Religion in Middle-earth
Chris Seeman: PO Box 1213 Novato. CA 94,948. USA
How does it work and what does it do?
Religion is a standard feature of fantasy role-playing universes. If we broadly define religion as creed (what people believe), code (what people value) and cultus (how people express beliefs and values through ritual), then we can usually discern its presence as a factor in most role-playing games. But this definition may he too broad; for most people, creed and code only become “religious” when they are organized and controlled by a particular group of people (i.e. a church, a cult, or some other kind of association which specifically defines itself as religious, as distinct from other kinds of groups — political, kinship, or whatever).
Is there religion in Middle-earth? Both literary critics and game designers alike have managed to generate a lot of confusion in attempting to answer this question. There are two reasons for this lack of clarity. The first is a failure to correctly interpret Tolkien’s own statements on the matter as a result of failing in turn to distinguish between Tolkien’s understanding of the “religious” function of fantasy as literature, and references (or lack thereof) to creed/code/cultus in Middle-earth as material for role-playing games. The second reason for confusion is due to the fact that most people who write about religion in Tolkien’s world (whether as literature or as an FRP setting) fail to make explicit what definition of religion they are using (e.g. Do they mean creed. code, or cultus — or some combination of the three?). By attending to both of these factors, this essay will attempt to give this question a clear and straightforward answer.
If there is religion in Middle-earth, what does it do? Reading a fantasy novel is a contemplative activity; but a fantasy role-playing game is fundamentally oriented towards doing something. This means that role-players are concerned with cause and effect relationships — i.e, “If religion exists, how might it concretely affect my character?” Because religion typically claims access to power of some sort, a role-player needs to know whether and under what circumstances that power is effective — i.e. “If my character participates in religious activity, will that have an impact on my rolls?” In other words, does religion actually affect game mechanics, or is it just nice to look at?
If religion in Middle-earth “works,” then how does it work? Most game designers live in a culture in which religion is conceived of as being universally available to anyone with the subjective attitude of “faith”. This model often ends up distorting the way religion operates in Tolkien’s world. Consequently, in order to develop a more accurate model of religion for role-playing in Middle-earth, it will be necessary to look for more appropriate analogies than those based upon our own culture.
This essay attempts to answer these questions in the following way:
- it interprets Tolkien’s own remarks about religion in Middle-earth,
- it develops a model of religion based upon historical analogies from our own world, and
- it fleshes out this model with concrete examples taken from Tolkien’s works.
Middle-earth as a “Religious” World
J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, and on one occasion he described The Lord of the Rings (the magnum opus of his mythology) as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letters: 172). What does this statement mean? Certainly it means that the personal beliefs and values of an author play a role in shaping the kind of stories he or she writes; but in order to understand Tolkien’s specific meaning, one must refer to his philosophy of fantasy.
In his essay “On Fairy-stories”, Tolkien defined the task of the fantasy writer as the creation of myth (Tree and Leaf: 64 – 66). For Tolkien, myth is something that poetically illuminates fundamental human truths; but it does this in a way quite different from allegory which, by contrast, advertises the explicit content of the author’s creed. His rejection of allegory is claimed by Tolkien as the reason “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 (Letters: ibid)”.
When Tolkien states that he has intentionally eliminated any references to “religion”, what he means is that he has avoided inserting any representations of Christian cultus into his imaginary world. This is a necessary consequence of his rejection of fantasy as allegory. This statement does not, however, imply that Middle-earth lacks religious practices. Nor does it imply that the central tenants of Tolkien’s own creed — the unity of God, the reality of divine grace, and the fallenness of humanity — are not fundamental facts within the secondary world.
But all of this only deals with Tolkien’s mythology as literature; it does not ultimately help us to imagine how religion in Middle-earth works as a game setting. Tolkien’s claim to have eliminated “anything like religion” from his world should immediately caution us against importing assumptions about religion as we know it in our own culture into our gaming. Graham Staplehurst’s passing treatment of religion in Iron Crown’s Minas Tirith city module (Cities of Middle-earth #8301) serves to illustrate this danger.
Staplehurst refers to religion as “spiritual life” (20−21), though he never states what he means by this expression. Implicitly, however, he defines “spiritual” in opposition to cultus; that is, as the opposite of “ceremony and show”:
The religious observances of the Dúnedain … are uniformly informal. There are no temples or shrines and no priest may preach or conduct any form of service… Similarly there are no religious services or teachings (20).
While at first glance this passage sounds very similar to Tolkien’s own remark, Staplehurst counterbalances this negative statement with an affirmative which, I believe, reflects “modern” religious assumptions which do not correspond to the role of religion in Tolkien’s world. According to Staplehurst, a personal, contemplative relationship with one of the Valar for the achievement of “blessing” is the spiritual ideal of the “fervent” Dúnadan:
The benefits of blessing are not provable, but the simple act of faith in saying prayers may be sufficient to channel some power from the Valar in order to influence events concerning the person who prays. Naturally, prayers arc of no use to those who have no faith (21).
This passage seems to suggest that “spiritual life” means meditative (and, perhaps, occasionally ritualized) activity concerning the “faith” of an individual person. If blessing is wholly dependent upon subjective belief, it is no wonder that collective, institutionalized expressions of cultus would be uniformly ineffective and hence useless. In other words, all good Dúnedain are Calvinists to a man.
But Tolkien himself used the term “faith” in quite a different way. In the secondary world, to have faith is to be one of the Faithful — that is, the subject of a realm. The “faith” of the Faithful is based not upon unsubstantiated subjective belief, but upon history and an objective loyalty based upon it. The solidarity of the Faithful is expressed not through individual meditation, but through certain persons, places and objects endowed with the quality of holiness.
Holiness as a Model for How Religion Works
Holiness is not a “spiritual” matter — it is a physical characteristic which invests its holder with the objective power to bless and curse, to destroy life or to save it. The healing hand of the true king is one example of holiness, as is Isildur’s objectively effective curse against the Oathbreakers. Similarly, the shadow of the Lord of the Nazgûl is an example of “negative” holiness or corruption. Both forms of holiness are contractable through physical contact and are therefore “contagious.”
The Faithful enter into a relationship with holy persons, places and things through a highly institutionalized cultus, the performance of which is more often than not the exclusive “right” of a single individual — the king. From this perspective, the capacity “to be religious” in any recognizable sense is concomitant not upon the will or disposition of the individual person, but is rather “given” to one by virtue of one’s blood-lineage, or by some special grace independent of personal merit. In this sense, “religion” is transmitted not by “faith,” but by kinship. The organization and transmission of holiness, then, is our mode] for how religion in Middle-earth works.
Because holiness resides in physical things, reflection upon the nature of holiness and all activity directed towards it will be eminently “thisworldly” in orientation. Because holiness is located “inside” kinship and political structures, there exists no motivational basis for withdrawal from these structures in order to embrace holiness. Hence, there are no “priests” in Middle-earth — there arc only kings and leaders who fulfill priestly functions.
Much of this eludes Staplehurst’s treatment of religion in the Minas Tirith module, in which he refers (for example) to the wardens of the Hallows as otherworldly monastics who have taken “vows of priesthood” (114, 134, 135). His consistent usage of explicitly religious language in describing their head as a “curate” compounds the contradiction of his earlier statement that the Dúnedain possess no formalized religious discourse.
It would appear, then, that cultus abounds in Middle-earth, but that it is not really helpful to call it religious since it exists coterminously with “non-religious” institutions. By jettisoning our modem notions about religion, we can view cultus or ritual as the way in which kinship and political institutions organize, bestow, and transmit holiness. But the power to bless and curse has a much more specific function with respect to the group which organizes it, and that function we shall designate as cult.
“Cult” as the Model for What Religion Docs
A cult is set of ritual performances which transmits holiness for the explicit purpose of legitimating a particular kind of rule over others. A cult is therefore “political” in the broad sense of exercising authority over a body of people. In terms of our earlier definition of religion, cult embraces cultus proper (ritual), code (a form of rule over others), and creed (beliefs which legitimate both the validity of the cult itself and of its form of rule). Some forms of rule literally cannot exist without the support of a cult, while others have no need of cultic legitimation. Cults arc generally not invented by their participants, but are instead initiated by one or more of the Valar as an intervention of divine grace. Accordingly, the continuing effectiveness of a cult depends not upon the subjective belief of its participants, but upon the Power that initiated it.
The only two fully developed examples of cults in Tolkien’s writings are those practiced by the Dúnedain, and those imposed by Morgoth and Sauron over their slaves. The cult of Melkor as it developed in Númenor under Sauron’s influence represents a hybrid of the two. What is striking about this is that it suggests that (at least among the Free Peoples) cults are largely a human phenomenon. Why cults, in the specific sense in which we have defined them, did not emerge among Hobbits, Dwarves or Elves is a question which may assist in further defining the nature of cult in Middle-earth.
Throughout Tolkien’s writings, the patriarchal household as the dominant model of kinship appears to be self-validating and, hence, not in need of cultic legitimation. It would follow from this that peoples for whom kinship is the primary form of social organization would not be “graced” with cults. This logic would seem to hold in the case of Hobbits, whose only “extra-familial” jurisdiction (the Shire) is elective and therefore not derived from divine intervention.
Dwarves, on the other hand, have a direct connection to the vala Aulë; but any ritual celebration of that relationship would be redundant as far as cult is concerned, since such ritual practices would signify nothing more than a reiteration and affirmation of their own created nature. The prominence of the kinship principle in defining the social organization of the Dwarves (e.g., the seven fathers) certainly involves an element of holiness, but it does not necessarily serve the specifically cultic function of legitimating a novel form of association above and beyond that of kinship.
Elves are a more complicated case. Like Dwarves, they enjoy a special relationship to one of the Valar and, similarly, reverence for Elbereth is an expression of their essential being; but the Elves are unable to engage in genuine cultic activity while they are in Middle-earth. The reason for this is that the Valar have already defined a context for Even cultic participation in Aman (e.g. the celebratory worship of Ilúvatar in concert with the Valar), the point being that Elves (at least in the view of the Powers) do not belong in Middle-earth and, unlike the mortal exiles from Númenor, have the free option of departing into the West whenever they like.
There is little evidence of either the Valar or Maiar endorsing the Elves’ refusal to submit to the direct rule of the Powers in Aman. Melian might be seen as an exception to this pattern, but at least part of Thingol’s influence over the Grey Elves stemmed from his having seen the Blessed Realm himself. Again, both this and his marriage to Melian made him a focus of holiness, but that did not lead to a different kind of social order legitimated by cultic ritual.
If cult in our specific sense is unnecessary for Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits, then why is it so important for mortal Men? There are instances of individual Valar bestowing grace upon human beings in order to fulfill a particular need (e.g., Araw to the Northmen, Ulmo to Tuor, Uinen to the Venturers) — and in the case of one of these instances some kind of cultic association was instituted (i.e. the Uinendili organized as a “guild”) — but it is only with the three houses of the Edain that the nature of cult first unfolds in its totality.
The Numenoreans as an Example of a Cultically Defined People
Prior to the gift of the Isle of the Star, it seems that the Edain of Beleriand observed no distinctive cult. The alliances forged with the Elves possessed a rational, non-cultic, basis (i.e. survival and united defense against the threat of Morgoth). This situation changes with the end of the First Age.
As reward for their loyal opposition to Angband, the three houses were given a new dwelling place under the protection of the Valar. In accepting this divine grace, the Edain became a new people: the Dúnedain. The Valar appointed Elros Tar-Minyatur and his descendants to rule over this people as kings. The primary function of these kings was to exercise a new land of rule over the three houses and to act as priestly mediators between their people and the Powers.
This new form of jurisdiction was called Númenórean law. It is unclear to what extent it was directly constituted by the will of the Valar, and to what degree the individual Númenórean kings had the capacity to shape its content; but one thing is clear: its emergence went hand in hand with the first genuine appearance of a cult. This was the annual offering of first fruits to God upon the holy mountain of the island:
But in the midst of the land was a mountain tall and steep, and it was named the Meneltarma, the Pillar of Heaven, and upon it was a high place that was hallowed to Eru Ilúvatar, and it was open and unroofed, and no other temple or fane was there in the land of the Númernóreans (Silmarillion: 261).
This ritual offering (and the consequences of its subsequent abandonment by the later kings) implies that the exclusive priestly mediation of the line of Elros was necessary for the ongoing grace and protection of the Valar which made the existence of the Edain as Dúnedain possible. It would seem to follow from this that the performance of the cult played an important role in validating the exercise of royal jurisdiction over Númenor and its people. In this capacity, Númenorean law functioned as a covenant whose integrity and continuity was guaranteed by the regular enactment of cult.
Three historical developments ruptured this original covenant: 1) the cult of the dead, 2) the cult of Melkor, and 3) the Akallabêth. Each of these developments had important social and political consequence for how the Dúnedain related to the Lesser Men of Middle-earth. Cultic identity probably played a role in the self-understanding and motivation of their early interaction, the Númenóreans acting as indirect mediators of grace towards those coastal peoples oppressed by Sauron; but this initial contact did not have any repercussions on the claims of Dúnadan rule until the kings began to murmer against the Ban of the Valar.
The gradual estrangement of the greater part of the Dúnedain from the Valar and the Eldar as a consequence of the former’s preoccupation with death led to the development of elaborate funerary ritual:
But the fear of death grew ever darker upon them, and they delayed it by all means that they could; and they began to build great houses for their dead … and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness. But those that lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry, desiring ever more goods and more riches; and after the days of Tar-Ancalimon the offering of the first fruits to Eru was neglected, and men went seldom anymore to the Hallow upon the heights of Meneltarma in the midst of the land (Silmarillion: 266).
This passage establishes a correspondence between the preoccupation with death, the accumulation of wealth, and the neglect of the Meneltarma cult, though it does not imply that they are causally related in any direct way. Nevertheless, this development of funerary practice might legitimately be viewed as a cult (as Tolkien himself refers to it upon occasion in the Letters), since it seems to serve as a justification for the accumulation of wealth, which can only be achieved by the exploitation of Middle-earth and the exaction of tribute from its inhabitants. One possible reason for the corresponding abandonment of the Meneltarma cult may very well have been because the Númenóreans were unable to invoke it as a legitimation for their domination of Lesser Men (upon which their extravagant lifestyle now depended).
To what extent the veneration of the dead actually contributed to legitimating these tributary relations is not specified; but it is an apt illustration of our model, since the cult emerges in close proximity to this novel development in relations between Númenor and Middle-earth. It is also unknown to what extent tribute was incorporated within the sphere of Númenórean law. This depends upon how we choose to view the relationship between that law and the performance of the traditional Númenórean cultus. The closer cult and jurisdiction are to one another, the more problematic it would be to incorporate such tribute as a “legal” activity. Conversely, the more detachable jurisdiction is from divine cult, the easier it would be to incorporate the new mode of domination.
Perhaps the division of the Dúnedain into the two parties of the Faithful and the King’s Men intimates that the correspondence between cult and jurisdiction was ambiguous enough to allow for diverging interpretations without, thereby, threatening the ultimate basis of the king’s legitimacy. At the same time, the lack of divine endorsement of unjustified “secular” tribute would generate the need (or at least, the desirability) for a secondary cultic institution. The kinship character of ritual practices focused upon the preservation of one’s dead relatives could be interpreted as a hybrid phenomenon, since it falls back upon a “pre-cultic” focus of legitimation (i.e, the patriarchal household as self-validating structure) to justify the accumulation of wealth.
The most distinguishing characteristic of Morgoth, and later Sauron’s, rule is slavery. In Tolkien’s mythology, the enslavement of one of the Free Peoples by another is unheard of except “under the shadow”. This suggests that slavery cannot be validated except by means of a cult centered upon Morgoth himself (Tolkien once stated that, during the Third Age, Sauron presented himself to his servants as Morgoth redivivus.). Such was the case with Númenor, wherein the outright enslavement (as distinct from tributary servitude) of the peoples of Middle-earth commences only after Sauron institutes the cult of Melkor among the Dúnedain:
And they sailed now with power and armory to Middle-earth, and they came no longer as bringers of gifts, nor even as rulers, but as fierce men of war. And they hunted the men of Middle-earth and took their goods and enslaved them, and many they slew cruelly upon their altars (Silmarillion: 274).
This is the clearest testimony to our contention that one of the primary functions of cult is to make possible a particular form of rule or domination which cannot be sustained by any other means. It is also significant that the only occasion in which actual slaves appear in The Lord of the Rings is during Aragorn’s defeat of the Corsairs of Umbar at Pelargir (Umbar being the traditional locus for the descendants of the “Black Númenóreans”, and now once more under Sauron’s dominion).
But the cult of Melkor as practiced by the Númenóreans also illustrates the problem of the efficacy of cultic performance. Again, because the effectiveness of ritual depends not upon subjective belief, but upon the divine source of its power to bless and curse, a cult premised upon false claims to efficacy (i.e. Melkor’s promise of deathlessness to the Dúnedain) will encounter perennial difficulties in maintaining its semblance of authority. In other words, the problem with such cults is that they do not work — at least not entirely in the way that their mediators claim. Accordingly, they must rely upon deception or naked coercion in order to enforce any kind of rule based upon them.
The Downfall of the Land of Gift and the opening of the Great Rift by the hand of God signifies a termination of the covenant guaranteed by the performance of the Meneltarma cult.
The foundation of the realms-in-exile by the remnant of the Faithful reconstituted elements of both the worship of God and the cult of the dead in a new form, based upon both tradition and necessity. Its successful preservation of certain holy artifacts of the old covenant (e.g. the White Tree) was interpreted as a continuing channel of grace from the now otherworldly Valar (Aman having been separated from Arda by the Rift).
Religion in Middle-earth manifests itself primarily as ritual activity for the purpose of transmitting holiness (the power to bless and curse). Rituals become a cult when they serve to legitimate a form of rule, especially a form of rule which cannot be legitimated and sustained by any other means (i.e. slavery). The Dúnedain are the only one of the Free Peoples to have had a fully developed cult in this sense. The cult of Melkor took elements from the traditional Númenórean cult (e.g. the Dúnedain as a chosen people, the funerary cult) and combined them with Sauron’s own slavery ideology. The continued effectiveness of Númenórean cult as practiced by the Faithful in Middle-earth attests to the continued grace of God/the Valar.
The phenomenon of cult does not in itself have an impact upon game mechanics; rather, it is the general principle of Holi-ness which must be expressed in quantitative terms by a game system in order for religion (and other uses of such power) to be “real.” The Runequest statistic of Power (POW), for instance, serves this function by quantifying the relative magnitude of potential holiness residing in a person, place, or object. In order to adapt itself to Tolkien’s world, such a statistic would have to be qualified according to the principles which give access to it (i.e. blood-lineage, direct divine grace, etc.).
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