Tolkien’s model

My wife and I have been reading through Lord of the Rings aloud and one of the things that I noticed is the lack of religion in Middle Earth. So when Joel shared this link on Google Reader, I read with interest. Here is John C. Wright’s explanation:

It is to be noted that many critics faulted Tolkien for not including anywhere in Middle Earth any description or hint of rituals, rites, temples and cults with adorn the vivid backdrops of other works of fantasy. Except for a few indirect hints that there is a High God somewhere, and angelic powers the elves revere, Lord of the Rings is perhaps unique among fantasies in that there is no mention of the religious side of society or the spiritual side of man.

But, of course, Tolkien is not unique: he is following BEOWULF. The poet of BEOWULF (so Tolkien interpreted the evidence) wished to depict his pre-Christian ancestors in the admirable light men are right to have for their ancestors, but without attributing to them a Christian faith they could not have had.

In these modern times, when Christian and Postchristian struggle for the souls of men, and the popular picture of the Christian is of a book-burner rather than the preserver of pagan literature, it is often hard to recall the respect with which the Christian imagination held their pagan fore-bearers and preserved their works. One need only open any random page of Dante or Milton, for example, to see the thickly clustered references to pagan myths reflected with considerably more reverence than more modern and sarcastic depictions of the gods of old.

As with Roman Christian and the classical pagans, so with Old English and his Norse fathers, at least in this case. The way the poet of BEOWULF handled the delicate matter of showing the old days and the old ways as noble but, deprived of Christ, doomed, was to pass over the differences in a pregnant silence, and yet emphasizing those cardinal virtues that pagans and Christian alike admire, particularly fortitude and honor.

So too here did Tolkien with his Middle Earth and their peoples: the foremost virtue emphasized again and again in Tolkien was the Beowulfian virtue of continuing a fight even after all hope is exhausted. The melancholy pronouncements of gloom and doom are scattered throughout the War of the Ring, yet also match the elegiac quality of Beowulf‘s last battle against the dragon of the barrow, and much of the tone in side tales mentioned in Beowulf.

Check out the whole thing if you’re a Tolkien fan.

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4 comments

  1. I didn’t know what that was, but I just looked it up and saw that it’s part of Rhe Silmarillion. I think that we are planning to read that next, so I will look forward to that part.

  2. That’s an excellent article by Wright; thanks so much for sharing it. As a huge fan of LOTR and Beowulf, I’ve been reasonably aware of their similarities and influences, but it’s always nice to see someone really approach it with a scholarly (but not snobbish) attitude.

    The Akallabeth does have more references to religion, though still not much. As I remember, it has to do with the Numenorean religion that originally worshiped Iluvatar, but eventually got corrupted, leading to their downfall. Fascinating stuff.

  3. We’re slowly going through The Silmarillion now and it’s neat to see how he imagines the beginnings of Middle Earth, seeing the similarities and differences with the Bible as well as with pagan myths.

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