have much to fear from blockbuster movies. And Peter Jackson’s
new film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, set to be
released in theaters next month, poses such a threat. Mesmerized
by the cinematic eye-candy, the spin-off toys and games, and the
fast-food tie-ins, fans who enter J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth
for the first time through Jackson’s film might never bother to
read Tolkien’s epic. Sadder still, they might never learn about
the Catholic imagination that inspired it.
fantasy devotees who recognize Tolkien as the father of the modern
genre, few realize that Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the
Rings is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work."
This probably comes as a surprise to most Catholics as well.
of The Lord of the Rings are unlikely to find a "Catholic
Middle-earth" by looking for overt references to the Christian
gospel or hidden Catholic symbolism—Tolkien rejected this type
of analysis—however they will find it by looking at Tolkien’s
motivations as a writer.
of an Oxford Don
To the outside
world, Tolkien was the picture of the obscure Oxford don: bright,
jovial, a bit on the chubby side, a fastidious dresser who alternated
between sweaters and waistcoats beneath his Oxford tweed jackets.
Although he was personable enough, students and other trespassers
claimed they could barely understand a word he spoke because he
mumbled everything through his omni-present pipe. In many ways,
he was the very picture of the hobbits he wrote about, who preferred
the comfort of home to grand adventures.
Oxford dons, he preferred a quiet academic life enriched by a
peculiar hobby. Since his boyhood, Tolkien loved inventing imaginary
languages and stories to go along with them. His penchant for
language and myth drew Tolkien into an academic career. He became
a professor of English literature at the University of Leeds and
later at Oxford. But even as a full professor, he always found
time to work on his "Elfin tongues."
of Middle-earth emerged from his fertile imagination as he created
these fictitious languages. Throughout his life, Tolkien wrote,
rewrote, and refined pivotal episodes of that history but was
never fully satisfied with them. The distractions of life and
the magnitude of the work kept him from completing his vision.
These scattered writings—posthumously published by his son, Christopher,
as The Silmarillion—form the narrative background of Middle-earth.
Among the subplots is the saga of the One Ring—a ring that gives
its possessor power to command Middle-earth’s darkest minions.
The story of its creation and eventual destruction forms the basis
for what are now regarded as his greatest works: The Hobbit
and The Lord of the Rings..
When the first
two volumes of The Lord of the Rings were released in 1954,
17 years after the great success of The Hobbit, Tolkien
had been a professor at Oxford for 30 years and was just four
years away from retirement. The renown that had previously eluded
him hit like a firestorm in the 1960s, when his books were widely
regarded as masterpieces, inspiring a new genre of literature:
fantasy fiction. But popular success and the recognition of his
peers were not the driving forces of his work. The driving force
was always his Catholic faith.
Tolkien’s authorized biographer, characterizes Tolkien’s devotion
to the Catholic faith as "total." Friends knew him as
a committed Catholic who was both openly apostolic (he was instrumental
in the conversion of C.S. Lewis to Christianity) and privately
his life, Tolkien found the Eucharist an incomparable solace during
the bouts of melancholy and despair he sometimes suffered. The
special consolations he received at communion were especially
important in the disorienting period when Vatican II was first
implemented. He frequently went to confession, though sometimes
his troubled self-reflection seemed to approach scrupulosity.
When he could not bring himself to confess his sins, he would
be racked by spiritual anxiety—devastated because he could not
receive the Eucharist.
No one was
more influential in the development of both his faith and intellect
than his mother, Mabel. Tolkien maintained that everything he
knew, he learned from his Catholic faith, and that he owed this
faith to his mother, who, according to Tolkien, "clung to
her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of
poverty resulting from it."
worked herself to death providing for her family after her husband
died in South Africa from rheumatic fever when Tolkien was just
four. She raised her two sons alone in a suburb of Birmingham,
England. During these hardscrabble years, Mabel made two decisions
that would shape the rest of the young Tolkien’s life: She raised
her sons in the Catholic faith and made sure they had enough education
to pursue university careers.
task was accomplished with the help of the priests at the Birmingham
Oratory. Founded by John Henry Newman in 1859, the oratory had
made the traditionally Presbyterian city of Birmingham into a
center of Catholic resurgence in late 19th-century England. Mabel
had grown up as a Unitarian and spent several years in the Anglican
Church. After years of searching for the truth, she was received
into the Catholic Church along with her boys at St. Anne’s Church
father’s income, however, the task of educating her sons would
take some doing because the best schools charged tuition. Also,
her decision to become Catholic estranged her from most of her
family, who withdrew their financial support. So Mabel did what
any resourceful woman with a fine middle-class education would
do: She home-schooled her sons until they could pass the entrance
exams and receive scholarships at a good private school.
instruction, Tolkien was reading by the age of four and learning
Latin, French, and German by the age of seven. He took to languages
with such precocious zeal that he was eventually accepted at one
of the best private schools in England! on scholarship. In 1909
Tolkien’s academic career was secured when he was accepted to
Exeter College at Oxford.
Mabel did not live to see the fruits of her labor. In 1904, when
Tolkien was just twelve, she died from diabetes, a disease that
was then untreatable. Before she died, however, she ensured that
her sons would continue to be raised Catholic by asking an Oratorian
friend, Rev. Francis Morgan, to become their legal guardian—and
by making her Protestant relatives promise they would not attempt
to convert the boys.
faith alone would have to sustain him in her absence. Until the
two boys reached their majority, Father Morgan provided for them
materially out of his personal resources. These were lean and
hungry years for the brothers, but they always held a deep affection
for the stern but sensitive Father Morgan. !While they were in
his care, they never lacked for spiritual or intellectual support.
kept close tabs on his charges, who lived in a boarding house
not far from the oratory. Each morning the boys assisted him at
Mass and ate breakfast with him in the refectory.
in love with a close friend, Edith Bratt, when he was just 16.
Father Morgan discovered their clandestine love affair when he
noticed Tolkien’s grades were slipping. Edith was three years
older than Tolkien and a Protestant, so Father Morgan discouraged
the relationship; eight years later, he would preside at their
their different religious backgrounds, the marriage might have
been a tragic disappointment, but the Tolkiens turned it into
an occasion for grace. Although Edith had agreed to convert to
Catholicism as a condition for marriage, she did so grudgingly.
Over the years her resentment at having to go to confession grew
steadily stronger—until finally she stopped attending Mass altogether
and expressed disapproval when Tolkien took their children with
him to church.
religious differences proved irreconcilable, the Tolkiens agreed
that Edith should begin attending Anglican services again. As
a result, her hostility toward the faith of her children and husband
disappeared. Despite their difficulties, their mutual devotion
to family held their marriage together for 55 years, and they!
were both delighted when their first son, John, became a Catholic
Of all his
relationships, Tolkien’s friendship with C.S. Lewis was the most
significant to his intellectual growth. These two men sharpened
each other’s keen intellects during long walks in the English
countryside. The fruits of this lifelong friendship are impossible
to measure. Through convivial conversation, Tolkien discovered
how he could integrate his Catholic faith with his literary vocation.
and Lewis first met as fresh young dons at Oxford in 1926, they
were brought together by a shared love of Norse mythology. They
gathered friends around the fire to read epic Norse poetry at
their Coalbiter’s Club and later started an ad hoc literary society
called the Inklings. The meetings of this small group of friends
would inspire both Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s
Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
It was their
discussions about the relationship between literature and religion,
however, that cemented Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis, a friendship
that was at the center of Lewis’s conversion from agnosticism.
Tolkien brought Lewis around to philosophical theism through patient
persistence. His subsequent conversion to Christianity hinged
on an argument Tolkien advanced that had special appeal to the
myth-minded Lewis. That argument also reveals something important
about Tolkien’s understanding of his vocation as an artist.
that it was common to all mankind throughout history to create
mythologies in order to convey its most central beliefs. It is
only reasonable to assume, he argued, that if there was a God,
he would convey his revelation in the form of a myth, albeit a
myth that was true. Christianity was the most likely candidate
for the "perfect myth," since it shared all the great
common elements of the best mythologies.
account was the "eucatastrophe," as Tolkien and Lewis
came to call it, the happiest of all tragedies, because it satisfies
the human heart’s deepest yearnings, including the desire for
an epic mythology. But this myth had the added advantage of being
historical fact, interpreted through a literary text and poetic
unfolded for both Tolkien and Lewis an entire literary philosophy
of mythopoeics (mythmaking), inspiring them to create new mythologies
for our time. They would spend the rest of their lives arguing
privately about how such an understanding of myth, religion, and
literature could be applied to the art of writing.
two frustrated poets earning a living as Oxford dons, there was
one obvious consequence of their theory of mythopoeics: They had
to start writing! popular fiction. If God used narrative to communicate
his revelation to man, and man is called to bear God’s image on
earth, then one of the most noble vocations is to create new "secondary
worlds" in narrative.
Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia represent
the flowering of that agreement about mythopoeics, Tolkien and
Lewis disagreed about their religious purposes, which explains
why the literary styles they used to create Narnia and Middle-earth
are so different.
evangelical Anglican, hoped his stories would bring the reader
closer to the truth of the Christian Gospel. As a result, The
Chronicles of Narnia bristles with obvious Christian symbolism,
allegory, and moments of overt moral and religious instruction.
In short, Lewis wanted his writing to be evangelistic.
For the Catholic
Tolkien, however, it was more important that Middle-earth was
successful as "sub-creation." Using his vast literary,
linguistic, and historical talents, Tolkien created Middle-earth
as an act of divine praise. The more convincing Middle-earth was
as a real place, the purer that praise would be because it would
more closely approach God’s own act of creation.
Tolkien was unwilling to direct his fictive world according to
any overt pedagogical design. He believed that the moment readers
are made aware of any connections between our world and the "secondary
world" of fiction, the literary spell is broken; readers
reemerge from the imaginary world and realize that it is "just
a story." Tolkien wanted them to believe that Middle-earth
really exists and is not merely a tool for evangelism.
of The Lord of the Rings know that Tolkien hoped Middle-earth
would become England’s native mythology. He thought that the Arthurian
legends were weak compared with the Homeric epics and Norse legends.
Middle-earth, with its inspirational heroics and warnings about
the hazards of the will to power, was created to preserve a uniquely
English cultural heritage from modernity’s infectious errors.
in mind, we can understand why Middle-earth seems to embrace magic
and soft paganism. The historical framework for Tolkien’s imagination
was England’s pre-Christian past—the scattered and disconnected
Norse and Anglo-Saxon legends, with their tales of heroic valor
and pagan mysticism. Tolkien purposely set Middle-earth before
the advent of Christianity because he feared that it might otherwise
lapse into a kind of enervated allegory.
the Moral Geology
aversion to overt religiosity in his stories, Tolkien always affirmed
that his work taught good morals and encouraged his readers! to
turn to the Catholic faith. He simply refused to acknowledge that
this should be the primary purpose of a mythmaker. Instead, Tolkien
insisted that all successful "sub-creation" necessarily
conveys moral truth, because the only good stories are those that
accurately reflect the metaphysical world we live in and the moral
choices we face.
So while Tolkien
did not intend to preach Catholic moral theology, the moral tectonics
of Middle-earth are distinctly Catholic. The evidence for Tolkien’s
astonishing theological consistency and thoughtfulness can be
found simply by reading at random from his published letters.
There Tolkien admits that in creating Middle-earth he carefully
constructed a world with the same moral contours as our world,
a world created by a god with the same nature as our Creator.
!rd For example,
Tolkien carefully avoids painting the struggle between the Free
Peoples of Middle-earth and the minions of the arch-villain Sauron
as strictly a battle of "good versus evil." Tolkien’s
approach is thoroughly Augustinian: The characters of Middle-earth
are distinguished above all by what they love, not where they
live. In the fortress-cities of the Free Peoples, Minas Tirith
and Edoras, one finds both the noble and the corrupt. Every character
can be ruined by pride, and even the most wicked have the capacity
this tension most acutely in the character of Gollum, an obsequious
and malevolent seeker of the One Ring, who is torn between a lust
to possess the ring and his loyalty to the hobbits. Tolkien carefully
portrays Gollum as both a treacherous murderer and a sympathetic
victim of his own savagely !bent will. Even Sauron, Middle-earth’s
Satan, was once a powerful angel-guardian before being corrupted
by his evil desires.
heroes have their faults as well, and we witness their moral tests.
The wizard Gandalf and the great Southern prince, Boromir, are
sorely tempted by the promise of glory through the power of the
One Ring. And the hobbits must struggle with their desire to lay
aside suffering and return to the comforts of their homeland,
the Shire, rather than deliver the ring to its destruction in
the Crack of Mount Doom.
In line with
St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching in his Summa Contra Gentiles,
Tolkien never falls into the trap of describing a character or
object as inherently good or evil. Evil, after all, is an absence—
the absence of good—and therefore cannot be embodied by a person
Even the One
Ring, forged by the magical art of Sauron, is never actually characterized
as evil in itself. Rather, its power to command the Ringwraiths
and the invisibility it confers are regarded as temptations that
make the ring too dangerous for it to be used appropriately. The
hobbits resist its strongest temptation to mortal sin only because
they seem to lack any capacity for vainglory, but they are eventually
worn down, physically and spiritually, by the venial sins it inspires.
the novels, Middle-earth’s ethics and metaphysics are consistent
with the moral world we know: Corruption of the will, not magical
power or fate, lies at the heart of evil acts. Magical objects—like
technology in our own world—are good insofar as they are used
for good ends. A willingness to share in suffering is a necessary
part of taking up our moral duties.
But does the
appearance of Catholic morality make Middle-earth Catholic or
merely moralistic? For the distinctly Catholic components, we
have to look slightly deeper.
attempts to find Catholic symbolism in his work because he detested
"allegory in all its manifestations." Indeed he frequently
chided Lewis for trying to dress Christ up in the lion-suit of
Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For Tolkien,
to look for such correspondences is to miss the point of Middle-earth,
which is meant to be a real place and not just some amalgam of
historical and religious debris.
acknowledged that his Catholic sensibilities unconsciously inspired
characters and objects in his imaginative world. In a 1952 letter
to Rev. Robert Murray (grandson of the founder of the Oxford
English Dictionary and a family friend), he readily admitted
that the Virgin Mary forms the basis for all of his "small
perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity." It
is not surprising, he admits, that the character of Galadriel—a
created being endowed with radiant beauty, impeccable virtue,
and powers of healing—resonates with the character of our Blessed
Tolkien deny that the Holy Eucharist appears in The Lord of
the Rings as the waybread (lembas), given by the elves to
the hobbits to eat on their journey. The lembas reinforces the
hobbits’ wills and provides them with physical sustenance in the
dark and barren lands on the way to Mount Doom. As the Church
teaches, while the Eucharist still tastes and looks like bread
and wine, our sensations shroud a deeper mystery: The Eucharist
is truly Christ’s body and blood. So in The Lord of the Rings
the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist appear shrouded in the
mysterious elements of Middle-earth. The best way to understand
this is to see such examples of Catholic symbolism as literary
"accidents." To leave them out would have diminished
the story; they are parts of Tolkien’s effort to make his world
complete, true for all times and places.
As an author,
Tolkien believed that his stories did in a limited and literary
way what a priest does at the consecration: They present us with
Christ and the entire story of creation and redemption through
common elements of the world—in this case Middle-earth—which is
shot through with the Truth of all Truths.
single work shines as much light on Tolkien’s artistic intentions
as his little-known short story, "Leaf by Niggle." It
is Tolkien’s most autobiographical work and provides us with a
window into his soul. Niggle is a middle-aged man who has painted
a picture of a tree in his spare time. What starts out as just
a tiny picture of a single leaf grows into a painting of a tree
and then of the surrounding countryside, filling an enormous canvas.
Niggle fears he will not finish it before he must begin a long-dreaded
train trip from which he will not return. Meanwhile, various distractions
and obligations to family, friends, and neighbors leave him very
little time to paint.
Niggle begins the journey with his painting unfinished. Before
the train takes him to his final destination, it stops at a purgatorial
way-station of dreary toil, and he cannot continue his journey
until "Two Voices" pass judgment on his life. In the
end, they allow Niggle to continue—not because he painted a beautiful
tree (as Niggle expected), but because he gave! himself in service
to the most distracting of all his neighbors, Parish (in whom
some see C.S. Lewis).
finally brings him to an enchanted land. At its center he finds
a tree, the same tree he was painting in his studio. But the tree
and the surrounding scenery are incomplete, and Niggle is left
to finish painting them in. Once finished, Niggle sets off to
explore the lands he has created.
provides us with a most important Catholic insight: Corporal acts
of mercy are every bit as much our vocation as the professional
lives we lead in service to God. But Tolkien also tells us something
important about his—and our—heavenly aspirations: Our vocations
are essential parts of our identities. Through them, we will continue
to serve and worship God for eternity.
readers of The Lord of the Rings share with one another
a heavenly aspiration: Someday we hope to journey, like Tolkien
himself, across the Middle-earth kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan
and into the Shire. There we’ll find Tolkien in his hobbit-hole;
he will have been busy in our absence. We’ll sit with him, drinking
strong tea or smoking good tobacco, while we listen to him tell
us the stories of Middle-earth that he never found the time to
is a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at the Catholic University
of America and a research associate in education at the Faith
& Reason Institute.
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