Tolkien’s Camouflage

A visitor to this blog drew my attention to a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, preserved in one of his letters:

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 my life I have read LOTR (and The Hobbit) many times and have yet to discern anything Catholic about it. Indeed, the most unreal thing about Tolkien’s imaginary world is the total absence of places of worship, clergy of any kind, sacred writings, explicit references to any deity or deities, and so on. Here on Earth there has never been a civilization that looked like that. Where would archeology be without temples, shrines, idols, etc.?  Meanwhile, I’d give a lot to see the manuscript of Lord of the Rings as it was before Tolkien revised it.

I recognize Tolkien as a giant of fantasy literature, but I suggest that maybe he buried his “religious element” too deeply in the story, where hardly anyone could see it. When his work was published in paperback in the 1960s, Tolkien was appalled to find himself becoming one of the icons of the hippie movement, and more admired by pagans than by Christians. But he had only himself to blame. We can see from earlier works, published later in his life (like The Silmarillion) that, yes, Middle-Earth rested on a firm religious basis. But in Lord of the Rings hippies saw more of pipe-weed than of piety.

Well, nobody ever said it’d be easy to write compelling fantasy that serves the cause of Christ. Would Tolkien’s books had served it better if he’d left in the “religious” details that he took out? Or would the result have been something unconvincing and heavy-handed that would have pleased nobody?

I agree that Christianity, even if presented in an unearthly and fantastic form, ought to be embedded in the story–embedded, mind you: not slapped on like a decal. It’s hard to achieve this, artistically.

Readers, whom do you think are the best-ever writers of Christian fantasy–and why?

6 comments on “Tolkien’s Camouflage

  1. I think C. S. Lewis was the best at weaving Christianity through his stories. Everything he wrote had a Christian coloring, and even when he said something outright, he said it so skilfully that it didn’t feel jarring or heavy handed. As for Tolkien, he was a Catholic, NOT a Christian, so obviously his books weren’t going to be necessarily Christian in content. In fact, there are several places where it is Catholic, such as where it says that the Elves cry out to Elbereth for help on the sea, or something. Think Mary. I wholly agree with you that it is difficult to put Christianity in without either completely burying it, or ‘slapping it on like a decal’. I struggle with it in my own stories.

    1. Laura, I agree with what you’ve said about C.S. Lewis and the “Christian coloring” of his works. But J.R.R. Tolkien “NOT a Christian”? Tolkien’s close friend, C.S. Lewis, who credited Tolkien with persuading him to become a Christian, would surely have been shocked to learn that Tolkien was not a Christian.
      We Protestants must disabuse ourselves of the notion that Catholics are “not Christian.” There are doctrinal differences between us, to be sure. If you haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” I strongly recommend it. He explains better than I can how the “holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed embraces Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike.
      Look, if I thought the Roman Catholic Church was right about everything, I’d become a Catholic. I haven’t, so obviously I don’t. But what with secular humanists, frothing-at-the-mouth atheists, neo-pagans, and so-called “liberal churches” who turn the Bible inside-out and set themselves up as gods, we Christians have plenty of enemies to fight without turning our cannons on each other.

  2. Well, taking Calvin’s view that Roman Catholics are Christians, I’d vote for Tolkien. I think Rich Bledsoe once said that Lewis was today’s version of John Bunyan, and Narnia the modern world’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in the sense that most Christians have read his works and have at least one book by him on the shelf. I would add that like Bunyan, Lewis is a little overt in his symbolism, in the sense that the Christianity in the books run around, shouting and waving their arms. Not that I dislike the Narnia books (aside from the first four-fifths of the Last Battle)

    I think Tolkien made a good choice (though, clearly, not the only good choice available) in not making God a character in the story. After all, God isn’t a character in history, He is the shaper and ruler of history. And so Tolkien keeps God from being restrained by being placed inside the creation of the story, letting Him stand as the solution off stage, beckoning, as the one who stands behind the story, giving His good Providence to the heroes. In that way God is always present, but never seen. There’s a place for both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s ways of working within Christian fantasy, I think.

    Beyond the Inklings, I think N. D. Wilson has written some terrific Christian fantasy thus far, and looking forward to his next this August.

  3. Welcome back, Adam.
    There are many readers who like both Narnia and Middle-Earth; I’m one of them. But you have to be pretty dense, I think, to miss the Christian symbolism in Narnia, and pretty sharp to see it in Middle-Earth. Tolkien thought Lewis overdid it, but millions of readers wouldn’t agree.
    I’ve just finished writing a review of “The Narnia Code” by Michael Ward, so stay tuned.

  4. I enjoy them both too. I fed on them both growing up, and they have a very special place in my heart. I think Narnia is subtler than many people give it credit for, but if Lewis is Bunyon, Tolkien is Flannery O’Connor, no question – both master Christian craftsmen and both requiring a ton of reflection to fill in all the meaning and symbolism.

  5. Adam, if you think Narnia is a subtle creation, you’ll enjoy “The Narnia Code” by Michael Ward. Check it out. I’ve written a review which I suppose will eventually be posted on this blog, depending on how Chalcedon first uses it.

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