J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sacramental World, Part One: Memory

Nov 30th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written a nice summary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel, The Lord of the Rings. I was moved to comment there, and now to post a greatly amplified version of that comment here. One justification for the latter move is that the subject has some bearing upon recent discussions at this website. More fundamentally, anything will do for an excuse to write about Middle Earth. In what follows, I will consider how Tolkien came to the Catholic Church, what he found there and how this generally influenced his writing, and, more particularly, how one of the thematic elements of The Lord of the Rings, namely, the Elves’ memory of ancient things, is resonant with liturgical sacramentalism.


From Africa to Mother’s Church

Our latest podcast addressed the recent announcement from the Vatican concerning the creation of a Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans who desire to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. For many of us, thoughts about the Ordinariate’s future will stir up stories from the past of Anglicans who have made the journey to Rome. One such story is that of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien, familiarly called Ronald (followers of the Inklings will know that his closest friends also referred to Tolkien as “Tollers”), was born in Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, in what is now South Africa, on January 3, 1892, firstborn child of Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. He was christened in Bloemfontein Cathedral (Anglican) on January 31, 1892. [1] In the spring of 1895, due to concerns about her son’s health, Mabel brought Ronald and his infant brother, Hilary, on an extended holiday to her and Arthur’s hometown of Birmingham, England. While his young family was away, Arthur contracted rheumatic fever, and died a few months later. Arthur Tolkien was buried in the Anglican graveyard at Bloemfontein.

Mabel Tolkien was left to raise Ronald and Hilary in Birmingham, assisted by her and Arthur’s families. Mabel at first continued to worship as an Anglican. Then in 1900, when Ronald was eight years old, Mabel and her sister, May, began to receive instruction in the Catholic Faith. In the spring of that same year they were received into the Catholic Church. A couple of years later, Mabel rented a house next to the Birmingham Oratory, so that Ronald could attend the Catholic school that was run by the Oratorians. The Birmingham Oratory had been founded in 1849 by the famous convert from Anglicanism, John Henry Newman. Twelve years after the death of Cardinal Newman, his Oratory became the spiritual and educational home of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Two years later, Newman’s Oratory became simply “home” to Ronald and Hilary. In the fall of 1904, their mother, Mabel, died from complications brought on by diabetes. Mabel Tolkien had, however, ensured that her sons would have the chance to persevere in the Catholic Faith. Her will disclosed that Father Francis Morgan of the Oratory had been made legal guardian of Hilary and Ronald. Family members discussed the possibility of contesting Mabel’s will and forcing the boys to attend a Protestant boarding school. Father Morgan, however, was able to find one sympathetic aunt (with no particular religious views) living near the Oratory, who agreed to provide the boys with lodging. Tolkien’s biographer, Humphery Carpenter, describes the life that the orphaned boys now led, under the direct care of Fr. Morgan:

Fortunately, the Oratory was near, and it soon became Ronald and Hilary’s real home. Early in the morning they would hurry round to serve Mass for Father Francis at his favorite side-altar in the Oratory church. Afterwards they would eat breakfast in the plain refectory, and then … they would set off for school. [2]

Here is Tolkien’s own brief account of his life at the Oratory:

I had the advantage … of a ‘good Catholic home’ — ‘in excelsis’: virtually a junior inmate of the Oratory house, which contained many learned fathers (largely ‘converts’). Observance of religion was strict. Hilary and I were supposed to, and usually did, serve Mass…. [3]

Much later in life, Tolkien himself offered this assessment of his mother’s conversion, and the care that she took to preserve her sons in the Catholic Faith:

For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little [concerning the religious element in The Lord of the Rings]; and should be chiefly grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that nourished me and taught me all the little that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it….

But I am the one who came up out of Egypt, and pray God that none of my seed shall return thither. I witnessed (half-comprehending) the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Church; and received the astonishing charity of Francis Morgan. But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning–and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again…. [4]

“A Fundamentally Religious and Catholic Work”

Fr. Longenecker writes that the Mass changed the way that Tolkien viewed the world, and that Tolkien, in turn, changed the world. I think that both of these claims are true. We know how Tolkien changed the world: he wrote The Lord of the Rings. This book “changed the world” in an objective way, by adding something new and wonderful to the world, considered in its totality. This would of course be true even if no one other than Tolkien ever read the thing. However, through its massive popularity, the novel has “changed the world” in the additional sense of changing people in the world, in any number of ways. But what does the Mass have to do with that? How did the Mass influence Tolkien’s perception of the primary world, and his creation of a secondary or imagined world?

Consider some of the things that Tolkien wrote about the Sacrament which he had come to love:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires…. [5]

These themes are clearly present in Tolkien’s masterwork, not least in the character and mission of Frodo. But we do not have to simply speculate about whether or not the author’s religion found some expression in The Lord of the Rings, because Tolkien himself explicitly acknowledged that his novel is a fundamentally Catholic work:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults and practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. [6]

The oblique yet pervasive religious element in The Lord of the Rings is, I think, aptly described as sacramental. But I am not suggesting that Middle Earth is sacramental in the sense that it is “about” the sacraments. Tolkien insisted that he was not trying to preach or prophesy:

As for ‘message’: I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me! [7]

This statement is not at odds with the claim that the novel is a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” First of all, the Catholic Faith was not specially revealed to Tolkien. Secondly, the Catholic Faith is sacramental, and is therefore able to be communicated by means other than “preaching” or overt messages. The Word made flesh is not merely talked about in a Catholic church. He is sacramentally present. This is a silent presence, veiled under the forms of everyday things. The “religious element” is similarly present, though doubly obscure, in The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien received numerous queries about the meaning of his work, and he was not entirely reticent to write about the thematic elements which are in the story:

But I might say that if the tale is ‘about’ anything (other than itself), it is not as seems widely supposed about ‘power’. Power-seeking is only the motive-power that sets events going, and is relatively unimportant, I think. It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the ‘escapes’: serial longevity, and hoarding memory. [8]

We can easily perceive the correspondence between Tolkien’s description of the Eucharist and his account of what The Lord of the Rings is “about.” The sensitive reader of the tale knows that the fundamental problems of men and elves were not resolved by the downfall of Sauron. The conundrum posed by death, the various and vain quests for immortality, and the longing that is in our hearts for something that cannot be found within the “circles of the world,” are larger than Middle Earth, greater even than whatever lies beyond the Grey Havens. “Eternal endurance” remains beyond the reach of both the victors and the vanquished in the War of the Ring. But by raising the question of the (so-called) escapes in a particularly profound way, Tolkien silently invites us to ponder the possibility of true salvation.

Tolkien’s conceptions of the limitations of created things, the eschatological tendency of history (which implies the incompleteness of all, or almost all, that is achieved in time), and the relativity of even elvish endurance partially accounts for the subtle yet immense power of The Lord of the Rings to elicit sehnsucht, that specific kind of yearning which Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis called “joy.” We read the book and find ourselves longing for something that is felt to be possible, though it lies hidden in a realm inaccessible and inexpressible, at least by any natural means.

Embalming and Anamnesis, Or, Two Kinds of Memory

The Lord of the Rings gives us glimpses of a glorious salvation, and even occasionally hints at its inscrutable source. Hope and help come even to Middle Earth. The object of hope and source of the help is never named, therefore several questions remain unanswered: Who sent, and re-sent, Gandalf? If the Grey Pilgrim / White Rider is a steward “of all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands” [9], who, and where, is the King of all those things? Frodo was “meant” to find the Ring, but by whom? Were the water and starlight granted to the ring-bearers in Mordor really a response to Sam’s “prayer” to Galadriel? Such are the more overt, though hardly direct, hints of some source or “sender” by whom the Quest is ultimately enabled and vindicated.

The temporal victory of the free peoples of the West is not, however, attributed to a purely invisible and remote providence. This victory is greatly enabled by a variety of inanimate but “virtuous” things. Some of these objects are seemingly common-place, others quite extraordinary. I will not spend time, in this post, cataloging the “sacramentals” of Middle Earth. Some of them are obvious.  Here, I will be content to reflect upon one profound, though ambiguous, sacramental theme in the book: the living memory of the elves.

In terms of plot, The Lord of the Rings is certainly not about elves. Nevertheless, their ebbing presence in Middle Earth gives the story remarkable depth. (I take the successive chapters “Lothlórien,” “The Mirror of Galadriel,” and “Farewell to Lórien” to be the heart of the novel.) The elves are the living link between the events of the present and the remote ages of the past. With reference to the “now” of the story, the elves are both strangely distant and peculiarly insightful because so much context is present for or presented to them in that “now” that their mode of understanding and even perceiving the external world is fundamentally different than that of anyone else in Middle Earth. When William Faulkner remarked that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past,” it is doubtful that he had elves in mind, but the aphorism preeminently applies to them.

In his words to Legolas upon leaving Lothlórien, Gimli alludes to the peculiar nature of the elves’ relation to the past:

Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zâram…. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves. [10]

This elvish power with respect to past time is most fully embodied in the land of Lórien. Recall Frodo’s sensations upon passing into the “heart of Elvendom”:

As soon as he set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time and into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was the memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world. [11]

Sam, as usual, states his impressions simply and succinctly: “I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” [12]

In the time-period envisioned in The Lord of the Rings, elvish memorializing had fallen from higher purposes, though it was not given over to evil. The power of the Three Rings, instead of being used primarily to promote and enhance the developing life of creation, had been turned to the more dubious art of embalming the past. The elves, like Bombadil, had withdrawn into small, isolated realms and ceased to be concerned with the troubles of Middle Earth. [13]

This elvish diminution and decline is part of a larger story in which a wonderful gift is turned to grievous wrong, leading to great though ultimately futile works and deeds. The beginning and main body of that story is related in The Silmarillion, [14] but it is Galadriel’s victory of self-denial after Frodo offers her the Ring of Power which brings a measure of resolution to the central drama of the older tale. [15]  Galadriel “passed the test” by finally accepting that the works of the elves, even their good works such as the realms of Rivendell and Lorien, were intrinsically limited and ultimately beyond their power to sustain, even (or especially) by means of the One Ring. Elvendom, like everything else under the Sun, was invariably subject to corruption. Only by accepting their own limitations and “letting go” could the elves find true freedom and fulfillment. Galadriel recognized this, renounced the Ring, and, to paraphrase the Gospel, saved her life by losing Lothlorien.

The elvish relation to time is similar to the living memory of the Church in her liturgical celebrations insofar as they bridge time, not to embalm the past, but to make it alive in the present for the life of world. [16] The preceding quotations from the Fellowship’s entrance into and departure from Lothlórien could easily be applied to the traditional liturgies of the Catholic Church. The Liturgy is a form of living memory, an anamnesis, a remembering which renders an historical action effectively present. This is the kind of remembering that we find denoted in biblical phrases such as “God remembered his covenant.”

In the sacraments, and particularly in the Sacrament of the Altar, what is presented is not merely the past, for the Eucharist is not a reminder of what is irrevocably gone, or currently absent. Sacramental reality is a present reality, by which the Church of all times is joined to that once-and-for all-time action whereby death is abolished, and life and immortality are brought to light. In theological terms, the sacraments contain and convey that which they symbolize.

The Christian sacraments, unlike the works of the elves or the Ring of Sauron, operate by means of an uncreated power. That is to say, the sacraments operate by the power and promise of God, which is the ultimate significance of the Latin phrase, ex opere operato, “by the fact of the action being performed.” The sacraments bridge time, not by embalming the past (“hoarding memory”), nor by the artificial perpetuation of temporal life (“serial longevity”), but as “powers that come forth from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving.” [17]

Catholic ritual is essentially a participation in the life of Christ as sacramentally communicated to his mystical Body. Does the New Testament seem to be void of ritualism, say, in comparison to the Mosaic codes or the pagan cults? That is because we have forgotten that the life of Christ is our ritual. Does anyone think that the Gospels are mere narratives, a verbal embalming of an historical moment long past? God forbid. The Gospels are sacred ritual. The mystical rites of the New Covenant cause us to participate in, to live by, that life which we find recorded in Sacred Scripture. To participate in these rites is to live “inside a song.” Indeed, it is to live inside the Song of Songs.

Deliverance and Presence

Among the many excellencies of The Lord of the Rings are its capacity to awaken longing for the ineffable, and the delivery of an astoundingly satisfying happy ending, which nevertheless refuses, truthfully and artistically, to pose as ultimate, and even refuses to be the actual ending of the book. [18] We are not left with just the longing, which by itself leads at best to a romanticizing sadness, which is a kind of embalming of the present. Nor are we left with a false triumphalism, wherein we convince ourselves that all our desires have been satisfied, which leads to shallow complacency. We are left to hope for something more, something that endures.

This post has focused upon the theme of escape from death and corruption, which Tolkien presents by means of exposing the false alternatives and providing a mythological foretaste of the real thing. [19] As for the real thing, salvation is the supernatural effect of the sacraments, which are visible means of grace conveyed in a ritual manner. Elvish artistry (or man’s best approximation thereof) is not falsified or rendered irrelevant by the sacraments; rather, art is elevated and set to work in a new, supremely efficacious realm of existence. [20]


[1] Humphery Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 [1977]), 20-21.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3]  Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000 [1977]), 395. For more information on Tolkien’s life at the Oratory, see this page at the Birmingham Oratory’s website.

[4] Ibid., 172, 340.

[5] Ibid., 53-54.

[6] Ibid., 172.

[7] Ibid., 267.

[8] Ibid., 284.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004 [1954-55]), 758.

[10] Ibid., 378-79.

[11] Ibid., 349.

[12] Ibid., 351; emphasis original.

[13] Cf., Letters, 151-52, 236.

[14] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977).

[15] Rings, 365-66.

[16] Cf., Catechism of the Catholic Church1103-04.

[17] Catechism, 1116.

[18] I am of course referring to the Quest being achieved, and its wholly satisfying denouement in Chapter IV of Book VI, “The Field of Cormallen.” The novel itself extends for five more chapters, concluding with the markedly pensive, almost somber, final chapter, “The Grey Havens.”

[19] In connection with the former, consider the Nazgûl, those shadows of men enslaved by the Nine Rings. The mode of existence of the Nine, which involved serial longevity under complete domination by the Dark Lord, was very horrible. Their “immortality” was, and was proved to be, a false escape from death, being founded upon the created power of the One Ring.

[20] The alternative to “elvish” (i.e., beautiful and traditional) liturgy is the progressive and iconoclastic liturgy of Saruman, various forms of which are currently operative in both Protestant and Catholic settings. I cannot help comparing Saruman’s destruction of the ancient trees of Fangorn, for the purpose of fueling his own hideous innovations, to the destruction of Catholic churches, altars, images, prayers, etc., whether by enraged Protestants of the 16th century or innovating Catholics of the 20th century, besotted with the spirit of the age.


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  1. Andrew,

    Beautiful! Your: “Does anyone think that the Gospels are mere narratives, a verbal embalming of an historical moment, long past? God forbid. The Gospels are sacred ritual,” was great!

  2. Tom,

    Thanks. There is a profound difference between looking at something that is far off, even if one is using the most precise telescope, and being mystically present in the life of Christ, which is historical without being bounded by time, shut up in the past. The home of the Gospel is the Liturgy of the Church. Outside of that context, the writings can only be read, and to only read them is to read them out of context.

    The only reason to care at all about the Church, or anything she does, is that we want to be united to Jesus, where he is, in all that he does. Such is the power of the sacraments, which have been entrusted to the Church. The life by which she lives is primarily communicated by, and corporately enjoyed in, her rituals. Canon law and the teaching Magisterium only exist to preserve the Mysteries from various kinds of profanation. As we have all too good reason to know, such authority, accompanied by a limited infallibility, does not guarantee that the Magisterium will always act wisely or effectively to that end. But we trust that Our Lord will not let his servants destroy anything essential. Glory be to Jesus Christ! Less than four weeks till Bethlehem!

  3. Andrew,

    Thanks for that. It gave me hope!


    K. Doran

  4. K. Doran,

    As Andy Dufresne says in Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” The first bit is true, so perhaps we can forgive Andy if the second bit is a little off-target.

    I just noticed that it is December. That is maybe the most beautiful-sounding month of all. And all the months sound beautiful.

  5. […] J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sacramental World […]

  6. […] Each year my family tradition is to have a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. This year, thanks to Andrew Preslar’s recent post on Tolkien, I watched them from a different angle. There was a lot in the movies that is arguably Christian […]

  7. Where can I get part 2? I don’t have it.



  8. Hey John,

    Part two is in the works. I just skipped right to part three, from this post. Sorry about the confusion.


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