Catholic convert Joseph Pearce is author of two popular books on J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration (both Ignatius Press). With the film release of Lord of the Rings scheduled for next month, Pearce mused about Tolkien (1892-1973) and his work in this interview with ZENIT.
There have been criticisms of some fantasy stories because of their allegedly pagan orientation. Do you see Tolkien's works as being part of this genre or is it different?
Tolkien spoke of myths and fairy stories, rather than "fantasy." He was a lifelong practicing, and very devout, Catholic who believed that mythology was a means of conveying certain transcendent truths which are almost inexpressible within the factual confines of a "realistic" novel. In order to understand Tolkien's "philosophy of myth" it is useful to commence with a maxim of G.K. Chesterton: "not facts first, truth first." Tolkien and Chesterton were both intent on differentiating between facts, which are purely physical, and truth, which is metaphysical.
Thus a myth or a fairy story can convey love and hate, selfishness and self-sacrifice, loyalty and betrayal, good and evil all of which are metaphysical realities, that is, true, even if conveyed in a mythological or fairyland setting.
There is no need for Christians to worry about the role of "story" as a conveyer of truth. After all, Christ was the greatest storyteller of all. His parables might not be factual but they are always truthful.
Take, for instance, the parable of the prodigal son. Probably, Christ was not referring to one particular son, nor one particular forgiving father, nor one particular envious brother. The power of the story does not reside in its being factual but in its being truthful. It doesn't matter that the prodigal son might never have existed as an actual person; he exists in each of us. We are all, at one time or another, a prodigal son, a forgiving father or an envious brother. It is "applicable" to all of us. It is the story's truth, not its facts, that matter. This was Tolkien's point. Furthermore, there is more truth in The Lord of the Rings than in many examples of fictional realism.
In recent years, magic in diverse forms such as games, TV shows, etc., has been very popular among young people. Given the way magical powers are presented in the "Lord of the Rings," do you think that there could be any dangers for youngsters?
There is very little of what could be termed magic in The Lord of the Rings. There is much that is supernatural, but only in the sense that God is supernatural, or that Satan is supernatural, or that good and evil are supernatural. It would be more accurate to describe the so-called magic in The Lord of the Rings as miraculous, when it serves the good, and demonic, when it serves the evil. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, the world in which The Lord of the Rings is set, is under the ultimate power of the One God. It is also under the corrupting influence of Melkor, the fallen angel who is Tolkien's Satan. The greatest of Satan's servants, Sauron, is the Dark Lord who is the enemy in "The Lord of the Rings." In other words The Fellowship of the Ring is in a fight to the finish with Satan's servants. How can Christians possibly object to a quest, the purpose of which is to thwart the evil designs of the demonic enemy? Far from being a "fantasy," The Lord of the Rings is a theological thriller.
Do you think this was Tolkien's intention?
There is no doubt that The Lord of the Rings is a profoundly Christian myth, but that is not the same as saying that it is an allegory. Tolkien disliked allegory because he saw it as a rather crude literary form. In an allegory, the writer begins with the point he wishes to make and then makes up a story to make his point. The story is really little more than a means of illustrating the moral. Tolkien believed that a myth should not be allegorical but that it should be "applicable." In other words, the truth that emerges in the story can be applied to the truth that emerges in life. There is, therefore, a good deal of truth in The Lord of the Rings even though its author never set out intentionally to introduce it allegorically. This is, perhaps, a subtle distinction but one which Tolkien believed was important.
What values do you think The Lord of the Rings has to teach us?
The values that emerge in The Lord of the Rings are the values that emerge in the Gospels. In the characterization of the Hobbits, the most reluctant and the most unlikely of heroes, we see the exaltation of the humble. In the figure of Gandalf we see the archetype of an Old Testament patriarch, his staff apparently having the same power as that possessed by Moses. In his apparent "death" and "resurrection" we see him emerge as a Christ-like figure. His "resurrection" results in his transfiguration. Before he laid down his life for his friends he was Gandalf the Grey; afterward, he becomes Gandalf the White. He is washed white in the purity of his self-sacrifice and emerges more powerful in virtue than ever. The character of Gollum is debased by his attachment to the Ring, the symbol of the sin of pride. The possessor of the Ring is possessed by his possession and, in consequence, is dispossessed of his soul. The wearer of the Ring always becomes invisible to those that are good but at the same time becomes more visible to the eyes of evil. Thus we see that the sinner excommunicates himself from the society of the good and enters Satan's world. Ultimately, the bearing of the Ring by Frodo, and his heroic struggle to resist the temptation to succumb to its evil powers, is akin to the Carrying of the Cross, the supreme act of selflessness. Throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings the forces of evil are seen as powerful but not all-powerful. There is always the sense that divine providence is on the side of the Fellowship and that, ultimately, it will prevail against all the odds. As Tolkien put it succinctly, "Above all shadows rides the Sun."
Many lament the depravity in the mass media today. What can we learn from Tolkien about improving the quality of entertainment?
The greatest lesson we learn from Tolkien is the objective nature of truth. Evil is real; and so is good. Goodness is the real presence of God; evil is his real absence. Tolkien has no time for the amoral relativism that is so prevalent in much of what passes as modern entertainment. The fact that Tolkien's myth contains more truth than most of what passes as realism serves as a damning indictment of the false vision being presented by today's mass media.
ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.
Reprinted with permission from Zenit News from Rome. All rights reserved.
The AuthorCopyright © 2001 Zenit
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