Tolkien, Mystic

Just a quick thought for today…

It is in no way easy to make sense of the way Tolkien related his religion to his creative endeavors. In part, that’s why I created this site, and one of the key things that so draws me to Tolkien. On one hand, Tolkien would seem to deny in no uncertain terms the symbolic correlation between an aspect of his work and some Christian doctrine. On the other hand, he would tell a Jesuit friend that The Lord of the Rings was “of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letter 142). Examples for both cases abound. For many, this means Tolkien was either crazy, confused, or simply willing to tell people what he thought they wanted to hear. However, the other option is that Tolkien held a deeper view that was far too difficult to explain in a few words (perhaps even one that he had trouble putting into words himself).

Therefore, I think that I am trying to explore Tolkien as a mystic. I nabbed this idea from something I recently read by Gabriel Blanchard (Tolkien language aficionado), a post entitled “Utopia vs. Hope“:

The mark of prophetic mysticism is that, rather than just forsaking or ignoring this world for the sake of the transcendent one that meaning resides in, it locates this world within that one. What we do in this world is not ultimate, and there is more to life and existence than what we see. But that invisible world, that ultimate world, sustains and animates and exalts this visible one. Because the there-and-forever matters more, therefore the here-and-now matters in its own way, for the latter participates in the former, like an apple blossom participates in the tree.

This sort of idea seems to be all over “On Fairy-stories” (Primary and Secondary Worlds, seeing things as they are meant to be seen, etc) and other works as well (“Mythopoeia”, “Leaf By Niggle”, all of Middle-earth). Furthermore, it would seem that for the mystics I am aware of, spirituality and creativity go hand-in-hand. That’s why I can seem so insistent sometimes that it’s not entirely appropriate simply to draw a convenient diving line between Tolkien’s religious beliefs and his creative works.
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Image: “The making of the Silmarils” by rysowAnia ©2010-2016

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 57 – Concerning March 25th: Frodo’s Quest, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion

Concerning March 25th: Frodo’s Quest, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion…

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. On this special Good Friday episode, we take a moment to consider the place of March 25th, a date of major significance, in Tolkien’s works and philosophy.  We’ll see the role it plays within The Lord of the Rings, as well as how it ties the book to Tolkien’s Catholic faith. 

By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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“Fantasy Incarnate” by Simon Cook (Guest Post)


The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.

– Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, lecture delivered in 1939


On the surface, the meaning of the above quotation appears straightforward: humans have always used language to tell stories to one another. But why, in the expression of this idea, do we find the noun ‘mind’ modified by the unexpected adjective ‘incarnate’? My attempt to answer this question generated the following reflections on the foundations of Middle-earth.

© 2016 Evan Palmer

First, the adjective itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of incarnate: (1) a god or a spirit in human form, and (2) a quality in physical form. The OED also provides general and particular definitions of the corresponding noun: the lower case incarnation: the living embodiment of a god, spirit, or quality; and the upper case Incarnation: the Christian belief that God the Son was embodied in human flesh as Jesus.

As a devout Catholic, the Incarnation (upper case) was for Tolkien an article of faith, a profound historical fact of the primary world. This provides an initial answer: Tolkien’s reference to the human mind as ‘incarnate’ invokes the idea that humans, as embodied souls, are made in the image of the Incarnate Divinity. As such, Tolkien can be seen pointing to the bold conclusion arrived at by the end of the passage in which our quotation appears, namely, that in making-up fairy stories humans imitate the creative activity of God:

But how powerful… was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power… in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Such imitation, it is important to note, occurs in means as well as ends: language is the instrument of both (divine) creation and (human) sub-creation.

And God said: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 3, 5).

Yet the role of language in sub-creation as explained by Tolkien does not exactly mirror the linguistic dimension of God’s creative work as described in Genesis. In creating first light and then time, God employs no adjectives. In emphasizing the adjective as the key to sub-creation, Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ reveals what we might call an ‘incarnationalist theory of language’.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. (‘OFS’ 41)

For sure, abstracting and remixing adjectival qualities is not an exercise in incarnation. The projecting of a novel quality (say, blue) onto a noun (say, the moon) to form an image (of a blue moon) occurs on a purely mental and linguistic level – a “new form is made”, as Tolkien puts it, not a new thing, let alone the embodiment of spirit in living flesh.

Nevertheless, the making of imaginary form is structurally similar to the Divine act of incarnation. This is because the objects given to us by language possess the same dual nature as the incarnate spirit: a concrete object (noun) possesses abstract qualities (adjectives). The speakers of human language engage in fantasy by putting novel qualities into different linguistic objects. Put another way, the ‘incarnate mind’ is an actual instance in the world of the same dual form – the fusion of concrete and abstract – that is given to us generally in language. Indeed, it is tempting to see the incarnate mind as the anchor in reality of our linguistic practice.

We can now answer our original question. Invoking the ‘incarnate mind’ at the start of his explanation of fantasy, Tolkien points not only to the maker of fantasy but also to its very nature: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.

* * *

A careful reading of the quotations from this single passage in ‘On Fairy Stories’ suggests a further, complementary train of reflection. Our initial sentence identified stories and language as coeval. But Tolkien goes on to speak of the invention of the adjective, suggesting that such modifiers were a later discovery of the human mind. Could it be that this invention was of more than linguistic significance? Did the discovery of the dual nature of linguistic objects also provide illumination into the mysterious nature of reality?

In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (circa 1951), Tolkien wrote:

I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear (Letters, letter 131).

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is generally absent from Arda (although it is clearly alluded to as an ‘Old Hope’ of mortal men in Tolkien’s late dialogue, the ‘Athrabeth’). Yet the general idea of the embodiment of spiritual power in material objects is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s mythology.

In the very first pages of The Silmarillion we are told how the world was first made by music, then appeared as a vision, and then came into being with the speaking of a word. Yet this created world only “came alive” when some of the Ainur descend into it: “so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World”.

This incarnation of the Valar in the world is not some incidental detail of Tolkien’s creation story. It is the reason why Arda – in contrast to the mechanistic world envisaged by Newtonian science – is alive, enchanting, and purposeful.

Incidentally, I suspect that we here discern the reason why Saruman’s ambitions are bound to fail. Of this treacherous wizard, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:

He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels…

In our modern world, machines are purely physical means of generating and utilizing power. But a true Power in Middle-earth draws on a spiritual force that Saruman loses even as he builds in Isengard the superficial appearance of industrial and military power.

Further acts of incarnation – or, at least, the embodiment of the spiritual within a material object – provide the defining moments of Tolkien’s mythology. Fëanor embodies the spiritual light of the Valar in physical form – the Silmarils. And long ages later, Galadriel places the light from one of these Silmarils in a phial that she gives to Frodo, who, together with Sam, carries it all the way to Mordor.

Again, Sauron puts much of his own power into the Ring – a seemingly inanimate object with a will of its own. Here is a useful reminder that not all incarnations in Arda are good. Morgoth was one of the Valar incarnated in the world, which is why more than one power strives to shape the fate of Middle-earth.

There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master… I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…

* * *

Our reflections upon Tolkien’s reference to the ‘incarnate mind’ in his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ have led us to the following tentative conclusions concerning the foundations of Middle-earth.

The central fact of Tolkien’s worldview was, undoubtedly, the Incarnation: the Christian doctrine that the Word was made flesh. This fact has no direct bearing on either the form or the content of Tolkien’s mythology, which concerns a world that has not received the Gospels.

Indirectly, however, it is of cardinal importance.

Arda is a mythological world that does not know the Incarnation, but which is largely made of the discovered ‘truth’ of incarnation.

* * *

Simon J. Cook is an independent scholar. His essay on Tolkien’s lost English mythology is published by Rounded Globe and may be downloaded from the Rounded Globe website. Links to his other publications may be found on his personal website, Ye Machine.

The Tolkien Road – Ep. 41 – Tolkien’s Letters – Letter 250 – Concerning Tolkien’s Faith

Concerning Tolkien’s faith, as depicted in letter 250

Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien.  On this episode, we begin a discussion of Tolkien’s letters by considering a 1963 letter he wrote to his son Michael. In this letter, Tolkien seeks to help Michael work through a period where he felt depressed. In doing so, Tolkien opens up about his own faith, and how he keeps his head afloat in the world. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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©2013-2015 rfcunha

Thanks for listening to The Tolkien Road! To see a list of our previous episodes, go here.

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Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 4: Incarnation as Eucatastrophe


The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. – Tolkien


For me, the last section of Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories makes the slog that is the first half quite worth it. Tolkien’s exposition of eucatastrophe, “the happy turn” in a story, is unforgettable, an idea that has been expounded in countless places by numerous writers. Eucatastrophe is Tolkienian through-and-through. Not only is it a beautiful idea, but it’s a beautiful word as well.

Man’s Destiny

Things get really wonderful when Tolkien speaks of the Birth of Christ – the Incarnation – as “the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.” Why does he say this? Tolkien was obsessed with the hopelessness and darkness of mankind’s case in the ancient world, something he probably picked up from his deep interest in mythology. In the Incarnation, man is re-directed towards his ultimate destiny as the benevolent viceroy of the cosmos, the blessed bridge between the heaven and earth.

incarnation-eucatastrophe-tolkien-faith
Incarnation of Jesus, Piero di Cosimo

The Incarnation is eucatastrophe because it is a surprise; like the appearance of the Eagles in various eucatastrophic moments of the Third Age, Christ first comes amid a desperate situation. Yes, the Jews hoped for a Messiah, but every indication is that they were looking for a great prophet and a warrior-king, one who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its Davidic pinnacle. Who would have thought that God would choose to draw so near to us as to become like us “in every way except sin,” indeed to renounce all of His rights as God in order to show us the beauty and triumph of the way of humility?

Eucatastrophe in Action

It seems that Tolkien was so intent on this idea that he worked it into The Lord of the Rings, for it is on March 25th, the traditional date of the Annunciation [1], that the One Ring is destroyed. And this is important: the One Ring is not finally destroyed by any Man, nor indeed by any hobbit, but by the invisible hand of the storyteller at work behind the scenes. Tolkien sets things up so that none of the three figures present [2] can claim credit for its destruction in the final analysis. No, the creature cannot save himself, not without divine aid, and though the great soul of the lowly hobbit is a sign of the greatness of humility itself, we see here that the hobbit is not even capable of finally putting the greatest of evils to death, of plunging the knife into its very heart.

Thus, we can see how fitting it is that Eagles are frequent instruments of eucatastrophe, for they represent the power and will of Manwë, the greatest of the angelic Valar. Their coming from the clouds is as the descent of a supernatural power.

Ask any Christian you know that has spent time dwelling upon it: the Incarnation is magical as a fairy-tale, and all the more so because we believe it to be as true as the fall of Rome. It is the wondrous event at the heart of everything, and yes, we mean everything. It is a thing wonderful to behold and to ponder. I get all misty-eyed when I think about it, and for good reason, for in it, we glimpse the mysterious ways of God Himself, saving and surprising us despite ourselves, drawing us ever closer to the deepness of a love vast as the cosmos.


FOOTNOTES

1 – Subtract 9 months from December 25th and what do you get? More here.

2 – Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. While Gollum is ultimately responsible on an operative level of destroying the One Ring, he certainly does not will its destruction.

 

Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 3: The Principle of the Eucharist


Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. – Tolkien, Letters


Well before I was Catholic, I felt an allure to Catholicism via Tolkien. To this day, I attribute a substantial part of my conversion to his influence. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was, but I believe it to have been something like the strange attraction of the Eucharist, an intuition of great profundities, of a never-ending realm of latent joy beyond all sorrow.

Like Catholicism itself, the heart of Tolkien’s faith was the Eucharist, what he calls here the Blessed Sacrament. The quote above, taken from a letter to his son Michael, serves as a final word on fatherly romantic wisdom. Simply put, Michael had asked his father for advice on women. What is particularly surprising about this quote then is how Tolkien does not make the Eucharist simply a matter of “happiness fulfilled,” a fairy-tale ending (as it were), but instead a way of seeing all realities finally fulfilled, even the harsh ones. After all, as soon as he claims that one will find noble and virtuous things such as “romance, glory, honour, and fidelity” in the Eucharist, he makes a great deal of the fact that in the Eucharist one will find “Death” as well. How can this be, and furthermore, how can this lead to happiness?

tolkien-eucharist
Última Cena – Joan de Joanes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Hidden Cosmos

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Indeed, in most cases, to walk into a Catholic sanctuary is to walk into the presence of the Eucharist. [1] Furthermore, to live as a Catholic is to center one’s life around the ritual way founded in it. The Catholic faith as a way of being begins and ends in the perpetual presence of Jesus Christ, the one who is “with us always.” The Church exists to serve the Eucharist, and she exists to receive it all the same. The Eucharist is a whole universe, a hidden new reality, in and of itself, drawing all things to itself.

What is the Eucharist? The simplest way to describe it is as the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. To the naked eye, it appears as simple bread and wine. To the eye of faith, it is beloved as the glorified body, blood, soul, and divinity of the Second Person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ himself. And this point is important, for though the Catholic admits the Eucharist to be a sacrifice, it is an unbloody sacrifice, a sacrifice made freely and out of love. It is the sacrifice that transcends and conquers death, yet passes through it all the same. It is divine food, that which is capable of elevating the human soul to the greatest heights of heaven. It is the humble food capable of transforming sinner to saint from the inside out.

A Happy Death

Thus, when Tolkien admits that “Death” is to be found in the Blessed Sacrament, he is not being morbid, but expounding upon the deep hope to be found therein: death leading to abundant life. Like the grain which must be ground down and the grape which must be trodden upon, so Christ must die in order to show forth His life-giving potential in the Resurrection. Like the bread and wine on a natural level, the Blessed Sacrament, the very presence of Christ, is the supernatural food that rises from destruction in order to give divine life to humanity.

It is also, as Tolkien identifies, the willing “surrender of all” that nonetheless leads to total fulfillment “of every man’s heart’s desires.” Why is this? Because though we must lose everything in order to gain Christ, in gaining Christ we gain the eternal, and the source of all things. To possess Christ is to possess the entirety of every good, even if now that possession seems hidden from our eyes, as Christ himself seems hidden in the Eucharist. 

Middle-earth’s Modus Operandi

It should come as no surprise then that Tolkien could speak of The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” for in it we see time and again the same law in operation, that to die to oneself for the greater good is not really to lose one’s life but to gain it more fully (though perhaps not exactly as we would have imagined it). We find the ancient tale of Lúthien on the lips of Aragorn, the She-elf who gave her own immortality for the sake of her beloved, gaining for them both a greater glory yet unknown. We see the resurrection of Gandalf after his fall into the depths of Moria, no longer the Gray Pilgrim, but now the true White Wizard replacing the treacherous Saruman. And we see, of course, Frodo himself, the little hobbit with the weight of the world placed on his shoulders, losing the Shire but gaining the Blessed Realm.

For Tolkien, the Eucharist is the principle always in operation, the very “secret life in creation” drawing all things to their end. Indeed, throughout Tolkien, we find that wonderful, alluring, and strangely comforting paradox, that in order to gain and possess our life in full, we must be willing to lose it.

Where else do you see the “eucharistic principle” in Tolkien’s works? Please feel free to comment below.


FOOTNOTES

1  – Just look for the soft glow of a little red candle. Christ is somewhere close by.

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.

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”

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.

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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”

Tolkien Spiritual Wisdom 2: Is everything sad going to come untrue?


“Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

The Return of the King 930


  • This is one of my all-time favorite Tolkien lines.
  • It is uttered by Sam Gamgee upon seeing Gandalf alive (after understanding him to be dead at the hands of the Balrog in Moria).
  • To me, this is ultimately the effect that Tolkien was going for. This is “the consolation of the happy ending” following the eucatastrophic events of The Lord of the Rings.
  • Sam’s utterance is non-sensical. How can something become “untrue?”  It belies his low-class, ignoble origins. Yet it is the language of overwhelming joy. And further, it is the language of paradox, the language of longing and hope that goes beyond the (seeming) possibilities of reality. It is the language of escape.
  • Anyone who has read the book of Revelation knows that it uses very similar imagery:

    Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.

  • This is perhaps the moment that all of Tolkien’s works builds to, this one moment, “poignant as grief,” when Sam the humble gardner, Sam the great Ring-bearer, unwittingly utters this prophecy.
  • Tolkien’s Catholicism really comes shining through here. At the heart of the Catholic faith is the idea that the sorrows of this world don’t have to end in sorrow but can lead to an even greater joy. As I said last week, “God doesn’t write straight with crooked lines; He makes masterpieces.”

Please feel free to share your questions or thoughts on this bit of Tolkien’s wisdom in the comments below.