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.
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.
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?
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?
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”