‘JRR Tolkien’s Catholic faith was hard won’

‘JRR Tolkien’s Catholic faith was hard won’ The young JRR Tolkien

Faith didn’t come easy for the world-renowned author, Dr Holly Ordway tells Ruadhán Jones

Did you know that JRR Tolkien translated the Bible? Well, not all of it, but he did translate the Book of Jonah for The Jerusalem Bible, which many of us will have heard or read without knowing the connection with the world’s best-known Catholic author.

This little fact, divulged in a comprehensive new spiritual biography is a reminder of just how central the Faith was to Tolkien. His Catholic Faith was “fundamental” to his life, according to Dr Holly Ordway, author of Tolkien’s Faith, which was published in September by Word on Fire press.

“Various people commented it was very natural, it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t showy, it wasn’t ostentatious, but it was very much a part of who he was,” she tells The Irish Catholic.


However, she adds, we can have a false impression of JRR Tolkien, author of the Catholic epic The Lord of the Rings, that his faith came easily. We tend to see him as a settled, donnish, elderly man, happy and secure in faith and life.

But it’s a mistake to “project backwards” that image of Tolkien, as the truth is quite the opposite, says Dr Ordway. “Between the various low ebbs in his faith and the very real suffering he experienced, I think the basic picture is of a very hard-won faith where he had very many reasons to walk away from his faith, but he didn’t.

By gaining a deeper understanding of Tolkien’s faith, how it ebbed and grew, where it came from, we can see more clearly the way in which it influenced his great work of Catholic fiction, Dr Ordway states.

Tolkien’s life, particularly his young life, was marked by death and suffering. An orphan by the age of 12, he also suffered through WWI in the trenches that cost so many men their lives – and many others, their faith.

We see evidence of him in his letters talking about the importance of the will in persevering and not only be being guided by emotions”

He “had a very bad stretch as an adult after the First World War… We don’t have the exact details of it, but it was a stretch in which he said ‘I almost ceased to practise my religion’. He’s very serious about this, he’s very matter of fact. He’s not being hyperbolical as he is sometimes,” explains Dr Ordway.

However, the evidence Dr Ordway has unearthed in her well-researched biography is that his experiences “leads him, I believe, to have a deeper faith in his later years”.

“Because we see evidence of him in his letters talking about the importance of the will in persevering and not only being guided by emotions. It seems to me this is a lesson he learned personally from this barren stretch when he didn’t give up his faith, but he went through a very low ebb in the practice of it.”

Tolkien wasn’t a ‘cradle Catholic’ – he was born into a Protestant family and it was only after his mother Mabel converted that he and his brother entered the Faith. His mother was ostracised by her family for crossing the Tiber, and when she died there were fears that Tolkien’s extended family would take him in and away from the Catholic faith.


But Mabel Tolkien had by then formed a close relationship with the Oratorian community in Birmingham. Knowing she was ailing, she made Fr Francis Morgan Tolkien’s protector. When she died, Tolkien and his brother became what he jokingly referred to as “junior inmates” of the oratory house. His experience living in the oratory was “deeply” influential for Tolkien’s faith life.

“He praised it very warmly in later years and its particularly interesting how he praised it, he called it a home in the highest,” says Dr Ordway. “He had nothing but praise for Fr Francis in terms of his mentoring and his role as a second father.

“And I think that says a lot given that it was at the lowest point in his young life that he came under Fr Francis’ care. It would be almost expected that he would have a certain bitterness about the oratory house, but he doesn’t.”

Through the Birmingham Oratory, the 20th Century’s most famous English Catholic is connected with arguably the best-known English convert of the 19th Century – St John Henry Newman. St Newman founded the oratory and taught personally many of the priests Tolkien knew, including Fr Francis.

“Newman is one of the colossal intellectual figures of his time. The oratory as a whole was and still is a very cultured place, with a great emphasis on the intellectual life, on scholarship; many of the fathers were writing books, they were very learned men,” says Dr Ordway.

“I think this really helped encourage Tolkien in many ways, intellectually, spiritually. One of the elements of this in terms of his developing a strong faith is that these are Catholics who would have taught him why does he believe what he believes.

“He read the Scriptures very early and in their original languages. Reading the Scriptures was an important part of his formation as a Catholic, which is not necessarily the case for every Catholic especially in that era. I think that his formation in the oratory helped him know what he believed and why he believed it. That enabled him to work through a lot of these issues in a very productive way,” she says.

To understand how Tolkien’s faith, and also his imagination, were formed, we must examine the various influences that came down to him through the Birmingham Oratory. Pre-eminent among these is the “huge influence” of St Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians.

There are various anecdotes in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, including how he once chased a neighbour down a road dressed as an Anglo-Saxon warrior”

For Dr Ordway, Tolkien’s devotion to St Philp explained a mysterious aspect of his personality – his, to say the least, quirky sense of humour. St Philip placed an emphasis on cheerfulness, joy and light-heartedness as good and natural parts of the spiritual and emotional life.

For Tolkien, “particularly since he was orphaned and had a lot of dark things to work through, I think the emphasis on joy provided a very necessary counterbalance that helped him integrate that and stay grounded”, says the American professor.

“As an adult, as a don at Oxford, as a seriously raised scholar, he often behaves in ways that are quite silly,” she continues. “There are various anecdotes in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, including how he once chased a neighbour down a road dressed as an Anglo-Saxon warrior. One has to wonder what were the circumstances of that.

“He dressed up as a polar bear for a children’s party. He had a party trick of falling down the stairs with his arms and legs all flowing everywhere and arriving at the bottom of the stairs unhurt.”

This is all “a bit odd” for a serious Oxford professor, until you take into account the teachings of St Philip that “he must not take himself too serious lest he become too proud”.

We know, thanks to Dr Ordway’s extensive research, that Tolkien took his devotion to St Philip seriously and held it quite personally. Indeed, he took Philip as his Confirmation name and kept up this connection into later life.

Another gift of his Oratorian upbringing was an especial devotion to the Eucharist, a characteristic of Oratorian spirituality. The congregation was responsible for introducing to England the practice of the ’40 Hours Devotion’, 40 hours of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

This became a central devotion of Tolkien’s life: “He once had a vision or a spiritual insight during adoration at one of the 40 hours,” says Dr Ordway. “He talks about this in one of his letters.

“Here again, it’s useful to consider historical context because I didn’t know until I researched this book, that in Tolkien’s lifetime, the 40 hours devotion was new. It was not a typically English devotion at all.

“It was relatively new and had been brought to England by the Oratorian fathers starting with Newman. You can see a direct connection there with his Eucharistic spirituality, which would have been fostered as a boy.”

Magnum Opus

Most people come to know Tolkien through his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, and a good many of those readers don’t realise the degree to which it is a Catholic work of fiction.

“He describes it as a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” says the American professor, herself a Catholic convert. “He knew his way around words, he was choosing that word very deliberately. At its fundaments, at its root, in its essence – that’s where it is religious and Catholic.”

By coming to a deeper understanding of his faith, we can see more clearly in what ways this is the case, she says, and not just in obvious, one-to-one connections.

“For instance take his Marian devotion, if you look at the way he approached this devotion in his life and his spiritual life as a whole, you’ll see that humility is the key devotion,” Dr Ordway continues.

“It’s in the Magnificat, and if you trace the way he talks about the hobbits, they are the most humble characters in the book. He talks about The Lord of the Rings being Hobbitocentric and being about the sanctification of the humble. We can see that the hobbits are very Marian figures in a very subtle way.

“They’re not Marian in being characters who are Mary in the story in some way. But they embody that humility that’s an essential part of Marian spirituality and also Philippine spirituality.”

The possibilities are, seemingly, endless when exploring Tolkien’s masterpiece with the eyes of Faith. We become aware of the outworking of specifically Christian virtues, such as the importance of mercy and pity.

“We see it for instance in the providential events of Mount Doom when Frodo fails at the quest,” says Dr Ordway. “He is broken by the ring, but providentially the quest is fulfilled because Gollum there to seize the ring. Why is Gollum there? Because previously Frodo and Sam and Bilbo have all exercised mercy in not killing him even though in worldly terms it would have been a sensible move.

All of the elements of the spiritual life, all of the themes that touch on his faith, all the allusions, they are invisible if you don’t have access to his faith”

“They exercise pity and mercy and therefore in divine providence, he is able to fulfil the quest. And Tolkien talks about this in his letters in specifically theological terms.”

For many Catholics who are fans of JRR Tolkien, Tolkien’s Faith is the book you have been waiting for. Coming to more than 500 pages, with a large appendix and bibliography, it provides vital insight into the faith life of the world-famous author and linguist.

But its not just for Catholics: “I’m aiming the book at any reader of Tolkien who wants to understand this important aspect of his faith and that very explicitly includes people who have no knowledge of Christianity, let alone Catholicism,” states Dr Ordway.

“Because there are loads of people who are not Christians, or maybe Christians but not Catholics – all of the elements of the spiritual life, all of the themes that touch on his faith, all the allusions, they are invisible if you don’t have access to his faith. I want to make that visible.”

Ultimately, if we want to understanding Tolkien, we have to “put him in his context” as an “English Catholic of the 20th century grounded in Birmingham and Oxford”.

“I’m trying to be a guide because even if you don’t need a guide to the Catholic elements, you probably need a guide to the English element – that’s the point of the supporting material, to help people engage with Tolkien on his own terms.”

Dr Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography published by Word on Fire Publishing is available for purchase online.