No one had ever accused the great man of overly mortifying his flesh. He ate and drank to extremes, and exercised not at all. The diagnosis of heart trouble was an old one, but the bronchitis and fever attacks were new. He finished his autobiography, and made pilgrimages to Lourdes and Lisieux. By the summer of 1936 he was in bed, never to rise. After receiving Extreme Unction, on the morning of June 14, G.K. Chesterton died.
His widow Frances had followed Chesterton into the Catholic Church, but could follow him no further. “I find it increasingly difficult to keep going,” she wrote Father O’Connor, the priest who received Chesterton into the Church. “The feeling that he needs me no longer is almost unbearable. How do lovers love without each other? We were always lovers.” She died two years later, in 1938. One who saw Frances in hospital shortly before her death said, “her arms were spread out and there was a lovely expression of happiness on her face. I felt that Gilbert had come to tell her everything was alright and to welcome her.”
The wide space left after Chesterton’s death involved more than his girth. The world was on the eve of another world war, and in Chesterton’s absence anxious Englishmen turned to C.S. Lewis, himself no stranger to Chesterton’s work, particularly Everlasting Man. Lewis’ biographer recounts: “When Chesterton concluded, somewhere near the end of the book, that Christianity `met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story,’ Lewis had to admit that he was impressed. Indeed he was charmed, but only in the way that `a man feels the charm of a woman he has no intention of marrying’.”
But that was before Lewis met Tolkien. Recalling the combat required to move Lewis out of his atheistic foxhole must have given both an appreciation of the irony in Lewis’ sudden popularity as a Christian apologist. During the war Lewis wrote perhaps his best book, The Screwtape Letters, which he dedicated to Tolkien. Soon to follow was a science fiction trilogy Lewis wrote wherein the main character, Ransom, was modeled after Tolkien, even having the same profession, philology.
After the war Lewis’ fame as a Christian apologist and radio personality grew. Part of Lewis’ appeal (most of his audience was English-speaking Protestants) was his technique of reducing Christianity to the lowest common denominator, that is, ignoring doctrinal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. This essentially anti-Catholic approach led Tolkien to dub Lewis “Everyman’s –theologian”. It was not a compliment.
Lewis also wrote more books, some too quickly, perhaps, at least in Tolkien’s view. In 1949, Lewis read to Tolkien and the other Inklings the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia, entitled The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. Tolkien’s reaction was immediate. He disliked the story intensely. Lewis’ biographer recorded Tolkien’s reaction: ” `I hear you’ve been reading jack’s children’s story. It really won’t do, you know!’ Tolkien had met young Green on the street and was giving his vehement opinion firsthand. `I mean to say, Nymphs and Their Ways, The Love Life of A Faun.’ Doesn’t he know what `he’s talking about’?”
The seven slim books comprising C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia would be published in a mere seven years. Tolkien had taken over a dozen years to write The Lord of the Rings, and now it languished at one publisher after another.8 He was almost sixty and feared the labor of his love would never see the light of day. It must have galled him, then, when Lewis not only borrowed some of Tolkien’s ideas, but dashed off (what Tolkien considered) a sloppy, truncated imitation of The Lord of the Rings that sold very well. In fairness to Tolkien, however, he never changed his opinion on Narnia, even after it had been eclipsed by the success of The Lord of the Rings.
What pained both men was the realization they were growing apart. A cause and effect of the separation was the stringent criticism they subjected each other’s work to. After a particularly severe critique of Lewis’ efforts, Tolkien wrote a letter of apology. Likening himself to “a savage creature, a sore headed bear, a painful friend,” Tolkien praised Lewis for his goodness, and related an anecdote about the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that also explained much about Tolkien’s state of mind: “Starved of recognition … Hopkins (was) unappreciated in his own Order. Hopkins seems clearly to have seen that `recognition’ with some understanding, is in this world an essential part of authorship, and the want of it a suffering to be distinguished from (even when mixed with) mere desire for the pleasures of fame and praise … the only just literary critic is Christ, who admires more than does any man the gifts He Himself has bestowed. “
“It would be idle to pretend that I do not greatly desire publication, since a solitary art is no art,” Tolkien told his publisher, Sir Stanley Unwin. “Yet the chief thing is to complete one’s work far as completion has any real sense.”
In the end, however, Tolkien nearly had to be lashed to get his opus fit to publish. It was a wrenching concession for the author to allow Unwin & Allen to divide the book into three separate volumes; Tolkien would always insist on referring to it as one book. Another concession by Tolkien allowed the final volume to be called Return of the King instead of The War of The Ring. In August 1954, the first volume, The Fellowship of The Ring, was published.
Tolkien was anxious about the book’s reception. “It will be impossible not to mind what is said,” he told a friend. “I have exposed my heart to be shot at.” the reviews fell into two categories that endured. The first camp either liked the book or were impressed enough to be respectful. The second camp instinctively disliked the book for a variety of reasons. Some felt good and evil were too simplistically portrayed. Others carped at Tolkien’s prose style. Still others had no desire to enter into Tolkien story for reasons that tended to be emotional rather than objective. A reviewer for the Oxford Times wrote: “The severely practical will have no time for it. Those who have imagination to kindle will find themselves completely carried along, becoming part of the eventful quest and regretting that there are only two more books to come.”
Readers voted with their wallets, and the book required a reprint after only six weeks. The second volume, The Two Towers, was published three months later, to the same mixed reviews. The third volume, The Return of the King, was delayed as Tolkien dithered with appendices that explain the history and languages of Middle-earth. Deadlines passed, and for many readers the wait was excruciating, as the second volume had ended with hero Frodo imprisoned, apparently beyond escape. “The suspense is cruel,” wrote one reviewer. “I am dreadfully sorry,” Tolkien wrote. “I have been trying hard.” The wait continued for almost a year.
It was letters from readers demanding the third volume, along with vital assistance from his son Christopher, which finally spurred Tolkien to make an end of it. By early 1956 Tolkien’s publishers were happily surprised to find the trilogy profitable. It sold very well in America, and was translated into all the major European languages, another harrowing experience for the author, who was frequently indignant over what he considered to be undue liberties taken with translations.
The most consistent critics of Tolkien have been from secular literature circles and the political left, who have spared neither ridicule nor verbal abuse in their condemnation of The Lord of the Rings. Immature, juvenile, “paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic, and perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant,” are only a handful of the epithets flung at the author and his work.
Tolkien was more amused than mortified by such incomprehension. The (often mindless) hostility of some critics was counterbalanced by those who “got” it. Like Jesuit Father Roberts Murray, who told Tolkien The Lord of the Rings had a “positive compatibility with the order of Grace” and noticed the resemblance of the character Galadriel with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tolkien replied: “I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like `religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. … (I) should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it.”
Father Murray also had reason to be grateful to Tolkien’s mother for handing on her faith, as it was Tolkien and his family who converted Murray to Catholicism.
Concurring with Father Murray’s assessment of The Lord of the Rings was a London Oratory priest, Father Charles Duke, who wrote: “I was in the process of becoming Catholic at that time (when he read LOTR) and it seemed to me that the world of Tolkien `~vas a basically Catholic world, so it supported though indirectly what I was doing
I was impressed by the way that Frodo cannot throw the Ring away without the help of the luckless Gollum. This seemed to me an expression of the doctrine of grace … Another highly theological bit is Galadriel and the Land of Lorien, almost transparently a vision of the Immaculate. `There is no stain over Lorien’.”
The Middle-earth of Tolkien’s world is governed by the natural law. There is good and evil, and though the two intermingle in certain characters, as in the real world, each is unmistakable, and each abhors the other. The good must struggle mightily not only against evil, but against their own weaknesses and failings. On the narrow road of sacrifice and struggle the good acquire humility, virtue and wisdom. Yet this is not a static state, for evil continues to war against good, and in the mysterious designs of providence, on occasion the efforts of evil inadvertently bring about a greater good.
The medieval regard for kingship in The Lord of the Rings is also prominent. The kings of men are from Númenor, and the corruption of their bloodline causes chaos and disorder. Some of the kings are completely taken over by evil. The uncorrupted heir to the throne is Aragorn, who cloaks his majesty for decades in order to serve the greater good. It is only when Aragorn openly declares himself as heir to the great kings of men that the balance is tipped in favor of the good, and order is restored. As a king he is not merely a valiant, fearsome warrior. He is patient, steadfast, and courageous, and can speak with meaning to people at all levels of life. And Aragorn has the gift of all great kings, that of healing wounds, particularly wounds inflicted by evil.
All of this is implicitly Catholic, and Tolkien was content to leave his faith implicit in The Lord of the Rings. A benefit to this approach is that it has exposed literally millions of readers to a Catholic view of the world, and this cannot be considered bad. A drawback to Tolkien’s approach is that some who might otherwise appreciate his work have developed reasonable reservations, reservations due in part, I believe, to the current prevalence of New Age religion. Some of these concerns merit examination.
For instance, take the wizards Gandalf and Saruman. The obvious association of wizards is to a “Dungeons and Dragons” type of black magic sorcery that no Christian should partake of, even recreationally. Was Tolkien a covert Gnostic indulging in the occult?
In a 1951 letter to prospective publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien explained: “Their (wizards) name, as related to the Wise, is an Englishing of their Elvish name, and is used throughout as utterly distinct from Sorcerer or Magician … they were as one might, say the near equivalent in the mode of these tales of Angels, guardian Angels. Their powers are directed primarily to the encouragement of the enemies of evil, to cause them to use their own wits and valor, to unite and endure… Gandalf, then, was an Angel embodied in the physical world, and for the most part subject to its laws. He marshaled the forces of good against evil, and was the chief strategist for the Men of the West. His humility regarding his own power helped him resist the temptation to use the Ring against its maker, Sauron. Gandalf sacrificed his life to protect the Fellowship, and after achieving final victory reaped no benefits beyond the satisfaction that good had triumphed over evil. His mission accomplished, he sailed quietly away from Middle-earth to the Grey Havens. One may question Tolkien’s use of the word `wizard,’ but perhaps the more important question is Gandalf’s nature – as evidenced by his actions: were they more Christian or occult?
Others are concerned over the term “Middle-earth,” suspecting it denotes some hellish netherworld waiting to drag down the unwary. This is a misconception, as Tolkien explained in a letter to publisher Houghton Mifflin: “Middle-earth’, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in. It is just a use of Middle English middelerde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of men `between the seas’. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this `history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.”
In another letter, this one to W.H. Auden, Tolkien described Middle-earth as “the abiding place of men, the objectively real world, specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or hell). The theater of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”
Another concern is that the source for The Lord of the Rings is the Icelandic tales of the Edda, portions of which are thought to be occult. It is overstatement to claim the Edda as the only source for The Lord of the Rings. Many tales besides the Edda influenced Tolkien, but the main point here is that the primary source for The Lord of the Rings was the imagination of the author– a traditional Catholic author.
And this fact, according to English Literature Professor David Allen White, makes all the difference: Storytelling can be done well or badly, with good intent or bad. The outcome depends less on the genre than the artist. The characters in The Lord of the Rings, according to Dr. White, are standard to the genre of storytelling, and Tolkien uses them appropriately, even superbly, in the telling of his tale. Dr. White believes The Lord of the Rings “is one of the great works of the age, because of the great storytelling and the profound truths” the story contains.
Some would object that Tolkien’s medium — storytelling — irredeemably taints his work. Recall, however, how Thomas Aquinas transformed the thought of the pagan Aristotle into a Catholic system of thought that has withstood centuries. It was Aquinas’ work that emboldened Dante to write The Divine Comedy, in which he used Greek mythological figures, and pagans as his guides – yet this is considered a Catholic masterpiece. Recall as well how Christianity penetrated and transformed pagan, occult Rome into the capital of Christianity on Earth. I submit that on a smaller and less important scale J. R. R. Tolkien performed a similar feat with The Lord of the Rings. Only a scholar as thoroughly Catholic as he could have so thoroughly penetrated a pagan mythology, and saturated it one very level with the sweet leaven of Christian truth.
Perhaps some readers are shuddering at these recommendations. Objections to Tolkien’s work are certainly not new. He answered most of them quite thoroughly during his lifetime, as I have tried to show in this series of articles. Of course, explanations won’t calm or convince everyone, nor are they intended to. It is well to be cautious, for we live in evil times. Yet neither caution nor the times excuses traditionalists who assert that Tolkien sought to subordinate Christian revelation to his own brand of “Gnostic mythology”. All this charge proves is something we already know — it is very easy to sully the reputation of a good Catholic, especially when he is no longer alive to defend himself.
A final remark. The Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950’s. Had it been the dangerous book some presently fear it is, surely Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office would have censured Tolkien or placed the book on the Index of Forbidden Books. Neither was done.
Beyond the Grey Havens
Life continued for J.R.R. Tolkien much the same as it had before the publishing of The Lord of the Rings, with one difference. The success of the trilogy meant he could stop moonlighting as a test examiner. While he still lived frugally, he was now able to donate (anonymously) a large sum to his parish, buy one of his children a house, another a car, and pay school fees for a granddaughter. “It is an astonishing situation,” he remarked of his wealth, “and I hope I am sufficiently grateful to God.”
Tolkien and his wife remained content to live without a car, television, washing machine, dishwasher, and many other modern gadgets we take for granted. Not that Tolkien was a complete Luddite. His friend George Sayer tape-recorded Tolkien reading from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Tolkien was pleased with how he sounded, and ended up buying a tape-recorder. But instantly “he pretended to regard Sayers machine with great suspicion pronouncing the Lord’s Prayer in gothic into a microphone to cast out any devils that might be lurking within.”
If the measure of a father’s life is his children, Tolkien was probably satisfied with his children’s lives after they left home. His eldest son John was a parish priest in Staffordshire. Michael was the headmaster of a Jesuit boarding school in Lancashire. Christopher was an Oxford professor. Priscilla became a social worker. Their loyalty to their father continued after his death, when they guarded family privacy securely enough to perplex many a would-be biographer.
Aside from collecting royalty checks, Tolkien was uninterested in fame or honors. He regularly turned down invitations to speak, and resolutely refused to commercialize either himself or his work: “Tolkien was besieged by toy makers, soap manufacturers, movie companies, and other business entrepreneurs who wanted to cash in on the hobbit craze. He turned all of them down, and when they refused to go away, he asked that his publisher, Allen & Unwin, insulate him from such intrusions on his privacy.”
Likewise with an author who wrote Tolkien hoping for personal information, and got this reply: “I am in fact a hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and un-mechanized farmlands. I smoke a pipe and like good plain food (un-refrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much … I hope that is enough to go on with.”
In the 1960’s The Lord of the Rings was embraced by many in American counter culture as an affirmation of their political beliefs. Tolkien would have none of it, explaining: “I am not a `democrat’ only because `humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride …”
Unaware of these sentiments were the American hippies who invited Tolkien ton a university speaking tour in America. Those who imagined Tolkien to be a tree-hugging, sprite-loving sage were disappointed when he expressed no sympathy for sentimental utopias or drug induced claims to enlightenment. There are different versions of the disastrous encounter between Tolkien and the American counter culture. One has Tolkien scandalizing college radicals by his support for the Franco regime; another has Tolkien telling the hippies to grow up, cut their hair, and get a job. Suffice it to say that Tolkien and the American counterculture were two ships that passed in the night, gazed at each other in horror, and never looked back.
Yet he was an enthusiastic correspondent with his readers, taking care to answer the smallest questions concerning his work. When a patient in a mental institution wrote him that reading The Lord of the Rings gave her nightmares, Tolkien wrote her several encouraging letters. She recovered and was released from the institution, and Tolkien was happy to receive Christmas cards from her.’
His relationship with C.S. Lewis became even more distant after Lewis married a divorced woman, an event Tolkien only found out about much later from a third party. Yet when Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien wrote Priscilla that he felt “like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one,” and that Lewis’ death “feels like an axe blow near the roots”
Another axe blow was the Second Vatican Council. Speaking of the Council in 1963, Tolkien wrote his son Michael: “I suppose the greatest reform of our time was that carried out by St. Pope Pius X: surpassing anything, however needed, that the Council (Vatican II) will achieve. I wonder what state the Church would now be in but for it.
The reference to Pius X and Vatican II occurred in a letter where Tolkien sought to shore up Michael’s “sagging faith”. His remedy? “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once and for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.
“I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the true Church … For me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it has ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honor, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place… I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again…
Michael’s would not be the only sagging faith in the following years. Tolkien appears to have seen things clearly, as evidenced by his opinion on “aggiornamento,” namely, “that has its own grave dangers, as has been apparent throughout history”. Unlike another English Catholic writer, Evelyn Waugh, Tolkien never went public with his concerns. Instead he had anguished private conversations about the counciliar upheavals. According to his friend George Sayer, “Tolkien was a very strict Roman Catholic. He was very orthodox and old-fashioned and he opposed most of the new developments in the Church at the time of the Second Vatican Council.”
Father John Tolkien confirms that his father was “against the changes” the Council unleashed, “particularly the loss of Latin” Carpenter notes that “the use of English in the liturgy rather than the Latin he had known and loved since boyhood pained him deeply”. Tolkien called the post-counciliar trends “confused” and “serious”. He wrote Michael: “The Church that once felt like a refuge now feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! I think there is nothing else to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves: and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.”
Changes in the Church and the failing health of his wife, Edith, cast long shadows over Tolkien’s last years. For the sake of Edith’s health, Tolkien moved from Oxford (he had already retired) to Bournemouth, an ungracious, urban port town populated by retirees. The sacrifice he made with the move was mitigated by Edith’s happiness at the change. Although she had stopped practicing her faith for years, Edith came back to the Church before the end of her life. Lame from arthritis, she spent evenings sitting with – her husband in their garden. The two orphans spoke often of their family. “The concept of family,” observes. Humphrey Carpenter, “something they had scarcely known as children, had always mattered to them.” They took special delight in visits from their grandchildren. In November 1971, Edith was hospitalized for an inflamed gallbladder. She died a few days later.
Tolkien mourned her death intensely, refusing to remove his wedding band because he still felt he and Edith were married. He moved back to Oxford and more familiar surroundings, which softened but did not dispel his loneliness. Tolkien had bursts of liveliness. He woke up an inattentive shopkeeper by handing over his false teeth along with his money. When a photographer came to visit without an appointment, Tolkien turned his walking stick into a fencing sword. “There is one photo where his stick is partially raised,” the photographer recalled, “and the expression on his face is one of glee. Like a child in a way, so happy. Tolkien was totally charming and accommodating and gave no hint of displeasure. What a remarkable man.”
In 1973, he visited friends in Bournemouth. They noticed he seemed sadder, and looked older. He was hospitalized with a gastric bleeding ulcer. An infection developed in his chest and on September 2, 1973, he died with his children at his bedside. He was eighty-one.
Father John Tolkien celebrated a Requiem Mass for his father at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, in Oxford. J.R.R. Tolkien was buried next to Edith in a Catholic cemetery outside Oxford. He may have penned his own epitaph in 1956, shortly after The Lord of the Rings was published, when he wrote: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect `history’ to be anything but a long defeat — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
This sense of exile was present in The Lord of the Rings. At the end of the story many of the heroes travel, quietly and alone, to the Grey Havens, a port containing ships to take passengers on a one-way voyage away from Middle-earth. Against all odds good has triumphed, at a cost. Some of the travelers are scared by evil, others by sadness. The boat slips anchor and fades into the darkness, leaving in its wake a glimmer of light, which in turn disappears.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s departure also occurred near the sea. During his last days he could hear gulls call outside his hospital room. He felt and smelled the sea breeze~ that flapped the curtains in his room. Triumphs and regrets slipped away, but faith endured, faith and a love for the Author of the Blessed Sacrament. His life, remarkable because of his literary and academic accomplishments, was otherwise a typical bittersweet journey that lasts for a time, and then is over.
May God speed John Ronald Reuel Tolkien on his journey beyond the Grey Havens, to his eternal home.
This article was taken from a newspaper entitled Catholic Family News, issue of January 2003.