The Essence Of J.R.R. Tolkien, Catholic Writer
Published: November 25, 2010
Sean Austin, Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are shown in a scene from the first film in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy released by New Line Cinema based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s written epic. (CNS photo courtesy New Line Cinema)
“In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit,” one of the most beloved opening lines from 20th-century English literature, sprung from J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination while he labored under the drudgery of grading exam papers at Oxford. “The Hobbit,” initially marketed as a children’s book, was published in 1937. It was followed several years later in 1954-1955 by its classic successor, the enormous “The Lord of the Rings,” which according to popular opinion is considered one of the greatest modern English novels. Both works have their roots in the mythology of Middle Earth, the fictional world Tolkien had been molding for years before he ever published either of the two books that made him one of the most famous authors in the world.
The popular image of Tolkien—the pipe-smoking, rumpled, tweedy Oxford don—has led many readers to see him as a bit of a Hobbit himself, a private Englishman with antiquarian tastes and a love for simple, domestic pleasures such as home-grown vegetables and real ale. Few readers realize that in addition to this rather accurate caricature, Tolkien was a man of deep religious sensibilities with a profound love for his Catholic faith, a devotion that certainly shaped the creation of his best-known works.
People often wrote to Tolkien out of a desire to understand the personality and perspective of the creator of one of literature’s most remarkable fictional worlds, and Tolkien was usually annoyed by attempts to link his work to his life. Yet he was a compulsive letter writer, who often found himself unable to ignore inquiries from readers and fans, and in one telling response he reported to his friend Jesuit Father Robert Murray that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like religion, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
In his remarkable essay “On Faerie Stories,” Tolkien explains fully his idea that through God’s grace, the artist becomes a “sub-creator,” able to share some small glimpse of the joy that God himself must have felt in creating the world and its creatures and people. Indeed, for Tolkien, the highest aim of any fantasy or fairy tale was to reveal the ecstasy of the happy ending, what he called the “eucatastrophe.” Tolkien believed that such a revelation linked the well-written fairy tale or myth to the story of the Gospel, which Tolkien acknowledged as being the greatest story ever conceived. For Tolkien as Catholic writer, then, a sense of the religious was not a part of the mythical world but was in fact the essence of all myth.
Tolkien was adamant that the Christian myth, like all myths, “was not a lie.” Indeed, he used these very words in his long talk with C.S. Lewis that led to Lewis’ own conversion to Christianity. Sadly, Lewis and Tolkien’s deep friendship suffered after Lewis’ conversion. Lewis became an Anglican, not a Catholic, and he became an adored public figure, a popular theologian who seemed more comfortable with fame than his more reticent friend. And Lewis’ own fictional work, the “Narnia Chronicles,” is full of obvious religious references that for Tolkien were far too allegorical.
Tolkien became a Catholic as a child when his mother converted to Roman Catholicism following the death of Tolkien’s father. The conversion was not well received by the Tolkien family, who essentially severed all financial and emotional ties to his mother. Following his mother’s early death, Tolkien was educated and mentored by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, and his devotion to the Church deepened. Even after his combat experiences in World War I, and as he began an academic life that ultimately led him to Oxford, Tolkien nurtured and practiced his faith devoutly. Though he had at times a rather distant relationship with his wife, who had begrudgingly entered the Church when they married, Tolkien was a devoted father to his four children, one of whom became a priest. He was an attentive and caring teacher, a brilliant translator and scholar, and—of course—a remarkably imaginative storyteller. He was also a dedicated parishioner at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Oxford, which stood just down the street from the famous pub The Eagle and Child where he, Lewis, and others met as “The Inklings” to discuss literature, language and religion.
Though it lacks, as Tolkien intended, specific reference to religious practices or beliefs, “The Lord of the Rings” is full of obvious Christian symbolism and metaphor: the corruption and redemption of Gollum, the resurrection of Gandalf, the paradise of the Grey Havens, and of course the fundamental struggle between a seemingly invincible evil and a persistent and ultimately triumphant goodness. Many critics find the book and its symbolic subtext too simple, too pat. But readers, and now of course filmgoers, have affirmed the book’s classic status.
The reader who really wishes to know the full extent of Tolkien’s Catholic faith must read the wonderful “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,” edited by Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter. Here, in a fashion similar to that of Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence in “The Habit of Being,” Tolkien reveals a remarkable devotion to the sacramental life of the Church, particularly the Eucharist; he displays a brilliant understanding of theology; he addresses topics that continue to define the Church today, including liturgical changes and ecumenism.
Writing to his son Michael in 1963, Tolkien asserted, “the only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion.” He urged his son to receive the Eucharist daily, and “in circumstances that affront your taste”—rambling homilies, crying children, yawning and unkempt congregations. “Go to Communion with them, and pray for them. It will be just the same, or better than that, as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand, after which Our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
How very like a Hobbit, indeed, and how very important to remember in our own practice of the faith in a world not so removed, after all, from that we find in Middle Earth.
This commentary is the third in a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.