1. When and how did you first come across The Lord of the Rings?
Believe it or not, I first read The Lord of the Rings during my second prison sentence. Prior to my conversion I was involved in radical white supremacist politics and was imprisoned twice for publishing materials likely to incite racial hatred. During the second of these sentences, in 1985 and 1986, I read The Lord of the Rings during time in solitary confinement. I knew of The Lord of the Rings before this, of course, but had never got round to reading it. The story is told in greater length in my autobiography, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love.
2. If this is not too personal, did it play a part in your conversion?
Yes, The Lord of the Rings played a significant role in my conversion. It was not as obvious or as pronounced as the influence of writers, such as Chesterton, Newman, Belloc and Lewis, but it was very powerful in a more subtle and suggestive way.
3. What are the best examples of Christianity in the texts?
There are so many examples of Christianity in the text that one hardly knows where to begin. I have already written two books and edited another on the Christian dimension in Middle-earth and I’ve been commissioned to write yet another, which I’ll be working on this summer. The key that unlocks the Christianity of The Lord of the Rings is the fact that the Ring is destroyed on the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), which is also, according to tradition, the date of the Crucifixion. This analogically connects the destruction of the Ring with the destruction of Sin and, therefore, the synonymous connection between the Ring itself and Sin itself. The effect on the sinner of his addiction to sin can be seen in the gollumization of the soul. Much, much more could be said. Needless to say, there are numerous ways of showing why Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”.
4. Sources have stated that the menace from the East could be a metaphor for Islam, while others say the menace from the East is representative of the Axis powers during both World Wars. Which would you say is a more accurate interpretation?
Tolkien was at pains to insist that The Lord of the Rings should not be read primarily as a political allegory. Apart from the aforementioned insistence by Tolkien himself that the book was “fundamentally Catholic” he also described it as an allegory of Death and Immortality. He did describe it as an allegory of Power, which leaves open the possibility of an exploration of its political applicability, but this dimension should never be allowed to obscure the deeper theological and religious applicability.
On the purely political level, it would be true to see the East as representing Soviet communism, not Islam or the Axis powers. Isengard, with its symbol of the white hand (signifying, perhaps and arguably, the racist Nazi salute) could be said to symbolize Nazi Germany. Thus it could be said that socialism (national and international) constitutes the political bête noir in the epic. The Shire, Rohan and Minas Tirith, in contrast, represent traditional Catholic culture and the political freedom which is its fruit. Islam is suggested in the representation of the Southrons who serve the Enemy.
It needs reiterating, however, that all such applicability pales into relative insignificance beside the deeper theological dimension.
5. Tolkien’s contemporaries, like C.S. Lewis were more explicit about Christianity in their works. Why do you believe Tolkien chose to be more implicit?
Tolkien was very influenced by the techniques of applicability used by the Beowulf poet, in which numerological signifiers are used to connect the actions of Beowulf with the Gospel narrative and in which the story itself is used as a subtle yet powerful refutation of the Pelagian heresy. Tolkien clearly admired the subtle way in which the Beowulf poet subsumed his theological intent and message within the very fabric of the story, seldom succumbing to the preachiness of daubing it on the surface as Lewis sometimes does.
6. Tolkien was influenced by many Old and Middle English sources (i.e. The Wanderer, Siegmund the Dragon Slayer); however, many of these texts were more secular than religious. Do you believe this was purposeful?
Most Old and Middle English sources are much less secular than most modern scholars seem to believe. These works contain their Christianity within their very fabric and do not wear it on their sleeve. Tolkien mirrors this approach. Being as Catholic as they were, Tolkien subsumes his deepest held beliefs into his works allowing them to inform and animate his work without ever wishing to spoil the story through sermonizing.
7. Critics call Gandalf’s return from death a “cheap” plot twist, however, others have seen it as a symbol of the Resurrection or Transfiguration of Jesus. Do you think the religious interpretation makes the trilogy stronger?
Of course. Materialists believe that Gandalf’s resurrection and transfiguration is “cheap” because they think it “cheats” death, which, for the materialist, is impossible and, therefore, implausible. Their lack of faith in the transcendent leaves them blind to the deeper meaning and the deeper beauty of the work, rendering them unable to appreciate the trinity of the good, the true and the beautiful which is at the pulsating heart of the narrative.
8. Tolkien has written that The Lord of the Rings does have Catholic themes but that his main purpose was to create a land for his new languages to be explored in. Does the end product have stronger Christian elements or linguistic elements?
In point of fact, Tolkien places the linguistic dimension lower in the “scale of significance” than the religious. In writing of this “scale of significance,” he placed the facts of his personal life at the bottom, his “taste in languages” in the middle, and the fact that he was “a Christian, and in fact a Roman Catholic” at the very top. Tolkien employs the linguistic elements to both disguise and reveal the religious elements. For example, lembas translates as “life-bread” or “bread of life”, a clear allusion to the Eucharist at the very heart of Christian life.
Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This is the text of an interview that Joseph Pearce gave to a college student on The Lord of the Rings. It is being published here for the first time.