Why Christians Should Read Tolkien
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Why Should Christians Learn Tolkien?
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Father Robert Murray, SJ, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”1
In response to the poet W.B. Auden’s review of The Return of the King, Tolkien noted, “In the LOTR the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”2
Since these two quotations, from among many similar ones, reveal Tolkien’s deepest intentions, then why should it be at all necessary to write of why Christians should learn Tolkien in the third millennium? One reason is silly: The author wrote some provocative words about detesting allegory, which have been taken far too seriously. When examined clearly, all Tolkien meant was that he hated bad allegory—or at least obvious allegory, like John Bunyan’s great Pilgrim’s Progress. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 115-130)3 makes it clear that allegory is fundamental to all of being. Tolkien might as usefully have hated the law of gravity. A somewhat better reason is that Tolkien wanted to write a tale that had a complete and fully realized vividness on its own terms, without reference to even the greatest of books, the Bible. He also knew this kind of tale might fascinate even those who claimed to hate the greatest of books, as more and more moderns who have never read the Bible pretend to do.
There is a third, less compelling, reason. In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ used to appeal to reason in foolish attacks on Him. In practice, the word reason was anemically narrowed to mean that an “educated” person should feel obliged to state as fact only what could be proven by scientific experimentation. This obligation rather narrows serious intellectual debate, since science has nothing meaningful it can prove about justice, love, beauty, God, or most of the things that make life worth living. One was not supposed to start with God, since He did not allow Himself to be seen, touched, or tasted in a petri dish. Miracle was viewed as gauche precisely because it is about the impossible. Science, remember, demands permission to deal only with the naturally possible. Yet, some people then expect men to talk about nothing else but what science can prove! It is as if humans and dogs should all agree to say nothing that cannot be expressed by barking.
Christians, for complex reasons that may never have made any sense, in large measure acceded to these demands to speak of the supernatural in mostly natural terms. To paraphrase what Flannery O’Connor wrote in her short story Greenleaf, gentlemen of this time believed that the name of Jesus, like sex, was fit to be discussed only in the privacy of the bedroom. Great scholar-writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien seem to have followed these rules rather scrupulously in their teaching and scholarship. Lewis did rebel with gusto, however, in his fictional works, ranging from The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Screwtape Letters to The Chronicles of Narnia to The Redemption Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). Tolkien, on the other hand, tried to keep to the old gentleman’s agreement to a large extent, even in his fiction. To fill his world with spirit and the miraculous, he decided to resort to the vehicles of fairy tales and cultures full of warriors and wizards, tales that he knew flourished in medieval Catholic soil, but most of his readers did not. Perhaps this was a fault. If so, it was a happy one.
Since the 1960s, the enemies of Christ have more and more overtly abandoned any belief in reason; it always was the province of those who believe in stable cosmic ordering (that is, a universe with a God). Reason only makes sense when God ensures there are indeed laws and rules to the game. Once a person swallows the camel of atheism, the gnat of reason will soon follow downward into humanity’s vast well of self-regard. It is ironic then that the best answer to those who believe in no reason is precisely the supernatural and the miraculous. It is thus time for criticism to show just how (even to his own surprise) Tolkien’s Catholicism insisted on welling up and creating the internal combustion of his immortal works.
If we begin with Tolkien’s simplest work, The Hobbit (originally written to amuse his own children), we find an astonishingly original work with profound moral themes lurking beneath its “children’s book” surface. Just five out of ten and more of these themes include the following: 1) The desire in the completely comfortable and materially satisfied person for a better self and a greater world. This desire, which shocks Bilbo Baggins when he discovers it in himself, is the intimation of heaven that exists in the most spiritually dull modernist. 2) The fact that what seems the far, far past continues powerfully to shape the present. This is true, whether what emerges from the past are great contributions of the Elves or the continued traces of their greater and forgotten wars with Sauron, behind the struggles of Bilbo’s own day. For us, of course, such powerful ideas range from the great revelations of God to the contributions of Plato and the Founding Fathers of the United States. The war is the same war as in Tolkien: the constant battle between those who worship God and those who follow Satan.
3) The way evil beings habitually make a strong pretense of concern for justice and fairness, and how the long-continuance in evil habits brings inevitable degradation. Here, we think of the sly words of the dragon and his own complacent stupidity about his invincibility.
4) Perhaps most important to Tolkien was the discovery of his own belief in Providence and man’s need for fortitude to cooperate with it. The Hobbit constantly returns to the theme of how events, big or little, fair or foul appearing, all seem to help direct Bilbo’s paths to good, if he only keeps up his courage. After all is done, Gandalf chides the great Halfling, “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck?” And in the end, as a wiser Hobbit, Bilbo thanks goodness, not himself.
5) It was while writing this book, I believe, that Tolkien discovered how deeply he believed in the necessity for an earthly king, someone who can be the standard bearer for a whole society or for the world of moral values. In The Hobbit, he gradually made Thorin Oakenshield, with all his defects, the first kind of king. Gandalf the Grey became the second kind. While we may look in vain for Thorin’s courage and goodness of heart in the political rule of our own time, the great pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI certainly have been true portraits of the moral sovereign.
If one can find such treasures in what Tolkien started as a children’s book, what might we find in his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings? How majestic is the author’s intent when he tells us, “It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”4 Who could write a book with a better purpose? What literary men have had such a vision beside Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Lewis? Again, we will begin to see just why Christians should indeed read Tolkien, if we take five out of some fourteen clear patterns which I have traced elsewhere in LOTR.
First and most obvious is the ever-present theme of the importance of self-sacrifice for good—and not merely the good of one’s own beloved self, family, or country, either. Each of the hobbits, the elves, Aragorn, the men of Rohan and of Gondor, the Ents, and Gandalf all exhibit a kind of unselfish giving of all they have, just as Christ taught all humans to do, even unto sacrificial death for the good of others one has never seen. This sacrifice may take the form of Crusade, as with Gondor and Rohan, or it may be the quiet self-immolation of Frodo and Sam.
Second, an intimately related theme is that of resurrection: Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Eowyn all tread the paths of death and darkness only to be returned to life again. Each in his or her own way reminds the reader that the immortality of the Elves is the base line of Middle Earth.
Third, the Ring of Sauron, itself, made as a vile imitation of rings that sustain and nourish life, is one of Tolkien’s greatest creations, a perfect symbol for the fallen creature’s desire to be as God. Yet, always, that God-play turns from sustaining life to creating foul parodies of true creation—parodies which the wielder of the Ring desires to master in every detail, and which can only hate and fear their demonic master. It is a desire that infects every creature that comes near the Ring (except Tom Bombadil of course), just as each sinful human both desires to rebel against true authority and set himself up as his own lawless God over others.
Fourth, a great counter-symbol of Tolkien’s is the mysterious quality of lembas, the way-bread of the Elves. It tastes like dust and choking ashes in the mouths of the wicked, burning Gollum to his soul, but when taken as the only food by Frodo and Sam, it seems enough to sustain their whole journey against the dark Lord, as the Holy Eucharist has sustained numerous saints for many years. In the end, this Eucharistic gift is all that is powerful enough to sustain the hobbits in the epicenter of the kingdom of evil.
And, finally, it is well to consider the whole existence of the Elves in Tolkien. The author says that the journey from Hobbiton to Gondor is really the journey from the insularity of England to Rome. Yet Gondor is not only the habitation of men; the Elves were the ancient co-founders with men of the Numenorian and Gondorian kingdoms. Most of what is best in them comes from the Elves. The wisdom, the merriment, the sheer indefectibility of the Elves, combined with their role as innovators and conservers of all that is beautiful, good, kind, and useful makes them, to the meditative mind, a type of the Christian Church itself. They made the culture of Middle-earth just as the Catholic Church made the culture of the West. And if, at times, the Elves seem more like angels than men, we must remember that men are both spirit and flesh, so they are like us and unlike.
Many homeschools will never ask their children to read The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-Earth (assembled by Tolkien’s son Christopher), volumes which elaborate the vast history Tolkien conceived of as being behind The Lord of the Rings. Yet, it is good to know that here, Tolkien created an analogue to the Biblical creation story—one that, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, went freely beyond the sources. Tolkien’s story is the same saga of the glory of God (Iluvatar), the love of the Angels, the Fall of Satan, and the spreading of evil through Middle-earth. It is, therefore, also a story of God’s work to recall and redeem His creation, a story that, like Jaweh’s pursuit of the House of Israel, is deeply beautiful and tragic, involving not just one fall, but also the falling of created beings over and over. It is in these works, where Tolkien creates his own mythology, that he is seen to be truly closest to the great sources of Greek tragedy and Biblical comedy in which we see all the depths of life reflected.
Tolkien wrote tales that were designed not to sound specifically Christian, but were structured to the very bone on the principles and wisdom of Christian teachings. It remains good and helpful that they can thus call homeward those who are ready only for the four cardinal virtues, for honor, and for the sheer intuition of Goodness behind the universe. But it is more important than ever that Christians see the power and the glory of the kinds of literature that their faith has inspired. As the forces of evil are incessantly heard in the media of the disappearing word, it is high time for Christians to claim their own in the pantheon of words that will last as long as the English language can still be read.
Dr. Russell offers several online courses for middle and high school students that are based on books by J. R. R. Tolkien. These courses can be found at www.homeschoolconnections.com.
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