Finding Frodo’s FaithJOSEPH PEARCE
The Lord of the Rings is every bit as Catholic as its author. It is not only written by a Catholic, it is so Catholic that only a Catholic could have written it.
is the secret of J.R.R. Tolkien's success with The Lord of the Rings?
How did such a strange story, full of imaginary creatures such as hobbits, elves,
ents and orcs, emerge as a powerful literary force? How did its author, a quiet
and unassuming professor of philology at Merton College, Oxford, become the creator
of a mythological world that continues to fascinate and captivate new generations
of readers a half-century after its introduction?
These questions are
intriguing enough, but even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Tolkien
was a devout Catholic who often went out of his way to point out that his Christianity
was the most important ingredient in The Lord of the Rings.
exactly was J.R.R. Tolkien?
Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein,
South Africa, in 1892, of English parents, and christened John Ronald Reuel in
the local Anglican cathedral. Shortly after his third birthday, his mother returned
to England, taking John Ronald Reuel and his younger brother, Hillary, with her.
His father, unable to vacate his post as manager of a local bank, was forced temporarily
to remain behind. He died suddenly, after suffering a severe hemorrhage, before
he could join his wife and children in England.
Her husband's death
left Mabel Tolkien in relative poverty, reliant upon her family for financial
assistance. In 1900, when J.R.R. was 8, she was received into the Catholic Church
— a decision which outraged her family and resulted in the withdrawal of
the financial support.
So it was that the young Tolkien became a child
convert. Thereafter, he always remained a resolute Catholic, a fact which profoundly
affected the direction of his life. The realization that the Catholic faith might
not have been the faith of his father, but was the faith of his father's fathers,
ignited and nurtured his love for medievalism. This, in turn, led to his disdain
for the humanistic "progress" that followed in the wake of the Reformation.
was diagnosed as diabetic and, in November 1904, she sank into a coma and died.
Tolkien was 12. For the rest of his life, Tolkien would remain convinced that
his mother's untimely death was the result of the persecution that had followed
her conversion. Sixty years later, he compared her sacrifices for the faith with
the lukewarm complacency of some of his children toward the faith they had inherited
"When I think of my mother's death," he wrote, "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, that my children stray away."
Indeed, 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 Hillary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and
trouble to ensure us keeping the Faith."
Tolkien and his brother were
now orphans. Father Francis Morgan, a priest at the Oratory in Birmingham (founded
by Cardinal John Henry Newman), became their legal guardian. Each morning, Tolkien
and his brother would serve Mass for Father Francis before going to school. Tolkien
remained grateful to the priest all his life, describing him as "a guardian who
has been a father to me, more than most real fathers."
So much for Tolkien's
Catholic faith. But what of the myth he created? Is The Lord of the Rings as Catholic as its author? Tolkien certainly believed so. "The Lord of the
Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," he wrote
to his friend, Father Robert Murray, "unconsciously so at first, but consciously
in the revision."
In another letter, written shortly after The Lord
of the Rings was published, Tolkien outlined a "scale of significance" of those
factors in his life that had influenced his writing of the book. He divided these
into three distinct categories, namely the "insignificant," the "more significant"
and the "really significant."
It was into this latter category that
he placed his Christian faith. "And there are a few basic facts, which, however
dryly expressed, are really significant," he wrote. "For instance I was born in
1892 and lived for my early years in 'the Shire' in a pre-mechanical age. Or more
important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact
a Roman Catholic."
In what ways is Tolkien's mythological epic imbued
with the faith of its author?
First, as is clear from Tolkien's account
of the creation of Middle Earth in The Silmarillion, his imaginary world is under
the omnipotent guidance of the same God he worshipped each Sunday at holy Mass.
In fact, Tolkien's creation myth parallels the creation narrative in Genesis.
The world is loved into existence by the One, who invites the Ainur, the archangels,
to cooperate in the creative process, much as the musicians in an orchestra cooperate
with the conductor. One of these archangels, Melkor, refuses to play in harmony
with the others and is intent on "playing his own tune" in defiance of the will
of the one God.
Taking his inspiration, no doubt, from the Book of Isaiah,
Tolkien says of Melkor:
splendour he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a
spirit wasteful and pitiless. Understanding he turned to subtlety in perverting
to his own will all that he would use, until he became a liar without shame. He
began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone,
he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness.
And darkness he used most upon Arda [earth], and filled it with fear for all living
Shortly after this description of Melkor, Tolkien introduces
Sauron, the Dark Enemy in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron he describes as
a spirit and the greatest of Melkor's servants.
© 2002 National Catholic Register
Fear of the Dark
If the evil in The Lord of the Rings is specifically satanic, the actions of the virtuous characters are so rooted
in sanctity that they almost appear to be metaphors for the truth of the Gospel.
In the unassuming humility of the hobbits, we see the exaltation of the humble.
In their reluctant heroism, we see a courage ennobled by modesty. In the immortality
of the elves, and the sadness and melancholic wisdom it evokes in them, we can
read their dissatisfaction with the incompleteness of the fallen world. Man's
sojourn in the "vale of tears" of the natural realm is likewise marked by a desire
for something more — the mystical union with the divine beyond the reach
In Gandalf we see the archetypal prefiguration of a powerful
prophet or patriarch, a seer who beholds a vision of the Kingdom beyond the understanding
of men. At times he is almost Christlike. He lays down his life for his friends
and his mysterious "resurrection" results in his transfiguration. Before his self-sacrificial
"death," he is Gandalf the Grey; after his "resurrection" he reappears as Gandalf
the White, armed with greater powers and deeper wisdom.
In the true,
though exiled, kingship of Aragorn we see glimmers of the hope for a restoration
of truly ordained, i.e., Catholic, authority. The person of Aragorn represents
the embodiment of the Arthurian and Jacobite yearning — the visionary desire
for the "return of the king" after eons of exile. The "sword that is broken,"
the symbol of Aragorn's kingship, is reforged at the anointed time — a potent
reminder of Excalibur's union with the Christendom it is ordained to serve.
Significantly, the role of men in The Lord of the Rings reflects their
divine, though fallen, nature. They are to be found among the enemy's servants,
though usually beguiled by deception into the ways of evil and always capable
of repentance and, in consequence, redemption. Boromir, who represents man in
the Fellowship of the Ring, succumbs to the temptation to use the ring, i.e.,
the forces of evil, in the naive belief that it could be wielded as a powerful
weapon against Sauron. He finally recognizes the error of seeking to use evil
against evil. He dies heroically, laying down his life for his friends in a spirit
Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings is a sublimely
mystical passion play. The carrying of the ring — the emblem of sin —
is the carrying of the cross. The mythological quest is a veritable Via Dolorosa.
In short, The Lord of the Rings is every bit as Catholic as its author.
It is not only written by a Catholic, it is so Catholic that only a Catholic could
have written it.
Pearce. "Finding Frodo's Faith." National Catholic Register. (January,
article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register.
To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Joseph Pearce is writer in residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida and co-editor of the Saint Austin Review (www.staustinreview.com). He has written a biography of Roy Campbell, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf, and many other books, including Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, Through Shakespeare's Eyes, Literary Converts, Tolkien: Man and Myth, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, and Solzhenitsyn.