Universiteit Leiden

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Tolkien and fiction-based religions

Markus Altena Davidsen’s PhD dissertation is the first major study of Tolkien Religion. In it, he analyses the religion that is based on the stories by acclaimed British fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. He also discusses how fiction itself can become religious. Davidsen will defend his dissertation on 16 October.

Spiritual inspiration

In his dissertation The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu, Davidsen explains that the adherents to the Tolkien Religion form a network of groups and individuals that are largely found online, and that draw spiritual inspiration from Tolkien’s literary mythology. The writer is best known for The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). This religious movement arose in the 1960s and to this day it is followed by thousands of people all over the world.


As part of his research, Davidsen interviewed dozens of Tolkien believers. He discovered that only a very small number of these take the stories literally. Broadly speaking, he distinguished three groups of faithful adherents. One group considers the story to be fictional, but believe the supernatural beings described actually exist. Another category of the faithful believe that Tolkien’s world exists parallel to our own, and that the writer gained access to this parallel world through visions or revelations. And finally, the largest group of followers recognise Tolkien’s work as fictional, but are especially interested in the sources it has been based on, like Celtic and Germanic mythology and a number of natural religions. For these people, Tolkien simply acts as a catalyst.

Fiction-based religions

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

This dissertation provides a detailed analysis of Tolkien Religion and its adherents, and also includes research on the wider phenomemon of fiction-based religions. These are religions that do not claim to be based on historical events but instead solely rest on fiction. One other prominent example of this phenomemon is Jediism, that draws its spiritual inspiration from the Star Wars film series. Davidsen, however, limits his research to those religions that originate in literature. Of these, Tolkien’s oeuvre is easily the best example.

Talking trees

The Silmarillion. Tolkien is said to have made the cover drawing himself.
The Silmarillion. Tolkien is said to have made the cover drawing himself.

Davidsen also explores the criteria that need to be met before a text can be used as a blueprint for a new religion. Firstly, it must include fantastical elements that the reader can interpret as supernatural. This could, for example, be the existence of magic, enchanted objects or talking trees. Characters with whom the readers can identify, like elves, are also essential, as are god-like supernatural beings that can be called upon in rituals. While The Lord of the Rings doesn’t include many figures from that latter category, The Silmarillion (published in 1977) does. Published four years after Tolkien’s death by his son Christopher, this compilation of stories also concerns the Tolkien world.

Hobbits in our world

The second distinguishing characteristic of religious fiction is that it explicitly states its own veracity. In other words, the texts have to state that they concern the actual world or cast some doubt on their own fictional properties. Tolkien did so in the preface of the first edition of The Lord of the Rings, where he expressed his hope that those Hobbits still inhabiting our world approve of this book. Tolkien later regretted including this statement, feeling that as a strict Catholic he shouldn’t have permitted himself such frivolity. However, this will probably not matter to many adherents of the Tolkien Religion.

PhD defence

16 October: Markus Altena Davidsen. The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu: A Study of Fiction-based Religion


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