Two days ago I cited Tolkien’s letter to Milton Waldman, in which he explains why the presence of Christian ideas in The Lord of the Rings would have been “fatal”. He criticized the Arthurian legends for this, and blasted C.S. Lewis’ Narnian stories even harder. But in other letters Tolkien wrote that he intended his fantasy “to be consonant with Christian thought and belief” (letter #269, to W.H. Auden), and that it is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (letter #142, to Robert Murray).
Which is it? Is Lord of the Rings Christian or not? Was Tolkien like the apostle Paul, who changed his mind from letter to letter?
Joseph Pearce, Bradley Birzer, and Ralph Wood say that Tolkien’s work is essentially Christian. Pearce argues this in the context of mythic parallels, noting, for instance, that “the journey of Frodo and Sam into the very heart of Mordor in order to destroy the Ring is emblematic of the Christian’s imitation of Christ in carrying the cross of sin”. Birzer, the most aggressive of the three, thinks Middle-Earth is Catholic in almost every way — setting, characterization, and plot. Wood says that while Middle-Earth may be pagan in chronology, it is Christian in content, and indeed, “deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian”.
In contrast to these approaches, Tom Shippey and Greg Wright argue that Tolkien’s epic is pagan to the core — but pre-Christian pagan, anticipating Christianity without encompassing it. Shippey’s book is the most popular and useful introduction to Tolkien, while Wright’s is somewhat underrated, perhaps because he tackles the issue from a strong evangelical angle.
I believe that Shippey and Wright are correct. (I’ve done my own take here.) Middle-Earth is truly devoid of Christian virtue — a hopeless place, with no redemption in view. Eru is the Judeo-Christian God, to be sure, but he is unrevealed and unworshipped, and will remain so until the time of Abraham.
In an online interview, Shippey says:
“There is almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in The Lord of the Rings… [But] Tolkien covered himself by feeling that Middle-earth demonstrates the need for Christianity. Without it the whole of history will only be ‘the long defeat,’ as Elrond calls it.”
The long defeat is the key to understanding how Tolkien intended his fantasy to be “consonant” with Christian belief — by obliquely pointing towards the Christian victory in a far future. Catholicism takes a dark view of history, as a never-ending series of uphill political and moral battles in a sea of heathenism. As Tolkien says in his letter to Amy Ronald:
“I am a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains some examples or glimpses of final victory.” (#195)
Unlike C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, Tolkien’s heroes aren’t Christ-figures. Gandalf may return from the dead more powerful than before, but he’s not a salvific figure. Aragorn is the long-awaited king returned to Minas Tirth, but he certainly doesn’t defeat evil like the Jewish peasant-king who would later ride into Jerusalem on an ass; just the opposite — his heirs make a mess of things, and the race of men in the Fourth Age become worse than before (see Tolkien’s letter to Colin Bailey, #256). Frodo’s arduous journey across the plains of Gorgoroth can be seen as evoking Christ’s Via Dolorosa, but Frodo doesn’t save Middle-Earth; he gives into evil in the end by claiming the Ring. (Fate, through Gollum, “saves” Middle-Earth, and only for the time being.) The elves lose their magic and depart overseas, the Fourth Age becomes darker than before, and men become increasingly vile — beings like Sauron are no longer necessary to bring out the worst in them.
It’s in this way that Tolkien intended his pagan work to be “consonant with Christianity”: to anticipate the Judeo-Christian victory by showing the need for it. It was Catholic, moreover, in that the mythic past, like history itself, remained subject to the long defeat — despite the best efforts of noble heroes and courageous hobbits.