Tolkien and Religion Seminar Abstracts
26 November 2023
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University of Glasgow

Alexandra Filonenko: On Some Esoteric Motifs in The Silmarillion

Alongside a strong Catholic/Christian trend in Tolkien scholarship, there has always been another interpretational approach relating to ideas of Neoplatonism and, to a lesser extent, Gnosticism and other esoteric currents, which can be considered as alternative religiosity. As Verlyn Flieger rightly points out, “a quick comparison between Christianity and Tolkien’s mythos reveals some fundamental differences and not just on the level of doctrine or creed. Tolkien’s is a far darker world than that envisioned by Christianity and lacks the promise and the hope that the older story holds out” (Flieger 2005: 140).

Tolkien lived during the time when different esoteric orders and societies thrived in Britain, and one of the Inklings, Charles Williams, was an influential student of the occult. The paper proposes to consider Tolkien’s cosmogony (Ainulidale), theogony (Vlaquenta) and his rendition of the myth of Atlantis as sharing some common motifs and ideas with Western esoteric tradition, in particular Gnosticism and Hermeticism. The latter envisages the superior divinity as “the Natural Musician-God, not only in His making of the harmony of His [celestial] songs, but also in His sending forth the rhythm of the melody of His own song[s] right down unto the separate instruments, is, as God, never wearied” (Corpus Hermeticum. The Encomium Of Kings) who thus shares a remarkable affinity with the supreme godhead of Tolkien’s secondary world.

David Chambers: Black Eucatastrophe and Black Power

Scholarship on the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien can tend to marginalize itself by failing to engage in the topics of race, gender, and class. Considering the continuous presence of neo-fascist ideologies and movements, investigations into the long-standing affinity these said groups have for Tolkien becomes necessary. Much research into this area has been done in the last decade. However, despite this, there has been a lack of engagement with Black thinkers within Tolkien scholarship. Engagement with and inclusion of Black voices is the next logical step in de-isolating and broadening Tolkien scholarship. Whether in subdisciplines of Tolkien Studies like literary studies, film studies, linguistics, gender studies, philosophy, or theology, there is much the Black intellectual tradition has to offer and speak with Tolkien on. As an attempt to integrate Black theology and Tolkien Studies, this paper, will bring Tolkien in conversation with Dr. James H. Cone. A commonality in thought, despite a difference in experiences, between the life of Tolkien, a white Englishman and Cone, a Black American theologian will be displayed. The key elements of Tolkien’s thought are strongly resonant with the Black liberation theology tradition in the United States, specifically that of James H. Cone. It will demonstrate a concrete and real way in which Tolkien’s sub-creative and fairie-story elements overlaps and shares similarity to how Black American theology took shape amongst enslaved Black people. Next, it will show how Tolkien’s dialectic of dyscatastrophe and eucatastrophe is brought closer to the primary world by Cone’s dialectic of sorrow and hope, as well as ways it can be used. This will not only serve to complement and work parallel to research discussing Tolkien’s views on race but hopes to further make Tolkien scholarship and fandom more inclusive to people of color and a broader scholarship.

Jeffrey Moore: Where In the Story Are We?: The Epilogue of The Lord of the Rings and a Retrospective Apocalypse

Tolkien’s planned, but unpublished, ending for The Lord of the Rings (the Epilogue) places Sam and his family – and the reader – in a context that clearly looks to a possible future through the lens of an accomplished past. One implied question for Sam and his family as they anticipate the coming of the king is, “How are our lives as people in community shaped and changed by the reality of the events surrounding the destruction of the Ring, the defeat of Sauron, and the return of the King”? This creates a post-apocalyptic moment of hope and possibility. Reading the Christian Book of Revelation from this perspective allows for a generative shift from a future-focused apocalyptic anticipatory gaze, to a retrospective apocalyptic understanding that informs and empowers a community ethic for present and future. This paper will explore the ways in which the Epilogue changes possible interpretive stances and strategies for LOTR and suggests similar possible interpretive stances and strategies for the Christian book of Revelation.

Taylor Driggers & Mariana Rios Maldonado: Here at the End(s) of All Things: The Fall of Númenor as a Theology of Failure for Middle-earth

The ‘Akallabêth’ and The Fall of Númenor contain one of the few instances of formalized religion within Tolkien’s legendarium. This religion, instated by Sauron as its high priest and prophet, proclaims the worship of Morgoth in forms that coincide with the Númenóreans’ quest for power and immortality, hoarding of wealth, and exercise of imperialistic domination. These pursuits suggest that the Darkness worshipped by the cult of Morgoth is a darkness of the Self at the expense of the life of the Other. In this paper, we argue that, on an intradiegetic level, religion as a cult of the Self leads to annihilation – in this case, the drowning of Númenor. On an extradiegetic level, we contend that the violent exercises of power tied to these practices make the ‘Akallabêth’ and The Fall of Númenor the story of a world that needs to end.

We approach this topic from two interpretive angles that, taken together, highlight a new critical perspective on faith and religion in Tolkien’s oeuvre. First, we draw on the philosophical work of Emmanuel Levinas, whose ethics of alterity, influenced by his Jewish faith, critique modern, western thought and the hierarchical relationship it posits between Self and Other. Second, our analysis is informed by the recent turn in apocalyptic theology towards contending with Christianity’s violent legacies and embracing its failure (e.g. Rose 2023, Tonstad 2016). The end of Númenor showcases the necessity of the end of a world in especially stark terms. However, reading Tolkien’s legendarium through theologies of failure and the surrender of the Self in the face of the Other also interrogates how we as readers conceive Middle-earth and its multiple ‘ends’. Such consideration invites us to rethink what we venerate as sacred in Tolkien’s texts, and why.

Rafael Silva Fouto: Pagan Magic and the Marvelous: Songs of Enchantment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion

There have been many studies about the role of song and voice in J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendarium, especially concerning the Music of the Ainur and its Christian influences rooted in Biblical cosmology. However, less attention has been paid to how songs are portrayed as magical vehicles when performed by characters such as Lúthien, Finrod, and Sauron in The Silmarillion, containing echoes from historically Pagan interpretations of magic and enchantment. Jacques Le Goff in The Medieval Imagination (1992) divides supernatural phenomena in Medieval Western thought into three categories: mirabilis, the marvelous; magicus, originally a neutral term for magic but later acquiring Satanic associations; and miraculosus, miracles, i.e., Church-sanctioned supernatural events. This paper will analyze the marvelous origin of the magic songs performed by the characters mentioned above, whose essence lies in performative magic common in pre-Christian Latin sources as investigated by Matthew W. Dickie (2012), such as the many practices of incantatio, and also in the Old Norse magical traditions examined by Neil Price (2017), known as galdr and seiðr. From this perspective, the way Tolkien depicts the use of song in later passages from The Silmarillion is closer to the domains of mirabilis and magicus than to Christian miraculosus, demonstrating his debt to Pagan notions regarding the supernatural.

Brianna Burdetsky: Tolkien and Roth: The Legendarium Meets Jewish History

In the twenty first century, scholars have increasingly been taking notice of the influence of Judaism on Tolkien’s legendarium, driven by his assertion in one letter that he thought of his dwarves as being “like Jews.” Recent scholarship has argued over whether negative qualities attributed to Tolkien’s dwarves—greed, cowardice, and general untrustworthiness—make them little more than common antisemitic stereotypes. However, in this paper, I argue that this approach has become stale and reductive, and that scholars need to explore different approaches to discussing Jewish influences on the legendarium. I establish one new approach by reexamining Tolkien’s work through the lens of his friendship with Jewish historian Cecil Roth, which has received little attention from scholars up to this point. Tolkien’s writing on their friendship suggests that there was an affinity between the two men on the basis of religion, making it a good point of entry into how Tolkien thought about Jewish history and how that thought made it into his work. By combining a historiographical analysis of Roth’s work with a new reading of Tolkien’s dwarves, based on the written evidence we have of the two men’s relationship, I hope to open up new avenues for discussing the influence of Judaism on Tolkien’s work in the future.

Erik Jampa Andersson: ‘With Furious Speed’ – Tolkien, Revelation, and the Tibetan Treasure Tradition

This essay explores the topic of revelation in Tolkien’s work, both as an internal historiographic motif and as a potential lived experience in Tolkien’s own life – specifically in relation to two key revelatory traditions in Tibetan Buddhism, known as ‘terma’ (Wyl. gTer ma, ‘treasure’) and ‘drung’ (sGrung, ‘epic’).

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987), an influential 20th century Tibetan lama who largely pioneered the diffusion of Tibetan Buddhism in the west, once allegedly claimed that “Lord of the Rings is a kind of terma.” I explore this comment a bit in my book (Unseen Beings, p. 195), where I argue that the lived experiences of ‘tertöns’ (gTer ston, ‘terma-revealers’) and ‘bäp-drung’ (‘Babs sgrung, revelatory bards) are not dissimilar from the experiences of inspired myth-makers like Tolkien. That Trungpa claimed to be a tertön himself makes this a particularly fascinating and important statement – and since it has been entirely ignored in both Tibetology and Tolkien scholarship, a more nuanced analysis would be a significant contribution to both fields.

I will draw from an array of primary sources to demonstrate some key areas of overlap between Tibetan and Tolkienian mythogenesis: including ‘translation conceit’ and centrality of non-human language, the function of key words as mythopoeic seeds, the prevalence of dream experiences, the motif of past-life or ancestral memories, the importance of the consort relationship, the roles of non-humans as stewards of knowledge, and the ‘furious speed’ with which materials are frequently produced. I will also explore the function of revelation or recovery as a ‘framing story,’ both in the legendarium and in Tibetan traditions, and the ways that Tolkien’s legacy might be culturally negotiated in a Tibetan Buddhist context.

While I will briefly touch on the idea of ‘Buddhist’ readings of Tolkien’s work, this essay will principally demonstrate how Tibetan Buddhist (and other subaltern) paradigms of revelation can help us make sense of the enigmatic nature of Tolkien’s creative legacy.

Hollie Willis: Borne away like smoke’: Unpacking J.R.R Tolkien’s Depiction of Cremation in Middle-earth in the Context of Catholic Canon Law

In 1963, the Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation by amending the Code of Canon Law. For centuries beforehand, cremation was perceived as an obstacle in the resurrection of the body, threatening the sanctity of bodily wholeness at the heart of Catholic thanatological beliefs. Scholars such as Amy Amendt-Raduege and Patricia Reynolds explore such negative attitudes towards cremation in Tolkien’s work, contextualising the ‘bad deaths’ of characters such as Denethor, Saruman, and Gollum within Tolkien’s Catholicism. In this paper I dig deeper into the relationship between these depictions and Tolkien’s faith by looking at lesser-known examples of cremation across the cultural divide of Middle-Earth (or cremation-adjacent deaths) such as that of Feanor, the Dwarves of Azanulbizar, and the Orcs slain by the Rohirrim. My analysis is based within a wider history of attitudes towards cremation, including how Tolkien’s historical influences contrast with Catholic attitudes to cremation. These examples suggest a more complex relationship between author and text, where the rigid lines of decency and morality in death become fluid and offer these funerary rites as sites of negotiation concerning cultural otherness and empathy. This creation of spaces in which to think about the moral constructs surrounding death rites is part of my PhD project’s overall focus on how the mode of fantasy gives readers the space and tools to reconsider our relationship with death.

Sonali Chunodkar: Ilúvatar as a Reader/Listener-God: A Barthesian Interpretation of Sub-creation in Tolkien

Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” provoked some controversy in academic and fan social media discourse, especially in the context of The Tolkien Society Summer Seminar 2021 presentations. In this polemically fraught context, Barthes’s essay became an agonizing, almost heretical slogan to be challenged by those seeking to uphold the doctrine of authorial intention over other interpretative approaches. Conversely, this essay was evoked as a useful theoretical scaffold for justifying various readerly interpretations of Tolkien’s fiction, often in conjunction with Tolkien’s own acceptance of the reader’s “freedom” and his fiction’s “varied applicability to” their “thought[s] and experience[s].” My presentation aims to highlight certain intriguing similarities in Barthes’s and Tolkien’s respective approaches to the idea of readership by examining Tolkien’s Ilúvatar not as a Biblically inspired equivalent of the Author-God but as a Barthesian example of an equally idealized albeit unique Reader/Listener-God. Scholars like Verlyn Flieger, who convincingly argued in Splintered Light that Tolkien intentionally departs in some aspects from Christian mythology to incorporate features of pagan (Norse) mythology and pre-Christian (Pythagorean) philosophy, have nonetheless examined his invented creation myth through the comparative lens of religion. My presentation, on the other hand, will undertake a close, non-religious reading of the “Ainulindalë” or “The Music of the Ainur” texts to show how Tolkien’s Ilúvatar anticipates Barthes’s understanding of the reader as that “someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition, hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him.” The Ainur, in this interpretation, function as the singing equivalents of Barthes’s “modern scriptor.” Through this close reading, I hope to extrapolate a model of sub-creation from this particular text(s) that gives non-idealized, actual readers an essentially equal co-creative role in the secondary world-building process.

Adam Debosscher: The Pyre of Denethor: from suicide on the page to manslaughter on the screen

The Pyre of Denethor is a chapter in The Return of the King that recounts the final moments of Denethor’s life. The climax of the chapter is a quasi-theological debate between Denethor and Gandalf, where Denethor represents despair, while Gandalf represents hope. Tolkien, as a man who would have seen more than his share of despair in the Great War probably cared very deeply about the fight between hope and despair. For example: Tolkien writes of faith as “hope without guarantees” in his Letters. As a man of faith, Denethor’s decision to give in to despair and to take his own life would be of great importance to Tolkien. In the chapter, Gandalf reminds Denethor that “Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,” but to no avail. So, the fact that Peter Jackson adapts the scene quite differently in his movie is worth analyzing. Indeed, in Jackson’s adaptation, rather than Denethor dying off-screen by suicide as he does in the book, Denethor dies on-screen by manslaughter at the hand of Gandalf. This paper will explore how the 50 years that elapsed between Tolkien’s writing and Jackson’s 21st century adaptation illustrate a change in the audience’s expected response to suicide and violence in a world gradually less concerned with theological dogma.

Mercury Natis: Baruk Khazad! Antisemitism, Jewish Joy, and Dwarven Contexts

In 2010, Jewish scholar Rebecca Brackmann wrote a paper in which she posited that Tolkien’s dwarves began as antisemitic stereotypes, something that he actively corrected after the onset of the Holocaust. Shortly after the publication of this paper, Renée Vink wrote a rebuttal. While Vink’s rebuttal makes the important point that Tolkien’s original inspiration for the dwarves in the Hobbit was Norse mythology and that they did not become Semitic-like until later in the writing process, it also misinterpreted Brackmann’s argument, missed some very crucial points made, and served as a cudgel to shut down any further discussion as to potential antisemitism in relation to the Dwarves. This paper aims to reassess these two arguments and suggest a different reading of the circumstances in which the Dwarves became Jewish-like. I will argue that, while Tolkien’s Dwarves did not originally begin as anti-semitic stereotypes, the decision to graft Semitic cultural and linguistic traits onto a race already described as covetous, greedy cowards was in itself a (likely unintentional and systemically engrained) antisemitism. This paper aims to argue for the value of Brackmann’s argument that Tolkien retroactively corrected for his error due to his rejection of Naziism and his linguistic interests, and to also suggest that his changes to the Dwarves may have also been influenced by his friendship with fellow scholar and Jewish art collector Cecil Roth. While occasionally patronising and at times sloppy in its approach, Tolkien’s decisions regarding the Semitic nature of the Dwarves show a well-intentioned desire to emulate a culture he respected. Most importantly, this paper aims to posit that we can acknowledge the grains of antisemitism present in Tolkien’s writing process while also cherishing his well-intentioned decisions that allow the Dwarves to serve as a means for Jewish fans to find positive representation in Middle-earth.

Tom Martin: The Tao of Tom Bombadil

This paper delves into the enigmatic character of Tom Bombadil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings and examines the intriguing parallels between his persona and the principles of Taoist thought and philosophy. Analyzing Bombadil’s actions, dialogues, and interactions within Tolkien’s works, this study seeks to shed light on the profound Taoist underpinnings embodied by Bombadil.

Drawing upon the rich tapestry of Taoism, the paper first introduces the core tenets of this ancient Chinese philosophy, including the concept of “wu wei” (non-action), the pursuit of balance and harmony, and the interconnectedness of all things. Subsequently, it conducts a close examination of Bombadil’s idiosyncratic behavior, his unique relationship with nature, and his ability to exist outside the scope of power struggles and conflicts. These aspects reveal a remarkable alignment with the essence of Taoist teachings, presenting Tom Bombadil as a living embodiment of Taoist principles.

Further, the paper delves into Bombadil’s role as a guardian and preserver of his realm, his empathetic connection with living creatures, and his innate ability to see past superficial appearances. By manifesting an intuitive understanding of the Taoist notion of “ziran” (natural spontaneity), Bombadil epitomizes a harmonious existence with the world around him.

Additionally, the study explores the transformative effect of Bombadil’s presence on the Ring, a symbol of power and corruption. Through an analysis of the character’s immunity to the Ring’s allure and his serene indifference toward its potency, parallels emerge between Bombadil’s detachment and the Taoist ideal of non-attachment to material desires and worldly pursuits.

By examining the Taoist themes embodied by Tom Bombadil, this paper invites further exploration into the interplay between Western fantasy literature and Eastern philosophical traditions, highlighting the timeless and universal nature of the human quest for wisdom and balance.

Ilana Mushin: Finrod the Mensch: A Jewish Perspective

Although set in a pre-Christian world, Tolkien unabashedly recognised the Catholic Christian foundation of his Legendarium. What then is the appeal of Tolkien to a Jewish reader? Most scholarship on Tolkien and Jews has focused on the influence of Semitic languages on the development of Khûzdul (Dwarvish) and Adunaic (Numenorean), and on his open use of Jewish stereotyping in the depiction of Dwarves, especially in the earlier stages of his writings on Middle-earth. But these studies tend to focus on an outsider’s perspective on Jews, rather than on how Jews themselves might understand Tolkien’s writings. In this paper, I explore some ways in which Tolkien’s story of the Elves, with its themes of exile, return, and estel (hope) speaks to an Ashkenazy Jew. Here I focus in particular on the life and philosophy of Finrod, King of Nargothrond as a character that embodies Jewish cultural and theological perspectives.