J.R.R. Tolkien: Theologian?

Theology is the truth of God applied to life–and not to life in the abstract, but to concrete and specific problems and contexts. J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford professor of English and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of the last several centuries, and as a powerful and complex scholar of the highest caliber, he used the tools provided for him by his faith to construct a grand answer to the problems, concerns, and opportunities of his time and place. And while very many of his contributions to literature and language have been quite beneficially explored by others, he deserves a space in which his unique vision of theology can be examined.

A Theological Moment

Tolkien lived through two World Wars, six British monarchs, and countless cultural changes. The radical shift in the nature of society during this period of time cannot be underestimated. Europe was becoming increasingly post-Christian. The British Empire was falling apart. Hippies took the stage. When Tolkien was born, fewer than 5 percent of the houses in the UK had electricity. By the time he died, we had landed a man on the moon, Richard Nixon was involved in Vietnam, and Aerosmith had released their first album. In short, when Tolkien was a boy, we had Downton Abbey, and two years after he died we had the Sex Pistols.

So much of the beauty of the older world was rapidly fading away due to massive industrialization and commercialization, and the older values of that world along with it. But in the midst of this, there was The Lord of the Rings–written by a medievalist Oxford professor, celebrating and making attractive again all of the things that were becoming increasingly alien to the world because they were rooted in a traditional Christian worldview. Tolkien’s work presented Christian ethics and metaphysics to a large swathe of readers who would never have countenanced them otherwise.

What, then, makes Middle-earth so attractive to our current cultural moment? Why has this story become a multibillion dollar industry? Why do people make pilgrimages to a movie set on the other side of the world? Why are so many people having honest-to-goodness religious experiences in reading or entering this story? I would propose it is exactly because of this recovery of an older, coherent Christian worldview that gives a deep sense of meaning to the cosmos and portrays a life of virtue as attractive.

In other words, Tolkien’s artistry is the outworking of a certain sort of theological system. If this is true, and I believe it is, then there is a need not only to analyze his achievements from a literary perspective (even a spiritually focused one), but also to attend to Tolkien himself–the man, the thinker. This is made even more pressing by the complex relationship between Tolkien’s fantasy and his beliefs, such that too quickly moving from one to the other can land us in a mire more murky than the Dead Marshes.

From Faerie to Faith: Obstacles to Spiritual Readings of The Lord of the Rings

Literary analysis cannot always suffice. We cannot always draw a direct line from Tolkien’s theology to his fiction for at least four reasons.

First, Tolkien sets his story on our earth in the mythological past. This means that the storyline of Scripture after Genesis 3 has not yet occurred, but it will. This is an important qualifier: Tolkien’s Middle-earth contains everything that would be true of our own planet in the distant past. God and his angels exist; people create cultures and philosophies; they speculate on where they go after they die. But anything we learn from the earliest advent of Judaism onward cannot be included, as it would be an anachronism. Some elements, however, are allowed. Gandalf is not meant to represent Jesus the way Aslan represents Jesus, because Jesus has not yet come. But Sauron can be a literal demon, because demons existed at this early point in world history.

Second, Tolkien was not simply writing “Christian fiction,” whatever that term might mean. Tolkien’s work is not a Gospel presentation in disguise. Many well-intentioned Christians read The Lord of the Rings like they read Narnia, or worse, like they read an evangelistic pamphlet. But Tolkien and Lewis had very different views on how theology should manifest in fiction. Tolkien was not simply going about hiding Christianity inside his stories. He is up to something much more subtle and nuanced than that. For one thing, Tolkien believed that bringing Christianity directly into a fantasy world is artistically mistaken.

Imagine a beautiful dollhouse, incredibly intricate, replete with all kinds of minute details. If we were to look at the dollhouse by itself, in its own frame of reference, as in a photograph for instance, we might very easily be able to forget that it is in fact a dollhouse, and begin to experience it as a real, full-sized house. But the moment the cat wanders by and photobombs the picture, we are immediately jerked out of that illusion. The perception of size and reality has been spoiled by something intruding from the real world.

And this is precisely what Tolkien believes happens with fantasy. No fantasy world will ever be as substantial as the real one; it needs to be self-contained in order to live. So while Tolkien can create a world consonant with Christian belief, he doesn’t involve it directly (as the King Arthur legends do, for example) lest he spoil the verisimilitude.

The third issue, of course, is that Middle-earth is fantasy, not historical fiction. There are no Elves or Dwarves in our world (that we know of). There is no battle between Men and Orcs for the fate of the world. So while Tolkien speaks quite a lot about Elvish reincarnation, this doesn’t therefore mean that he believes in reincarnation here in the real world. Tolkien’s world is already tainted when it is created due to Melkor’s machinations; our own world is not. These are differences he has added to his own art in order to communicate something.

And that is the fourth element. The Lord of the Rings and the other tales of Middle-earth are art, not theology. They are primarily meant to be art, not sermons. This is precisely the reason so many Christian films and bands are so bad: they are sermons disguised as artworks. Tolkien refuses to do that. He places the story first, and then attempts to make it congruent with his theology to the extent that it is possible and artistically desirable.

This, and not because he seeks to preserve Middle-earth from Christian influence, is why he very famously asserts, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” In other words, we should look for Christian theology not in the explicit elements but in the deep structure of the story: in its metaphysics, in its ethics, in the shape of its plot.

For these reasons, we have to do additional work to grasp the warp of Tolkien’s theology in the primary world before we can turn back and recognize the pattern in the weft of his fiction. That is precisely what I have tried to do in my book Tolkien Dogmatics, and I find this approach distinctively different from other treatments of spiritual themes in The Lord of the Rings. We must treat Tolkien as a thinker, as a theologian in his own right, and use Middle-earth as an occasional illustration and expansion of his views, not the other way around.

Tolkien the Theologian

Perhaps this requires more justification. Did Tolkien himself not infrequently decry his theological ability, his lack of expertise? Yes, but this must be understood for what it was, a piece of humble English understatement, or even hedging. For Tolkien, a classically-trained Oxford professor in the Victorian and Edwardian tradition, the implicit standard of “expertise” was much higher than it is in the age of canned opinions encapsulated in 280 characters or fewer.

Recall that most of the Inklings meetings seem to have devolved into, or at least contained lots of talk about, theology. So while Tolkien may have been very shy about expressing theological opinions in public in the capacity of an expert, he wasn’t at all shy about expressing them among his friends. And so while we must indeed admit that he was not a professional or trained theologian who deliberately claimed not to be teaching theology, he did have one, as everyone does, and it influenced how he lived and thought and wrote. What does it look like?

Tolkien was not a “mere Christian” like Lewis. He was decidedly a Roman Catholic. For a person in England at that time, that meant a certain level of social ostracism. The Roman Catholic Church in England has not had an easy time since the Reformation. Catholics were only allowed to study at Oxford in 1871, only 21 years before Tolkien’s birth. Tolkien certainly felt these consequences. He saw his mother as a martyr to the faith. As a result, the idea of the righteous remnant being beset by an overwhelming force, of a society out of step with one’s own personal convictions of the True and the Good, show up prominently in much of Tolkien’s work. His Catholicism takes on elements not only of theological opinion but personal loyalty.

He was assiduous in his piety. He attended Mass every morning, more or less, and confession beforehand when he could. The Eucharist was completely central to his theological understanding, and he practiced a deep personal devotion to the Virgin Mary (many of his favorite prayers were Marian). He disliked Vatican II ditching the Latin Mass for English and continued to pray very loudly in Latin during church services.

But Tolkien’s theology was also influenced by his academic interests and personal study. The theme of the harrowing of Hell, beloved of the Anglo-Saxons but functionally forgotten by modern theologians, shows up in both the Paths of the Dead and Tolkien’s seminal work on Beowulf. His training in the Classics and experience with world mythologies meant that he could recover a more robust doctrine of angels, in better keeping with what we know of the original biblical worldviews, rather than fall victim to the anemic angelology of the post-Enlightenment age. The Valar look much more like the divine council of 1 Kings 22, Psalm 82, Job 38, or Ephesians 6 than the baby-faced putti of Victorian art. But more importantly, Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation (and the larger role that creation and human creativity play in his doctrines of God, humanity, and even eschatology) mark him as both the inheritor of British Romantic thought and the predecessor of the literary turn in modern theology and philosophy.

Not only, therefore, is it necessary to understand Tolkien’s theology directly rather than remain content with devotional readings of his fiction, but we also come to realize that Tolkien, because of his unique context, provides creative contributions to theology over and above what we might expect of a “lay” theologian. He deserves to be explored as a theologian and not simply as a storyteller.

Conclusion: A Systematic Theology of Tolkien

Again, if we are to understand the depth of impact Tolkien’s fantasy continues to have among Christians and non-Christians alike, we must first understand the theology that Tolkien claims undergirds his work. We cannot allow the texts to stand by themselves, but must first attend to the ways in which Tolkien adopts and adapts his theology into a fictional world.

In undertaking this, however, we come to find that Tolkien has something valuable to say about every element of a traditional systematics. (In itself, this gives the lie to those of Tolkien’s historical materialist English-department interpreters eager to downplay the role that religion plays in his writings. If one can reconstruct an entire systematic theology from his extant writings, then surely such a stance must be reevaluated?)

He echoes C.S. Lewis in assigning varying levels of historicity to the biblical texts, but strongly affirming their truthfulness. He meditates on the way in which the fall alienates us not only from God but from the animal world. He supports ecumenism but insists that all roads must lead to Rome in the end. Examples could be multiplied.

If such a project is successful, then we can begin to appreciate the maker of Middle-earth not only as an author, or even as a philologist, but as an interdisciplinary theological thinker in his own right, a model for the way in which we can integrate art, faith, history, and life.

Austin M. Freeman (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is a lecturer at Houston Baptist University and a classical school teacher. He is the author of Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology in Middle-Earth (Lexham Press, 2022).


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