THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: The Catholic Faith of J.R.R. Tolkien
by Deacon Rick Bauer
Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien (the initials stand for John Ronald Reuel) influenced millions through his popular writings of fictional tales of a world called Middle-earth. His introduction to this world, “The Hobbit” (published in 1937), was later greatly expanded into an epic tale of war, courage, beauty, grace, and friendship called “The Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) trilogy, which consists of “The Fellowship of the Ring” (1953), “The Two Towers” (1954), and “The Return of the King” (1955). Many have read these works growing up; still more have been pleased by the cinematic rendition of these works by Peter Jackson.
Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” and declared, “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories).” Yet he insisted his writings were not allegories, and Middle-earth is loved by millions who do not share his religious beliefs.
How were Tolkien’s faith and his fiction related? Holly Ordway, author of several previous books on Tolkien, answers that question biographically in her new book “Tolkien’s Faith, A Spiritual Biography” (Word on Fire). Focusing on Tolkien’s spiritual development, it is a dramatic story that most accounts of his life have left largely unexplored. What were surmises and imagined links between Tolkien’s prose and my own Catholic faith have delightfully been connected by Ordway in this new spiritual biography.
In Ordway’s story, we find that Tolkien’s Catholic faith was a difficult journey. The Protestant life, its values, and practice were the dominant and legally-protected religion of the British Empire, and we learn the obstacles that someone professing the Catholic might face in life, business, social and professional relationships, etc. It would be decades before Tolkien felt more accepted at Oxford and in professional associations; painfully, his entire life was touched with familial estrangement from his late father’s extended family. His father died in South Africa when J.R.R. was four years old, and his family had already moved back to England with his mother and younger brother. His own Anglican upbringing was completely overturned when his mother converted to Catholicism; he followed her at age eight. Soon afterward, Mabel Tolkien died, leaving J.R.R. under the guardianship of a Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan. These years were difficult for young Tolkien. Father Morgan, out of concern for J.R.R.’s upcoming undergraduate work and possible scholarship to Oxford (the only way he would be able to attend), asked him to put his relationship with his future wife, Edith Bratt, on hold until legal adulthood. Tolkien grew to appreciate the guardianship and discipline he was provided, but it was not without tensions.
In World War I, where most of his close friends were killed, he relied greatly upon his Catholic faith. But for a decade after, he “almost ceased to practice” that religion. His eventual marriage, his growing family, the success of “The Hobbit” and later The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the coming of World War II (which sent several of his children to serve in the war), and challenges of both professional success and the religious tumult of Vatican II challenged Tolkien’s deepest Catholic convictions. These challenges became the bulwark of an ardent, tested, and precious Catholic Christian faith.
Most Tolkien readers already have an informed relationship with Tolkien’s works, so recitation of these matters is significant but unnecessary; what makes Ordway’s book so gratifying is the manner in which Tolkien’s life, faith, and writing are combined so inextricably in “Tolkien’s Faith.” Ordway is a consummate writer and has done her research meticulously (the indices, the 72 photos and biographical items that grace the photo gallery are just the beginning). What struck me more powerfully than all the insights and background stories concerning Tolkien was the way the Catholic faith — as practiced in the early 1900s through the 1970s — was combined to explain “Toller’s” actions, feelings, and convictions. We know that Ordway has earned praise as a teacher through her work with the Word on Fire Institute and Houston Christian University; what is truly delightful to discover is what an effective catechist she it. The word “catechesis” does not mean “teacher” so much as “repeating the sound from another source,” an aspect of audiology. In other words, Ordway does not parade her opinions of Tolkien’s Catholic faith so much as she re-echoes the teachings of the Catholic Church (from Sacred Scripture, Catholic Tradition, or the Magisterial instructions of the Church over the centuries).
We understand immediately that the Elven lembas bread that the Lord of the Rings protagonists rely upon in their travels is more than Elven sustenance. There has to be a link to the Blessed Sacrament, and we find it in the words and letters of Tolkien. He called the Eucharist “the one great thing to love on earth,” was an early practitioner of eucharistic adoration and waxed poetically about the meaning of Christ’s body and blood, soul and divinity, in his writings to his children:
There [in the Eucharist] you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your love 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. (J.R.R. Tolkien, as cited in Tolkien’s Faith, p. 113.)
We are delighted to learn that the man whose first professional job was working on the “W” section of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose degree in English was also from Oxford, but whose popular writings are tinged with the Christian faith in so many subtle ways, was informed by a reader of The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien’s lembas bread was an equivalent of the Latin “viaticum” (bread for the journey, a reverent Catholic expression for Holy Communion, especially for those gravely ill). Tolkien had often used the term “waybread” as a synonym for lembas bread, but prior to his writings, “waybread” meant only the medieval common name for plaintains, which were the wide-leaved plant growing “beside the way”, hence the combined word “way-bread” in the English tongue (In the Peter Jackson motion picture, the lembas was wrapped in plantain leaves, yet another reflection of the care taken to “get the movie right by the book”). The term meant nothing to do with food, but by the time Tolkien had repurposed “waybread” for “food for the journey” as the Latin equivalent of viaticum, the term had expanded to capture Tolkien’s faithful imagination. The Oxford English Dictionary now lists (after Tolkien’s introducing it to his readers) that “waybread” means “a kind of sustaining food made for eating before or during a long journey, typically in the form of flat bread or wafer, or in a religious sense, “The Eucharist.” In The Lord of the Rings (the Mount Doom chapter), Tolkien informs us that “Frodo and Sam would long ago have lain down to die” without the waybread, which “fed the will and gave strength to endure . . . beyond the measure of mortal kind.” Tolkien, ever the lover of words as a learned philologist, would surely have been thrilled by this development had he lived long enough to see it. His use of an invented word in the fictional world of Middle-earth had made its way out into the world of men, there bestowing a new name upon his “one great thing to love on earth,” the Eucharist. (Tolkien’s Faith, pp.113-115). As Gandalf might observe, “Elven bread indeed!”
Such are the delights of this wonderful book. For any fan of Tolkien’s major popular works, Holly Ordway has unlocked so many hidden gems for our richer understanding. Without drawing any notions of grandiloquence from her own writing, she is a consummate catechist in her own right, patiently and comprehensively giving us insight to Catholic teaching and practice, and helping us understand how vibrant a Catholic our “giant hobbit” (Tolkien’s own self-description for the character most like himself in his writings) was in real life. For any Catholic fan of Tolkien (and for those former Catholic fans, I might suggest, whose curiosity might lead them again to “taste and see” of the Lord), this is a joyful book to read, a tender view into the many dimensions of this Catholic author whose writings have had a subtle hand in moving millions closer to our home.
(Send comments, reactions or book suggestions to Deacon Rick Bauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.)