Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 2: Of Insignificant Hobbits


‘[T]he wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak… – Tolkien


In considering the impact of his faith on his creative works, it is probably best to begin where most of us start when it comes to Tolkien: with hobbits. Ironically, though hobbits are Tolkien’s most popular subcreation, they are in fact the most insignificant of the rational beings in the Middle-earth universe.

Hobbit Hole ©2012-2015 Sherlockian

After all, Elves and Men were the prophesied Children of Ilúvatar and Dwarves were fashioned from the imagination of the mighty demigod Aulë. Even the Ents arise from the desire of Yavanna, goddess of growing things. Nowhere does Tolkien explain how hobbits came about, and we’re not really given a hint of what their final destiny will be. They just sort of show up at some point in the middle of the Third Age, and remain an afterthought in the minds of the great powers for centuries until the Ring, by some strange accident, comes to Bilbo.

The Secret Life in Creation

In this, we see manifest a major Tolkienian theme, that the greatest significance was reserved for the seemingly insignificant. In the letter that serves as the preface to The Silmarillion, he says this:

“[T]he great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One…”

Now if one attempts to read this statement apart from Tolkien’s faith, they are probably going to wind up thinking that he is simply being sentimental here. Obviously, the good professor is just wrong. It IS the powerful, the Lords and Governors, who make the great policies of world history. After all, that’s their job as Lords and Governors, to do the important stuff. Yet Tolkien was not simply telling an underdog story with his Middle-earth works, nor a populist one. So what exactly did he mean?

It all hinges upon “the secret life in creation . . . the part unknowable to all wisdom but One.” This is an enigmatic assertion, but I believe that Tolkien is pointing to a hidden reality that the great and powerful tend to ignore. On one hand, this is the mysterious power of nature itself, what Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Yet Tolkien, like Hopkins, feels led to tie this power of nature in with a supernatural providence, a hidden wisdom.

An Unexpected Design

Thus, hobbits, the most insignificant of all rational beings in Middle-earth, represent an unexpected design in the divine plan. It is Gandalf alone among the powerful who is able to recognize this, but even then he doesn’t really understand how it will play out. Neither Sauron nor Saruman pay any mind to hobbits before the work of providence gets its head start.

In all of this, one can see a strong parallel with the story of Christ, the one upon whom Tolkien was convinced all of history turned. Christ came not as a mighty king but as a helpless infant. Throughout His life, he continued down this path; though He was God, “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

Blessed are the Insignificant

St. Paul frequently came back to this theme in his writings: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Why is this? I can’t help but think that God is, at heart, not only the Creator, but also the Creative, the poet and storyteller par excellence. But more on that in the next installment.

I’ll close this entry in the series by saying that while most of us will never achieve any sort of great significance in our lives, especially not the sort that will find us being remembered well a few years past our deaths, I nevertheless take great consolation in the knowledge that, as one of the legions of insignificants, it is perhaps that God instead has His own significance mapped out for my life, a deeper and indeed greater meaning that I might miss if I tried to grasp significance on my own terms. I can live with that; it’s good to be in the company of hobbits and the Son of God.

NEXT TIME: God the Storyteller…

Where do you see this theme manifest in Tolkien’s work? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 29 – The Lord of the Rings – B1C7 – In the House of Tom Bombadil

Concerning “In the House of Tom Bombadil”, Book 1, Chapter 7 of The Lord of the Ringsin which we ponder all things Bombadil…
©2013-2015 rfcunha

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Lord of the Rings with Book 1, Chapter 7 of Fellowship, “In the House of Tom Bombadil“. As the title of this chapter would suggest, our discussion on this episode consists mainly in attempting to answer the question “Who is Tom Bombadil?” We consider both the evidence contained in this chapter as well as the things Tolkien had to say about Bombadil in his letters. It’s an easy question to get lost in, and we have a lot of fun exploring it. 

Topics of discussion include:

  • Who is Tom Bombadil?
  • Who is Goldberry?
  • What does it mean that Tom is “Master?”
  • How has Tom taken a “vow of poverty?”
  • How can Tom have power over Old Man Willow?
  • Why is Tom unaffected by the Ring?
  • Why did Tolkien include Tom in the story even though he admitted he didn’t do much to advance the plot?
  • And much more!

By the way, to see the Tolkien haiku(s) that didn’t make it onto the podcast, scroll down. And here’s the Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Fonstad that we mentioned on air, as well as the wonderful book on Tolkien’s art by Wayne Hammond and Cristina Scull. Also, here’s an instrumental tune by the bluegrass band Nickel Creek called “In the House of Tom Bombadil” for your listening pleasure.

I hope you enjoy our conversation. And of course, if you haven’t already, please leave us a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of The Tolkien Road. Enjoy the show!

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Haiku submitted but not read on air…

Josh Sosa:

Orthanc bears its fangs,
Olorin the captured freed,
aback the Windlord

Mary Grace:

House of Bombadil
What a merry place it is!
Tom and Goldberry

Bombadil is lord
Of trees, flowers and creatures
In the Old Forest

John:

Even when speaking
Tom seems to sing, like rain, like
Distant memories.

Feel free to add your own haiku for this chapter in the comments below. Keep ’em coming everyone!

Thoughts on a Silmarillion Film Pt 3: A Trilogy of Trilogies


“The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.”– Tolkien


Let’s be 100% clear on one thing: any attempt to squeeze the entirety of The Silmarillion into 1 film would be a disaster. (1) Fortunately, cinematic universes are all the rage amongst Hollywood executives these days, and so the question really becomes what is the appropriate number of films?

Jokes about a 72-part film series (2) aside, could you cover all of the stories over the course of 3 films? Perhaps, but if Tolkienites were upset by the exclusion of the Old Forest from Jackson’s Fellowship, how much more will they resent a film that squeezes the Coming of the Elves into 15 minutes? One aspect to which any Silmarillion films must be true if they are to succeed is in the effect of conveying the transition of long ages, and to that end, I believe a trilogy of trilogies would be the most effective cinematic way to communicate the entire story of the Quenta Silmarillion.(3)

silmarillion-cover-cr2

Now some may scoff at the thought of a single novel-length book being expanded into 9 films. Haven’t we been down this road before with The Hobbit, which really should have been at most two films? Do we really need that much bloat? Doesn’t Tolkien himself decry the “exaggeration” of such film-making? This is all true – to a point. After all, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion are quite different books. The former is one very linear story with one hero, the latter a compilation of inter-connected stories featuring various heroes. While I think Tolkien would have viewed three Hobbit films as overkill, I think he might have doubted the notion of being true to The Silmarillion in even 9. Yet, all things considered, I believe nine films, a trilogy of trilogies, strikes the right balance between rushing it and bloating it.


Previous posts in this series:

  1. The Long Defeat: Why Christopher Tolkien must act to secure the best visual treatment for The Silmarillion.
  2. A Majestic Whole: Is cinema the best visual medium for The Silmarillion?

The Core of The Silmarillion

While The Silmarillion cannot be considered a novel in the common sense, it is nevertheless at its core one story. Therefore, before we can even talk about how we’d execute the film series, we must identify 3 things common to any story:

  • Who is the chief protagonist of The Silmarillion?
  • What is the problem faced by this protagonist?
  • What is the “meta-problem” faced by this protagonist?

At a high-level, the answers to these 3 questions are pretty straight-forward.

  • The chief protagonist of The Silmarillion is a group, the Children of Ilúvatar, i.e. mostly Elves and a few Men.
  • The problem these protagonists face is that Melkor wants to make them miserable, kill or enslave them, and steal the holy Silmarils.
  • The “meta-problem” these protagonists face is that they are prideful, easily manipulated, and have some deep-seated need of the holy and beautiful light of Valinor.

Now, this may seem over-simplified, but if we peel back as many layers as possible, I do believe it’s the core. Some might take issue with the fact that I don’t include the Valar amongst the chief protagonists. That’s because they aren’t. The Children of Ilúvatar are Luke Skywalker. The Valar are Obi-Wan Kenobi (and to some extent the Force itself). The Valar play a hugely important role, but not the chief role.

So if we give ourselves a “center” for this 9-film series, it will be this: the Children of Ilúvatar must overcome the evil of Melkor and their own envy and pride in order to re-gain the holy Silmarils from the Dark Lord.

Telling the Tales

While 9 films certainly seems like a lot, for a book as dense as The Silmarillion it’s really not. In addition to the core story of the Silmarils, there are dozens of sub-plots spanning several hundred years that must be considered. (4) How does one keep the storytelling consistent throughout all 9 films while still allowing for the incorporation of things that may not work for the main action in a film?

One of the triumphs of Jackson’s films was his adept use of prologue. Fellowship won over audiences from the beginning because of Galadriel’s narration of the history of the Ring, something Jackson must have picked up from Tolkien’s own storytelling methods in The Lord of the Rings. (5) Through well-narrated flashbacks, major events that are important as background could be incorporated in order to add to the epic feel of the films without getting in the way of the core story. There’s just no other way to handle something like “Ainulindalë” (and it must be handled rightly).

Tolkien himself struggled with a “frame narrative” for The Silmarillion before apparently giving up. Yet what if it was Galadriel herself who provided the frame for the series? After all, she was in Valinor, she was a witness to and survivor of all of the major events of The Silmarillion, and in her time in Valinor she most likely would have heard directly from the Valar of the Music of the Ainur and the history leading up to Bliss of Valinor. And she is of course already well known to audiences of Jackson’s films. She seems the perfect candidate for relating the events of the ancient past.

The other great example of an introduction is the beginning of The Return of the King, essentially a blow-by-blow account of Gollum’s story as told by Gandalf in “The Shadow of the Past.” This was used to reintroduce Gollum to us in order to deepen our empathy with his character, to remind us that he was once one of the cute and funny hobbits as he transitioned over the course of the trilogy from a supporting role to one of the central figures. This could work well as new entries in the series have to reintroduce us to characters that were once in the background. Thingol, for example, will be off screen for a long time, but becomes highly important late in The Silmarillion. How does one suddenly reintroduce such an important character?

The Three Trilogies

In my next post, I’m going to actually outline all 9 films as I could see them playing out. As a teaser, here’s what I’d name the 3 trilogies (subject to change of course):

  1. The Dawn of Middle-earth
  2. The War of the Jewels
  3. The Fall of Beleriand

Naming films is a tough thing. I’d actually prefer “The Light of Valinor” over “The Dawn of Middle-earth” but…marketing. No one outside of hardcore Tolkienites knows what “Silmarillion” or “Valinor” are, but they do know that “Middle-earth” means Tolkien and the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Once you are done with the first trilogy though, it will be enough to refer to The Silmarillion: The War of the Jewels because people will know what you are talking about.

It’s fun to think about this stuff, and I’m looking forward to sharing my outlines in the next post. After that, I’ll take a look at what I think is the best possible outcome: a multi-season TV series.

Do you agree with my assessment of The Silmarillion‘s core? Do you think a film series could work? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


Footnotes

1 – Let’s call this the “hobbit-in-reverse” mentality. Fortunately it’s the least likely of all scenarios (I think).

2 – EOTT’s reckoning neglects “Ainulindalë”, “Valaquenta”, and “Akallabêth.” I’ll give them a pass on “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, but while they’re at it, couldn’t we get a 3-part film series out of the Waldman letter as well? Those indices are pretty epic too. Surely there’s a whole trilogy possible for each chart? See? Just a little creative massaging Hollywood executive-style and you are at a whopping 100 films, enough to keep Tolkien fans happy for multiple lifetimes. Yay!

3 – This excludes “Akallabêth” which would need to be done as its own thing anyway. Also, just in case you didn’t get the memo, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age” already got the film treatment, though I could see more being done with the story of the Rings of Power and the Last Alliance of Men and Elves.

4 – And that’s just including the First Age in that count. There are probably thousands of years that transpire before the First Age even begins.

5 – The introduction to the first Hobbit film is also outstanding, probably the best thing about the whole trilogy. Unfortunately it was slowly downhill from there.

The Tolkien Road – Ep. 28 – The Lord of the Rings – B1C6 – The Old Forest

Concerning “The Old Forest”, Book 1, Chapter 6 of The Lord of the Ringsin which Frodo and company enter the perilous realm beyond the borders of Buckland…
©2013-2015 rfcunha

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Lord of the Rings with Book 1, Chapter 6 of Fellowship, “The Old Forest, in which Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin set out on their journey through the Old Forest and encounter a far more dangerous road than they expected. Chapter 6 also introduces the mysterious Tom Bombadil, one of Tolkien’s most enigmatic figures. There’s a lot to talk about, including:

  • Who is Old Man Willow?
  • Why does the Old Forest seem alive?
  • The beauty of the word “Withywindle”
  • Our favorite passages from this chapter
  • The location of Tom Bombadil’s house
  • And much more!

By the way, to see the Tolkien haiku(s) that didn’t make it onto the podcast, scroll down. And here’s the Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Fonstad that we mentioned on air, as well as the wonderful book on Tolkien’s art by Wayne Hammond and Cristina Scull.

I hope you enjoy our conversation. And of course, if you haven’t already, please leave us a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of The Tolkien Road. Enjoy the show!

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Haiku submitted but not read on air…

Josh Sosa:

Slowly creep the roots
Windless forest sways all ways
lo Old Man Willow!

Mary Grace:

Hobbits leave the Shire
The Old Forest leads to Bree
Unknown awaits them

Frodo has the Ring
But Merry leads them onward
Frodo insists so

John:

What ancient anger
Brings the forest to swallow
Hobbits whole and live?

Does the Forest live?
The Withywindle winds through,
The blood in its heart.

Greta:

Entering a spell
Only Sam suspects foul play
A hero again

A tree whisperer
Singing, carrying lilies,
Saving hobbits. Weird.

And here’s the wonderful short ballad-form poem submitted by Trevor the Computational Linguist:

They ride into the forest bleak
Beneath forboding leaves.
Behind the tree-trunks dark things peek,
And winding paths they weave.
The Withywindle bubbles quick
Along it’s Southward track
The Willow stands and plays his trick:
A murderous attack.
Old Bombadil did hap’ thereon,
The tree his voice would heed,
And still the road goes ever on,
Now, from the darkness freed.

Keep ’em coming everyone!

Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 1: Where We Are Going

Once upon a time there was a man who loved words. Because he loved words, he loved languages, and even created some of his own. This man’s love of language drove him, over the course of a lifetime, to create something vast and inspiring, and overall, to tell many stories, but more than even telling stories, his love of language drove him to create another reality, one he saw in his mind’s eye, as if it were a real thing that he was glimpsing from afar through a mist.

Yet there was another side to this man, a deep and abiding belief in the goodness of the world he lived in, grounded in his delight in nature and in the religious faith that he had received from his mother. It was a haunting faith, for it often seemed to seep into matters in which it had no business, and though his stories were in no way about his faith, over time he realized it was increasingly difficult to keep the likeness, the aura of that faith, from creeping in. Yet still, he was compelled to tell the stories he had to tell.

mountain-path-tolkiens-faith
I want to go to there.

Tolkien’s faith is no easy thing to write about. He was not an adult convert but a cradle Catholic, not a street preacher but a storyteller. Yet even so, I feel compelled to undertake an exploration of it. In setting out on this journey, I really have no idea how many posts it will take, how many different sub-topics within the topic will need to be covered, or exactly where it will all wind up. I sense that it is something like the Lonely Mountain off in the distance, a thing I perceive to be large, majestic, and full of treasure, yet I can also sense that the path is rather long and ridden with dangers.*

I cannot speak of this series in terms of things that most certainly will be accomplished. All I know is that I am going on a long exploration of Tolkien’s faith, and that I hope in so doing to understand and show how a deep appreciation of Tolkien’s faith can lead to better reading, better art, and better faith.

Better Reading

Tolkien once said “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work…” At this point, those words have been quoted ad nauseam, both here and elsewhere. It’s a rather direct statement from a writer who wasn’t known for his brevity and a convenient quote by which Catholics can identify Tolkien and his most beloved work as “one of ours.” With that in mind, let me insist that this series will not include a post entitled “The Passion of Bombur” nor will I be counting Christs in Middle-earth.

Yet even so one must ask, “What did he mean by those words?” How can Tolkien’s insistence that The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” help ALL readers – Catholic, Christian, or none of the above – become better readers of his works, to get more out of the stories he was trying to tell?

The funny thing about this quote is that he was often careful to dissuade readers from trying to read intentional symbolism into his works. He “disliked allegory” and frequently shot down allegorical readings of his works proposed by others. So why would he go out of the way to do so, and then turn around and call the work “fundamentally religious and Catholic”?

I believe that in this paradox Tolkien identified a way of thinking and of storytelling that amounts to a “best way.” Essentially, Tolkien was trying to encourage readers to receive stories as stories and not as symbolic arrangements meant for driving home talking or teaching points. What if, as readers, we could live inside the story as we read it? How did Tolkien’s faith impact his ideas of storytelling, and how can that help us to be better readers of Tolkien and of other works? Can being better readers help us to live better lives?

Better Art

Tolkien was so obsessed with the idea of artistry that he coined his own term for his philosophy of it: subcreation. This concept was closely tied to his faith, for though many would say we human beings are “creators”, Tolkien included the prefix “sub-” in order to specify that this peculiar aspect of human nature had to do with our status as beings uniquely made in the image of an original creator.

He was so enamored with artistry that he made it one of the prominent themes of his Middle-earth works. In fact, I might even venture to say that in hindsight Tolkien’s life-work amounts to a thorough and profound development in the philosophy of human creativity. The fact that so many of his fellow human beings connected with his work on such a visceral level tells me that we ought to be paying closer attention to what he was saying about it.

In some cases, this aspect of Tolkien’s work seems to take on a mystical quality. Consider “Leaf By Niggle“, his short story about human creativity and eternal destiny. It’s a tale that Tolkien was suddenly inspired to write in one sitting. It rings with a joy “beyond the walls of this world” and simultaneously stands as a stern and humorous rebuke of the sort of materialist thinking that so oftens stands in the way of great art and beauty. Just how important is it for us human beings to invest ourselves in the creation of beautiful things? Indeed, is beauty a salvific and redemptive way? What actually constitutes good art?

Better Faith

I truly believe that Tolkien has immense value to offer to Christianity, both its thought and practice. I believe this because for years before I was Catholic I perceived in Tolkien an inviting presence, a pleasant and wide spiritual space, a relief from the madness of the present world with all of its despair, loneliness, and ugliness. In some way, Tolkien’s works were like a quiet country church in my mind, a place to simply be and marinate in the  good, the true, and the beautiful. Simply put, they seemed a refuge. And I know of others who tell the same story.

Even though Tolkien was devout, it was as if he was content to let his fictional writings do the most powerful work of evangelism. It’s not that he never shared his faith. He certainly hoped to convince others of it; after all, there’s this guy. It’s rather that in so doing he couched his faith in terms that actually appealed to the sleeping and defeated giant within modern man: the desire for unending happiness. Tolkien’s works awaken this within us in a thousand ways. Who can read Sam’s astonished cry “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” and not WANT THAT?

That being said, Tolkien’s works don’t fit any sort of triumphalist mode. Frodo fails and is wounded beyond the hope of this world; Gondor takes but a century to slide into satanism; and then there’s the problem of Túrin Turambar.** As much as Tolkien believed in the happy ending he also believed in the long defeat. The shadow most certainly lies heavy on all of his work.

Yet Tolkien’s broad appeal and his unswerving faith stand. In a time when, at least in the West, the influence of Christianity is waning, what can the Church learn from one of her own sons about how to reach people with the light of Christ? Is our decline in some degree a failure of our imaginations?

A Long Road Ahead

I have here only put on my boots, wielded my walking stick, and taken a deep breath as I step out the door. This road goes ever on, and if I tried to thoroughly map it out to you, I’d be a fraud.  We venture into a mystical place, the vast realm of one man’s soul, and a great soul at that.

So where are we going? We’ll know when we get there.

What aspect of Tolkien’s faith or work do you find most compelling? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

NEXT TIME: “The Secret Life in Creation”


FOOTNOTES
PHOTO: “Austrian Mountains” by fr4dd is licensed under CC BY 2.0
* And probably trolls.
** Just be glad you’re not Túrin.

Video Interview for Pope Francis’ “Tolkienian Encyclical”

After posting my article on “Pope Francis’ Tolkienian Encyclical“, I was invited to an interview by a Brooklyn TV station. They summarized the spot this way:

Do J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ have similar messages?  Currents correspondent Katie Breidenbach speaks with a Catholic writer who believes so.

You can see the spot below. Check it out!

 

Thoughts on a Silmarillion Film Pt 2: A Majestic Whole


“The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” – Tolkien


For the first post in this series, I argued that despite his apparent misgivings, Christopher Tolkien must act soon to secure a visual future forThe Silmarillion that is in-line with his father’s overall vision. In this post, I examine the question: Is cinema the best visual medium for adapting The Silmarillion?

silmarillion-cover-cr2

The main problem with a visual adaptation of The Silmarillion is similar to The Silmarillion‘s problem as a novel. To put it simply, The Silmarillion isn’t really one story, the kind of thing we’re used to getting in a novel, but a connected anthology of stories taking place in the same secondary reality.* While one is capable of summarizing the basic thrust of The Silmarillion in a few paragraphs, the beauty of The Silmarillion isn’t in its surprise ending or action-packed plotting, but in its exquisite detail and elegant themes. The best stories, after all, are not piles of text we simply consume and then discard, mere candy bars for the brain. No, the best stories are the ones we revisit time and again because of the subtle notes and layers revealed upon multiple readings, or perhaps even because the savor of them is so delicious. Therefore, when considering a visual adaptation of The Silmarillion, one must ask: HOW? Continue reading “Thoughts on a Silmarillion Film Pt 2: A Majestic Whole”

Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ Tolkienian Encyclical

When I was a kid, I loved to look at maps. I collected the folded map inserts that came with National Geographic and would post them on the walls of my room so that I could just stare at them and contemplate the wonder that is the Earth. I was particularly fascinated by the vastness of the Asian continent, and especially by the two huge bodies of water that lay at its heart: the Caspian and Aral seas.

A few years ago, I was perusing Google Maps and was astonished to find that the smaller of the two, the Aral Sea, was no longer there. That had to be some kind of error on the part of Google, right? A quick search on Wikipedia told me otherwise. The Aral Sea is basically gone, the victim of a man-made environmental disaster.

Aral Sea 1989/2014. Public Domain.

And such man-made disasters really do abound these days. Here’s a a list of some others.

Now it’s no news that Tolkien’s works are infused with a sort of proto-environmentalism. To be sure, it sometimes seems like what he said of the Catholic faith and The Lord of the Rings could be said of environmentalism as well: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally environmentalist work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Heck, the book contains a whole section that could essentially be known as “revenge of the trees”!

On June 18th, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ latest encyclical Laudato Si’, which most are referring to as his “environmental” encyclical. However, as I read the document last week, I was struck by just how much the work goes well beyond the pale of standard environmental issues to connect said issues with the world of economics, social problems, and the human heart. And of course I couldn’t help but sense a number of themes that resonated deeply with Tolkien’s work and thought.*

Continue reading “Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ Tolkienian Encyclical”