Tolkien and the Great Tale
J. R. R. Tolkien’s fame as a founder of modern fantasy and as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century is assured. But he is still often not recognized as a member of the Catholic literary revival, as Richard Griffiths’s recent omission of him from a putatively plenary prosopography of that movement indicates. Yet Tolkien declared in 1958 that one of the “really significant” facts about himself was that “I am a Christian . . . and in fact a Roman Catholic,” something that “can be deduced from my stories.” A decade of scholarship has confirmed Tolkien’s claim for The Lord of the Rings and The History of Middle-earth; but any Christian dimension to The Hobbit has been largely neglected. Devin Brown seeks to fill this lacuna, arguing that “The Hobbit is a fundamentally Christian work where we can see Tolkien’s faith reflected in his fiction.” Brown’s study, though, is a less a close reading of The Hobbit than a series of meditations on religious themes in Tolkien’s oeuvre; The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s letters are also invoked copiously. The Christian World of The Hobbit therefore provokes broader reflection on how Tolkien’s religion shaped his work, particularly its opposition to many of his day’s predominant cultural trends, as well as on the implications, and complications, for Tolkien criticism of considering him as a Christian author.
Brown asserts that a key reason for Tolkien’s vast popularity is that his fantasies not only delight readers but also simultaneously instruct them in principles like the good life, heroic virtue, and the elevation of language that are relatively ignored in other modern genres. Although such ideals have “universal appeal,” Brown demonstrates that Tolkien’s belief in them was grounded in orthodox Christianity, making knowledge of its tenets and ethics essential to a full comprehension of his mythos. For instance, Tolkien uses the term “luck” frequently in his legendarium, but Brown reveals that he connotes not random good fortune but the traditional Catholic understanding of Providence: God (Ilúvatar in Middle-earth) has established a good final end for his creatures, but they have free will; he uses the substance of their choices—even evil ones—to shape history to its ultimate, joyous telos. The preeminent manifestation of this process in Tolkien’s tales comes when Frodo opts to keep the Ring, is assailed by Gollum who reclaims it and, while exulting in his perfidy, precipitates himself and the Ring into the Crack of Doom, triggering Mordor’s destruction. Two instances of individual willfulness are thus transformed by the economy of grace into instruments of collective salvation. To Tolkien, then, the theological virtue of hope was integral to the dynamics of history.
In addition to affirming generally the final triumph of good amid apparently ascendant evil, Tolkien’s stories suggest specifically that Christian norms have subversive resilience in a secular society. At the outset of The Hobbit, for example, Bilbo is depicted as idolizing comfort and respectability. Tolkien’s portrait rebukes a bourgeois complacency that allows material ease and reputation to desensitize one to suffering and evil beyond the domestic sphere. Only once Bilbo has experienced pain and malevolence on his journey with the dwarves is his enslavement to the genuine joys of Bag-End broken, enabling him to resume them later with a newfound compassionate generosity. In Augustinean terms, he has learned to use created goods wisely rather than enjoy them disproportionately. The Edwardian gentleman has yielded to the Christian steward.
Bilbo’s movement from worldly hoarding to Catholic hospitality is microcosmic of a wider literary struggle against greed: “the most pervasive problem set by Tolkien within the moral landscape of The Hobbit is the excessive desire for wealth.” This inordinate love of mammon is not only a deadly Christian sin, but is also a species of the passion for possessive dominance that is the cardinal sin of Tolkien’s Ring-cycle, and a vice he thought afflicted the real world in an industrial capitalist age, as adversions in The Hobbit to “rich folk that have more than they can enjoy” attest.
Tolkien’s cure for this “dragon-sickness” was a Chestertonian wonder at, and gratitude for, every manifestation of Being as a gift from a beneficent Creator. As voiced most cogently in “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien felt that so seeing reality as a divine favor would encourage admiration of it for its quiddity, not its quantity, and a greater willingness to share one’s portion of that bequest. As Alison Milbank has noted, this moral critique is gesturing toward a Christian economics based on gift-exchange instead of competitive acquisition that shares crucial deep structures with Chesterton’s distributism. Similarly, Tolkien’s hobbit tales focus regard for this “sacramental ordinary” on the pastoral, particularly trees, as he contrasts an enlivening love of rural life with the corrupting coveting of gold and silver that such sylvan lands must be despoiled to obtain.
Ultimately, Tolkien roots this ethic of appreciation in what Chesterton deemed the uniquely Christian virtue of humility. The hobbits’ esteem for the distinctively cooperative, charitable, and organic culture of the Shire strengthens them to sacrifice themselves and to renounce the Ring. Sauron’s proud power-lust cannot comprehend this voluntary disavowal of might, and he hence ignores them fatally, not unlike those who scoffed at One who eschewed a legion of angels because his kingdom was not of this world. As Brown concludes, “Tolkien wanted to tell a story where the weak and lowly are used to confound the mighty and strong, and in doing so to share this key aspect with the gospel story.”
Tolkien’s belief in the “ennoblement of the ignoble” through forswearing earthly power further spurs him to recast heroism in moral and Christian, rather than physical and military, terms. Contrary to a widespread misinterpretation, Tolkien’s fantasies do not glorify war; Bilbo, for instance, avers that even “victory” is a “very gloomy business.” In fact, Bilbo is portrayed as courageous for showing mercy to Gollum and for pursuing peace between armed rivals by bringing the Arkenstone to Bard. In becoming a mercy-giver and a peacemaker, Bilbo enacts two of Christ’s beatitudes. These precepts therefore outline for Tolkien the traits of a different kind of hero for Christendom, one especially appealing to a survivor of the Somme.
Tolkien’s Christian desire to replace what seemed his era’s degrading materialism and jingoism arose in part from a spiritually informed sense of human identity and worth. Unlike many twentieth-century literati, Tolkien retained what Graham Greene called “the religious sense,” and thus presented persons as both natural and supernatural actors whose fate is eternal and whose decisions have everlasting ramifications: Frodo passes into the West for following his calling, but he must go forth wounded because of his failure at Mt. Doom. This Christian humanist imagination hence offers a larger picture of man’s nature and dignity than is common in post-Christian modernity: “In a century that saw the image of what human beings are destined for become smaller and smaller, Tolkien celebrated their purpose and potential. . . . Tolkien’s stories remind them that the virtuous life is not dry, dull, or out of date—but high adventure.” In upholding the added sempiternal facet of life professed by Christianity, then, Tolkien (like Greene) created narratives whose characters have “the solidity and importance of men with souls to save or lose.”
In what sense is it thus appropriate to use of Tolkien a designation often applied to Greene: the “Catholic writer”? Like Greene’s, Tolkien’s religion was an “absorbed Catholicism” that molded his characters and themes fundamentally without degenerating into the pious propaganda that Christian literature frequently indulges. But whereas Greene’s novels are regularly populated by overt Roman Catholics who openly engage the Church’s doctrines and ethics, Tolkien’s faith remains much more deeply embedded in his fiction, even more so than in the Christian fantasies of his fellow fabulist, C. S. Lewis. As Brown notes, Tolkien’s more subtle permeation of his creed into his tales may make them more credible and accessible to irreligious audiences. Yet Tolkien’s myth has also become a surrogate scripture for numerous secularists in a way that Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia have not, and probably could not. The aesthetic advantages of a more tightly crafted secondary world hence carry with them a correspondingly greater risk of thematic misapprehension. Equally deft scholarship that elucidates the Christian unconscious of Middle-earth is therefore essential to forestall misconceptions of its sagas from multiplying as readers (and viewers) of them do.
The TLS opined in 2012 that “the notion of the ‘Catholic novelist’ seems quaint now.” Yet the mid-twentieth century was the heyday of such authors in Britain, and J. R. R. Tolkien should be remembered among their ranks. Indeed, by recognizing the formative part his religion played in writings that still attract millions, the idea of Catholic literature may seem more vital. Limning the relationship between Tolkien’s theology and mythology fosters a more accurate, textured grasp of his legendarium while revealing some of the sources of his protest against prevailing mores and of his hopes for cultural renewal. If less obvious in expressing those connections and inspirations than many of his peers, he felt them no less deeply. Keen criticism of the role of Christianity in Tolkien’s moral imagination will consequently help refine understanding of his art and also prompt consideration of how Catholic novels can remain resonant in post-Christian civilization. For the greatness of Tolkien’s tales is inseparable from the really significant fact that his muse always maintained full communion with the Great Tale itself.
Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). An associate professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.
Posted: February 24, 2013
Did you see this one?
The High Achievement of Christopher Dawson
Volume 47, Number 1 (Winter 2010)