Mysticism and Tolkien
Istari: The Archangels of Middle-Earth
In today’s An Algebra of Archons, we explore Tolkien’s use of Norse mythology and Christian theology in establishing an angelic hierarchy that feeds the tree of Middle-Earth’s religion and traditions.
The writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, centered in the fantasy world of Middle-Earth, are obviously influential on the fantasy scene and clearly a cornerstone of the genre. The film adaptations of the three Lord of the Rings books were estimated by Forbes in 2012 to be worth $2.91 Billion in ticket sales alone [ 1 ]. This was before the film adaptations of The Hobbit and despite no film adaptation of The Silmarillion. It is used as inspiration to much of the fantasy milieu till today, from Eragon to A Song of Fire and Ice to the comedic comic world of Bone to the heavy metal music of Led Zeppelin, all have been inspired by Middle-Earth and the novels surrounding it.
However, while it is often repeated and reconstructed in its ideas, plot elements, and world elements, there is much to be deduced of the world and mythos of Middle-Earth via mystical analysis that is not seen in other worlds. It shows the vast history and tradition that Tolkien drew from when creating it and allowing a depth of understanding not otherwise possible with other forms of analysis.
Middle-Earth and Religion
It’s no secret that Tolkien modeled much of Middle-Earth after Norse mythology and on Christian theology [ 2 ]. In perhaps Tolkien’s most famous letter, Letter 131, he gives what is essentially an angelic hierarchy to his world, describing the celestial position of Eru Illuvatar, the Valar, the Istari and the great enemy Melkor, also known as Morgoth, in a way that is easily analogous to the Christian God, angels and the great enemy Lucifer [ 3 ].
However, while these influences form the roots of the tree that is the religion within Middle-Earth, the tree itself is far more vast, beautiful, and complex in its design, with branches in each direction, obscured by the autumn leaves of critical interpretation that arises during the season of analyzing the novels. Religion is seen as a form of dominant mysticism; mysticism that controls the human world rather then is controlled by the human world and is emotive, derived from personal experience or revelation directly. In Letter 153, Tolkien writes:
“There are thus no temples or ‘churches’ or fanes in this ‘world’ among ‘good’ peoples. They had little or no ‘religion’ in the sense of worship. For help they may call on a Vala (as Elbereth), as a Catholic might on a Saint, though no doubt knowing in theory as well as he that the power of the Vala was limited and derivative. But this is a ‘primitive age’: and these folk may be said to view the Valar as children view their parents or immediate adult superiors, and though they know they are subjects of the King he does not live in their country nor have there any dwelling. I do not think Hobbits practised any form of worship or prayer (unless through exceptional contact with Elves). The Númenóreans (and others of that branch of Humanity, that fought against Morgoth, even if they elected to remain in Middle-earth and did not go to Númenor: such as the Rohirrim) were pure monotheists. But there was no temple in Númenor (until Sauron introduced the cult of Morgoth). The top of the Mountain, the Meneltarma or Pillar of Heaven, was dedicated to Eru, the One, and there at any time privately, and at certain times publicly, God was invoked, praised, and adored: an imitation of the Valar and the Mountain of Aman. But Numenor fell and was destroyed and the Mountain engulfed, and there was no substitute. Among the exiles, remnants of the Faithful who had not adopted the false religion nor taken pan in the rebellion, religion as divine worship (though perhaps not as philosophy and metaphysics) seems to have played a small part; though a glimpse of it is caught in Faramir’s remark on ‘grace at meat’” [ 4 ].
Religion was very subtle in the world of Tolkien, and the people can be said to live in a time that can be described as “more innocent.” The lack of worship of a people, like the Hobbits, is not a representation of their sinfulness but instead of their blissful ignorance. Likewise, religion among the race of man seems mostly forgotten, reduced to attitudes and idioms. What religions DID exist were presented as Tolkien had put it as if it was a “primitive age” where the Valar are viewed as parental figures rather than detached religious figures.
What does this suggest about their world? Well the lack of abstraction in their religious thought, and their relative innocence about worship, not in a Pre-Adamic sense, but, from a Christian perspective, a Pre-Christ society, is evocative of a society that heavily divided lines between the civilized and the natural, in which nature is anthropomorphized at all, and civilization is not “naturalized at all.” This lack of connection to the natural world can be considered part of the overarching theme of people moving towards industrialization and the potential dangers of that, as shown by Sauron. This would also explain why the Elves, the closest of all the races to nature, are also the one most aware of the faith. One can see reflections of this even in how the kings of man, who are the most removed from the natural world and seen as most exemplar of the civilized world, have become corrupted in some way, such as the King Theoden who listened to the evil Wormtongue, and why the only man who could serve as the true king and restore peace was Aragorn, who lived within nature as a Ranger most of his life.
The Ring’s temptation is sometimes interpreted as sin, however if we take this mystical view that in the world of Middle-Earth, knowledge of nature is correlated to knowledge of the faith, then The Ring’s temptation of Boromir to save his kingdom can be seen as a parallel for the corrupting nature of the seemingly necessary on the “civilized” man, prompting him to do evil for greater goods.
Middle-Earth and Magic
Magic in Middle-Earth is closely tied to its conception of religion. Contrary to popular belief, it is not only the races to whom magic is common such as the wizards or the Elves, to whom magic is so common that the they did not properly understand what the other races meant by when the other races described what magic was to them: “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy,” but all races have had magic users [ 5 ]. The dwarves craft their magic into items and there were magic users who were human, both noble such as Beorn, and ignoble, such as The Mouth of Sauron.
That said, these are more exceptions to the rule rather than being the rule itself. The Istari and the Quendi, the elves’ own name for themselves as it is said to be more mystical, possess magic innately and thus far more commonly are seemingly more skilled in the arcane than the non-magical races of man, Hobbit and Orc for instance. If magic is to be considered as an emotive but submissive mysticism, a mysticism of one’s own transcendence over physical limitations to control the inhuman unseen forces, then the implications of having species of different capacities, to the extent of having some possess magic INNATELY, would be suggestive of a world where species live in what a Christian society might call a “state of grace” and what Neo-Pagans might call “attunement.” The idea that past sins cling to land and people and thus those who have fallen, to a greater or lesser degree, would possess a greater ability to transcend their experience past the physical. It is this attunement that might be considered the principal reason the Quendi are allowed to leave as a people for the undying lands across the seas.
But equally to be considered along with who can yield magic is what magic can do. Magic in Middle-Earth has a very notable limitation; it cannot do the unnatural. As Gandalf says to Legolas, “But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow” [ 6 ]. Magic is used strictly to enhance or reduce the properties that already exist. While this subtly reinforces the Christian themes of the Creator being the source of all, it has other mystical implications. The connection of magic to the natural is suggestive that those who wield magic, those who can transcend over the physical limits of their body, are instead trading the limits of their inner self for the physical limits of the world around them; therefore, the condition of the world around someone who has magic is reflective of their soul and their intent. Consider the horrific conditions of Sauron’s kingdom, Mordor, compared to the Rivendell’s beauty. This was because Sauron’s soul was far more corrupt than the soul of that of Elrond and his connection to the natural was to a much lesser extent.
Middle-Earth and Science
Science, especially technology brought by science, has a very particular place in Middle-Earth. Tolkien has been considered a “luddite” by a variety of readers and many are keen to read technophobia in his works [ 4 ]. This does seem consistent both with the accounts of those who knew him, his personal letters, and subtly in his writing such as when Saruman is described as having a “mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him in the moment” [ 7 ]. Note how science and nature are explicitly contrasted, unlike the philosophy of Francis Bacon!
While it’s not directly science, we can loosely compare why Tolkien’s works seem anti-science by comparing why it was wrong for Sauron to want the One Ring and control all. Sauron wanted the One Ring, and control of Middle-Earth because he believed himself to have moral intentions and wanted to impose order on the seemingly chaotic world. As Tolkien described Sauron’s fall:
“[I]t had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall…) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction… it was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him” [ 8 ].
It was suggested this would happen to anyone who gave into the temptation of the Ring’s power, including to those noble like Gandalf. As Tolkien says in Letter 246:
“[Gandalf] would have remained ‘righteous,’ but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good,’ and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great)” [ 9 ].
The Ring obviously grants one great power, but so does magic. Where science and magic differ is that magic removes the limitations of one’s physical self instead tying them, to the limits of the world around them, essentially joining them with their environment. Conversely science and the power it represents, power which involves not joining with the world but instead utilizing it, is seen as exploitative and isolating, even dehumanizing. The mystical implications of this suggest that to connect to the world is both natural and good, and to isolate oneself from it or to exploit it, are signs of the corruption of the natural and the good.
Middle-Earth and Philosophy
To try and describe all the philosophies and philosophical questions raised in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion would far exceed the limits of this article; however, approaching from a mystical standpoint we can consider what role philosophy plays in Middle-Earth and consider its implications.
Philosophy from a mystical standpoint represents yet another way people deal with the impersonal unknowable world, a world that is outside of direct control but unlike a religious interpretation can be knowable to a greater extent via rational analysis as opposed to requiring direct revelation or experience. Because of this philosophy can be equated with one’s “way of life,” or perhaps better said “the roads someone walks.” A subtle point of Middle-Earth’s philosophical systems is that the stronger and more powerful the species or the individual, the more prone they are to philosophizing. The simple hobbits spend far less time contemplating the meaning of life and spend more time concerned on the daily life. Men and dwarves philosophize more or less based on social positions and the elves and Istari are more prone to it in general. This would seem therefore that philosophy in Middle-Earth is seen as a reflection of one’s own path.
That seemingly simple statement has broad implications since a reflection of one’s path is suggestive that there is a determined path. All things can be determined by Eru Illuvatar at a moment and the wiser you are, the more you recognize what that is, showing a deterministic philosophy. Those who do not recognize this deterministic pattern will end up acting in opposition to their goals, such as Gollum accidentally causing the destruction of The Ring in his attempt to reunite with it.
All things have a part to play in the world, and that to connect with the world is both natural and good is woven through all four mystical branches of analysis of Middle-Earth. As Gandalf said “Even Gollum may yet have something to do.”
- “The spirits of the world, the Maiar made flesh, the Istari are unquestionably Tolkien’s equivalent of archangels, as dispatched by Manwe and the Valar to attend to a rogue amongst their kin, Sauron.” Source: https://lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Wizards
- “Mithrandir, aka Gandalf, is a complex figure in Tolkien’s narrative. A Martyr who rises again after his ‘fall,’ now clothed in mystical white raiment, he’s clearly a gestalt of multiple roles.” Source:https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/new-zealand-circa-2003-stamp-printed-141958345
A writer and philosopher, Ben Steiz strives to create realistic and engaging cultures and beliefs for fictional settings. A scholar of narrative and metaphysics, and having graduated from Bard College with a double major in creative writing and philosophy, Ben specializes in symbolism. As one of The Unconventional’s contributors, he unpacks layers of metaphor in world design and storytelling as a research assistant. He’s also penned his own series, “An Algebra of Archons”, examining mysticism.
- Pomerantz, Dorothy. “Can ‘the Hobbit’ Make ‘Lord of the Rings’ the Top Film Franchise of All Time?” Forbes, Forbes Media LLC, 13 Dec. 2012, forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2012/12/13/can-the-hobbit-make-lord-of-the-rings-the-top-franchise-ever/?sh=20060a712834.
- “Christian and Pagan Myth in LOTR.” HOME IS BEHIND, the WORLD AHEAD, 11 July 2017, tolkienaboutscifi.wordpress.com/2017/07/11/christian-and-pagan-myth-in-lotr/.
- Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. “Letter 131.” Letter to Milton Waldman. 1951. MS. N.p.
- Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. “Letter 153.” Letter to Peter Hastings. 1954.
- Saguaro, Shelly. “Tolkien and Trees.” (2013): 138-54. Academia.edu. Web. “Chapter 7, The Mirror of Galadriel.” The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien, HarperCollins, 1967.
- “Chapter 3, The Ring Goes South.” The Fellowship of the Ring, by J. R. R. Tolkien, HarperCollins, 1967.
- “Chapter 4, Treebeard.” The Two Towers: The Lord of the Rings, by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2002.
- “Notes on Motives in THE SILMARILLION.” Fair Use Repository, 1 Jan. 1993, fair-use.org/j-r-r-tolkien/notes-on-motives-in-the-silmarillion/.
- Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. “Letter 246.” Letter to Mrs. Eileen Elgar. 1963.