“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.”[1]

In this 1953 letter written to Fr. Robert Murray, J.R.R. Tolkien also reverently wrote about “Our Lady, upon whom all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”[2] In another letter, written five years later, he agreed with a critic who “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.”[3] Much later, in 1971, he reaffirmed the Marian influence on the characterization of Galadriel, writing that “it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary.”[4] 

The maternal presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary was “active and exemplary”[5] in the works and in the imagination of Tolkien. “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories),” he wrote to Deborah Webster, “and in fact Roman Catholic.”[6] Just as the Catholic faith influenced Tolkien’s work—resulting in the “religious element” being absorbed into the story and the symbolism—it could be argued that Our Lady, upon whom his perception of beauty was founded, profoundly formed his imagination and deeply informed, albeit implicitly, his entire approach to fantasy. Accordingly, in Tolkien, the Mother of God was proclaimed and venerated not in theological formulation, but in an artistic one. And since the Immaculate Virgin unites in Herself and re-echoes the greatest teachings of the faith as She is proclaimed and venerated,[7] Tolkien’s imaginative expression of Marian devotion represents a deep assimilation of the Catholic faith—one that also sought understanding in artistic form. Indeed, Tolkien’s work is fundamentally Catholic because his imagination was fundamentally Marian.

“Subcreation:” Marian Imagination Seeking Artistic Expression

From his 1910 poem Woodsunshine to his 1964 short story Smith of Wootton Major and to the more popular works in between, the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien spent an extensive portion of his life writing on fairy-stories. It is almost exactly in the middle of that span, in 1939, when he delivered his famous Andrew Lang lecture at the University of Saint Andrews “On Fairy-stories,”[8] in which he explicated his thought about the genre and grounded the theoretical basis for his fiction. This seminal essay is the most explicit analysis of his own craft and of his philosophy of fantasy, or what he also called “mythopoeia.”[9] In it are articulated the principles of sub-creation and the inner consistency of reality. Both notions are rooted in beauty, and as a result, are ultimately founded on Our Lady, upon whom was founded Tolkien’s perception of beauty and “in whom all the purest rays of human beauty converge with those rays of heavenly beauty which are of a higher order but which we can nevertheless perceive.”[10]

If theology is faith seeking understanding, sub-creation in Tolkien is an imagination—that perceives the beauty of a higher order—seeking artistic expression.   

For Tolkien, imagination is the mental power of image-making. And successful expression of the perception of that image “which gives (or seems to give) ‘the inner consistency of reality,’” he explained, “is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation.”[11] Sub-creative fantasy, in his mind, consisted of making the story of the Secondary World consistent within itself, so as to allow the reader to look on the Primary World from a fresh perspective. 

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.[12]

For Tolkien, the sub-creative imagination is the creative power of perception that echoes in the human mind the primary creative act of God. “The Divine Artist passes on to the human artist,” in the words of St. John Paul II, “a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in His creative power.”[13] More fundamental still, it is an imagination that perceives beauty. That beauty, human and heavenly, that converge in the person of the Immaculate Virgin. The sub-creative imagination is an imagination that could be qualified as fundamentally Marian.  

The presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Tolkien’s own works was not explicit but fundamentally absorbed into the story and the symbolism. The chapter The Field of Cormallen, for example, in book six of The Lord of the Rings, recounts a scene after the Ring was destroyed and Sauron’s evil work undone. Frodo is in bed recovering from the terrible ordeal, talking to Gandalf. In Gondor, Frodo’s heroic journey culminating in the destruction of the Ring will remain permanently enshrined, and the wizard tells him that:

the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were  brought out of the fire to King.[14]

This small detail is one distinctive fact that makes The Lord of the Rings fundamentally Catholic and Tolkien’s imagination fundamentally Marian. For it epitomizes the central fact of the Catholic faith: the Marian mode of the Redemptive Incarnation. When Tolkien states that the Ring was destroyed on March 25th—the liturgical solemnity of the Annunciation—the Catholic element and Marian symbolism are evident and absorbed into the story, making Marian “applicability”[15] more than legitimate. Furthermore, Frodo’s perilous journey, which ended on March 25th, began when the Fellowship grouped together and left for their journey on December 25th. By using these significant dates, Tolkien artistically proclaimed: for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.

Further Marian “applicability” could suggest what St. John Henry Newman called the rudimentary teaching of the Fathers of the Church on the Blessed Virgin: Mary as the New Eve. The destruction of the “one ring to rule them all” occurred on March 25th when the “here I am” of the Mother faithfully echoes the “here I am” of the Son (cf. Heb 10: 6). The obedience of Christ on the Cross was prepared by the faithful fiat of the Holy Virgin. “Mother and Son appear closely bound in the fight against the infernal enemy until they completely defeat him,” Benedict XVI said. “This victory is expressed in particular in overcoming sin and death, that is, in triumphing over the enemies which St. Paul always presents as connected (cf. Rom 5: 12, 15-21; 1 Cor 15: 21-26).”[16] In this light, December 25th commemorates Our Lady’s central role in virginally giving birth to Christ, the “seed” that was “to bruise the head” of the ancient serpent (cf. Gn 3: 15); He is the Lamb “without blemish,” immolated to redeem humanity from sin (cf. Ex 12: 5; 1 Pt 1: 19). This is the same date the Fellowship began their “pilgrimage of faith” to destroy the Ring. The Immaculate is joined by a close and indissoluble bond to the Mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption.

In The Lord of the Rings, December 25th and March 25th are religious elements absorbed into the story and the symbolism. Both dates are fundamentally Catholic and, in the economy of salvation, both dates are fundamentally Marian.

The Blessed Virgin Mary from all eternity was predestined “in one and the same decree”[17] with the Word Incarnate. “Mary is as it were entirely one with Him [Jesus],” St. John Paul II explained, “not only because they are Mother and Son ‘according to the flesh,’ but because in God’s eternal plan they are contemplated, predestined and situated together at the center of the history of salvation.”[18]

God’s eternal plan gives creation and salvation history its consistency. In Tolkien’s sub-creation are absorbed religious elements, artistically reproducing the inner consistency of salvation history which was “realized by deeds and words having an inner unity.”[19] Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and through the supernatural sense of faith (sensus fidei) intuited the inner consistency in salvation history. In a letter to Clyde Kilby, he acknowledged that when it came to the person of the Mother of God:

There is something missing from any form of “Christian thought” that could make such an omission. A failure (I think) to accept full all the consequences of the Incarnation-story as it is told to us in scripture.[20]

The Incarnation-story was told in a Marian mode. To accept the full consequences of the Incarnation-story is “to acknowledge the essential, vital and providential relationship uniting Our Lady to Jesus.”[21] In his poem Noel, found in the 1936 annual of Our Lady’s School, Abingdon, Tolkien recognized the essential role of the Virgin of Nazareth:

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1: 14). This Story entered history and the primary world through the Blessed Virgin Mary, and through Her, the desire and aspiration of sub-creation was raised to the fulfillment of creation. The story of Redemption was also told in the same mode.  “Man the story-teller,” Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, “would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.”[22] The moving story of the New Adam and the New Eve “is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified.”[23] The Gospel is the fulfillment and definitive completion of all other stories.  

“Eucatastrophe” as Recapitulation of the Imagination

Tolkien identified the “Consolation of the Happy Ending” as the highest function of fantasy and believed that fairy-stories led to the imaginative satisfaction of profound human desires. In the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he used the term eucatastrophe. In a 1944 letter, written to his son, Tolkien related how “the very thing that I have been trying to write and explain—in that fairy-story essay” he experienced through the story of a small boy with tubercular peritonitis miraculously healed through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. Tolkien linked the Blessed Virgin Mary’s mediation of grace with the sudden joyous turn of events he was trying to accomplish at certain moments in his work:

At the story of the little boy (which is fully attested fact of course) with its apparent sad ending and then its sudden unhoped-for happy ending, I was deeply moved and had that peculiar emotion we all have—though not often. It is quite unlike any other sensation.

For it I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears […]. And I was there led to view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth.[24]

Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, the sudden turn in the story, is not the cheap deus ex machina. This latter convention implies a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble predicament. Eucatastrophe “is not an easy thing to do,” Tolkien wrote, “it depends on the whole story which is the setting of the turn, and yet it reflects a glory backwards.”[25] Unlike the deus ex machina, eucatastrophe depends on prior events: it has inner consistency of reality. In the inner consistency of salvation history, the Old Testament was fulfilled in the New Testament—and the New Testament reflects a glory backwards on the Old Testament. Salvation history, from the Old to the New Covenant, with its “inner consistency of reality,” is recapitulated in the New Adam and the New Eve. “Christ’s birth is the eucatastrophe of earth’s history,” wrote Tolkien. The Incarnation is set in the context of the whole story of the People of Israel. And even more fundamental, it depended on the prior consent of one person, “the only Unfallen Person,”[26] as Tolkien called Our Lady. 

The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by the acceptance of Her who was predestined to be the Mother of His Son, so that just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life.[27]

In Tolkien’s own work, the Incarnation was discussed in “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (“The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”) in Morgoth’s Ring, volume 10 of The History of Middle-earth. This debate between the Elven king, Finrod, and the human wise-woman, Andreth, offers another insight on how the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. Referring to what she calls the “Old Hope,” Andreth explains the belief that “the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” She goes on to state that the Old Hope is beyond her own understanding. “How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and that which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?” Finrod’s reply is significant: “He is already in it, as well as outside. But the ‘in-dwelling’ and the ‘out-living’ are not in the same mode.”[28]

In terms of theology, the Franciscan worldview of exemplarism, or St. Bonaventure’s symbolic theology, affords a theological framework for understanding Tolkien’s different modes of the “in-dwelling” and “out-living” of God, and how through beauty, Our Lady has a fundamental role in the recapitulation of the imagination to the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.”

Formulating the relations of expression between God and creatures, Creator and sub-creator, the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure, writes:

It is through mysterious and symbolic figures that the eye of rational intelligence is led to understand the truth of divine wisdom. For the wisdom of God invisible could not have made itself known to us in any other way than by conforming itself through similitude to those forms of visible things which we perceive, and by manifesting to us, in the form of signs, its invisible qualities which we do not perceive.[29]

God expresses Himself in creation, and so the creature inevitably bears in its ontological structure a certain resemblance to God which is imprinted on it by the very act of creation. In this sense, the journey of the imagination to God through Mary, or in Tolkien’s terms “Recovery and Escape” of the imagination, has an exemplaristic end: to perceive, beneath the apparent diversity of things, the inner consistency of reality, the fine threads of analogy that ultimately lead to God. “Contuition,”[30] the term used by St. Bonaventure, implies this indirect intuition of the “out-dwelling” of God through His “in-dwelling” or imprint on finite realities. 

The inner pattern of the “vestige,” that is, the visible creature, is primarily its relation to God. For St. Bonaventure, beauty is aequalitas numerosa, an ordered harmony of the parts to the whole. The Immaculate is the All-Beautiful. Hence, to see a thing as it is truly is—through “Recovery and Escape”—means to see its external beauty in relation to its Exemplar, the Word Incarnate, the fairest of the sons of men (Ps 44: 2), through the exemplary maternal presence of the Tota Pulchra, the One who is All Fair (Song 4:7). The active maternal mediation of Our Lady “leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity.”[31] Ultimately, putting things in meaningful relationships consists in bringing the panoramic beauty of the world, in its multiplicity and variety of creatures, together into unity and in relation to the Word, the Eternal Beauty, or what St. Bonaventure called Eternal Art—an art expressed in time through the Immaculate.

According to the Fathers of the Church, in the history of salvation, the recapitulation of Adam in Christ occurs together with the recirculation of Eve in Mary. The enkindling of the imagination is a sort of “Triple Way”[32]: Recovery, Escape, Consolation (Tolkien’s terms in “On Fairy-Stories”); “Recirculation” through Recovery and Escape, and Consolation as “recapitulation.”       

Tolkien’s own experience and thought seem to allude to an implicit twofold maternal presence of the Immaculate Virgin in the formation of the imagination: exemplary in sub-creation and active in its recapitulation[33]. Sub-creation is fulfilled in eucatastrophe. Both entail the exemplary and active presence of Our Lady.

The Beautiful Devotion to Our Lady in this Fallen World

“Christians are hemmed in a hostile world.” Tolkien had intimate experiences of both the 1914-18 and the 1939-41 World Wars and confessed that his taste for fairy-stories was “quickened to full life by war.” In 1968, Tolkien reminisced how “the war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world I remember.” During the nights he spent on watch for Nazi bombings of Oxford during World War II, one could find by Tolkien’s bed a token of beauty: the Holy Rosary.[34] Considering his strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he probably prayed the rosary frequently, perhaps as a reminder of the beauty of the world he remembered.

In this fallen world, the “beautiful devotion to Our Lady,” Tolkien wrote, “has been God’s way of refining so much our gross manly natures and emotions, and also of warming and coloring our hard, bitter, religion.”[35] To aspire to inward peace in times of tribulation, Tolkien reminded his son in a letter, is a concrete act. “If you don’t do so already, make a habit of the ‘praises’” he recommended. Among the prayers Tolkien suggested were “the Magnificat; also the Litany of Loreto (with the prayer Sub tuum praesidium). If you have these words by heart you never need words of joy.”[36]

Frodo almost unconsciously invoked the name of Elbereth (“Queen of the Stars”) numerous times, as when the Ringwraiths attacked at Weathertop as well as when they pursued him to the ford outside of Rivendell. O Elbereth Gilthoniel! Frodo invoked her in times of tribulation. As Aragorn commended Frodo for stabbing his blade into the Ringwraith, he said, “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth.”

O Elbereth Gilthoniel! The religious elements were absorbed into the story and the symbolism. They were also naturally absorbed in Tolkien’s conversations as is evident in his 1965 interview with the BBC Radio producer Denys Gueroult.

Denys Gueroult: Almost the last question. Do you in fact believe yourself—not in the context of this book, but believe in the sense of straightforward strict belief—in the Eldar or in some form of governing spirits?

Tolkien: Well the Eldar must be distinguished from the Valar only …[inaudible]

Denys Gueroult: The Valar, I mean. I’m sorry.

[Long pause.]

Denys Gueroult: Are you in fact a Theist?

Tolkien: Oh, I’m a Roman Catholic! Devout Roman Catholic. Yes, but uh, I don’t know about Angeology. Yes, [inaudible] certainly. I mean, yes, certainly.

Denys Gueroult: Well they seem to me to be the saints, or the equivalent of the saints.

Tolkien: For theology, yes, in some way [lights match] they take the place in this book of the …[inaudible]… Well, also obviously many people have noticed praying to the Lady, the Queen of the Stars, as you know, have Roman Catholic implications of Our Lady.

Denys Gueroult: Do you wish to be remembered chiefly by your writings on philology and other matters, or by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit?

Tolkien: I shouldn’t have thought there was much choice in the matter—if I’m remembered at all, and it be by The Lord of The Rings, I’d take it![37]

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. But if there was any choice in the matter, would Tolkien have wished to be remembered as having an imagination that was fundamentally Marian? Perhaps he’d take it. 



[1]     J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2013, 142. All numbers are references to the corresponding letters. Henceforth, this book will be abbreviated Letters. Cf. also Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists, 21 November 2009, on how literature can take on a “religious quality.”


[2]     Letters, 142.   


[3]     Letters, 213.


[4]     Letters, 320. In the chapter “History of Galadriel and Celeborn” in J.R.R. Tolkien Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, London, 2001, the reader catches a glimpse of what Stratford Caldecott called “the pressure of the Marian archetype in Tolkien’s imagination on the development of the character of Galadriel” The Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, Darton, London, 2004, p. 56. 


[5]     Redemptoris Mater, 1.


[6]     Letters, 213.


[7]     cf. Lumen Gentium, 65.


[8]     J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, HarperCollins, London, 2014.


[9]     According to Stratford Caldecott: “Mythopoeia is the faculty of making, of creativity, and it is an essential part of our humanity. Escapism in a sense it may be, but in this case we are talking (as Tolkien puts it in his essay On Fairy Stories) of an escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it.” A Hidden Presence: The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, Chesterton Press, 2003, pp. 2-3.


[10]    Paul VI, 31 May 1975: “Mary is ‘entirely beautiful’ and ‘a spotless mirror.’ She is also the supreme model of perfection which artists of every age have tried to capture in their work.”


[11]    On Fairy-stories, p. 59.


[12]    J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, London, 2001, p. 33. “The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and ‘says that they are good’—as beautiful.” Letters, 131.


[13]    John Paul II, Meeting with Artists, 1.


[14]    J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One-volume edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2004, p. 952. In one of the appendices, Tolkien also states that “the date of the downfall of Barad-dûr,” adding that the New Year began on March 25, “in commemoration of the fall of Sauron and the deeds of the Ring-bearers.”


[15]    In the preface to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien stated: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One-volume edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2004, xxiv.


[16]    Benedict XVI, Angelus, 15 August 2007.


[17]    cf. Ineffabilis Deus.


[18]    John Paul II, General Audience, 23 November 1988.


[19]    Dei Verbum, 2.


[20]    Unpublished letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to Clyde Kilby in Michael D. C. Drout,  “Catholicism, Roman” in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia Scholarship and Critical Assessment, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2007, p. 88.


[21]    Paul VI, Address at the Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria, Calgiari, 24 April 1970.


[22]    Letters, 89.


[23]    On Fairy-stories, p. 78.


[24]    Letters, 89.


[25]    On Fairy-stories, p. 76.


[26]    Cf. Letters, 211.


[27]    Lumen Gentium, 56.


[28]    J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle-Earth, vol. 10), Ed. Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, 1993, p. 286.


[29]    St. Bonaventure, Tract. De plantatione paradise, n. 1, v. 575. From the Quarracchi edition, Opera Omnia Ed. Studio Et Cura Pp. Collegia a S. Bonaventura Ad Plurimos Codices Mss. Emendate, Anectdotis Aucta, Prolegomenis Scholiis Notisque Illustrata, 10 vols., Florence: Quarracchi, 1882 1902.


[30]    Analogically, “Contuition” in Tolkien’s terms would be “Recovery and Escape” (cf. On Fairy-stories). 


[31]    Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists, 21 November 2009.


[32]    The “Triple Way” in St. Bonaventure designates the ensemble of acts by which the soul acquires one of the other of the three elements constitutive of perfection here below: to taste or experience peace, truth, charity via purification of the memory, illumination of the intellect, and perfecting of the will via the union of spousal love. As Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner points out: “’Way,’ therefore denotes essential dimensions of the life and activity of every created spiritual agent, or created person, precisely because not only a vestige, but also an image of the Trinity capable of being a similitude by grace as well.” The Triple Way by St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Academy of the Immaculate, New Bedford, 2012, p. 19.


[33]    Recapitulation, in the Greek anakephalaÍosis, is used in rhetoric to indicate the summary of a speech. The prefix ana can mean a repetition (“once more”), but also an even coming from above which achieves a perfection. It signifies, therefore, the renewal of an origin and a completion, a conducting toward the goal. In the words of Tolkien: “the sudden glimpse of Truth” and  “a far-off” gleam of evangelium in the real world.” Cf. On Fairy-stories, p. 77. 


[34]    Cf. Letters, 55.


[35]    Letters, 43.


[36]    Letters, 54.


[37]    Tolkien interviewed by Denys Gueroult about his book, The Fellowship of the Ring in 1964: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p021jx7j