Guest post by Lucas W. Holt
Behind the Mind of Middle Earth: How The Lord of the Rings Presents an Imaginative Defense of the Catholic Faith (Part 1)
‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision’ (Tolkien in a letter of 2nd December 1953).
If one were to refer to J.R.R. Tolkien as a Christian apologist, they might be met with a look of skepticism. After all, Tolkien never really seemed to be outspoken about his faith. Aside from his works of fiction, much of his public writings and talks seem to deal more with his academic work as a philologist. He even once remarked that he was embarrassed that his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, dedicated The Screwtape Letters to him, for Tolkien thought that one in Lewis’s position ought not to be writing about things of that nature. However, while Tolkien might not have been a ‘Christian apologist’ in the traditional sense, he nevertheless has helped many people better understand the Faith through his popular work The Lord of the Rings. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has created a sacramental and Catholic universe that is a masterpiece for imaginative apologetics. Middle Earth is packed full of meaning and purpose. From nature, to food, to places, to events, to the characters themselves, everything has significance. Not only is this so, but there are also specifically Catholic elements in LOTR that point to the truth of the Catholic faith. In The Lord of the Rings the reader can taste and see what it is like to be Catholic by experiencing the relational dynamics of authority, glimpsing the Blessed Virgin Mary, and gaining a better understanding of the Holy Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. These four specifically Catholic elements work together in an imaginative way to point to the truth of Jesus Christ and his Church. In the following series we will step into Middle Earth and consider each of these elements in turn. We will begin by looking at the topic of authority.
An Imaginative Case for Authority
One of the specifically Catholic elements of The Lord of the Rings is authority. There is a hierarchical nature to the relationships between the various characters that bears similarities to the ecclesial nature of the Catholic Church. One of the scenes that illustrate this best is the Council of Elrond, which takes place in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is truly a catholic council, in the sense that it represents the universality of Middle Earth – elves, dwarves, hobbits, men, and a wizard are present. This also signifies that matters of great importance—deciding on what to do with the Ring—are not decided by one individual as if it were a dictatorship, but rather is decided by a group of people. However, within the group at the Council there does seem to be an understanding among the members of who the leader is: Gandalf. Elrond facilitates the dialogue at the Council, but nevertheless he himself says, “But these things it is the part of Gandalf to make clear; and I call upon him last, for it is the place of honour, and in all this matter he has been the chief.’” The outworking of the Council reflects, in a way, the episcopal college. The college represents the variety and universality of the People of God, matters of great importance are discussed at councils, each of the bishops has an authoritative voice, but it is the Roman Pontiff (even though he is the Bishop of Rome and is a ‘brother bishop’) who is the leader and is looked to in order to help makes things clear.
Indeed, Gandalf appears to have a kind of pontifical role throughout The Lord of the Rings. Not only does he hold the seat of honour at the Council of Elrond, but one can see his leadership in other instances as well. Consider the dismay of the Company once Gandalf falls at the bridge of Khazad-Dum. Aragorn yells, “Come! I will lead you now! We must obey his last command. Follow me!” Later on in The Return of the King at the houses of healing, Aragorn says, “But it is my counsel that Gandalf should rule us all in the days that follow and in our dealing with the Enemy.” Gandalf is perceived as the leader among his friends and allies. What is perhaps most interesting, though, is what Gandalf says himself. As he is speaking with Lord Denethor in Minas Tirith Gandalf says, “But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care.” Does not this sound like the role of the pope? The Vicar of Christ does not rule any realm even though he holds the keys to the kingdom. It is his job, however, to care for the happenings of the Church – and indeed the world (though not by himself!).
This hierarchical nature and the role of authority in the story present a counter perspective to the story told by modern culture. Whereas contemporary society exalts autonomy and individualism, the picture we see in LOTR is one of camaraderie and teamwork—a Company. There is nothing wrong with individualism per se. In fact, we see the individual characteristics of the Company very clearly. Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Frodo, Gandalf, Boromir, Sam, Merry, and Pippin each have distinct characteristics and personalities. But they use their unique gifts not in isolation to be a hero but in cooperation with others. Furthermore, each relies on the others not only during battles but also in answering tough questions—whether strategizing routes, planning alliances, figuring out riddles, remembering tales, and so on. It is when individualism is proposed as the only solution to answering difficult questions (who am I? why are we here? What is my purpose in life? Where are we going?) that it becomes problematic.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 250.
 See CCC 885.
 J.RR. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 331.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, 862.
 Ibid., 758.
Lucas W. Holt is a missionary with Spiritus Ministries in Menasha, Wisconsin. He holds a B.S. from the University of Arizona, as well as a PGDip from the University of Oxford. He is also the creator of Pelican Poetry, which is a literary project dedicated to restoring a sense of wonder at the world.