Professor Discusses Art and Religious Experience in The Lord of the Rings

The Center for Ethics and Culture hosted a lecture entitled “The Book That Changed My Life: The Lord of the Rings” on February 22. Given by Professor of Philosophy and Classics David O’Connor, the lecture focused on how J.R.R Tolkien’s bestselling work impacted his view on the relationship between religion and art.

To explain the power of The Lord of the Rings in his life, O’Connor began with a short art history lesson. He first discussed “Mariana” by the 19th century British artist John Everett Millais, which features the blue-clad character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Millais was a leading member of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood, an artistic movement that attempted to “go back to authentic medieval art,” O’Connor explained. To accomplish this, he elaborated, they “painted the figures in a way that didn’t idealize them in the way people were used to in Christian art,” while still celebrating beauty as in “Mariana.”

The Pre-Raphaelites used the same lack of traditional idealization in their religious works as well, choosing to “take common people and make them more beautiful,” but so that “you could still tell they were common people,” O’Connor said. He related how Charles Dickens looked at the Blessed Virgin Mary’s depiction in Millais’s first painting and observed that “you could find better women in any gin-shop in London.”

“A lot of people thought it was blasphemous,” O’Connor continued, because Pre-Raphaelites did not idealize their religious subjects as previous generations had. Thus, they had created a controversy about art’s role in promoting religious experience, one that Tolkien, who attended the same primary school as Millais, helps us resolve.

The Pre-Raphaelites “wanted to intensify the real through the use of beauty and in doing that, they thought they could intensify religious experience,” O’Connor said. Many, however, “were worried that you might start to enjoy the religious art merely for its sensuous beauty and not for anything religious in it,” he continued. The problem for art was that “when it works right, it intensifies our religious experience, but when it works wrong, it substitutes for it,” he concluded.

The latter alternative, O’Connor explained, was exemplified by Edward Burne-Jones, whose paintings “tried to move away from those directly religious roots, but keep all emotional intensity and cultural relevance that religious movement had.” These works were the “greatest statement I had ever seen,” he elaborated, “of the slogan ‘I am spiritual but not religious … because I won’t give up the intensification and elevation that religious commitment gives, but I won’t accept the discipline that religious commitment gives.’” And this is where Tolkien comes into play.

“Tolkien’s accomplish is located in between John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones … because he wanted to show a relationship between beauty and transcendence,” O’Connor said. Tolkien accomplished this by presenting his religious themes in a non-overtly religious manner. “Tolkien understood himself very much as a Catholic author, but he didn’t want to be read as a book of catechism or, a word he was allergic to, allegory, as if he just had an encoding of Catholic religious belief,” O’Connor noted.

To demonstrate the transcendence that he desired, then, Tolkien relied upon elves of The Lord of the Rings. “Some complex relationship between the humans and the elves is a part of the way that Tolkien tries to capture what Edward Burne-Jones captured,” O’Connor described.

However, for Tolkien, this was not a substitution for religious experience as it was for Burne-Jones. According to O’Connor, a painting by Burne-Jones “sees itself as having completed the journey to grace, because you don’t need grace anymore.” Instead, Tolkien writes “at a completely natural level,” O’Connor explained, “in a way that doesn’t require grace to make sense of the story but invites us into the experience of grace to complete the story.”

This message’s impact extends far beyond merely art, however. “There is a reason people want to be spiritual but not religious and one of the reasons is that they want a kind of sexual freedom that religious discipline does not provide for them,” O’Connor explained.

While many reviewers criticized The Lord of the Rings and relegated it to the status of a children’s book because of its lack of sexuality, O’Connor maintains that they miss that it occurs throughout, “because when Tolkien thinks about sexuality, he thinks about marriage, because he was a normal man.”

O’Connor illustrated how marriage can be seen in Tolkien’s epic through the story of Samwise Gamgee. “I think you can see in the early chapters that Sam wants to marry Rosie, so for him there is something really at stake in going on this journey where he doesn’t know what the end will be.” Because Sam knows the future he has awaiting him when he returns, “that story is something that holds the whole book together,” O’Connor argued.

For O’Connor, then, Tolkien “wasn’t a modern man, he wasn’t a Pre-Raphaelite man, he wasn’t spiritual, but not religious—he was religious, and he was spiritual.”

Nicholas Gadola Holmes is a first-year political science and history major living in Keough Hall. He likes to eat pineapple at NDH when he’s taking a break from ‘make your own pizza’ at South. Contact him at