Today is the 175th birthday of author and professor J.R.R. Tolkien – best-known for his Lord of the Rings books as well as other stories set in the land of Middle Earth. An ardent Catholic all his life, Tolkien’s books echo religious – and Catholic – themes.
Though he disliked allegory- and indeed, sought to include Nordic myth in the series more than Christian stories- the world of the Lord of the Rings uses allegorical symbol, story and myth to point to deeper truths. These truths – including those of the Catholic faith – have been noted by many commentators and scholars over the years, and Tolkien himself admitted in letters to friends. (Letter 142 to Fr. Robert Murray, SJ.)
Thus, as Stratford Caldecott, author and research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, commented in a 2001 piece, “The Lord of the Rings is not a book about religion," – but it is a Catholic book.
One of the more obvious allegories among many present in the books are the similarities between the Eucharist and Lembas Bread – a special bread made by the elves. In the books, the food is described as having “potency that increased as travelers relied upon it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure." (Return of the King)
Throughout the books, the characters of the Fellowship draw strength from the Lembas they receive from Galadriel the Elf, and as Frodo and Sam approach Mordor, they rely not only physically, but arguably spiritually on the strength of body and will that the bread provides. Moreover, Sméagol – who has become but a shriveled shell of his former self due to his years of possessing the Ring – wretches and recoils at the sight of Lembas, unable to eat it, even though Frodo tells him it would do him good.
The requirement that the bread be eaten by itself, its spiritual sustaining power, the good it brings to the Fellowship, yet the revulsion the corrupted feel in its sight all reflect back upon the reality of the Eucharist. Tolkien himself comments on these parallels between Lembas and the “Bread of Life." Readers “saw in waybread (lembas)= viaticum* and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist," (Letter 213 to Deborah Webster) Tolkien commented before affirming the symbolism there.
Other similarities present within the books include Marian parallels both with Galadriel – also called the Lady of Lorien" and the “greatest of elven women" and the coinciding date of March 25th not only with the Destruction of the Ring within the books, but also with the Feast of the Annunciation and the traditional date assigned to the Crucifixion.
Good, Evil and Grace
Even more important as a mark of Tolkien’s Catholicity than Eucharistic symbols or Marian parallels, is the way in which Tolkien conceptualizes the failure and success of the Ringbearer’s main task: the destruction of the Ring. Instead of remaining steadfast and triumphant until the end, Frodo, Tolkien writes, “ indeed ‘failed’ as a hero… he did not endure to the end; he gave in, ratted." In his final moment, Frodo tried to take the ring for himself. (Letter 246 to Ms. Eileen Elgar)
Yet, Tolkien continues, Frodo had already won his quest and the ring is destroyed by Frodo’s earlier acts of Pity and Mercy. While he may have failed in a finite sense, Frodo’s quest was completed and achieved, and was not, Tolkien argues, a moral failure.
“At the last moment the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum – impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted. Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed." (Letter 246 to Ms. Eileen Elgar)
Moreover, this dynamic surrounding the destruction of the ring reveals the Catholic view of evil – and how goodness defeats it, argues Tumblr writer Mapsburgh:
“An Augustinian climax can’t involve a contest of wills between good and evil. In an Augustinian world, evil can only exist by leeching off of good. So evil must be given an opportunity to destroy itself, much like the self-defeating band of thieves described by Plato (on whose philosophy Augustine drew heavily). Good wins by renouncing evil, not by overcoming it.
And that’s exactly what happens at the Cracks of Doom. The ring isn’t destroyed because Frodo’s force of good overcame the ring’s evil. Nor is Gollum’s intervention a coincidence or deus ex machina (like the series of disarmings that happened to make Harry the master of the Elder Wand). Rather, the ring’s evil collapsed in on itself by drawing Gollum. The very corruption of Gollum that enabled the ring to escape the river drove him to wrestle desperately with Frodo for it and ultimately fall to his doom, ring in hand."
This Catholic worldview, where good and evil are not dueling equals, but where evil is a corruption of the good has consequences for the whole of Tolkien’s storytelling, the writer continues. Instead of being a consequentialist or a pragmatist – allowing short-term evils in the search of long-term gains- the characters of Lord of the Rings learn time and time again to do the right thing- regardless of cost. And, time and time again those actions are rewarded for good and for ill – characters who try to gain advantage through evil means face the consequences of corruption while those who seek the good, even when foolish, find providential rewards.
So, in honor of the great author, take a line or two out of his books: avoid evil, even when it’s ‘practical’. Do good, even when it’s not profitable. Have mercy and pity for those who have met their limits. And maybe, just maybe, have a bit of Lembas bread.
*AN: Viaticum or “provisions for the way" is the last Eucharist a person receives before they die.