Tolkien expert Joseph Pearce delivered a public lecture titled “Unlocking the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings” at Christendom College on March 30, in which he revealed the deep, theological truths that permeate Tolkien’s masterpiece.
“Tolkien said that ‘The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,’ as if it’s obvious,” Pearce began. “While Tolkien said that his taste in languages is a large, important ingredient, he also said that more important in significance ‘is the fact that I am a Christian, which can be deduced from my stories, and in fact a Roman Catholic.’”
Pearce, an internationally renowned author or editor of over twenty books, including Tolkien: Man or Myth, pulled these two quotes from Tolkien together, explaining that the Lord of the Rings must fundamentally be religious and Catholic, and the fact that Tolkien is a Catholic is, by far, “the most important element in his authorship of that work.”
Pearce said that Tolkien created an allegory in his text, where not only the story of the Christ, but the entire history of creation, is revealed in a new, fantastical way for readers through the history of his fictional Middle-Earth.
“In the beginning of Middle-Earth, was the one. With these words, Tolkien establishes an absolutely essential part of The Lord of the Rings: it’s not an atheistic cosmos,” Pearce said. “Middle-Earth does have a god. But it is also not a polytheistic cosmos — it’s monotheistic, it has a One. There is a profound theology here in Tolkien’s work.”
Pearce noted further that Tolkien put much importance into names and dates in his fictional tales from Middle-Earth, another area where one can gleam the Catholicism behind Tolkien’s work. Tolkien created dozens of memorable characters that mirror Christ in their journeys, but Pearce believes that the real key to unlocking the Lord of Rings is the one evil character easily overlooked: the Ring. In the work, the titular Ring drives the entire plot, due to its needed destruction.
“It is the key to understanding the Catholicism of the book — specifically the date on which it was destroyed: March the 25th,” Pearce explained.
“I have given talks at Princeton and Harvard on this very topic, and when I mention the date of March 25, I typically receive blank stares. Here at Christendom, you understand the great theological significance of this date — it is the feast of the Annunciation…but also the day on which Christ was crucified.”
The Fellowship, which bands together to destroy the Ring, leaves for their journey on December 25 — the birth of Christ — and then ends the journey on March 25. By using these significant dates, Pearce explained that Tolkien is making a deliberate connection between this fictional journey and the Life of Christ.
By destroying the Ring on this significantly charged date, Tolkien made it synonymous with sin — the very thing Christ destroyed through His death. The Ring is symbolically sin when it’s worn, but a cross when its carried, he said.
Pearce concluded his discussion by examining the Catholic dimensions of other characters in The Lord of the Rings, specifically looking at the many Christ-figures in the book, and how these further reveal the Catholicism inherent in The Lord of the Rings.
While none of the characters are “one-on-one personified abstractions of Christ,” Pearce said, characters, such as Frodo, are Christ-figures in their actions.
“Frodo takes up the Ring, the cross, and follows Christ to Golgotha. He’s a cross-bearer insofar as he is a ring-bearer. He’s a Christ-figure, insofar as he is a cross-bearer.”
Joseph Pearce, the director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College, is the co-editor of the St. Austin Review, and one of the world’s most acclaimed authors. Born in London, England, Pearce was formerly involved with radical politics in his youth, before a discovery of the works of G.K. Chesterton led him to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1989.
This lecture was part of the college’s Major Speaker’s Program, an important aspect of the academic life at the College that offers the students and community an opportunity for cultural, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment beyond the classroom. Through the program, students are able to gain greater insights and depth of understanding of important issues, and to interact personally with a wide range of men and women who are shapers and critics of our society.
Listen or download this inspiring lecture at Christendom on iTunes U.