In Letter 142, Tolkien called the Lord of the Rings a "Catholic work", quote:

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 or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has 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.

Of course, some parallels with Christianity are obvious, like Gandalf's resurrection. But what makes this book closer to Catholicism in contrast to other branches of Christianity? Did Tolkien ever elaborate on this? Or did he ever mentioned what in Catholicism made him personally prefer it over, say, Anglicanism, except of it being the faith of his parents?

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    Depends on which version of the word catholic he meant. He may not be using it in a Christianity sense but rather as an indicator of correctness and adherence. No way to know out of context tho. Is it possible to quote a bit before and a bit after?
    – Broklynite
    Sep 23, 2016 at 9:19
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    @Broklynite - He's used it with a capital C. There's no way he meant catholic/all-encompassing.
    – Valorum
    Sep 23, 2016 at 9:34
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    I can't think of any specific questions of theology that would not be so if Tolkien had been a modern mainstream Protestant, but I think the question is ill-founded: nothing is deliberately different, the work is just steeped in who he is.
    – Shamshiel
    Sep 23, 2016 at 10:03
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    I like Paul's answer, but there's no obvious reason to think that Tolkein would have necessarily phrased it any differently even if there hadn't been anything about it that was specifically Catholic, as opposed to Protestant, say. In this context, at least, he may well have considered "Catholic" and "Christian" to be essentially synonymous. Sep 25, 2016 at 23:42
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    I agree with @HarryJohnston here, Tolkien really didn't like protestantism, so for him Catholic = Christian in general.
    – Yasskier
    Sep 26, 2016 at 20:48

6 Answers 6


Catholics (and Christians generally) see the universe as the handiwork of God, and therefore essentially Good. However Satan introduced Evil and seeks to set himself up as better than his creator. The parallels between this and the creation of Middle-earth by Ilúvatar at the start of The Silmarillion are very plain. Ilúvatar is God, Melkor is Satan, and the Ainur are the Angels. In the music of Ilúvatar Melkor seeks to introduce his own themes to rival that of Ilúvatar, and thereby spoils the work of the creation. However it turns out that this was all part of Ilúvatar's plan. This is all straight Catholic theology.

This world-view also affects The Lord of the Rings. Catholics see the world as "fallen", and hence on a downward trajectory. They expect things to get progressively worse as sin leads humans away from God, until Judgement Day arrives. This view can be seen across The Lord of the Rings, where the fight against Evil has exhausted the forces of Good. The Elves leave Middle Earth, the Three Elven Rings fade, and places like Lothlórien and Rivendell will become just ordinary bits of woodland instead of places of extraordinary beauty.

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    I'm not sure that this addresses why it's a Catholic work specifically, as opposed to a Christian work. As a Baptist, there's nothing here I would disagree with (though I suppose that a few small denominations or individuals might take exception to the idea that things are getting worse - I would say they're the exception, however).
    – Turambar
    Dec 15, 2016 at 18:59
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    "However it turns out that this was all part of Illuvatar's plan." Is it ever specified what this plan is? It seems like a pretty dick move to actually plan suffering into your creation when you can (conceivably) do without. Oct 1, 2019 at 7:53
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    @Parrotmaster My copy of the Silmarillion has gone missing, so I can't quote, but IIRC at the end of the Music Illuvatar shows the newly created Middle Earth to the Ainur and says something along the lines of "See what you have made according to my plan. And that includes you Melkor". As for "dick move", see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil Oct 1, 2019 at 8:05

The Letters give a few examples of how Tolkien saw his work as specifically "Catholic" (rather than Christian in general), or recognised that others did so.

Letter 153 includes a footnote about the lack of overt religious behaviour, which (as an exception) compares a prayer to Elbereth to a Catholic's prayer to a Saint.

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.

The Letters of JRR Tolkien: Letter 153

Letter 213 mentions that he is not sure his Catholic faith could be deduced from his writing, but gives as an example the fact that a critic had compared the way Galadriel was viewed to the Catholic devotion to Mary.

I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter 'fact' perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary.

The Letters of JRR Tolkien: Letter 213

Finally, Letter 320 acknowledges that the character of Galadriel draws on the Catholic view of Mary.

I was particularly interested in your remarks about Galadriel. .... I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself.

The Letters of JRR Tolkien: Letter 320


In addition to the other answers: if we keep to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the Seven Virtues of Catholicism are predominant in all Tolkien's work. The most vivid examples of the virtues I can think of, in a certain disorder:

  • Charity, in a self-sacrifice and generosity sense. Frodo accepts to risk everything so as to cast the One Ring into the fire. No one asked explicitly for him to continue on, and there were countless other great figures, Elves, Men and Dwarves alike, at the Council of Elrond. When Frodo decides to take upon the burden, Elrond responds to him:

    "I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right, and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together, your seat should be among them."

  • Patience, from which comes forgiveness, mercy. What would have been the fate of the world would not have Bilbo spared Gollum on his way out of the Misty Mountains?

    Frodo: "It's pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had a chance!"

    Gandalf: "Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death. And some that died deserve life. Can you give it to them Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many."

  • Kindness, which radiates from positive thinking and outlooks. Probably the best example is Frodo's relationship with Gollum during his journey trying to enter the dark land of Mordor: Gollum almost gives up to his remorse before they enter Shelob's lair. Also, the cheerful talking is what keeps Frodo and Sam going even in the darkest of the places, like Cirith Ungol stairs:

    'It's saying a lot too much,' said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. [...] 'Why, Sam,' [Frodo] said, 'to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written.'

  • Humility. Although knowing his glorious lineage, Aragorn stays humble throughout his entire life. After the siege of Gondor and the great battle of the Pelennor Fields, he stays at the entrance of Gondor and continues to go among ordinary people and heal best as he can.

    [...] men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow. And Aragorn arose and went out, and he sent for the sons of Elrond, and together they laboured far into the night. [...] And when he could labour no more, he cast his cloak about him, and slipped out of the City, and went to his tent just ere dawn and slept for a little.

  • Temperance from which comes restraint, honor, justice. Faramir treats Frodo fairly, and later by extent Gollum too, as he swears he's no orc spy but their guide. When lecturing Sam, after the Ithilien ambush:

    'Patience!' said Faramir, but without anger. 'Do not speak before your master, whose wit is greater than yours. And I do not need any to teach me of our peril. Even so, I spare a brief time, in order to judge justly in a hard matter. Were I as hasty as you, I might have slain you long ago.'

  • Diligence, which gives persistence, fortitude. Examples are plenty, although the most striking one is the pursuit by Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli of the two captured hobbits.

  • Chastity. Sexuality is never really tackled in Tolkien's work. However, Aragorn is promised Arwen since he was young, relatively speaking, if he's deemed worthy by Elrond, and for all we know, Aragorn may have very well waited this long for his love.

As to the difference with other Catholic branches, such as Anglicism or Protestantism, can be mainly viewed with the Pope's authority.

Gandalf, well-known magician in most part of the world, can be compared to an archbishop. After his death, although successfully defeating the Balrog in Moria, he becomes the Pope: head of the White Council by Ilúvatar's decree. Everyone listens to his advice, those who don't usually get somewhat of a bad fortune (Boromir and Denethor come first into mind). Like in historical events, he even crowns Aragorn king.


There are many fantastic answers on this page but there are a number of other connections that have not been made yet.

Aragorn: The Return of the King

Speaking less about the title and more about the plot point within The Lord of the Rings, the concept of the return of a Great King to his decadent (or at the very least, ill-prepared) people is very central to Catholicism in the following ways.

  • One can liken the return of the King as Jesus Christ returning to claim His Kingdom, i.e., the entirety of Creation at the end of the world. Catholics believe that Jesus Christ descended from a line of kings as well. In fact, certain devotions to Christ refer to him as the Infant King (in reference to His Nativity, Christmas). This runs in parallel to the return of Aragorn to Gondor at the end of the Third Age. He comes back to claim his kingdom but also to fight the final battle against Sauron, thus ending the Third Age.

Frodo: Ring-Bearer

  • Frodo holds a parallel to Christ as well in that he is bearing a burden he should never have had to bear. The ring was not created by Frodo, nor was Frodo responsible for the majority of the evil caused by the ring or its creator. Despite his innocence, Frodo agrees to bear the ring to its destruction, sacrificing himself for the need of others (specifically, all of Middle-earth). Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is God and Man. Being God, Catholics believe that Christ was/is sinless. Christ died to repay the debt of sin that had been caused by the fallen nature of humanity. Here we see a parallel to Catholicism in that Frodo sacrificially bears the responsibility for the destruction of evil that he did not cause as Christ paid the debt of sin He did not owe.

The Ring

The ring itself is an interesting parallel to temptation. One might look at the process by which a sin is committed and see some parallels to the process by which the ring attempts to take hold of its bearer. For example:

  • The Ring calls to its bearer to use it. A particular sin or bad habit may "call" to a person to commit it. This is called "temptation" in Catholicism. A person might see the candy bar in a store and desire to steal it. The desire might be analogous to the ring calling to its bearer.

It is important to remember too that Tolkien hated the concept of treating Lord of the Rings as a metaphor (for anything). Hence, if you begin to apply these parallels too rigidly, you will ultimately find "mistakes". For example:

  • Saruman and Gandalf are Istari, which are Maiar, which in turn are Ainur that entered Middle-earth when it was created. The Ainur are basically the equivalent to God's angels in the Catholic beliefs regarding the hierarchy of the universe. Now, according to Catholic doctrine, an angel may not make up his mind twice. In other words, once an angel has chosen to serve God or to reject God, the decision is permanent. There are no "take-backs" as it were. The Valar are either woefully inept at picking out their helpers, the Istari (they pick Saruman who turns out bad) or the more realistic explanation is that in Middle-earth there is some corruptive quality about receiving flesh and blood because it also gave Ainur/Maiar/Istari the opportunity to pick if they would continue to serve Eru Ilúvatar or pursue their own goals. Gandalf chooses to continue to serve Eru. Saruman is corrupted. This concept of angelic beings choosing a second time what their destiny will be is foreign to Catholicism. It would be a "mistake" if The Lord of the Rings was a metaphor. But it isn't a metaphor and so there is no mistake.
  • Just fixed some canonical mistakes, Maiar are not Valar, but both are Ainur. As well as some spelling errors
    – Edlothiad
    Sep 30, 2019 at 19:56
  • Two points to add here: Sauron and the Balrog are Maia as well, also Tolkien, in a letter to a young fan who asked what kind of being Gandalf was, responded that he was an Archangel.
    – tgrignon
    Sep 3, 2021 at 12:41

According to Carl Hostetter, the keyword here is "fundamentally", i.e. "in its foundations, in its essential nature."

In the Nature of Middle-earth, Carl Hostetter explains this quote as referring to the metaphysics of Middle-earth, explaining that Tolkien was being emphatic when he said "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work", but that he meant the fundamentals of The Lord of the Rings are Catholic.

It will further be seen that the metaphysics of Middle-earth as reflected here is firmly Catholic: that is, it is clearly informed by the metaphysics espoused by St. Thomas Aquinas (itself deeply influenced by Aristotle’s metaphysics), which enjoyed a dramatic reaffirmation by the Catholic Church during Tolkien’s youth, under Pope Leo XIII (who reigned 1878–1903). As Tolkien famously said, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (L:172), a statement that has puzzled many critics, because both The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s wider legendarium are all but devoid of references to any religious cultus (let alone a Catholic system of rites and worship). As I hope the texts presented here will show, the key word in Tolkien’s statement, often ignored as simply emphatic, is fundamentally: that is, in its foundations, in its essential nature. In these particular texts, this is most clearly seen in Tolkien’s implied commitment to hylomorphism: that is, the Aristotelean-Thomistic teaching that all material things are ultimately a union of created but undifferentiated prime matter (in Quenya, erma) with a God-given form (in Tolkien’s parlance here, pattern, that which gives each portion of erma the nature and shape of the thing that it is). It is also reflected in the commitment to the belief that everything, even Morgoth himself, was as created good, but that due to the free will possessed by every creature with a rational mind, they could fall: as one Vala and various Maiar, and Men corporately, did; and that even Manwë, had he asserted his own will and judgement over Eru’s, would likewise have fallen.
The Nature of Middle-earth - Part Two introduction

Carl Hostetter has a twelve-page appendix in the back of the book explaining this in more depth, and also refers the reader to Jonathan S. McIntosh's monograph, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie

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    I think this places an overemphasis on the metaphysics when Tolkien probably had in mind the way the characters act and the general themes that play out reflecting Catholic belief and morality: c.f. Tolkien's comments on Gandalf's sacrifice, or Frodo's possible moral failing, the character of Denethor (the folly of rational despair), all things work out according to Eru's plan and to his greater glory. There's more to the metaphysics, too: in one HoME text, Finrod posits the coming of Christ. LotR is a Catholic work because in LotR Catholicism is literally true - there's just no church yet.
    – Shamshiel
    Sep 2, 2021 at 22:11

Oddly enough, I was just at a conference this weekend, where one of the speakers discussed this in passing.

As far as general Christian imagery goes, Tolkien intended Elves and Orcs (who began as enslaved Elves) to represent Angels and Demons (fallen Angels). This is fairly well-known. However, when you consider this in the light of Tolkien's life-long Catholic faith, you have to also consider lembas, the Elven waybread. A small amount will nourish even a large man for a long journey. This clearly represents the Eucharist, which has been called the "bread of angels." Even the name "waybread" is similar to the Latin word viaticum (food for the way), as the Eucharist is known when it is administered to someone close to death.

This is just one example of many, and the only that easily jumps to mind (that hasn't already been mentioned) without the books in front of me.

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