For those Christians who insist on promoting and celebrating the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien as a rich tapestry of Christian allegory and symbolism that powerfully informs their faith, some sobering facts need to be seriously considered. The sad truth is, that Tolkien, despite his personal Christian-based sensibilities, allowed his deep love of pagan Norse mythology to blind him to the fatal spiritual consequences of his creative endeavors and the flawed philosophy behind them. This point is not to bring into question the faith and salvation of Tolkien or of his devoted Christian followers, but simply to suggest that in his creative practice, Tolkien, figuratively speaking, “dropped the ball” and brought aid and comfort to the opposition of our faith.
The evidence is shocking: Neo-Pagans, Gnostics and other occult-based religionists absolutely adore Tolkien’s works, but are not turning to Christianity for spiritual understanding. Instead, they are extracting new beliefs out of his writings that support and bolster their own alternative religions. Why?
For starters, Tolkien, despite his abhorrence of the occult and the practice of it, still indiscriminately and carelessly wove many biblically-condemned occult elements throughout his narratives to enhance the pagan mystique and mythic landscape of his stories, without anticipating its immediate appeal to the adherents of Theosophy and Neo-paganism.
Secondly, Tolkien’s extensive cosmology, created outside the bounds of Genesis and other books of the Bible, reflects in many ways the esoteric understanding of Gnosticism, the ancient enemy of biblical Christianity, to the delight and approval of most modern-day gnostics.
And lastly, Tolkien’s published letters and essays reveal his other missteps which do not align with Christianity: 1) the frequent veiled assertions that his myths were not invented, but “recorded” by him as revealed ancient truths, perhaps divinely inspired; and 2) his regressed ancestral memories of Atlantis which hint at a belief in both reincarnation and Plato’s imaginary “island of Atlas.”
These are the grim facts concerning the “religious affordances” of Tolkien’s literary works which have given the growing Neo-Pagan community just as much spiritual insight and guidance for their particular beliefs as it has given Christians in theirs, if not more so. The extensive proof of this dangerous syncretism in Tolkien’s mythology is compelling and overwhelming, as revealed in the groundbreaking analysis by Markus Altena Davidsen in his 2014 doctoral thesis, The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu: A Study of Fiction-based Religion. His findings should at least give every thinking Christian pause.
A Doctoral Study For Your Kind Consideration
Presented below, for your further edification, are some pertinent excerpts from Davidsen’s English summary of his dissertation which should offer enough specific information to prove the need for caution in promoting Tolkien’s works for its religious content. Perhaps it will provide the American Christian community with a much-needed wake-up call to be more diligent in not compromising the pure gospel and our biblical distinctives by yoking ourselves with unbelievers in a common, intemperate pursuit for fantasy and myth that ultimately strays from orthodox Christianity.
I have added subheadings in bold to highlight the particular subjects of concern. While reading, please consider the implications of Christians promoting Tolkien’s work when the evidence clearly shows that many of his readers are not only rejecting Christianity, but using Tolkien’s writings to create stronger spiritual identities as Neo-Pagans, Gnostics, and other types of occult spiritualists.
Excerpts From The Summary of The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu: A Study of Fiction‐based Religion:
This [dissertation] offers a comprehensive analysis of the history, social organisation, and belief dynamics of the spiritual Tolkien milieu, a largely online‐situated network of individuals and groups that draw on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary mythology for spiritual inspiration. It is the first academic treatment of Tolkien spirituality and one of the first monographs on fiction‐based religion, a type of religion that uses fiction as authoritative texts. Other fiction‐based religions include Jediism (based on George Lucas’ Star Wars) and the Church of All Worlds (inspired by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land).
Tolkien, Hippies, and LSD
The first religious practices inspired by Tolkien’s narratives appeared in the late 1960s after the publication of a paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in 1965. Hippies married each other in ceremonies based on the book and read passages during LSD trips in order to amplify the spiritual experience. Some readers wondered whether The Lord of the Rings was in fact a parable about Faery and joined the emerging Neo‐Pagan movement to explore the Celtic and Germanic mythologies from which Tolkien had drawn much of his inspiration. Two significant religious movements, Tolkien religion and the Elven movement, developed out of the post‐paperback fascination with Middle‐earth and consolidated after the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion in 1977.
Tolkien, Neo-Pagans, and Their New Rituals
Tolkien religion focuses on ritual interaction with the supernatural denizens of the Middle‐earth universe. Tolkien religionists either evoke these beings or go on Otherworld journeys to visit them in Middle‐earth. The Valar, Tolkien’s demiurgical pantheon, are the preferred communication partners in these rituals, but Tolkien religionists also work with the Maiar, an order of lesser spiritual beings which includes Gandalf, with the Quendi, the Elves of Tolkien’s world, or with Eru Ilúvatar, Tolkien’s creator God. Tolkien religionists believe that Tolkien’s narratives refer to supernatural places and beings that exist in the real world, and they defend this reading of Tolkien by constructing him as a visionary, an esotericist, or even as an incarnated fey spirit. Most Tolkien religionists are Neo‐Pagans who add Tolkienesque rites to an otherwise standard Pagan practice. In the 21st century, however, increasingly purist Tolkien traditions have developed, aided by the emergence of the Internet and the publication of The History of Middle‐earth (1983‐1996), a twelve‐volume collection of Tolkien’s drafts and writings on Middle‐earth.
Tolkien and the Awakened Elves
The Elven movement emerged in the early 1970s when a group of ceremonial magicians began to playfully self‐identify as Elves, naming themselves the Elf Queen’s Daughters. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Elven movement underwent a profound metamorphosis, as a growing number of ‘awakened Elves’ made increasingly literal claims about their Elven nature, professing to possess Elven genes or an Elven soul. Tolkien’s legacy continues to be felt among the contemporary self‐identified Elves, but their turn to literalism has caused many of them to view Tolkien’s fiction as an dubious or even illegitimate source of inspiration.
Tolkien Provides The Necessary Elements For New Religion
In chapters 7 through 16, I analyse the religious affordances of Tolkien’s literary mythology and carry out a number of case studies of groups within the spiritual Tolkien milieu. Taken together, the ten chapters offer a thick description of the spiritual Tolkien milieu. Chapter 7 is entitled “The Religious Affordances of The Lord of the Rings”. In this chapter, I demonstrate that The Lord of the Rings contains numerous fantastic elements (e.g. superhuman beings, otherworlds, magic, visions) and limited elements of narrative religion (e.g. divine powers and rituals directed at them; morality, cosmology, and eschatology). It also includes a frame narrative that stages the main story as ‘feigned history’ and thus thematises its veracity. While all this was meant by Tolkien to be taken with a grain of salt, The Lord of the Rings certainly contains textual and paratextual elements that make a non‐fictional reading of the text possible.
The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954‐55, but it did not become a bestseller until it appeared in paperback in 1965. This story is told in chapter 8, “An Unexpected Success: Hippies, Neo‐Pagans, and The Lord of the Rings”. I show how hippies adopted the Shire life of the Hobbits as a social model, and demonstrate how Neo‐Pagans were moved by Tolkien’s enchanted world and considered The Lord of the Rings to contain metaphorical references to metaphysical realities. For instance, while Neo‐Pagans generally did not consider Lothlórien to be a real place, some of them saw (and see) the Elven forest kingdom as a metaphorical reference to real otherworldly places very much like it. Indeed, for some readers it was The Lord of the Rings that first made them wonder about the possible reality of otherworlds and magic, this being their first step towards becoming Pagans.
Chapter 9, “The Religious Affordances of The Silmarillion” explores the religious affordances that were added to Tolkien’s literary mythology with the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. Compared to The Lord of the Rings, the new religious affordances include in particular an elaboration of the narrative religion. In fact, much of The Silmarillion discusses the cosmogony, theology, cosmology, and eschatology according to the lore of the Quendi. This new material allows Tolkien’s works to be cast as a mythology in its own right, and the Elven point of view in The Silmarillion invites readers and Tolkien religionists to identify with the Elves (rather than with Hobbits or humans).
Tolkien Enlightens Changelings and Self-Identified Elves
Chapters 10 through 12 describe three cases of Tolkien spirituality centred on the self‐identification as Elves. Chapter 10, “The Tribunal of the Sidhe: A Case Study of Religious Blending”, introduces the Tribunal of the Sidhe, a Neo‐Pagan group that was founded on the American West Coast in 1984 and probably constitutes the largest Tolkien‐integrating religious movement today. The Tribunal’s members claim to be Changelings, i.e. Elves (or similar beings) from an astral world who have been incarnated in human bodies. They also claim that Tolkien was a Changeling himself and that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion tell the history of the Changelings in mythic form. I discuss the self‐identification as Changeling as an example of religious blending, analysing how members combine elements from Tolkien’s mythology with various forms of fairy spirituality and revelations of their own to construct and rationalise the notion that they are Changelings.
Chapter 11 is entitled “The Elven Movement: A Case Study of Construction and Maintenance of Plausibility”. In this chapter, I examine the range of semiotic strategies for plausibility construction, i.e. rationalisation, legitimisation, and relativisation, which the Elves use, often in combination, to elaborate upon and justify their core identity claim ‘we are Elves’. Special attention is given to the Elves’ effort to negotiate a balance between fabulousness and plausibility. The awakened Elves identify with the Elves of legend and fantasy fiction because these beings are near‐immortal magicians, but being humans after all, they cannot plausibly claim to possess the same powers as their narrative role models. A balance between fabulousness and plausibility is found, for example, by self‐identified Elves who claim to have lived fabulous past lives (among the stars and on Atlantis), but who maintain that their Elven powers in this life are severely tempered because their souls are trapped in weak human bodies. I also analyse the process of ‘conversion’ (or interpretive drift) which new members of the movement go through to develop their fascination with Elves into the belief and public profession that they really are Elves. Finally, I consider to what extent fiction, Internet communities, and the cultic milieu function as plausibility structures for the Elven community, and I identify the ‘plausibility threats’ facing the community.
The construction of the Elves as a superior race is also the concern of the alternative historians discussed in chapter 12, “Esoteric Historians on the ‘Truth’ Behind Tolkien’s Elves”. The chapter focuses on Laurence Gardner and Nicholas de Vere who use Tolkien’s literary mythology to legitimise their conspiracy theories about a royal, Elven bloodline which includes Christ and Charlemagne. While they do not directly integrate elements from Tolkien’s narratives into their religious beliefs and practices, they seek out similarities between Tolkien’s texts and bloodline lore and use these similarities to suggest that Tolkien possessed esoteric knowledge which he hinted at in his books. In this way, the alternative historians construct Tolkien as a fellow esotericist and attempt to rub his prestige as a mythologist and philologist off onto their own speculations.
Tolkien Inspires Occultists and Their Magic
Chapter 13, “Summoning the Valar, Divining with Elves: Tolkien and Western Magic”, is devoted to two cases of integration of Tolkien’s literary mythology into the Western magic tradition. I first analyse an interesting example of ritual blending, namely the High Elvish Working created in 1993 by the Fifth Way Mystery School. The structure of the ritual was taken from the so‐called Supreme Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The content, including the evocation of the Valar and certain phrases in Elvish, were drawn from Tolkien’s literary mythology. The High Elvish Working, which was circulated among Neo‐Pagans and published on the group’s homepage, has been a major source of inspiration for later groups in the spiritual Tolkien milieu. The second case is Terry Donaldson’s Lord of the Rings Tarot deck, published in 1997. Especially the accompanying book is interesting, for here Donaldson connects Tolkien’s mythology to the elaborate system of correspondences established by the Golden Dawn. He furthermore provides guidelines for visualisation rituals based on the card illustrations and introduces new Tolkien‐inspired spreads. It goes for most of the Tolkien‐integrating religionists treated in chapters 10 through 13 that they are at pains to decide for themselves whether Tolkien’s literary mythology is merely fiction (albeit spiritually advanced and religiously enlightening fiction) or whether it constitutes a real mythology (albeit a relatively inferior or derived one).
Tolkien’s Works Presented As Inspired Gnostic Revelation
Chapter 15, “The Religious Affordances of The History of Middle‐earth and of Tolkien’s Letters and Essays”, covers the religious affordances of the vast corpus of Middle-earth texts that lie beyond the three well‐known books, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. In terms of religious affordances, the twelve volumes that make up The History of Middle‐earth are interesting for three reasons. First, they include the earliest versions of the stories that would evolve into The Silmarillion, versions which Tolkien religionists argue are the closest we get to Tolkien’s original revelation. Second, The History of Middle‐earth includes much detailed information about the Valar which can be used to construct for Valar‐directed rituals. Finally, The History of Middle‐earth includes two unfinished ‘time travel’ stories which are highly autobiographical in character and suggest that Tolkien believed in the possibility of ancestral memory regression. This theme returns in Tolkien’s letters in which he describes an uncanny and recurring dream of a Great Green Wave. Tolkien’s son Michael had the same dream, and that made Tolkien speculate that they both accessed an ancestral memory of the destruction of Atlantis. Tolkien’s letters also add to the religious affordances of his mythology in other ways, as Tolkien often muses on the relationship between his narratives and the historical record and even expresses a feeling of inspiration. Indeed, Tolkien frequently states that he did not invent his stories, but that he rather “recorded” or “reported” what was already there.
Chapter 16, “Legendarium Reconstructionism: A Case Study of Tolkien‐based Religion”, examines two closely cooperating groups, Tië eldaliéva (The Elven Path) and Ilsaluntë Valion (The Silver Ship of the Valar). Like Middle‐earth Paganism, Tië eldaliéva and Ilsaluntë Valion emerged online after the movies, but the two latter groups draw most extensively on The Silmarillion and The History of Middle‐earth. They are interesting because they go the furthest in creating a Tolkien‐based spiritual tradition. For example, drawing on Tolkien’s narratives, supplemented with their own inventions and revelations, members of Tië eldaliéva have created a complete lunisolar calendar. Drawing on ritual formats from ceremonial magic and Wicca, they have developed elaborate rituals for each moon phase and solar festival. Since physical co‐presence has been unattainable, the group carried out its rituals over the phone or on Skype. Ilsaluntë Valion, which broke off from Tië eldaliéva in 2007, has further refined the ritual calendar and gradually purged the ceremonial magical elements from the group’s rituals. Supplementing the collective rituals, Ilsaluntë Valion has furthermore developed a freer and more individual ritual approach. In the group’s own terms, members do gnostic research using Tolkien’s narratives as a means of transportation to the Imaginal Realm or Faery. Based on extensive virtual ethnography of the two groups, the chapter sketches the history of Tië eldaliéva and Ilsaluntë Valion, analyses the modes of religious blending in the groups, and discusses how members embed their Tolkien‐based ritual practices within a sophisticated world‐view and religious philosophy.
The Rise of The New Tolkien Religionists
I assert that a given narrative’s usability as an authoritative text for religion depends on the amount and types of religious affordances it possesses. This means two things. First, only texts that include at least some religious affordances can become the foundational texts of religion at all. The spiritual Tolkien milieu could only emerge because Tolkien’s Middle‐earth narratives include some measure of religious affordances. Second, based on the religious affordances of a given text it is possible to predict how religion based on it will look. Within the spiritual Tolkien milieu, we can observe that groups based on The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or Jackson’s movies differ in ways that reflect the religious affordances of their authoritative narratives. Indeed, groups in the spiritual Tolkien milieu consistently (a) identify with (the race of) the narrator of their main authoritative Tolkien text; (b) direct rituals towards those beings who are divine or at least extraordinary from the perspective of the narrator; and (c) adopt a reading mode that reflects their main text’s thematisation of its own veracity. For example, groups based on The Lord of the Rings identify as humans or Hobbits, venerate the Elves, and interpret Tolkien’s world as connected to the prehistory of the actual world. By contrast, groups based on The Silmarillion identify as Elves, venerate the Valar, and consider Middle‐earth a spiritual world situated in another dimension.
A comparison of the different cases of Tolkien religion also reveals which kinds of religious affordances are necessary for religion to emerge and which are merely facultative. The very existence of movie-based Middle‐earth Paganism demonstrates that religious practices can emerge from a narrative that includes only fantastic elements, but no narrative religion, and which does not thematise its own veracity. It is telling, however, that Middle‐earth Paganism was not successful as a movement and collapsed almost instantly, while Tolkien traditions based on more substantial narratives endure. Only groups based on The Silmarillion or The History of Middle‐earth have evolved into stable communities with sophisticated traditions. And only The Silmarillion and The History of Middle‐earth include substantial narrative religion – The Lord of the Rings includes some traces of narrative religion, but mostly in the appendices or in the form of hints that only become apprehensible in the light of The Silmarillion. This demonstrates that only texts that include narrative religion can become the anchor point of stable fiction‐based religions. As far as the spiritual Tolkien milieu goes, it is not necessary that the main fictional text thematises its own veracity. (The History of Middle‐earth does so, but The Silmarillion does not).
Tolkien’s Building Blocks for Wiccans and Neo-Pagans
All groups in the spiritual Tolkien milieu engage in religious blending, and this process is patterned. Whenever their main authoritative Tolkien text lacks certain religious affordances, Tolkien religionists adopt building‐blocks from other traditions. Concretely, all groups within the spiritual Tolkien milieu borrow ritual elements and rationalisation strategies from established religious traditions. Unsurprisingly, Tolkien religionists draw these building‐blocks from traditions with which they are already familiar. For example, many Tolkien religionists are Neo‐Pagans and naturally draw on Wiccan circle casting to create Tolkienesque rituals directed at the Elves and the Valar. Besides Neo‐Paganism, Tolkien religionists draw on the Western magic tradition, theosophy, and Christianity, in roughly that order of importance.
In their actual practice, all Tolkien groups engage in religious blending, but the groups’ normative stance on ‘syncretism’ differs dramatically. Some groups do not give the issue much thought, while others articulate an ‘anti‐syncretic’ ideal of Tolkien exclusivism. In the latter case, there is thus a striking discrepancy between what members do (they blend) and what they claim to do (not to blend). This has far‐reaching implications for the study of religion in general. It demonstrates that the study of people’s consciously professed attitudes towards syncretism (or indeed the study of religious discourse in general) can tell us little about actual processes of religious blending (or indeed about religious practice in general). The conclusion to be drawn from this is that we must prioritise the study of religious practice (i.e. what religious people do) over the study of religious discourse (i.e. what religious people say that they do).
Tolkien religion normally develops in three steps. As a first step, individuals who are typically both fans of Tolkien’s works and practising Pagans or magicians craft experimental and playful Tolkien‐focused rituals and/or playfully identify as Elves, for example in the context of rituals or role‐playing games. Many individuals never go beyond this point, but some gradually drift towards belief. This second step is marked by the development of what can be termed ‘elemental Tolkien religion’, i.e. serious ritual interaction with (or self‐identification as) the supernatural agents from Tolkien’s narratives and the implied belief that the Valar, Maiar, and Elves are real. The third and final step is the construction of rationalised Tolkien religion in the form of belief elaborations, ontology assessments, and justifications. For example, some Tolkien religionists assert that ritual interaction with the Valar is possible because the Valar are not merely fictional entities, but real beings (affirmative ontology assessment), and that one can visit them on the astral plane and gain access to their spiritual knowledge (belief elaboration). More rarely, Tolkien religionists interpret visions of the Valar as contacts with Jungian archetypes. Most Tolkien religionists justify their beliefs by making an appeal to subjective experience. It differs, however, whether they consider their experiences to be proof of the objective existence of the Valar (legitimisation) or whether they bracket the question of ontology and stress instead that the Valar are real for them or real in some non‐objective way (relativisation).
Tolkien’s Works: The Gateway to Replace Christianity
All Tolkien traditions, both those focused on Elven identity and those focused on ritual interaction with beings from Tolkien’s narrative world, have an onion‐shaped belief system. At the centre of the belief system are a few core beliefs which are very stable. These are the beliefs which are expressed, implicitly or explicitly, in elemental practice. In the Elven movement, the most fundamental core belief is the identity claim ‘we are Elves’. The core belief of Tolkien religion is that ‘Tolkien’s literary mythology refers to real supernatural beings, namely the Valar, the Maiar, and the Quendi, who dwell in a world that is different from the physical world, but can be accessed in ritual’. Around these stable core beliefs exists the multitude of rationalisations and justifications that make up rationalised Tolkien religion. Compared to the core of elemental religion, these rationalisations and justifications are strikingly flexible and unstable. It is common for individuals to change their mind about rationalisations and justifications, exchanging, for example, a literal conception of the divine for a depersonalised conception, while holding on to the same core beliefs, elemental practice, and religious identity. It is also common for individuals to hold several, in principle mutually exclusive, rationalisations and justifications to be true at the same time, and to activate the one or the other according to context. For example, many Tolkien religionists will both talk about the Valar as discrete persons and argue that the Valar are personal expressions of non‐personal archetypes; they will sometimes argue that their experiences prove the objective existence of the Valar, but at other times say that the Valar feel subjectively real for them and that their possible objective existence is irrelevant. Finally, it is relatively unproblematic for a group to include individuals with conflicting rationalisations and justifications as long as they share core beliefs and elemental practice. All this shows that the function of rationalised Tolkien religion is not to construct a sophisticated doctrine to supplant or trump elemental religious practice, but rather to supply a repertoire of ideas and narratives that together add meaningfulness and plausibility to the elemental religious core.
Christians Unequally Yoked With Tolkien’s Spiritual Children
The spiritual Tolkien milieu is tiny, but fiction‐inspired religion is quite common. This is certainly the case if one counts both members of organised fiction‐based religions, such as Jediism, and the many religious bricoleurs who find inspiration in books, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and films, such as James Cameron’s Avatar. Martin Ramstedt has argued that the increasing religious use of fiction reflects a more general process in contemporary religion, namely a ‘metaphorical turn’ from literal to metaphorical belief and from ritual to play. Against this background, it is interesting to observe that Tolkien religionists hold strikingly literal beliefs and insist on being categorically different from fans (who play). As a rule, they adopt a mytho‐cosmological reading mode, approaching Tolkien’s stories as imaginary stories about real supernatural entities. That is to say, they insist that the Valar and the Elves are real spiritual beings who can contact humans on Earth, but whose home world is situated on another plane, in outer space, or in another time. Granted, Tolkien religionists usually do not read Tolkien’s narratives as history, but they typically do hold historical beliefs about Atlantis and the peaceful coexistence of Elves and humans in the past. In short, the decline of institutional religion in the West allows for an increasing religious use of fiction, but if Tolkien religion is anything to go by, the rise of fiction‐based religion does not indicate that a metaphorical turn is taking place in contemporary religion.
To read the complete summary available in PDF, go HERE.
To read the complete text of his dissertation available in PDF, go HERE.