Tolkien, Religion, and the Death of Western Culture

I was rather surprised when Friday’s quick post about Tolkien spawned a lengthy comment thread full of people arguing against the suggestion that The Lord of the Rings is affected by Tolkien’s Catholic faith. I’m no Tolkien scholar, but my impression of the field is that this is simply not a controversial statement, that there is ample material in the reams of letters, early drafts, and other background material showing that this is the case.

On reflection, it seems that there are two things going on here. One is that some people seem to think that a book cannot be said to contain Christian elements unless it contains a single readily identifiable Christ figure. Which is really just kind of sad, in an “I weep for the death of Western culture” kind of way.

The other seems to be a little more particular to ScienceBlogs. Based on the tone of some of the comments, it seems like there’s a very strong element of “Religion is stupid and evil, but I like The Lord of the Rings. Therefore, The Lord of the Rings cannot possibly have any religious content.”

This is also sad in a “death of Western culture” sense, but it also suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of how literature works. The Lord of the Rings is not like Left Behind, which is utterly without virtues unless you accept every detail of the author’s worldview. You’re not required to renounce Tolkien and all his works just because you don’t happen to be a Christian– they’re deeper and richer than that.

And even if you were to go in for the all-or-nothing worldview-based renunciation, you’ve got better and more obvious reasons to cast Tolkien out than the relatively subtle Christian elements. Specifically, the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman of Many Colors:

‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

‘”I liked white better,” I said.

‘”White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

‘”In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”‘

(That’s in the Council of Elrond chapter, page 272 in the battered hardcover edition I have here.)

That’s as clear a rejection of the whole scientific worldview as you’ll find. And the books make it quite clear that Gandalf is right, within the world of the books. Characters who are too concerned with the workings of the material world are invariably bad, and any trace of science or industry is a sign of evil.

This is a deeply silly way of looking at the world, in many ways (and not terribly well thought out, when it comes to the technology and society of the Shire, specifically), but it’s unquestionably part of the books, in the same way that Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs are part of the books. You’re not required to accept either of them in order to enjoy the books, though. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the plot and the world without dwelling on the misguided aspects of Middle Earth. (Indeed, it’s pretty much the only way I can read the books at all…)

You don’t need to be a Catholic or a Luddite in order to read and enjoy the books. But at the same time, it would be foolish in the extreme to insist that the books have neither Catholic nor Luddite elements to them.