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Tolkien, Providence, and “The Lord of The Rings”

Tolkien’s religion wasn’t a hat he could take off and put on depending on what he was doing; it was infused in every cell of his body.

A scene from the film "Tolkien". (Image: www.foxsearchlight.com/tolkien)

The new Tolkien biopic has sparked conversation about J.R.R. Tolkien’s faith. It is well documented how important Catholicism was to Tolkien, but how important was his faith in the composition of “The Lord of The Rings”? No LOTR, no biopic.

It’s often said that religious faith is absent from “The Lord of The Rings”, with the exception of a few short passages, including Faramir’s mealtime prayer at Henneth Annûn: “we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

But the role of an invisible Providence is everywhere in this story.

Everywhere? Not rescues by Eagles, as in “The Lord of The Rings” they are sentient creatures acting on their own or at the behest of other sentient creatures. Rather, what might be called “dark” Providence wherein seemingly disastrous events foster fortuitous, and sometimes glorious, outcomes.

Gollum escapes from the highly capable Elves, a consensus “disaster” when it occurs, now free to stalk Baggins. The “disastrous” fall of Gandalf into the Moria pit, his nakedness (he has nothing) and brokenness (he can do nothing) on the peak after the last battle with the demon, without which Gandalf the Gray would not have resurrected as Gandalf the White. “Disaster” when two of the hobbits are brutally conveyed to the borders of the only creatures that can contend with the goblins’ master, Saruman. That “disastrous” night when Pippin looks into the Palantir (Seeing Stone) and is almost destroyed, unintentionally drawing the Dark Lord’s Eye away from his own realm where the real danger resides. The “disastrous” assault by the monster Shelob that forces Frodo and Sam to re-cloth themselves in goblin gear, protecting them from being conveyed to the Dark Lord when rounded up by the goblin host. The “disastrous” decision that puts the maid Eowyn at the feet of the Witch King, and the final “disaster”—Gollum pursuing Frodo to the precipice of the pit of fire.

Where do such ideas originate? Judeo-Christian Scripture is rife with such “disasters”: the selling of Joseph by his brothers to the Ishmaelites, Paul’s commission to round up Christians in Damascus; in our own era, the Nazi and Communist “disasters” experienced by Karol Wojtyla, all and every one given meaning by Jesus’ “disastrous” death on the Cross.

All the imagination, erudition, and literary talent in the world are not enough to conceive of such an infinitely imaginative Providential Agent. Tolkien’s religion wasn’t a hat he could take off and put on depending on what he was doing; it was infused in every cell of his body. Only a man with such a deep and defining faith, with the knowledge that we must cooperate with “dark” Providence to achieve glorious outcomes, had what it takes to compose “The Lord of The Rings”.

Who will make that biopic?


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About Thomas M. Doran 57 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.

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