Interviewer: “Where is God in The Lord of the Rings?”
J.R.R. Tolkien: “Mentioned once or twice.”
Interviewer: “Is he ‘the One’?”
J.R.R. Tolkien: “The One… yes.”
Interviewer: “Are you in fact a theist?”
J.R.R. Tolkien: “Oh, I’m a Roman Catholic! A devout Roman Catholic.”
The above fragment comes from a BBC interview with J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) by Denys Gueroult, released in 1971. From what Tolkien says in that conversation, it comes as no surprise that earlier on he wrote the following about The Lord of the Rings in a letter to a friend – from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981; Letter #142 to Robert Murray S.J., 2 December 1953:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
It is well-known that Tolkien fought in World War I. He experienced the slaughter that was the infamous Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916 – 18 November 1916). At the end of that battle’s first day, 19,240 British soldiers lay dead, making that day the most lethal in Britain’s military history. During the months that followed, Tolkien began writing the first drafts of his mythology about Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s letters, as well as interviews with him, not only make clear in what sense The Lord of the Rings reflects the harsh truths that he discovered during wartime, but also what ‘conversion’ means in a Christian sense. It is one of the reasons why Tolkien is adamant about his refusal to consider The Lord of the Rings as an allegory. In a letter from 1956, he defends the fairy tale as a powerful way to reveal truth – Carpenter, Ibid., Letter #181:
I think that the fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth,’ different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism,’ and in some ways more powerful. I did not foresee that before the tale was published we should enter a dark age [Nazi Germany] in which the technique of torture and disruption of personality would rival that of Mordor and the Ring and present us with the practical problem of honest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors.
In other words, according to Tolkien evil can only exist as a corruption of good (hence, “honest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors”). It can only exist as a kind of ‘parasite,’ but it has no ‘essence’ of its own. As such, evil never really ‘creates.’ It is a feeble imitation, a shadowy ‘mockery’ of the good. The Lord of the Rings profoundly reflects this philosophy multiple times, for instance when Sam asks Frodo about the nature of the evil orcs (in The Return of the King, VI, 1):
“Don’t orcs eat, and don’t they drink? Or do they just live on foul air and poison?”
“No, they eat and drink, Sam. The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison. They’ve fed me, and so I’m better off than you. There must be food and water somewhere in this place.”
It doesn’t get more Christian than that (see also below as to why). In his review for Decent Films, Steven D. Greydanus deservedly writes about Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings:
There is no possibility here, as perhaps there is with the two sides of the Force in George Lucas’s Star Wars films, of a dualistic interpretation of good and evil as equal and opposite forces, yin and yang, twin sides of one coin. In Tolkien’s vision, goodness is primordial, evil derivative; and, whatever tragedies and horrors may be visited upon this world, they shall not have the final word.
In this context, it is telling that Tolkien considers what happens to Gollum the most poignant moment in his story. In the above mentioned interview with Denys Gueroult, Tolkien characterizes it like this:
To me the most poignant moment of all, because it’s so terribly true, it’s the good people that do the damage so often.
Tolkien’s observations are even more powerful near the end of the interview, right after Gueroult asked about the presence of God in The Lord of the Rings:
Gueroult: “Despite the continuous war between evil personified in Sauron and good, you never personalize or personify goodness. Good is there, but it’s totally abstract. You don’t attempt to ascribe any Godship to it particularly.”
Tolkien: “No, there isn’t a dualistic mythology it’s based on, no. No, certainly not.”
Gueroult: “But I mean the whole book is nevertheless nothing but the battle between good and evil.”
Tolkien: “Well, that’s actually a conscious reaction from the war, from this stuff that I was brought up in, a ‘War to end all wars’ – which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.”
The fact that Tolkien did not believe in a war to end all wars would have been strengthened by his personal trauma of the First World War. It also explains a kind of conversion to a deep seated truth, a truth he discovered in his Catholic faith: when people deny their interdependence from each other and the whole of creation, they tragically and paradoxically tend to produce the evil they are trying to fight. The so-called ‘war to end all wars’ is yet another war. Violently expelling a so-called ‘evil enemy’ that is considered, in a truly dualistic sense, totally other than ‘the good guys’ is exactly the realization of violent evil that one is trying to avoid. All of those insights also explain why Tolkien wasn’t too fond of allegories. According to him, allegory gave birth to romance and its dualistic lies, with battles between so-called good and evil. In a 1944 letter, a little more than a week before the Allied invasion of Normandy, Tolkien wrote – Carpenter, Ibid., Letter #71:
‘Romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory,’ and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (external) life men are on both sides.
In her truly amazing biography of René Girard (1923-2015), Cynthia Haven refers to a similar insight of Girard, as this literary critic had his own conversion experience to Christianity, and the Catholic faith in particular. See Evolution of Desire – A Life of René Girard (East Lansing: MSU Press, 2018) – pp.116-117:
Girard argued that the great writers he was studying had departed significantly from the original plan of their books, and the final product was startlingly different. He explained:
“[…] The novelist of genius… becomes able to describe the wickedness of the other from within himself, whereas before it was some sort of put-up job, completely artificial. This experience is shattering to the vanity and pride of the writer.”
What was true for Cervantes was true for Girard, at one remove. “Once the writer experiences this collapse and a new perspective, he can go back to the beginning and rewrite the work from the point of view of this downfall. The novel is no longer self-justification. It is not necessarily self-indictment, but the characters he creates are no longer ‘Manichean’ good guys or bad guys.”
In short, human beings are dependent on each other. Autonomy, and more specifically the autonomy of desire, is the romantic lie par excellence. Human beings are interdependent, relational, mimetic creatures. When they deny this fact, especially in the context of desire and rivalry, they paradoxically, comically and tragically become each other’s doubles precisely in their attempts to distinguish themselves from each other.
(A feeling of) power only exists as an endless reaffirmation of the victory over, and thus rivalry with a potential threat. However, the one who is in power or the one who wants to take over power both deny the mimetic (i.e. imitative) nature of their desire, and thus continue a dynamic of potentially violent rivalry. At its most extreme, that kind of denial blinds a self-righteous killer to the fact that, by vengefully killing a killer, he imitates the act of killing and becomes a killer himself. He becomes the evil that he was trying to defeat; he is the double of his rival, equal to his enemy. Evil exists for as long as human beings give in to the (thus ‘sinful’) belief that evil is a different entity ‘out there’ (in ‘bad people’); something that lives totally apart from them and that should be annihilated.
As Girard observes in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, the writers of truly great novels are no longer blind to that dynamic. They see and reveal the truth behind the lie of romantic heroism and its sacrifices. Hence, “the novelist of genius… becomes able to describe the wickedness of the other from within himself.” Christianity, among other world-views, rightly points out that “the good of an interdependent and relational creation and cosmos is always first.” Evil can only exist as a ‘denial’ of that interdependence, as a ‘romantic lie’ of naive autonomy and snobbish so-called ‘differences’ between people.
René Girard and J.R.R. Tolkien came to accept those truths, and if Girard would have studied Tolkien and his work thoroughly, he probably would have considered Tolkien a novelistic author who dismantles the romantic lie. In any case, both authors are heir to age-old Christian theology, like the one professed by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his Confessions – VII:
It was obvious to me that things which are liable to corruption are good. If they were the supreme goods, or if they were not good at all, they could not be corrupted. For if they were supreme goods, they would be incorruptible. If there were no good in them, there would be nothing capable of being corrupted. Corruption does harm and unless it diminishes the good, no harm is done. Therefore either corruption does not harm, which cannot be the case, or (which is wholly certain) all things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good. If they were to be deprived of all good, they would not exist at all.
11 November is Armistice Day. Peter Jackson, who directed the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, also made the documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) about British servicemen who fought in the First World War. Maybe 11 November is a good time to take a closer look at that documentary from the perspective of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary work. And a little bit of René Girard won’t do any harm either.