Sunday 27 April 2014

Why is the Lord of the Rings so good at nourishing the spiritual flame?


While it is possible to interpret the Lord of the Rings as containing many Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, symbols and references - this is not obvious, and indeed any reference to the regular, daily partaking of Mass (which was the focus of RC spirituality in Tolkien's day) in the life of Middle Earth is completely absent.

Likewise, Middle Earth has many resemblances to the pre-Christian pagan world - except that there is no paganism at all! - indeed, no church or formal religion of any kind.

And in this respect, Tolkien's world is completely 'unrealistic' - at least in terms of all known earthly and human societies (which have always been very religious; at least, until the past few decades when the Mass Media has taken-over).


And yet, the Lord of the Rings is a spiritually awakening, nourishing and sustaining book - a strongly spiritual work - at least, for those of certain aesthetic tastes and a certain cast of mind - as I can attest from decades of personal experience; and as I can perceive from the speech and writing of many others.

How is it that an apparently non-religious work seems to be able to maintain a spiritual perspective in people, despite its almost complete lack of religion?


I think the answer is metaphysical - in other words, it is related to the basic set-up of imagined reality which structures the story and the ancillary material.

When people say that Middle Earth seems real - realer, in a sense, than this earth - this is what they probably mean.

It is not convincing characters, nor detailed landscapes and maps, nor the specifics of languages and history that sets Tolkien's mythic world apart from any other I have encountered; it is a step back from all that: the sense that everything fits together in a deep and coherent fashion.


And I mean everything fits together - from the individual pieces of dialogue and the micro-decisions of characters right up to the sweep of the War of the Ring and behind it the History which led to that war.

I do not mean that this was fitt-ed together - explicitly or deliberately by the author - but that it sprang from a comprehensive 'metaphysical' imagination concerning the whole nature of reality in Middle Earth.

So all the details - small and large - grew from and within that metaphysical imagination.


So we may read Lord of the Rings, at least to some extent, from a God's eye view - giving a comprehensive and detailed vision of what happens and why in a convincingly simulated world - therefore we understand the essential nature of Middle Earth (its meaning, purpose and relationships) in way we cannot understand for this earth we live in.

But the fact that it was written by a Man, and the preconditions of human creativity, means that there is a necessary - although very general; non-religious, non-denominational - spiritual relationship between Tolkien's imagining and reality.

Therefore, it is possible (for those who most strongly respond to it) for Lord of the Rings to work at a very deep, subliminal level for Christians and pagans and atheists alike (and, presumably, other religions too).


What effect this spirituality has is another matter: clearly this kind of deep but generic spirituality lacks the power, specificity and strength that a religion may have for a devout and active adherent.

But, on the other hand, it seems that many denominations and religions lack, or are deficient in, exactly the kind of spiritual depth and overview which Lord of the Rings supplies.

And such people may (often without realizing that this is what they are doing) compensate for this religious deficiency - at least to some extent - by a complementary and imaginative identification with Middle Earth.


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SFG said...

Makes a lot of sense. I do wonder if the popularity of the series and of the fantasy genre in general relates to the general spiritual barrenness of the modern world.

Of course Tolkien claimed it was a subcreation (sub- to the real one), and that humans like to make up imaginary worlds because we are made in God's image, and He made the real one.

I do think Tolkien's religiosity gave the whole thing a sense of wonder and medievality (word?), given as medieval people were religious and knew a lot less about the world than we do now. (I mean, medieval Englishmen probably thought of Frenchmen the way we would aliens...)

Adam G. said...

I think Pilgrim's Regress is inside this post struggling to get out.