What was Tolkien's religion, and what does his literary work have to do with it?
Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, close to being Tridentine in his conservative Catholicism.
How does that make its way into the books?
Scholars have noted, for example, that Elbereth Gilthoniel, to whom the Elves sing, and to whom Frodo looks for help when he's at his moment of despair in the last book of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, occupies the role of the Virgin in the Catholic religion.
But on another level, the whole trilogy was informed by a Christian sensibility.
Sure. During the 1960s, as Tolkien was becoming a sort of cult hero, there was a graffito, "God Is Dead. Frodo Lives." That suggests the way Frodo, who is the main character of "The Lord of the Rings," is a kind of resurrected hero. At the end of the trilogy, he does have a resurrection, when he goes over to the Grey Havens with Bilbo. What is that, if not a metaphor for eternal life? And after all, possessing the Ring, being stretched by the exercise of free will, is another way of seeing eternal life.
Tolkien saw the Bible as a "true myth," something like his own mythmaking. Was it a truer myth?
If you read "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien talks about the story of Christ's resurrection as the ultimate fairy story because it has the ultimate happy ending. (Click here to read more on this.)
Tolkien distinguished between the primary world, which is the world of pain, suffering, turbulence that we live in day-to-day, in which we have finite lives. But he talks about fairy tales as a creation of a secondary world, in which the reader finds escape, consolation, and recovery, where the colors are brighter, as he says, where you are sick and are always healed. It's the recovery of Paradise, if that's what you want to call it. We all long for a secondary world. But he would see the Bible as truth in the primary world.
He would never identify his secondary world as real-the Grey Havens, for instance, as Heaven. He never used Christian terminology to describe his world, because it would be a violation of the secondary-world construction to introduce the primary world into it.
I don't think Tolkien would call the Ring corrupting. It doesn't have any power of its own. It has the will of the creator, the Dark Lord, and exercises a force that one has to contend with. That's Frodo's problem. He's just a little hobbit. How can he resist the power of the Dark Lord. In a sense Tolkien is trying to set up an impossible battle between a dark lord and an individual. Well, where have we seen this before? Is this not almost equivalent to something like the satanic adversary. It asks, How does man resist something as powerful as the incarnation of evil in the universe?
So I can read "Lord of the Rings" as an exercise in free will. Frodo must do that Miltonic thing, to educate himself in evil. He has to understand what evil is in order to resist it. And that's why he has to have such a strong will to say no to the temptation to put on the Ring. So if you say, What is the Ring? What is the Ring a metaphor for? It could be almost anything you desire. Anything that your desire for makes you unreasonable, whether it's lust or avarice or whatever object you want that you can't have.
That's what the whole first volume is about. Frodo has trouble deciding which of the voices he has inside him is the right one to follow. One voice says, "Bring me the Ring." The other one says, "No, resist." How does he know that the voice that says to resist isn't the voice of his own desire, rather than the voice of his conscience? Where is his will in all of this?
So Tolkien's view of the human moral problem is finding which is the right voice to listen to?
Right. He creates a situation in which an everyman figure like Frodo is exposed to worldly temptations of one sort or the other. That's what happens when you put on the Ring. You see yourself as a Dark Lord however subjective conditions affect your perceptions of what that would be, to be Lord of the World. And people don't realize it. Tolkien has so subtly introduced his secondary world.
You can even see Gollum as the hero. As Frodo and Gollum, who is a species of hobbit himself, struggle at the end at the edge of Mount Doom, who is the hero and who is the villain? Does Gollum save the Ring from Frodo, who is intent on throwing it into Middle Earth? Or does he save Frodo from himself, by biting the Ring off his finger? Remember, Frodo loses control and puts on the Ring. He's lost the battle against the adversary, just at the moment when he needs to be strongest. And that's when Gollum bites it off. Is he doing that for himself, for Sauron, or to save Middle Earth before he dies? You could read all of this in really great religious terms.