Forum: Letters of JRRT

Discussing: Religion and worship

Religion and worship

From the HA Yahoo list, Adrienne, then Ang

I love talking about religion in any context. Considering all the
theorizing about how Tolkien's Catholicism influenced his writing, I would be interested to know what he has to say about the absence of organized religion in Middle Earth.



Well, this harkens back to a debate we had on list sometime in late
April/early May about when/whether/how to use invocations of deities
in fanfic.

JRRT's references are scattered (leaderless, divided) but there is
one that struck me quite strongly. In letter 156, he says:

"But if you imagine people in such a mythical state, in which Evil is
largely incarnate, and in which physical resistance to it is a major
act of loyalty to God, I think you would have the 'good people' in
just such a state: concentrated on the negative: the resistance to
the false, while 'truth' remained more historical and philosophical
than religious."

This was a summation of why A) there is no organized religion except
among the followers of Melkor/Sauron, B) the only place of sanctity
in the Edain are their graves and tombs, and C) why the names of the
Valar are never invoked, except in a moment of great threat and
crisis. "Those under special Elven influence might call on the
angelic powers for help in immediate peril or fear of evil enemies."

He is very careful to distinguish his stories from true faith
(Christianity, particularly Catholicism), but he is playing some
interesting games, as he alludes to throughout the letters. What
would it mean to live in an unfallen world? What if death is not a
punishment, but a mere condition of being? Where the presentness of
Evil renders "faith" irrelevant - you needn't have faith (though you
always require hope), because the the divine struggle of good and
evil is physically present before you at all times.

Argh, now I can't find a particular passage in the letters where he
is talking about why people don't pray because of the way in which
Eru is in the world.

Anyway, yes, the letters present both JRRT's engagement with
Christians who are upset at the theology of his works, and also his
own reasoning as to how the divine is present in Middle-earth.

trying to think of how best to get into this



Re: Religion and worship

There is a quote from 'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula Leguin that would seem to apply:

"The unknown," said Faxe's soft voice in the forest, "the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion... But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion."

So I would see many inhabitants of Middle-earth as not needing religion per se, because the truth is known and manifest. I would wonder if this truth was known to all, or whether groups of men isolated from contact with the elves would remain ignorant. Which would make elves and the men of Numénor the source of the true 'religion'.




Re: Religion and worship

What I've always found hilarious is the number of people who make pompous statements about how "uncomfortable" he must have been with fantasy because of its "incompatibility" with his religion, and how he couldn't really have meant there to be no "organized religion" in Middle-earth, he must just have been covering it up to make it more palatable to audiences. This comes from both Christians and non-Christians, and it goes along with the "magic in ME" natterings, and chiefly serves to demonstrate, to my great amusment, how many people would rather hear their own voices than ask the author himself what he meant...

Another listmember and I occasionally toss back and forth ideas on the Numenoreans for someday-Numenor stories, and a couple of times the lack of Gondorian temple-worship has been summarized in the vein, "Why do you think they'd have a problem? Just because the last time their people made temples it was to sacrifice dissenters under the aegis of Sauron?"

There was also a strong debate in Davidic times with the movement of worship from the old attitude of it being every "high place" where people went to offer sacrifices and worship, to the formalized structure of the temple, and nowhere else, which seems to me to be suggested in this question, vaguely, and much more strongly, the classical idea that the gods left earth after the golden age, but the last to leave was Astraea, who is Justice, and who can still be seen as the constellation Virgo, looking down on the doings of Men (that's why she's next to Libra.)

The latest in the suggestions of JRRT's supposed "discomfort" with the worlds of fantasy and theology was in a new bio I was skimming through, where the author suggested that the reason he wrote in "the gods" into the Ardaverse was a sort of subconscious resentment at Catholicism because of the damaging effect that the stresses of familiy fights had on his mother's battle with diabetes.

The fact that a pantheon gives you a lot of cool opportunities for poetry, drama, and character interaction didn't seem to occur to the writer, who seemed like most of such commentators to have far more "discomfort" with the combination of ideas than Tolkien...



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