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Discussing: Religion--or the lack thereof--in Middle-earth

Religion--or the lack thereof--in Middle-earth

Amongst the discussions of how one might crown Arwen as Queen, all the talk of ritual and ceremony has brought up one of the fascinating features of Middle-earth: religion.

Or, more accurately, the apparent lack thereof.

For anyone interested in this, I very strongly recommend Hammond and Scull's (2005) Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, pp. 474-476.  Here they discuss "the Standing Silence" of Faramir's rangers, with extensive quotes from Tolkien's letters.  A few of the more pertinent sections:

Tolkien to Beare, 1958 : "there is practically no overt 'religion', or rather religious acts or places or ceremonies among the 'good' or anti-Sauron peoples . . . .  Almost the only vestige of 'religion' is . . . the 'Grace before Meat'."

Tolkien to Mifflin, 1955: "The only criticism that annoyed me was that it [LotR] 'contained no religion' . . . .  It is a monotheistic world of 'natural theology'.  The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted.  It will be sufficiently explained if . . . the Silmarillion and other legends of the First and Second Ages are published."

Tolkien to Hastings, 1954: "the immediate 'authorities' are the Valar (the Powers or Authorities): the 'gods'.  But they are only created spirits--of high angelic order we should say, with their attendant lesser angels--reverend therefore, but not worshipful."

"There are thus no temples or 'churches' or fanes in this 'world' among 'good' peoples.  They had little or no 'religion' in the sense of worship.  For help they may call on a Vala (as Elbereth), as a Catholic might on a Saint, though no doubt knowing in theory as well as he that the power of the Vala was limited and derivative."

Tolkien to Murray, 1954: "the 'hallow' of God and the Mountain [Meneltarma, on Númenor] had perished, and there was no real substitute.  Also when the 'Kings' came to an end there was no equivalent to a 'priesthood': the two being identical in Númenórean ideas.  So while God (Eru) was a datum of good Númenórean philosophy, and a prime fact in their conception of history, He had at the time of the War of the Ring no worship and no hallowed place.  And that kind of negative truth was characteristic of the West, and all the area under Númenórean influence: the refusal to worship any 'creature' and above all no 'dark Lord' or satanic demon, Sauron, or any other, was almost as far as they got.  They had (I imagine) no petitionary prayers to God; but preserved the vestige of thanksgiving.  (Those under special Elvish influence might call on the angelic powers for help in immediate peril or fear of evil enemies.)  It later appears that there had been a 'hallow' on Mindolluin, only approachable by the King, where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten.  It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he found a sapling of the White Tree. . . . It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard."

What we are dealing with here is what anthropologists would call a remote and transcendant high god: a Supreme Being who is so far beyond human understanding and concerns that there is little point to attempts to influence It through rituals, whether sacrifice or prayer.  If you consider the possibility--as in the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth--that at least some Men of the West have thought that they lost immortality through worshipping Morgoth, would they want to be caught worshipping anything but Eru ever again?  To do otherwise would be a sign of degeneration, of becoming more like other, lesser (in their eyes) Men, losing what longevity their fading grace might still give them.

This is a stark and rather comfortless ideal, and I fully expect that plenty of people actually would think of the Valar as gods, slipping towards polytheism in a sloppy, casual sort of way, but I do not think it would recieve any kind of official sanction.  If only the king can mediate with Eru for his people, and that principally out of the public eye, don't look for religious ritual to be mixed up in Gondor's power politics.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there can't be gobs of secular ritual, but secular rituals don't carry the same weight as religious ones, since they lack the sanction of the divine.

I think Tolkien did this very deliberately.  Religious ritual serves two main cultural functions: it provides people with a way to attempt to manipulate the supernatural, and it provides an extremely powerful way to manipulate people through the supernatural legitimation of certain persons, actions, and ideas.  Men attempting to manipulate Eru is clearly a non-starter, presumptuous beyond folly; and since the Valar are only His instruments, that's not much more use.  (Only Lúthien and Eärendil seem to have had any success in moving the Valar, and Lúthien had a strong strain of Maiar, through Melian.) 

Attempting to manipulate people through fear or hope of the supernatural is something Tolkien put very squarely in the camp of evil: Sauron was a master of it, corrupting even Númenor; and the Istari (Wizards) were forbidden to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear.  Even the Valar persuading the Elves to come to Aman is presented as one of those roads paved with good intentions that led elsewhere.  ("Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.")

It's all about making space for free will.  Make up your own mind, sing your part of the Song as best you can, and trust/hope (estel) that it will come right in the end.  I find Tolkien's "virtuous pagans" quite attractive.

 

 

Re: Religion--or the lack thereof--in Middle-earth

I find this (old?) post rather interesting. The lack of overt religious tones in Middle-Earth certainly saves it from a lot of the messiness that *our* world includes. I'm not very well-versed in anything, let alone Tolkien lore, but I think - correct me if I'm wrong - that the latest version of the Athrabeth that he left behind included some parts that very heavily implied Christian beliefs, i.e. the coming of Christ. And then, of course, Finrod dashes that to bits...but still.

Since the Silmarillion and everything that followed it were published after Tolkien himself passed away, I'm interested in your opinion of this: what do you consider "canon" concerning Middle-Earth? (And please forgive me if you have already commented on something similar in another discussion!)

 

 

Re: Religion--or the lack thereof--in Middle-earth

Yes, it's been a while since I posted that, but my views haven't changed.  Smile

I think - correct me if I'm wrong - that the latest version of the Athrabeth that he left behind included some parts that very heavily implied Christian beliefs, i.e. the coming of Christ. And then, of course, Finrod dashes that to bits...but still.

Oh, definitely an attempt to tie his created world into the world as he knew it!  What I love about that is that Tolkien put the suggestion out there, had Finrod doubt it, and then left it, unresolved and ambiguous, so that others could accept it or not, as suited them best.

I find discussions of "canon" and the emotion people invest in them fascinating.  The often dramatic differences between movie!verse and book!verse has thrown them into greater relief, I think, because so many people have come to Tolkien through the movies rather than his own words.  And then, as you point out, he wrote different words at different times, so that when you sink your teeth into HoME, things get fuzzier rather than clearer.

This is exactly what happens when you try to get a deeper understanding of, say, Anglo-Saxon England.  This text (written by a Christian Britain) says one thing, that text (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) says something else, while the archaeology shows something else again.  In situations like these, there is never really one "true" authoritative account of what happened; what you have to do is judge the relative value/importance of each piece of the puzzle and fit them together however makes the most sense to you.

And then you have the fun of discussing peoples' different interpretations, and why they made the choices they did.  Grin  (Okay, I'm a scholar.  This is my idea of fun.) 

What I look at is when Tolkien wrote something (later works usually supercede earlier ones); whether it is one of the works he published (found satisfactory to present to the public, these usually supercede private writings); and how well it fits in with his other writings (things that support or expand on published material usually supercede short "trying an idea" pieces that say something very different but he didn't follow up on).  And when things are still uncertain, I pick the version I find more appealling for aesthetic or other subjective reasons.  Smile

My area of special interest is Dwarves.  They are a great example of how complicated "canon" can be.  Tolkien's tone and attitude towards Dwarves is very different in The Hobbit than in LotR; in fact, that tone shifts very significantly towards the end of The Hobbit.  (I have a hypothesis that, since Dwarves were definitely evil in his earlier writings, spending so much time with them on the way to Erebor gave him a greater appreciation for them.)  So I have to reconcile the differences between the two published works.  Then comes the fact that some important writings on Dwarves were cut out of LotR ("The Quest of Erebor" from the Fellowship catching up with each other at Minas Tirith, bits from the appendix on Durin's Folk) to tighten it up.  And another important chunk comes in the middle of a linguistic essay he wrote to explain why Dwarves have Old Norse names, which goes into the relations between Men and Dwarves in the Second Age in some detail.

Fortunately, none of the post-Hobbit material contains significant contradictions, although there is a pretty little choice of creation stories with no real indications as to which one Tolkien himself preferred.  I like the version that says dwarf-women look so much like dwarf-men because Aule only made the men, and when Eru "adopted" them, he made the women as much like the men as possible to respect Aule's creative vision.

I suppose I don't really like the idea of there being a strictly defined "canon," although I do feel that some of Tolkien's writings are more "authoritative" than others.  Strict definitions are not conducive to creativity, and I am very grateful to the Professor to leaving so many loose ends for us to tinker with.  It's neat to see all the different things people do with them, even if I don't like all of them myself!  Laugh out loud

 

 

Re: Religion--or the lack thereof--in Middle-earth

>>What I look at is when Tolkien wrote something (later works usually supercede earlier ones); whether it is one of the works he published (found satisfactory to present to the public, these usually supercede private writings); and how well it fits in with his other writings (things that support or expand on published material usually supercede short "trying an idea" pieces that say something very different but he didn't follow up on). And when things are still uncertain, I pick the version I find more appealling for aesthetic or other subjective reasons.

I tend to do the same, sometimes picking different alternatives depending on the story. (In fact, as a reader, I particularly enjoy stories that use a different version than one I've used for the same subject.)

But with regard to the original post, Tolkien's outlook on religion changed as he grew older. In Lost Tales, a polytheistic world is much more in evidence than in later works. I know that he once stated that he conceived of polytheism as simply a different interpretation of the Judeo-Christian god (that this was how God revealed himself to such believers). It's in Letters, I believe - I know I've got it marked, and I'll look tonight.

I think that he came to see some of his early understandings as incompatible with his religion, and thus we find a good deal of reinterpretation and retraction in later works and letters. But there is a bit of support in those early writings for a more actively religious, hierarchical belief system.

Edited to add: the quote is from a lecture by Joseph Pearce on his book, 'Tolkien: Man and Myth' (which I don't have): "Even the pagan myths contain splintered fragments of the one true life which comes from God."

 

 

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