Re: [mythsoc] Re: religion in Tolkien
Belated thanks to David, Sarah, William, John, and anyone else I've missed who helped put my question in perspective for my upcoming panel on Tolkien at World Fantasy. Between your suggestions and what I've read in Tolkien's letters I feel like I'm (hopefully) armed to say some relevant things.
If we're going to respond to Lin Carter - which I am about to do at
considerable length - we need to have at hand what he actually said.
Carter's contentious comments on religion in Tolkien appeared only briefly
in his 1969 book on Tolkien, which was focused on placing LOTR in the
context of the history of fantasy literature, rather than on evaluating
Tolkien's work. But his 1973 book _Imaginary Worlds_ was a history of
fantasy, and its view of Tolkien was focused on evaluating his achievement
in that context. LOTR had been so widely praised that Carter felt there was
room to emphasize what he saw as the book's flaws, and one of the things he
said was this: When he writes that "Tolkien's world has no religion in it,"
Iluvatar and the Valar don't count.
"That is not what I am talking about," he writes. "A religion is much more
than just the presence of an actual god, or gods; it is also an established
canon of inspired writings and an organized priesthood, a system of temples
and shrines, and so on." Medieval societies of the kind Tolkien used as
models had such an organized religion, he says, and other fantasies inspired
by them have had them to. Then he gives a long list of examples, from Conan
the Barbarian on up. "But there is no religion at all in _The Lord of the
Rings_ - no temples, shrines, priests, prayers, amulets, scriptures, ikons,
idols - _nothing!_ None of the many characters, not even the heroic
warriors, so much as swears by his gods. Obviously because they _have_ no
gods. Which is simply incredible in a primitive world of wizards and
warriors and walled stone cities." (Imaginary Worlds, p. 122-24)
The first thing that occurs to me to say in response to this is, "By
Elbereth and Luthien the Fair, you shall have neither the Ring nor me!"
which is what Frodo says to the Nazgul at the Ford of Bruinen. Luthien, or
even Elbereth, may not technically be gods, but from a Catholic author they
are definitely serving the function of angels or saints in this context.
Anyway, so much for characters not swearing by them. There are other
examples; this one is particularly memorable.
Secondly, Carter has a rather limited idea of what an organized religion
requires. The medieval Norse, for instance, did not have any canon of
inspired writings that we know of. Their legends and poems about the gods
and heroes were neither canonized nor considered sacred texts the way we
consider the Bible. The Jews, after the fall of the Temple, simply
abandoned the heriditary priesthood that had served them before that; even
today, rabbis are not really "clergy" in the sense that Christians use that
word; a rabbi is a learned man, not a priest. Some Asian religions, I
believe, do without temples and shrines, and the diaspora Jews also rank low
on that scale.
The peoples of Middle-earth, however, do have some of the "and so on" which
Carter doesn't enumerate. If they don't have a canonized scripture, they do
have the kind of stories of the gods and heroes of the past that customarily
appear in scriptures, even a creation myth (though Carter didn't have access
to this one, as it first appeared in _The Silmarillion_ which hadn't been
published when he wrote). They have some rituals, notably the moment of
silence before eating that Faramir and his men perform at Henneth Annun.
This, Faramir explains, is a gesture of respect towards Eldamar and Valinor,
so they also have a holy place. They have funerary customs and respect the
dead, a common religious practice. And, as Carter would say, so on.
What they have more than any of this, however, are aspects of religion that
are not dreamt of in Carter's philosophy. These are the moral and spiritual
content of religious belief, which underlie every action the admirable
characters take, and indeed drive the whole plot, because it is a spiritual
concern to rid the world of an evil menace, and not a practical
consideration to defeat the bad guy in the black hat, that inspires the
decision to destroy the Ring, rather than - as practical men like Boromir
would prefer - use it. I hardly need to go into this here, as so many
authors have done so brilliantly. The best source for this purpose is
Richard Purtill's _Lord of the Elves and Eldils_, because like Carter he was
writing before _The Silmarillion_ and proves his case, rather dazzlingly,
from LOTR alone. (Ellwood's _Good News from Middle-earth_, the other
pre-Silmarillion religious study of Tolkien, is a hunt for Christ figures
and new-age woo-woo, and even if you want such things, would not be suitable
for countering Carter.) Of more recent books on Tolkien's religious
dimension that consider the posthumous writings, I'd say the best ones which
still focus mostly on LOTR are _The Battle for Middle-earth_ by Fleming
Rutledge and _Following Gandalf_ by Matthew Dickerson. (The Birzer and
Caldecott books mentioned by others are OK, but these are much better.)
So the answer to Carter is that he's framed his question wrongly - what
Tolkien lacks is not religion, it's colorful religious trappings - and even
taken as Carter frames it, his charge is not entirely true. But
nevertheless, his observations are not entirely hallucinatory, so we can
also raise the questions of whether what he sees is, as he claims, "simply
incredible," and of why Tolkien writes it this way. But these are further
observations on the topic, not directly answers to Carter, because they
attempt only to explain the case; they don't answer it.
>From an external, author-based perspective, we can say that Tolkien couldn't
have his pre-Christian characters be Christians, for obvious chronological
reasons, but he didn't want to have them worshipping false gods, so he made
them the virtuous pagans of (mostly hypothetical) Christian theology. Some
of the authors on religion in Tolkien go into this point.
>From an internal, character-based perspective, though, there's an answer so
breath-taking that, again, it is not dreamt of in Carter's philosophy. The
reason his pagan warriors don't worship false gods is that, through the
Elves, and they through the Valar, have unfiltered access to the truth about
the spiritual universe. (The truth as Tolkien sees it, of course, but as an
author he has the right to make his Catholic theology the unfettered truth
within his own fiction.) They don't need false gods; they have the real
God. They don't need priests and rituals and so on; they have a closeness
to the divine that few today are fortunate enough to experience. That
palpable sense is part of what makes LOTR such an inspiring book.
That's what I would say if I were on Ellen's panel, and I hope it helps.