The Irish Family
Part I - Lord of the Imagination
Since its publication in 1937, Tolkien's book The Hobbit has sold over thirty-five million copies in twenty-five languages making it the all-time top fiction best-seller. The next on the list of "Publisher's Weekly" is the sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Worldwide each year, his books still sell almost four million copies, not to mention the whole genre of fantasy novels which take their inspiration from Tolkien's work.
Who was this man who has been called the Lord of the Imagination? John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was born in South Africa but his family soon moved to England. Soon after graduating from Oxford in 1916 he married Edith Bratt at twenty-one. A few months later he left for the carnage of the Somme where he saw bitter action in World War I, losing all but one of his friends.
At Oxford University Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-45 and Merton Professor of English 1945-59. It was during these years that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis became best friends and founded the Inklings, a close circle of literary friends including Charles Williams.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
A unique glimpse into this background of Tolkien the storyteller, scholar, spouse, parent and observer of the world around him can be found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Allen & Unwin publishers, 1981). The most revealing aspect of these 354 letters is the profoundly formative influence of the Catholic faith on Tolkien's life and work.
In a letter written in 1953, he refers to his widowed mother's conversion to Catholicism and the suffering which resulted. Her witness left an indelible impression which the passage of time did not efface. Throughout his long life Tolkien remained forever grateful to his Catholic faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little things that I know: and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young."
The year before he died, acclaimed the world over, Tolkien would return to the importance of his childhood experience of faith:
"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 (from the Church)."(Letter 267).
Father Francis Morgan
Tolkien would also occasionally recall the memory of one Father Francis Morgan, a Roman Catholic priest who offered his family practical help and compassion (he supported Tolkien's education) during those difficult years and who had a profound effect in forming his heart and mind. "He was more than a father to me," Tolkien wrote to his son, "I first learned charity and forgiveness from him." (L. 267) Towards the end of his life, Tolkien wrote to his son a very personal letter concerning his wife and life-long companion, Edith. In it we glimpse further the struggles which shaped his personal development and the experiences which deepened his understanding of love. "Someone close in heart to me," he wrote, -should know something about things that records do not record: the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal the wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began - all of which (over and above our personal weaknesses) might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives - and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed our memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting."
Only in the light of this background is it possible to fully appreciate the interior world of Tolkien since these religious and personal experiences are weaved into his writings. The names Beren and Luthien (the Elven princess in The Silmarillion representing Beauty incarnate) are carved on the tombstones of Tolkien and his wife in a graveyard near Oxford. By winning the Silmaril, at the cost of his own life, Beren "pays the price" for Luthien, and makes possible his own union with the highest beauty even beyond death.
The Silmaril which Beren and Luthien recover represents not pride or will but light, light desired but forever out of reach, the purest symbol of that - true light that enlightens every man" (John. 1:91).
Part II - J.R.R. Tolkien - The Fairy Tale Maker
The inspiration for the great fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien cannot be separated from his profoundly Catholic approach to life:
"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," he wrote, "unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like "religion", to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism" (Letter 142).
In fact, two of the great loves in the hidden world of Tolkien's imagination were the Eucharist and Our Lady, - upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded". By way of encouraging his son, he once wrote:
"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 upon earth ... which every man's heart desires" (p. 53).
At the heart of Tolkien's faith we discover the joy of being created and redeemed - "Because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker" (On Fairy Stories). This led him to approach life optimistically, with the profound conviction that despite the evil of a fallen world, all will be well if we seek the truth and live accordingly.
The echoes of this optimism are reflected in an orchard of fantastic quests and people with whom his fantasy writings are concerned. These themes converge in what Tolkien coined "eucatastrophe", that "peculiar quality of the 'joy' in successful fantasy (which) can be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth." (Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales).
At one level this represents the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces the reader with a joy that brings tears. Such a sudden joyous turn can be found in "The Lord of the Rings". Frodo and Sam, their quest achieved, awake in the sweet air of Ithilian; they hear songs of praise and rejoicing...
When Sam heard that he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried, 'O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!" And then he wept."
At a deeper level, "eucatastrophe" is when one receives a sudden glimpse of ultimate Truth as in the Gospel. The supreme "eucatastrophe" for Tolkien is the Resurrection which produces that essential emotion of Christian Joy:
"Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made to Be, to be true." (L. 89)
You have to look very carefully indeed for specific references to Christianity in Tolkien's fantasy. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as C.S. Lewis or Charles Williams, he did not attempt to defend Christian doctrine directly. "It is against my nature." he wrote. "which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths". One need look no further than The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien requires no "God" in this story: it is enough that he suggests at every turn the kind of pattern in history that speaks to us of God's Providence. Aragorn and Gandalf need not be called Christ: it is enough that they represent that hope and strength of kingly power, including the miraculous return from the dead which occurs in the "Resurrection" of Gandalf. And Frodo is not specifically Christian, nor does he need to be. It is his action that reveals inner meaning of Christian living. Furthermore, it is not Frodo who saves Middle Earth, nor Gollum, but One who works through the love and freedom of his creatures, and who forgives us our trespasses "as we forgive those who trespass against us. In the end we witness "eucatastrophe". Not merely the triumph of Providence over Fate, but also the triumph of Mercy, in which free will, supported by grace, is fully vindicated. Through these fantasy and mythical novels peopled with hobbits, dwarves, and strange magical creatures. Tolkien imperceptibly helps us to experience the Truth that:
"We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall." (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter, Ch. IV, 1977).
The Function of Fantasy
In his famous Lang Lecture on Fairy Tales, Tolkien describes the three functions of fantasy as Recovery, Escape and Consolation. The fairy tale by leading the reader away from things he knows so well, can make him or her re-think their true vocation. A chance to glimpse the real beneath the appearances, "to see through the look of things. Recovery of sight to see the meaning of the simple and homely, perhaps for the first time.
Escape is closely linked to that of Recovery, "escape from" in order to find what we are "created for". Fantasy helps us to escape the limitations of space and time in order to reach the freedom that is to be ours after death, to where our thoughts are; to remind us that we have been made for other worlds. Tolkien describes the third function of the true fairy tale as Joy:
"It is a sudden and miraculous grace that is in fact evangelism, giving a fleeting of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief . . ."
These articles were taken from the December 9, 1994 and December 16, 1994 issue of "The Irish Family".