Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1

Catholic medievalist that he was, it is perhaps not entirely surprising to find the scholastic question of faith and reason playing something of a role in Tolkien’s mythology. Yet consistent with his paradoxical treatment of the question of God in general, the significance of the relationship between faith and reason in Tolkien’s writings is hardly straightforward. Tolkien conceived of his mythical history, after all, as belonging to a “pre-Christian” era, so that in his stories, as Tolkien writes in one letter, “there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies…” (L 220). In another letter he says of the Hobbits in particular that he did not think they “practiced any form of worship or prayer (unless through exceptional contact with Elves)” (implying that Bilbo and Frodo are two such exceptions) and of the Númenórean race of Men he says that, after their fall, “religion as divine worship” played only a “small part,” as when in The Two Towers “a glimpse of it is caught in Faramir’s remark on ‘grace at meat’” (L 193-4n). Similar to the case of the God of his mythical world, Tolkien’s intent seems to have been to make religious belief as invisible or unobtrusive as possible. Readers are accustomed to seeing profound acts of hope on display in Middle-earth, but not of her sister theological virtue, faith.

For Tolkien, however, one of the advantages of setting his tale in a mythical, pre-Christian past is the freedom it affords the author and his readers to revisit imaginatively and with renewed vision certain aspects of the inhabited world that have in modern times grown so familiar as to become “trite.” It was for this reason, for example, that Tolkien found the Arthurian cycle inadequate as a proper myth, as it was “involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion,” something he considered “fatal” to the true purpose of myth and fairy-story, namely to “reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world” (L 144). The problem with an overtly Christian mythology, in other words, is not its containing “moral and religious truth,” but that in presenting such truth in its recognizably Christian garb, already familiar and well-worn to us in “our present situation” (ibid), the original, transformative force and mystery of that truth becomes blunted. I would suggest, then, that for Tolkien the studied non-religious character of his mythology has in fact a deeply religious and even strategically apologetic motive: by approaching certain moral and religious themes in a mythological setting, his purpose was, at least in part, to recover something of their ancient clarity and potency. Included in these “elements of moral and religious truth” to which Tolkien aspired to provide a “solution,” is the age-old question of the relationship of faith and reason. Tolkien’s challenge, in short, was to address this question while at the same time making the question invisible; to make it a “non-question,” as it were, by placing it at a point in history before it ever had the chance of becoming a “question,” much less a neglected one.

5 thoughts on “Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1

  1. Pingback: Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 2 | The Flame Imperishable

  2. Pingback: Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 3 | The Flame Imperishable

  3. Pingback: Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 4 | The Flame Imperishable

  4. Pingback: Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, finale | The Flame Imperishable

  5. Pingback: The Possible is the Beautiful: Tolkienian Fantasy and Thomistic Beauty | The Flame Imperishable

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