In The Lord of the Rings, I believe Tolkien does exactly what he said he was doing, communicating a religious, Catholic vision through a Secondary World.
A great Catholic poem, The Lord of the Rings, a poem about a great war, was born from three great wars. As any essay is an explication of its title, this one will sound out the meanings of poem, Catholic poem, great wars, and J.R.R. Tolkien's story of Faerie. In a time in which language itself has been destroyed, recovering the true meaning of words is a difficult , wizardly task. High meanings must be unfolded, as they are to Frodo, with the sense of reverence demanded by true tales of old things that are ever new in the telling. So I begin with apology.
First, the word apology. It does not mean an admission of guilt or even regret, but rather is an explanation or defense of a position or point of view that justifies what has been said. Thus, John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, his great explanation of the basis for his conversion to Catholicism from Anglicanism, is in no way an "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings." It has, more, the quality of Pauline thunder, born of trying to explain the wisdom of one era to the confusion of another.
This business of unfolding the words of the title is characteristic of Tolkien himself, who was an ancient living in modern, horrible times. Ancient he was a word man living in a world that does not care about the spellbinding mystery of the right words. As The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were close to publication in the culturally dangerous world of America, the ancient poet Tolkien chaffed and spluttered to his publishers about the blurbs, the cover art, and the mouthings of critics. He was already aware that anything he said or made was about to be taken awry by the uninitiated, prompting him to guard against the critics, especially the academicians, "who have their pistols loose in their holsters." Simply put, he did not want his great work profaned, and sometimes regretted that he had published it.
J.R.R. Tolkien was an Ancient in the sense that he never wanted to live in the present time, but in saner ages and in eternity. He was a traditionalist who saw himself in the great tradition of English poetry beginning with Anglo-Saxon poems, including his beloved Beowulf and all its Scandinavian kin in Eddas and Sagas and Icelandic myth. He did not cotton to much after Chaucer, and he could be dismissive even of Shakespeare. Tolkien is as ancient as Treebeard, a mossy poet who lived in the languages and poems of the Dark Ages. About as modern as he allowed himself to go was the medieval poems prior to the so-called Renaissance. As a scholar, he left us his superb translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem close to his soul.
Called a Luddite by the cognoscenti of today, he didn't like automobiles, trains, planes, or for that matter, any kind of machines that separated man from his work and life. He loved trees and became angry when they were cut down needlessly. He walked, conversed, wrote, sang, smoked his pipe, and went to Mass as often as he could. And he had the high sense of dignity of his generation he remarked that he could not remember himself or C.S. Lewis ever calling each other by Christian names. The entire garbage truck of modern culture and materialism left him only with disgust. He preferred archaic lore and language. And he believed that a rational man could arrive, independently, at the condemnation of modern machines and war tools that 'escapist' works achieved implicitly. "Many stories out of the past have only become 'escapist' in of their appeal by surviving from a time when men were as a rule delighted with the work of their hands into our time when many men feel disgust with man-made things."
It has been my good fortune to live and be taught among ancients, from whom I learned to care about right words and right things. Arvid Shulenberger (The Orthodox Poetic), Frank Nelick, A.C. Edwards, and John Senior (The Death of Christian Culture, The Restoration of Christian Culture) were giants in an age of hostile pygmies, and elfish Dennis Quinn, who is now publishing a book on the nature of Wonder, is the last of that generation at the University of Kansas. The story of how Sauron destroyed the bower of bliss that was the Integrated Humanities Program has been well told by one of their students, my friend and ex-student Bob Carlson, in Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged). Listening to them and that is the first thing one does with great teachers, listen to them as the monks listened to St. Benedict taught me about a handful of words.
From my time with them, I began to speak words like poem in a different way because they used it in the ancient way of the Greeks, in the way of Aristotle, who set poetry against history and philosophy as a third way of knowing characterized by symbol and myth, or metaphor and story. A poem lyric, epic, or dramatic is an imitation of reality through metaphor and story. Whether it is comedic or tragic or elegiac, or expressed in verse or verse narrative or prose tale, is accidental to its nature. Metaphor and story are the souls of poems as vegetative and rational souls are the essential principles of broccoli and men. To enter into the deep nature of a story requires deep listening to a poet, a maker (that's what the word poet means), who says, "I will you a tale unfold." The Lord of the Rings is such a tale and such a poem, a long story that unfolds something that "imitates" reality. Tolkien called this act of the poet "sub-creation," as distinct from the Creation of the first poem by the first Maker, which is the world and the story we live in, and he knew that if his tale worked for hearers, it would put them in touch with high and holy things. Just as I came from one of the seminars of these Ancients in elder days, an ancient mariner placed in my hands The Lord of the Rings, just then (October 1965) appearing in paperback in America. He might as well have repeated Dante, "enter these enchanted woods ye who dare."
I read the tale with wonder, and my son soon read it through himself at the age of nine. Like most people who read it, we knew that we had touched something very different from the tone of most modern popular literature, and entirely different from the flood of pallid, perverse Tolkien imitations that we have seen for half a century. W. H. Auden, an early admirer, wrote that he would no longer trust the literary judgment of anyone who disliked The Lord of the Rings. From its appearance it was a loved poem among the millions, who return to it time and again. Predictably as predicted by Tolkien himself it was often handled by the cognoscenti like beads and mirrors given to natives. That in itself is not a bad thing. Like spells placed on things and words to keep them from evil doers, the air of mystery is entirely suitable to great poems, and protects them from the wreckers of salons and English departments, who still snarl and snap when the world's readers prefer Tolkien to the modernists. In 2001, polls of English readers showed that they ranked The Lord of the Rings as the greatest work of English literature of the 20th century, followed by Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, a fact that drives the deconstructionist literati nearly mad (they call Tolkien a racist, fascist, sexist Luddite) rending their garments. Imagine: a white traditionalist male writing a patriarchal tale that smacks of sexism and morality that both children and adults want to read. It is, rather, a traditional poem that depicts things, including male and female, in their right relationships (good) and wrong relationships (evil). Like the defeated Sauron, the postmodernist wizards will suffer the worst of fates, allowed to hit the road as themselves.
American culture's I use the word with some hesitation refashioning of Tolkien began in 1965 when Time magazine observed that no freshman would go off to college without his Hobbit books and Tolkien shibboleths. Since that time, the tale has been processed by the usual suspects, Freudians and Jungians and all their New Age progeny. The Lord of the Rings is back again, this time in three movies made with all the machinery (Aristotle's term for stage magic) Hollywood can muster, together with sexuality and the usual plot meddling, though this is (I understand) lighter than expected. As Tolkien wrote in his famous essay, "On Fairy-Stories," fantasy is a great human right that allows us to enjoy making because we are made in the likeness of the First Maker, the Creator. It is a fundamental process that offers us the human necessities of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. The true road of escape is recovery of the real that is the mystery of imitation or "a regaining of a clear view," or "seeing things as we were meant to see them." "Escape" for Tolkien was, far from being the negative thing the literati view with "scorn or pity," is a return to real life from the false life most call real. "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?" he asked. "The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it." Here, as throughout Tolkien's writings about his own tales and fairy-stories in general, is an echo of the Gospels themselves, what he called, in the same essay, "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."
Introducing this thought at the end of his essay, Tolkien realizes that he has touched on a "serious and dangerous matter," and in a way, as the ancient poet leaning over to confide to the most serious of his listeners, he has let the veil slip slightly, a comparison he himself jokingly used to describe the screen between his creative soul and the world. And when the veil slips, what do we glimpse? I have called it a Catholic poem.
In saying that The Lord of the Rings is a great Catholic poem, I do not mean to say anything but this: it is a great poem about the ultimate things made by a Catholic imagination steeped in the greatest of Western traditions. It is a poem that unites the two great passions of Tolkien's life, Northern Germanic mythology (Tolkien included England and all Scandinavia under "Germanic"), and the sacramental mysteries of the Catholic Church. Who could have predicted such a poem, such a uniting of North and South cultures? When I first read it in the 1960's, I knew nothing about the author, but I knew intuitively that the writer was a Catholic, and when I said this to literary friends, I was immediately dismissed as a reactionary crank. There is something deeply immanent in the made things of traditional Catholic minds that cannot be had any other way, even if those minds like the mind of Joyce are in rebellion against Catholicism. For one thing, Catholicism is a religion, a fact that even many of its modern adherents do not grasp. That means, as Chesterton observed in Orthodoxy, it is a religion like all other religions on the earth in having "priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts." While there are no altars or religious ceremonies in the world Tolkien has created, the reader will hear the echoes of traditional Catholicism on every page. But, as Chesterton also observed, though these features are universal to all genuine religions (as opposed to the anti-religion born in the Reformation), Christianity tells an entirely new story that radically transforms them.
By Catholic, I am not using the term as modern theologians do, as sort of a horizontal "we are the world" theology in which all cultural truths end up in a tasteless and useless stew. JRR Tolkien was a Catholic who had traditional Catholicism, the Catholicism of altars, feasts, fasts, heroic suffering, rituals, saints, miracles, doctrines, and mysteries, in his very bones. The Trinity and the Mass are as familiar to him as his garden or his beloved Beowulf; nay, more, because these Catholic things, as he saw it, are parts of the one true myth, expressed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Real Catholics (and most other Christians) believe in this story as the foundation of their souls. Tolkien breathed it. He was a frequent Mass-goer who rarely received the Eucharist without first confessing. But he was an English Catholic, and like Evelyn Waugh, he early learned in life that as a Catholic he was something less than a Jew in England, despised and distrusted. He suspected one of his best friends, C.S. Lewis, of being a covert anti-Catholic, a reasonable suspicion based on Lewis's shameful treatment of the South African poet Roy Campbell. And, he wrote to his son, "Hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C[hurch] of E[ngland]." As an English Catholic, he knew that he saw the world in a secret, fundamentally different way, and he withdrew into the making of myth a huge myth that by the very circumstance of its origin, could never fail to echo the Catholic myth.
I well understand the objections people make to any suggestion that there is "meaning" in The Lord of the Rings. They object, rightly, on two grounds, 1) it's a wonderful story, and 2) Tolkien himself resisted allegorical interpretations of his poem. Tolkien resisted such interpretations because he meant no allegory and, in fact, detested allegory. An allegorical interpretation of any of Tolkien's works fails because he did not write allegories. What most people mean by interpretation is "what does Gandalf mean? What do the rings mean? What do this and that mean?" They want the story they assume to lie just under the surface of the story. There is not much help for this point of view; until people learn to love story again for its own sake, they will miss the mark or go off disgusted. These are the same people, by the way, who attempt to apply allegorical interpretation to Christ's parables. These attempts fail because Christ did not make allegories either, he made parables, a distinctive literary form like no other that is probably closer to reverse Zen koans than it is to allegories with their one-to-one correspondence between elements of the story and things or concepts outside the poem. He was particularly upset when people assumed that the rings represented nuclear power. As it became evident that people wanted such instant meanings, Tolkien resisted all such readings and did all he could to discourage them. After all, he confessed that sometimes he had no idea what his imagination was unfolding. At the same time, when he looked back at his work, he was often willing to "find meaning" or to make comparisons of things in the tale to things happening in the world. He wrote that he did not "invent" the tale but received it, and was even elected for it. As such, Tolkien is merely one reader of the tale he has been given. Like any reader of a mysterious tale, he can be ambivalent or self-contradictory, sometimes in relation to the person he is addressing in a letter, and sometimes by the times as they unfolded. In many of his letters, he first dismissed any suggestions that "this means that," and then flip flops.
For example, when Strider appeared in the tale, the author did not know who he was. He had to discover the answer like the little old lady writer who said, "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?" Tom Bombadil first appeared in a separate story where he embodied, for Tolkien, the spirit of countryside vanishing from England, but he found his way into The Lord of the Rings. It is interesting to follow Tolkien's musings about this. "He is just an invention," he writes,
but: he represents something important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object except power, and so on; but both sides want a measure of control, but if you have, as it were taken a 'vow of poverty', renounced control, and take your delight in things themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left to him in the world of Sauron.
Reading Tolkien's comments on other aspects of the tale, it's as if he is looking into a separate universe and trying to make sense of it in reference to his own, but never in a reductionist way. Reductionism and scientism, as well as a kind of fundamentalist Biblical approach, forever deny mystery; as approaches to The Lord of the Rings, they invariably contradict each other or become so ingenious that they mystify rather than illumine mystery. Giving up on that mechanical approach, people then resort to, "it's only a wonderful story." Precisely, Tolkien would say, but nothing wonderful is "only" anything. That is the curse of scientism in our thinking and beholding the curse of Ramus, Descartes, Bacon, positivism, and video games. A wonderful story doesn't mean anything except being full of wonders, which ought to be enough. It is meaningful in the way a human person is meaningful, inexhaustibly rich, never caught by the factory machines of univocal interpretation, and richer as it draws closer to God. A wonder is meaningful because it is an opening into seeing, into truth.
Tolkien knew precisely what he was doing when it came to the kind of story he was making and what that kind of story could do. Because he is carefully staking out his turf for people who know little about the subject, he takes his time in explaining what a "fairy-story" is and isn't. It isn't a child's story in the usual sense, he says, and it is only accidentally, by reading them to children, that it is thought of so. If such stories relied on mere credulity, they might so be considered. They do not. Instead they rely on "literary belief," which both children and adults may share. Such belief occurs when the maker of the story is a successful sub-creator who gives us a "Secondary world which your mind can enter." Such stories, do not respond, Tolkien says, to the question of belief. They respond to the human desire to know. To the extent we believe that Fantasy an act of desiring truth is good for people, we will value it. Faerie, the mysterious land from which such stories come, is the product of deep human desire to know "other worlds."
Knowing other worlds is the activity such stories elicit from us. For what reason? The modern psychologist, a reductionist at heart, can only make comparisons downward, as Robert Frost says. He therefore regards fantasy as a matter of wishing, not belief. We are not seeing the world as it is through fantasy, but as we would wish it to be. For that reason stories are regarded either scientistically, as machinery for interpretation, or psychoanalytically, as clues to the psyche. In his poem, Mythopoeia, Tolkien mocks this failure to understand poetry:
Yes! Wish-fulfillment dreams' we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat.
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
Or some things fair and others ugly deem?
The poem makes clear that the "wish" is in fact desire for the Blessed Land, where the real is no longer broken or bent by Evil. There, all true poets will draw directly from the Pure All, enjoying the direct poetry of seeing face to face.
Mythopoeia is a poetic manifesto in the form of a prayer. "Blessed are the makers" is the theme, "who shall see God." Partly a litany of blessings on legend makers and minstrels, the poem is also a prophetic declaration of independence from the mind of modernism and all its works:
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
Erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve
the same unfruitful course with changing of a name.
By contrast with the meddling of progressive apes, "Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys/garden nor gardener, children nor their toys." The salvation of things in true poetry is the opposite of the diminishment of them in reductionism, which demands that we follow a "dusty path and flat,/ denoting this and that by this and that." In this hell on earth man has made, "your world immutable" has no part for the "little maker or the maker's art." Outside that hell, poets on earth voyage on a "wandering quest beyond the Fabled West," where common activities can bring "the image blurred of a distant king . . . . a lord unseen." In Paradise, however, the poets "shall have flames upon their heads" like the Apostles at Pentecost, and "there each shall choose for ever from the All."
The Lord of the Rings is a tale from the land of Faerie. As such, it harkens back to that "serious and dangerous matter" mentioned above. "Danger" is another special word for Ancients like Tolkien. It does not merely mean a hazardous condition; the "daungier" of old romaunce suggests a spiritual peril, like that faced by knights on their quests. The serious and dangerous matter grows, for Tolkien, from the sudden turns that occur in fairy-stories, when the reader or hearer experiences "a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire." These moments Tolkien calls "Eucastrophe."
That glimpse of joy, he says, results from a turn in the story that allows us to glimpse underlying reality or truth. At this point, "true" is no longer "true only in that world you have made." This is perilous, and Tolkien knows it. He is, in effect, claiming that the well-made story is an occasion of grace, an opening into the infinite for finite man. The Gospel is the perfect story, a true Fairy-Story, which begins and ends in joy, and at its core is the "Great Eucastrophe," the joy of the greatest moment in time, the Resurrection, that is also the greatest entry into eternity, the moment at which all heaven and earth break into a Gloria in excelsis Deo! Because the Christian story is the ultimate fairy-story, all tales, especially those with happy endings, are thereby hallowed, made holy. Everything, no matter how humble, has now been redeemed, and therefore all tales that prefigure or portray participation in happiness are true. Art has been verified because the art of the maker can carry us into moments of joyous truth of the highest order. Echoing Thomas Aquinas on why truth is first communicated in story and symbol, Tolkien's poetics centers on the heart of the common man, on tales that, in the words of Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy, "call children from their play and old men from their chimney corner." A serious and dangerous matter, indeed; The Lord of the Rings may lead through the baptistery into the gates of heaven.
When Frodo and Sam have completed the Quest to destroy the Ring and all seems lost in the wastes of Orodruin, the Eagles rescue them and carry them to Ithilien where Sam wakes in a blissful state under Gandalf's eye. Sam wonders how long he has been asleep and asks where he is. The past seems like a long dream, and he is surrounded by softness and fragrance. "I'm glad to wake." When full memory floods back, Gandalf tells him that the Shadow is dead, he is in Ithilien and in the keeping of the King. Sam exults in the recognition that things have been restored in music and joy and laughter and tears, and that there is at last a good King ruling over all the Western lands. It is heart-healing Eucastrophe, and it is not too much to say that it is a prefiguring of Heaven.
Tolkien is a great Catholic Christian poet for modern times because he has made a myth about a world in which Creation, the Fall, Sin, Guilt, Redemption, Forgiveness, the battle against Evil, and Grace are major themes that speak to anyone. The Numenoreans, who are men, know God in Eru, but they fall more and more under the spell of Sauron and desire immortality as they move farther from Numenor, "the True West," and into the Fall. Tolkien said simply that he did not think it was in his poetic power to write directly about the Incarnation. The poem yearns for salvation, but beautiful as it is, neither Middle Earth nor Numenor can offer more than a blessed preternatural state achieved through love of beauty and wisdom. Like the world before Christ, Tolkien's world contains high virtue and a longing for something else, spoken cryptically in its tales and cultures. Only the Incarnation can bring the hope that fulfills that longing. Both Elves and Men in Tolkien's world view death as an enemy, and the Numenoreans can fall when they do not see and accept dying as a gift of Eru. Such individuals want to reverse the order of things to achieve immortality. The most dangerous road to immortality is the Ring itself, whose power enslaves the soul, giving it power but robbing it of life.
For those Evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians who find Tolkien threatening or foreign, The Lord of the Rings, with its dragons and demons and monsters, may appear as forbidding as the Potter books. The fundamental difference is, in a world in which magic is a given, the whole issue is how to use it and for what ends. True power grows from sacrifice, renunciation, and love, as exemplified by Frodo and Sam. At the center of Tolkien's vision lie the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Listen to what the elder Tolkien says to his son Michael:
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 . . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death, by the divine paradox, that which ends life and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexity of reality, eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.
Those who do not accept the sacramental life of the Catholic Church may enter Tolkien through a lesser door, through his moral vision of good and evil. Take, for example, Tolkien's constant reminder that the Machine (the Ring) is magic which uses power to gain domination over wills and gain ultimate control of all souls. It is this kind of Magic that Tolkien's work warns us against on every level. No other tale can awaken hearts to pure goodness and pure evil as Tolkien's can, and if you view it as a pre-Gospel work, well and good.
Tolkien was quite clearly, in everything he wrote and said, a Catholic Christian whose mother suffered greatly after her conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and whose education under the Birmingham Oratorians was redolent of the founder of that second home Tolkien found after his mother's death, Cardinal Newman, whose own conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism shook 19th century English society. From both he learned a particularly English version of Catholicism, one inspired by Saints More and Becket, the Catholicism of three hundred years of hidden chapels and martyrs like St. Edmund Campion, executed for treason because they celebrated the Mass on English soil. Myths grow in the imagination from such a soil. Tolkien's myth grew from remembered and experienced suffering, and from a profound sense of loss of all things sacred. Though the myth that informs The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings takes place for the most part in a monotheistic but, for the most part, pre-religious world, it nevertheless turns on the temptation of sin and the lure of power. The Elves fight evil but are also drawn by it, and the upheavals of the Second and Third Age point to the end of both the high kingdoms of the Elves and the vestiges of the Numenorean True West. There is an air of melancholy about it all, a deep melancholy that yearns for the joy of Eucastrophe and laments the passing of all that is good and beautiful. That rhythm of joy and lamentation is at the very root of the Psalms and of Christian life.
The reductionists and fundamentalists among us may be taught something by Tolkien if they learn to listen to the resonance of such mythic rhythm. "Mythos" in Greek means story or plot, not something false. Both the poorly thought-out scientific reductionism and literalist fundamentalism unite to destroy a proper appreciation of story in the sense Tolkien meant it. Even C.S. Lewis, certainly a classically educated man, originally thought of the Greek and other primordial myths as "lies," until on a walk with Tolkien, the latter suddenly turned in one of those great moments of revelation and firmly said, "they are not lies." The "true myth" of the Gospel is "a myth that has really happened," Tolkien said, but because it is through God's gift that men are story tellers, every story is a partial reflection of the True Light that has come into the world, from man's beginnings to the present. God expresses himself through the minds of poets. The difference was that God is the poet who made the true story of the Gospel. This revelation, a personal word from Tolkien to Lewis, was so earthshaking that shortly after, Lewis became a Christian and began his own famous mythmaking about the great war at the heart of all myths.
Before New Agers and Jungians get excited about this, they must see that believing that all myths are true does not mean that all myths are equally true nor that all religions are equally true. Believing this, like Joyce and Jung, they move in an endless Circean circle of titillating doubt. One of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, G. K. Chesterton, had already dismantled the arguments for the endless Jungian maze that many wander in now by pointing out that though all the stories point to a truth, there must be a Truth for them to point to, and that new story of Christianity is a new poem of joy unlike anything the Pagan world, trapped on the wheel of sorrow and suffering, had to offer. Classical and primitive myths could strain toward truth as echoes harken back to the original. When men sense or experience glimpses of truth in such stories, the perennial annoying question of "is it a true story?" is answered. Yes, it is. You have had a moment of truth and of grace, the"eucastrophe," "a sudden joyous turn representing a miraculous grace never to be counted on to recur." Such a moment can occur in many stories and fairy tales, but all such moments depended on the ability of man to count on the very thing itself. The Gospel is, in fact, Tolkien argued, a Fairy Story in itself; in the Incarnation, we see the ultimate Eucastrophe of the Resurrection and enter into a kind of real joy the world before Christ did not have to offer.
The deep myth that Tolkien made was his inner home for most of his adult life; indeed, it may have be said to have begun in his childhood, when he first began to play with words. But if his poetic life began in the Shire, first in South Africa, and then in England, it found its focus and drive in war. He had written of dragons as a child, but it was battle which gave birth to the first glimmerings of the vast tale of which The Lord of the Rings is only a part. On March 2, 1916, while in the trenches of France in the First World War, he wrote his newly wed wife that between military lectures he was improving his "nonsense fairy language." "I often long to work at it and don't let myself 'cause though I love it so it does seem such a mad hobby!" The mad hobby was the germ of his life's work. Years later, when he wrote his essay "On Fairy-Stories," he confesses that "a real taste for fairy stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war[italics added]." Later he recalled that a particular peninsula in France inspired the "kernel of the mythology," resulting in the tale of The Fall of Gondolin. In the letter in which Tolkien recalls this, he writes movingly of his own story as if someone else had written it, admiring, and being moved by, particular events, even particular sounds.
As he struggled with bouts of trench fever, Tolkien's love of faerie and language led him to begin creating the great cosmogenic myth that is the Silmarillion, which began in notebooks in 1917. Though its story of the history of a world was the center of Tolkien's vision and the mythical force behind his other writings, it was not published in its final form until four years after his death. It as if Tolkien had to write a Bible before he could create a derivative tale. Early on, after the success of The Hobbit, he attempted to get publisher Raymond Unwin to publish the whole as a single unit, partly because he thought no one would understand the one without the other.
Tolkien began The Lord of the Rings in 1937, as the dark clouds of Mordor were again gathering over the West, but he often said that neither of the World Wars had anything to do with it. Again, he was usually resisting allegorical interpretations when he so demurred. Privately, he knew that these wars of the West generated much of the vision of the wars of his Secondary World. Writing to son Christopher in May 1944, Tolkien urged his son to write to find a way to deal with the horrors of war, and said he generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes in "grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in the dugouts under shell fire." In the same letter, he commiserated with the soldiers who found themselves in stupidity and scarcity caused by "planners" and "organization," and lamented war as an inevitable evil due to "humans being what they are" short of "Universal Conversion." The war was an "evil job, for we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn men and elves into Orcs . . . . and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side . . . .Well, there you are, a hobbit among the Urukhai. Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories are like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story."
Having grown up in a non-Catholic and anti-Catholic landscape, the southern West Virginia coal fields, I learned like Tolkien to love Catholicism "and the very great story" as the one secret road of adventure and to loathe industrial wastelands as the product of the Machine. The tiny stone Sacred Heart Catholic Church a block from our house was a way into a different world, and perched over the endlessly banging, huffing, whistling, smelly, cinder-spouting, coal-laden railyards, it offered God rather than coal dust. "Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine," he wrote of his myth, firmly asserting that the Machine was a kind of enslaving black magic. The detestation of industrial magic and his experience in World War I came together in a military hospital where, after becoming the only survivor in his unit of the horrendous Battle of the Somme, he began to write the "Fall of Gondolin," which details the brutal destruction of the fabled city of Gondolin by the dark power of Morgoth. Wounded in a similar war which drained and spiritually depressed a generation, Tolkien, as one writer put it, had turned in his hospital bed toward the wall and begun dreaming of another world and another war of good and evil.
As we read The Lord of the Rings during the beginnings of what is said to be another great war, it is worth listening to Tolkien's own thoughts about the two great wars he lived through. He fought as a soldier in WWI and served in the reserves in WWII, he helped designed a curriculum for naval and air cadets at Oxford, and he agreed to assist in cryptography if called upon. He despised the Nazis against whom he could be colossally angry and said he wished he could fight Hitler personally. There can be no questioning of Tolkien's patriotism, which he considered a high virtue. He knew evil when he saw it and knew it had to be defeated but defeated, not destroyed, for even hurling the Ring into the crack of doom ends only one chapter, and vigilance is ever required of the protectors of the West. The letters also reveal that Tolkien never saw either of the wars in popular ways or believed government propaganda, which he despised. At this point, Tolkien knew that no war can be properly understood apart from the larger war in which we are engaged until the Last Judgment. Because human beings are under the Fall, he observed, there will be no end to wars, and it is folly to think so. We cannot, he said, truly win a war nor enjoy or even estimate outcomes, nor can the victors enjoy the fruits of victory, "not in the terms that they envisaged; and insofar as they fought for something to be enjoyed by themselves (whether acquisition or mere preservation), the less satisfactory will 'victory' seem."
Because of the Fall, at every point of battle, we must know that the real battle is like the battle that goes on inside the individual nation and soldier, like the battle that goes on inside Frodo and Frodo loses the fight, succumbs to temptation, but is saved by Grace. He gains a great wound from his struggle and the healing of that terrible wound requires exile, suffering, and higher powers. "The Quest," Tolkien wrote to the editor of the New Republic, "was bound to fail as a piece of world-plan, and also was bound to end in disaster as the story of Frodo's humble development to the 'noble,' his sanctification." Frodo 'apostatized,' Tolkien says, and until he read a 'savage' wartime letter from a reader insisting that Frodo should have been executed as a traitor, he did not realize how the story, conceived in outline in 1936, would appear "in a dark age in which the technique of torture and the disruption of the personality would rival that of Mordor and the Ring and present us with the practical problem of earnest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors." The ultimate judgment of Gollum, Tolkien says, must be left to what medieval poets called "God's privatee," but Frodo's pity and forgiveness of Gollum is what saves him in the real world of good and evil. His succumbing to power of the Ring, like Smeagol and Saruman, must be understood, like the weaknesses of the inhabitants of the Shire, from the perspective of the Gospel. Because the power of the temptation is so great, the final scene of the Quest, when Frodo fails and Gollum falls, the catastrophe of the tale, can only be understood from the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
One may compare the quest of another soldier by another Catholic writer. In Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy of World War II, Guy Crouchback, sickened by the evil of the Nazis and Fascists, hears of the fall of Prague to the Germans, knows that war is inevitable, and understands with joy that he can now be a Christian soldier. Seven days earlier, Russia and Germany had pledged to split the spoils of a world ripe for plunder, plunging European communists into despair and opening a window for those who hated both totalitarianisms. "He [had] expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in Arms. Whatever the outcome, there was a place for him in that battle."
Like one of his ancestors, Crouchback pledged his quest at the tomb of a Christian crusader who fought the evil of Islam. After Germany changes sides and attacks Russia, and when it becomes clear to him that England has united its cause with atheistic Soviet Communism, he is greatly disillusioned and crushed, and can only fall back upon his personal honor as a motive for soldiering on. The insanity of war and the absurdity of his own army and government finally reduce him to a numb disillusionment. At the end, his personal pity for a small community of Jews in Yugoslavia, where he is stationed, is the only motive for action. The question of joining a Christian West against evil, except in spirit, is now dead. Crouchback returns to England where, as a Catholic, he can devote himself to the only thing he can now understand, his family.
Like Guy Crouchback, in the thick of the realities of war, Tolkien found it impossible to maintain a simple desire for revenge or a jingoistic correctness. Though he never seemed to lose his anger against the Nazis, his feelings did not extend to the country of Germany, the Germanic tradition, or the defeated soldiers and helpless civilians. In 1945, he lamented the destruction of the commonwealth of Europe "which will affect us all." "Yet people gloat to hear of the endless lines, 40 miles long, of miserable refugees, women and children pouring West, dying on the way. There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour." While he acknowledged that Germany created the situation, and knew the suffering "necessary and inevitable," he asked, "but why gloat? We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted." And if that was something to be sad about, Tolkien also saw the present catastrophe against the unfolding story of a dying planet. "The War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What's their next move?" When the next move came about, atomic bombs, he was stunned by lunatic scientists calmly plotting the destruction of the world. "Such explosives in men's hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all the inmates of a gaol and then saying you hope 'this will ensure peace'."
In hating the enemy, he did not lose perspective, just as he did not lose respect for the virtues of the Germanic tradition and its mythology, which he valued far above the Classic tradition and classical mythology, and counted England and Scandinavia in that tradition. The Germanic virtues of obedience and patriotism and courage, he rated as stronger in Germany than in England. The ancient Germans gave to Europe the "noble northern spirit." "Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized." Such words were, one may imagine, best uttered privately in 1941.
The reason that Tolkien was able to maintain such perspective on the enemy was twofold. First, because he lived in myth, not allegory. The same people who wanted to see all stories as allegorical wanted a neat dualism. "Wars are derived from the 'inner war' of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior life) men are on both sides, which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels." The second reason for the perspective was that the myth he lived in was the Christian myth, which sees things such as sin and evil in a radically different way. As Tolkien explained to the New Republic, the final evil deed done to Frodo by Gollum was made possible by Frodo's forbearing to kill Gollum which pity looks like "ultimate folly" and in the Divine Economy, it is this loving the enemy that makes Frodo's salvation possible. At the beginning of the tale, Frodo declared that Gollum deserved death. Gandalf relied, "Deserves it? I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that dies deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends."
As readers of Tolkien at the end of 2001, we too cannot see all ends. We are told that we are in the beginnings of another great war against another great enemy. After 1400 years of sporadic assault from Islam, it is not difficult, though it is politically incorrect, to know who that enemy is. If an enemy is a force and a mind, however inchoate, that insists on dominating or even destroying you, then Islam is an enemy, as it has always been. A priest friend from Nigeria, who was brought up in a Muslim-dominated area and has no illusions about the nature of that religion, said to me angrily, "if the enemy is not Islam, what is it?" Like Tolkien with German culture, today's Catholic can appreciate points of agreement between Catholicism and Islam and can admire strengths in Islamic and Arab cultures. We can also take a cue from Tolkien in recognizing that if there are terrible orcs among the Islamists who kill us, we must also be aware that there are orcs, and orc spirits, on our own side. Fighting what is called "terrorism" is, as with the war against the Axis powers, "necessary and inevitable," to use Tolkien's words. Not letting the spirit of that necessary conflict grow into something evil is the perilous part.
At the same time, Western Catholics today are subject to a kind of theological fog machine that began to blow some forty years ago when the Second Vatican Council completed whatever its work was. Tolkien himself as did Evelyn Waugh abhorred the changes in the Mass and the prevailing Catholic mind. He knew that his imaginative and spiritual roots were in the Ancient Church, and he was bewildered by the theological wreckers who would, as he put it, pull up a tree to discover its roots. No matter how scandalized, he reaffirmed his Faith in the Church and the Pope because they defended the Blessed Sacrament and kept it in its prime place as the center of our worship. He well understood that the entire "Reformation" was an assault on what the Reformers called "the blasphemous fable of the Mass." Today, as many Catholics know, the assault has continued within the Church under fables and lies generated by orc-ish priests, theologians, and Bishops, so much so that upwards of 30 percent of Catholics today no longer believe in the Real Presence, which Tolkien would have died to protect. In churches that are more like gymnasiums and malls rather than reverential sanctuaries where He abides, the Catholic Faith that Tolkien knew is often reduced to kindergarten games. One is sometimes tempted to ask, what is the point of going to Church if the culture inside is no different from the one outside?
The enemy within, the anti-culture we have allowed to develop, is as important as the enemy of Islam, and though we cannot agree with the Muslims on every point, we can certainly agree with them that Western culture is now so decadent that it can no longer even understand what is wrong with itself. From World War II, in which we flattered ourselves that we were the victors, we brought home the Nazi spoils abortion, infanticide, elimination of the unfit, euthanasia, assisted suicides, eugenic experimentation, and State determination of personhood, all of which now dominate our hospitals and threaten our homes as much as any buzz bombs or Panzers ever did. Today, moderns in the "media" always utter the word Nazi with horror and loathing, blithely unaware that the evils we said we were fighting have taken up residence in our very hearts, a kind of series of interlocking Rings of Power that we use to deny the realities of sex, love, family, and community.
Tolkien feared that arriving anti-life anti-culture, though he could not imagine how far it would, Saruman like, seize the Western soul. Writing in 1944, he asked, "when it is all over, will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it, or will they be too tired to resist? The last seems the idea of some of the Big Folk. Who have for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars. Too many are childless. But I suppose that the one certain result of it all is a further growth in the great standardized amalgamations with their mass-produced notions and emotions." "You and I," he wrote to son Christopher as The Lord of the Rings neared completion, "belong to the ever-defeated never altogether subdued side. I should have hated the Roman Empire in its day (as I do), and remained a patriotic Roman citizen, while preferring a free Gaul and seeing good in Carthaginians."
The literary republic constituted of writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and Evelyn Waugh as well as the larger Catholic tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, exists now only in scattered individuals and scorned enclaves. Indeed, the teachers and exponents of traditional Catholic culture are even hunted down like terrorists, as happened in the last year with the closing of St. Ignatius Institute by the Jesuit priest who heads the University of San Francisco, whose mission statement sounds more like a UN document than anything Catholic or Christian. What is so enormously sad about this, the kind of sadness that often enters Tolkien's tales, is that true culture is not something that happens or is manufactured. As John Senior used to say, it takes three generations to make a farmer or agri-culture. It takes a whole Dark Ages to make a Catholic culture. What begins in monasteries, deserts, and caves must be lovingly transmitted by people who know it and exemplify it. The kind of sensibility that can make a Lord of the Rings takes centuries of learning, suffering, and living to create. The notion that a multimillion dollar movie the kind of Faerian Drama Tolkien imagined the Elves as producing for men can substitute for reading or hearing is of itself suspect. Tolkien speculated that such a drama, like the Wish Fulfillment dreams he condemned in Mythopoeia, would come too close to Enchantment. To the extent that such a performance deludes, it threatens to have the force of a Primary world, becomes too potent, and is easily used as a technique for domination.
Nevertheless, though modern anti-culture has a way of destroying what it celebrates and undermining the very thing it portrays, it just may be that because of the hoopla, The Lord of the Rings may seep into both naïve and jaded imaginations, drawing some people to read and wonder. At the present time, engaged in a terrible war with evil, we may be forgiven if we grasp at any hope of being serious about genuine culture, which is the handing on (traditio) of the love of good words, good deeds, and good beliefs. "Whatever enlarges hope, exalts courage," Dr. Johnson wrote, "after having seen the deaf taught arithmetick, who would be afraid to cultivate the Hebrides?" If we had a map of the Christian world a century after St. Augustine's death, a map of true Catholic culture would look like tiny points of light in a sea of barbarian darkness. Two centuries later, there would be many more points. But even in the period of medieval greatness, the points of light, now more numerous and often much larger, would be threatened all around by the incessant lapping of the violent waves of Islam.
The difficulty is, of course, starting institutions that will be the good ground the seeds fall upon, as in Christ's parable of the Sower. St. Benedict started the monasteries, St. Augustine the schools, with the blessings of the teaching Church. Now the "pastoral church," as it is fond of calling itself, uses its shepherds' crooks to keep the fields fallow. Roving Gandalfs are few and far between; Saruman and his dupes, the defectors, abound. This is all well and good for those who know the difference. If there is cause for lament, it should be for the hundreds of thousands of young people who honestly ask and seek but who have no true teachers among them and, in Milton's words, are "hungry sheep that look up and are not fed." Here and there a few may be tapped for adventure, for one thing we can learn from Tolkien about a time of war is that adventure is something that comes to you. It is there, and suddenly you are in it. Grace works that way. Let us pray that it does and that the unlikely Frodos among us will receive the grace they need to make a culture that will grow. One such Frodo was Karol Wojtyla, who built a Catholic cultural community in backstreets and side paths under the very noses of the Nazis and Communists.
My hope is that Tolkien will be read as what he undoubtedly is, a great Catholic poet of the post-Christian era. If Dante created the Catholic poem of the Middle Ages by explicitly telling the Christian story from top to bottom, Tolkien has created the great Catholic poem of the anti-Catholic age by embodying the catholic imagination in a not-quite-parallel universe of hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs, and men. He has, because of his own love of pure story, discovered and revealed a way to speak unmentionable things to a post-Christian culture. In the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, Nobel prizewinner Sigrid Undset was able to do this by casting her story in medieval Norway in a great explicit Catholic poem of the last century. In his fiction, Evelyn Waugh was able to render the beauty of Catholicism through hints and gestures, suggesting its nearly concealed presence in a progressively secular world. In The Lord of the Rings, I believe Tolkien does exactly what he said he was doing, communicating a religious, Catholic vision through a Secondary World that radiates something vital for souls on perilous quests in a world of wars and War: the holiness of high calling.
Those who follow that calling today will know from reading and absorbing The Lord of the Rings that adventure is unexpected and may cost not less than everything, that risk is what makes home and family and country secure, that small fellowships based on truth give birth to courage, that the truly dangerous things are the powers we cannot see, that conspiracies against the truth run are deep and live on visions dangerously seductive and completely alien, that the East is always an anti-truth woven of lies and the True West is always to be built, that a Quest demands you know who you are and what you seek, that every point in time intersects with eternity in free choice, that history is a long defeat and glory is elsewhither, that the mass of men will never appreciate or remember the great deeds of those who die for them, that evil always returns in new clothes and is always ready to destroy the old fashioned verities, that vigilant watching is ever needed, that home is something you make with sacrifice and love, that the telling of true tales in dark times is the succor of the brave, and that without Grace there is no salvation.
This TrueWest celebration of Tolkien, written partly in answer to questions from others and greatly as a love of a book that brings healing to weary souls, is a personal essay and is therefore, in that tradition, free of academic machinery. As is evident from section I, I am writing from the vantage point of what C.S. Lewis called "Old Western Man" and what the late Allen Tate referred to as the remnants of true education. In the company of either of those men, I am a bit like Samwise Gamgee left behind at the Grey Havens, most of my masters gone West, a few of my like-minded friends scattered throughout the smoking ruins of Middle Earth.
This meditation on Tolkien is nevertheless in debt to other writings about Tolkien, and these I would heartily recommend to the reader. The essence of the matter is this: there is a wonderful book called The Lord of the Rings which has been left behind on the docks where Frodo and his friends departed. It is a wonderful book which millions have enjoyed but which is not easily accessible to folk who are outside the Western Tradition, Christianity, or Catholicism. "The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a religious and Catholic work. The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism," Tolkien wrote, and he doubtless hoped that those who entered its enchanting realms would be wakened to something above them.
Now the movie is upon us, a new wave of Tolkien curiosity and speculation is washing through the media.. Most of what I have seen are journalistic puff pieces for the movie, often filled with errors and misconceptions. A more earnest, but absolutely depressing, piece is Jenny Turner's "Reasons for Liking Tolkien," which appeared in The London Review of Books, 15 November 2001. Turner has done enough homework to spout pseudo-scholarly commentary. She seems to specialize in turning up the right evidence and then missing the point by burying everything good with psychobabble, deconstructionist blather, and New Age spirituality the kind that likes to sniff the odor of serious things but never takes them seriously. Turner's uncomprehending piece ("this curious murk") is exactly what I feared when I first learned about the imminence of the super movie. She can see LOTR only through a Sauronian fog of popular culture and postmodernist dervishing. Ultimately she sees Tolkien's world as a kind of vacation in virtual reality, another item in the endless, superficial menu of cafeteria culture, to be sampled and dismissed. Anything else she would seem to find intimidating.
I recommend that anyone who wants to follow the threads I have laid down here turn to the following, which will delight and instruct: Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy (1999); Joseph Pearce, Man and Myth: A Literary Life (1998); and most especially, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1995), edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. In addition to these, of course, any of the many writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the multi-volume work by his son Christopher. Finally, if any serious young people are stirred by Tolkien to wonder if they have received anything approximating a genuine education, I can do not better than recommend you purchase a manual for living in a new Dark Ages: James V. Schall, Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How to Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else . . . ." (Ignatius, 1988). (Yes, he is a Jesuit priest but he won't bite you, and he will induct you into the great questions, without which a human being cannot live in the delight of wonder.)
Ken Craven. "A Catholic Poem in Time of War: The Lord of the Rings." True West.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
R. Kenton Craven earned an A.B. in English at Wheeling College (Wheeling Jesuit University) with minors in Philosophy and Dramatic Writing Arts, an M.A. in English at Marshall University, and a Ph.D. in English with a minor in Philosophy at the University of Kansas. He has taught at Southeast Missouri State University, the University of Wyoming, Muskingum College, Universidad InterAmericana, the University of Louisville, Wartburg College, West Virginia University, Kuwait University, Fairmont State College, and Sultan Qaboos University (Oman). A generalist in western literature, he wrote his dissertation on the literary criticism of the 1930's, with special focus on the Christian theory of art. Dr. Craven has received many scholarships and grants before and after graduate study, including the John Hay Whitney Fellowship for minorities. In addition to twenty-seven years of college teaching, he has been a social worker, mental health therapist, magazine editor, newspaper columnist, and technical writer. In 1994, he was awarded the Mississippi Short Fiction Prize.Copyright © 2001 R. Kenton Craven
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