Skip to comments.EWTN - 4/6/11 - Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" A Catholic Worldview
Posted on 04/06/2011 3:04:55 PM PDT by NYer
Wed. April 6 at 10 PM ET, Fri. April 8 at 1 PM ET, Sat. April 9 at 5 AM ET
Joseph Pearce uncovers the Catholicism found in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
From Education Resource Center
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.
Who 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.
Mabel Tolkien 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 from her.
"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:
"From 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 things."
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.
No 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 of time.
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 of repentance.
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.
Enjoy the program.
My youngest brother (the movie buff) loved the whole series. I have watched bits and pieces of them all, but haven’t ever been able to sit thru any of the series.
Who the Golem suppose to be I want to know LOL!
PRECIOUSSS PRECIOUS RING LOL!
While Tolkein is sublime, Joseph Pearce is himself quite interesting. For those unfamiliar with it, his conversion story may be found here:
I don’t like the movies all that much. Why couldn’t they stick to the text?
I have a book Joseph Pierce wrote about Tolkien, that I got at the homeschool store clearance sale. It was very interesting. He’s an engaging writer, although a discerning reader sometimes has to say, “And how do you know that?!?”
Forget the movies. Watch a travel show about New Zealand, and then read the books (or the other way around). Tolkien’s sentences are absolutely exquisite; it’s like being in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
They didn’t stick to the story so as to avoid some gals from frowning in displeasure at the lack of “strong female characters”, as far as I can tell. I think the movies were as good as could be expected, considering they cut Glorfindal and other parts. The worst is the added stuff, I think.
And yes, Tolkien could put together a sentence. I think Jack Vance has him beat, though.
I agree. I understand cuts have to be made, unless the show's going to run 14 hours like the Russian version of "War and Peace," but taking out the author's content and adding someone else's in is just evil.
I had the feeling the director had a crush on the Arwen actress - her part was WAY too big! Plus, he and his writing partner admitted that they didn’t want Aragorn to be too noble and brave. More modern to have weaker man and woman in control. Not at ALL like the book!
Yes, that’s the problem ... “more modern.” The only parts I really liked were the scenery, and Elrond looking like Sam Neill in a bad mood. I really like Sam Neill.
LOL! I loved the scenery too....and Sean Bean!
Yes, Sean Bean is quite scenic. He was wonderful as “Lieutenant Sharpe” in the BBC/PBS series.
I didn’t care for the movies much. I noticed that all evil beings were initially good. As I know little about Catholicism can someone tell me - Just who was Tom Bombadil?
A totally fictional character, invented by J.R.R. Tolkien. There is no one-to-one matchup of LOTR characters or events with Catholicism.
One can see in the figure of Tom Bombadil echoes of Christian souls such as St. Francis of Assisi, whose experience of God had a directness and simplicity outside societal norms and intellectual structures. See G.K. Chesterton's biography.
On the other hand, Tolkien had many other historic and literary influences other than the Catholic Faith. Someone with more knowledge of the subject than I might find a source for the character within the English and Scandinavian historical and mythological traditions in which Tolkien specialized.
He represents our attachment to sin .... those attachments that are too "precious" to give up.
The program was excellent ... did you watch it?
The documentary was about the Catholic symbolism in the book. It had nothing to do with the movie. If you missed it last night, you can watch the replay tomorrow, Friday, at 1 pm. In the introduction, Pearce described a conversation between Tolkien and CS Lewis who was a self-proclaimed atheist. That conversation so impacted Lewis that within a few weeks, he was calling himself a christian. The result, as we now know. were the Chronicles of Narnia.
I always saw more parallels to Norse mythology, myself. Pretty much all the characters relate back to some Scandinavian myth or other. The only possibly Christian idea I ever saw was the idea of dying for something greater than yourself, but even that isn’t specifically Catholic at all.
A truly great book, even if you’re not Catholic. I try to read the whole thing once a year. I never tire of the great heroism, loyalty, and sacrifice of the characters.
And I always laugh out loud when Gandalf says stay to the right path because the left path smells funny!
No wonder Catholics don't like the Bible.
OH YEAH NYER I watch it live it was goodddd
I didn’t realize how much Cathoic faith really inspirated Lord of the rings book authors
SO that deal with Golem LOL!
OH YEAH NYER I watch it live it was goodddd
I didn’t realize how much Cathoic faith really inspirated Lord of the rings book authors
SO that deal with Golem LOL!
I thought you’d left. I like the new tagline!
You missed details such as the Ring’s being destroyed on the date of the Annunciation, and some lines that are almost word-for-word from the Bible. However, you’re right that all great striving and sacrifice is universal, not necessarily specifically Christian.
Wonderful, I will set the DVR!
I’d imagine Gollum represents those who don’t willingly serve Satan, but end up furthering his goals anyway. Almost like a pagan; his plans for the ring don’t involve anything more than simply keeping it, along with his ways, resisting any attempts to change. Sort of an Aztec who wouldn’t convert to Christianity; human sacrifice was just what they did, and to them not part of some diabolical plot.
I’d imagine with Aragorn (and Denethor) that they couldn’t see how to explain the difference between those men (who could live to be 300) and regular men, at least to non-readers who might watch the movie anyway. Given the time constraints, I think they did a good job. As for the female characters, Tolkien DID have Eowyn kill the Witch-King of Angmar (a good twist on the prophecy he felt protected him), and in the end both of the women ended up as wives instead of self-made successful businesswomen. Arwen in fact gave up a lot to be with a man, and Aragorn was hardly portrayed as weak & modern; in fact, the Rohirrim acknowledge him as a leader while their own king still lives. Most importantly, like Faramir, he can resist the power of the ring, which even Galadriel finds difficult; his willingness to battle against hopeless odds in very “un-modern”, and the violence he could inflict was very Mad Max-like. The litmus test was whether they showed the southerners as dark savages, which they did (riding oliphants and all). There were none of the now-required tokens in the movies, except maybe Legolas as the token poofter.
Tom could also be seen as a kind of pure hermit; he doesn’t generally involve himself with the affairs of others, and maybe because of that the ring has no effect on him.
Gandalf’s sacrifice and “resurrection” separate it from other mythologies. The influence of the Norse can’t be disregarded; “Isengard” isn’t far off from “Asgard”.
I thought that was a bit strange, since what motivated Tolkien was the fact that England itself didn’t have as many myths & legends as other cultures had. While acknowledging the Arthurian legends, he seemed to feel they were somewhat lessened by the fact that they are set in Christian England (and thus more recent).
I understand Gollum’s attachment to the ring, but his lunacy seems to make him more deranged than deliberately evil. He certainly doesn’t have the same purpose for the ring that Sauron does.
Good point, a Saint Anthony the Abbot, of sorts, or the Celtic equivalent. One can’t see St. Anthony giggling over nonsense rhymes. That’s what brought to mind Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis, because he placed St. Francis in a new heremitical class, with some important distinctions from the earlier penitential hermitage of the Desert Fathers.
Tolkien can be a little hard to place, culturally, for an American. We don’t have the natural sense of where he fits among British types.
True, and it can’t be assumed that every part in his books has a Christian equivalent. Certainly unique, though. I’ve only read the trilogy and The Silmarillion (without which the trilogy makes much less sense); I definitely have to look at some of his other writings. I know his son put out unfinished works as well.
With Gollum, think of an alcoholic's attachment to addiction. Sauron, on the other hand, works for Satan.
If you can, try to catch the replay of this program today at 1pm on EWTN. He explains many of the characters including Gollum and Sorum.
I watched the replay of the program this afternoon and tried to take took notes. Pearce delves deep into the symbolism, especially the hidden key to understanding the story. Pearce begins by reminding us that Tolkien was a linguist and employs this skill artfully in naming the characters.
Morgoth Bauglir (originally Melkor) means "he who arises in might". Melkor was the most powerful of the Ainur, but turning to darkness, became Morgoth, the ultimate antagonist of Arda, from whom all evil in the world of Middle-earth ultimately stems. This character is drawn from Isaiah 14:11 -" All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you". Morgorth = enemy = Satan; IOW, Morgorth is Satan.
Manwe was the King of the Valar, husband of Varda Elentári, brother of the Dark Lord Melkor, and King of Arda. Manwë was (with his brother Melkor i.e. Morgoth) the greatest of the Ainur, and the one that best understood the will of Eru. Manwe is Michael the Archangel.
Sauron - the greatest of Satan's servants, and Saruman - illustrates the corruption of power. Both names are derived from the Greek "sauros" which means lizard or dragon. In mythology, dragons symbolize Satan.
Wormtongue means devil tongue. Gandalf calls him a snake and wormgongue replies by baring his teeth and hissing.
Pearce now reveals the hidden key of the story - it is the day on which the ring is "unmade" or destroyed. That day is March 25. The significance of this date will not escape the attention of Catholic scholars, though it is certainly overlooked all too often by Tolkien's non-Christian admirers. March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation. It is the day on which Jesus was conceived. It is the day on which the Word was made flesh. It is the day on which God became man. It is also the day on which the Crucifixion supposedly took place. Today, Good Friday, follows a movable calendar but March 25 was fixed by Anglo Saxons as the actual date of the Crucifixion.
It signified the way in which God had "unmade" the Fall, which, like the Ring, had brought humanity under the sway of "the Shadow." If the ring that the hero wants "unmade" at the culmination of Tolkien's quest is the "one ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them," the Fall was the "one sin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them." On March 25, the one sin, like the one ring, had been "unmade," destroying the power of the Dark Lord.
Pearce now makes the comparison between the power of the ring and original sin. As you recall, once it was slipped onto a finger, the wearer disappeared in God's world but became more visible in the dark world of Sauron. The wearer struggled against the 2 powers of good and evil, always free to choose. With sin, we are excommunicated from God's world and free to choose evil. In choosing to sin, we form habits. A thing possessed possesses the possessor as in Matt 6:21 - "where your treasure is, there your heart will be".
As christians, we must follow in the footsteps of Christ. Frodo does the same thing. On the way to the crucifixion, Christ carried the cross which is a symbol for sin. Frodo carries the ring which also symbolizes sin. Notice that on their journey, they bring nothing to eat except "lembas". In elfish, "lembas" means life bread, IOW, the Blessed Sacrament.
Pearce poses the question of why Frodo fails at the end of the journey. The most difficult part is behind him; all he has to do is toss the ring into the fire but he can't bring himself to do it. This bothered Pearce for a long time until he recognized the answer and calls it a master stroke of Tolkien genius. Like Frodo, we cannot carry our crosses on our own. We need the grace of Christ to do that. Gollum became the agent of that grace. At the beginning of the book, it is mentioned that good can come from evil. Now, at the end, we see that. All along the way, each of the hobbits had an opportunity to kill gollum but spared his life. Had they killed him, the quest would have failed. Tolkien used Gollum to demonstrate Christ's command to "love your enemy". Had they killed Gollum, sin would have triumphed.
At the conclusion of the program, Pearce mentions several of the many themes running throughout the trilogy that hopefully will be covered in the future. These include Gandalf and the symbolism to the death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. I hope this addresses some of your comments and hopefully, the program will be shown again.
I saw the first half of it the other night, but had to get to bed. I worked this afternoon, so I missed the end.
Thanks; I was up late enough to catch the Morgoth bit.
I hope to catch the last 1/2 hour at some point.
Anyway, in one of the letters, Tolkien plainly tells his son "Gandalf was an angel."