The Tolkien Road

A podcast about Middle-earth and all things Tolkien.

0222 – Is Middle-earth Pagan?

"Ainulindalë" by kuliszu

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!

Featured image is “Ainulindalë” by kuliszu.

EPISODE OUTLINE

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

RELATED EPISODES

0218 – Lord of the Rings & Religion

0174 – LOTR TV / 2nd Age Deep Dive – A Description of Númenor

0057 – Concerning March 25th: Frodo’s Quest, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion

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6 Responses

  1. I have observed that this criticism against Tolkien is new. The early critics never even mentioned what they thought concerning religion in The Lord of the Rings (if they even thought about it). As far as I know this kind of criticism only started with the advent of occult/witchcraft literature. Many people do not know how to distinguish between genres. So we must do what we can to show others the difference, and teach them how to make distinctions. I have not read The Golden Compass, but I have learned enough about to know that I have no intentions of reading or watching that kind of thing. I have learned how to make these distinctions myself from personal experience. I used to watch reruns of the old soap opera Dark Shadows, until I grew wiser. My mother recently told me that she stopped watching it when it started getting into all the crazy occult stuff. Now I know why I used to have disturbing horror film dreams.

    1. Nah, man. In my experience reading Tolkien was seen as robbing the Bible of your attention and then if we argued to the point that Tolkien was inspired, in his art, by Christ then it was considered an indecent delivery mechanism like Jesus smuggling using a secular device.

      Then on the otherside of the aisle, we’d be mocked by folks, who weren’t Christians, but were religious and very Pharisaical with their preconceived notions of Lord of the Rings, the novelties and cinema alike, and they’d recite the tired old memes, vulgar jokes, and cultural slogans about Tolkien but it was clear that these rascals never even dog ear’d a page of Tolkien’s work and yet they would claim to have read better books sticking to their secular curriculum that passes for a reading list these days. If it were limited to name-calling and bookmark moving it wouldn’t be an issue.
      My friend Heath, who is no longer with us, was once sent shoulder first into a wall locker for his love of Tolkien and walked away with a bruised collar bone. We were forced to listen to jerks tell us Gandalf is a lesser wizard compared to Merlin, that our king Aragorn was weak compared to Arthur or even Beowulf. Again these are people who probably never even read those stories, or learned enough, and yet they run down followers of Tolkien.

  2. Seems as though it would be a sphere of influence and thought for Tolkien. Consider his love of Beowulf and that story was found in the Nowell Codex alongside stories of St. Christopher, Letters of Alexander to Aristotle, and other apocryphal writings and literature.

    Even Earth based religions, and studies point us in a decent direction to draw near or seek The Source in a natural way. Like Romans talks about.

    Study Lord of the Rings can serve as a beak-wetter to better understand the writing styles of the Bible. If you can understand the Lord of the Rings and the Appendix then you should give the Bible a shot, or a second read through. If 66 books by 40 different authors is a bit much, then drop down and read the Gospel after reading Lord of the Rings.

    Tolkien’s Hobbit book is a white belt for readers and serves nicely as a primer for the deeper waters of The Lord of The Rings. Most folks approach the Bible like most people try a kid’s karate class and don’t come back because they think they got the premise or can envision themselves losing in a street fight.

    If you can wrap your head around The Lord of The Rings or even The Hobbit reconsider revisiting the Gospel, on behalf of Tolkien’s work on translating The Bible.

  3. Seems as though it would be a sphere of influence and thought for Tolkien. Consider his love of Beowulf and that story was found in the Nowell Codex alongside stories of St. Christopher, Letters of Alexander to Aristotle, and other apocryphal writings and literature.

    Even Earth based religions, and studies point us in a decent direction to draw near or seek The Source in a natural way. Like Romans talks about.

    Studying Lord of the Rings can serve as a beak-wetter to better understand the writing styles of the Bible. If you can understand the Lord of the Rings and the Appendix then you should give the Bible a shot, or a second read through. If 66 books by 40 different authors is a bit much, then drop down and read the Gospel after reading Lord of the Rings.

    Tolkien’s Hobbit book is a white belt for readers and serves nicely as a primer for the deeper waters of The Lord of The Rings. Most folks approach the Bible like most people try a kid’s karate class and don’t come back because they think they got the premise or can’t envision themselves losing in a street fight and arrogantly dismiss the techniques and benefits of practice and learning.

    If you can wrap your head around The Lord of The Rings or even The Hobbit reconsider revisiting the Gospel, on behalf of Tolkien’s work on translating The Bible. If you think he’s promoting a pagan agenda then it would be to your benefit to study other religions and that your study would be fulfilled in you studying Christ and learning His Way is the one that rings true.

  4. It is pretty clear that the Valar are angelic beings. If I remember right, there was a hierarchy among the angles. Angles, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, powers, principalities, virtues and a few others I can’t recall at the moment. That some of the higher order would be put in charge of a planet rather than an individual person is not a stretch.

    The idea of angelic beings being involved with humans was a common thread among the big three Inklings. Lewis had the Ossayra (sp?) in his Space Trilogy. One angelic being in charge of a planet. Williams had the platonic archetypes appear in our world in the Place of the Lion. They function as some kind of angelic beings.

  5. I would think that Tolkien’s book and lore have multi-purposes beyond entertainment.

    He can teach you how to understand a hierarchy of angels, (some of the letters of the New Testament mention these characters and other apocryphal writings; e.g. Enoch), the genealogies of the Bible (these are important), and how to use and read the maps included in some Bibles.

    Tolkien’s work introduces people to the concepts of other languages. He translated the Jerusalem Bible and it was no secret that he did a lot of the work on the translation. If one develops a tongue for the elvish language as a kid, then they may pick up a copy of the New Testament in Greek, or pick up a little Latin and read some other ancient writings. Most people who study the Bible seriously end up picking up tools to help learn other languages to read older editions of the texts.

    I think if someone can digest The Lord of The Rings then the Bible would not seem so daunting. Most people who pick up a Bible do not understand the different sections, like the Torah compared to The Gospel, they don’t have any frame of reference to compare the information to either. The LOTR Universe is not equal to the weight of the Bible, though it really sets up the reader for a better experience with LOTR under your belt.

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