Examining the historical defence of Christendom as the conceptual template for the defence of “Westernesse” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings (Part Three)
By Mark Wegierski
This essay is based on a presentation co-authored with Wojciech Szymanski, M.A., which was read at the Fantastic Literature Conference 2016 (Religious Topics in Fantastic Literature) at the University of Lodz (Lodz, Poland), September 19-20, 2016.
The Middle Earth legendarium is ostensibly set in the dim prehistory of our current Earth. Tolkien claims to be working from some ancient manuscripts which have come into his possession. The time-frame of the works is thus said to be occurring before the period of historical Christianity. This allows the heroic resistance to evil to be portrayed without being explicitly tied to revealed religion.
Tolkien portrays hordes of monstrous, evil creatures (in addition to the tribes of men recruited by Sauron) on the march against the forces of good. This does not correspond to any “realworld” situation – as the greatest enemies of men have been other men. Perhaps Tolkien’s point is that human beings in themselves, living in their human societies, have a choice to become either more like the demonic orcs -- or more like the angelic elves. This suggested typology of angelic elves/demonic orcs points to moral universalism – as all human beings can make a choice for good or evil.
In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien offers a typology of resistance to evil that does not explicitly invoke revealed religion – but at the same time valorizes such virtues as heroism, loyalty, friendship, and modest romantic love. Thus it opens up the possibility of making these virtues considerably attractive to those persons in late modernity who have fallen away from revealed religion, as well as those who are still believers.
The absence of revealed religion means that the works can actually appeal to all so-called persons of goodwill, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack of thereof. When writing the works, Tolkien very consciously downplayed elements of fictive religions, especially in regard to the free peoples. Indeed, in later years, Tolkien became worried that the works could constitute something like a basis for a cult, which was certainly not his intent.
In the 1970s, Tolkienian fantasy became the mainspring of fantasy role-playing games, typified by Dungeons and Dragons (released in 1974). Tolkien had sometimes expressed trepidation that his writing would become the basis for something like a cult.
A strong argument for the more Christian, rather than pagan, nature of these works, is the figure of Boromir, in The Lord of the Rings. Boromir is the most obviously Nietzschean figure in the Fellowship of the Ring. He argues that the power of the Ring should be used to oppose all the enemies besetting the Free Peoples. His succumbing to the lure of the Ring could be read as a warning against the exercise of an unbridled “Will to Power”.
As discussed earlier, it can be argued that another major element that marks these works as more Christian, than pagan, is the importance attached to ordinary, humble, supposedly comfort-loving folk (the hobbits), who rise to great heights of heroism. Indeed, the respect for the humble is something that has been often identified as part of the intellectual heritage of Christianity. Paganism mostly concerned itself with the thoughts, feelings, and actions, of so-called great men and women of high station. It could be argued that the notion that greatness of soul could also exist among ordinary, humble persons, has been brought to the fore of human social experience, by Christianity. In historic Christendom, it was stressed that persons of all social classes – be they prince or pauper – had some role to play in defending and upholding Christian society. Medieval morality-plays often featured a poor man going to Heaven, with the rich man who had held him in contempt, going to Hell. What Pope Francis has called the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” has been viewed by some cutting critics (notably Nietzsche), as nothing but a “slave morality”. Tolkien’s exaltation of the ordinary, humble hobbits, is clearly Christian in inspiration.
It appears that one of Tolkien’s hopes in writing these works, was to try to encourage a current-day, albeit gentle, so-called Christian-patriotic revival, in the face of various evils of the late modern world. Presumably, by reading his works, people would become aware that better, higher, and more noble things could be aspired to, which they might subsequently try to somehow bring into their own lives.
Nevertheless, Tolkien had a capacious and imaginative mind. He welcomed various putatively positive tendencies, regardless of which part of the spectrum they came, having, for example, some affinity for parts of the 1960s movements. Indeed, one the greatest breakthroughs of the popularity of Tolkien’s works occurred among U.S. college students of the 1960s. This could be called a convergence between “bohemian Toryism” and the hippies.
In 1978, the iconoclastic fantasy and science fiction writer, Michael Moorcock, published a cutting critique of Tolkien and similar fantasy writers, under the title “Epic Pooh”. He claimed that these works embraced a typology similar to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, meant to comfort rather than challenge. He claimed that it was a literature of escapism which refuses to deal with the issues raised by the real world.
However, Tolkien certainly seemed very aware of what has been called “the crisis of late modernity”, and seemed in fact to want to offer a positive and healthy antidote to it.
While Tolkien’s work can certainly inspire ecological and cultural resistance to the more negative aspects of late modernity, it may nevertheless lack a certain dimension of nuanced critique when it comes to current-day technology, and its impacts on the human person and psyche. Such critiques are more properly the province of dystopian and science fiction subgenres like cyberpunk.
It may be admitted that Tolkien seemed to look mostly backward to the past in a defence of an Old England.
It could be argued that Tolkien’s writing remained entirely centered in the context of his British and European roots. It could be noted that the political geography of Middle Earth is almost entirely that of historical Europe. The forces of freedom are centered in the west, while the invasions come from the south and the east. So Tolkien could be accused of being “Eurocentric” and “too Christian”. However, these possible aspects of the works do not seem to have proven a barrier to their diffusion and enjoyment around virtually the entire world.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.