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How did J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicism influence his writing? (Part II)

Drew Bowling - published on 01/18/13

Many moviegoers might also be stunned to learn that the author, a pipe-smoking Oxford don named J.R.R. Tolkien, was a devout and lifelong Catholic.

The following is continuation of a previously published article entitled How did J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholicism influence his writing? (Part I)

Sub-creation and Transcendence
Tolkien practices what he termed the art of sub-creation in his fantastical fiction. He constructs around The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings an inwardly consistent secondary world from elements in the primary world created by God. Over decades, as a labor of love through which his Catholic belief is tangible and accessible, he charted an atlas that conveys the narrative direction of the telos of reality. Engaging readers who might not otherwise encounter what he knew to be Catholicism’s intellectual and emotional majesty, he crafts his fantasy as a prismatic guide that brings light into the darkness like the Phial of Galadriel given to Frodo. His fiction brightens roads that might otherwise lead to meaningless moral chaos, routing them instead to an awareness of an ontological hierarchy that makes sense of existence. He renders through story the metaphysical arc of the universe and the spiritual import of human affairs. His myths participate in and therefore signal the meaning that lies within material reality — in his case, transcendent beauty and truth inseparable from a Catholic account of the world.

He explains the connection between sub-creation and his religion in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

"“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels- peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”

Formed as a conduit of almost sacramental encounter with transcendence rather than as a dialectical diatribe, Tolkien’s fantasy — because it exists in accord with what he regards as proper teleology — is everywhere a witness to his faith, even though Catholicism is not once named. Elsewhere in the above essay he explains:

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? Fantasy, then, although admirably consoling, is not an escape from reality, not an exercise in saccharine sentimentality. Rather, it provides a window into transcendence that reveals meaning beyond the material and connects the temporal to higher purpose.”

Instead of an escape from reality, fantasy rightly considered (and practiced) illustrates objects of longing and intimations of the divine. Sub-creation helps readers navigate from a Platonic cave into a wider world of spiritual significance. Middle Earth enables Tolkien to show the immanence of the transcendent in a way that portrays his Catholic conception of reality without prosthelytizing. The “purpose” of which he writes in his essay, that to which his fiction is oriented, is at core the symphonic music by which God orchestrates His temporal creation.

Tolkien summarizes how his sub-creation accesses the transcendent in another letter about The Lord of the Rings. Contrasting with the modern zeitgeist of utilitarianism, reductionism, and nihilism against which he militated in his life and art, his novel “finally emerged as a Frameless Picture, a searchlight, as it were, on a brief period in History, and on a small part of our Middle-Earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space."

Sacramental Vision, Evil, and Grace
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s sacramental understanding gleams through his towering epic of Middle Earth. He recognized that the sacraments of the Catholic Church join the realms of the spiritual and the material. This union, which Catholics experience in crossing their brows with holy water, anointing their sick with chrism, and most of all, bringing Christ into their bodies under the appearance of bread and wine, is akin to what Tolkien describes in his depiction of Middle Earth: a land of surpassing beauty, danger, and adventure, where lasting celestial joys and inspiration shimmer through every leaf and branch.

Frodo, approaching the innermost elven home in the wood of Lothlórien, beholds a vista of ideal beauty:

“Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.”

Through Frodo’s gaze, Tolkien baptizes Plato’s Theory of Forms and lends it an Aristotelian immanence in Middle Earth. He invests his sub-creation with transcendent qualities through which his protagonist connects with something greater than the objects he sees.

Tolkien’s son Christopher — now known for posthumously editing and publishing his father’s extensive collection of tales from Middle Earth — has provided readers with The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, compendiums of back story that illuminate his father’s view of sin and evil, of providence and grace.

As with the Catholic Church, Tolkien believes the gravest moral danger lies in pride, the root of all other sins. Because of pride, the mightiest of the angelic Valar, Melkor, rebels against Ilúvatar, the God of the universe surrounding Arda and Middle Earth. Melkor succumbs to the temptation of power. Choosing a path of parasitical evil, consumed by jealousy and hatred and renamed Morgoth, his desire for control fuels his animosity at the light, and he reigns in malice over his slaves. Sauron, a lesser supernatural being who also turns to darkness, follows in Morgoth’s hellish steps. Morgoth is defeated by a great alliance, and eventually Sauron begins building his power in Mordor’s shadow and flame.

As with the chief antagonists, other fowl creatures – from orcs to trolls to Ringwraiths – confirm that evil in Middle Earth is a negation, a corruption of that which is good. Writing to his son Michael, Tolkien states that “evil is zero” – a Catholic view of wickedness as inherently twisted and subtractive.

Heroes in The Lord of the Rings — from powerful figures like Gandalf and Aragorn to Frodo’s stalwart hobbit companion Sam — each risks falling because he has free will and is constantly tempted to use it for ill. The ring beckons to them all. At times they want to use it to defeat Sauron and better the world. But these characters pass the test, acknowledging that to use the tools of darkness would bring darkness to themselves and others in the end—a convincing case against consequentialism, a philosophy of ends justifying means that is anathema to orthodox Catholics.

Decision over the virtuous course is a process through which all men must pass, wrestling with questions of good and evil, misguided intentions, weaknesses of character, and ever present temptation. Tolkien accepts the painful process as the heartbreaking reality of the fallen world, and it informs much of the melancholy in Middle Earth. His characters face choices that are rarely simple. They have imperfect knowledge and are subject to the same sinful beckoning that arises in every human heart. No character is impervious to evil; to varying degrees, all experience temptation and moral confusion, but they generally do their best to make right moral choices in a conflict where the outcome, until the end of days, is never certain — and indeed one they can never hope to fully and forever resolve alone.

But in Middle Earth there remains hope in eschatological victory. Near the end of The Lord of the Rings, in the demonic realm of Mordor on the slopes of Mount Doom, Sam gazes heavenward through the shadows to see a symbol that reminds him of the immutable and unconquerable triumph of the highest good:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Finally, as demonstrated through Bilbo’s and Frodo’s mercy toward Gollum, overcoming sinful inducement and defeating interior and exterior evil is made possible for the characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings through the divine operation of grace. Bilbo’s Christian gesture in The Hobbit and Frodo’s mercy toward Gollum in The Lord of the Rings — a major moral hinge on which the plot of the novels turns — allows Providence to vanquish Sauron when at last Frodo’s mortal strength to resist the call of the One Ring gives out.

Everything revolves in the end around hope. Sam’s view of the star, in addition to the seemingly mysterious workings of grace, show Tolkien’s view that in Middle Earth — as in his own world — there is always hope for redemption.

In Tolkien’s created world, one thing continues to shine, something without which all good things would surely forever fade, something as beautiful as the far green shores Frodo sees at the end of his journey from the Gray Havens — something that Bilbo and Frodo offer to Gollum: grace. According to Tolkien, it is this grace — the grace of compassion guided by Providence — that saves men from themselves. It is this grace that glows like a beacon even when it seems that all other lights are doomed to flicker and fail. It is this grace that allows Sam, at the end of his adventures, to return home to his wife and child with whom he can build a new life. Through this Catholic vision Tolkien, in his masterpiece for the ages, gives his readers cause for hope as well.

A Final Hope
Tolkien wrote a letter to his son Michael during the Second World War. In that letter, a moving proclamation of Tolkien’s faith, he details his passion for the Eucharist, the sacrament at the heart of the Catholic Church in which he finds the marriage of matter and spirit — the consummation of mortal longing in the Real Presence of the Divine: 

“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, honour, 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.”

Here, the Catholicism never named in Tolkien’s fiction but essential to its nature is expressed through his conviction in a transcendent reality and his comprehension of a sacramental world. Here is the harmonizing theology that invests his fantasy with its haunting and mystical beauty. Here is the distillation of his reason for using myth as a vehicle to capture sacred human truth. Here, echoing in his words, are the narratives of the world he created, the voices of characters with whom discerning readers can travel to glimpse the meaning of his work.

These lines, which Tolkien composed to his son in a world broken but not without hope, can be traced to his description of the scene at the Grey Havens at the end of The Lord of the Rings. There, a wounded Frodo, joining Bilbo and Gandalf on an elvish ship after a bittersweet parting of friends, sails from a scarred but newly hopeful Middle Earth on a final journey to his eternal home:

"Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went abroad; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

The authorDrew Bowling is the author of The Tower of Shadows (Del Rey—Random House).

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