Before The Hobbit was published in 1937, JRR Tolkien was already an internationally recognised figure. Although he garnered acclaim for his work as a philologist—providing the first modern English rendering of the famous Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—his prominence also derived from being a Catholic professor with the University of Oxford.

Ever since the English Reformation—set in motion by King Henry VIII in AD1534—being a Catholic in England could have serious consequences (though the nature of those consequences would shift and change). Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, experienced this herself when she converted to Catholicism in 1900. It was a lonely experience, made worse by strong opposition from her late husband’s family and by the fact she was a woman. Women who converted were frequently taken to court to have custody of their children removed—one of the reasons Mabel would decide to place the young John Ronald Ruel under the guardianship of Fr Francis Morgan at the Birmingham Oratory and make Fr Francis executor of her will.

Catholic students and teachers at prestigious universities like Oxford and Cambridge were few and far between, but Tolkien’s elevation to the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925 was a sign of encouragement for Catholics around the world.

His face may have been the face of encouragement for Catholics around the world, but his was also the face of a man whose faith had not only survived but been irrevocably formed by the terrible evils and suffering of the Great War.

In 1934, one of Melbourne’s Catholic newspapers, The Advocate, featured a drawn portrait of Tolkien that appeared nowhere else in the world, produced by Glasgow’s official war artist for the First World War, Frederick A Farrell. It was the centrepiece of the ‘Letters from London’ article that reported on the strong associations of Catholics that were forming at prominent English universities. Even as far away as Melbourne, it seems that Tolkien was the face of a Catholic movement that was flowering in England after a long history of hostility.

This portrait from The Advocate was recently featured in a new book published by Word on Fire Ministry’s academic imprint. Written by Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography explores the shape of Tolkien’s Catholic faith throughout his life and how it influenced his later work The Lord of the Rings. Ordway also offers insight into some of the curiosities from The Advocate article that deepen our understanding of Tolkien’s faith.

His face may have been the face of encouragement for Catholics around the world, but his was also the face of a man whose faith had not only survived but been irrevocably formed by the terrible evils and suffering of the Great War.

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Portrait of Tolkien featured in The Advocate, drawn by Frederick A Farrell. (Photo courtesy of Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission.)

Wrestling with the problem of evil

The 1934 Advocate story refers to a number of English surveys on retention rates among the denominations.

Rates of attendance among Anglican and ‘Free’ churches were falling, the surveys reported, but the Catholic Church during this period seemed to be ‘maintaining its hold equally on all classes and ages, and on both sexes’, despite the fact that the First World War is widely recognised as having been a leading cause in the decline of Christianity in England and other parts of the world. Why was there a disparity between the Catholic Church and other traditions?

One answer comes from Ordway’s exploration of Catholics and Anglicans who served on the frontlines. Drawing on surveys from the period, Anglican and Catholic chaplains reported differences in the ways their faith responded to the horrors of war and the evil of mechanised warfare. She suggests that Catholic soldiers were more likely to come through the war with their faith at least somewhat intact—perhaps partly owing to the fact that the faith of English Catholics at the time was not passively formed in an ‘establishment’ church but more intentionally within a tightly knit fraternity.

Tolkien, rather than abandoning his faith, tried to come to some deeper understanding of the presence of evil in the course of history.

Part of it also came down to the content of their religious formation.

Although the Church of England report acknowledged the ‘wealth of unselfishness and heroism’ among their soldiers, it also notes ‘how poorly equipped the men were spiritually and intellectually for the crisis’, concluding that ‘The faith of the future will be that which deals most adequately with the problem of evil.’

A report from a Catholic chaplain, on the other hand, reported that ‘The Catholic Church has so consistently preached the value of “cross bearing” that … pain, and sickness do not lead to blasphemy and unbelief in the case of even ignorant Catholics’ (p. 136).

However, as Ordway writes, ‘This is not to say that Catholics were untroubled by the horrors of the war—far from it … But the slaughter and miseries of the front could be placed in a theological and devotional framework that enabled the average Catholic to make some rudimentary sense of it in a way not as readily accessible to their fellow soldiers in the Anglican communion’ (pp. 136–7).

Another factor seems to be the importance of the sacraments in the midst of war. The Church of England chaplains, as representatives of the national church, were also tasked with raising the morale of the troops, but the soldiers had a nose for unjustified optimism. By contrast, as Ordway notes, the Catholic chaplains had their focus primarily on the sacraments: on hearing confessions, giving Communion and offering last rites.

Whatever the case, Tolkien’s faith was forced to wrestle with the hardest question of all: evil. The result was that Tolkien, rather than abandoning his faith, tried to come to some deeper understanding of the presence of evil in the course of history.

I don’t believe in absolute evil but I do believe in absolute good

‘In the Great War,’ Ordway says, ‘Tolkien came face to face with violent death: men cut down by machine guns as they went “over the top”; the horrors of poison gas; corpses littering the bomb-cratered no-man’s land. But it did not make him callous or indifferent. Rather, it roused in him a profound respect for the mystery of life—and of death’ (p. 154).

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Joy beyond the walls of this world

How Tolkien dealt with this is reflected throughout his letters and through The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, however, he seemed to conclude that although evil is a terrible mystery, its existence is not ‘absolute’.

‘I don’t believe in absolute evil but I do believe in absolute good,’ he would write (Letter 76).

This idea—that only the good is bigger, deeper and more absolute than evil—is on clear display in The Lord of the Rings.

One of the earliest of these insights into the nature of evil is provided by the mysterious character of Tom Bombadil, whom Goldberry indicates is as old as creation. When Bombadil tries on the Ring, it has no effect on him; he tosses it in the air, looks through it, treats it as nothing. His merry attitude and penchant for song suggests there is a goodness, even a comedy, that is older and more enduring than the corrupting influence of evil.

As Frodo and Sam venture deeper into Mordor, too, there is a telling scene where Sam sees the light of a star break through the dark clouds:

‘The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach’ (Return of the King).

To maintain that ‘the Shadow is only a small and passing thing’ must not have been easy, especially given everything Tolkien witnessed during the war.

This idea also influenced his approach to fairytales more generally. In his famous essay On Fairy Stories, he argues that one of the strengths of fantasy is the joy of the happy ending. It ‘does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure … it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and inso far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’

The Easter season—when we celebrate ‘the light and high beauty’ of resurrection breaking through the darkness of crucifixion—is perhaps the perfect time to revisit the faith and literature of Tolkien, and Holly Ordway’s excellent account of the author’s journey of faith could be a great place to start.