Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Although Tolkien maintained that there was religion—and monotheistic religion—under the surface of The Lord of the Rings, saying to one correspondent:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
yet he added:
“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.”
Those “practically all references” usually pointed to are:
1. when attacked by a mumak, Damrod the ranger of South Ithilien calls upon the Valar (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)
(by Alan Lee)
2. when Faramir and his men, before eating, face west in silence (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)
(a Ted Nasmith)
3. mentions of the Vala Varda (Elbereth), to whom the Elves seem to feel especially devoted, and to whom Sam almost instinctively appeals when he battles Shelob (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”)
Tolkien goes on to explain:
“For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” (letter to Robert Murray, SJ, 2 December, 1955, Letters 172)
Because this is what the author tells us, we must, of course, accept it and, although he claims that “that is very clumsily put”, behind that explanation is JRRT’s wariness of overt religion appearing in stories like The Lord of the Rings, as he writes:
“For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary “real” world.” (The Silmarillion, xii)
To emphasize this “in solution” method of setting religion into Middle-earth, as Tolkien explained in a footnote to a draft of a letter to Peter Hastings from 1954:
“There are thus no temples or ‘churches’ or fanes in this ‘world’ among ‘good’ people.” (draft of letter to Peter Hastings, September, 1954, Letters, 193)
Again, the author makes his intentions clear—and yet I am always haunted by the remains of previous ages still apparent on the surface in the Third Age. There are the East Road and its bridge over the Brandywine, which the King of Arnor has charged the hobbits to maintain (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, Concerning Hobbits),
(This is the Pont Julien, a surviving Roman bridge in France—I always imagine that Numenorean structures in Middle-earth had an imperial look to them),
there’s the Greenway,
(a bit of Roman road)
(an Alan Lee)
and Amon Hen,
(not sure of the artist here—Scott Peery?)
and, grandest of all, the Argonath.
(the Hildebrandts—although I could easily have picked others, this being a subject which has inspired a good number of excellent artists)
So, if for a moment we might put aside JRRT’s remarks, why might we not see at least the remains of temples or fanes (another word for “temple” or “shrine” from Latin fanum) in Middle-earth?
In our world, Greco-Roman temples survive, either as now remote ruins, like the temple of Apollo at Bassae, in Greece,
or as a fragment, like this corner of the “ temple of Iupiter Tonans” (actually the one surviving piece of a temple dedicated to the emperor Vespasian and his older son, Titus) in the Roman Forum.
(Abandoned for centuries, the Forum had gradually become so silted up and overgrown that it had become known as the “cow pasture” (Campo Vaccino ). This is how the temple looked in the 18th century, long before the beginnings of the official excavation of the Forum in 1898. Here’s what it looks like today–)
Other shrines had been repurposed as Christian churches, like this temple originally dedicated to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina, but now the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Miranda, also in the Forum,
or the temple at the edge of the Agora in Athens, originally a temple of Hephaistos, but, in later times, dedicated to Saint George, which is why it has survived so beautifully.
After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, most Christian churches in Constantinople were converted to mosques, like that dedicated originally to Saints Sergius and Bacchus,
or the grand Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia).
It’s a nice fantasy, then, and would go very well with the genuine fallen monuments of Middle-earth,
(a favorite Ted Nasmith)
but, realistically, we have to accept the author at his word, when he talks about the later peoples of Middle-earth:
“They had little or no ‘religion’ in the sense of worship. For help they may call upon 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.” (draft of letter to Peter Hastings, September, 1954, Letters, 193)
As ever, thanks for reading.
Revere the Valar,
And remember that there’s always
That image of the temple of Vespasian and Titus is by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) and one of a long series of striking engravings of Rome which he made through his later creative years. If you would like to see more of them, here’s a LINK to a useful collection from 1779: https://ia803406.us.archive.org/7/items/piranesi-vedvte-di-roma-t.-1-2-1779/Piranesi%2C%20Vedvte%20di%20Roma%2C%20t.1-2%2C%201779%2B.pdf
A mild warning: Piranesi often does things like distort perspective, shrinking people and swelling buildings in order to make his depictions more dramatic. In fact, they could be so dramatic that 18th-century tourists, having first seen his engravings, sometimes found themselves a little disappointed that the real sites weren’t quite so impressive as Piranesi’s views of them!