Long-lost poems highlight his deeply Catholic sensibility
Two poems by Catholic author J. R. R. Tolkien were discovered in the archives of a school near Oxford. The principal of Our Lady’s, Abingdon, found the poems after being contacted by American Tolkien scholar Wayne G. Hammond. Tolkien had left a list of his poetry, and Hammond noticed how two poems were published in The Abingdon Chronicle.
After some research, the principal of the Catholic school found the lost poems. Published in 1936 in the school’s magazine, the poems offer us a beautiful meditation on the birth of Christ and the unitive nature of marriage.
The first poem, “Noel,” seems like it could be from the pages of The Hobbit (which Tolkien was busily working on at the time). It talks about halls, fires, dales, swords and “O’er mist and over mountain snow.” It reminds me of the poetry of the dwarves in their song, “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold.”
The poem starts out in the darkness of Advent, with the hall “dark,” fires “dead” and wind “bitter-cold.” Tolkien describes the world as “blind” and “wild,” but then suddenly the clouds part and Christ is born. When all seems lost, Christ’s birth is an epiphany of light and beauty. It is, as Tolkien would put it, a “eucatastrophe,” a sudden change of events for the good.
A star is seen in the night sky, and bells and voices unite in an uproar of joy. The world, no longer “grim” is “glad,” and the “the hall is filled with laughter and light.” The birth of Christ brings joy to all and expels the darkness that the world lived in.
In this poem, Tolkien marvelously portrays that Jesus is the light of the world, and he has come so that the “bells of Paradise now ring.”
The second poem, “The Shadow Man,” is an early version of a poem he later published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. It speaks of “a man who has no shadow” and sat alone under the moonlight. The man never moved, and even owls “perched upon his head.” Then, all of a sudden (think eucatastrophe), a beautiful woman shows up and stands before the lonely man. He immediately jumps to his feet, grabs her tight and never lets go. His love for her is instantaneous, and it wakes him from his sleep.
The man and woman both come alive and leave their past behind. Both are changed forever and “cast a single shadow.” One cannot help but notice Tolkien referring to the Gospel passage where Jesus proclaimed, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mark 10:7-8).
Tolkien is also referring to his own experience of love, when he saw his wife, Edith, dancing in the forest. It impacted him greatly, and he couldn’t help but incorporate it into his writing. After this poem, he weaved it into his greater mythology, where two characters (Beren and Lúthien) in Middle-Earth have a similar meeting.
In the end, Tolkien’s Catholicism shines through these poems. He had such a gift to paint with words the eternal truths of the universe. The discovery of these poems is a little gift to the world when all seems “dim,” “gray” and dark. Tolkien reminds us that darkness will never have the last say. Christ will come and shine brightly before all to lead us back to our Eternal Home.