Research Group Literature & Religion

Literature as Source of Religion: Tolkien Spirituality and the Religious Affordance of Tolkien's Literary Mythology

Dr Markus Altena Davidsen (University of Leiden) lectures on Tolkien and religion

Gandalf at Bag End
Illustration by Alan Lee

Please note that this lecture has been rescheduled for 29 January 2020, 14:15-15:30.


Since the publication in 1965 of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, a whole range of alternative spiritual groups have based parts of their beliefs and practices on Tolkien’s literary mythology. This lecture traces the curious history of this phenomenon from the first experiments with Tolkien spirituality among hippies, neo-pagans and self-identified Elves in the 1960s and 1970s, over the Valar-directed rituals developed by neo-pagans and ceremonial magicians in the 1980s and 1990s, till the emergence of online-based Tolkien-exclusive traditions in the wake of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations in the 21st century. 

The lecture also raises the question why a whole milieu of spiritual groups could arise that used Tolkien’s stories as a central source of inspiration when similar fiction-based religious groups have not emerged from most other works of fantasy and science fiction. It is suggested that Tolkien’s literary mythology can work as an authoritative core text for new religious movements because it includes many of those elements that are found also in more conventional religious narratives: Tolkien’s secondary world includes narrative religions (engaged in by Elves and Men and directed at the Valar and Eru) that can be utilised as models for real-world religious practice; Tolkien’s frame-stories (including the unfinished ones, “The Lost Road” and “The Notion Club Papers”) firmly connect Middle-earth to the reader’s own world; and several of Tolkien’s letters contain passages that suggest that Tolkien believed his fictional work to be in some way revealed. Even if Tolkien did not intend his literary mythology to inspire the formation of new religious practices, it nevertheless possesses ‘religious affordance’ in the sense that it offers itself as a religious resource for pagans, magicians, gnostics, and other alternative religionists.


Dr Markus Altena Davidsen, University of Leiden will give the lecture (https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/staffmembers/markus-davidsen#tab-1)