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Virtuella's Idiosyncratic Literary Criticisms  by Virtuella

Creativity as an Emulation of the Creator. A Christian Perspective on Tolkien

When I first read LOTR as a very pious teenager, I was slightly troubled or at least disappointed by the apparent absence of religion from this world that fascinated me so much. Reading the Silmarillion a bit later appeased that unease to a certain degree, and later in life, when I had developed more liberal religious views as well as a more sophisticated attitude towards fiction, it didn’t seem to matter very much anymore. But recently I have come across various attempts to identify explicitly or at least implicitly Christian elements in the works of Tolkien, and I think the idea deserves closer scrutiny.

There appears to be a general notion among some people that because Tolkien was a devout Catholic, his work would have to contain Christian elements almost by default. I will argue that this is not the case and that such an endeavour does not do justice either to Christian theology nor to the works of Tolkien.

The most obvious and in my opinion the most misleading incident of this endeavour is the identification of Eru Ilúvatar with the Judaeo-Christian god.

The fact that there is a One God mentioned in the Silmarillion does not in itself indicate that this God is identical with or even in any way similar to the god of the biblical tradition. We need to ask what this god is like in order to establish his relationship with the biblical god.

Eru Ilúvatar creates a world out of nothing, just like the biblical god in Genesis 1. However, he then leaves the care of his creation to the Ainur and concerns himself no further with the fate of his world. While he creates sentient beings, there is no mentioning that he relates personally to any of those “Children of Ilúvatar.” This makes him a deistic god. The biblical god, though, is a theistic god and his Hebrew name translates roughly as “I shall be there for you.” His most striking feature is his passionate desire to relate to the people he created. Biblical tradition shows God again and again as actively involved in human history, relating lovingly and intensely to individual human beings and taking sides in conflict by standing up for the downtrodden. He is a god who has a lot to say to his creatures. There is not a trace of this god discernable in Eru Ilúvatar. If anything, the divine setting presented in the Silmarillion structurally resembles that of Hinduism, with Eru Ilúvatar as Brahman and the Ainur as the various deva who can interact with humans in the shape of an avatar. It does not matter if Tolkien himself intended Eru Ilúvatar as a representative of the Christian god – in this case the theologian’s finding is that the intention has not succeeded. Historically, it is not uncommon that the Christian god has been described in abstract and sterile philosophical terms by deliberately or naively ignoring the concrete biblical portrait. Eru Ilúvatar is such an abstract and sterile philosophical concept. Tolkien may or may not have meant for him to “be” the Judaeo-Christian god. But he isn’t, because he does not relate. Neither do the Ainur for most of the time. This is, incidentally, the explanation for the absence of religious observance in LOTR. People don’t pray, because basically people and God don’t talk to each other.

A second, apparently obvious line of interpretation is that Frodo is a messianic figure. This seems, on the surface, logical. Frodo is, after all, willing to give his life in order to save the world. But this identification works only with a fairly generalized, popular understanding of the term “messiah.” On closer inspection Frodo fits neither the Jewish concept of the Messiah, not the reinterpretation of this concept in the New Testament.

Frodo takes on the quest for a variety of reasons, including generosity, a sense of obligation and a sense of inevitability. The quest requires him to fulfill a physical task in order to remove a physical danger and his success means that the world can stay pretty much the way it is, just a bit nicer and without the threat of destruction. The biblical concepts of the Messiah and the messianic age are, however, at core concepts of radical transformation. Whether one looks at the Old Testament vision of the Messiah as a military and political liberator or the more spiritual messianic concept of the New Testament, the crucial point is that both imply the establishment of an egalitarian Utopia. In LOTR, however, the hierarchical structures of society remain intact after the defeat of Sauron and there is no indication that the boundaries of race, class and gender are going to be transcended (other than possibly in an entirely private sort of way, like the friendship between Frodo and Sam.) Frodo neither ushers in an alternative, transformatory reality, nor does his quest relate to people’s spiritual salvation. He is therefore not a Messiah figure in the biblical sense. Rather, he is a hero, albeit an untypical one. Aragorn, who as an army leader and later a king at least fits the Old Testament model of the Messiah, likewise brings neither spiritual salvation nor a transformation of the social order. On the contrary, his reign reinstates and confirms the superiority of the Men of Numenorean descend over the “lesser” men.

There is no concept of spiritual salvation in LOTR, which is another Christian idea that one might have expected to find. On the contrary, Middle-earth features a range of creatures that are explicitly excluded from redemption: orcs, trolls and all those other “servants of the enemy.” While there is a certain notion of compassion and forgiveness represented in Gandalf and his hope for Gollum’s recovery and in Aragorn’s attempts to make peace with the Haradrim, it should be noted that in LOTR by and large evil is by no means overcome with love and goodness, but defeated with the sword. The enemies are neither redeemed nor converted, they are killed.

One might try to make a case for Christian morality playing a role in LOTR, because there is, after all, the conflict between Good and Evil and the issue of temptation. However, neither of these are actually specifically Christian. Dualism comes into many religions, especially those of the Western tradition. Those elements that would identify the conflict in LOTR as specifically Christian are again absent, in particular, as I said above, the idea that Evil is overcome by gentleness, love, forgiveness and an ethic of turning the other cheek. Throwing the One Ring into Mount Doom was a clever move, but is strictly speaking an act of destruction, and beyond that the only answer the people of Middle-earth seem to have to the threat of evil is to meet it with violence. This has, of course, to do with the fact that in LOTR, Evil is embodied in the fundamentally Other, whereas Christian ethics see Evil as a tendency within ourselves.

Another point is to look at what it is that is perceived as Evil. A central aspect of biblical morality, which is particularly prominent in the New Testament, is the question of money, greed and economy in general. Contrary to popular belief, New Testament morality has very little interest in our sexual conduct, but very much interest in how we handle our money. But we never hear of Sauron or Saruman piling up riches, simply because the whole issue of money and economy is one of the very few aspects of Tolkien’s world that is decidedly underdeveloped. Hence a core aspect of Christian morality – the ­core aspect some might argue – plays no role in LOTR, because the related area of life seems to have been of little interest to Tolkien, at least in his role as a story teller. Desire for Power and cruelty are the hallmark of Evil in LOTR, while greed plays a minor, if any role, and exploitative economic structures (most of Middle-earth seems to operate on some kind of feudal system) are taken for granted rather than challenged.

But surely, I hear many readers say, the idea of the afterlife is a very Christian one? However, that is also incorrect. Strictly speaking, the soul going to heaven is not a Christian concept, but one that has developed in Western societies under the influence of the Gnosis and of Greek dualist thinking. The biblical tradition does not imply the dualism of body and soul. Christian doctrine, whether liberal Christians like it or not (I don’t) is the complete death of the entire person and the complete resurrection of the entire person.

So, yes, there is a god in Tolkien’s work, and an afterlife, and a morality, but none of these are specifically Christian. Rather, such elements are standard fittings for most religions (and of most fictional worlds!), , so at the most one might say that Tolkien’s work is somewhat religious, but certainly not representative of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Having drawn a blank in the areas of concept of God, concept of salvation, religious observance and morality, what’s left? There are, indeed, a few Christian motifs dotted around in LOTR, most prominently the “resurrection” of Gandalf. But these are just motifs, traditional building blocks for the story teller, and Tolkien uses far more Pagan or Classical motifs than Christian ones. They cannot be taken as a proof for a specifically Christian theme or message in LOTR, otherwise one would have to say by the same token that Tolkien was promoting Paganism.

Yet Tolkien was clearly a very religious man, and it is hard to imagine that he would dedicate the work of a lifetime to a project that did not in some way reflect his faith. I believe, though, that we need to look at his work from quite a different angle in order to see that reflection. Tolkien, as he emphasizes in the foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring, had a thorough dislike for allegory. This distinguishes him clearly from C.S.Lewis and wards off any attempts at allegorical interpretation of his work. It seems therefore unreasonable to look for Christian aspects in the plot, themes or characters of LOTR. That is not an endeavour he would have appreciated. His own perspective on the issue was more profound and, I think, more inspiring.

One of the central tenets of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is that humans are made in the image of the creator. This belief comes with a number of implications, of which only one interests me in this context. If humans are made in the image of the creator, it means that humans, by their very nature, are creators, too. It is by being creative that we emulate God and fulfil our god-likeness. Tolkien understood this and it is this understanding that provides the link between his faith and his work.

The term Tolkien uses for this process is “sub-creation.” Because we are made in the image of a creator, it can be seen as an act of worship to create and add to the overall variety and beauty of God’s world. In the creation of Arda, a complete world of great beauty, detail and variety, Tolkien has proved himself a creator of the highest standard. His world is fully furnished with its own geology, geography, history, mythology, sociology, flora, fauna, a plethora of cultures and, of course, a number of original languages. It is a world that has both breadth and depth. Moreover it is, in line with Genesis 1, a creation by the word.

When I was a teenager, I collected photographs of landscapes that I felt resembled places Tolkien describes in LOTR. I read somewhere that Tolkien fans are more likely to pin a map of Middle-earth on their bedroom wall than a picture of Frodo. I think that says a lot. The world he created, its landscapes and cultures, the sweeping vistas he describes in his prose, have always been the most compelling aspect of his work to me. His characters, plots and use of language all have some very obvious flaws and I doubt that LOTR would have had the same success if it hadn’t been for the appeal of Middle-earth as a place. I think it is not by chance that the narrative frame for the plot of LOTR is a journey through this place. I also believe the popularity of the LOTR fandom with fanfiction writers has much to do with the fact that Tolkien’s is one of the most attractive and inspiring sandboxes around.

One might argue that many people who are neither Christians nor otherwise religious are also great creators. This is true. But the claim of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is that all humans are made in the image of the creator, not only those who are believers. Creativity is considered one of the hallmarks of the human condition, which applies to believers and non-believers alike. The fact that non-believers are also creators confirms rather than disproves this claim. What then, one might ask, is the difference between the creativity of the believer and of the non-believer?  The difference, I think, lies in the interpretative concept of the god-like nature of creativity and in the conscious effort to contribute with one’s creativity to the overall beauty and variety of God’s creation, much in the way Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated his music to the greater glory of God.

There may be weaknesses in the concept of sub-creation, but on the whole I think that not only does the notion of the author as a believer emulating the creator describe the religious aspect of Tolkien’s work better than any other explanation I’ve come across, but it is also encouraging for those of us who, like myself, are Christians but do not wish to write explicitly or even implicitly about Christian themes. As long as we create, and care for our creations, we’re doing just fine.


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