New Book Explores J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic Faith and How it Imbued His Work
Tolkien made the choice to follow his mother into her new faith, receiving the sacraments of holy Communion and Confirmation at the age of 12.
Most people are likely aware — at least vaguely — that J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was Catholic.
Fewer, perhaps, know how seriously he took his faith, in a time and place where being Catholic carried serious negative societal consequences.
A new book from Word on Fire — Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography — explores the renowned fantasy author’s Catholic faith and how it influenced his stories, delving primarily into Tolkien’s own writings and interviews as well as the testimonies of those who knew him best.
Holly Ordway, the book’s author, told CNA that she sought to create a book that is inviting and accessible to non-Catholics. The book itself seeks to explain the Catholic faith that Tolkien had, she said, but in an objective way, not in a way that the reader — who is perhaps a Tolkien fan, but has no understanding of Catholicism — is “hit over the head with a heavy-handed Christian message.”
“I was one of those readers, because I am myself a convert. I first read Lord of the Rings as a non-Christian and loved it,” Ordway told CNA.
“I’ve aimed to help readers understand Tolkien’s faith on his own terms, neither praising or criticizing it.”
Today, Ordway is the Cardinal Francis George professor of faith and culture at the Word on Fire Institute and visiting professor of apologetics at Houston Christian University. She said she was inspired, in part, to undertake the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s death on Sept. 2, 2023, but also because she had come to realize that a book solely dedicated to Tolkien’s faith had yet to be written. Humphrey Carpenter’s official biography mentions his faith, she said, but only as relates to the faith of his mother; other biographical media, such as a 2019 biopic, barely mention his faith at all.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in 1892, was baptized an Anglican in South Africa, where his family lived before he; his mother, Mabel; and his brother, Hillary, moved to Birmingham, England.
Tolkien’s father died suddenly while still in South Africa, leaving Mabel to raise the two boys alone. During this time, Mabel converted to Catholicism. Tolkien made the choice to follow his mother into her new faith, receiving the sacraments of holy Communion and Confirmation at the age of 12.
It’s hard to overstate how consequential Mabel and John’s conversions were. Mabel’s family cut off all financial and emotional support permanently, leaving the family destitute. Tolkien later described Mabel, who died in 1904 when she was only 34 and he was 12, as a “martyr.”
Ordway found that it was far from a foregone conclusion that Tolkien would retain the faith he embraced as a child. The familial and societal challenges that presented themselves were bad enough, not to mention Tolkien’s horrific experiences in the trenches of World War I, which challenged his faith and shaped his worldview immensely.
Additionally, Ordway said her extensive research for the book included a look at the anti-Catholic climate of the time in order to accurately paint a picture of just how consequential Tolkien’s conversion was.
“Recognizing exactly how anti-Catholic English culture was when he was growing up makes it all the more remarkable that he was incredibly generous-spirited towards other traditions,” she commented.
Father Francis Morgan, a priest of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London, would later take on a major role in Tolkien’s life as a substitute father figure. Tolkien wrote proudly of his Catholic faith, including his love for the Eucharist, and was strengthened in his Christian convictions by his friendship with C.S. Lewis, a highly renowned Christian author in his own right.
Tolkien is very clear in his writings that The Lord of the Rings is not a Christian allegory, contrasting the Narnia books by his friend Lewis. He nevertheless described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”
Ordway said it is clear that Tolkien’s Catholic worldview is infused in his stories.
“There are Marian figures, there are Christ-like figures … what he’s imbuing into the story is the fundamentally religious element. I think he chose that word carefully … fundamentally at the fundamentals, at the roots. So things like his understanding of good and evil, and he has a very clearly Catholic understanding of that,” Ordway said.
“He says, ‘I don’t believe in absolute evil, but I do believe in absolute good.’ So he’s explicitly rejecting a dualistic view of the world and he’s affirming the fundamental Catholic view. God does not have an ontologically equivalent opposite. God is the supreme, and evil is parasitic.”
Tolkien also prizes in his books the virtues of pity and mercy, which are “fundamentally Christian concepts,” Ordway said. “The Lord of the Rings” also strongly proffers the idea that suffering — while real and painful — can also be redemptive.
“I think that is a message that is profoundly Christian, profoundly Catholic, and profoundly meaningful. It speaks to people even if they don’t know that it has any connection to the Christian faith,” Ordway said.
“Even if you don’t recognize the fact that these elements are Christian, I think people are still responding to the reality of it. They’re still experiencing the beauty of goodness and the sordidness of evil and wanting goodness to prevail. And that’s a big deal in today’s world, to recognize something as fundamental as the reality of goodness,” she continued.
“By the time someone who’s not a Christian, by the time they get to the end of [my] book, first of all, they will know a lot more about Christianity and Catholicism than they did before … they’ll see that whatever Tolkien believed, it wasn’t simple or trivial or foolish. It was something substantial. It meant a lot to him. And that opens the door for them to say, ‘Maybe I should look into this some more.’”