Fantasy, Parody and Sacrament: Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring


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I have recently been accepted to train as a Reader in the Church of England, a ministry I shall be training for over the next few years.  The first assignment they set us was to write theological reflections on our choice from a series of artistic works.  I chose The Fellowship of the Ring from the list, and after writing the piece, I had a few ideas which I wanted to work through more thoroughly, drawing on a couple of critics I particularly admire. So I put together this post, and thought it might be of some interest – I should stress that I am not an expert in the theology of Tolkien’s works (and that one of my colleagues is!) so they are more a set of personal responses than an academic hypothesis.


J.R.R. Tolkien’s work falls into the category of “immersive” fantasy, as defined by Farah Mendlesohn: it presents a fantastical world as fully-formed and complete in itself. Even though the protagonists may travel and learn more about the world, they do so from within it. This contrasts with the “portal” fantasy exemplified by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, in which the characters have to enter the fantasy world from their own.  (Mendlesohn’s discussion of fantasy rhetoric also provides the categories of “intrusion”, where the fantastical elements interjects itself into the “real” world of the characters, and “liminal”, where it remains at the edge of reality and even consciousness.)  Indeed, Tolkien and Lewis are two of the major examples Mendlesohn uses when outlining the differences of these fantasy styles


The distinction between “immersive” and “portal” modes of fantasy can be noticed at the most obvious level in the plot: as I noted, Tolkien’s characters begin within a self-contained fantastical world, whereas Lewis’ enter Narnia from elsewhere (whether by a physical portal like the wardrobe, or via another kind of agency like Susan’s horn.)  This affects the way the story is told, or should do.  Portal fantasy permits more obvious swathes of explanation (in addition to plot exposition), as visitors from another world might understandably need a lot of customs and objects explained to them, whilst the reader “overhears”.   Those who were born within the world may still encounter strange and unexpected things (such as almost anything outside the Shire), but their engagement with them is usually different.

Mendlesohn makes the point that neither style is superior, or more significant, and that her work is descriptive of that way novels develop rather than prescriptive of how they should.  Nonetheless, she does suggest that these rhetorics of fantasy can sometimes account for why a particular book might feel clumsy or awkward.  The protagonist in an immersive fantasy should be noticing the world in a different way to the protagonist of a portal fantasy: if they continually narrate to themselves basic aspects of the world (such as how families work in their world, or their own job, or what their usual food tastes like) this will disrupt the rhetoric’s coherence.  If a portal fantasy were written in the style suitable for an immersive fantasy, the reader might become baffled at the alien elements which were never explained, or even noticed.  (In practice this is rarer – it is much more common to find immersive fantasies in which characters who supposedly grew up in the world explain basic assumptions of it to themselves to each other.  “Ah we both know, Bo’-Obbe…”)

Thus the characters’ very phenomenology should be different in different modes of fantasy, according to Mendlesohn’s analysis.  There are also implications for the readers’ relationship to the world and the characters, to the point and purpose of the fantastical, and for the ideology of the fiction.  In the case of Narnia and Middle Earth, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that Tolkien was baffled and infuriated by Lewis’ inability (and lack to desire) to produce a coherent fantasy world.  The appearance of Classical creatures such as fauns, centaurs and dryads, alongside folk-tale talking animals and Father Christmas in Narnia provoked serious criticism from Tolkien. Lewis was clearly much less interested in what we would now call “world-building” than his colleague.

Having drawn on Mendlesohn’s terms to sketch this distinction, I would like to extend it into their theological tendencies.  Ronald Hutton has commented on the complexities of tracing the religious elements of Tolkien’s thought and work, and connected this to his denominational background, again via a contrast with Lewis.  Where Lewis had a definite conversion experience, which led him to speak repeatedly and publicly in favour of Christianity, often expounding it as an intellectual and moral system which demanded both attention and assent, Tolkien’s religion was much more implicit.  As Hutton describes, it was part of his family background and cultural inheritance, and found a correspondingly less explicit expression in his published writings.  Without wishing to impose too simple a binary (or to simplify the complexities of their ideas and fictions), the two writers seem to represent via background and personal style the Protestant and Catholic strains in British Christianity.

I am keen to take this insight into the work itself, seeing Tolkien’s immersive mode of fantasy as linked with his Catholic sensibility.  Hutton points out that the critic seeking Tolkien’s faith in his writings must attend to the implicit, the historical and the cultural, and I would argue that this is not only a reading strategy but the structure and mode of that faith when it is found.  (Mendlesohn has herself commented in passing on the “Catholic” quality of his themes.)  He is the fantasy novelist of immanence and incarnation, of natural theology rather than verbal revelation, of a sacramental imagination.  I do not mean to suggest that Catholics (or Catholic theologies) neglect the Bible, nor the importance of salvation.  But insofar as their emphases have often been different from Protestant emphases over the twentieth century, Tolkien makes sense within one tradition rather than the other.  Put broadly, I would argue that the narrative and emotional pull of his fiction is towards questions of creation and incarnation, whereas the equivalent pull in Lewis’ is towards redemption and atonement.

Sacred meaning is present within Middle Earth, sedimented within names, histories and the physical landscapes. The “call” for Lewis comes from outside with a Barthian insistence, breaking across reality and demanding removal into another realm, and the comparison can illuminate Tolkien’s theological commitments. Put broadly, Lewis’ imagination and characters travel onwards and out of the world, whilst Tolkien’s must work their way inwards and into the past.  The same might be said of his readers: the very name “Middle Earth” is an example of this tendency.  Whilst “Narnia” is an original coinage, “Middle Earth” is a modernization (if not a precise translation) of the term “middangeard”, used by Anglo-Saxon authors to refer to the earthly realm they inhabited.

Students of English literature in the generations who grew up reading Tolkien have found that the further they go back into the literary past, the more they find echoes of the language they already recognise from The Lord of the Rings: orthanc, enta, wearg, etc.  The very medium of Tolkien’s novel rewards the delving into the past which its characters need to undertake in order to understand and carry out their task.  (In contrast, Lewis’ “deep magic” originates from “the dawn of time”, but arrives without any particular prefiguring or explanation.)  The emphasis on songs and tales, which can become wearing for some readers (especially if they approve the novel as a straightforward adventure plot) underlines this aspect of the fatasy’s logic, especially when the songs and tales are fragmentary and mysterious.  The work’s sympathy for folk-religion and for the interweaving of symbol and truth are epitomised by Celeborn’s (somewhat sexist) advice that the fellowship “do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know”.

The instinctively sacramental aspect of Tolkien’s fantasy joins with this “language and lore” trend in one striking moment when the name of a river is revealed.  The repetition of the syllable “cela” in Elvish words surely owes a lot of Tolkien’s sense of euphony.  His famous repetition of the idea that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in the English language indicates pleasure in it (though there is surely also a joke here about the delightful potential of cellar doors, for writers who regularly gathered in pubs and who were used in mid-century British conditions to the beer running out before the night was over.)

Celaborn, cited above, shares the syllable, and the river which refreshes the fellowship and initiates them into a another phase of their quest is called “Celebrant”.  The powerful Catholic overtones of this term, used for the priest in their role as administer of the sacraments, gesture to the theological tendency I am tracing.  The reader witnesses the effect of the river on the characters, but can also recognise the way in which this episode might draw them deeper into the words they already know from their own lives.  (Again the comparison with Lewis: “In your world I have another name” – but in Tolkien the name is the same in both worlds, and the meaning is attained by going through the name into its meanings.)

At the risk of over-emphasizing the case, I found it striking when I reread the novel just how many episodes and characters partook in this inwards motion.  Wisdom and drama arrived by rescrutinising the known, by acquiring insight rather than new information.  Bilbo’s ring turned out to be something greater and more terrible than they had thought; Frodo discovered his mail-shirt to be much more ancient and valuable than he had dreamed; Gandalf grew in stature and significance the more the hobbits met others who knew their friend; Famer Maggot was wiser and more important than they had thought whilst growing up.

Even within the novel itself the same process could be discerned, as figures were introduced and then deepened: Strider was not just Strider but also Aragorn; the Black Riders were not just magical thugs but the Nine, the Ring Wraiths, and so on.  In one sense, as my wife pointed out, this is the narrative drive of Young Adult fiction, another form of fiction where Tolkien had a vast impact.  It’s the cognitive and emotional movement with which adolescents come to terms with the new relationships they need to build with familiar people, and the new lives they need to plot from the same backstory.  Viewed theologically, it is also a narrative economy which mirrors the sensibility of liturgical worship and sacramental spirituality.

Given this theological sensibility, and the way it shapes the fantasy, the rhetoric and the readers’ engagement with the book, it is worth considering some of the implication of the book’s central image. The One Ring offers powerful imagery for Christian reflection, focused around some themes particularly emphasized within the Catholic tradition.  It is the focus of the immanent, incarnational and sacramental imagination which sustains and drives Tolkien’s fiction.

It was created by a kind of relinquishing, as the Dark Lord placed some of his power within it, but only to exert more power on those who come into contact with it.  It is not so much the opposite of kenosis as a horrible parody of it: the partial self-emptying is a calculated power-grab which imposes limits on others, not the self-giving which Christianity discerns in the Incarnation.  As Mendlesohn has remarked, this is often overlooked both by readers and by later novelists influenced by Tolkien.  In her account the central impulse of the book is to warn against the attractions of power, and to demonstrate the heroic relinquishing of power, where later readers and writers took the quest for a magical artefact which two sides both wanted to possess.  This would surely count as a crucial failure of understanding within the novel’s world, but it is one which all the fellowship are tempted towards, as well as some others outside it.

When read in terms of self-emptying as a strategy for gaining power (a parody of central Christianity ideas around Christ’s identity and work), the comparison with the horcrux of a later fantasy becomes even more obvious.  The horcrux aims to secure power over others, and does so by dis-integrating the wholeness of the person who creates it.  It involves the sacrifice of another, rather than the self-giving of the atonement, and instrumentalises the death of a human in order to accrue more power.  It grants a potential “eternal life” on the other side of a death, connecting the soul with the material world, but the meanings of those phrases as uttered within Christian theology are warped and twisted.

The comparison with the horcrux highlights the parodic and grotesque aspects of the Ring.  As I have suggested, it does not offer an opposite to the terms of Christian reflection, but represents them in a distorted and destructive formulation.  This is particularly true of the warped sacramentality of the Ring (and horcrux), which becomes particularly arresting within the sacramental sensibility of the novel as a whole.  In describing its theological significance, the critic comes close to paraphrasing the themes of classical theology, but it is all “wrong” somehow.  The Ring is so dangerous not because it is abhorrent but because it is attractive.  It comes close to warping the language even of the person reflecting upon its meanings.

So many statements about the Ring take the form “It…, but…” for this reason.  It is a means by which the spiritual world becomes even more manifest within the material, but at a cost to the humanity of those who engage with it.  It performs remarkable transformations, but encourages the human (or hobbit) in question to exert their own will over the world.  It reveals a reality underlying the world, but one which works against liberation.  And so on.  Its effects do not simply perform the mechanical processes of ritual magic, but engage the whole person in a perverted kind of formation. In order for the Ring to have an impact, there must be a person who has identified themselves as the “user”, and who will find that system of “user” and “used” entraps them in the future.

Its first effect is to render the wearer invisible, a hint of how the Ring makes people less real to each other.  Another hint comes in the way wearers find themselves using it to aggrandise themselves, at the expense of the knowledge or dignity of others.  Even parlour tricks and pranks participate in this economy of unkindness.  Repeated use of the ring wears away the bearer’s sense of their own identity and their involvement with others. They become distracted and abstracted, alienated from the movements of their own body and the depth of reality around them.  “Communion” becomes impossible for them in almost any sense of the word.

This danger can only be redeemed by an authentic kenosis: the sincere if arduous giving-up of power which Bilbo just about performs in miniature at the beginning of the book, and which Frodo is tasked with accomplishing on a larger scale.  This cannot be carried out by a huge and single act of will, a heroic decision after which it will all be over and the choice made.  There is something far more Aristotelian, and centred around virtue ethics, in the process of getting to the point where it can be relinquished.  Thus in the Ring I think we can discern the powerful central image of the book working through the Catholic and sacramental sensibility which The Lord of the Rings displays.  A theological reflection on The Fellowship of the Ring can connect a number of areas of Tolkien’s imagination and cultural context, in ways which enrich both a literary and the religious readings of them.