"Gnostic" elements in Tolkien?

Hello all,

I was stumbling through Youtube when I found this talk by someone that I’d never heard of before.

youtube.com/watch?v=eThDhHSW5Io

I don’t know what to think, honestly - he seems to be insinuating that Tolkien and Lewis’ works are “occult” and/or “pagan”, which…well, considering how staunch a Catholic Tolkien was, I find a bit hard to believe.

What say you on the subject matter?

:confused:

I’ve heard that line of thinking before, but almost always in Protestant circles (and usually “fundamentalist” ones). Remember that to some Protestant groups Catholics are regarded as pagan or polytheist. I don’t know if this guy is from that background or not.

It’s true that in the Tolkien mythos there are “gods” but they are united under one God, the Creator. His “gods” are really more like angels. Tolkien was also very highly educated in Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, which was obviously pagan, and he definitely borrowed elements from those storytelling traditions in his own. But the works are decidedly Catholic.

Do you realize that you’re asking people for two hours of their time in order to answer your question?

I think that the growing trend of asking people to listen to videos in order to have a conversation is rude. I don’t mean that you are rude personally, just that we need to push back against the increasing replacement of the written word by video.

I note (yes, I am listening to it as I write this, though I doubt I’ll make my way even through the first video) that the priest himself talks about having listened to Tolkien:p

Edwin

Hah. I’ll admit I did not click on the video. I’ve heard the line of thinking enough that I made an assumption about what it would say.

I do know what they say about assuming, though…so we’ll see. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’m not watching a 2 hour video on Youtube, but having read the books, any argument for it having gnostic themes would be a stretch. This is because:

  • There is a set distinction between divinity and creation.

  • The books are not anti-matter. Material objects are often viewed in a positive light and as being potentially sacred.

  • The books celebrate the idea of heritage and of creating new beginnings with future generations.

Interpreting literature is kind of like interpreting the Constitution. If you want it hard enough, you can always rip out a few quotes and stitch them together like a mismatched Frankenstein monster and present the appearance of an argument. If you gave me a cup of coffee, a notepad, and an Adobe copy of the Lord of the Rings, I could dish out an essay on why the Lord of the Rings is pro-Marxist in less than 4 hours.

Thanks guys, and sorry for simply posting the link, but I just didn’t know what to say.

I apologise for the inconvenience. I simply feel shocked at the accusation that one of my favourite writers might somehow be shut off to me. It would be…well, awful.

Low on substance, shallow, and contains an unfortunate tendency towards argumentum ad hominem. The swipe at John Paul II is typical of this mentality.

Unfortunately, I’m not a Tolkien expert, so I can’t give an in-depth reply. :stuck_out_tongue:

Tolkien based most of his work on Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Finnish mythology folklore and language.

I don’t know if this answers your question, but there are most definitly purposeful parrallels in his work and the pre-Christian thought and religion of the Norse, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and Finns.

I believe the “Silmarilion”, for example, is very closely based on both the Norse origin of their gods as well as the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala as pertains to the Finnish creation story.

There’s a transcript here:
rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-fantasy-writing-of-tolkien-was.html#more

OK, I’m nearly half an hour into this (because I get a morbid fascination from it and because I really want to help you out). He’s terribly longwinded (though I say it who shouldn’t). So far his substantive points are (in order of increasing substantiveness):

  1. The Beatles and other “evil” rock musicians liked Tolkien, so Tolkien is bad.
  2. No one has become Catholic through Tolkien (which is false).
  3. Tolkien disliked allegory and preferred myth–but the Tradition is solidly in favor of allegory.
  4. the term “mythos” is always pejorative in Scripture, and Pope Pius XII said that there are no myths in Scripture.

These last two points go together and are worth serious attention. It’s clear that Tolkien was arguing for a kind of “rehabilitation” of myth which went against how the term has generally been used by Christians. He’s right that generally speaking the Fathers liked pagan philosophy while rejecting pagan myth. They did recognize parallels and sometimes spoke of Christ as the true Orpheus, etc., but they tended to talk about the pagan parallels as demonic deceptions. Christians certainly did take over pagan myths and apply them to Christ–there are many early Christian depictions of Christ as Orpheus, for instance, and medieval/Renaissance authors did this far more. But he’s right that Tolkien was arguing for a new way of understanding myth.

So I guess the question is: do you find the priest’s simple listing of authorities sufficient, or do you have a more flexible understanding of development of doctrine? Is it possible that myth might have value that was hard to see at one time? Is it possible that this understanding of myth enriches the faith?

Pope Pius is clearly talking about a reductionistic, pejorative understanding of myth. But of course if we take that as the only way to understand myth, we have to reject Biblical scholarship that points out mythical elements in Scripture. If you already think you know that mainstream Biblical scholarship is just nonsense, then that’s easy to do I suppose! So the bottom line is that yes, if you take a strict traditionalist approach to the Faith, Tolkien is probably outside the pale (even though Tolkien himself loathed liturgical reforms and sounds like what we’d now call a “Traditionalist” much of the time). To my mind this approach to the faith is just clearly wrong apart from any consideration of Tolkien, but your mileage may differ.

One more substantive point that the talk makes is the role angels play in creation according to Tolkien. I remember years ago noticing this apparent discrepancy between Tolkien and Aquinas. However, in fact Aquinas doesn’t rule out a role for angels in ordering creation–what he rules out is the idea that angels bring anything out of nothing. That’s what creation is for Aquinas. Tolkien is clear on this too. Iluvatar, not the Valar, creates the world–the Valar just order it. And the sentient beings–the Children of Iluvatar–are clearly said to be made directly by Iluvatar. So I think he’s wrong that Tolkien is heretical here. He’s especially wrong in calling Tolkien Gnostic, since Tolkien is very clear that matter is good and not some kind of mistake. Aquinas was arguing against a kind of NeoPlatonism (akin to Gnosticism) in which God doesn’t create matter directly (because matter is too far “below” God) but rather creates spirits which then create matter. Tolkien isn’t saying this at all.

I hope this is at least somewhat helpful.

Edwin

You called?

I may as well start with Middle-Earth religion, cosmology and creation, and work from there. Eru is the only actual god in Middle-Earth (well… technically the planet’s Arda and the universe is Eä, but at that point it’s semantics). In addition to Eru, there are 14 Valar and numerous Maiar. There was also originally a 15th Vala, Melkor, but he turned evil and is no longer counted as one. Sound a bit familiar? While, yes, it’s stated that in Middle-Earth the Valar are commonly regarded as gods, they really are more similar to angels. Especially important to note is the fall of Melkor, which has a direct parallel to the fall of Satan.

While we’re on the topic of evil, I may as well point out a few more similarities. In Middle-Earth (as in our own world), evil cannot create. It can only destroy. For a Lord of the Rings example, consider the orcs. Melkor did not just create a new race. He only corrupted the elves until they were unrecognizable. In fact, the only major race not created entirely by Eru was the dwarves.

One last thing to note from the early ages of Middle-Earth (or again, technically Arda), is the concept of the Void and also of death. The speaker correctly notes that in the Silmarillion, death is described as a gift. While this, in itself, in contrary to Christianity, let’s look at a bigger picture. The elves, in a way, are more similar to us theologically. They’re the principal creation of Eru. They were created immortal and do experience a fall early in creation. That’s not, though, to discount the humans. In behavior, they really are similar to us. And as Tolkien himself pointed out, we don’t actually know all that much about the early history of men in Middle-Earth. The Silmarillion is about the elves, and men only show up later. For all we know, they, too, could have had a fall we never saw that brought death into their world. And as the speaker mentioned, there is no talk of any “Hell” in Lord of the Rings. Only this “Void”. Except the Void, in a way, is Hell. If Hell is the absence of God, then the Void is its analogue in Middle-Earth, being the absence of Eru.

Approaching the Third Age and the War of the Ring, the next thing to discuss is the One Ring and its owner, Sauron, the titular Lord of the Rings. (Surprise! The book’s named after the villain) Sauron is actually only Melkor’s right hand man. So in some ways, he’s actually more similar to the Antichrist than to Satan. Which in turn lends an interesting turn on the fall of Númenór and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Knowing that the One Ring represents sin, it’s interesting to see a sort of Antichrist beguile once-good men into following him, enticing them with sin. However, for the rest of this essay, it’s more useful to compare Sauron to Satan.

So Sauron’s mostly been defeated. Middle-Earth has still lost its way. So the Valar send five Maiar into Middle-Earth in the form of men to advise them. They are known as the Istari, or more commonly as wizards. Two of them, the blue wizards, head East and aren’t heard from again. The other three, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, and most notably, Gandalf the Grey, play a more active role in the War of the Ring in the west of Middle-Earth. And if you hadn’t guessed by the imagery I was trying to evoke, Gandalf is a sort of Christ-figure in the story. However, as opposed to Aslan’s near-direct analogy in Narnia, Gandalf only really plays the role of prophet in the story. Instead, Frodo fills in as priest, and Aragorn fills in as king.

Now as the speaker pointed out, there seems to be a dichotomy of good magic and bad magic in Lord of the Rings. Except the only real magic is used by Sauron and villains. All the “magic” we see any of the Istari use is actually angelic power. And elf magic is actually comparable to the Sacraments. Look, for instance, at lembas, elvish waybread. There are two notable events surrounding the elves and food. First, as the Fellowship leaves Lothlórien, they feast with the elves. Some of the language used there is actually reminiscent of the Last Supper. And much later, as Frodo and Sam are climbing Mount Doom, there’s a passage describing lembas. It doesn’t fill up up very much physically, but instead feeds your spirit and gives you the strength to go on. Words that I think are evocative of the Eucharist.

And finally, I point out the slight nod to Christianity Tolkien made in choosing dates. The day the One Ring was destroyed? March 25th.

Oh thanks. A few more points then:

  1. He condemns evolution based on other talks he’s given, apparently, but not based on any Church teaching. Of course, Pope Pius whom he cites earlier against myth also said that evolution was a legitimate opinion for Catholics to hold. That’s not really honest on his part.

  2. The point on death is actually something I’ve been thinking about recently. I find Tolkien’s doctrine regarding death powerful and personally moving, but it does seem problematic in terms of Scripture and Tradition. I would very much like to be able to reconcile it. One could argue, I think, that apart from sin people would have experienced something more like what is said of Enoch and Elijah in Scripture, and that this is what Tolkien means by death as a “gift” before Melkor cast his shadow on it. I would further point out that St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” refers to death in terms that sound quite a bit like Tolkien’s.

  3. I think Pearce is wrong to say that “magic” is simply “the miraculous.” Clearly, as the priest points out, magic in Tolkien’s world uses a form of natural causation and isn’t directly caused by God (though one could point to apparent similar examples in the Bible, like Moses’ staf!). The basic difference between “good” and “bad” magic in Tolkien is that “good magic” works with creation while “bad magic” works against it. Galadriel in FOTR is puzzled that mortals use the same word for what Elves do and for “the deceits of the enemy.”

One thing I think is clear: Tolkien didn’t intend to contradict any teaching of the Church. You can see this in the way he struggled to bring the concept of “Orcs” into line with orthodox teaching–something in which he never succeeded. I think that it’s a good thing to discuss the theological implications of Tolkien’s work in a critical but fair-minded way. This talk doesn’t do that, though:mad:

Edwin

This sounds good to me. :slight_smile:

While we’re on the topic of evil, I may as well point out a few more similarities. In Middle-Earth (as in our own world), evil cannot create. It can only destroy. For a Lord of the Rings example, consider the orcs. Melkor did not just create a new race. He only corrupted the elves until they were unrecognizable. In fact, the only major race not created entirely by Eru was the dwarves.

One last thing to note from the early ages of Middle-Earth (or again, technically Arda), is the concept of the Void and also of death. The speaker correctly notes that in the Silmarillion, death is described as a gift. While this, in itself, in contrary to Christianity, let’s look at a bigger picture. The elves, in a way, are more similar to us theologically. They’re the principal creation of Eru. They were created immortal and do experience a fall early in creation. That’s not, though, to discount the humans. In behavior, they really are similar to us. And as Tolkien himself pointed out, we don’t actually know all that much about the early history of men in Middle-Earth. The Silmarillion is about the elves, and men only show up later. For all we know, they, too, could have had a fall we never saw that brought death into their world. And as the speaker mentioned, there is no talk of any “Hell” in Lord of the Rings. Only this “Void”. Except the Void, in a way, is Hell. If Hell is the absence of God, then the Void is its analogue in Middle-Earth, being the absence of Eru.

In other words, the good Father making allegations of Gnosticism is talking through his hat. :smiley:

Approaching the Third Age and the War of the Ring, the next thing to discuss is the One Ring and its owner, Sauron, the titular Lord of the Rings. (Surprise! The book’s named after the villain) Sauron is actually only Melkor’s right hand man. So in some ways, he’s actually more similar to the Antichrist than to Satan. Which in turn lends an interesting turn on the fall of Númenór and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Knowing that the One Ring represents sin, it’s interesting to see a sort of Antichrist beguile once-good men into following him, enticing them with sin. However, for the rest of this essay, it’s more useful to compare Sauron to Satan.

So Sauron’s mostly been defeated. Middle-Earth has still lost its way. So the Valar send five Maiar into Middle-Earth in the form of men to advise them. They are known as the Istari, or more commonly as wizards. Two of them, the blue wizards, head East and aren’t heard from again. The other three, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown, and most notably, Gandalf the Grey, play a more active role in the War of the Ring in the west of Middle-Earth. And if you hadn’t guessed by the imagery I was trying to evoke, Gandalf is a sort of Christ-figure in the story. However, as opposed to Aslan’s near-direct analogy in Narnia, Gandalf only really plays the role of prophet in the story. Instead, Frodo fills in as priest, and Aragorn fills in as king.

Now as the speaker pointed out, there seems to be a dichotomy of good magic and bad magic in Lord of the Rings. Except the only real magic is used by Sauron and villains. All the “magic” we see any of the Istari use is actually angelic power. And elf magic is actually comparable to the Sacraments. Look, for instance, at lembas, elvish waybread. There are two notable events surrounding the elves and food. First, as the Fellowship leaves Lothlórien, they feast with the elves. Some of the language used there is actually reminiscent of the Last Supper. And much later, as Frodo and Sam are climbing Mount Doom, there’s a passage describing lembas. It doesn’t fill up up very much physically, but instead feeds your spirit and gives you the strength to go on. Words that I think are evocative of the Eucharist.

And finally, I point out the slight nod to Christianity Tolkien made in choosing dates. The day the One Ring was destroyed? March 25th.

:thumbsup: Thanks for posting this.

There’s an excerpt by a letter by Tolkien included as a preface to the Silmarillion. It’s actually quite an interesting read, because he explicitly mentions a lot of the allegory. In it, he actually does call mortality the Doom of Men.

Unfortunately, for some people, “evolution” = “modernism”.

  1. The point on death is actually something I’ve been thinking about recently. I find Tolkien’s doctrine regarding death powerful and personally moving, but it does seem problematic in terms of Scripture and Tradition. I would very much like to be able to reconcile it. One could argue, I think, that apart from sin people would have experienced something more like what is said of Enoch and Elijah in Scripture, and that this is what Tolkien means by death as a “gift” before Melkor cast his shadow on it. I would further point out that St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” refers to death in terms that sound quite a bit like Tolkien’s.

Besides, we must always give a writer of fiction some berth for poetic license; he wasn’t trying to teach theology or write a work on apologetics.

  1. I think Pearce is wrong to say that “magic” is simply “the miraculous.” Clearly, as the priest points out, magic in Tolkien’s world uses a form of natural causation and isn’t directly caused by God (though one could point to apparent similar examples in the Bible, like Moses’ staf!). The basic difference between “good” and “bad” magic in Tolkien is that “good magic” works with creation while “bad magic” works against it. Galadriel in FOTR is puzzled that mortals use the same word for what Elves do and for “the deceits of the enemy.”

One thing I think is clear: Tolkien didn’t intend to contradict any teaching of the Church. You can see this in the way he struggled to bring the concept of “Orcs” into line with orthodox teaching–something in which he never succeeded. I think that it’s a good thing to discuss the theological implications of Tolkien’s work in a critical but fair-minded way. This talk doesn’t do that, though:mad:

Quite right. This talk is the usual guilt-by-association, nudge-nudge wink-wink, throw-a-fancy-word (though he’s chosen Gnostic rather than Modernist) Jack Chickism of a neo-Puritan. I think the best response to it is to ignore it. :slight_smile:

Right–that’s what the Silmarillion says (though with the caveat that this is “believed by the wise” or something of that sort–the narrator doesn’t entirely commit to the theory). But as Christopher Tolkien has made more of Tolkien’s notes and jottings public, it’s become clear that he was never entirely satisfied with this theory–with good reason, I think (it implies that a) good beings can be forced to become evil, and that b) this can proceed to such an extent that their descendants are born evil and are irredeemable). He later played with the idea that they really didn’t move with a life of their own but only seemed to (organic robots, in effect), which doesn’t fit the recorded behavior of Orcs at all.

In fact, the only major race not created entirely by Eru was the dwarves.

Well, there are dragons and other unnamed “monsters”–arguably these were “corrupted” and not created, raising questions like those that surround the Orcs.

The Dwarves are actually a good counter-argument for the interpretation put forward in the talk. Aule “creates” the Dwarves, but all he can do is create a kind of organic robot. When they shrink from his blow, he knows that Eru has in fact given them life out of mercy and grace. Someone–I think Tom Shippey, probably the best secondary source on Tolkien–has pointed out that this is a kind of “portrait of the author”–Tolkien in writing his work is essentially saying to God what Aule says to Iluvatar!

One last thing to note from the early ages of Middle-Earth (or again, technically Arda), is the concept of the Void and also of death. The speaker correctly notes that in the Silmarillion, death is described as a gift. While this, in itself, in contrary to Christianity, let’s look at a bigger picture. The elves, in a way, are more similar to us theologically. They’re the principal creation of Eru. They were created immortal and do experience a fall early in creation. That’s not, though, to discount the humans. In behavior, they really are similar to us. And as Tolkien himself pointed out, we don’t actually know all that much about the early history of men in Middle-Earth. The Silmarillion is about the elves, and men only show up later. For all we know, they, too, could have had a fall we never saw that brought death into their world.

I don’t agree that the elves correspond more to us. I think Tolkien clearly intends his “Men” to be what we mean by human beings. And I think there is a real tension here–but it’s a tension within Christianity. From a Protestant point of view, one could argue that Tolkien’s view is more Biblical and more in keeping with the very early Church than what has become the Catholic view since Augustine. But Tolkien of course wouldn’t be happy with that himself:p

And as the speaker mentioned, there is no talk of any “Hell” in Lord of the Rings. Only this “Void”. Except the Void, in a way, is Hell. If Hell is the absence of God, then the Void is its analogue in Middle-Earth, being the absence of Eru.

I agree that “the Shadow” or “the Void” is in fact fairly analogous to hell and that the priest’s objections here miss their mark (though probably he’s committed to a fairly “literal” view of a fiery hell). Also, is it Catholic doctrine that demons banished to hell can never come back?

One thing that’s been puzzling me about this priest–why is he anonymous? Is he afraid of being assassinated by rabid Tolkien fans?

And one final personal note: the priest claimed that no one had been converted to Catholicism through Tolkien. I linked one counter-example above. But here’s, sort of, another:

As many of you know, I’ve been considering becoming Catholic for years, and have said several times on this forum that I plan to do so when I move to Kentucky (which is happening in stages–we haven’t moved all our stuff down yet, but are spending a lot of time there, and my obligations to my Episcopal parish in Indiana have now ended). And yet, when I came to make the phone call to the parish, I felt the same resistance and weakness of will that I have felt every time I’ve tried to make this move over the past 18 years or so. I had been rereading the Silmarillion, as it happens, and these words came to my mind (spoken by Melkor, the “Satan” figure, in the likeness of Amlach son of Imlach):

“The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West. You have followed a fool-fire of the Elves to the end of the world.”

And I knew that it was the same voice I was hearing telling me not to pick up the phone and make the call. So I picked up the phone and made the call.

That’s all.

Edwin

:rotfl:

I could think of other reasons, but it’d be uncharitable to post them here. :stuck_out_tongue:

More likely, he’ll probably have a revolt among his parishioners if they got wind of this… :smiley:

Not to mention that I have used the one quote by Galadriel about Elf-magic to describe the Sacraments. To someone who’s not religious, they may sound like magic. But it’s also unfair from our perspective that they also “use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy.”

One man’s opinion is not a universal Truth

That’s great news, thanks for sharing that Edwin. :thumbsup:

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