Tolkien: Christianity and Paganism

Commenting on my last post, Death and the Tower, John Carswell of True Myths raised the issue of the relevance of Tolkien’s own religious beliefs to my discussion of Tolkien’s meditations on death…

Let’s revisit briefly the concluding passages of Tolkien’s 1936 tale of the ‘Fall of Númenor’.

Seeking immortality, the Númenoreans had prepared to sail to the undying lands in the uttermost West. But Númenor was destroyed by an act of God. A remnant escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores on Middle-earth. Among their descendants we find two views about the undying lands beyond the sundering sea: in the crookedness of their hearts, most imagine a place where dwell the shades of the mortal dead (for which reason they practice ship funerals); yet a wise minority seek to glimpse the undying lands (for which reason they build tall towers on the coast) but understand that it is not a land where Men may dwell.

What arrests my attention here is the contrast between grasping at a (confused) vision and seeing a (true) image without mistaking it for a goal. I think this contrast is key to the perils and rewards of the ‘Faërie sight’ that we encounter in The Lord of the Rings (most obviously, but by no means exclusively, in both the palantíri and Galadriel’s Mirror).  

But John Carswell is correct in suggesting that the whole picture requires a consideration of Tolkien’s own beliefs. And the ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a useful text from this perspective because it contains a rare hint of those beliefs (rare at least in the context of the stories of Middle-earth).

Of those Númenoreans who do not seek to reach the undying lands (neither in life nor in death), Tolkien writes:

… they knew that the fate of Men was not bounded by the round path of the world, nor destined for the straight path. For the round is crooked and has no end but no escape; and the straight is true, but has an end within the world, and that is the fate of the Elves. But the fate of Men, they said, is neither round nor ended, and is not within the world.

Now, we who have heard the teachings of Christianity can readily interpret this passage as offering a contrast between immortality and eternity. Immortality is a life within the world that lasts as long as the world; this is the fate of the Elves. Eternity is found outside the walls of the world, the gateway to eternity is death; and this is the fate of Men. From this Christian perspective, the striving for immortality is a false answer to the riddle of death; acceptance of death as the gateway to eternal life is the true answer.

But note that this Christian reading puts into the quoted passage more than it actually contains. All that Tolkien allows his true Númenoreans is a knowledge that the answer to the riddle of death is found beyond and not within the world. The passage bears the imprint of Tolkien’s Christian faith, but in a fashion deemed appropriate for an ancient Northern world that has not yet received the gospels and has not heard of Christ.

The ‘Fall of Númenor’ was conceived as a sort of origin story of the ancient history of the North. Today, of course, we read it as a bridge that connects the stories of the First Age in The Silmarillion with the great story of the Third Age in The Lord of the Rings. But in 1936 this latter story had yet to be conceived, and, as the last line of the ‘Fall of Númenor’ makes clear, this was to be the closing chapter in the Elvish prehistory of the North:

And here the tale of the ancient world, as the Elves keep it, comes to an end. 

So the ‘Fall of Númenor’ can be read as a meditation upon two kinds of ancient, yet historical Northern paganism: a heathenism that strove for immortality and a noble paganism that accepted death as the fate of Men, knew that death was not the end but the gateway to a fate beyond the walls of the world, but (prior to the spread of Christian teachings) had no guarantee of its hope of eternal life.*

Putting Tolkien’s Christian faith into the picture allows us to see how Middle-earth enchants both a Christian audience and those who reject Christianity and are fascinated by ancient pagan alternatives. Simply put, the noble paganism that Tolkien fashions is fully compatible with the teachings of Christianity: it contains the same moral virtues but is absent those metaphysical revelations concerning death and what follows it.

Bringing Christianity into the picture also provides a clue as to the nobility of spirit that we find in The Lord of the Rings. Vain dreams of escaping death tempt us all. But the Christian today is armed with the teachings of Christ and the support of his Church. The heroes of Middle-earth must spurn the temptations of the enemy, yet do so with no hope that their righteousness will earn any reward other than death. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo embodies this ideal of heroism, but it is actually a characteristic of all who sacrifice themselves with no thought of earning a place in heaven. Tolkien’s Christian faith entailed that when he imagined virtuous pagans without his own faith he imagined them as particularly noble and heroic.

Tolkien’s imagination of noble paganism thus has its own internal logic. It’s worth bearing this in mind in light of criticisms by Tom Shippey (Roots and Branches, ‘Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet’ and ‘Heroes and Heroism’) that Tolkien airbrushed out of Middle-earth all the nastier elements of the Germanic pagan past (such as human sacrifice). Actually, this heathenism is not absent in Middle-earth, it is merely placed on the periphery of our vision and so hardly touched upon: heathenism is the choice of those Men who worship Morgoth and Sauron. But in making the ‘Fall of Númenor’ the origin, not of the history of the North, but of the history of the Third Age, Tolkien took his conception of noble paganism and made it the dominant attitude among the Dúnedain and the men of Gondor and Rohan. This, of course, is not an historically accurate picture of the ancient North; but it is not simply a presentation of ancient paganism through rose-tinted-spectacles.

But does any of this illuminate what I have called the ‘Faërie sight’ found in The Lord of the Rings? I am not convinced that it does.

Clearly, the worldview of Tolkien’s paganism (be it heathen or noble) is very far from atheism. Those who inhabit such a world may encounter magical and mysterious beings simply by following far enough the road that leads from their door. And certain objects in this world may provide magical visions, even to the extent of providing a glimpse of the undying lands beyond the sundering sea. To look into such objects is perilous, at least for a mortal. And that peril is bound up with the good and evil in the heart of the beholder.** But while such ideas of good and evil are close (if not identical) to the moral lessons taught by Christianity, the very idea of a noble paganism is grounded upon the universality of such ideas.

I’m still thinking about this, but for the present I remain of the opinion that the sight of Faërie is bound up in the fantasies of our heart, of which those born out of our fear of death are the most important, but that such fantasies are independent of any knowledge (or lack thereof) of the Eternity that may (or may not) await us once we die.


Image credit: Kontis Šatūnas, ‘Contemporary Romuvan sacred space in Šventoji, Lithuania.’

* Text revised in light of post linked to by JC in his comment below.

** Text revised in light of astute comment below from TH.

8 thoughts on “Tolkien: Christianity and Paganism

  1. johncarswell

    Enjoyed reading this. I’ll need a few days to get back to you with some well-considered follow-on thoughts. I don’t plainly disagree with anything you said here, though every time I read something you write it becomes clear to me that you are a far more incisive thinker and writer than I am. :)

    Here’s a short bit I wrote the other day about a curious passage in one of Tolkien’s letters: Concerning the Incarnation of Gandalf. I think you raise some good points that would have caused me to tweak the way I put certain things in that post, but I’d be curious to get your direct take on it.

    1. simon Post author

      Ah. I must return the compliment and note that had I read your post before I wrote mine I would have tweaked it here and there. “Death as part of nature… and with Hope without guarantees” seems to capture just what Tolkien held to be the difference between the ‘natural monotheism’ of the Numenoreans and Christianity.

      Still, as you intimate, the whole passage you quote from the letter is odd because it references a distinctly human perspective on the death and resurrection of a non-human personality.

  2. tom hillman

    Excellent work as always, Simon. I would make one textually small, but metaphysically large, suggestion. Near the end you say that the ‘peril [of looking into Galadriel’s Mirror] is bound up with the good or evil in the heart of the beholder.’ Might I suggest that ‘good or evil’ be ‘good and evil’? I think this would suit Tolkien’s viewpoint as well as the reality of Middle-earth just a bit more precisely. We all bring our peril with us.

  3. Pingback: Simon Cook: Christianity and Paganism | TRUE MYTHS

  4. johncarswell

    Hi Simon – I’ve had a chance to read through this a few times now, and I think you do a great job of dealing with the way Tolkien handles these matters.

    A few additional suggestion, if I may…

    1. Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf deals with his mid-1930’s views on Christian and pagan ideals, and the overlap between the two. I think it might be interesting to see if any of it further illuminates what you are getting at here. Of course, it also seems related to the question of towers and fäerie vision. I sometimes wonder if the genesis for many of the deeper themes explored in LOTR stem from his composition of the Beowulf essay.

    2. You said: “I remain of the opinion that the sight of Faërie is bound up in the fantasies of our heart…” I also think it would be worthwhile in a further exploration to deal with “Mythopoeia”, which seems particularly concerned with the fäerie vision and its source.

    Thank you for humoring my initial questions. I totally respect Tolkien’s insistence that his works should not be treated as Christian allegory (a device which I’ve come to find rather boring and lazy actually), but at the same time I think far too many take that as license to place a convenient dividing line between his works and his faith. I’ve discovered that Tolkien held these things inextricably intertwined in his heart, an organic whole, and consequently it can be hard work to sort it all out. Again, I think you do an excellent job of respecting and unpacking his vision.

    1. simon Post author


      Thanks for your continuing engagement, which I find is very encouraging. I’ll certainly return to “Mythopoeia.” On Beowulf: funnily enough I’ve spent the last few days looking at Tolkien on Beowulf, but not at the 1936 lecture but the recently published commentary. Tom Shippey some years ago wrote on Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet, primarily from the perspective of the 1936 lecture, and suggested that Tolkien saw himself as following in the footsteps of the Old English poet in that he, too, was a Christian imagining a world of virtuous pagans. This is a useful start. But the new commentary can take us much further. One of the points that it makes, for example, is the significance of doubt and moments of danger in the ‘pagan’ worlds described by both poets. That is, the virtuousness of the pagan worlds described relates in part to a supposed knowledge that God exists and a lack of worship of pagan deities – what is chiefly missing is any guarantee of eternity (a term used in the letter you quote from in your recent post about Gandalf). This means that it is moment’s of crisis that doubts rise up in the virtuous pagan world, and when the door to heathenism opens…

      More generally, the Beowulf commentary draws a distinction between the newer Aesir gods of Norse mythology, associated especially with ‘Odin the Necromancer,’ and the older Vanir gods, associated with farming and fertility and a priest-king and a temple. I think that Tolkien was imagining this Vanir cult as an originally truly virtuous paganism (with Aragorn as the original priest-king, perhaps).

      But fundamentally, all this reading and thinking is leading me to a somewhat different perspective on all of this. It seems natural to approach questions of religion in terms of beliefs and creeds and dogmas. But the more useful perspective to adopt with regard to Tolkien’s Catholicism and Middle-earth might rather be attitudes. Middle-earth is a world that has not heard the Gospels, and so does not know the articles of Christian faith, but its heroes nevertheless adopt correct (from a Christian perspective) attitudes to life and death.

      That last is not as clear now I have written it as it seemed when still in my head. I’ll carry on working on this for some time to come, God willing.

  5. johncarswell

    Yesterday was the Catholic feast of the Assumption, and I’ve been thinking about Tolkien’s footnote to Letter 212 in which he says:

    It was also the Elvish (and uncorrupted Númenorean) view that a ‘good’ Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled (as did Aragorn). This may have been the nature of unfallen Man; though compulsion would not threaten him: he would desire and ask to be allowed to ‘go on’ to a higher state. The Assumption of Mary, the only unfallen person, may be regarded as in some ways a simple regaining of unfallen grace and liberty: she asked to be received, and was, having no further function on Earth. Though, of course, even if unfallen she was not ‘pre-Fall’. Her destiny (in which she had cooperated) was far higher than any ‘Man’ would have been, had the Fall not occurred. It was also unthinkable that her body, the immediate source of Our Lord’s (without other physical intermediary) should have been disintegrated, or ‘corrupted’, nor could it surely be long separated from Him after the Ascension.

    There’s a bit more to it, but I thought this was a relevant bit of data if you hadn’t already considered it.

  6. simon Post author

    John, thanks! I had not even noticed those particular lines before.

    I’m still grappling with these ideas. I have a sense of having a handle on some of them, but others still bewilder me. I might try a new blog post to help clarify matters…

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