I would like to make the case that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series is one of the most masterful works of religious rhetoric composed in the last century.
As a work of literature, the famous trilogy is not usually thought of as “rhetoric,” let alone “religious,” but I believe the contrast between the aesthetic of the story and the plot warrants the claim.
In its feeling, the setting and story of Middle Earth are essentially pagan. The elves and dwarves come straight from classical European mythology. The rural setting and deep attachment to the land (especially the forests) is integral to pagan spirituality, in a way that it is not in — for instance — Christianity. Gandalf is an Odinic figure — a hooded wanderer, always traveling, mysterious, and an inspiration to others.
But the plot is not pagan at all.
What paganism actually is varies from culture to culture, and so it can be difficult to describe anything as “pagan” in any definitive sense. Nevertheless, a key element that distinguishes paganism contra Christianity is the existence of conflict which is “good versus good.” This is true in many pagan traditions, and is true in the relevant one from which Tolkien draws his aesthetic inspiration.
In Christianity, the primary conflict is between God and Satan, between “good and evil.” God is wholly and completely good, while Satan is wholly and completely evil. This good-versus-evil dynamic defines the Christian conception of the world, and colors the stories of Christian culture.
But when we look at Pagan stories, they are often dominated by accounts of flawed good facing off against flawed good.
There is no better example of this than Homer’s Iliad, in which both the Achaeans and the Trojans demonstrate positive qualities despite the existence of unlikable members in their ranks (such as Agamemnon and Paris, respectively). Achilles and Hector are both supremely noble characters, and yet they fight one another. This conflict is not condemned as “wrong” by the poet. It is accepted as a fact of life, and a worthy object of glorious storytelling, no matter how tragic the outcome, because life is tragic. But if we know that we are not alone in this tragedy, it becomes bearable, and perhaps we too might make great stories of our lives, facing off against others who are trying to do the same.
Certainly, paganism also deals with greater forces. In Homer’s poetry, the Gods themselves were in conflict, and not merely the good against the bad, but the “good” against the “good.” But in Norse and Germanic mythology, from which Tolkein’s work derives more direct aesthetic inspiration, there does exist forces of “evil.” Fenrir, the Giant wolf who seeks to devour the sun, is probably the clearest example. But though these forces exist, the prevailing subject matter of pagan myth and legend centers around kings and heroes combating other kings and heroes, each with their virtues and shortcomings.
The Lord of the Rings seems to invite the reader into this pagan orientation through scene-setting and world-creation, almost all of which is drawn from paganism, but takes them on a left-turn into a more monotheistic perspective in the setting of the plot: not one king against another (the more literal interpretation of what is happening), but that of goodness itself — the Shire — against evil incarnate — Mordor.
I had been sitting on this thought for a while, but today it suddenly clicked that Tolkien was not just gently leading the reader from one perspective to anther. In the process, he was also actively attacking the pagan roots of his world.
The central mechanisms by which Lord Sauron controls his agents are the eponymous “rings of power.” What I learned today which sparked the epiphany was the fact that Saruman — one of the four wizards of Middle Earth — called himself a “ring-maker” in the very moment of his turning over to the side of evil. Tolkien is clearly and thoroughly associating the act of ring-making with evil.
Why? What’s so bad about a ring? And what does a ring have to do with power?
What’s bad about it is that its pagan.
In ancient Germanic culture (the culture from which both Anglo-Saxon and Viking culture emerged), ring-giving was a custom among lords. They would give away wealth to their people, and in return, it was expected that those people would be loyal to their lord in times of need. It seems that over time, this institution became more ritualized, and the lord would give rings to his warriors, the rings themselves being precious, and the receipt of which equated to a pledge of loyalty to the ring-giver. It was by this reciprocal relationship between the lord and his warriors that the Proto-Indo-European speaking peoples conquered Europe and endured there for roughly 3,000 years.
There are many ways that Tolkien could have chosen to depict the forces of evil. But to do it by ring-giving, in the custom of the very culture from which he borrowed his entire world’s image, cannot be mere coincidence. Especially when the connection is made not once, but twice.
The Lord of the Rings — in its plot and in its spiritual dynamic and in its emphatic hatred of the political core of its own pagan world — is Christian to the core.
It may be of interest to note that the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, was converted from atheism by none other than the author in question.
What makes the book such a brilliant work of rhetoric is the way in which it begins with a plausibly pagan (i.e., familiar) perspective before shifting. It draws the European/American reader in with a kind of ancient familiarity, and then attacks the source of that familiarity without the reader being any the wiser.
All they read is that they live in a world of good against evil, and that the ancient power-dynamic of ring-giving is evil.