J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth
by JOSEPH PEARCE
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the
world's best-seller The Lord of the Rings, qualifies,
technically, as a "literary convert" because of his
reception into the Church as an eight-year-old following his
mother's conversion to the faith. It could be said, therefore,
that he joins the ranks of the literary converts by creeping
in through the back door or, perhaps more correctly, through
the nursery door. With beguiling ambiguity he is neither a cradle
Catholic nor a full-blown convert, but a charming mixture of
the two - a cradle convert.
Wordsworth reminds us, "the
child is father of the man," and since in Tolkien's case
this is particularly true, the eight-year-old's "cradle
conversion" was destined to shape the remainder of his life
in a profound manner. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration
to say that Tolkien's conversion was crucial to both the making
of the man and the shaping of the myth he created.
Following the death of her
husband in February 1896, a few weeks after her son's fourth
birthday, Mabel Tolkien began a new love affair that would soon
estrange her from her family. She became passionately devoted
to Christianity, taking her two sons every Sunday on a long walk
to a "high" Anglican church. Then one Sunday they were
taken by strange roads to a different place of worship. This
was St Anne's, a Roman Catholic church amidst the slums of Birmingham.
Mabel Tolkien had been considering conversion for some time,
and during the spring of 1900 she received instruction and was
received in June of the same year.
Her conversion incurred the
immediate wrath of her family. Her father, who had been brought
up Methodist but had since lapsed further from orthodoxy into
Unitarianism, was outraged. Her brother-in-law withdrew the little
financial help that he had provided since she had become a widow,
plunging her and her children into poverty. She also met with
considerable opposition from her late husband's family, many
of whom were Baptists with strong anti-Catholic prejudices. The
emotional strain affected her health adversely but, undaunted,
she began to instruct her sons in the faith.
Tolkien made his First Communion
at Christmas, 1903. The joy, however, was soon followed by tragedy.
Less than a year later his mother died after lapsing into a diabetes-induced
coma. In her will, Mabel Tolkien had appointed her friend, Fr.
Francis Morgan, to be the guardian of her two orphaned sons.
He arranged for them to live with their Aunt Beatrice, not far
from the Birmingham Oratory, but she showed them little attention
and the brothers soon began to consider the Oratory their real
home. Each morning they served Mass for Fr. Morgan at his favorite
side altar in the Oratory church. Afterward they would eat breakfast
in the refectory before setting off for school. Tolkien remained
forever grateful for all that Fr. Morgan did for him and his
brother. "I first learned charity and forgiveness from him
. . ." The Oratory was a "good Catholic home,"
which contained "many learned fathers (largely 'converts')"
and where "observance of religion was strict."
The virtues of charity and
forgiveness that Tolkien learned from Fr. Morgan in the years
after his mother's death offset the pain and sorrow that her
death engendered. The pain remained throughout his life, and
60 years later he compared his mother's sacrifices for her faith
with the complacency of some of his own children toward the faith
they had inherited from her:
I think of my mother's death . . . worn out with persecution,
poverty, and, largely consequent, disease, in the effort to hand
on to us small boys the faith, and remember the tiny bedroom
she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman's cottage at
Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it
very hard and bitter, when my children stray away."
Tolkien always considered his mother a martyr for the faith.
Nine years after her death he wrote: "My own dear mother
was a martyr indeed, and it was not to everybody that God grants
so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hilary and myself,
giving us a mother who killed herself with labor and trouble
to ensure us keeping the faith."
Tolkien preserved his mother's
legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his
work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien's encounter with
the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the
truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy
of myth that inspired not only the "magic" of his books
but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.
Myths, Lewis told Tolkien,
were "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed
"No," Tolkien replied.
"They are not lies." Far from being lies they were
the best way - sometimes the only way - of conveying truths that
would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God,
Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though
they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true
light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided,
but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas
materialistic "progress" leads only to the abyss and
the power of evil.
"In expounding this belief
in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's
biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the
center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the
heart of The Silmarillion." It is also the creed
at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree
and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true
myth, and his poem, "Mythopoeia," is an exposition
in verse of the same concept.
Building on this philosophy
of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ
was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very
root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations
of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the
images of their "mythopoeia" to reveal fragments of
His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation
of God expressing Himself through Himself, with
Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had
revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality,
the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely
inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.
Such a revelation changed Lewis'
whole conception of Christianity, precipitating his conversion.
Lewis was one of the select
group of friends, known collectively as the Inklings, who read
the manuscript of Tolkien's timeless classic, The Lord of
the Rings, as it was being written. This work, which has
been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a succession
of polls, was described by its author as "a fundamentally
religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously
in the revision."
Space does not permit a full
exposition of the depths of Christian orthodoxy in The Lord
of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or Tolkien's other
work. Those wishing to discover more are referred to my books,
Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration,
in which the relationship between Tolkien's faith and the myth
he created are examined at greater length.
In brief, however, the power
of Tolkien lies in the way that he succeeds, through myth, in
making the unseen hand of providence felt by the reader.
In his mythical creations, or sub-creations as he would call
them, he shows how the unseen hand of God is felt far more forcefully
in myth than it is ever felt in fiction. Paradoxically, fiction
works with facts, albeit invented facts, whereas myth
works with truth, albeit truth dressed in fancy disguises.
Furthermore, since facts are physical and truth is metaphysical,
myth, being metaphysical, is spiritual.
The writer and poet Charles
A. Coulombe concluded his essay, "The Lord of the Rings:
A Catholic View," with the following incisive assessment
of Tolkien's importance. It was a fitting conclusion to his essay
on the subject. It is also a fitting conclusion to mine:
has been said that the dominant note of the traditional Catholic
liturgy was intense longing. This is also true of her art, her
literature, her whole life. It is a longing for things that cannot
be in this world: unearthly truth, unearthly purity, unearthly
justice, unearthly beauty. By all these earmarks, Lord of
the Rings is indeed a Catholic work, as its author believed:
But it is more. It is this age's great Catholic epic, fit to
stand beside the Grail legends, Le Morte d'Arthur and
The Canterbury Tales. It is at once a great comfort to
the individual Catholic, and a tribute to the enduring power
and greatness of the Catholic tradition, that JRRT created this
work. In an age which has seen an almost total rejection of the
faith on the part of the Civilization she created . . . Lord
of the Rings assures us, both by its existence and its message,
that the darkness cannot triumph forever."
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay
Witness magazine. Lay
Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith,
Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support,
defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.