Universitas, Number 10, November 2001

Tolkien And Thomism: Middle-Earth And The States Of Nature

Andrew Nimmo

In the light of the much anticipated film of the Lord of the Rings next month, I thought it would be interesting to look at certain aspects of the book in the light of Thomism. Why should I single out this work of fiction? Fundamentally because I believe it has met Chesterton's challenge in The Everlasting Man to present Christianity in foreign garb in order to startle and delight complacent or lapsed Christians.

Lord of the Rings is a work of genius. In his essay on the Lord of the Rings C.S.Lewis describes it as lightning appearing in a cloudless sky. He says it is brilliant because it is original. It has no precedent but has become a precedent for a whole genre of fantasy novels which imitate it more materially than formally. Most of the imitators of Lord of the Rings fail to capture its true greatness which is a moral greatness. Tolkien has done something amazing - he has successfully created, for generations of people with no interest in Christian or human virtue, an epic which makes moral uprightness desirable and even thrilling.

Lord of the Rings is not an allegory for Christianity but is in the genre of sub-creation. Both Tolkien and Lewis discuss this, as does Fr James Tierney here in Australia, who has written some beautiful pieces on Tolkien's work. Sub-creation is the creation of a believable world in imitation of the real world. It is artistic praise of the Creator. While the world of Tolkien is not meant to be an allegory of this world, it does not mean that what is discovered in it cannot be applied to this world. This is the difference between applicability and allegory.

For those who have not read Lord of the Rings, it tells the story of a quest to destroy a ring which is a source of great power, but is a force only for evil. Its maker, Sauron, invested half of his power in it but lost it centuries ago. If he can recover the ring he will become lord of the world and a reign of darkness will ensue. If the ring is destroyed, Sauron's power will be extinguished and the world will be free of a great tyranny. This is the story of the War of the Ring.

John Rhys-Davies, who plays Gimli in the film version, was recently quoted as saying:

"There is also a resonance (to the story) that is particularly appropriate at this time. Although it is a fantasy relief, it (the trilogy) was written in time of war and I think it will be perceived in a time of war.

"When it gets down to it, Tolkien is talking about good and evil, about standing up to defend your culture and your whole being and the existence of your societies. And, if you don't do that, darkness will fall right across the earth." 1

The aspect of Lord of the Rings which I am considering is the Thomistic doctrine on the states of nature. The states of nature are the various states in which man can be in or has been in. Some are historical, others hypothetical. Both Garrigou-Lagrange and Dr Woodbury examine these in their respective treatises on grace.

The states can be schematised thus:


The meaning of each state:

The State of Pure Nature

The state of pure nature is the state of man unadorned by the gifts of integrity or grace. In this state man is created with the endowments of nature - body, soul, intellect, will, senses, appetites etc. - but nothing more. He is subject to pain, death, and liable to ignorance and concupiscence. Man in the state of nature is ordered to a natural happiness and is given natural helps by God to that end. This state is hypothetical only because historically man was originally created in a state of grace and ordered to a supernatural happiness, i.e. the beatific vision.

The State of Integral Nature

The state of integral nature is the state of nature perfected by the gifts of integrity. In this state man is so perfected that he is free from the sequels of nature. These gifts are called preternatural because while they do not elevate man to a higher nature they so enhance his nature as to make him quasi-angelic. He is still human and his powers are still human powers but they are strengthened beyond what nature produces - somewhat like a miracle.

The gifts of integrity give man freedom from suffering, death and concupiscence. They make life and the practice of virtue pleasant and easy. Man in this state is still ordered to a natural happiness and the attainment of it is effortless. The state of integral nature is again hypothetical, and yet the gifts of integrity were originally bestowed on human nature, but as an effect of grace.

The State of Innocence or Original Justice

The state of innocence is the state in which man was originally created. Our first parents were created in a state of grace. This grace had two effects. The more important was its elevation of human nature to participate in the inner life of God. Grace, a supernatural gift, made man an adopted son of God, friend of God and heir to heaven. It adorned his soul with supernatural virtues and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit by which man could live a divine life and perform divine acts. The other effect was that it produced in man the preternatural gifts which perfected man's nature to such a degree that he was free from all those sufferings which ordinarily accompany nature: pain, death, concupiscence and so on. Adam and his descendents were to live a life of virtue and holiness in the terrestrial paradise for a time and then be taken to heaven without dying. If Adam had not sinned grace would have been passed on through natural generation and the life of each of his descendents would have begun as an immaculate conception and ended in a bodily assumption into heaven. Of the greatest significance here is that God ordered man to a supernatural end, that is the attainment of the beatific vision, seeing God face to face, the means to which is grace.

The State of Fallen Nature

As we know Adam did sin and he was thrown out of paradise. His sin brought a two-fold death, spiritual and corporeal, on the human race. We are conceived and born in original sin, that is without grace, and we are born into a life which will result in bodily death. In this state man is not only deprived of the supernatural and preternatural gifts, but he is also wounded in his nature. In addition to the suffering and death which are punishments for Adam's sin, there are also the wounds of ignorance in the intellect, malice in the will, weakness in the irascible appetite and concupiscence in the concupiscible appetite. In this state man cannot reach happiness.

The State of Restored Nature

God did not abandon man, however, but promised Adam and Eve a redeemer. He came Himself to redeem us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Our Lord through His passion and death won for us again the life of grace and the hope of heaven. He did not however restore to us the preternatural gifts which make life pleasant and easy. Our path to glory now is that of the Cross. Grace and its properties have been restored not to nature this time, but to persons through baptism. And it is Christian grace which is given to us - that grace merited by Christ in His redemptive sacrifice. A new quasi-property of this Christian grace is suffering. Suffering is now sanctified and elevated to an instrument for growth in holiness. This is a great mystery, the mystery of the Cross. God takes suffering, that which we fear and recoil from, and makes it desirable, not for its own sake but as it can be an occasion for an increase in charity. There is no greater proof of love than sacrifice. The sacrifice of Calvary is the cause of our redemption and the exemplar of the life of loving sacrifice to which we are called as Christians. Christian grace has two effects on the baptised: to elevate the soul to the supernatural order and to begin to heal the wounds of fallen nature. In this state of restored nature man lacks the pleasant benefits of the preternatural gifts but lives a life of grace won by the blood of Christ. St Thomas says that on account of the benefits of the Incarnation - the Mass, the sacraments, Our Lady as our mother and other benefits as well - that it is possible for Christians to reach a higher degree of holiness than man before the Fall.

Now to a consideration of the races of Middle-Earth in the light of the preceding exposition. As has been noted in speculation as to whether there might be life on other planets, philosophically speaking if there are creatures on other worlds which are both corporeal and intelligent then they are human. This may seem an odd thing to say but it is simply that there are only certain grades of being possible and any creature composed of a body and a rational soul is defined as a man. There may be accidental differences in appearance and so on, but essentially you have a rational animal.

What this means for Tolkien's world is that the races differentiated on different scores are all essentially human. This is so even allowing for the fictitious beings of artistic license such as angels with bodies or plants that can speak etc. This is more of an issue in his other work, The Silmarillion, in which there are beings which are angelic but with human characteristics. They are somewhat more difficult to diagnose. Of course they have a presence somewhat obscurely in Lord of the Rings in the figures of Sauron, the Istari and the Balrogs. A schema will provide an outline of Tolkien's creatures:


The Istari

The Istari were sent to Middle-Earth to assist the races there in their battle against the evil Sauron. They had great power but were forbidden to use it at full strength against Sauron and his foes because a battle at that level would have had a destructive force as devastating as that of a nuclear war. Their mandate was to advise and guide the peoples of Middle-Earth in their efforts to defeat the enemy. Their wisdom was therefore practical in nature. Their appearance was of old men and they seemed to be mortal. My opinion is that they were spiritual beings who for their duration of their mission assumed bodily form and were subject to the limitations of a body. This occurs in numerous places in Tolkien's writings. In trying to understand the Istari there are more questions than answers. The fact that one of the Istari, Gandalf, appears to die and return from death, and that another, Saruman, betrays his mission in ambition to replace Sauron and yet has the possibility of repentence at the end of the story makes problematic the diagnosis of their nature. I think this is where we allow for artistic license and realise that we are dealing with fictitious being.

Sauron and the Balrogs

Sauron is the diabolical figure of the Lord of the Rings. Although never directly seen in the story, it is known from The Silmarillion that he does have a physical appearance. Balrogs, 'spirits of fire', are some of his servants. From my reading of The Silmarillion I would say that both Sauron and the fearsome Balrogs are of the same nature as the Istari. They would seem, however, to be confirmed in evil.

The Ringwraiths

The Ringwraiths, servants of Sauron, are nine men who have sold their souls in return for immortality and power. They live a hellish life, taking a human appearance and using animals such as birds and horses for movement within Middle-Earth. Their state is that of damnation.

Tom Bombadil

Tom Bombadil is possibly the most mysterious figure in Lord of the Rings. His immunity to the power of the Ring and his apparent indifference to affairs outside the Forest make him somewhat enigmatic, perhaps even problematic. As to his nature, his title as Eldest may be a clue. He was the oldest of all living creatures and may somehow be a personification of the earth. He would appear to be immortal and invulnerable to any other force in Middle-Earth.

The Ents

The Ents are a charming creation of Tolkien. They are intelligent beings in arboreal form whose job it seems to be to look after the trees, tree-shepherds, if you like. They are deep and ponderous thinkers, are capable of local movement and though very long-lived may not be immortal.

The Elves

The Elves are of fascination to readers partly because, it seems to me, they represent something of a golden age which was lost to us. They are corporeally similar in appearance to men but enjoy a life superior to them in many ways. The elven senses are more refined. The Elves do not need sleep in the way men do - they take repose in a form of contemplation. They are regarded by the other races to be wise and learned. The wisdom I think that the Elves excel in is speculative - understanding the natures of things. They appear to be able to communicate telepathically, although this is barely touched upon by Tolkien. They are conditionally immortal, able to be killed in battle and can die of grief. This means that many if not most of the Elves encountered are centuries or millenia in age although in the prime of health and physical perfection. The places which the Elves inhabit and cultivate resemble paradise, seemingly resistant to the vicissitudes and inclemencies of the world. The elvish life is one of human life perfected by a participation in the preternatural gifts. Those who have read The Silmarillion know that within the race of Elves there are grades of perfection and that some have higher degrees of preternatural gifts than others. The Elves then perhaps enjoy the state of integral nature.


The race known as men bear the closest physical similarity to us. They are inferior to the Elves in almost every way but have been given something curiously called a gift: the gift of death. The mortality of men is presented as a blessing because of something awaiting men after death that the Elves may not attain. Tolkien is unclear about what this afterlife is but it appears to take human souls beyond the confines of the world to something better. Could this be a hint of the beatific vision? Elves, although superior to men, are restricted to the world until the end of time. I think that Tolkien meant there to be a final judgment and heavenly reward for all the just where Elves and men would live together in eternity. It is again in The Silmarillion that montheism is made explicit. In it is related that Eru, the One, created the universe with an act of will and directs all things to his glory, intending a final consummation in which his creatures will, after the history of the world, enjoy his company forever. Being in the realm of fiction we can only speculate what state Tolkien intended for men. It could be the state of pure nature or perhaps something more.

The Dwarves

The Dwarves are similar to men, but shorter and longer-lived, though still mortal. For more information about the origin of the Dwarves one must read The Silmarillion. But the question is posited as to the final fate of the Dwarves, whether they will join the children of Eru, Elves and men, at the end of time. It is not made clear as to whether they have an afterlife. I am inclined to think they do given Tolkien's appreciation of the order of things. I do not think that he would deny immortality to the souls of intelligent beings. It would go against his orthodoxy.

The Hobbits

The Hobbits are a creation of Tolkien which have delighted readers for decades. They are in appearance short men, "halflings" and have a rather parochial view of the world. They are very much concerned with their own world and somewhat wary of outsiders. They are certainly mortal and perhaps can be classed as men in terms of their nature and fate.

The Orcs

The Orcs are a class alone in that they are the most problematic for Thomistic psychology and ethics. Tolkien would have accepted that all things by nature are good, yet we have a race whose origin and nature appear to have no redeeming features. It is thought that the Orcs were descended from Elves or men who were somehow mutated by the Dark Lord millenia ago. The attitude of the Elves, men and Dwarves is that the Orcs are evil and are to be killed on sight. How does one resolve this? What makes the Orcs confirmed in evil? Why are they never regarded as innocent life? Tolkien does not answer this so we can only speculate. Again we are dealing with artistic license. It would appear that the Orcs are in a state of fallen nature, yet unredeemable. This would suggest that they are not in the wayfaring state but are in fact in a state of damnation - yet how is this reconcilable with the fact that they are mortal? A possible solution is that their bodies are not animated but moved about by evil spirits who simulate the appearance of rational life in these "Orcs". That could justify the practice to destroy them on sight. Again this is speculation.

The Question of the Supernatural

There is no mention of the order of grace in Tolkien's creation so the states of Original Justice and of Restored Nature are not an issue here. Whether there are allusions to it can be considered, but there is no doubt that Tolkien's profound Catholicism has flowed over into his magnificent narratives. Perhaps the following passage is an example of what I said above about applicability as distinct from allegory:

"' What about Rivendell and the Elves? Is Rivendell safe?'

'Yes, at present, until all else is conquered. The Elves may fear the Dark Lord, and they may fly before him, but never again will they listen to him or serve him. And here in Rivendell there live still some of his chief foes: the Elven-wise, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas. They do not fear the Ringwraiths, for those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power.'

'I thought that I saw a white figure that shone and did not grow dim like the others. Was that Glorfindel then?'

'Yes you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn. He is an Elf-lord of a house of princes.'"

- "Many Meetings", The Fellowship of the Ring,

In applying it to our state what does it mean to live in two worlds at once? The perfection of this is that of the just wayfarer. He lives in the world but is not of the world. Heaven is inside him. Grace is perfecting his nature, transforming all his virtuous actions. He converses verbally with his fellow wayfarers and at the same time converses spiritually with God and the blessed.

1. Cinescape, 8/11/01, http://www.cinescape.com/ quoting the Toronto Sun.

Andrew Nimmo

Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted November 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 10 (2001).
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