Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty
Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth
I have lived in Houston, Texas for 26 years, and, for most of those years, I have attended our annual Renaissance Festival. The festival, despite its title, invites attendees to enter into a colorful recreation of the medieval world in all its glory. As a life-long people watcher, I am usually keenly aware of the passions and perspectives, likes and dislikes of those around me. When it came to the festival, however, it took me several years before I realized something decidedly odd about my fellow attendees.
Although they were clearly enjoying themselves, at least half of them held views on politics and religion, marriage and the sexes, education and the arts, and the nature of absolute goodness, truth, and beauty that were diametrically opposed to those of the Catholic Middle Ages. And yet, here they were enraptured by those very things that our modern, secular, relativistic age dismisses and criticizes: hierarchy, essential masculinity and femininity, social identity, metaphysical meaning, objective moral standards, and transcendent beauty.
I have since found this same dynamic in modern, secular-progressive lovers of The Lord of the Rings. They would likely have disagreed with Tolkien on almost every subject, including radical environmentalism; yet, they are drawn back again and again, not only to Tolkien’s epic novel, but to the full depth and breadth of Middle-earth and its extensive legendarium.
In researching and writing Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth, Lisa Coutras did not set out to solve my Ren Fest paradox. Her more complex, and more vital, academic goal was to discern whether a focus on transcendent beauty, undergirded by the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, could serve as an interpretive lens through which to view and unpack Tolkien’s subtle but pervasive Christian worldview. And yet, in accomplishing that goal, she helped me to understand what it is that is so appealing about Middle-earth and the Middle Ages, even and especially to those who decry its values and worldview.
Coutras, who holds a PhD in theology from King’s College, London, and an MTh in applied theology from Oxford, begins her study by conceding to secular critics of Tolkien that a tension exists between his Christian faith and his heavy borrowings from Norse pagan mythology. Unlike secular critics, however, who take for granted that “Christian truth and mythic beauty are mutually exclusive,” Coutras argues that Tolkien “re-envisioned pagan myth as a beauty united with goodness and truth.”
Along with C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, Tolkien viewed the Christian gospel of Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection as a true myth, one that occurred within real time and space but which also contains a mythic power to point backward toward a lost Eden and forward to a restored heaven and earth beyond the cycles of our fallen world. Far from being escapist, true fantasy draws us closer to reality. Indeed, “the beauties of a story may reveal truths about reality which have otherwise been lost from view.”
Even as his post-WWI contemporaries drove a wedge between beauty and truth, between the hope and joy that story evokes and the gritty reality of a Europe devastated by war, Tolkien himself believed that “the beauty of a story could testify to both transcendence and sanctity in an age of moral decadence.” Such is the case with the tales that make up The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, tales that combine the full aesthetic power of Norse myth with the goodness and truth of the Christian revelation. How do the two relate to one another and to beauty? In a single, rhetorically powerful sentence, Coutras makes the connection: “The beauty of human myth reflects the transcendental beauty, while the Incarnation embodies this beauty, for Christ is the absolute Beauty of God.”
No matter how hard critics of Tolkien—and of the Renaissance Festival’s celebration of our lost medieval past—may rage against absolute, transcendent standards of beauty, not to mention goodness and truth, they cannot help but be overwhelmed by the light and radiance and holiness that gather around such beauty. Coutras traces for us the play of that divine light-radiance-holiness in The Silmarillion, as it shimmers through Tolkien’s breathtakingly beautiful creation story and illuminates the dichotomy between his nostalgic, backward-looking Elves and his forward-looking, divinely discontented Men.
Whereas to “deny the transcendental truths radiant within creation . . . can only result in despair and meaninglessness,” to embrace them opens our minds, hearts, and souls to a kind of wonder, delight, and amazement that points beyond the meaninglessness and despair that so often grip our broken world. Much of that beauty, Coutras demonstrates, expresses itself through redeemed language and redemptive song, two qualities that abound in Tolkien’s world and in the word-and-music-soaked fields of Renaissance Festivals across the country.
Coutras has much to say on all aspects of Tolkien’s legendarium, but there are two questions she takes up and wrestles with that I found particularly revelatory: How could a committed Catholic writer like Tolkien end his tale of Túrin with suicide? and How does Tolkien create strong female characters who, far from being the sexist stereotypes that critics claim, rise up to be heroines who embody courage and transcendent beauty?
The two longest and most moving lays of The Silmarillion are those of Beren and Lúthien and Túrin Turambar. Although both are tragic, filled with pain, sacrifice, and superhuman endurance against evil, the first climaxes with self-giving love, release from bondage, and resurrection, while the second descends into horror, incest, and suicide. And yet, though Túrin takes his own life, Tolkien celebrates him as a hero who will rise again to take part in the final battle of Middle-earth.
In seeking to resolve this dilemma, Coutras first explores the nature of glory and honor as seen through the dual lens of paganism and Christianity. In the Norse myths that Tolkien so loved, glory comes at the cost of death, revealing “the ultimate despair of the human condition.” But that does not therefore render it incompatible with Christianity. “As Balthasar suggests, the pagan poets understood the chasm between hero and god, between mortal and immortal, and offered a solution through suffering. Heroic sacrifice brings a flash of immortal glory, bridging the divide between heaven and earth.”
But that is not the end of the story. Like Tolkien, “Balthasar links pagan tragedy to the crucifixion, suggesting that the glory of all great tragedy is absorbed into the tragedy of Christ.” Yes, Túrin dies a terrible death that seems, on the surface, to reflect an ethos of existential despair, but his tale is set within a greater metanarrative of hope and beauty. Unlike other writers who fought in WWI, Tolkien’s often dark vision does not allow defeat to give way to defeatism.
But what of the suicide? Through a close comparison between the story of Túrin and the Finnish legend of Kullervo that partly inspired it, Coutras shows that the talking sword that Túrin uses to kill himself really acts as an executioner taking just vengeance for the crimes committed by the often rash and prideful Túrin. Furthermore, Coutras draws a powerful link between Túrin’s suicide and Frodo’s refusal, as he stands on the edge of Mount Doom, to destroy the Ring. In both cases, the hero fails against a crushing fate but is saved by a grace partly initiated by his own merciful actions earlier in his story.
As for the status and nature of Tolkien’s heroines, perhaps no single subject in The Lord of the Rings has caused more acrimonious criticism. In addressing this criticism, Coutras demonstrates commendable patience and deep wisdom. Rather than parody the often juvenile attacks of feminist critics, she gives them a fair hearing and then draws them and her readers up to a higher level of maturity and sanity. Yes, Tolkien, like all people before two decades ago, recognized that there are essential differences between men and women; but, unlike the sexist, who treats feminine traits as lesser or derivative or even aberrant, Tolkien celebrates the unique power and beauty that the feminine has to offer.
By combining, in characters like Lúthien, Galadriel, and Éowyn, the “Marian qualities of humility, self-giving, and maternal love” with the “heroic fortitude” of the Germanic valkyrie, Tolkien fashions a special kind of feminine power and beauty that redeems through love, endurance, and renunciation. The “glory of the valkyrie,” Coutras explains,
distills and expresses a transcendent form of beauty accessible only through the feminine. The power and strength of the female warrior as displayed in beauty and light suggest an extension of the Marian archetype . . . If the Marian archetype embodies the purity and mystery of the transcendent, then the valkyrie represents a powerful ‘breaking forth’ of that transcendence. The valkyrie is the manifest power of Marian beauty bestowed both in mystery and profundity.
When the self-destructive gender neutrality of the twenty-first century becomes too oppressive, I need only stroll through the gardens of the Renaissance Festival or the pages of The Lord of the Rings to restore my vision of a rich complementarity of the sexes that is as majestic and splendid as that transcendent beauty that the Creator has spread so liberally across the cosmos and the creatures he has made.
Coutras, p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 32.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Ibid., p. 83.
 Ibid., p. 158.
 Ibid., p. 165.
 Ibid., p. 218.
 Ibid., p. 225.
 Ibid., p. 225.