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

Drew Bowling - published on 01/21/13

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.

Tolkien — a man of pious faith and of strong Catholic upbringing — imbued his literary work with the transcendency of the Christian faith. Disavowing allegorical mechanisms (though some commentators of his work might claim otherwise), he aimed at representing the eternal truths that undergird a sound understanding of Catholicism (beauty, virtue, the moral order, the eternal struggle between good and evil, etc.) in his work in such a way that the universality of these truths could be made evident. In the case of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, fantastical worlds and creatures provide a setting in which the elements of Christian ontology can be developed outside of their usual framework, thereby reflecting their transcendence as well as reaching audiences that might otherwise never encounter these truths.

An Unexpected Journey
Now internationally famous as one of the most popular authors of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien first dreamed up hobbits – homely and pintsized creatures who mostly dwell in comfortable subterranean holes – while grading student papers one summer in his obscure campus office. He regarded the tedious academic burden with something bordering on horror and assumed the job only for money to support his family. His sudden vision of a hobbit, which he scribbled onto one of the exams, grew into a fairytale adventure that was eventually published as The Hobbit. The novel chronicles the journey of Bilbo Baggins who, with some reluctance, leaves his life of domestic complacency to join a wizard named Gandalf and a band of dwarves on a quest to the distant Lonely Mountain, which they struggle to reclaim from the clutches of the fearsome dragon Smaug.

During the bildungsroman, as Bilbo grows in character if not in physical prowess, the often bumbling but good hearted hobbit contends with trolls and goblins and giant spiders. In a pivotal moment deep within the tunnels at the roots of the Misty Mountains, he battles the gruesome but ultimately pitiable Gollum in a mortal game of riddles – a duel of wits he not only survives but which results in his finding the golden ring that plays such a critical part in the well known sequel. Eventually, before returning to his home in the Shire, Bilbo emerges as a hero of strong moral purpose with a record of virtuous, outsized accomplishment that earns him treasure and praise from the peoples of the land he helps save.

The publication of Bilbo’s story enchanted a generation of readers and inspired Tolkien to commence a far more ambitious work many years in the making, one that produced an epic myth of colossal genius: The Lord of the Rings. That novel, originally published in three parts, lifted his name from his world of quiet but impressive philological scholarship and – not unlike Bilbo – brought him great wealth and renown in the final chapter of his life.

The acclaim that greeted his literary achievements amazed and gratified Tolkien. The passionate reception of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings ensured that his work – which he had long viewed as a somewhat esoteric hobby – would achieve a standing that few fantasy novels have ever rivaled.

While these facts concerning Tolkien are widely known, what is less well known is that this fiction of such incredible widespread appeal is infused with the author’s Catholic faith.

Such astonishment can be expected: the word “Catholic” never appears in the annals of Middle Earth, and institutional religion is basically nonexistent in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, as testaments to their author’s worldview, these novels express Tolkien’s Catholic imagination. They are fundamentally – albeit first implicitly and only later through his subtle artistic direction – shaped by the vibrant and intellectual spirituality that was so central to his identity and foundational to his understanding of metaphysical truth.

A Catholic Life
Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, was a Catholic convert who was ostracized by her family for her convictions. Her husband, Tolkien’s father, had died from rheumatic fever in South Africa (where Tolkien was born) before he could join her and his two sons where they were visiting family in England. Mabel and her boys – cut off financially from their Protestant family – were reduced to poverty, but she suffered the trials of her hardscrabble motherhood with saintly dedication. Overworked and isolated for her Catholicism, she died not long after Tolkien’s First Communion, but not before assigning guardianship of her sons to a priest and friend at the Birmingham Oratory, Father Francis Morgan, who continued their instruction in the faith (they celebrated Mass with him each day before their studies). Tolkien later wrote of Mabel: "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is 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."

As a teenager, he fell in love with Edith, a Protestant woman several years older than he, but at the request of Father Morgan, to whom he was fiercely loyal, he agreed to refrain from contacting her until he was twenty-one. The day the waiting period ended, he wrote to Edith and proposed. In the years before that letter, however, Edith had entered into an engagement with another man. But her love for Tolkien was rekindled, and she broke off that relationship to be with the suitor who had initially won her heart. Soon Tolkien was married to his wife – who converted to Catholicism for their union – with whom he fathered his four children and shared the rest of his life. The romance of their relationship is reflected in the names Beren and Lúthien – two of the greatest figures in the history of Arda and Middle Earth – which are engraved on their tombstone in Wolvercote, Oxford.

After his marriage, while still a young man, Tolkien fought on the blood soaked killing fields of the Somme, experiencing firsthand an existential nightmare that profoundly challenged the Victorian belief in Western Civilization. He outlived “all but one” of his close friends who served with him – including fellow members of the intimate “T.C.B.S.,” an abbreviation for the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society,” which in some ways prefigured the better known literary circle of the Inklings – and was deeply shaken by the war. His Catholic faith sustained him in this time of emotional and physical distress.

Injured during the senseless annihilation of combat in the trenches, he returned to England, where Edith had been awaiting him, and launched a brilliant academic career that focused on the study of language and myth: his fields of excellence, his primary interests – the seedbed from which sprang his legendarium. It was during this time that Tolkien, a devoted daily Mass communicant, wrote most of his fiction, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Against Allegory
Yet the question remains: How did Tolkien’s Catholicism influence his writing?

Some skeptics might challenge the premise behind the question. After all, they might say, Tolkien’s faith – while important in his personal life – did not directly impact his popular fiction. “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” Tolkien asserts in the introduction to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, “and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” Conceding an immediate counterclaim, the skeptics might admit that his faith does not require allegorical representation to be detectable in the novel. Nevertheless incredulous, they might argue that his Catholicism is at most incidental to Middle Earth, a pre-Christian milieu predominantly influenced by Nordic myth and other pagan sources.

Tolkien answers such skeptics in his own words. Before The Lord of the Rings was published, he wrote a letter to a friend and priest, Father Robert Murray, saying, “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.”

Distinguished living Catholics who have written about Tolkien’s religion in his writing include Stratford Caldecott, Joseph Pearce, Bradley Birzer, Peter Kreeft, Carol Abromaitis, David Mills, Richard Purtill, and John Zmirak. Indeed, as some scholars have noted, Tolkien participated in the Catholic revival in English literature, joining G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.H. Auden, Ronald Knox, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and other luminaries of the faith. Sometimes separated by decades and many miles, consciously or in unconscious spiritual continuity, they wielded words in a multivalent defense of what they held up as the good, the beautiful, and the true against an increasingly dehumanizing and deracinated culture.

Tolkien, however, was no preacher. Unlike his close friend C.S. Lewis – who converted to Christianity in part because Tolkien convinced him that the Bible is the one true myth – Tolkien deliberately avoided allegory, which he maintained figured nowhere in The Lord of the Rings.

Leading lights of the aforementioned Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis shared a love of mythology. During their friendship, often while drinking at an Oxford pub named The Eagle and Child (then known as The Bird and Baby), the two professors read to one another their novels in progress—books that would change the world. But their fellowship did not prevent Tolkien from criticizing what he deemed Lewis’ haphazard mythological menagerie in The Chronicles of Narnia, the renowned series of allegorically Christian novels (Lewis maintained they were merely analogous, but that is immaterial to Tolkien’s impression of them and his own literary standards).

Critics have attempted to read Tolkien’s interaction with the two World Wars into his fiction, especially The Lord of the Rings. For example, much to Tolkien’s dismay, some readers thought he meant Sauron’s One Ring (the evil artifact Bilbo takes from Gollum in The Hobbit, which in the sequel he gives to his adopted nephew, Frodo Baggins, charging him to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom, deep in the dark realm of Mordor – the place where the Ring itself was forged) to represent a weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the atomic bomb. Other allegorical components are often sketched.

Tolkien was undeniably disillusioned with modern notions of progress, which he felt progressed only toward termination in ruinous mechanized violence, toward wastelands of industrialization that ravaged the natural order – his stated political philosophy of anarcho-monarchism and his disposition toward what might be called agrarian Distributism remain radical alternatives to modernism today – but he rejected any allegorical interpretation of his novel. Leaf by Niggle, a spellbinding treatment of purgatory, is the nearest example of allegory in his fictional cannon.

Still, it is incontestable that Tolkien’s spiritual convictions resonate in his books. Readers, including Catholic students of Tolkien’s writing, link concrete aspects of his novels to his Catholicism. Among the visible signs, if not allegorical referent points, usually mentioned as symbols of his religion in The Lord of the Rings: the One Ring as the Cross and Frodo as a Christ figure; the Resurrection in Gandalf the White and in Aragon who returns as king; and the Eucharist in the healing lembas bread of the elves.

In his letter to Father Murray, Tolkien writes about his novel, “I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace, 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.”

He also attested time and again that the novel is mythical, not creedal.

That does not mean that The Lord of the Rings is not true, or that its author’s faith is not communicated through its pages. On the contrary, as Tolkien once said, “In making a myth, in practicing 'mythopoeia,' and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller… is actually fulfilling God's purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light."

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

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