Originally Markus Davidsen of the Centre for the study of Religion wanted to obtain his PhD with a study on people who believe in “the Force” from Star Wars, but that didn’t go exactly to plan, so today he is defending his doctoral thesis on “Tolkien spirituality” and the people who are spiritually connected to the work of the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmari llion.
How did he get in touch with them? “Actually, they found me. My graduation thesis on Jedis won a prize and that generated lots of publicity, in Mare too. As a result, those people got in touch with me: one group of Tolkien followers would put me in touch with another and it snowballed from there. The groups turned out to be quite diverse too, so I could compare them to each other.
“I wanted to find out how people could be religious about something they know to be fiction. How it evolves is different for everybody, but it generally happens like this. Some people are interested in two particular things: they are fans of Tolkien’s work and they dabble in alternative forms of spirituality. In the past, they will have often joined neo-Pagan groups – people who are into Wicca or who try to resurrect Germanic or Celtic religions. That makes the synthesis easier: if you already believe there is another world out there, it’s easier to believe that the wizard Gandalf lives there.”
Often it starts with using Elves or Gods from Tolkien’s world in a ritual, in a sort of playful way, explains Davidsen. “Some groups might experience something, or realise that this is what they are looking for, so they build on from there. As we say in religious studies: the game-contract disappears.”
As is the way with religions, Tolkien spirituality has developed into various branches. Most followers only draw inspiration from the inhabitants of Middle Earth while others integrate Tolkien’s work into an existing religious tradition. The largest group of devotees call themselves The Tribunal of the Sidhe. They claim to be changelings: Elves who belong to another world but who have been reincarnated into an Earth body in this life. They say that Tolkien was a changeling too and that his work is a mythical history of the changelings.
There is also a small movement of alternative historians who use Tolkien’s work to prove conspiracy theories in which Jesus and Charlemagne belong to an Elvish family tree. “There are those who swear that they themselves are descended from Elves and accordingly have Elvish genes. That’s some claim, and taking it too far for the people who only claim to have Elvish souls and who dissociate themselves from that group.”
Davidsen adds: “Yet another group say they not remotely related to Elves, but that there is another world in which the Valar (higher beings – ed.) exist. They use rituals to try and contact the Valar. Some draw a circle on the ground, spiritually cleanse it and then evoke the Valar while others go on a kind of shamanic journey with their spirits travelling to another world.”
The theologian states everything in a matter-of-fact and business-like tone: “This kind of religion isn’t any dafter than other faiths, we’re just used to that particular madness”, he explains. “We think it’s normal for Catholics to consume the flesh and blood of their God, but when the modern vampire movement says they draw powers from blood, we think they’re loonies. It’s not really fair. Buddhism dictates that some people have a Buddha nature, which is not essentially different from the Tolkien-esque idea of having an Elvish nature.”
You need at least two elements to make the shift from fiction to religion, according to Davidsen. “Firstly, you need a narrative religion: a religion in the story. Star Wars has the Force and the Valar are described in the Silmarillion. That produces a model you can use. The Elves believe in the Valar, so you can imitate that. There’s even an Elvish religious calendar in the book’s appendix to help you on your way, as it were.”
“The second aspect is that the text must have a connecting role in reality – it should raise doubts about its own fictional nature. Tolkien did it: he thanks the Hobbits for approving his map in one of his acknowledgements.
“Another example: the Ents, ancient and mighty tree creatures, are a myth of Middle Earth which later prove to exist. Gandalf says you should always believe the old tales so people from the Elvish Movement say: ‘See! Here, Tolkien means that we’re supposed to believe his story.’”
As it is, Tolkien said more than once that he didn’t feel as if he had made the stories up, but rather that he was handing them down or recording them.
Davidsen concludes: “That makes it possible to make Tolkien’s world a religion; it’s a cocktail that you don’t find in Harry Potter or Discworld, which means those books won’t generate religions.”
“I simply stepped into that world”
“Sofia” (42, webmaster), is one of the people Davidsen interviewed for his study into Tolkien religions. Mare spoke to her on the telephone about the “change of the highest order”.
“Do you know what non-Euclidean space is? The geometry taught at school assumes a number of rules or postulates. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, mathematicians started to experiment: what happens if you drop one of the postulates? Well, lots of interesting things happen, it would seem.
“That’s very similar to how I got started. I had watched a lecture by the Gnostic Stephan Hoeller in which he discussed the difference between reality and factuality, two synonyms in modern Western thought: something is objective – scientifically verifiable – or not. So a fantasy is, by definition, not true and not important.
“I decided to drop the postulate that makes that distinction. While I was meditating – I can’t put it in any other way – I stepped into Tolkien’s world. To me, to see an internal fantasy world that is so rich was truly a change of the highest order.
“I grew up with Tolkien’s work as a child and I had always wanted to learn the Elvish languages that Tolkien invented in the books. In 2007, I discovered that you could simply learn them via Internet courses. It was quite easy and a side effect was that the images were easier to conjure up – I could actually see the landscape.
“In Zen meditation, the idea is to banish all thoughts, but the ‘stepping into’ is actually the opposite. You try to focus on certain concepts, really concentrating, and you start to get the notion that more is created than anything you had imagined. Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, described similar experiences in which he imagined he was digging a hole and Tolkien experienced it too. In his letters, he writes that he thought he was recording a history rather than making one up. And there are more stories that ‘open up’ like that. I expect Christianity started like that too, once upon a time.
“To me, reading Tolkien is not a religion in the sense that I carry out rituals. It’s not a shared spirituality – what I experience is very individual. I don’t acquire any lessons from it about how I should live from the books; my parents taught me my values.
“So what’s the point? The only thing that makes sense is to do it yourself. Make things that amaze people, things that can evoke experiences that are just as powerful. I’ve started attending an art course and would just love it if even just one person were to have a similar sensation thanks to my art.”