Only twice have I had a live discussion with someone about Tolkien’s religion, and in both cases my interlocutor was convinced that Tolkien was an atheist. Each time, he said it with such casual conviction that I am led to believe this must be a common mistake, something in the air.
The first such discussion was with a committed atheist — a dogged atheist. (The very doggedness of his atheism, the way he trudges forward with grim determination to disbelieve God, makes me think he is perhaps on his way to theism… persisting in folly can end in wisdom … but who am I to say such a thing?) This conversation happened before I read much about Tolkien as a man. I had read his three major works, including a few times through the Lord of the Rings, and considered myself very much a fan. But I had not read in-depth, nor studied Tolkien’s own commentaries, nor read about his life and work. I had managed to pick up somewhere that Tolkien was a Christian, but it was just something I had heard vaguely, not something I knew.
In the course of a discussion with the dogged atheist, then, I happened to mention that Tolkien was a Christian. “Yeah, I know he was born Christian,” said he, “but he died an atheist.”
This didn’t sound right, but he said it with such flat finality that I was stymied. All I offered was, “I’m not so sure about that,” and we moved the discussion elsewhere.
I had brought it up in the first place because this man was a huge fan of Tolkien. He loved the Lord of the Rings and had shared my same nervousness that the films would be a betrayal of the books, and my same general relief that the films were actually quite good despite some flaws. I wanted to know what he thought of one of his favorite authors being a Christian. (Perhaps it sounds like I was trying to convert him. Certainly, I was not. I am in no position to convert anyone to anything. But I was fascinated by cognitive dissonance and was wondering how it reflected on my own, often equally-dissonant thoughts and beliefs.) I still never got an answer on that one.
[This discussion prompted me to look up the truth about Tolkien, and learning the truth prompted me to read much more about him, to re-read his books, to read some of his minor works, to pay the Silmarillion the attention it deserves for the first time (my first reading had been very desultory), to listen to Tolkien lectures, etc. I am now much better informed about, and indeed better illuminated by, Tolkien’s life and work.]
The second discussion was one I had more recently with a bartender. I had with me on the bar Tom Shippey’s book about Tolkien and also CS Lewis’s Perelandra. In the course of friendly bar-banter, he asked me what I was reading. He seemed to know that Lewis was a Christian (who does not know this?) and then added, “But Tolkien was an atheist, right?”
I corrected the bartender, who was affable enough to allow himself to be gently corrected. I even told him that Tolkien was instrumental in the conversion of Lewis, which seemed to impress him. He explained that he had known that Tolkien had been “in the bad stuff” in World War I, and that he had just assumed that the latter’s experience of horrible violence and death had made him an atheist. We didn’t talk about it much more — he had other customers to tend to, and a chummy manner to maintain — but what struck me again was the casual conviction he had first shown of Tolkien’s supposed atheism. As if it were a common fact that everybody knew.
(And now that I think about it, how curious that he would know that Tolkien was a combat veteran, but not that he was a Christian. I did not know about Tolkien’s WWI experiences until much later.)
The Lord of the Rings is unique and beautiful. It inspires intense love and devotion in its fans, the kind of devotion that more academically popular 20th Century writers like Joyce or Beckett rarely inspire. People will say, “Oh, I love Joyce!” but they don’t mean it in quite the same way. The don’t love Joyce; they feel edified by Joyce. They don’t curl up at home with Ulysses when no one is watching the way they do curl up with The Hobbit.
If one’s conviction is that all Christians (even just all theists) are silly — or malign — then it’s important to ignore or downplay or outright deny the beliefs of the objects of one’s love. With some artists it is easier to separate out their beliefs from their works, either because their beliefs seem to change and waver (like Bob Dylan), or because their works seem to be created in a religion-less vacuum (like in Shakespeare, where religion is everywhere and yet nowhere).
Other great works are impossible to separate from the convictions of their creators. There can be no non-Christian Bach, nor a non-Christian Mahler, nor a non-Christian Tolkien. My bartender friend and my atheist friend don’t care much for Mahler, but they do love Tolkien. So perhaps the only way out is for them to simply deny reality with unthinking conviction.
Well, it’s not the only way out…