(This page is coauthored with Donna Freitas, Ph.D.)




1-Tolkien's Roman Catholic perspectives from his letters.

2-Elements of Tolkien's moral philosophy with Silmarillion examples

3-Tolkien's friendship with C.S. Lewis

4-Discussion questions on the nature of evil from a Catholic perspective by Dr. Donna Freitas (Dr. Freitas' degree is in philosophy and women's studies)

5-A review of recent Tolkien criticism which examines his moral philosophy.

6--Best web sites for Catholic doctrine.

EVEN IF TOLKIEN HAD NOT WRITTEN THE ABOVE, just a superficial examination of the LOTR would confirm the moral orientation. Very fundamentally a Roman Catholic, Tolkien's moral beliefs in absolute good and evil in contention for man's soul may seem strange and uncomfortable to those who assume moral relativism is the only way to think.

When Eomer (named heir to the throne of Rohan by Theoden) discusses with Aragorn the whereabouts of Merry and Pippin, he notes, "The world is all grown strange...How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"

Aragorn's reply is morally unequivocal and definitive in its Catholic orientation: 'As he has ever judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among men. It is a man's part to discern them as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." (The Two Towers: "The Riders of Rohan")

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances...which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their objects; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder, and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

(The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paulist Press, 1994, (#1756)

Tolkien wrote the following:

"With regard to blasphemy, one can only recall (when applicable) the words Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do--or say. And somehow I fancy that Our Lord actually is more pained by offenses we commit against one another than those we commit against himself, esp. his incarnate person." (Letters, p. 97).

One might suspect Tolkien had read the Catechism--time travel permitting!!! But certainly there can be not doubt regarding what he believed.


Illustrating specifics can be found in the canon from THE SILMARILLION to THE HOBBIT to the TRILOGY:

1. God will allow evil to mar the good--

Tolkien's most sustained dramatizations of evil
come from the pollution of the environment from
the evils of technology.

Melkor and the music / Sauraman and the Ents:

Melkor began by delving and building of a vast
fortress..".green things fell sick, and rotted, and
rivers were choked with weeds and slime."

(Of the Beginning of Days)

2. Subcreation is governed by free choice--

An implied notion is that evil comes from
not keeping one's place in the order of things
as defined by God...

Aule and the making of the dwarfs
(but Aule does submit to the will of Illuvatar)

Why hast thou done this? Why doth thou
attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond
thy power and authority?

Aule answered, "I did not desire such lordship.
I desired things other than I am to love and to
teach them...and in my impatience, I have
fallen into folly..."

But God will reward true repentance:

Aule took up a great hammer to smite the
Dwarves, and he wept. But Illuvatar had
compassion upon Aule and his desire, because
of his humility..

(from Of Aule and Yavanna)

3. The good often cannot comprehend the nature of evil--

Manwe was free from evil and could not comprehend it (Melkor)
The very child-like character of the Hobbits

(from Of Feanor)

4. Evil has a dimension of its own (not just the absence of good)--

In that hour was made a Darkness that
seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own

(from The Darkening of Valinor)

(Note that this differs significantly from the Greek view of
evil as the absence of Good)

5. Evil will destroy itself...

This is fundamental to Tolkien's beliefs....LOTR
is filled with examples

Melkor to Feanor: "Here is a strong place, and
well guarded; but think not that the Salmarils will
lie safe in any treasury within the realm of the"Valar!"
But his cunning overreached his aim; his words
touched too deep, and awoke a fire more fierce: than
he designed.
..[Feanor]...cursed Melkor and bade
him be gone,,,Melkor departed in shame..."

(from Of The Silmarils)

{Look for the many examples of this idea in LOTR}

6--Free will exists but has consequences--

...a messenger came from Manwe saying [to Feanor],
"Against thy folly of Feanor shall be set my counsel
only. Go not forth! For the hour is evil, and your
road leads to sorrow that ye do not forsee. No aid
will the Valor lend you in this quest; but neither
will they hinder you; for this shall ye know; as ye
came forth freely, freely shall ye depart...the lies of
Melkor thou shalt learn in bitterness..."

...But Feanor laughed...through sorrow to find joy;
or freedom, at the least."

(from Of the Flight of the Noldor)

Feanor did return to Middle Earth against the wishes
of the Valar, swearing a terrible oath: that those who kept
a Silmaril would meet death, includling themselves
if they failed to pursue the thief. [One of the first and most
horrible consequences was the KIN-SLAYING
resulting in the Prophecy of the North:] "Tears unnumbered
ye shall shed...On the house of Feanor the wrath of the
Valar shall lie..."

As an allusion, in Paradise Lost, Milton's absolute
theological belief is free will, to the point that after
Book VIII, Adam and Eve are left alone to face
Satan, but not before they are warned [as was Feanor]
to beware the consequences of allowing passion to
rule reason.




The details of Tolkien's literary and personal friendship with C.S. Lewis are discussed in Carpenter's Biography, and Tolkien's Letters. They detail the merits of an association predicated on literary affiliation and Christian humanism:

1-According to Carpenter, Tolkien met Lewis at Oxford on May 11, 1926 at a English faculty meeting. Their association was predicated on the strong bonds males form when in combat or any dangerous occupation such as a police officer.

2-Lewis acted as a friendly "critic" in reading Tolkien's draft of The Gest of Beren and Luthien, but Carpenter observes that Tolkien, although not accepting the criticism in theory, nonetheless revised those sections of the poems Lewis had examined.

3--For purposes of this page, we must examine how Tolkien's academic credentials and his religion changed Lewis who was suspicious of a "Papist" and philology.

  • The turning point for Lewis, notes Carpenter, came when he, Tolkien and a colleague called Dyson were discussing Christian myths. Lewis had come to realize the need for a theocentric perspective in his life, but had not accepted "the function of Christ in Christianity" or "...the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection." (Carpenter, p, 163). Lewis wrote that he did not understand how, "the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) could help us here and now---except in so far as his example could help us."
  • Tolkien's reply is fundamental to understanding LOTR. He told Lewis who admired the idea of sacrifice in pagan myths that he should be able to see the truth of the Christian myth .
  • Lewis replied, "Myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver."
  • "NO," said Tolkien,. "THEY ARE NOT."
  • As a linguist Tolkien could argue that a tree or a star are material entities until they are named, but " so naming things and describing them, you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth." (Carpenter, 164).
  • Carpenter's analysis of Tolkien's beliefs are at the core of his writing, and define their moral compass:

We have come from God...and inevitably the
myths woven by us, though they contain error,
will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true
light, the eternal truth that is with God, Indeed
only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-
creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to
the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.
Our myths may be misguided, but they steer
however shakily towards the true harbor, while
materialist progress leads only to a yawning
abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil."

  • Such is the essence of Tolkien as man and writer and scholar and poet and linguist. He believed every word as an axiom of faith. Reading his letters sustain that analysis: every sentence is a emination of his core belief.
  • Shortly thereafter, Lewis, as reported by Carpenter, observed: "I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ--in Christianity...My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it."
  • Tolkien likewise benefitted, writing in his diary, "Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good form the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual--a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher--and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord." (Carpenter, p. 165)



DR. DONNA FREITAS prepared a series of questions and commentaries for a course in Gothic and Romantic Fiction. Their depth and wisdom, though, transcend any one novel or genre, and are offered here as thought-provoking guides to an understanding of Tolkien's moral philosophy. Use them as you read:

It is obvious within western culture that humanity is now and has been for centuries, fascinated by that which is evil or grotesque, that which horrifies. Storytellers, writers, artists, and in this century filmmakers and tv-producers have always found the theme of the grotesque as a favorite subject to explore through their work. One explanation for these individuals taking up this topic might be the fact that a piece, be it novel, film, or what have you, involving evil/the grotesque almost surely will find an eager audience. Humans are thrilled by this subject matter. We seek it out, we are repulsed by it, yet we can't seem to pull ourselves away from it. Evil/the grotesque draws us in and in a powerful way.

Why is this the case? What is it about this subject that captures our attention? Our imaginations? Even though it may repulse us, why do you think we still vigorously pursue the vast array of portrayals of evil that already exist and are continuously being created within our culture? Is there something within us that connects with the subject? If so, what is it? If not, why is it then, that we devour books like Interview with a Vampire, movies such as Dracula, as well as real-life biographies of figures such as Adolf Hitler?

Themes To Consider Throughout the Course of the Semester:

The Nature of Evil. From where does evil find its source? What exactly constitutes evil; from what is it comprised? Is it a force? May it be reduced to acts? - Can something be at the same time both good and evil? What is the relationship between evil and the good?

The Roots of Evil. Is evil something objective (completely outside of us, transcendent) or subjective (arising from within the individual)? How does one become evil? Is one driven to it, or does it come totally from within? If evil comes from without, from where does it arise and how does it come to settle in a particular person?

Evil and Redemption/Forgiveness. Are any individuals/characters absolutely unredeemable? Is there any act which is unforgivable? Is it possible to be evil through and through?

Relationship Between Evil, Reason, and the Passions/Emotions. The passions or the emotions are traditionally more closely associated with evil than human reason. Aristotle and Plato certainly suspected that to be the case. Why do you think the passions would be more likely to lead one to evil than the intellect? In your own opinion, does one (reason or the passions) tend more toward evil than the other? Use examples from the texts to support your ideas.

Evil and the Question of the Other. Who would have known that innocent, young Annakin Skywalker, who would grow up to be one of the greatest Jedi Masters ever, would also turn out to have a serious weakness for evil things? Is there really that great a distance between each of us (assuming that we are good), and those who practice evil in the world? Aren't we all just one step away from things being other than good? Are the evildoers of the world and of our texts truly other than us, or do they simply reveal to us another possible mode of being for each of us?

Evil and Fate. Does fate play a role in who/what is evil? Is it possible that some individuals/characters in our texts are destined for evil, regardless of what they intend for themselves in life? If evil is tied with destiny/fate, then we may conclude that at least to a degree, evil action is out of the control of humans, If this were the case, then could we still hold people accountable for their deeds (think the Monk for example).

• The Question of the Good. From where does "the good" arise? From within humans? From something/somewhere transcendent of humanity (from the realm of the divine perhaps), from something/somewhere outside of us? A combination of both? What is in conflict with the good? Is it only humans? Is there a "force" that exists somewhere within the realm of space and time (or even outside of space and time) which works at inhibiting the good? Is the good something objective or subjective?

Evil and the Soul. What relationship if any does evil have to our souls? Is it possible to be an "evil soul"? If so, give an example of one. Do evil and the good wage battles within the soul? If so, use one of the literary texts to illustrate the way in which this battle within the soul is being waged.

• The Human Desire to Grasp the Divine/Supernatural. It is said by many philosophers/theologians (Plato for example) that to be human is to search for and experience glimpses of the divine, and ultimately to become one with the divine (think mysticism). In some individuals, it is obvious that this tendency is stronger than in others; some individuals are propelled in a more intense way. Given the course readings, both literature and philosophy, in what way can the search and desire for the divine lead one down an ambiguous path (that is, potentially tending toward good and evil at once). What do you think is going forward, when the individual engaged in that search crosses the line on that path from good to evil?

The Human Desire for Divine Powers: To Be a Creator. The role of"Creator" is generally reserved for God; yet it is obvious that humans share in the desire to take on this role in the world. What relationship do you think artists (any kind of artist) and scientists, for example, have to this desire, if any at all? In what way can this desire for power lead an individual down an ambiguous path (think Frankenstein, think the
relationship between humanity and our almost frenzied pursuits in the areas of science and technology)?

The Individual and Alienation. Many of the characters in our novels either alienate themselves from society or experience some kind of alienation (usually undesired by them) from society. What qualities of the characters cause their alienation? What is it about them that society rejects? What relationship do you see between the experience of alienation and evil behavior? Can alienation drive one to evil? If one is shunned by society and potentially driven to evil acts in response to this, then can a person be held responsible for their actions? Why or why not?

The Ambiguity of Human Freedom. Humans (according to many, many philosophers) have this capacity called "free will" which allows for choice in one's actions. It is often said, that humanity walks through life along a precipice, while remaining on the side of good; (at least for most people), that fatal move to evil is (constantly) just a mere footstep away. Given this ambiguity, that so close alongside good there resides evil, what do you think it is that would cause a person to take that fatal step? What circumstances surround that kind of move? Please elaborate using examples from our texts. Do you think that humans forget that evil is always so close at hand? If so, what effect does this have on our potential to remain on the side of good?

Religion in Relation to Evil. At times in our texts, religion is the savior of humanity and at times it seems to be the downfall of one of our "heroes". Compare and contrast the role that religion plays in at least two of our texts.

The Boundaries of Human Knowing. Kant argued that human knowing was bounded by categories of knowing that we could never break through; he believed that we could never know a "thing-in-itself' for only God could have that kind of objective or "mystical" knowledge. Regardless of this modern belief, the Romantics played with this possibility of humans breaking through these boundaries to achieve divine knowledge. What are some examples of this? Do you agree with Kant, or do you believe that it is possible to break through the boundaries that lie between the human ability to know and divine knowledge? What impact does this pursuit have on our characters?

The Impact of Technology/Science on Humanity. It is common in our culture, when we believe that within the realms of science and technology we are moving forward too rapidly in our development of science and technology without thinking of the potential consequences, that we are trying to "play God" (think the controversy of cloning). Why is there this fear around scientific and technological development getting out of hand? Are these fears and concerns grounded? In your answers, use examples from the texts to argue for or against these concerns.

Literature and "The Truth". It is said that art (in this case literature) is that which "mimics" or "imitates" it "reveals" or is revelatory. Take a text and analyze to what degree the text has revealed the truth(s) of life/reality. To what extant does it not have to do with what you would consider the "truth"? Why?

• Gender and Literature. With respect to the issue of mimicry/imitation and literature, consider the issue of gender. Is the text reflecting a truth more for a male or female perspective? In what way does it do this (reflect a particular male or female perspective/voice)- or in what way does it not do this?

• The Author and Gender. Consider the gender of the author (almost all of our authors are male). Do you think that the gender of the author has an impact/influence on the perspective ofthe "truth" that the author intends to be revealed in the text? Does the gender of the author have an impact on the perspective the reader is given regarding the nature of humanity? On our perspective of men and of women?

The Judgment of Morality . It is easy to judge, and we are quick to judge the characters in these texts which we read. It is even thrilling to us to learn ofthe depths to which our characters may sink in their depravity! Yet, are we really in a position to sit in judgment of their moral status? Why or why not? What would put us in the position to judge? Please explain. Is it possible that though in outward deeds we may be easily distinguished from our disturbing characters, that inwardly our make-ups are not that different after all?


Bruner, Kurt and Jim Ware. Finding God in The Lord of the Rings. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2001.

  1. In the Epilogue, Ware note, "Kurt and I have written from a distinctly Christian point of view. It's possible that readers who do not appreciate that perspective will objected that we have simply imposed our own biases and beliefs upon the text of Tolkien's epic." (p. 109)
  2. I would argue that anyone who thinks that seriously misreads Tolkien. Ware and Bruner beautifully capture the essence of Tolkien's spirituality implicit in every line of LOTR and THE SILIMARILLION.
  3. Each chapter begins with commentary on an element of the quest, followed by contemporary applications sustained by relevant quotes from Sacred Scripture followed by a reflection.
  4. They write for example, "We have a choice. We can seek our own safety and comfort by seeking a deaf ear to the cries of the weak and shielding our eyes form approaching danger, Or we can use or influence for good entering the fray to join the active resistance of evil. We are called to nothing less, And if we perish, we perish" (p. 58) The REFLECTION that follows reads: "ONLY THE ACTIVE INFLUENCE OF GOOD CAN COUNTER THE ADVANCE OF EVIL." The narrative warns that evil will insidiously worm its way into our hearts unless we remain vigilantly active. Tolkien of course believed precisely that and chooses, as did Jesus, the authors note, the most unlikely candidates for moral heroism. Be they illiterate fisherman of the gospels or "halflings," they do what evil would least suspect. Give up the lust for power and "goods" to defeat the lust for power and "goods." In 1933, Hitler advised an interviewer when asked that he intended to keep all the power he could get. Sauron would do the same with the ring. Their fatal miscalculation was that in each case, their opponents renounced what they most sought. This book is a must read.

Smith, Mark. Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

  1. 1. To blandly observe that Smith considers some 30 virtues he explicates in Tolkien--from simplicity to faith to wonder to temptation to courage to love mars the delicate beauty of the book. We too are inside a song as Smith allows us to journey with him on an odyssey of spiritual discovery.
  2. He quite clearly knows, as any reader of Tolkien, that "Imagination is the whole point of Middle-Earth. It's why we keep coming back. It tells us not so much how to live as how it is possible to love. It reminds us of what's beautiful and important in the world, because for all our technological and societal "improvements," nothing in Middle-earth is gone save the specific people...but there are still friends, there is still devotion, there are still deeds of renown to be attempted. And they must be attempted if imagination is to be of any value." (pp. 99-100)
  3. In his Introduction, Smith believes that God had a hand in writing LOTR.(p. 13). Such is not hard to believe, for "The Lord of the Rings reverberates with love." (p. 134)

Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Considered the definitive philological and mythological interpretator of Tolkien, Shippey, who taught with him, devotes Chapter III to "Concepts of Evil." Some highlights followed which should be examined as the chapter is read:

  1. There are three premises from which the moral action of LOTR derives:
    1. The ring invites invincibility, but...
    2. The ring devours those who possess it, and
    3. The ring must be destroyed rather than guarded (113--114)
  2. A section of the chapter concerns what Shippey calls "Wraiths and shadows" Tolkien's Images of evil." Although he does not mention Jung by name and prefers, as did Tolkien, a lingusitic / moral vs. a psychological examination of LOTR, the use of Shadow" invites comparisons to Carl Jung's archetype. A page on this site discusses the concept further.
  3. Shippey suggests two views of evil define moral activity: one he terms Boethian, [evil as negation of the good], and the other Manichaeanism [evil is more than an absence; it does exist]. (pp. 228 ff.). Shippey offers multiple examples of each, believing that they coexist and thus amply refute critics who argue the trilogy lacks moral focus.
  4. Importantly he argues, as did my class which made presentations on the subject, that the ring's power anticipates the appeal that ensnares drug addicts. He discusses the 6 times Frodo uses the ring and suggests (p. 154) Gollum should not be unsympathetically condemned, a position I too favor.
  5. In general, Shippey substantively refutes on moral and linguistic grounds, those critics who dismiss LOTR as either irrelevant or nonsubstantial.
  6. A personal observation: however completely one 'knows' the Trilogy, a reexamination from Shippey's perspective will reveal how little most readers fully appreciateTolkien's linguistic and moral genius.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

New Advent Catholic

Theological Library

The Holy See