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.

Talking Tolkien Podcast – Ep. 14 – Mythopoeia – Tolkien’s Poem for C.S. Lewis

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
But draws some wisdom from the only Wise… (87)

©2013-2015 rfcunha

In episode 14, we discuss “Mythopoeia”, the poem Tolkien wrote after an important conversation with C.S. Lewis.

Continue reading “Talking Tolkien Podcast – Ep. 14 – Mythopoeia – Tolkien’s Poem for C.S. Lewis”

Talking Tolkien Podcast – Ep. 8 – Interview with Illustrator Evan Palmer

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

– Silmarillion xii

©2013-2015 rfcunha

We had a chance to sit down with illustrator and Artist-of-the-Month Evan Palmer of and discuss his amazingly cool graphic novel interpretation of Ainulindalë. It was a blast talking to Evan and we learned a ton about his methods and inspirations, so you don’t want to miss it. Enjoy!
Continue reading “Talking Tolkien Podcast – Ep. 8 – Interview with Illustrator Evan Palmer”

Tolkien Artist of the Month: Evan Palmer

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

– Silmarillion xii

Tolkien’s works are of course delightful in and of themselves, yet they have inspired countless artists to create their own visual interpretations of his works. On that note, I’ll be choosing a Tolkien Artist of the Month going forward and devoting a post to that particular artist’s work.

Visual Art by Evan Palmer

My first Tolkien Artist of the Month is Evan Palmer. Evan made an Ainulindalë graphic novella. It’s absolutely incredible.

Continue reading “Tolkien Artist of the Month: Evan Palmer”

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”

The Silmarillion – A Beginner’s Guide – Part 4 (Of the Beginning of Days)

It is told among the wise that the First War began before Arda was full-shaped, and ere yet there was anything that grew or walked upon earth; and for long Melkor had the upper hand. (35)

This post continues my chapter-by-chapter walkthrough of The Silmarillion. This time, we will take a look at the first chapter of The Silmarillion proper, “Of the Beginning of Days.” You can see a list of all of the posts in this series by clicking here.

©2013-2015 Miruna-Lavinia

Continue reading “The Silmarillion – A Beginner’s Guide – Part 4 (Of the Beginning of Days)”

Tolkien and the Evangelical Power of Beauty

These days, there’s a lot of emphasis in Catholic circles on the importance of beauty in evangelism. I’m a big fan of this notion. Beauty has played a massive role in my faith from the time I was only a child. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe basically led me to make my first profession of faith in Christ.

However, I’m concerned that with it being repeated so often, the notion of the beautiful and its role in evangelization is in danger of becoming a cliché, a trite little saying that makes us all feel a little better but doesn’t really do anything for us. That would be tragic, because nothing else can fulfill the human desire for beauty like the Catholic Church. The bottom-line is, Catholics, wherever they are, can and should lead the charge of cultural renaissance and aim to effect every human being.


Continue reading “Tolkien and the Evangelical Power of Beauty”

Tolkien Creative Wisdom 2: All Tales May Come True…

“All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

Tree and Leaf 73

  • This is where Tolkien’s creativity and spirituality meet – in his eschatological vision.
  • For those unfamiliar with eschatology, it’s basically the study of the end, final purpose, and fulfillment of all things.
  • Tolkien’s most blatantly eschatological work is the short-story “Leaf By Niggle.” I’ll be covering it here soon enough, but if you’ve never read it, you need to. It can be found in Tree and Leaf or The Tolkien Reader.
  • A lot of overlap with Romans 8 here, especially the latter half of that chapter.
  • I’m not sure if this was part of Tolkien’s original speech in 1939, but I have to imagine that if it was, it left a lot of folks feeling like Tolkien was nuts. “Wait – you think stories are actually going to come TRUE?” I don’t think Tolkien really cared though. He just kept at it, and wrote the best-selling book of the 20th century.
  • The key is of course “as like and unlike the forms that we give them.” No one can really say how, any more than one can say how that thing that looks like bread is really the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Perhaps that was one reason Tolkien was such a passionate devotee of the Eucharist.
  • One can see why Tolkien was so passionate about creating – he believed in its eternal value.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and questions on this post in the comments below.

Concerning Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories – Pt 2

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. (42)

You can see all the posts in this series here under “Concerning Tolkien’s Works.” 

This is the second part in my series on Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories. In the first post, I dealt with two questions posed by Tolkien: “What are fairy-stories?” and  “What is their origin?” In the next two posts, I’ll be looking at the question: “What is the use of them?”

©2012-2015 AlasseaEarello

The first post can be found here. As a quick refresher, Tolkien made clear early in the essay that “fairy-stories” are not really about small, spritely creatures at all, but rather stories about the “perilous realm.” So then, “What is the use of fairy-stories?”

Continue reading “Concerning Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories – Pt 2”

Concerning Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories – Pt 1

I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. (3)

You can find the rest of the posts in the series here under the category “Concerning Tolkien’s Work.”

If you really want to understand Tolkien’s aesthetic, perhaps the most central and explicit work to that end is his 1938 essay On Fairy-Stories. If you’ve ever tried to read On Fairy-Stories however, you know that it’s not the most straightforward read. Therefore, I’ve sought to provide an outline of On Fairy-Stories, and to provide some helpful notes as to Tolkien’s central argument.

©2010-2015 AlasseaEarello

When I sat down to write my thesis for my Master’s degree, I knew I wanted to write about Tolkien’s literary aesthetic, but I didn’t exactly know where to start. Thankfully, I already had a copy of Tree and Leaf, and from what I could tell, the place to start was Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories. On Fairy-Stories came to play a huge part in my thesis. It’s where Tolkien really started to lay everything out. Here’s a guide to it that corresponds to the six parts of the essay in Tree and Leaf.

Continue reading “Concerning Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories – Pt 1”