What is the secret of J.R.R. Tolkien's success with The Lord of the Rings? How did such a strange story, full of imaginary creatures such as hobbits, elves, ents and orcs, emerge as a powerful literary force? How did its author, a quiet and unassuming professor of philology at Merton College, Oxford, become the creator of a mythological world that continues to fascinate and captivate new generations of readers a half-century after its introduction?
These questions are intriguing enough, but even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic who often went out of his way to point out that his Christianity was the most important ingredient in The Lord of the Rings.
Who exactly was J.R.R. Tolkien?
Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892, of English parents, and christened John Ronald Reuel in the local Anglican cathedral. Shortly after his third birthday, his mother returned to England, taking John Ronald Reuel and his younger brother, Hillary, with her. His father, unable to vacate his post as manager of a local bank, was forced temporarily to remain behind. He died suddenly, after suffering a severe hemorrhage, before he could join his wife and children in England.
Her husband's death left Mabel Tolkien in relative poverty, reliant upon her family for financial assistance. In 1900, when J.R.R. was 8, she was received into the Catholic Church — a decision which outraged her family and resulted in the withdrawal of the financial support.
So it was that the young Tolkien became a child convert. Thereafter, he always remained a resolute Catholic, a fact which profoundly affected the direction of his life. The realization that the Catholic faith might not have been the faith of his father, but was the faith of his father's fathers, ignited and nurtured his love for medievalism. This, in turn, led to his disdain for the humanistic “progress” that followed in the wake of the Reformation.
Mabel Tolkien was diagnosed as diabetic and, in November 1904, she sank into a coma and died. Tolkien was 12. For the rest of his life, Tolkien would remain convinced that his mother's untimely death was the result of the persecution that had followed her conversion. Sixty years later, he compared her sacrifices for the faith with the lukewarm complacency of some of his children toward the faith they had inherited from her.
“When I think of my mother's death,” he wrote, “worn out with persecution, poverty, and, largely consequent, disease, in the effort to hand on to us small boys the Faith, and remember the tiny bedroom she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman's cottage at Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it very hard and bitter, that my children stray away.”
Indeed, Tolkien always considered his mother a martyr for the faith. Nine years after her death, he wrote: “My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it was not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hillary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the Faith.”
Just how Catholic was J.R.R. Tolkien? And how Catholic is The Lord of the Rings?
Tolkien and his brother were now orphans. Father Francis Morgan, a priest at the Oratory in Birmingham (founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman), became their legal guardian. Each morning, Tolkien and his brother would serve Mass for Father Francis before going to school. Tolkien remained grateful to the priest all his life, describing him as “a guardian who has been a father to me, more than most real fathers.”
So much for Tolkien's Catholic faith. But what of the myth he created? Is The Lord of the Rings as Catholic as its author? Tolkien certainly believed so. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” he wrote to his friend, Father Robert Murray, “unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
In another letter, written shortly after The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien outlined a “scale of significance” of those factors in his life that had influenced his writing of the book. He divided these into three distinct categories, namely the “insignificant,” the “more significant” and the “really significant.” It was into this latter category that he placed his Christian faith.
“And there are a few basic facts, which, however dryly expressed, are really significant,” he wrote. “For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.”
In what ways is Tolkien's mythological epic imbued with the faith of its author?
First, as is clear from Tolkien's account of the creation of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion, his imaginary world is under the omnipotent guidance of the same God he worshipped each Sunday at holy Mass. In fact, Tolkien's creation myth parallels the creation narrative in Genesis. The world is loved into existence by the One, who invites the Ainur, the archangels, to cooperate in the creative process, much as the musicians in an orchestra cooperate with the conductor. One of these archangels, Melkor, refuses to play in harmony with the others and is intent on “playing his own tune” in defiance of the will of the one God.
Taking his inspiration, no doubt, from the Book of Isaiah, Tolkien says of Melkor:
“From splendour he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless. Understanding he turned to subtlety in perverting to his own will all that he would use, until he became a liar without shame. He began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness. And darkness he used most upon Arda [earth], and filled it with fear for all living things.”
Shortly after this description of Melkor, Tolkien introduces Sauron, the Dark Enemy in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron he describes as a spirit and the greatest of Melkor's servants.
No Fear of the Dark
If the evil in The Lord of the Rings is specifically satanic, the actions of the virtuous characters are so rooted in sanctity that they almost appear to be metaphors for the truth of the Gospel. In the unassuming humility of the hobbits, we see the exaltation of the humble. In their reluctant heroism, we see a courage ennobled by modesty. In the immortality of the elves, and the sadness and melancholic wisdom it evokes in them, we can read their dissatisfaction with the incompleteness of the fallen world. Man's sojourn in the “vale of tears” of the natural realm is likewise marked by a desire for something more — the mystical union with the divine beyond the reach of time.
In Gandalf we see the archetypal prefiguration of a powerful prophet or patriarch, a seer who beholds a vision of the Kingdom beyond the understanding of men. At times he is almost Christlike. He lays down his life for his friends and his mysterious “resurrection” results in his transfiguration. Before his self-sacrificial “death,” he is Gandalf the Grey; after his “resurrection” he reappears as Gandalf the White, armed with greater powers and deeper wisdom.
In the true, though exiled, kingship of Aragorn we see glimmers of the hope for a restoration of truly ordained, i.e., Catholic, authority. The person of Aragorn represents the embodiment of the Arthurian and Jacobite yearning — the visionary desire for the “return of the king” after eons of exile. The “sword that is broken,” the symbol of Aragorn's kingship, is reforged at the anointed time — a potent reminder of Excalibur's union with the Christendom it is ordained to serve.
Significantly, the role of men in The Lord of the Rings reflects their divine, though fallen, nature. They are to be found among the enemy's servants, though usually beguiled by deception into the ways of evil and always capable of repentance and, in consequence, redemption. Boromir, who represents man in the Fellowship of the Ring, succumbs to the temptation to use the ring, i.e., the forces of evil, in the naive belief that it could be wielded as a powerful weapon against Sauron. He finally recognizes the error of seeking to use evil against evil. He dies heroically, laying down his life for his friends in a spirit of repentance.
Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings is a sublimely mystical passion play. The carrying of the ring — the emblem of sin — is the carrying of the cross. The mythological quest is a veritable Via Dolorosa. In short, The Lord of the Rings is every bit as Catholic as its author. It is not only written by a Catholic, it is so Catholic that only a Catholic could have written it.
Joseph Pearce, writer-in-residence at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., is the author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration.