The "Converted Heathen" and the Worldview that Shaped The Lord of the Rings
There is little need to introduce John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of the beloved The Lord of the Rings and other stories about the fictional realm of Middle-Earth (his so-called “legendarium”). However, for those who are familiar with Tolkien only from reading The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit in their teenage years, or even from watching Peter Jackson’s screen adaptations, it may not be clear that Tolkien was a profound thinker deeply concerned with problems of religion and aesthetics, among other things. Tolkien’s philosophical ideas and their relationship with his literary works are too often neglected, and precisely for this reason they deserve to be examined dutifully. I intend to examine the connection between these ideas and a certain long-standing line of thinking, which, through his literary writings, is presented by Tolkien to the modern-day readers who probably would otherwise be largely unfamiliar with it.
A particularly important point of reflection is Tolkien’s reconciliation of Christian and Pagan (Northern European) worldviews, which is a crucial gateway to his thinking; it will also allow us to specify the philosophic tradition to which he belongs. Indeed, for decades since the publication of The Lord of Rings, there have been fierce debates on whether it is fundamentally Christian or Pagan. There are numerous articles and monographs on the subject, of particular note is a Russian book by Pavel Parfentiev titled Echo of the Good News. Parfentiev uncovers the theological, anthropological, ethical and even political undertones of the Middle-Earth stories with great consideration and insight: he directly likens Boromir’s last words of remorse to the Sacrament of Confession and offers an elaborate argument to support this claim. Many of the scholarly and critical papers arguing for both approaches to Tolkien’s works are surveyed in Claudio Testi’s excellent article, which calls for a “synthetic approach” reconciling Christian and Pagan themes of the “legendarium.”
That both Christianity and Paganism informed Tolkien’s worldview is not surprising. A devout Catholic raised under the guardianship of a priest, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, Tolkien once wrote in a personal correspondence that “the chief purpose of life. . . is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.” At the same time, Tolkien’s professional and personal biography was deeply influenced by early-medieval Anglo-Saxon and Germanic texts, such as Beowulf, which he read in his youth. The spirit of pre-Christian Europe always remained dear to him, leading Tolkien to refer to himself as a “converted heathen.”
To understand Tolkien’s worldview and how it fused Christianity and Paganism into one harmonious system we must refer to his poem Mythopoeia (“myth-making”) and essay On Fairy-stories. Mythopoeia is addressed from “Philomythos” (“myth-lover,” that is, Tolkien himself) to “Misomythos” (“myth-hater”, as Tolkien refers to C.S. Lewis). The poem praises “the legend-makers” and claims that the works of these “sub-creators” (the term is used to emphasize the position of God as the only true Creator, who alone is able to create things ex nihilo) contain “the refracted light” of the Divine Truth. The author poetically expresses his disagreement with the modern positivist, rationalist worldview (“He sees no stars who does not see them first / of living silver made that sudden burst / to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song”) and sarcastically calls its adherents “progressive apes.”
In the essay On Fairy-stories Tolkien expresses his key philosophical ideas in more concrete terms. Particularly, he develops his concept of “sub-creation” in greater detail, offering us a new understanding of what it is:—it’s “making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy.” In order to become a “sub-creator,” a storyteller has to make “a Secondary World which your mind can enter.” This secondary world has to be convincing, lifelike—“the moment disbelief arises. . . art has failed.” This point is directly related to (as Tolkien himself acknowledges) to the notion of “suspension of disbelief” invented by the English Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge, who argued that supernatural stories must be written with ‘a semblance of truth’ for the reader not to be distracted by their implausibility.
In the concluding part of the essay Tolkien directly delves into the problem of interrelationship between Christian revelation and myth. He asserts that “the Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them.” In the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “Legend and History have met and fused.” Tolkien’s personal beliefs are expressed very vividly by the following statement: “God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves.”
Tolkien’s worldview thus attributes incredible importance to human creativity and myth. It must be clear now that the Middle-Earth stories (“legendarium”) were intended to be a “sub-creative” mythology (as the novelist explicitly confirms in his correspondence), which fused themes of Christianity and Paganism into one consistent system. But Tolkien is not the first author to undertake such a literary project. For instance, many works of Friedrich Hölderlin, the great German Romantic poet and thinker who was admired by Martin Heidegger, express a somewhat similar intent—to give one example, in his poem Der Einzige (The Only One) he calls Jesus “Heracles’s brother and brother of Dionysus.”
Neoplatonism and the Philosophy of Revelation
While Tolkien mostly expressed his worldview through works of literature, there were some predecessors and contemporaries with similar beliefs who developed their own philosophical systems. The harmonization of Christianity and Pagan myths seems to be a project shared with such eminent philosophers as Schelling and Ficino.
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, a major figure in the development of German idealism, who was also a close associate of the “Jena circle” of Romantic writers and thinkers, had reflected deeply on topics of religion and myth. His most significant works on the subject are Philosophy of Mythology and Philosophy of Revelation. Russian philosopher Sergei Bulgakov (not to be confused with novelist Mikhail Bulgakov) summarizes Schelling’s views on the relation between Christian religion and Pagan myth in the following manner: “In Pagan gods Schelling sees the images of Christ before His coming to the world.” In Philosophy of Revelation, Schelling writes, “Christ was. . . the light of Pagans. . . Christianity must have been present in Paganism, too.” In other words, the German philosopher believed that myths from pre-Christian times prepared a coming of the divine Truth, which was fully given to humans in Christian revelation.
In Tolkien’s mythos (particularly, in his posthumously published book The Silmarillion), a similar vision is presented by way of two-level theology: there is a being comparable to the Abrahamic God named Eru Ilúvatar and there are also the Valar, angelic spirits who “descended” into the world to labor there and to rule it on behalf of their creator. Each of these spirits “comprehended only. . . [one] part of the mind of Ilúvatar.” According to The Silmarillion, “Men have often called them gods.” However, it must be noted the Númenóreans (the great ancient people, “Kings among Men,” who were “in all things more like to Firstborn [Elves] than any other of the kindreds of Men”) were monotheists, as they worshipped Eru directly.[1:1]] The history of religion in Middle-Earth is thus in line with the scripture of Abrahamic religions which posits the first humans were, so to speak, “natural monotheists” who directly communicated with God and angels; it was later that mankind devolved and men became heathens. In Tolkien’s universe, however, pagan gods (the Valar) are, in fact, angelic beings, each of whom reveals to mankind a certain aspect of the one true God—an image of Christ,” in Bulgakov’s words.
Somewhat similar ideas were held by the proponents of “Florentine Platonism,” the name given to a 15th-century renaissance of Platonic philosophy in Italy. The most well-known members of this group of thinkers are Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (the author of the Oration on the Dignity of Man, the crucial expression of Renaissance humanism). Ficino, founder of the Florentine Platonic Academy, was perhaps the single most influential translator and commentator on Plato in Catholic Europe at the time. Ficino asserted the existence of “ancient theology” (prisca theologia)—that is, the one divine teaching, gradually revealed to a chain of philosophers and prophets. The greatest of them was Plato (Ficino’s interpretation links Plato’s Form of Good and the Christian God), and others such as Zoroaster, the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, and Orpheus. Ficino’s student della Mirandola shared the idea about “ancient theology;” notably, he is one of the first Christians to study Kabbalah. This concept of “ancient theology” developed by Florentine Platonists closely resembles Sophia perennis or the “primordial tradition” which is the central tenet of “integral traditionalism” as developed by the French author Rene Guenon. As the prominent academic scholar of integral traditionalism, Mark Sedgwick explains that,
“The primordial tradition is defined as a primary and genuine human understanding of the transcendent and its relation with the created world. It is a primal basis of all religions of humankind. Religions—for example, Islam and Hinduism—are different in their external shape, but share a common internal core, which is the primordial tradition.”
Polymath and mystic Johannes Bureus, who was a tutor and adviser of Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, devised a more exotic system which amalgamates Christianity (Christian Hermeticism, to be more precise) with Norse paganism. Bureus’s interpretation holds that the main gods of Norse pantheon correspond to hypostases of the Christian Trinity: Thor is identical with God the Father, Odin is God the Son, and Freya is the Holy Spirit. Bureus’ occult teachings, sometimes referred to as “Gothic Kabbalah,” were formed under direct influence of Ficino’s and della Mirandola’s writings.
Outside of the European cultural landscape we can find ideas of the discussed kind among the Sufis—for example, if we examine the works of influential Islamic philosopher Ibn Arabi. In Ibn Arabi’s thought there is a concept of harmony of inner content of religions. As contemporary Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr phrases it, “every prophet is an aspect of the Supreme Logos” and “[Ibn Arabi] came to realize that… to have lived one religion fully is to have lived them all.”
The thinkers surveyed above share with Tolkien a Neoplatonic intuition on the transcendent Absolute, which is intelligible, among other ways, through its manifestation in myth and religious scripture. However, while being influenced by Neoplatonism, Tolkien remained a devoted Catholic and considered the teaching of Jesus Christ to be the highest expression of the divine Truth. Cardiff University Professor Carl Phelpstead makes similar observations, that Tolkien’s “theory of myth-making and sub-creation develops organically from a venerable intellectual tradition that stretches back to. . . the Neoplatonists.”
The Link between Tolkien and the Russian Silver Age
The so-called Silver Age (roughly speaking, the last decade of the 19th and the two first decades of the 20th century) is the era of great achievements in Russian culture: there were numerous outstanding works produced in literature (especially poetry), in arts and philosophy. The Symbolist movement, inspired by the philosophical writings of Vladimir Solovyov and operas of Wagner, among other sources, was particularly prevalent in the country’s artistic and intellectual scene. Many of the thinkers and artists of that time were heavily influenced by and deeply interested in religion (actually, two of the most eminent Russian philosophers of the early twentieth century, Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky, were priests), so the Silver Age can also be said to be a pinnacle of Russian Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This beautiful epoch was ended by the Russian revolution and the rise of the Soviet regime.
Among the Symbolist artists and religious thinkers of the Russian Silver Age we can find some who hold the views surprisingly similar to Tolkien’s. Finding out and explaining in detail such similarities would be a suitable topic for a large-scale academic study, so here I shall limit myself with highlighting just a few examples.
Russian philosopher Aleksei Losev could be rightfully called “Philomythos,” or myth-lover. The importance he attributed to myth is evident in many of his works; among Losev’s books specifically concerned with the topic are The Dialectics of Myth and Essays on Classical Symbolism and Mythology. Reading Losev’s writings attentively, one is struck by a deep correspondence with Tolkien’s worldview.
In The Dialectics of Myth, Losev states that “myth is not a made-up story, but rather the brightest, the most genuine reality.” He strongly disagrees with the positivist approach to mythology: “myth is not a primitive form of science” which “even at the pre-historic stage of its development science has nothing to do with mythology.”
Losev argues for the distinction between “symbolic” and “allegorical.” In his view, a symbol is characterized by “a perfect balance between ‘inner’ and ‘external,’ between idea and image, between ‘ideal’ and ‘real.’” “In a symbol. . . there is not just an equivalence of meanings, but a substantial, real equivalence between ‘an idea’ and ‘a thing.’” On the other hand, an allegory is distinguished by the dominance of “‘an image’ of a certain idea.” It follows that, “[‘image’ and ‘idea’] are substantially separated from each other.” Losev considers myths to be symbols, not allegories. Moreover, he believes that The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner is not an allegory, but rather a myth, because it tells us about “a world as it is.” He also states:
“Chaos, Uranus, Gaia, Chronos, Zeus, or the seven angels, the seven bowls of God’s wrath, the whore upon many waters, Rhine, the Rhine gold, the ring [of the Nibelung], Wotan, Brünnhilde, Valhalla, etc.—all of these are the world itself and the world history. . . That it is why these mythical images are symbols rather than allegories.”
This is reminiscent of how Tolkien insisted that a reader shall look to his stories for “applicability,” not allegory. Applicability, as described by scholar Sara Upstone, is characterized by the “merger of the realistic and fantastic.” Losev would likely say that Tolkien’s literary creations are symbols, as you can derive meanings from them (they have applicability), but these meanings are inseparably connected with characters and things which have their own, concrete being and do not just exemplify or demonstrate certain ideas.
Tolkien’s vision of “myth-making” as an activity that allows human (in the capacity of a story-teller or an artist) to become a “sub-creator” and to strive for the divine Truth is in some respects similar to the concept of “theurgy” developed by Russian religious philosophers such as Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov. As Solovyov defined it, theurgy is a “substantival unity of creative work immersed in mysticism,” a “communication with the higher world by means of inner creative activity.” According to Berdyaev, “theurgy does not create culture, it creates new being;” therefore, “theurgy is art creating another world, another being.” Bulgakov strongly emphasizes the role of God in a co-operative theurgic act: “theurgy is an act of God in the world, although it is done in a human and through a human.” These words echo with the reason why Tolkien uses the term “sub-creation” and not simply “creation”: a human must always remember his role as a subworker of the only true Creator, God. When a creative person takes too much pride in his own works, a tragedy may occur, like in the case of Fëanor from The Silmarillion.
Dmitry Merezhkovsky, like Tolkien, is a writer and thinker who aimed to unite the worldviews of Christianity and Paganism. Merezhkovsky claimed that the Old and the New Testaments will be followed by the Third Testament of the coming perfect religion, which would combine “the truth about the Earth” (Paganism) with “the truth about Heaven” (Christianity). He asserted that Paganism was imperfect because it focuses too much on flesh and matter, neglecting spirit, while Christianity is imperfect because it focuses on spirit and forgets about flesh and earthly life. Merezhkovsky’s ideal was the “holy flesh,” the mystical union of flesh and spirit. Merezhkovsky’s vision is reflected in his literary writings, particularly, in the trilogy Christ and the Antichrist.
It is unlikely that Tolkien had more than a passing familiarity with the literary and philosophical works of the Russian Silver Age, so the similarities in his thought and the thought of the above-mentioned writers are to be explained by some shared influences and a general like-mindedness. However, the fact that an exemplary Catholic and British novelist and Russian Eastern Orthodox thinkers share quite a lot of ideas and convictions is a very promising sign for the future search of the common grounds between cultures and the separated branches of the Universal Christian Church.
The Topicality of Tolkien
The ideas of Tolkien and his like-minded thinkers must not lead you to believe that the novelist’s worldview was highly eclectic or that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are some kind of a stew mixing together various mythical themes in disorderly manner. On the contrary, the literary and philosophical value of Tolkien’s writings comes from the hard work he invested in achieving harmony between the Pagan and the Christian, the natural religion and the religion of revelation, the local and the universal. In the already-mentioned article by Claudio Testi it is discussed in detail how Tolkien managed to make this vision a reality. For instance, Testi examines Tolkien’s takes on pieces of Old English literature such as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, showing that the author of The Lord of the Rings was concerned with recovering the aspects of the pre-Christian “northern” ethic that are consistent with Christian morality (like the capability for self-criticism). Such an approach allows us to re-evaluate Pagan ethics and deservedly acknowledge its values (“the gold should not be thrown away together with the less noble metal”); Tolkien’s literary works realize this principle.
Far from offering its readers a mere “escape,” John R.R. Tolkien’s stories are valuable, among other reasons, because they exemplify the possibility of mutually enriching open dialogue between two cultural traditions (Pagan and Christian) which also respects their authenticity and keeps their core message unbroken. Just like Martin Heidegger gained inspiration from Hölderlin’s poetry, Tolkien’s mythology could have become a basis for philosophical and political projects seeking to reconcile Christianity’s moral universalism with particularities of national culture and identity.
In The Lord of the Rings and his other books, Tolkien revives and presents us the worldview of the days gone by, the gaze which sees beauty, order and hope in the world around. It is truly a gift to cherish, especially in the current day and age when we rush so indiscriminately to dispose of all things old.
Letter 310. In: Tolkien, J. R. R. (2014). The letters of JRR Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ↩︎
“English and Wealsh” in Tolkien, J. R. R. (1997). The Monsters and the Critics: and other essays. HarperCollins UK. P. 162. ↩︎
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1947). On fairy-stories. Oxford University Press. ↩︎
Op. cit. P. 7. ↩︎
Op. cit. P. 11. ↩︎
Op. cit. P. 11. ↩︎
Original German text with English translation by William A. Sigler is available at: http://billsigler.blogspot.com/2019/03/hymns-by-holderlin-onsy-one.html. For explanation of Hölderlin’s reference to Dionysus as “the Evier” in the German original text, see: Murrey L. (2014). Hölderlin’s Dionysiac Poetry: The Terrifying-Exciting Mysteries. Springer. P. 178. ↩︎
Bulgakov S. N. (1999). Unfading Light (in Russ.). Iskusstvo. P. 286. ↩︎
Schelling, F.W.J. (2002). Philosophy of Revelation (in Russ.). Book 2. Nauka. Pp. 86, 89. ↩︎
Mark Sedgwick (2020). “Traditionalism as Сritique of Secular Modernity” (in Russ), Intelros, 163. ↩︎
Nasr, S. H. (1964). Three muslim sages. Caravan Books. Pp. 117-118. ↩︎
Phelpstead, C. (2014). “Myth-making and Sub-creation.” In: A Companion to JRR Tolkien. Wiley. Pp. 89-90. ↩︎
Losev A.F. (2001). Dialectics of Myth (in Russ.). Mysl’. Pp. 36, 41-42. ↩︎
Op. cit. Pp. 64-65, 69-71. ↩︎
Upstone, S. (2002). “Applicability and Truth in ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and ‘The Silmarillion’: Readers, Fantasy, and Canonicity”. Mythlore, 23(4 (90), p. 57. ↩︎
V.V. Bychkov. Theurgy as a Concept in the Aesthetics of the Russian Symbolism (in Russ.). In: New Philosophical Dictionary. Available online. ↩︎
Berdyaev N.A. (1989). Philosophy of Freedom. The Meaning of the Creative Act (in Russ.). Pravda. P. 415. ↩︎
Bulgakov S.N. Op. cit. P. 322. ↩︎
Georgii Paksiutov holds a BA from National Research University HSE (Moscow) and a MA from Lomonosov Moscow State University, where he currently does research work. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.