Yesterday I finally concluded my spiritual re-reading of Lord of the Rings. I started this project in early October and initially was keeping notes. However, as I got deeper into the story, I found myself once more captivated by it, reading late into the night even though I know it so well.
I think that's the true proof of Tolkien's excellent writing - one can read through it again and again, and still be entranced.
While I've read this book dozens of times, it was only recently that I came to truly understand Catholic theology and the spirit world. As an irreligious teenager, this almost totally escaped me. As an adult, I began to recognize Christian themes, but not their deeper meanings. Even after my conversion, I was essentially skimming the surface. I'm sure scholarly dissertations have already been written on the topic, but two things stood out to me: the use of natural law and priest-kings.
There are several expressions of this concept, but the one I am using is that even people with no exposure to God's revealed word have an understanding of basic morality. Just like gravity, it doesn't have to be explained for people to understand that it exists.
The natural law in Lord of the Rings begins in The Shire, which is something of an English garden of Eden. While far from perfect, hobbits live their lines relatively free of sin. They gossip, engage in petty theft (mushrooms and spoons come to mind), and love to eat, but crimes of lust and wrath (like rape and murder) are unknown to them.
Why this is the case the books never come out and say, and at several points "the wise" openly ponder how they an be so untainted by sin. The answer seems to be a special kind of grace that leaves them with little ambition beyond a comfortable life and the joy of family and friends.
This grace is of course absent in Smeagol/Gollum, who is irredeemably evil. He is guilty of treachery, greed, murder and perhaps cannibalism (which he certainly was willing to attempt in The Hobbit).
Gollum's fall is not without resistance, and (as with so many other lives) he might have been redeemed if circumstances permitted it. I think of addicts who clean up but go back to their old haunts and lifestyle and thereby get hooked yet again.
When the hobbits move into the larger world, they see a more formalized system of religion, more open displays of it, and this is a reference to the formalization of God's covenant with Israel.
Being close to living in an Edenic state, the hobbits have essentially the faith of the antediluvian patriarchs, honoring their creator, honoring their parents, and refraining from mortal sins.
The realms of elves, men and dwarves, however, are fallen, and thus must practice a faith as a means of redemption. This results in the creation not of a church, but the ancient concept of the priest-king.
The Priest-Kings of Numenor (and Rohan)
It is noteworthy that on almost every occasion when the hobbits meet and leave the various royalty they encounter, that a blessing is bestowed upon them. This frequently involves the laying on of hands, but other times they simple told to go with the blessing, as at the conclusion of Mass.
This hearkens back to the customs of the Near East in ancient times, when kings also served as high priest, often due to (claimed) divine descent. The king blessed the crops, blessed the first fruits and in all ways served as the representative of the patron deity on earth.
The same was true in Numenor, where the kings had certain religious duties. On the Holy Mountain, only the king could speak aloud.
The "downfall" of Numenor was spiritual before it became physical. Sauron famously allowed himself to be captured and turned the ruling class towards the worship of Melkor. This in turn led to a declaration of war against the Valar and the destruction of the realm, with only a handful of survivors escaping the disaster.
The line of priest-kings was spared, however, through Elendil and his sons. The destruction of Arnor and the extinction of the royal line in Gondor left the men of Westernesse spritually crippled, and facilitated a crisis of faith that almost wiped out the line of the Ruling Stewards.
It is worth noting the many powers Aragorn exercises in his capacity as king. First and foremost, he is a healer - very much a priestly function and a way to demonstrate the justness of his claim. It is telling that miraculous healing rather than military conquest are what make a Numenorean king.
These Numenorean concepts are reflected in Rohan as well, and the funeral customs may be consciously borrowed from the Anglo-Saxons, but they nevertheless reflect Christian elements, especially the sharing of wine among the celebrants.
I'm sure a few readers might be thinking "Yes, but lots of pagan societies also shared food and drink with guests, it's not just a Judeo-Christian thing!" This is true, but from the Catholic/Orthodox spirit realm perspective, that is because these societies were led by fallen angels, who preserved the same customs, albeit often in debased ways.
This also goes back to natural law and the notion that sharing food and drink with someone draws you closer - which it absolutely does. There's a reason why even in our debauched, post-religious secular materialist world, "dinner and a movie" is still regarded as a way to gain intimacy. I would argue that the eclipse of dinner parties by social media is one of the driving factors in our ongoing societal strife.
The pandemic crushed much of this social activity and "public health experts" continue to undermine it by exaggerating the dangers of disease while ignoring the greater threat of social isolation and despair, especially among young, otherwise healthy people who now struggle to form in-person relationships.
Tolkien understood the importance of this activity in holding societies together, and that is no doubt why he emphasized taverns and inns as the primary social gathering space and in lieu of priest-kings, the hobbits had a mayor (who presided at banquets) and a Thain (of the Took line) and the Master of Buckland. It is no accident to the narrative that the heirs to these 'royal' seats (Pippin and Merry) are part of the quest and that they return with a deeper understanding of spirituality to lead their people.
All of this is to say that Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece, a multi-layered work of true genius.
I've remarked on this before, but it's been fascinating to see how Tolkien's work has gone from being regarded as a fringe-fantasy epic for teenagers to a deep and meaningful book about Christian faith. It is not uncommon for priests to reference it during homilies and even bishops now cite its examples.
Clearly, Tolkien builded better than he knew.