From the very beginning of its history, it is clear that Middle-earth is brimming with great spiritual powers. From the kingship of Manwë to the Elvish love of Elbereth, Tolkien constructs a world where god-like figures seem to govern its affairs. Was Tolkien promoting a pagan religious outlook? Does his construction of Middle-earth betray his Catholic faith? Join us, as we explore the question: Is Middle-earth pagan?
This episode is executive produced by Kaitlyn of Tea With Tolkien and Liis U!
On this episode, we look at another question pertaining to Lord of the Rings and religion: specifically, does Lord of the Rings promote a pagan view of reality?
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TOLKIEN QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men – and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”
– On Fairy-stories, Epilogue
IS MIDDLE-EARTH PAGAN?
A few weeks ago, we did an episode on LOTR & Religion. In that episode (218), we spoke about the role that religion, and in particular Tolkien’s Catholic faith, played in the creation of Middle-earth. The short answer: it played a major role, but not necessarily a defining one. For more info on that, go back and listen to episode 218.
However, anyone who pays close attention to Lord of the Rings, and especially those who get into The Silmarillion, will notice the overwhelming fact that Middle-earth is a place dominated by a multitude of spiritual forces. Historically, we might call this a pagan view of things.
Some Christians are critical of LOTR & Middle-earth because they believe they promote a pagan view of reality, and even polytheistic worship. This is problematic for Christians because Christianity has always taught monotheistic worship, that it is only proper for human beings to worship God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
WHAT IS PAGANISM?
A pagan view of reality is one that believes in many gods and may worship these gods in an organized, religious fashion. In other words, a pagan worldview is a polytheistic one. A pagan person is one who worships many gods.
ARE THE VALAR GODS?
The immediate ‘authorities’ are the Valar (the Powers or Authorities): the ‘gods’. But they are only created spirits – of high angelic order we should say, with their attendant lesser angels – reverend, therefore, but not worshipful and though potently ‘subcreative’, and resident on Earth to which they are bound by love, having assisted in its making and ordering, they cannot by their own will alter any fundamental provision. They called upon the One in the crisis of the rebellion of Númenor – when the Númenóreans attempted to take the Undying Land by force of a great armada in their lust for corporal immortality – which necessitated a catastrophic change in the shape of Earth.
Tolkien, Letters 153, September 1954
Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a ‘reality’. On the side of mere narrative device, this is, of course, meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the ‘gods’ of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted – well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.
Tolkien, Letters 131, September 1950
RELIGIONS IN MIDDLE-EARTH
The High Elves were exiles from the Blessed Realm of the Gods (after their own particular Elvish fall) and they had no ‘religion’ (or religious practices, rather) for those had been in the hands of the gods, praising and adoring Eru ‘the One’, Ilúvatar the Father of All on the Mt. of Aman.
Tolkien, Letters 156, November 1954
The Númenóreans thus began a great new good, and as monotheists; but like the Jews (only more so) with only one physical centre of ‘worship’: the summit of the mountain Meneltarma ‘Pillar of Heaven’ – literally, for they did not conceive of the sky as a divine residence – in the centre of Númenor; but it had no building and no temple, as all such things had evil associations.
Tolkien, Letters 156, November 1954
There are thus no temples or ‘churches’ or fanes in this ‘world’ among ‘good’ peoples. They had little or no ‘religion’ in the sense of worship. For help they may call on a Vala (as Elbereth), as a Catholic might on a Saint, though no doubt knowing in theory as well as he that the power of the Vala was limited and derivative. But this is a ‘primitive age’: and these folk may be said to view the Valar as children view their parents or immediate adult superiors, and though they know they are subjects of the King he does not live in their country nor have there any dwelling. I do not think Hobbits practised any form of worship or prayer (unless through exceptional contact with Elves). The Númenóreans (and others of that branch of Humanity, that fought against Morgoth, even if they elected to remain in Middle-earth and did not go to Númenor: such as the Rohirrim) were pure monotheists. But there was no temple in Númenor (until Sauron introduced the cult of Morgoth). The top of the Mountain, the Meneltarma or Pillar of Heaven, was dedicated to Eru, the One, and there at any time privately, and at certain times publicly, God was invoked, praised, and adored: an imitation of the Valar and the Mountain of Aman. But Númenor fell and was destroyed and the Mountain engulfed, and there was no substitute. Among the exiles, remnants of the Faithful who had not adopted the false religion nor taken part in the rebellion, religion as divine worship (though perhaps not as philosophy and metaphysics) seems to have played a small part; though a glimpse of it is caught in Faramir’s remark on ‘grace at meat’, Vol. II p. 285.4
Tolkien, Letters 154, September 1954
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