On Monday 14 February, Amazon dropped its first teaser trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. It is set to be one of the most expensive productions in the history of the medium, and Amazon paid a lot for the rights to make it. However, fears are already building as the show threatens to be not only a departure from Tolkien’s mythos but a dramatic changing of it.
Whether or not these fears will be realised is yet to be seen (although Amazon is clearly wanting its own hit-show that will rival the popularity of Game of Thrones). But for Tolkien purists (which should be everyone), things aren’t looking great.
Generally speaking, one of the most overlooked aspects of Tolkien’s mythos is the extent to which it is suffused with his Catholicism (something Joseph Pearce brings out nicely). Not only was he a literary master, he was a man of deep and profound faith, and his letters reveal a wisdom that is for the ages. So, let’s look at five times Tolkien revealed himself to be deeply and profoundly Catholic.
Growing up under the guidance of a priest named Francis Morgan, in one of Newman's Oratories, Tolkien would have encountered the thought of John Henry Newman himself. In this letter, Tolkien is at his most Newman-esque.
For a long time, there was (and is, to a degree) a trend that wanted to ‘go back’ to the early Church; that saw the earliest version of the Church, as found in the book of Acts, to be the purest form of Christianity. This ‘search backwards’ for simplicity was ‘mistaken and vain,’ Tolkien said. Drawing upon John Henry Newman’s idea of the development of doctrine, Tolkien wrote:
. . . [the Church] was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of his bequeathed divine life and history . . . There is no resemblance between the “mustard-seed” and the full-grown tree’ (Letter 306).
‘The wise may know that it began with a seed,’ he went on, ‘but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers it had now reside in the Tree.’
The Church, and specifically the Magisterium of the Church as ‘keepers of the Tree’, have the responsibility to prune it as carefully as they’re able. However, to become ‘obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant’ is an exercise in futility, and will inevitably do more harm than good.
This is one of the most difficult ideas in Tolkien, and Christianity, to come to terms with. The context of the letter is a discussion of the Elvish view of death in the mythology of Middle-Earth. He then compares it with the perspective taken by faith:
. . . death is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion), a result of the “Fall” . . . A divine “punishment” is also a divine “gift”, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make “punishments” (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained’ (Letter 212).
In other words, although death is unnatural and a divine punishment, it is also the means by which God achieves a blessing for humanity that could not have been otherwise achieved. This applies in some sense to everything fallen about creation – through God’s ‘supreme inventiveness’, nothing is simply fallen; everything is a possible means of blessing, no matter how dark, if we let God in.
Famously, it was precisely these words by Tolkien that affected the American comedian Stephen Colbert when he was young, after his father and brothers were killed in a plane crash. Along with the guidance of his mother, who taught him to accept suffering without becoming bitter, it was Tolkien who gave him the words to say, in multiple interviews across national television: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’
Through Tolkien, Colbert said, ‘I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.’
In his letters, Tolkien is critical of the chivalric tradition that emerged in Christendom. One of his criticisms is that it broke apart romantic love from love’s fulfilment in marriage. It sought to enjoy love ‘for its own sake’ and without reference to God or matrimony. In fact, one of its chief faults was that it tended to idealise women, thinking of them as ‘a kind of guiding star or divinity . . .’
This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril’ (Letter 43).
In this letter, which should be required reading material for anyone getting married, Tolkien also takes a bracing view of why marriage is a path of holiness:
The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape.’
Monogamy is a path of self-denial because it requires the complete devotion of the self to one person. But it is only through suffering and self-denial that the ‘best’ can be found. This is what Christ revealed through the Cross – only through the narrow path of suffering is redemption found.
In Letter 250, Tolkien writes to his grandson about living and believing as part of a sinful Church. He discusses the reasons why someone might, or should, leave the Church, and how it takes great self-knowledge to discern one’s own reasoning.
In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the . . . I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe.’
His grandson, affected by scandal in the Church, admitted to a ‘sagging faith’, and Tolkien certainly knew what that was like. At one point in his life, he admits that he almost stopped practicing the faith altogether. For him, however, everything centred around the reality of the Eucharist. Jesus presents us with an either/or decision: either the whole thing is a fraud or it’s not. If we believe what Jesus said about the Eucharist, then we must ‘take the consequences.’
‘I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning,’ he wrote, ‘and by the mercy of God have never fallen out again.’ The Eucharist always drew Tolkien back:
Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger.’
As a recommendation to his grandson, Tolkien said to receive Communion frequently, since frequency increases the effects. In fact, he even advised to receive Communion in a setting that was an ‘affront’ to his tastes, with a ‘vulgar priest’ and ‘ill-behaved children’ and a noisy crowd that ‘sit back and yawn’ whenever the tabernacle is opened:
Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. (It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand . . .).’
To conclude, let's revisit that letter in which Tolkien discusses marriage. He ends by referencing once again his great love for the Eucharist, in which he sees the fulfilment of all of our earthly loves and desires:
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, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires’ (Letter 43).
For Tolkien, the Eucharist really was everything. Every other doctrinal issue raised by non-Catholics Tolkien dismissed as 'red-herrings' and distractions. It was for the Eucharist, and around the Eucharist, the Church was built. This was to be the 'one great thing' and our one great love on earth. He probably would have agreed with Flannery O'Connor that if the Eucharist was merely symbolic, then 'to hell with it.'
Reference: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Harper Collins, 2006)
Christian Bergmann05 June 2023