It has been very famously said by Tolkien that The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic fairy tale: first unconsciously, then consciously so in the revision. Reading Lord of the Rings for the fourth time now, the Catholicity of the work sticks out like a sore thumb to me. In particular, the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring contains brilliant use of Catholic imagery and spirituality, which lays out the recurrent themes of the work.
First, I should like to point out that the Ring symbolizes sin, perhaps venial sin in particular. Gandalf speaks of how lucky Bilbo was to cast off the ring when he did; otherwise, he might have been ensnared by the powers of darkness: “Alas! Mordor draws all wicked things…” (72) Even venial sin, though not taking away the life of grace within the soul, draws it to hell and repeated venial sins–despite the fact that many venial sins, no matter how many times they are repeated, cannot add up to a mortal sin–often lead to the commission of a grave sin, which is damning. *Huge Spoiler Alert to the end of this paragraph* Indeed, Gollum, who had been completely possessed by the Ring, falls into Mt. Doom at the end, and Frodo narrowly escapes. This is reminiscent of the first letter of St. Peter 4:18: “And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?”
People can become absorbed by sin. They become a preoccupation either in the penitent or impenitent. This is symbolized by the obsession produced in Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and those covetous of the ring. This absorption leads to people becoming irritable when admonished by others–plain in the case of Bilbo in chapter one and Frodo by the end of the work. Even if the sinner acknowledges his fault, he cannot overcome his fault without help:
Frodo drew the ring out of his pocket again and looked at it…It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle…and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away–but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.
Frodo later protests that he really wants to destroy it, but grace acting upon nature, the formation of will power through developing good habits–is necessary for overcoming sin. And so, we have the concept of a long journey, which symbolizes a life of resisting temptation and striving to do the right. As a matter of fact, Bilbo’s very, very long life symbolizes God’s mercy: even though Bilbo cannot cast away the ring, he is given a very long time to do so, which results in the eventual triumph of grace.
But, the Ring’s ability to make one invisible symbolizes how sin destroys charity and weakens faith. We see from Gollum’s back story that his use of the ring led to people distrusting him and eventually exiling him. Also, since all sin indicates deficiency of faith, the sinner, while he sins, might imagine himself invisible to God. Instead, God still sees the sinner, and, worse yet, the sinner becomes more apparent to his enemies and more easily disturbed by them, which is excellently displayed in Peter Jackson’s movies.
Then again, the theme of spiritual acedia and sinners preferring darkness to light (John 3:19) is apparent in Gollum’s story and what happens to the ring-bearers. After all, all ring bearers start to feel “thin” and generally become weary of life. This is due to hiding from Life Illimitable by continuing in sin–even if apparently trifling. Gollum even hates the presence of the sun and hides himself in caves! Then, sinners lie rather than face the truth, as Gollum does, and so further enter the darkness encircling them. Darkness itself promises “great secrets” (p. 68), but Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44); therefore, all his promises are empty. The reward for sinning is nothing but guilt and pain: nothingness itself.
But, there is always hope, and there is always a part of the sinner reaching for the Light, as Gandalf avers. This is the case even when the case is most desperate–as with Gollum. On the other hand, Tolkien sets out hope for sinners in the form of Charity: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed [Bilbo’s] hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he had been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity” (p. 73). This echoes Luke 7:47: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” As much as any sin breaks the laws of God, which are based on charity and derive from Charity Himself, charity covers many sins. Gandalf’s further remarks on the pity Bilbo showed Gollum show the idea that God can save anyone.
Tolkien also has the understanding that God’s will is always accomplished, as is revealed by Gandalf’s words:
Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.
God’s presence may not always be felt, but we can trust that He is always there and will give us the strength to carry out his will. God can even turn good out of evil for His glory. This passage also reveals another attribute of God: He uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. “When I am weak, then truly I am strong” (2 Corinthians 21:10). It is also symbolic of David and Goliath.
Three other Catholic symbols I have picked up on from this conversation were the Cain and Abel imagery between Gollum and the friend he murders, Deagol, the Men of Westernesse as the Jews, and therefore, Aragorn of the kingly line of the Westernesse, as the Son of David, whose return symbolizes the Second Coming. Lastly, the juxtaposition of Bilbo and Gollum reminds one of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, whose greatest difference is that the former showed charity to their fellow men while the latter did not. But, there is so much to the Lord of the Rings that it could fill many pages of commentary. A truly remarkable work!