Reading Tolkien


I’ve seen a few mentions of Tolkien here in the past (including from a couple of monastics who seem to be big admirers of his work) but I’m wondering how reading fiction such as this comes under the precept around entertainment? Interestingly, I recall Ajahn Thanissaro saying he had read the Harry Potter books!

As a big Tolkien fan, I realise his works go beyond just entertainment given the religious and philosophical themes woven throughout his legendarium, but could continuing to read and his admire his works (whether a lay person or monastic) still be anything other than distraction/entertainment?

Thank you in advance :pray:

Not sure about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but I would definitely list reading The Silmarillion under the ascetic practices.

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̶M̶o̶n̶a̶s̶t̶i̶c̶s̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶a̶d̶m̶i̶r̶e̶ ̶T̶o̶l̶k̶i̶e̶n̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶a̶b̶l̶y̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶d̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶b̶o̶o̶k̶s̶ ̶b̶e̶f̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶o̶r̶d̶a̶i̶n̶i̶n̶g̶.̶ ̶F̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶t̶h̶r̶e̶a̶d̶s̶,̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶s̶e̶e̶m̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶a̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶s̶e̶n̶s̶u̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶f̶i̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶n̶o̶v̶e̶l̶s̶ ̶g̶e̶n̶e̶r̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶f̶a̶l̶l̶ ̶u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶e̶n̶t̶e̶r̶t̶a̶i̶n̶m̶e̶n̶t̶.̶ ̶A̶l̶t̶h̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶i̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶t̶e̶n̶ ̶e̶m̶p̶h̶a̶s̶i̶s̶e̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶i̶r̶ ̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶w̶i̶s̶d̶o̶m̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶d̶e̶c̶i̶d̶e̶.̶ ̶ ̶ ̶
̶F̶o̶r̶ ̶e̶x̶a̶m̶p̶l̶e̶,̶ ̶f̶i̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶d̶i̶s̶c̶u̶s̶s̶e̶d̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶r̶e̶a̶d̶:̶ ̶h̶t̶t̶p̶s̶:̶/̶/̶d̶i̶s̶c̶o̶u̶r̶s̶e̶.̶s̶u̶t̶t̶a̶c̶e̶n̶t̶r̶a̶l̶.̶n̶e̶t̶/̶t̶/̶e̶n̶t̶e̶r̶t̶a̶i̶n̶m̶e̶n̶t̶-̶w̶h̶e̶n̶-̶b̶e̶c̶o̶m̶i̶n̶g̶-̶a̶-̶m̶o̶n̶k̶/̶1̶9̶4̶7̶6̶?̶u̶=̶t̶u̶r̶n̶t̶a̶b̶l̶e̶s̶

In this thread Ajahn Brahmali says

If you read for entertainment, I would say it is covered by the precepts. If you read for other reasons, then perhaps not. If you read the suttas, then certainly not!

There are a number of posts in that thread that may be of interest :pray:

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Because it would be painful to read or?

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Yes, for that very reason :slight_smile:

That’s bad news for the Jatakas, then.

It has its moments:

to him that is pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond comprehension.


I have never read Tolkien books. Do they describe past lives of Buddhas?

As I understand it, Jatakas are a part of the Pali Tipitaka because they speak about Gotama Buddha’s past lives, and link with the stories in the Suttas. For example, the Kaligga Bodhi Jataka (Vol. 4, Jataka 479) is about Bodhi Tree.

Jatakas are stories, but some people may read them for entertainment and others for understanding the Buddhist cultural history, worship, etc. So I think it depends on our intention whether reading Jatakas is entertainment or not. Even chanting suttas could turn into a form of religious entertainment.

Wikipedia gives the following meanings of ‘entertainment’


I suppose the Jatakas, like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, use narrative to convey meaning within a religious tradition. Tolkien’s works, although strongly influenced by Christianity and pre-Christian myths, don’t have the same adoption by a real-world religion. While the Jatakas were regarded as sacred by Buddhists, The Silmarillion is not regarded as sacred by any religion.

If the Roman Catholic church, for example, were to adopt The Silmarillion as a sacred text and create some interpretation to align it with existing religious values, then I suppose it would gain the same status as other religious myths.

The fall from grace at the beginning of The Silmarillion is basically taken from Christianity (Melkor = Lucifer). Or at least the Christian myth about “Lucifer” created by taking an Old Testament prophecy about a king of Babylon wildly out of context.

Actually, it’s interesting how modern Buddhists have sort of disowned parts of traditional Buddhism by dropping Jataka and Avadana, when these were two of the nine or twelve branches of the teaching recognized by all Buddhist monastic sects in India.


Thank you for the response. Yeah, I mixed in my own views when presenting other people’s views. (an unheard of phenomenon, I know :scream:) I clarified my post now.

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Then let’s start a new religion based on Tolkien’s works as the sacred tetxs. Perhaps, we can call it Tolkienism, like they create this religion of Jediism based on Star Wars movie:


You jest, but Tolkein’s works were fundamentally a religious text which reconciled Catholic and pagan spirituality. If you pursue the theology far enough, however, you will run into the same dead-end that prevented Tolkein from writing a sequel to the Lord of the Rings: the problem of evil. For a Catholic like Tolkein, evil has no true existence, it is only the absence of God; whereas for a pagan, evil was perfectly real.

What does it mean, then, to have an entire race of beings, the orcs, who were irredeemably evil? They could not have been created evil, for evil has no creative power, it can only bend and twist true creation. But if they have been corrupted from that which was once good, can they not be restored? Is the corrupting power of evil greater than the redemptive power of good? A true Christian would want to save the orcs, but the people of Tolkein’s worlds want only to eliminate them.

To be clear, this is not a problem with Tolkein’s legendarium. On the contrary, the purpose of storytelling, and especially great storytelling, is to help us live in a world full of irreconcilable opposites. The problem only arises if we try to consider it as theology rather than myth.


Literature art and music all have a valid and vital role in even an ascetic religious life, because truth is not fully conveyed in inelegant expression, and because ignorance does not promote virtue. To be an aesthete is not admirable, but to be a philistine is no better. Literature can teach us some important things: the trick is knowing what these are and aren’t.


Wow, I never thought of Tolkien’s books in this way, but in the past I use to wonder a lot why Lucifer (Satan) and the demons (fallen angels) could not be redeemed - exactly for the reasons you mention here. Most Christians cannot wait for the demons to permanently be thrown in hell. It is a perfectly good question why these true Christians do not want to see the demons saved - as you mention with regards to the orcs. Those pastors and theologians I asked about this answered that the reason is that the demons knew God face to face in His full glory and still chose against Him - implying that only humans can be saved as, even if we choose against God, we never knew God in His full glory and only know in part what Jesus and the prophets showed us (perhaps the saints as well - I speak from a Pentecostal POV where I grew up and not Catholic). This belief that some beings are irredeemable did sometimes spill over to include humans - when I point out to some Christians that they are also supposed to love someone like Hitler, I get the “you’re crazy” reply. (just my two cents)


I think ‘love’ means quite different things in God’s order and Buddha’s.
That is probably the reason there is misunderstanding.


Probably one of the biggest reasons why I ended up leaving Christianity behind :grinning: But I have no bitterness


Well, there might not be a religion, but I’d say the English speaking world internalized the dualism of an external war of good vs. evil quite well. Today’s orcs are fascists and marxists, depending on who you talk to in the West. They don’t merely have different philosophies designed to solve certain problems, like Ruby on Rails vs. Oracle.

No, no, no.

Marxists/fascists/whoever are pure evil. Their terrifying hordes are forever massing just over the horizon preparing to conquer the civilized world and enslave all the good, free people who enjoy blue skies, green fields, and happy families. When I realized that, I just couldn’t finish reading Lord of the Rings. I got through the battle at Helms Deep and gave up. (And I knew the rest of the story and how it would basically repeat itself again.)

The concept probably goes back to the days of the real barbarians who were filthy, violent, and constantly terrorizing the civilized lands, be they Mongols, Vikings, or what have you. The Christian world imagined crusader wars as the solution. It seemed to be Muslim answer as well. The Chinese tried to buy them off as long as possible. But they were the actual orcs of Eurasia until the Russians conquered the steppes and Siberia and put and end to it once and for all.

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Fair enough. The interesting parts, though, are those that fall in the spectrum between pure good and pure evil. We see good people—even a divine spirit like Gandalf, or a pure spirit like Galadriel—fall under the temptation of the Ring. In a way, the whole story only works because good and evil are uncomfortably close.

If you look back further in the legendarium, the forces of good gave the evil-doers plenty of chances to redeem themselves. The crisis at the end of the First Age, for example, was resolved by the compassion of the Valar (higher-order gods), despite the crimes committed against them. In the Second Age, the men believed Sauron was reforming, and started to trust him. It didn’t end well. So in a wider sense, the irredeemable evil of Sauron and the orcs is not just a given, though appears like that in the Lord of the Rings as such. It has a long history, and the “good guys” have pretty good reasons for not trying to redeem the baddies.

Perhaps, though, this is another reason why the story could not be continued. The capacity for moral flexibility has eroded too far.


Tolkien also has a rich vein of original nature mysticism, evinced by characters like Tom Bombadil and the Ents, a sensibility that is tonic for us who live in the age of ecocatastrophe. Too, he was a brilliant medievalist and accomplished poet. His description of the Barrow Wights is as close to the language of Beowulf as you will come this side of Anglo-Saxon, and the Muster of Rohan often catches the mood and music of the Chanson de Roland better than any translation.


Yes. There’s plenty in Tolkien’s writings I do like, such as the ents destroying Saruman’s industrial war machine. That was a genius part of the story to me, as a concrete allegory of moral retribution being built into the way the world works. Evil destroys itself by inviting the world to destroy it, which the world will oblige if said evil asks for it long enough.

I suppose if I think of the story as a allegory for the moral struggle inside a person, which is hinted at sometimes when the good characters are tempted by the delusion of power by the ring, it makes a bit more sense to me. The wrong road is the one that sees the world in these black and white terms, and that conflict grinds down all involved as they slowly lose their good nature to it. After all, when a good person must kill evil things like orcs, the experience makes them a bit evil. There’s a contamination of the soul, as any veteran can tell. I’m not sure how much action Tolkien saw in WWI, but that might be pretty close to the mark if he’d been on the front lines.

Overall, though, I prefer less ideological stories like Moribito or Cloud Atlas, though even comparing those two stories highlights the pessimism about human nature that we carry like a burden in our imagination. Moribito has plenty of bad actors in it, but they are bad because of ignorance or arrogance. The principle of coming together to protect life is the central theme, rather than attempting to eradicate evil from the world. Which I guess may be a distant echo of Buddhist influence in Uehashi’s story.

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Famously, Tolkein hated allegory of all kinds.

I think LotR is best simply experienced as a story on it’s face. You don’t form elaborate analogies between the characters and real beings. You just empathize with the protagonists - centrally Frodo, and peripherally Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, Treebeard, and the other beings who operate on a less ordinary scale.

Allegories always fall apart and lead in undesirable directions. But I think there is something pure and coherent you experience watching a little old ordinary person come from obscurity, resist temptation for as long as they can, and succeed through grace and circumstance in overcoming evil.