1. Religion in Middle-earth
Often in The Lord of the Rings Elves and other creatures (like Samwise, for instance), invoke the name of Elbereth. The Valaquenta says, “…they call upon her name out of the shadows of Middle-earth, and uplift it in song at the rising of the stars.” In the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, Bilbo says to Frodo, “It is a song to Elbereth. They will sing that, and other songs of the Blessed Realm, many times tonight.” The Elves revere Elbereth and the other Valar, but make no temples to them (see Letters, p. 193-194).
Among mortal peoples, religious beliefs and practises are manifest differently. The hobbits appear to have no spiritual practises whatsoever. (Letters, p. 193-194). Bilbo and Frodo, who have probably the greatest understanding of Elvish spirituality, are considered strange and ‘unhobbitish.’
The same is apparent in Rohan. Michael Martinez says in his essay "How Did Tolkien Actually Portray the Rohirrim?", “One clear aspect of Icelandic culture missing from Rohan is religion … The Rohirrim do not acknowledge the Valar or even Ilúvatar.” The only visible religious tendency in Rohan is their belief in the Vala Oromë, whom they call Béma (see Appendix A of LotR).
Among the Dúnedain of the Third Age the only concrete illustration of religious practice is of Faramir’s moment of silence before eating. “’So we always do,’ he said, as they sat down: ‘we look towards Númenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.’” (The Two Towers, p. 285).
The Númenóreans give us the clearest example of religion in Middle-earth. Although there was no temple of the True God while Númenórean influence lasted, (see Letters, p.193-194, 204), the Meneltarma, the great mountain in the centre of the Isle of Elenna, was a hallowed place dedicated to Eru. There was no building, pillar, altar, or any stones upon the Meneltarma, and no one ever spoke there, except the King only, three times a year during the festivals of Eru: Erukyermë, prayer to Eru; Erulaitalë, praise to Eru; and Eruhantalë, thanksgiving to Eru. These ceremonies are the closest that Men get to an organized religion of the One. It is interesting that no birds ever came there, except eagles, which were beloved of Manwë Súlimo. Their presence could be a symbol of what the Meneltarma signified. The Unfinished Tales says that these Eagles were the Witnesses of Manwë, who sent them to keep watch over the Meneltarma. There was also a hallow on Mt. Mindolluin where only the Kings of Gondor could go – a reflection or memory of the Meneltarma.
Tolkien notes that there may have arisen, 105 years after the War of the Ring, a new cult worship of the Dark (see The New Shadow, in The Peoples of Middle-earth). There are less than ten pages of the story, however. Tolkien wrote of it, “I have found that …there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion …I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow – but it would be just that. Not worth doing.” (XII: 410, also Letters no. 338). He abandoned The New Shadow, so we’ll never get to find out what this new cult would have been like.
Only twice in all the histories of Middle-earth are there fanes, or temples erected, and both of these are made to the Dark One, the Shadow (one could say it was the Satan-worship of Middle-earth). Andreth tells Finrod in Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth, (X HoMe), the tale of when Men first awoke and how they were whelmed by the Darkness. Melkor (most likely it was he) came to Men, and told them that he would teach them, and give them gifts to make them rich, and he made them repudiate the One. At his bidding they built a temple to him. “’Now build Me a house on a high place, and call it the House of the Lord…Then bow before Me and acknowledge Me!’ he said. And all bowed to the ground before him, saying: ‘Thou art the One Great, and we are Thine.’” (X: 347). Later, in the Second Age, the Númenóreans, seduced by Sauron and in fear of death, go over to worship of the Dark (these are called the King’s Men). They built a temple to Morgoth by the Meneltarma, and carried out hideous practises of human sacrifice there. Ar-Pharazôn would let none ascend to the Meneltarma (which was a symbol of the lordship of Eru and their reverence for him). The Akallabêth says that when lightning hit the Temple to Morgoth, “Sauron stood there upon the pinnacle, and defied the lightning and was unharmed; and in that hour men called him a god and did all that he would.”
The most heinous travesty that the King’s Men commit is by cutting down Nimloth, the White Tree at the King’s Court of Armenelos. This symbolizes how far the Númenóreans had fallen.
The White Tree has a great symbolic religious value. The Silmarillion, p.38, says of the Two Trees, “Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Eldar Days are woven.” Remnants or reflections of the light of the Trees, that were slain before the Sun and Moon, are sacred and incomparably valuable. Nimloth, the White Tree of Númenor, was descended from Celeborn of Eressëa, which was a scion of Galathilion of Valinor, which was an image of Telperion. When Isildur stole into the King’s Court at night, and took a fruit of Nimloth, he was grievously wounded, and lay on the point of death until the seed bloomed, and then he was healed. Did the actual blooming of the seed cause Isildur’s recovery? Was the tree’s blooming symbolic of new life coming forth (since Nimloth had at that point been cut down), as was Isildur’s being healed? Do the two correlate in any way? The White Tree of the Númenóreans seems to wax and wane with the welfare of the Dúnedain at that time. Isildur’s recovery is one example, and Sauron’s cutting down Nimloth is a sign of the Númenóreans’ wickedness. Another example is during the great plague in Gondor in 1636 of the Third Age. The Lord of the Rings Appendix A iv says, “When King Telemnar died the White Tree of Minas Anor also withered and died.” King Telemnar and all his children, as well as many others in Gondor, died in the plague that wafted from the East. It was also at this time that the Shadow in Greenwood the Great increased, and Tarondor, Telemnar’s nephew, removed the King’s house from Osgiliath to Minas Anor. The withering and death of the White Tree is a symbol of the waning of the Dúnedain of Gondor: the death of the King and his heirs, the growth of Sauron’s power, and the abandonment of Gondor’s capitol (Osgiliath). Tarondor planted a sapling of the White Tree in the Kings’ Citadel.
Belecthor II, the 21st Ruling Steward of Gondor, died in 2852 T.A., and at the same time the White Tree also died. They could find no new seedling, and so the dead tree was left standing. This is the same dead tree that Pippin sees in The Return of the King: “A sweet fountain played there in the morning sun, and a sward of bright green lay about it; but in the midst, drooping over the pool, stood a dead tree, and the falling drips dripped sadly from its barren and broken branches back into the clear water. Pippin glanced at it as he hurried after Gandalf. It looked mournful, he thought, and he wondered why the dead tree was left in this place where everything else was well tended.” The Tree symbolized the light and glory of the Númenóreans in the days before their corruption and darkness. It signified the purity and spiritual guidance that they had.
Tolkien says in his Letters, p. 220, “The Third Age was not a Christian world,” perhaps meaning that Men had waned from their high spiritual state of earlier Ages. It is significant that the Dúnedain of Belecthor’s day could find no sapling of the dead White Tree, in the same way that they could not find the heir of Gondor’s throne for nearly a thousand years. The Kingship represents that which was spiritually lost when the Númenóreans turned away from the Valar. When the King at last came forth, and Elessar was crowned, he found the sapling of the White Tree on the hallow of Mindolluin where only the Kings might go. Is it a coincidence that at the same time that Elessar is crowned, the symbol of his newfound kingship is also discovered (namely, the sapling of the White Tree, which had been dead for over two and a half centuries)? The Silmarillion (p. 303) says that Aragorn was “more like to Elendil than any before him.” Elendil was the leader of the remnant of the Faithful of Númenor after Amandil took ship seeking the West. Aragorn brought back the light, and the spiritual depth of Elendil, and that which the White Tree stood for.
The White Tree is most certainly a symbol of this spirituality to the waning Dúnedain, and to other houses of Men, at the end of the Third Age. The standard of the King has the White Tree on it, whereas the Steward’s standard is merely argent, and unadorned. Faramir says to Frodo in Ithilien, “’For myself, I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the Kings, and the Silver crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair,’” (TTT: 280). Also, when the One Ring was destroyed, Faramir and Éowyn stood on the walls of Minas Tirith, and heard the Eagles’ tidings of victory for the lords of the west:
“Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.” (RotK: 241)
The White Tree and the coming of the King are synonymous in both cases: it is a spiritual rebirth. Just as the Two Trees of Yavanna were not merely trees, but symbols of the Light of Ilúvatar unstained within the world, so is the White Tree to Men. Within it they see reflected the Light of Ilúvatar that they once found in Númenor, at the height of the Meneltarma, but lost forever.
"In an hour unlooked for by Men this doom befell, on the nine and thirtieth day since the passing of the fleets. Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its halls and its towers, its tombs and riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its laughter and its mirth and its music, its wisdom and its lore: they vanished for ever. And last of all the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar-Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls. Too late she strove to ascend the steep ways of the Meneltarma to the holy place; for the waters overtook her, and her cry was lost in the roaring of the wind."
Akallabêth, The Downfall of Númenor
References made in this essay are to:
The Letters of J.R. R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2000.
Michael Martinez, “How did Tolkien actually portray the Rohirrim?” October 22, 1999. http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/27414
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 2001.
Morgoth’s Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1993.
The Peoples of Middle-earth by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1996.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1965.
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1965.
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1965.
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