J.R.R. Tolkien and the Eucharist

It is well known that J.R.R. Tolkien, the celebrated fantasy writer who gave us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was a Catholic. He was not a writer who just happened to be also a Catholic; he was a writer whose Catholicism permeated his work.

Although there are those who object to a world of goblins, elves, and dwarves as an escapism that is not Catholic or wholesome, Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a very “sacramental” place which at times only thinly veils its author’s Catholic world view, and this we know by his own testimony. Tolkien’s Catholic principles impregnate his writings, particularly the Rings trilogy. I would include in these principles his monarchism, respect for hierarchy, fascination with matter as a conduit to unseen spiritual realities, deep sense of chivalry, respect for the principle of subsidiarity in government, high regard for virtue as a means to happiness, and a penetrating sense of the redeeming value of suffering.

Tolkien’s world is a fallen world where evil lurks, but where good is more powerful. Reading the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one has an ever-present sense of Divine Providence. Unlike the morally ambiguous realms we enter in so much modern fiction, in Tolkien’s world, good is beautiful and evil is ugly (although, at times, it has a powerful allure that is difficult to resist).

One of my favorite Catholic things about the trilogy is the date when the Ring is finally destroyed in the Cracks of Doom. This cataclysmic and salutary achievement, which begins a new age for Middle Earth, took place on March 25. Catholics recognize this as both the Feast of the Annunciation and the date traditionally assigned to the Crucifixion of Our Lord.

The lembas bread is another example of Tolkien’s Catholicism. It is manifestly a literary type of the Eucharist. For the unfamiliar, lembas is bread made by the Elves. Literally, the word means “journey bread” or “waybread” in Elven, a language of Tolkien’s own invention. (Professor Tolkien was a linguist and philologist by profession.) The Elven etymology of lembas was doubtless, at least in part, a reference to the Eucharist as viaticum.

Now, viaticum itself contains a very powerful imagery since the word (from the Latin via = “way”) comes from the ancient world and connotes a meal taken in preparation for a journey. It was “baptized” by Catholics and came to signify the Eucharist received on one’s deathbed, in order to strengthen him for his journey into eternity. The Roman Ritual has a special rite for administering Holy Communion as viaticum.

But the Eucharist does not only strengthen us in the end. It strengthens us throughout the journey of our life. It is the “bread of the strong,” the “bread of life,” and the “food of the elect.” As a sacrament, it is a means of grace, so it increases sanctifying grace and carries with it a pledge of all the actual graces we need to be strong in resisting sin. Theologians, poets, and preachers have long waxed eloquent on the Eucharist possessing spiritually all the qualities that food has materially: It fortifies, heals, satiates, and refreshes the one who partakes of It.

There is, of course, much more to be said of the Blessed Eucharist, but let’s get back to Tolkien and one of his many descriptions of lembas in the trilogy. In this passage, the Hobbits Frodo and Sam are near the dreaded Mount Doom, the fiery mountain which is the only place where the Ring can be destroyed. They are in terrible physical danger because they are well into the enemy camp. They also lack water and have had nothing to eat other than the lembas.

“As for himself, though weary and under a shadow of fear, [Sam] still had some strength left. The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” (Return of the King, 262)

Indeed, Tolkein’s lembas provides the fantasy reader with some very Catholic literary food for thought!

For more on Tolkien’s Catholicism, see The Lord of the Rings: a Catholic View, by Charles A. Coulombe, K.C.St.S.

The Once & Future Christendom is another article with much to recommend it concerning a Tolkienish world view that is essentially Christian, though I would like to point out that the author is a bit off on the principle cuius regio, eius religio (it’s not a “classical political maxim,” but, rather, a pragmatic invention concocted in the maelstrom of Reformation political chaos). Too, he does not seem to realize that the “Council of the West” he calls for is impossible without Catholic unity. For all that, what the author cleverly calls “the Shire Strategy” gives us something to ponder in these days of creeping globalism and governmental obesity.

The Wikipedia article on Tolkien is very favorable to his Catholicism (at least in that article’s present form in September of 2007).