The magnanimous faith of J.R.R. Tolkien

The author of The Lord of the Rings wasn’t bigoted; he was big-hearted. Our culture could learn a lesson from him about how to hold firm convictions while having broad sympathies.

"Tolkien's Faith: A Spiritual Biography" (Word on Fire) by Dr. Holly Ordway explores the often neglected Catholic faith of the famous author. Right: The 1988 edition of "The Lord of the Rings", published by William Morrow. (Image: Amazon)

J.R.R. Tolkien, who died fifty years ago (September 2, 1973), presents a puzzle for our diverse and divided culture.

The Lord of the Rings is a worldwide best-seller. It has been translated into more than fifty languages, from Arabic and Chinese to Thai and Turkish. The film adaptations are loved by millions who have never read the book. Amazon’s The Rings of Power was the most expensive television series ever made, with a second season in the works.

Yet the contrast between author and audience is stark. A devout Catholic of a traditionalist mindset, Tolkien prayed to God in Latin, had a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and called the Eucharist “the one great thing to love on earth.” Most of his readership has no belief in or even basic knowledge of these things.

This is a paradox worth investigating. A deeply Christian man has produced an imaginative work that is fantastically popular with readers of all faiths and none.

Biographers have been reluctant to explore his faith. Humphrey Carpenter, author of the official biography, conceded the “total” importance of Christianity for Tolkien, but presented it largely as an emotional attachment to his mother, Mabel, who died when he was twelve. Another biographer, Raymond Edwards, relegates Tolkien’s faith to an appendix. Until recently, the Tolkien Society Facebook group banned all discussion of religion.

Why this reticence? Do people fear that their favorite author will turn out to be narrow-minded, even bigoted against those outside his own faith community?

These are questions I have tackled in my new book, Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography. What I have found shows that Tolkien indeed had firm beliefs, but he also had wide sympathies.

The Lord of the Rings contains a famous exchange between Gandalf and Frodo, when the wizard tells the hobbit, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” This helps illustrate Tolkien’s approach to those who didn’t share his religious convictions. He believed that all people have been made in the image and likeness of God, and have received the gift of conscience. Yes, he held that some “reject their chances of nobility or salvation, and appear to be ‘damnable’.” But he chose the word with care: “damnable” rather than “damned.” As he remarked, “we who are all ‘in the same boat’ must not usurp the Judge.”

When Tolkien first became friends with C.S. Lewis, the latter was not yet the famed author of Christian classics such as Mere Christianity and the Narnia Chronicles, but an atheist. Their friendship was never contingent upon Lewis’s conversion.

Tolkien’s own belief was clear: he was convinced that the Catholic Church had been founded by Jesus Christ, and that St. Peter was authorized by Jesus to govern the Church, with that authority inherited by his successors, the popes. But he also admitted that he had known priests who were “ignorant, hypocritical, lazy, tipsy, hardhearted, cynical, mean, grasping, vulgar, snobbish, and even (at a guess) immoral.”

Two things could be true at once. The Church, Tolkien said, was “dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and rearising.” It was not a home for the already perfect but a place where sinners could, by the grace of God, get better. Tolkien went to confession frequently because he viewed himself as someone in need of that grace.

Though he knew where his own spiritual loyalties lay, he didn’t draw firm negative conclusions about the moral status, let alone the eternal destiny, of others. Why? Because, as Gandalf observes, “even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Tolkien explained in a letter that Catholics must hold themselves to a high standard, but that any judgment of other people must be “tempered by ‘mercy’.” He used the “double scale” of rigor for oneself, mercy for others.

In sum, there is nothing to fear from studying Tolkien’s faith. He wasn’t bigoted; he was big-hearted. Our culture could learn a lesson from him about how to hold firm convictions while having broad sympathies.

Indeed, I suspect that his ability to strike that delicate balance is one reason his works have become so popular. Do readers sense that Middle-earth was produced by a man of magnanimous character? Is his generous spirit the secret sauce of its success? I think it’s not impossible.

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About Holly Ordway 3 Articles
Holly Ordway is the Cardinal Francis George Professor of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute and the Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Houston Christian University. She is the author of Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography (Word on Fire Academic, 2023), Tales of Faith: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel through Literature (Word on Fire, 2021), Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Word on Fire, 2021), and Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014).


  1. A fine exploration of Tolkien’s faith, his interior rigidity and exterior softness toward others. A sample of his acute awareness of the tragic anomalies in life concerns Samwise cruelty toward Gollum, at a rare moment when Gollum begins to show signs of repentance, genuine regard for Frodo. Tolkien himself laments “the tragedy of Gollum who at that moment came within a hair of repentance – but for one rough word from Sam”.
    As happens in life at times the good spoil the good of others by an implacable dislike of the fallen, a rigidity not unlike that which Pope Francis so often criticizes. So there is critical truth in that form of clericalism that affects priests [and laity], frequently thwarting the salvation of others [unfortunately Francis carries that truth beyond the bounds of justice and practice of the faith]. Magnanimity is that virtue within the spectrum of benevolence which recognizes good in the unvirtuous.

  2. Thank you Ms. Ordway for this tribute to Tolkien.

    I sense that his magnanimity was a grace-filled response of a man who, by the grace of God, persevered through a life of suffering so many losses so young, first as a boy losing both if his parents at a very young age, and then as a young man being thrown into the gruesome horror of the First World War.

    He and his brother we’re blessed to be given in guardianship to a beautiful priest-teacher who took them in when their poor mother died a young woman of 34 (if I recall correctly).

    May God bless all who have come to love Tolkien, and grant them a path, as he was granted, to know the truth and liberty of Jesus.

  3. It’s great to see someone tackling this aspect of JRRT’s life.

    Ironically, an early survey of American Neo-Pagans found respondents listed Tolkien and Lewis as major influences that sparked their interest in Wicca, etc. My admittedly limited observation of late 20th C Pagans concluded that they were disproportionately lapsed Catholics.

    • Catholicism, more than the other monotheistic religions, and religion in general, is highly focused on the other worldly, the meta physical. It would seem that those of us who abandon the faith retain that sense, even if faith in Catholicism’s understanding of God is rejected.
      Then, too, there’s background belief in witchcraft as an evil reality. Although, flying around on broomsticks, as depicted in folklore, and entertainment series, example Sabrina the Teenage Witch, that witchcraft can be fun.
      A telling anomaly is the banning of any reference by Amazon books, the Google search engine, of J K Rowling, author of the most popular stories on ‘friendly’ witchcraft, the Harry Potter series. The rationale in this censorship is Rowling’s repudiation of homosexual sex and ‘Trans people’. Fallen away Catholics would likely find interest in Rowling’s witchcraft fantasies. Man, who was created to worship the divinity, usually finds a means to express his inherent religiosity.

      • Despite what some conservative critics claimed, the magic in J.K.Rowling’s stories is not like modern Wicca or historical European witchcraft. It invokes no spirits or gods but is the expression of an inborn talent that is exercised by reciting a semi-Latin word and flicking a wand. The Harry Potter books are structured around alchemy, not pagan worship. Yes, some readers thought that schools like Hogwarts exist and wanted to enroll but then, some people think that characters in soap operas are real.

        I recommend critical studies on Rowling by John Granger and Travis Prinzi. I myself contributed an essay to a collection edited by the latter, HARRY POTTER FOR NERDS.

        Oh, by the way, I got started writing for the Catholic press 40 years ago this Halloween because of my knowledge of Neo-Paganism.

  4. Ms. Ordway will be the keynote speaker at the Franciscan University conference “A LONG EXPECTED PARTY: A SEMICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION OF TOLKIEN’S LIFE, WORKS, AND AFTERLIFE” on Sept 22-23, 2023. Registration is now open.

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