Tolkien the Catholic

COMMENTARY: Literary giant’s deep faith, often overshadowed by his commercial success, imbued his work.

J.R.R. Tolkien, shown in an undated photo
J.R.R. Tolkien, shown in an undated photo (photo: Press Association via AP Images)

Lovers of literature the world over will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien Sept. 2.

Although the anniversary will be an opportunity to celebrate the life and work of the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, many of Tolkien’s millions of admirers will be unaware that the most popular and successful author of the 20th century was a lifelong practicing Catholic. Tolkien was 8 years old when, in 1900, his widowed mother was received into the Catholic Church. In spite of intense opposition from both her own family and the family of her deceased husband, who were Anglican, Mabel Tolkien had both her sons instructed and received into the Church shortly afterwards. Henceforth, Tolkien never wavered in his faith, remaining a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. Mabel Tolkien died in November 1904. She was only 34 years old. Her orphaned son was 12 at the time of her death.

Tolkien remained convinced that his mother’s early death was a consequence of the ill treatment she suffered at the hands of her family following her conversion and the financial hardship that was its consequence. “My own dear mother was a martyr indeed,” he wrote nine years after her death, “and it was not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”

Sixty years after his mother’s death, he compared his mother’s sacrifices for her faith with the complacency of some of his own children towards the Catholic faith they had inherited from her:

“When I think of my mother’s death … 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, when my children stray away.”

These two memories of his mother’s self-sacrificial love and deep faith were written when he was a young man, in 1913, and when he was an old man, in 1965. Taken together, they show the constancy of Tolkien’s own adherence to the Catholic faith throughout the entirety of his life.

Having ascertained that Tolkien was always a faithful Catholic, the question of the impact of his faith on the writing of his works needs to be addressed.

Is there any connection between the truths of the faith and the fictional fantasy that he wrote? Can Catholic truth be gleaned from the fantasy fiction?

Perhaps we should let Tolkien answer these questions for himself. He wrote of a “scale of significance” connecting the facts of his life with his work as an author.

There were “insignificant facts,” which have nothing to do with his work, and “more significant facts,” such as his academic vocation as a philologist at Oxford University, which had affected his “taste in languages” and which was “obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings.” Then there were “a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant.”

The most important of these “really significant” facts was his religious faith: “[M]ore important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.” This connection would be stressed in a letter to a Jesuit friend in which he asserted that “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious work ...”

The Jesuit friend, Father Robert Murray, had written that The Lord of the Rings had left him with a strong sense of “a positive compatibility with the order of Grace” and had commented that the image of Galadriel had reminded him of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace,” Tolkien replied, “and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”

The many Catholic elements in The Lord of the Rings are too numerous to mention but include symbolic Christological connections, embedded and subsumed within the text, to the Incarnation, Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Several characters serve as Christ figures and several others serve as Everyman figures who hold up a mirror to the reader, enabling him to see the applicability of the events in the story to his own life.

At its deepest, The Lord of the Rings shows the sheer demonic power of evil, never shirking from the presence of its ominous shadow, but also how self-sacrificial love, wedded to courage and cooperating with grace, can overcome the darkest and most demonic evil.

The Hobbit can be seen as a parable and a meditation on Christ’s words that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Those who store up treasure on earth become possessed by their possessions, succumbing to the “dragon sickness” that devours all virtue.

It is those who store up their treasure in the good and virtuous love of heaven who are able to overcome the dragon sickness and to slay the dragons. Lesser-known works by Tolkien, such as The Silmarillion (published posthumously by his son Christopher) and Leaf by Niggle (1945), exhibit his deep philosophical and theological understanding of the relationship between God as the Creator and man as a subcreator. Tolkien sees man’s creative imagination as a key element of God’s image, the imago Dei in which man is made. The imagination is the image-ination, enabling man to reflect the creativity of the Creator himself.

As Tolkien says in his wonderful poem Mythopoeia, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

As for the depth and devotion of Tolkien’s Catholic faith, it is encapsulated beautifully in his love for Christ in the Eucharist as expressed in a letter to one of his sons:

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. … There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.”

In Tolkien’s love for the light and life of the Eucharist, we catch a glimpse of the sacramental light that shines forth from his works. It is, therefore, as a man of faith, as well as a man of letters, that Tolkien should be celebrated. On the 50th anniversary of his death, we can hope and pray that he has been born to eternal life. May we all raise a glass in his honor and a prayer for the repose of his soul.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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