Resurrecting Myth: A Response to Dr Murphy's "Response"


Joseph Pearce


The following essay was written in response to an article published in the Nicaraguan Academic Journal attacking Joseph Pearce’s Christian reading of The Lord of the Rings. Since the nature of Dr Murphy’s attack is typical of those who insist on a non-theistic reading of Tolkien’s mythical epic, Mr Pearce’s riposte is published here as an exposition of the Christian response to the agnostic “dumbing down” of Tolkien’s Catholic mysticism. 


"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." [1] — J.R.R. Tolkien 


There is something a little fishy about Dr Murphy’s “response” to my article, “True Myth: The Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings”; fishy in the sense that it is a large red herring. It seems to me, having read his “response”, that the whole argument he constructs is nothing more than a nebulous nonsense that will waft away at the first faint breeze of logical, not to say theological, reality. Ultimately, as we shall see, his less than edifying edifice is built upon non-sequiturs constructed on fallacious foundations. On the assumption that there is a good deal of truth to be derived from mythology, it can be said, quite truthfully, that Dr Murphy’s position is far less substantial than the castles of the faeries. 


Dr Murphy endeavors to play down Tolkien’s assertion that The Lord of the Rings is “of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” by quoting another of Tolkien’s letters in which he describes the work as “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration”. He implies thereafter that the linguistic foundations are as important as the religious. It is, however, interesting that he fails to quote another letter by Tolkien in which the author of The Lord of the Rings states unequivocally that the religious element is more important than the linguistic. I say that it is interesting because this particular letter forms the basis of my whole approach to understanding The Lord of the Rings in my book Tolkien: Man and Myth. Clearly Dr Murphy has read my book because he quotes from it selectively throughout his article. Why, therefore, did he fail to quote the very letter that both refutes his own suggestion that religious and linguistic elements are of equal importance and also forms the foundation of my own argument that he is presumably endeavoring to refute? 


Since Dr Murphy has failed to comment on this absolutely crucial letter, it will be helpful to quote from it at length. 


… only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’. But, of course, there is a scale of significance in “facts” of this sort. [2


Tolkien then divides the “facts” of his own life into three distinct categories, namely the “insignificant”, the “more significant” and the “really significant”. Having dismissed the “facts” surrounding the author’s private life as “insignificant”, he discussed “more significant facts, which have some relation to an author’s works”. In this category he placed his academic vocation as a philologist at Oxford University which had affected his “taste in languages” and was “obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings”. Yet even this was subservient to more important factors: 


And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I … lived for my early years in “the Shire” in a premechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.


Thus we see that Tolkien’s Catholicism was seen by Tolkien himself as the “more important” of the “really significant” facts contributing to the molding of Middle Earth, and was significantly more important than the linguistic dimension. My own book was built on the acceptance of Tolkien’s assertion that the author “knows more than any investigator” and, therefore, on the acceptance that Tolkien’s own scale of significance” should form the basis for an understanding of The Lord of the Rings. As such, I emphasized the “fundamentally religious and Catholic” aspects of the book as being the most significant according to the author’s own criteria. (I also included a chapter entitled “Tolkien as Hobbit: The Englishman behind the Myth” in deference to his assertion that his “early years in ‘the Shire’ in a premechanical age” was the other “really significant” factor underpinning the inspiration for his myth.) 


It is curious that Dr Murphy asserts that “Tolkien would not want us to take his own suggestions about the meaning of his work as the last word”. Possibly not. Yet, as Tolkien states specifically, he knows “more than any investigator”. Consequently, assuming that Tolkien is correct in this assertion (and I believe that he is), his words are more reliable than any other words on the subject. I would go further. I would assert that we ignore Tolkien’s words at our peril. The author is the anchor that keeps us bedded in the underlying realities that constitute a work. Once we begin to ignore the author we inevitably drift away from the true meaning of the work. Tolkien’s “guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself ” might know more about The Lord of the Rings than does the author himself but since we are not at liberty to ask them personally (except perhaps in prayer) we should treat Tolkien as the most reliable arbiter of his own work. To reiterate, therefore, we can assume quite safely that The Lord of the Rings is indeed a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” and that the Catholic dimension is the most important of the really significant factors which animate the book. 


Dr Murphy cites Tolkien’s discussion of the final climactic moments on Mount Doom when the Ring is finally “unmade”. “I should say,” wrote Tolkien, “that within the mode of the story the ‘catastrophe’ exemplifies (an aspect of) the familiar words: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’.” Later, Dr Murphy refers to Tom Shippey’s allusion in his excellent book, The Road to Middle Earth, to the significance of the fact that the climactic destruction of the Ring, and in consequence the destruction of the Dark Lord, occurred on “the twenty-fifth of March”. Dr Shippey, an Anglo-Saxon scholar and philologist but not a Catholic, states that in “Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradition both before and after that, 25 March is the date of the Crucifixion”. It is not particularly surprising that Dr Shippey’s ignorance of Catholicism led to his failure to note that it is also the Feast of the Annunciation, the Absolute Center of all History as the moment when God Himself became Incarnate as Man. (It is, however, a little surprising that Dr Murphy, who professes to being a Catholic, should have failed to mention the fact.) As a devout Catholic, Tolkien was well aware of the significance of “the twenty-fifth of March”. It signified the way in which God had “unmade” Original Sin, the Fall which, like the Ring, had brought humanity under the sway of the Shadow. The Fall was the “One Sin to rule them all … and in the darkness bind them.” On the twenty-fifth of March the One Sin, like the One Ring, had been “unmade”, destroying the power of the Dark Lord. 


This, of course, smells suspiciously of allegory and, as Tolkien’s secularist admirers never fail to remind us, Tolkien denied that The Lord of the Rings could or should be seen as an allegory. Thus, for instance, Dr Murphy complains that “Pearce omits from his article any discussion of the difference between myth and allegory, a distinction that was important to Tolkien”. He then quotes from Tolkien’s famous essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, in which Tolkien complained that the “defender” of a myth, “unless he is careful, and speaks in parables … will kill what he is studying by vivisection, and … will be left with a formal and mechanical allegory”. Ironically, Dr Murphy has unwittingly destroyed his own case by the very words of Tolkien that he has sought to employ in his prosecution of it. In this passage Tolkien is speaking of the dangers of reducing the myth to “a formal and mechanical allegory” whilst advocating that the critic employ the more careful and subtle allegorical approach implied by the use of parables. 


It is a truth invariably missed by those allergic to allegory that Tolkien’s attacks on allegory always and invariably refer specifically to this “formal and mechanical”’ kind. Tolkien considered this form of allegory, exemplified most notably perhaps by Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C.S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, as being too crude in its mode of conveying the truth. Tolkien preferred the subtler allegorical approach of mythology whereby the facts of the story become applicable to the truth that is present in our own lives. This applicability of the literal meaning of a story to the world beyond its pages is no less “allegorical” than other forms of allegory; it is a difference in degree, not essence. It is less formal, less mechanical, more subtle, but no less allegorical. Thus, for example, Tolkien stressed that “any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations …)” [3] Earlier, Tolkien had written that “Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth”. [4]

"The truth is,” wrote C.S. Lewis, that allegory is “one of those words which need defining in each context where one uses it.” In his early work, The Allegory of Love, Lewis defined allegory in its formal, mechanical or crude form, as follows: 

On the one hand you can start with an immaterial fact, such as the passions which you actually experience, and can then invent visibilia (visible things) to express them. If you are hesitating between an angry retort and a soft answer, you can express your state of mind by inventing a person called Ira (Anger) with a torch and letting her contend with another invented person called Patientia (Patience). 

Lewis, like Tolkien, often denied that his work was allegorical in this strict sense of the word. In December 1958 he wrote to a correspondent denying that Aslan was an “allegory”. 

By an allegory I mean a composition (whether pictorial or literary) in which immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects, e.g. a pictured Cupid allegorically represents erotic love (which in reality is an experience, not an object occupying a given area of space) or, in Bunyan a giant represents Despair. [5

Although Lewis denied that Aslan was “formally and mechanically allegorical” in this crude sense, he would clearly have conceded that Aslan is meant to remind the reader of Christ, without specifically representing him per se. Similarly, Gandalf in his death and resurrection is meant to remind us of Christ without any suggestion that we are ever meant to think that he is meant to be Christ Himself. He “dies” as Gandalf the Grey and is washed white in the blood of his sacrifice, returning resplendently transfigured as Gandalf the White. Frodo is depicted as Christ-like in his carrying of the Ring, which, like the Cross, is an emblem of evil or sin; yet he is clearly not intended to be seen literally as Christ. 

Tolkien’s depiction of the Christ-like in The Lord of the Rings parallels the Christo-subtle images evoked by the great and anonymous Anglo-Saxon scop who first recounted the story of Beowulf. Indeed, we should not be the least surprised to discover that Tolkien’s approach to the Christocentric applicability of his myth parallels the applicability of the actions of the hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic. Beowulf reminds us of Christ at several points throughout the narrative but we are never meant to see Beowulf as Christ Himself. Clearly Tolkien had drawn deep draughts of inspiration from the sub-creative well of this profoundly Christian poem. 

Continue to page 2 of 2




1 Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1981, p.172

2 ibid. p.288

3 ibid., p.145

4 ibid., p.121

5 These two quotes by Lewis are taken from Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide, London, Harper Collins, 1996, p.551

6 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1977, p.42



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