Concerning Wishful Thinking

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat! (“Mythopoeia”)

It has been increasingly commonplace in the modern age to reject religion (and in some cases non-realist storytelling) as “wishful thinking”, something Tolkien was well aware of, especially as his works suffered critical rejection for being works of fantasy.


Yet Tolkien never apologized for his love of the fairy-tale. In “Mythopoeia”, he rejects the notion that such wishful thinking is to be outgrown by an increasingly mature human race, as if it were the next logical step in our evolution. Instead, Tolkien insists that such “wishful thinking” is, at its most fundamental level, a way of reaching back to the greater truth of what we are meant to be. There is a contingency it would seem to our present reality. We are not so fully formed as we generally think we are, neither as individuals or as a species.

And this is where it becomes important that we are, as Tolkien puts it, “subcreators”, for we who are still in the process of being fully formed, are called to participate in the process of fully forming the rest of the reality around us. The realist will insist that we must deal in facts; but for Tolkien, though facts may be important, they are not the end all be all.

The dream, the vision, is a distant thing, a whisp, but still as Tolkien sees it, not a random thing, but a given inspiration, a call. Indeed, a call to create, to realize the vision!

And what is so wrong with wishing something better? Is it not what makes us great? While it would be foolish to so give ourselves to our dreams that we lose touch with reality (for it is after all the thing we are called to continue forming), it would be equally foolish to lose touch with the wish, for it is the thing that causes us to press on in hope.

And I believe, as Tolkien did, that that hope is indeed a HOPE, a thing grounded in reality, a real fact, and a real promise of what is to come…


Image is Leaving Hope © surprise truck 2012 CC License 2.0

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.

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”

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

Confessions of a Tolkien Devotee pt 1: Why I Love Tolkien

My Fellow Tolkien Devotees,

Sometimes it’s necessary to come back to the most basic of all questions: Why? For the last few weeks, I have been wrestling with the question of why I started this website and, like Lúthien before “the inexorable Mandos”, wondering to what end it is doomed. I know I’m not simply creating a Tolkien fansite, but what then am I creating?

©2010-2015 AlasseaEarello

Continue reading “Confessions of a Tolkien Devotee pt 1: Why I Love Tolkien”

Tolkien’s Letters – 113: An Apology to C.S. Lewis

Do me the great generosity of making me a present of the pains I have caused, so that I may share in the good you have put them to. (127)

I love Tolkien’s letters almost as much as his Middle-earth works. In fact, it is probably his letters more than anything that have inspired the creation of this site, for in them I find a dragon’s hoard of wisdom and insight. This is the first post in a series on Tolkien’s letters, in which I will explore the best of the bunch, and gleam whatever insights and quotable snippets I can find.

My daily devotional.

If there is anyone who has influenced and inspired me as much as Tolkien, it would be C.S. Lewis. In fact, I had been into Lewis’ works for years before I ever really discovered his buddy Tolkien. It’s a pleasure then to read correspondence between the two, and so the first of Tolkien’s letters that I’ll be exploring is a letter he wrote to C.S. Lewis in 1948. It is Letter #113 in the book. Continue reading “Tolkien’s Letters – 113: An Apology to C.S. Lewis”

Talking Tolkien Podcast – Ep. 6 – On Enjoying Tolkien (or Reasons Why)

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . 

– C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

©2013-2015 rfcunha
©2013-2015 rfcunha

Why spend so much time talking and writing about Tolkien? What does it mean to fully enjoy something? We discuss these matters, with a little help from C.S. Lewis, on our first non-Silmarillion episode. Come get lost in Middle-earth and explore the history of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings! Continue reading “Talking Tolkien Podcast – Ep. 6 – On Enjoying Tolkien (or Reasons Why)”

Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and “True Myths”

The heart of man is not compound of lies
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise…

– “Mythopoeia”

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, close friends and fellow fantasy trailblazers, shared a lifelong love of ancient mythology. In fact, this shared love of mythology happened to serve as a turning point in Lewis’ life. Furthermore, it reveals something about the idea of mythology that might strike most of us as very strange, and even lead some to dismiss Tolkien as a lunatic. Yet not only is this very point foundational to the name of this site, it is undeniably foundational to Tolkien’s entire canon of work.

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading “Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and “True Myths””

Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 2

The heart of man is not compound of lies
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise. (87)

This is part of a series on Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” You can find the rest of the posts in this series here under Concerning Tolkien’s Works.

“Mythopoeia” is essentially a response to Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, who contended that myths are “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien sought to develop the idea that the ancient myths are NOT lies, but are instead hints of a greater reality to which human beings are called. In doing so, he led Lewis to a deeper understanding of the role of myth in the lives of human beings, and opened up the possibility of Christianity being the “true myth,” that is, the myth that actually happened in human history.

The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani

Continue reading “Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 2”

Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 1

To one who said that myths were lies . . . though ‘breathed through silver.’ (85)

This is part of a series on Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” You can find the rest of the posts in this series here under Concerning Tolkien’s Works.

Having finished my series covering Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories, I am going to turn next to his poem “Mythopoeia.” Like On Fairy-Stories, “Mythopoeia” is foundational to understanding Tolkien’s creative vision. It is in fact something of a response to his close friend C.S. Lewis, who, when still an atheist, contended that myths are “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien sought to develop the idea that the ancient myths are NOT lies, but are instead hints of a greater reality to which human beings are called.
Bartolomeo di Giovanni [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In this first part, I will be unpacking the ideas behind the first three verse paragraphsContinue reading “Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 1”