Apr 15, 2024  |  
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Though C.S. Lewis will always and understandably be identified with popular Christian theology, J.R.R. Tolkien, in a far more private and symbolic manner, promoted Christianity just as deeply and profoundly. Having entered the Roman Catholic Church as a young boy, guided by the conversion of his beloved mother, Tolkien had from his earliest moments embraced the faith. Only in a few moments of his young life, as he himself admitted, did Tolkien ever waver in faith or the practice of the faith. These lapses—if lapses they truly were and not just Tolkien’s overzealous pious regrets and doubts—were brief. And even Tolkien’s earliest invented languages—but especially Qenya—employed words for the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, for monasteries, for crucifixion, and for missionaries, to name just a few examples. From the beginning to the end of his mythology, Tolkien offered a very Catholic perspective. In his 1939 address to the University of St. Andrews, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien had concluded his talk by discussing the connection of the gospels to that of faerie stories and the happy ending of the Christ story, the resurrection.

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.[1]

The Lord of the Rings, he noted in 1953 to a Jesuit friend, “is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” with the “religious element [ ] absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”[2] All his attempts at beauty, he admitted, came from his own understanding and love of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as from his own mother, whom he considered a martyr and a saint.[3] Toward the end of his life, he wrestled with theological and philosophical issues in his larger mythology. He was concerned, especially, with the nature of the Fall, the possibility of the Incarnation, and the afterlife of his creatures within his own legendarium. These questions intrigued and consumed him as much as did the narrative of The Silmarillion.

His private letters, especially those to his sons, Michael and Christopher, also revealed much about Tolkien’s faith. While several issues emerged in and from Tolkien’s letters, one can discern four prominent themes and ideas. First, Tolkien argued, because of the Fall, the world has been going from bad to worse, with the Fall tainting all relationships, but especially those between males and females. Outside of marriage, women and men, he believed, could never truly be friends with one another. Given the ingenuity and temptations of the devil, sex would always rear its head, even where and when studiously avoided. Further, he continued, men were naturally permissive sexually, while women, by nature, were monogamous. Thus, the two would forever misunderstand one another outside of the conventions of marriage. As such men must practice “denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape.”[4] The struggle remains real throughout even the best of marriages.

The same may be claimed of technology. While Tolkien was no Luddite, he did possess a humane streak that encouraged him to doubt the uses of machinery. After all, if man is fallen from God, man obsessed with man, is doubly fallen, as “there is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare,” especially when it desires to dominate rather than harmonize with nature.[5]

Second, Tolkien revealed in his letters a somewhat mystical side to his deep faith. In particular, Tolkien adamantly believed in the Real Presence and power of the Most Blessed Sacrament, that is, of Holy Communion. In one of his most beautiful passages in the entirety of his letters, he wrote:

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 upon 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 (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which ever man’s heart desires.[6]

Third, in a letter to his youngest son, Christopher, Tolkien discussed the meaning and nature of angels. They serve, he said, a priestly function, binding us to the Holy Trinity. One’s guardian angel, especially allowed us—through free will—to face our heavenly father. “But God is (so to speak) also behind us, supporting, nourishing us (as being creatures),” he wrote. “The bright point of power where that life-line, that spiritual umbilical cord touches: there is our Angel, facing two ways to God behind us in the direction we cannot see, and to us.”[7]

Further, Tolkien reminded his youngest son, always have at the ready—in English and Latin—the praises of God and the attributes of God. These, Tolkien assured Christopher, always turn one’s soul toward joy. And, perhaps most importantly, a good Catholic should memorize the Mass, “for you can say this in your heart,” should communion be denied because of circumstances.[8]

Fourth, Tolkien cautioned Christopher never to rely too much on the hearing of a good sermon, as they are all too rare in the Church. “Good sermons require some art, some virtue, some knowledge,” he claimed. “Real sermons require some special grace which does not transcend art but arrives at it by instinct or ‘inspiration’; indeed, the Holy Spirit seems sometimes to speak through a human mouth providing art, virtue and insight he does not himself possess.”[9]

While Tolkien never approached theology in a systematic or even quasi-systematic way, his statements on the subject—littered throughout his collected letters—read as a Catholic version of Heraclitus’ Fragments or a mythic version of St. Josemaria’s The Way. They shed great light not only on Tolkien, but on us.

This essay first appeared here June 15, 2021.

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The featured image, uploaded by Andrew Shiva, is a photograph of Merton College Chapel, Oxford, seen from Front Quad. Here J.R.R. Tolkien was Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[1] JRRT, “On Fairy Stories,” 156.

[2] JRRT to Father Robert Murray, December 2, 1953, in JRRT Letters, Letter 142.

[3] JRRT to Father Robert Murray, December 2, 1953, in JRRT Letters, Letter 142; and JRRT to Michael Tolkien, March 18, 1941, in JRRT Letters, Letter 44.

[4] JRRT to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941, in JRRT Letters, Letter 43.

[5] JRRT to Christopher Tolkien, July 4, 1944, in JRRT Letters, Letter 75.

[6] JRRT to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941, in JRRT Letters, Letter 43.

[7] JRRT to Christopher Tolkien, January 8, 1944, in JRRT Letters, Letter 54.

[8] JRRT to Christopher Tolkien, January 8, 1944, in JRRT Letters, Letter 54.

[9] JRRT to Christopher Tolkien, April 24, 1944, in JRRT Letters, Letter 63.