My Spiritual Guide, Tolkien
I was a fan of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit years before I discovered the beautiful example of faith in the life and writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. I first read the Lord of the Rings as a middle schooler and frequently watched Peter Jackson’s screen interpretations, but I did not learn about Tolkien’s Catholic faith, his Eucharistic devotion, and the Christian truth driving the myth of his sub-creation of Middle Earth until my graduate school years.
It is all too common for avid readers and scholars of literature to develop an odd sense of connection with an author. It is the inexpressible mystery of the communion of saints, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, that one comes to feel a sort of friendship or mentorship with one who has passed before them. As a student of literature and theology, I am prone to both of these forms of deference. It manifests for me amongst those great English authors of the 20th century, whose words led me and lead me still on my journey of faith: C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien.
It also leads me to want to return to England and have a pint in a pub near those hallowed halls of Oxford while conversing on literature and theology, but that is beside the point.
In the midst of planning my wedding, blogging, and race training, I have picked up Tolkien’s “fundamentally Catholic work” again and embarked on reading the entire Lord of the Rings for the first time in ten years. I read it as one would savor conversation with a dear old friend whom one rarely sees: slow, often rereading well-written passages, eagerly poring over each and every word.
In the words of his fictitious masterpieces and his eloquent letters, J.R.R. Tolkien has taught me so much about what it means to be a Christian writer, a practicing Catholic, and one sojourning in a fallen world. Here are five quotes from Tolkien’s writings and letters on the Christian life:
1. “For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more—remembering my own sins and follies; and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Despite all the violence and immorality in our world, there are still good people. Some people exhibit this goodness through their words and actions; for others, goodness is in their hearts and they struggle to overcome their sins to let their goodness show. Oftentimes I rush into judgment over someone who appeared promiscuous, who did not go to church, or who dumped ice on their heads instead of donating to charity. I try to remind myself that people, at the core, can be good—so give them the chance to be good.
2. “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.” – Tolkien in a letter to his son, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Remember the lembas, or waybread, in the Lord of the Rings? These delicate wafers from the elves nourished the hobbits and others on their arduous journey to Mordor—“these things are given to serve you when all else fails.” The Eucharist does this for us; in that broken body in the bread and the dripping blood in the wine, Christ gives us the strength to persevere in faith even when our wills fail, even when our hearts are weary. Tolkien reminds us to look upon the sacrament and partake even in the darkness and frustration of life, for there we will find our loves and desires fulfilled and our strength restored.
3. “Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped, and of course, as a professional philologist (especially interested in linguistic aesthetics), I have changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft.” – Tolkien in a letter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commends those who maintain a child-like spirit. Children have the capacity for great faith, trust, and humility. They also possess an incredible imagination. Tolkien maintained this imagination, which allowed him to produce the complex and beautiful world of Middle Earth, rich with histories, peoples, and languages. As a writer, this imagination opens up the potential of new worlds, new myths, new ways of creating images through words to point readers to the truth. As a Christian, imagination continually invites us to read Scripture in new and fruitful ways, to always wonder at the mystery of the Eucharist, to rejoice in the beauty and simplicity of the liturgy.
4. “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.” – Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
Even as a child, I never understood why some of my classmates at my Christian school were not permitted to read books such as Harry Potter or other fantasies. Fantasies—from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to my beloved Marvel movies and beyond—do not need to be shunned from the life of the Christian simply because they reference a non-Christian reality. Christianity frees our minds and imaginations to be able to understand the nuances of these stories, to step back and see the greater truths. Many fantasies point to these truths: self-sacrifice, love, courage, perseverance, and mercy. I dare say I learned as much about self-sacrifice and courage from fantasies ranging from Harry Potter to Guardians of the Galaxy as I have from Scripture.
5. “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 ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.” – Tolkien on myth
Here at Conciliar Post we often discuss how humans are created in the image of God. The question of what it means to be created in God’s image has entertained the pens of theologians for centuries. God is the Creator, and thus part of being a reflection of the image of God is that we have creative capacities. The creation involved in art, engineering, and writing reflects God’s action in His creating the art of nature, His engineering the physics of this world, and His writing of Truth on our hearts. To be in the image of God is to create on a smaller scale—and for Tolkien this was through myth, where words created worlds and peoples just as God’s Word created the world and its people. Being a “sub-creator,” even in the littlest of ways—baking a loaf of bread, building from raw materials, creating a world out of words—allows us to participate in the Trinity.
I leave you with this thought from Tolkien:
“Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
Image courtesy of Lord for the Rings Wiki: http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120420000211/lotr/images/e/e5/J.R.R._Tolkien.jpg