“I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.” (172)
In a 1953 letter to Father Robert Murray, Tolkien admitted that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (172). Tolkien meant that “the religious element was absorbed in the story and the symbolism” (172). While the story contains no explicit reference to Catholicism or Christianity, it is nevertheless heavily infused with them. It is true that Tolkien abhorred allegory and preferred to write stories without heavy and direct symbolism. Nevertheless, on this Feast of the Annunciation, it is worth noting one very clear and quite intentional reference to Tolkien’s faith at the heart of The Lord of the Rings.
Eucatastrophe & the Incarnation
Do you, like me, tear up when you read the last several chapters of The Lord of the Rings? Do you find that your heart swells when you consider Frodo’s agonizing sacrifice and Sam’s unflagging devotion to his friend and master? Does your soul ring out like a church bell as the Ring is destroyed and the dominion of Sauron comes to a crashing halt?
Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe” in reference to the “happy turn” in storytelling, and especially in fairy-tales. (FYI, for Tolkien, a fairy-tale was not a story about little sprites, but a story about dragons, warriors, and strange worlds). He employed eucatastrophe frequently in his stories in order to achieve the effect one feels at these great moments, when hopeless causes come to unexpected triumph, when what was horribly wrong is made gloriously right by a providential twist.
In fact, Tolkien referred to the Birth of Christ as “the eucatastrophe of Man’s history” (72), so it follows then that the Annunciation, when Mary consented to being the God-bearer, is the beginning of this great eucatastrophe. And don’t tell me there weren’t dragons involved! After all, the Annunciation was the quiet moment at which she first crushed the head of the serpent, beginning mankind’s “happy turn” away from evil, slavery, and death.
The Destruction of the Ring
The destruction of One Ring and the end of Sauron’s dominion occurs on March 25th, the same date as the Feast of the Annunciation. And what’s really cool about this is that Tolkien intended it to be a direct connection. In the work Nomenclature (now included in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion) he indicated as much.
You see, Tolkien had intended his Middle-earth tales to be something like a pre-Christian mythological history for England. In a way, he connected Middle-earth with our own world, and so it would seem that this rather explicit connection is his way of submitting the tale to its Catholic roots. It’s so cool to consider that Frodo and Sam’s fulfillment of their quest in some way foreshadows the greater redemption that was to come.
Mary & the Hobbits
It should also be noted that in this same letter, Tolkien refers to Mary as “Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded” (172). In a way, hobbits are an important reflection of “beauty both in majesty and simplicity.” While there are great battles happening on the Pelennor Fields and at the Gates of Mordor, the more important battle is fought by Frodo and Sam against the temptation of the Ring. The willing self-sacrifice of the hobbits betokens its own heroic beauty.
Elsewhere, Tolkien had spoken of his conviction “that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak” (xvii). How fitting! The hobbits, like Mary, are the “unknown and weak,” the figures who achieve a mighty victory while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. In his short story “Leaf By Niggle“, Tolkien similarly profiles the destiny of a “little man” who is all but forgotten and written off by the powers of this world but finds the unrecognized works of his life taking on eternal significance.
One need not be knowledgeable or even aware of Tolkien’s Catholicism to enjoy The Lord of the Rings for the masterpiece that it is. However, I would strongly contend that to be more knowledgeable of these elements leads to an even greater appreciation of the story’s richness, and of the ideas going through Tolkien’s own mind. In the end, one of the greatest functions of literature and other art is to express that which seems inexpressible otherwise. Tolkien’s Catholicism undergirds The Lord of the Rings, and further reveals its majesty and beauty.
What do you think of this connection? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Happy Tolkien Reading Day! Find out which Tolkien story I recommend for this joyful occasion.