Wordsworth reminds us, "the child is father of the man," and since in Tolkien's case this is particularly true, the eight-year-old's "cradle conversion" was destined to shape the remainder of his life in a profound manner. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Tolkien's conversion was crucial to both the making of the man and the shaping of the myth he created.
Following the death of her husband in February 1896, a few weeks after her son's fourth birthday, Mabel Tolkien began a new love affair that would soon estrange her from her family. She became passionately devoted to Christianity, taking her two sons every Sunday on a long walk to a "high" Anglican church. Then one Sunday they were taken by strange roads to a different place of worship. This was St Anne's, a Roman Catholic church amidst the slums of Birmingham. Mabel Tolkien had been considering conversion for some time, and during the spring of 1900 she received instruction and was received in June of the same year.
Her conversion incurred the immediate wrath of her family. Her father, who had been brought up Methodist but had since lapsed further from orthodoxy into Unitarianism, was outraged. Her brother-in-law withdrew the little financial help that he had provided since she had become a widow, plunging her and her children into poverty. She also met with considerable opposition from her late husband's family, many of whom were Baptists with strong anti-Catholic prejudices. The emotional strain affected her health adversely but, undaunted, she began to instruct her sons in the faith.
Tolkien made his First Communion at Christmas, 1903. The joy, however, was soon followed by tragedy. Less than a year later his mother died after lapsing into a diabetes-induced coma. In her will, Mabel Tolkien had appointed her friend, Fr. Francis Morgan, to be the guardian of her two orphaned sons. He arranged for them to live with their Aunt Beatrice, not far from the Birmingham Oratory, but she showed them little attention and the brothers soon began to consider the Oratory their real home. Each morning they served Mass for Fr. Morgan at his favorite side altar in the Oratory church. Afterward they would eat breakfast in the refectory before setting off for school. Tolkien remained forever grateful for all that Fr. Morgan did for him and his brother. "I first learned charity and forgiveness from him . . ." The Oratory was a "good Catholic home," which contained "many learned fathers (largely 'converts')" and where "observance of religion was strict."
The virtues of charity and forgiveness that Tolkien learned from Fr. Morgan in the years after his mother's death offset the pain and sorrow that her death engendered. The pain remained throughout his life, and 60 years later he compared his mother's sacrifices for her faith with the complacency of some of his own children toward the faith they had inherited from her:
"When I think of my mother's death . . . worn out with persecution, poverty, and, largely consequent, disease, in the effort to hand on to us small boys the faith, and remember the tiny bedroom she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman's cottage at Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it very hard and bitter, when my children stray away."
Tolkien always considered his mother a martyr for the faith. Nine years after her death he wrote: "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it was not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labor and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith."
Tolkien preserved his mother's legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien's encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the "magic" of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.
Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."
"No," Tolkien replied. "They are not lies." Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic "progress" leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.
"In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion." It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, "Mythopoeia," is an exposition in verse of the same concept.
Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their "mythopoeia" to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.
Such a revelation changed Lewis' whole conception of Christianity, precipitating his conversion.
Lewis was one of the select group of friends, known collectively as the Inklings, who read the manuscript of Tolkien's timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings, as it was being written. This work, which has been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a succession of polls, was described by its author as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."
Space does not permit a full exposition of the depths of Christian orthodoxy in The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or Tolkien's other work. Those wishing to discover more are referred to my books, Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration, in which the relationship between Tolkien's faith and the myth he created are examined at greater length.
In brief, however, the power of Tolkien lies in the way that he succeeds, through myth, in making the unseen hand of providence felt by the reader. In his mythical creations, or sub-creations as he would call them, he shows how the unseen hand of God is felt far more forcefully in myth than it is ever felt in fiction. Paradoxically, fiction works with facts, albeit invented facts, whereas myth works with truth, albeit truth dressed in fancy disguises. Furthermore, since facts are physical and truth is metaphysical, myth, being metaphysical, is spiritual.
The writer and poet Charles A. Coulombe concluded his essay, "The Lord of the Rings: A Catholic View," with the following incisive assessment of Tolkien's importance. It was a fitting conclusion to his essay on the subject. It is also a fitting conclusion to mine:
"It has been said that the dominant note of the traditional Catholic liturgy was intense longing. This is also true of her art, her literature, her whole life. It is a longing for things that cannot be in this world: unearthly truth, unearthly purity, unearthly justice, unearthly beauty. By all these earmarks, Lord of the Rings is indeed a Catholic work, as its author believed: But it is more. It is this age's great Catholic epic, fit to stand beside the Grail legends, Le Morte d'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales. It is at once a great comfort to the individual Catholic, and a tribute to the enduring power and greatness of the Catholic tradition, that JRRT created this work. In an age which has seen an almost total rejection of the faith on the part of the Civilization she created . . . Lord of the Rings assures us, both by its existence and its message, that the darkness cannot triumph forever."
Joseph Pearce. "J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth." Lay Witness (September 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Copyright © 2001 LayWitness