giving a running commentary. Of the Hobbits, she says, “Nay, cousin, those are not boys,” correcting the common human idea that the Hobbits are children.
The Hobbits depend on friends, assume the best of others, and do their best to do the right thing. They are appalled by the constant thirst for power shown in the evil characters. Conversely, in the end of the book the humble Hobbits are elevated, decorated soldiers of war with lands and titles and rewards, and the evil are left to slink off into the forest. When Sam Gamgee returns home, he’s returning not as servant, but as mayor. He is the king of his own little kingdom, with elf magic and his kingdom and “castle” with Rosie.
Characters on a quest need guidance, and, in Catholicism, guidance can come from Saints and angels sent from God. In particular, the character of Gandalf the White Rider seems to evoke St. Michael the Archangel. Vanquishing the foe, St. Michael and the angels throw Satan to earth in Revelation, chapter twelve. Likewise, in the Catholic prayer to St. Michael, the appeal is for “protection against wickedness” and that he “thrust into Hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.” It is hard to imagine a better description for Wormtongue and Saruman than ones who “wander through the world for the ruin of souls.” Like St. Michael, Gandalf the White Rider says to the Lord of the Nazgul, “Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master!” The language in Revelation is much the same, as Satan is thrown down repeatedly. In chapter twenty, Satan is chained in a bottomless pit, which would qualify as an abyss. In fear of war, Pippin calls out for Gandalf, saying, “Gandalf! Gandalf! He always turns up when things are darkest!” St. Michael’s prayer includes protection “against the snares of the devil.” Although it is not a direct allegory, there are certainly archangelic characteristics in Gandalf.
Apologetically, Americans could learn from asking for help and accepting guidance from higher authority. Sometimes we are so bent on being independent that we keep ourselves from that which could save us. Calling on any higher authority is a new concept for many modern people; the idea of asking help from the Saints is even odd for Protestants, so it should not surprise us that this may be an area of perplexity. Tolkien’s book lends a fresh view as the story portrays this as a situation of calling on friends for help. Examining this appealing to authority or to the Saints in that way may open the eyes and hearts of many who would not even entertain the conversation otherwise.
The Eucharist is an integral part of all Christianity, but for Catholics it has some particular assumptions. It is the actual body and blood of Christ, carrying with it the idea of concomitance, or coming with. Abbot Vonier, in A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist , explains that concomitance comes from the Latin signifying “the act of walking along with someone as a companion.” So the bread and wine are not just bread and wine, they are accompanied by meaning, persons, and Spirit. In this same way, the Elven bread or lembas given to Merry and Pippin provides a certain companionship on their lonely journey. When they stop to rest and eat, “the taste brought back to them the memory of fair faces and laughter, and wholesome food and quiet days now far away.” They are strengthened by the reminder of better days, friends, and are given hope. It is as if the people and places are there with them when they eat. Sam gathers up the broken scraps of lembas to sustain him and Frodo on the journey. Once again, they are saved by broken bread in the same way that Christians are saved by Christ, broken for us. The orcs reject lembas, and thus reject the companionship of the Fellowship. It is a way of saying, “They are not with us.” Gollum will not eat it either showing that he is not of the Fellowship although he is on the same journey.
The Elves call it “waybread” for it is meant to be eaten on the way. Christians are, of course, used to considering Jesus “The Way,” so this waybread for a journey evokes not just the communion but the particular Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in combining the remembrance and the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. The waybread itself is seemingly magical; one only needs a little bit to go a whole day. In communion, one only receives a small bit of bread and a sip of wine.
The Eucharist, especially from the Catholic vantage point, is misunderstood by the world. Seeing the encouragement and nourishment that the waybread provides to the Hobbits helps the reader to understand the mystery of Christ through this sacrament, that Christ is broken for you, and that He is the Bread of Life.
In the Catholic prayer, the Doxology or “The Glory Be”, the end line is “world without end, Amen.” In The Lord of the Rings, we get this same pervasive sense of poignant eternity. The story itself is a story within a story, both being told and written to be later read. The language of time is ever present; it is the Witch-king’s hour or the days of men or Eowyn and Faramir wait for the stroke of doom. Gandalf says we must decide what to do with the time we have. But time and the world don’t stop — the kingdoms and people come and go. The Lady Galadriel seems to Frodo as one who has been “left far behind by the flowing streams of time.” She christens Aragorn “in this hour.” This particular attention to eternity and the scope of time and destiny outside of personal hours and days is essentially Catholic. In multiple prayers, creeds, and devotions, there is a mention of time: “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end,” “life everlasting” from the Apostles’ Creed, “eternal rest grant them” and “perpetual light shine upon them” of the “De Profundis,” and “after this our exile” from “Hail, Holy Queen.” All point to the continual time-perplexed paradox of dying to live. The prayers of the saints especially deal with what one might do with one’s time. St. Francis’s famous prayer admonishes one to respond to evil with good. St. Ignatius’s prayer calls for submitting all to God and His will with your time. And Saint Joan’s prayer asks for help to fulfill the duties to which one has been called. Catholicism is concerned with time, and especially with how God’s people are spending it.
Apologetically, time is both short and long. We have a little bit of time given to us to spend as our free will as we may choose, but time itself goes on and on. Learning that we are both accountable for and in control of choosing how to spend our time is essential. Getting people to think about what they are doing with their time and why is a first step apologetically, and this book makes continual use of the urgency of time and time in eternity, explaining in fiction what is sometimes difficult for us to grasp in real life.
The Passion, or how one should suffer well, is a Catholic element that appears in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien suffered through waiting for his love, Edith, and he has multiple characters who have to wait for the realization of their hopes. Eowyn and Faramir, Aragon and Arwen, and Sam and Rosie are some examples of those who must complete a quest first before they settle down with their love. They bear it with patience although they are bereft.
But it is not just romantic suffering that Tolkien (or Catholicism, for that matter) addresses. Catholicism spends particular time considering the Passion or suffering of Christ with Christians deeply entering the suffering of Christ; thus, Catholics have a unique vantage point for suffering. Catholics have specific prayers, words already formulated, for those in suffering. The “De Profundis” begins with “Out of the depths I cry out to you,” setting the tone for the appropriate response to suffering. Then the prayer relays memories of God’s goodness and mercy. It ends with resting in peace. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses characters to show how to suffer well (or not). Merry has great grief but is taught to “remember” those he misses. Aragorn says that Merry’s grief “will not darken his heart, but teach him wisdom.” Catholics believe that suffering produces spiritual wisdom as one suffers with Christ to know Him better.
In his suffering, Gimli commits a selfish error but shows us how to repent and correct. “Alas! I had heart only for myself!” he says, when speaking of his role and feelings at the Paths of the Dead. He realizes his error, and sees that the grief is communal when Legolas speaks of his grieved heart for the grief of others, namely Eowyn. This is a turning point for Gimli’s empathy, and for us as we grieve, understanding how to reach out in our grief to others. Suffering for the sake of others, and the idea of putting oneself in the place of another, is essentially Catholic and Christian. Gimli receives the mercy of Legolas’s words and learns to suffer less selfishly. The “Anima Christi” prayer asks for the “passion of Christ, strengthen me.” It also says “within thy wounds, hide me.” There is safety with an empathetic person who has suffered. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “No sin can be forgiven save by the power of Christ’s passion.” By His stripes, we are healed; suffering with someone else is being like Christ and brings healing to the other person.
In contrast to proper suffering, Saruman and Wormtongue are examples of a poor response to suffering. When he has lost everything, Saruman responds by inflicting damage, pain, and suffering on the Shire. He tries to kill Frodo who spares him. He refuses, despises, and begrudgingly respects the mercy of Frodo. He kicks Wormtongue, which brings about his own destruction, as Wormtongue slits his throat in retaliation. Wormtongue is then shot down. Suffering is not for inflicting pain upon others nor is it for self-pity and wallowing. It is for recognizing that there is pain in the world, and we should be healers, not people who go on making things worse. We should overcome evil with good.
Suffering is one of the main questions of non-Christians. Why do we suffer? Why doesn’t God eliminate suffering? Why am I suffering? The Lord of the Rings helps the reader to see that suffering has many facets, is not individual but communal, and can be used for good or evil. Although Tolkien doesn’t give outright arguments, the whole book is an argument for suffering for the sake of others. Every good character does so.
Tolkien created this fantasy world in The Lord of the Rings, replete with dragons and wizards and Hobbits. His Catholicism made Middle-earth more real, meaningful, and symbolic than he may have intended, providing ample lessons for the reader and aspiring apologetic writer alike. As his faith became culture in books, let us hope that our faith and fellowship as apologists can also help transform the culture in our small corner of the Shire.
Karise Gililland, “One Theme to Rule Them All: A Collection of Catholic Elements in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 41-60.
Stratford Caldecott, “The Lord and the Lady of the Rings: The Hidden Presence of Tolkien’s Catholicism in the Lord of the Rings” Touchstone Magazine, accessed February 16, 2020, https://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=15-01-051-f.