Tolkien Heads

If you’ve been to the movies or even watched a bit of television over the past month, you’ve seen it: images from a new movie in which strange and noble creatures traipse through forests and push deep into mountains, all in a quest for an certain object: small, round thing, glinting with gold and inscribed with runes. A ring.

Yes, it’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, come just this past week to a theater near you. You may know a little bit about this film. You may know that it’s the first in a trilogy, based on a trilogy of novels of the same titles.

But what you may not know is that J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of this trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, quite consciously rooted his epic of Middle Earth, with its hobbits, wizards, trolls and elves and yes, the Ring, in the fertile soul of his own deep orthodox Catholic faith.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892 in South Africa. His mother converted to Catholicism after his father’s death and the family’s return to England.

The conversion alienated her from her late husband's family, who ceased the financial help they'd been giving her. Tolkien couldn't help believing that the suffering brought on by this set of events contributed to his mother's premature death from diabetes and made her, in essence, a martyr for her faith. That, combined with the compassion and care shown to Tolkien and his brother after their mother's death by their guardian, a Catholic priest, rooted Tolkien in his Catholic faith unshakeably, for the rest of his life.

(One of Tolkien's sons became a priest. Tolkien, as is often related, was reponsible for C.S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity. Lewis, of course, never became a Roman Catholic, though, which was a source of just the slightest contention between the two - Lewis unable to shake the Ulster in him. Joseph Pearce, whom I interviewed for this article is presently workign on a book about C.S. Lewis and the Church - both the idea of religious institutions in general and the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in particular. Should be quite interesting.)

Tolkien’s primary professional interest was the discipline of philology, or the study of languages. As a professor at Oxford, he did work in this field, as well as Old and Middle English literature. This interest in language, myth and epic fueled the writing of his fiction, starting with The Hobbit, (which actually began as stories he told his four children), hobbit and through the Lord of the Rings, and the extensive background mythology to his tales of Middle-Earth that Tolkien wrote in The Simarillion.

The Lord of the Rings is a massive book (it’s actually six books, collected in three volumes), numbering over half a million words. It’s not surprising that Tolkien had trouble getting the work published, but once he did, it enjoyed tremendous success: The Lord of the Rings has sold over 50 million copies and was voted “The Book of the Century” in a survey of British readers, much to the chagrin of British literary critics, who scorn Tolkien’s style, not to speak of his world-view.

And what is this world view? In these days in which many Christians are suspect of any literary work that contains elements of the magical, what are we to make of The Lord of the Rings?

To gain some insight into these questions, I spoke with Joseph Pearce, the author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of an Man and Mythessay collection, Tolkien: A Celebration. He’s also the editor of the St. Austin Review, a Catholic cultural journal. Pearce is currently holding a two-year position as Writer In Residence at Ave Maria College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

What Tolkien was doing in his fiction, Pearce says, is weaving myth. But it’s important to see that myth, as Tolkien understood it, was not a false story. In fact, it’s the very opposite:

“Tolkien understood a myth to be a means of conveying certain truths in a way that is impossible to convey in the so-called realistic genre.” And what are those truths? No less than the fundamentals of the Christian story: God’s providence for His creation, the struggle against an evil which seeks to pervert that creation, and the role of God’s creatures in this struggle.

“The Lord of the Rings is really a story about self-sacrifice and about those who sacrifice being redeemed. The story is powered by supernatural forces: Divine providence, which is very evident throughout The Lord of the Rings, and also the Satanic influence. Middle Earth is the Christian Cosmos. The same God is presiding over it and the same hierarchy of angels and the same fallen angels exist.”

In this story of the quest for the Ring, which must be destroyed in the place of its origin lest evil use it for its own end, there is no hint of relativism, Pearce says.

“The objective nature of good and evil will be apparent to any reader, no matter how theologically oriented they are. Tolkien is firmly and unequivocally on the side of the good. His heroes all serve the forces of good, and his demons are clearly evil.”

Pearce believes that those who might fear The Lord of the Rings because they see it as related in some way to the occult have it all wrong:

“We live in a supernatural universe. Therefore, we live in a world where miracles or magic happen all the time, far more than we realize. The forces of evil are also supernatural: fallen angels work in a supernatural wayfellowship to pervert the good that comes from God. The fact that this supernatural dimension comes out in stories is a matter for applause. We are playing into the hands of materialists [those who believe there is no supernatural] when we say that supernatural cannot be used – it can be used in an ungodly way or a godly way.”

Moreover, Tolkien took his vocation as a Catholic writer very seriously. He said that he knew that if he created “with an open heart, wishing to do God’s will,t he grace of God would work through him in the weaving of the tale,” according to Pearce. For this reason, and because The Lord of the Rings is not allegory, and therefore more subtle in is evocation of Tolkien’s worldview, Pearce sees the work as an important tool of evangelization.

“At any level, the reading of The Lord of the Rings is a spiritually edifying experience. One of the reasons it is so popular is that it’s a spiritual work, even if it’s not consciously comprehended as such. It is fulfilling a religious purpose in an irreligious age. Many people read it who wouldn’t go anywhere near traditional Christianity. People read it, are charmed and beguiled by it, and then read it again. The more they understand it, the closer they get to the myth, then to the Author of the myth, and then to Christianity. It is having a very, very powerful evangelical influence in a subtle and indirect way.”

In short, Pearce says, what readers will discover in The Lord of the Rings is truth, and will be led, through the telling of the truth in this magical, mythical way, to see that what is profoundly true in a story – in this case, the ultimate power of good over evil – is also profoundly true about us.

And that is nothing but Good News.

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