“The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!” Readers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings know that when we hear this cry being raised, help is on its way, whether it is for Bilbo trapped in a tree surrounded by goblins and wargs, or for the captains of the West fighting at the gates of Mordor. Eagles are harbingers of hope and messengers of joy, as with the great Eagle who brings tidings of Sauron’s downfall to the anxiously waiting people of Gondor:
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever,
and the Dark Tower is thrown down.
In Christian iconography, the Eagle is the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, one of the four writers of the Gospels—and St. John was particularly important to Tolkien, who declared that he had a “special devotion” to St. John the Evangelist.1
What did Tolkien mean by “special devotion”? For that matter, what did he understand by the word “saint”?
It’s well worth pausing to ask questions such as these, because these words—as with so many religious terms—can mean very different things to different people. Furthermore, as an English Catholic of the twentieth century, Tolkien lived out his faith in a particular historical and cultural context very different from that experienced by his readers in the twenty-first century. It’s all too easy to let our eyes skim over unfamiliar terms, and even easier to assume that we know exactly what familiar words like “saint” meant to him—when in fact we might be mistaken, or at any rate be missing something.
In my research into Tolkien’s faith, I’ve gained fascinating insights into Tolkien’s life and writings by stopping to ask questions like this and by exploring his historical and cultural context in depth. By examining Tolkien’s spirituality in context, so that we know what he meant when he spoke of matters such as these, we will come to a better understanding of him as a man and gain a deeper appreciation of his writings.
So, in honor of Tolkien’s birthday—in this year that marks the 50th anniversary of his death—I’d like to explore what Tolkien meant when he acknowledged a special devotion to St. John the Evangelist.
The communion of saints
At every Sunday Mass, Tolkien affirmed, in the words of the Creed, that he believed in “the communion of saints.” The communion of saints refers to all those persons who have died in friendship with God and, having gone through the cleansing of purgatory as needed, are in the full presence of God in heaven (Hebrews 12:1, 23). It is a basic part of ordinary Catholic devotion to ask the saints for their intercession—that is, their spiritual assistance and their prayers to God on one’s behalf—just as any believer would routinely ask a fellow Christian to pray for them.
Tolkien reflected this understanding when he remarked that the Valar, the “gods” of Middle-earth, are in fact “created spirits—of high angelic order we should say, with their attendant lesser angels.” He goes on to explain that the people of Middle-earth may call for help on a particular Valar, such as Elbereth, “as a Catholic might on a Saint, though no doubt knowing in theory as well as he that the power of the Vala was limited and derivative.”2
Here he makes an important point: a Catholic knows that a saint’s power is “limited and derivative.” All graces come only from God through Christ, the perfect mediator between God and humankind; but Catholics believe that God, who wishes for his people to participate in his generosity, allows the saints to assist in the sharing of those graces. It is not strictly necessary to invoke the aid of the saints, and the Church does not require individuals to do so in their private devotions. But it is is a central point of Catholic belief that all the faithful in the Body of Christ, both living and dead, are part of an objectively real communion and are called, in St. Paul’s words, to feel concern for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25), pray for one another (Ephesians 6:18), and “bear one another’s burdens so as to fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
In this brief remark about the Valar, we find an echo both of Tolkien’s Christocentric theology—that he emphasizes the derivative quality of a saint’s intercession—and his sense of the reality of the Communion of Saints.
But what does Tolkien mean by “saint”? It has two related meanings. On the one hand, all living Christians are “saints” (hagioi in Greek: see, for example, Acts 26:10; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2). But the word also refers to “canonized” saints, that is, those people whom the Church has authoritatively recognized as being in heaven and worthy of public recognition. The important point here is that the Church does not make saints; God makes saints. The canonization process is one of recognizing that a particular Christian has attained perfect sanctity with God in heaven, the evidence for this being either the miracles that have occurred as a result of prayers for their intercession or their example of sanctity. The Church continually recognizes new saints, and Tolkien kept abreast of these canonizations. For instance, he referred in 1963 to Pope Pius X as “St Pius X”;3 Pius, who died in 1914, had been canonized in 1954.
St. John the Evangelist
Tolkien considered John as a special patron on account of having been born on the octave of that saint.4 An “octave” in Catholic devotion is an eight-day period that starts with the feast day itself and concludes on the eighth or “octave day,” which is marked with special solemnity. The feast day of St. John is December 27, which means that the octave of that feast falls on Tolkien’s birthday, January 3. He knew that he had not been named for the saint by his then-Anglican parents, but rather given “John” as a family name. However, the coincidence of the dates combined with his shared name would have increased his sense of a familial tie on the spiritual level.
Tolkien’s use of the phrase “special devotion” means that he would have regularly included St. John in his prayers as an intercessor and in general held him in high esteem as a model for the Christian life. John, the author of the fourth Gospel, is known as the ‘beloved disciple,’ the one who reclined close to Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:23–25) and who was the only member of the Twelve to stay with Jesus at his Crucifixion, standing with Mary at the foot of the cross. One of the last words of Jesus before his death was to say to John, “Behold, your mother,” and to Mary, “behold, your son.” From that moment, John took Mary into his own home (John 19:26–27). Since Tolkien had a strong devotion to the Mother of God, these factors would have added to his reverence for John.
Tolkien had a great appreciation for the sheer literary power of John’s Gospel. One of his military-cadet students during the Second World War recalled that at the beginning of their class, Tolkien “handed round some sample passages of medieval English he had had typed out. One of them was an English translation of the first verses of the Gospel According to John. ‘You see,’ he said triumphantly, ‘English was a language that could move easily in abstract concepts when French was still a vulgar Norman patois.’”5
In addition to its poetic power, John’s Gospel has a particular emphasis on the divinity of Christ; it opens with a passage that connects the Incarnation with the Genesis account of creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .” In fact, this specific passage was the Scripture that Tolkien would have known better than any other, because during almost his entire life, the prologue of the Gospel of John (John 1:1–14) was read as the “Last Gospel” at the end of every Mass.
John is considered the patron saint of writers—another point that would have been increasingly relevant to Tolkien as time went on. The eagle, St. John’s symbol, in legend has the ability to look into the sun without being blinded; the farsightedness of the eagle and its ability to soar into the heights makes it an apt emblem of the most literary of the Evangelists. And in Tolkien’s own literary output, eagles acquire extraordinary importance. When we hear the cry, “The Eagles! The Eagles are coming!” there is always a eucatastrophic turn at hand, an unexpected happy ending when all seemed lost. It is a subtle resonance of the Gospel in Middle-earth. As Tolkien explained in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” he considered eucatastrophe to be is the “highest function” of a fantasy: it “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat.” In this way, he says, the happy ending of a fantasy is a form of “evangelium”6—a slightly archaic word that means, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “a proclamation of the ‘glad tidings’ of the Gospel.”
In this light, we can see something of what Tolkien meant when he said that The Lord of the Rings is “fundamentally religious and Catholic”7 : its narrative form and the poignant joy of its ending mirror the Gospel account of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection—and not only mirror that account but receive validation from it. Having declared that the Gospel is the “supreme” story, he goes on to explain that there is still abundant scope for human artists—and that their work is all the more meaningful as a result: “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them.” The Christian writer must still work, but now can do so with the awareness that he has a purpose; and, Tolkien adds, “So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”8 To take up the work of writing stories as a Christian artist is a serious endeavor, but that does not squash creativity; rather, in Tolkien’s view, it blesses and encourages it.
This article is adapted from material in Holly Ordway’s forthcoming book, Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography (Word on Fire Academic, 2023).
1 Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 51.
2 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), 193n.
3 Letters, 339.
4 Letters, 397.
5 Anthony Curtis, “Remembering Tolkien and Lewis,” British Book News (June 1977), 429.
6 Tolkien On Fairy-stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2014), 75.
7 Letters, 172.
8 OFS, 78–79.