J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

J.R.R. Tolkien's deplorable cultus should go to church

W e know what J.R.R. Tolkien thought of his most over-the-top admirers: head-bangers and hippies with their FRODO LIVES buttons; Italian neo-Fascists huddled at "Camp Hobbit"; proto-Trekkies in velvet capes.

The Lord of the Rings author famously dismissed this disparate lot as "my deplorable cultus."

But what do his millions of fans, eccentric or not, know about the guiding force in Tolkien's own life: the Catholic faith that informed everything he wrote?

True: The hobbits of Tolkien's Middle Earth don't mention Jesus or Mary, heaven or hell. Even director Peter Jackson, who has brought the trilogy to the big screen, is convinced the books are "a celebration of pagan virtues": tribalism, revenge, and blind loyalty - The Sopranos with elves.

Yet the author himself was unequivocal: "The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work."

A religious outsider in Protestant England, "Tolkien was a deeply devout and highly conservative Catholic," says medievalist Sandra Meisel, a Lord of the Rings fan since the book's U.S. release in 1965. In fact, "he worried that he might have done something unorthodox" - even blasphemous - "in the making of his fictional universe."

After his mother's death, young Tolkien was raised by his legal guardian - a Catholic priest whom he assisted at morning masses before school. But Tolkien was no ordinary altar boy. He was learning Latin, French, and German by age 7. Before long, he was inventing imaginary languages, and stories to go with them.

Not surprisingly, the grown-up Tolkien became a philologist at Oxford University, teaching the history of language and literature, and cultivating his interest for Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology.

Tolkien also went to Mass nearly every day (sometimes at dawn), to confession almost as often, and was instrumental in the conversion of atheist and fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis. The pair decided to try spreading the Gospel through fantasy fiction, but their approaches differed.

Lewis finished first, writing a Christian allegory for children, The Chronicles of Narnia. His Aslan the Lion is such an obvious stand-in for Jesus that one critic called the stories "Sunday school in drag."

Tolkien disliked such heavy-handed symbolism, too. He yearned to create art, not propaganda. In an influential essay, Tolkien theorized about fantasy's paradoxical power; because the best "fairy stories" transport us into a vivid "other" world, Tolkien wrote, they help us see our own world - God's world - more clearly. Such fables cast absolute Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, into high relief. And so Tolkien created Middle Earth, "that we might see Christianity reflected in it more clearly, if indirectly."

His theories and his passions - mythology, linguistics, and religion - came together when The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954. The first two elements are evident on every page, but as Tolkien commented, "The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

Director Peter Jackson (left) on the set of The Return of the King with actor Sean Astin, who plays Sam Gamgee. (courtesy photo)

Recent books like Ralph Wood's The Gospel According to Tolkien and Bradley Birzer's J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth are trying to snatch The Lord of the Rings from the clutches of New Age fandom and clueless back-to-the-land white supremacists (one anti-Jewish, anti-Christian website bemoans the choice of a "kike actor" to play Frodo on film).

These authors point to the Hobbits' beloved Shire as a model of Catholic social teaching: a wholesome place characterized by generosity, plentiful children - and a healthy appreciation for earthy creature comforts.

They also detect echoes of communion wafers in the lembas, the mystical waybread that sustains the Hobbits on their journey. The Elf "star queen" Elbereth is clearly a Virgin Mary figure, whom Frodo and Sam evoke in the trilogy's only outright prayer.

Most tellingly: The Fellowship embarks on its mission on December 25 (Christmas). It ends exactly three months later, on March 25 (the date of the Fall of Man, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion in the old English calendar).

Tolkien biographer Joseph Pearce sees distinctly Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings: "self-sacrifice, the exaltation of the humble, the power of humility versus the destructive and self-negating futility of pride."

But Tolkien sometimes found himself at odds with members of Mother Church.

Toronto broadcaster and author Michael Coren (J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created The Lord of the Rings) says that in the 1960s, the author "expressed displeasure at Vatican II" and its sweeping reforms of Catholic life and liturgy. Tolkien, who had had his hero Aragorn declare that "good and ill have not changed since yesteryear" felt that "suddenly the Truth had changed. And he found it vulgar."

Much earlier, in the 1930s, says Coren, "there was a flirtation with the far right, with fascism, among some English Catholic writers and intellectuals" like Evelyn Waugh. "They thought it was all quite witty."

Tolkien was disgusted. In 1938, he denounced the Nazis' "wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine." That same year, a German publisher asked for permission to publish Tolkien's first book, The Hobbit - and wondered, in passing, if Tolkien "had Aryan blood."

It was altogether the wrong question. Tolkien's classic reply dripped with uncharacteristic sarcasm:

"I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by 'arisch.' I am not of Aryan extraction: That is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people."

Speaking of fascists: Mention of fellow biographer Joseph Pearce elicits a laugh from Michael Coren. The two British-born writers first crossed paths, after a fashion, many years ago. In his former life, Pearce was a youth leader in the notorious ultra-right-wing National Front. Coren often saw Pearce at anti-racist demonstrations in London - they were on opposite sides. "We used to throw bottles at him," Coren recalls.

Pearce later served prison time for inciting racial hatred at such demonstrations. His jailhouse conversion to Christianity was inspired in part, he now says, by reading The Lord of the Rings.

It's tempting to think that Tolkien, that unlikely evangelist, would have traded all the Elvish-speaking Gandalf impersonators on Earth for a few more readers like Joseph Pearce. •

Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.