Chris C Mooney on the Lord of the Rings as a Christian work:
“In a 1953 letter Tolkien described ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a ‘fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ (Letter 172)
But Tolkien’s views — on both religion and fiction — were complex. In another letter, Tolkien outlined his aspiration to create a new mythology for England, describing the existing body of Arthurian legend as inadequate for the role because it ‘explicitly contains the Christian religion.’ (He added, ‘That seems to me to be fatal.’) References to real-world belief systems, Tolkien thought, would detract from the beguiling timelessness he hoped to convey.”
It seems that Tolkien knew his Everlasting Man (Chesterton) quite well.
“The point of this book, in other words, is that the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it.”
However, the first line above should not be a considered a “wham-bam-thankyou-ma’am”. The following quotation provides a more balanced view:
“There is no ‘allegory’ — moral, political, or contemporary — in the work at all. It is a ‘fairy-story’ … [written] for adults.”
But I was quite surprised by the explicit reference above to LOTR as a religious work, though one of the Wabash professors also enters the fray suggesting that idea might not be as strong as some hope:
But the sacrifice and loss isn’t suffered by Frodo alone; it’s suffered by all the denizens of Middle-earth: In Tolkien’s scheme, the destruction of the one ring necessitates the departure of the Elves from Middle-earth — and with their parting, much that is beautiful and cherished disappears from the world forever. Evil, meanwhile, will doubtlessly reconstitute itself in yet another form. “That’s a very Norse outlook: Even the winners lose,” says Stephen MOrillo, a Wabash College medieval historian who’s teaching a course this January that covers Tolkien. “That’s really what lies behind the morality of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and that’s just incompatible with a Christian interpretation.”
However, this is one more example of argumentation revolving around terminology. When Christians are claiming the story as theirs, they are in actually approaching the story thematically. To claim that there are Christian themes that course through a story is not to Westernize the story, but to see, as CS Lewis did, that myths (even those that have nothing to do with Christianity) are ultimately pagan prophecies pointing to truths that are inlaid within the fabric of life.
I’m still not sure that LOTR is as religious as many hope (though the 1953 letter, if properly described in context, mentioned above would strongly suggest that it is), and Morillo’s argument would certainly be an interesting path to explore (Tolkien certainly did immerse his stories in a consistent Norse past that would never be confused with the rather confused Narnian mythology). Though I would like to point out that, from a purely textual reading, the elves’ leaving did not seem to be contingent upon the destruction of the ring (they seemed to know that their time was limited even before the ring was close to destruction).
But ultimately, I don’t think it matters. The meaning of the text is far more basic than much of this banter reveals.
Note: I found the quotation regarding LOTR as a religious work in a section from Norman Cantor’s book Inventing the Middle Ages, which I thought filled out the thought nicely.
I recommend reading the paragraph before (and the whole section if possible) to get a better sense of Tolkien’s own vision of the meaning underlying LOTR.