21 January 2011

"The Great Catholic Poem": The Lord of the Rings

"Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?'

A man may do both,' said Aragorn. 'For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!"

— J.R.R. Tolkien

I found
this essay (written a few years ago) on The Lord of the Rings trilogy today, and thought readers would like it. Especially, perhaps, if you are Catholic but have wondered why Tolkien's fantasy story is always talked about as a great "Catholic" book. A brief excerpt:

[...]In saying that The Lord of the Rings is a great Catholic poem, I do not mean to say anything but this: it is a great poem about the ultimate things made by a Catholic imagination steeped in the greatest of Western traditions. It is a poem that unites the two great passions of Tolkien's life, Northern Germanic mythology (Tolkien included England and all Scandinavia under "Germanic"), and the sacramental mysteries of the Catholic Church. Who could have predicted such a poem, such a uniting of North and South cultures? When I first read it in the 1960's, I knew nothing about the author, but I knew intuitively that the writer was a Catholic, and when I said this to literary friends, I was immediately dismissed as a reactionary crank. There is something deeply immanent in the made things of traditional Catholic minds that cannot be had any other way, even if those minds — like the mind of Joyce — are in rebellion against Catholicism. For one thing, Catholicism is a religion, a fact that even many of its modern adherents do not grasp. That means, as Chesterton observed in Orthodoxy, it is a religion like all other religions on the earth in having "priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts." While there are no altars or religious ceremonies in the world Tolkien has created, the reader will hear the echoes of traditional Catholicism on every page. But, as Chesterton also observed, though these features are universal to all genuine religions (as opposed to the anti-religion born in the Reformation), Christianity tells an entirely new story that radically transforms them.

By Catholic, I am not using the term as modern theologians do, as sort of a horizontal "we are the world" theology in which all cultural truths end up in a tasteless — and useless — stew. JRR Tolkien was a Catholic who had traditional Catholicism, the Catholicism of altars, feasts, fasts, heroic suffering, rituals, saints, miracles, doctrines, and mysteries, in his very bones. The Trinity and the Mass are as familiar to him as his garden or his beloved Beowulf; nay, more, because these Catholic things, as he saw it, are parts of the one true myth, expressed in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Real Catholics (and most other Christians) believe in this story as the foundation of their souls. Tolkien breathed it. He was a frequent Mass-goer who rarely received the Eucharist without first confessing. But he was an English Catholic, and like Evelyn Waugh, he early learned in life that as a Catholic he was something less than a Jew in England, despised and distrusted. He suspected one of his best friends, C.S. Lewis, of being a covert anti-Catholic, a reasonable suspicion based on Lewis's shameful treatment of the South African poet Roy Campbell. And, he wrote to his son, "Hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C[hurch] of E[ngland]." As an English Catholic, he knew that he saw the world in a secret, fundamentally different way, and he withdrew into the making of myth — a huge myth that by the very circumstance of its origin, could never fail to echo the Catholic myth. [...]


Anonymous said...

I have read the trilogy three or four times. I fail to see any kind of Catholic message. It is fantasy and is often used by the occult to deliver their message.

thetimman said...

"is often used by the occult to deliver their message."

Sorry, you've lost me there. Do you have any examples?

Left-footer said...

Fantasy it may be, but deeply moral, and I agree, Catholic fantasy.
I know nothing about occultism, but remember a stupid magazine popular around Hampstead in the late 60s called 'Gandalf's Garden'. It bore the slogan "Beyond the blown mind and smashed brain lies Gandalf's garden".
It had nothing to do with Tolkien and everything to do with cannabis.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Timman, for sharing this essay on one of the great Catholic writers and scholars of our era.

Anonymous, I think the burden of proof is upon those who deny the LOTR's Catholicism. Is there anything in particular that you can cite that would demonstrate its connection to occult?

Also, just for the record, medieval fairy tales are also "fantasy," and yet they are thoroughly Catholic. The context of a different world peopled by fantastic beings is not necessarily anti- or even non-Catholic.


Badger Catholic said...

I've read the trilogy several times... I think you have missed some thing. For example Galdalf is called a "wizard" by the common people but he actually belonged to a race of angels sent to protect middle earth. Anon, have you read The Silmarillion?