With a month of summer left, Ruadhán Jones reflects on the ideal Catholic long read
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien has a broad fan base, within and outside Catholic circles, but due to its length – 900 pages and some – it can be off-putting. For many, Peter Jackson’s film adaptation is the first access point, and it’s a good place to start. But if you want to get a full appreciation for the pre-eminent Catholic work of fiction in the 20th century, you should go to the source.
With a month of summer left, it’s a good chance to tackle it for the first time, or perhaps to renew once more your acquaintance with Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The book has much to offer, in terms of enjoyment and thematic depth. Perhaps the slow beginning put you off before, or its mere size. But it’s a book that will draw you along if you let it, running like the course of a river – it begins with a trickle from the source, rushing then like a great stream, before expanding and finally entering the sea.
To help you on your way, a brief introduction to the man himself is in order. In the barest sketch, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an Oxford don – a lecturer in philology, with an especial interest in the Anglo-Saxon and Norse myths and languages. From a young age, he developed a love of creating languages which was to serve him well as he went on and laid the foundation for much of the world building in The Lord of the Rings. He had a love of words and an irrepressible imagination that seemed to constantly burst forth.
Following on from his love of words, was his belief in the mythic, fantastical qualities of life. It upset him to see fantasy abused as a term to describe something unreal or unlikely. For him, myths and stories were the best way of accessing truths about the world. Facts are fine, but they are only useful once integrated into a story.
“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind… The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval,” Tolkien wrote in his essay, “On Fairy-stories”.
Language itself is an act of myth-making or storytelling, and so telling stories is an extension of our fundamental desire to make sense of the world. It is not only a factual description, but also a description which fits our understanding of the world and the narrative we tell about ourselves.
The most vital element for Tolkien’s life was his Catholicism – this is the narrative in which he understood himself. Born and raised a Catholic, the Faith took on for him the emotional element of his life after his mother died, and it remained so for the rest of his life. That’s not to say he didn’t think deeply about it – quite the contrary – but his connection was both a deeply felt appreciation and an intellectual one.
All acts of creation are themselves an outworking of or reflection on our initial creation by God”
The Lord of the Rings is infused with this Catholic spirit and he considered all his works to be acts of ‘sub-creation’: “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker,” Tolkien wrote in The Monsters and the Critics.
All acts of creation are themselves an outworking of or reflection on our initial creation by God – we create because we are created, and what we make, at its best, reflects the truth of God. An excerpt from Tolkien’s poem, Mythopoeia, expresses this vision of God’s light shining through us perfectly:
“Man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”
The Lord of the Rings
And with this in mind, we turn to the book itself, which began as a sequel to Tolkien’s popular children’s book, The Hobbit, and morphed into a modern epic. Tolkien wrote it over the course of 12 years, receiving support from friends – in particular Christian author CS Lewis – in The Inklings, an informal literary discussion group based in Oxford.
He began working on it late in 1937, and continued on and off for the next decade, finishing the manuscript in 1949. It was first published in 1954, and became a surprise hit in the 1960s. Set in Middle-earth, the world at some distant time in the past, the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, is attempting to regain the One Ring, a weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth.
The story ranges across Middle Earth, beginning in the Shire, a hobbit-land reminiscent of the English countryside, from which comes Frodo Baggins. He takes on the mission of destroying the ring to defeat Sauron, which is the central struggle of the book.
Style and tone
I re-read The Lord of the Rings earlier this year, the first time in a couple of years that I had tackled it. I had re-watched the films regularly in that time and more and more my memory of the story reflected the film version rather than the original. Re-reading the book was quite a shock to the system because the pacing and tone are very different from the films. It’s important to bear this in mind if you’re coming to the books through the films.
The drama resides in the fact that even though they do the right thing, it may not be enough, and that tension keeps up the whole way through”
In part, the origins of Tolkien’s style are the Norse sagas that he loved, as well as in inherent or interior poetry that came from himself. It takes quite a while to get going, the first 150 pages or so can be a bit of a slog – especially if you read the Tom Bombadil sequence, which I don’t anymore. Even once it’s into the heights of tension, it rarely addresses action or dramatic sequences as you would expect.
Much of this is to do with the style. It’s not a melodrama of the kind we’re used to today, which the films from Hollywood and a lot of our TV now represent. The drama in The Lord of the Rings doesn’t reside in the conflict between characters as much as today’s stories because, for Tolkien as for the ancient heroic societies, what a person has to do is clear to him or her based on the social context.
Today, characters in stories spend most of their time agonising over what the right thing to do is, or else doing the wrong thing and getting angry with each other. In The Lord of the Rings, fate plays a much bigger role. The characters display a determination to do the right thing – but even if they do the right thing, they can’t know if it will be enough. And yet still they do it! The drama resides in the fact that even though they do the right thing, it may not be enough, and that tension keeps up the whole way through.
As well as being a tense, exciting adventure, Tolkien’s epic is thematically rich and provides much for contemplation. Tolkien’s dramatic style in particular opens up his world to the need for grace. As I said, one of the characteristics of modern films, particularly melodramas, is that they centre over whether or not a character will do the right thing. If they do the right thing – if they overcome their fatal flaw – then everything about the world will be right. The world is perfectible by human action alone.
That is not the Christian understanding, nor was it the understanding expressed in the ancient sagas and myths of Anglo-Saxon and Norse societies. These sagas suggest that their mythology of the world precluded an ultimate victory over evil.
You may have heard of Valhalla, touted as the Viking heaven which can be reached if you die in battle. In reality, that heaven was another extended battle, this time on a cosmic scale, which the Vikings and their gods were fated to lose. Creation wasn’t perfectible, in their view, even with the help of the gods.
What becomes clear in reading The Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien takes their view and Christianises it, much as the Christian monks who recorded the Norse sagas did. While the cosmic vision of fate remains, we can attain perfection, but only with the help of God. And God can help us because the world was created good and goodness dwells in man.
Grace, good and evil are examples of the Catholic worldview permeating and shaping the novel as a whole”
We see this worked out so many times in the individual stories of the various characters. There’s a moment in Shelob’s cave when Frodo feels his will being drawn towards the ring, the locus of evil, not by his own desire – he is being drawn to it. Only when he exerts his will and moves his hand instead to the phial given to him by Galadriel – who is a Marian figure – is he able to reclaim this inherent goodness. That is the struggle central to the book in a microcosm.
We are only truly exerting ourselves when resisting evil and doing good, but this can only happen through grace. The ending of the book brings this home even more clearly. I’m not going to spoil it, and will only say that while goodness triumphs, it’s not by the hand of the good, but by the strength of goodness itself and the corresponding weakness of evil.
Grace, good and evil are examples of the Catholic worldview permeating and shaping the novel as a whole. Within that worldview, there are many other Catholic themes that can be drawn out. But when reading the book, don’t think of it as a work of allegory. In allegory, characters typically stand as a one-to-one replacements for certain themes or real-world situation, as Aslan stands for Christ in CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Instead, Tolkien describes Catholicism as being infused into the writing of the story and more consciously written into the themes and characters when he refined it. Here is a quote from one his Letters: “Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.” That is something which works so well in the story, drawing on Catholic themes and imagery without ever resorting to, as Tolkien puts it, “conscious and intentional allegory”.
I can’t go into to detail on all the themes that the novel explores, but here are a couple more to be aware of while you’re reading, and on which you can reflect. The first is the trio of Aragorn, Gandalf and Samwise Gamgee, who can be seen as three symbols of Christ – priest, prophet and king. At different stages in the story, each takes on aspects of Christ.
For example, Aragorn must take on the role of King, descended as he is from a race of men that combined the perfection of the elves with the imperfections of man – this mirrors Christ’s bodily and spiritual element. Gandalf plays the role of priest and, as one of my lecturers pointed out, effectively Pope in crowing Aragorn at the end of the films, anointing his reign. And Sam in his self-sacrifice emblematises the sacrificial actions and faith of Christ.
The last theme which emerges time and again is the corrupting power of evil over man’s will”
Then there are the female figures in the book, most notably Galadriel, but also Eowyn and – as the films emphasise – Arwen. Galadriel is a particularly important figure, representative of a new Eve, in other words, the Virgin Mary. One sequence highlights this, when Sam effectively offers a prayer to Galadriel for water and light – and both of them come to him, even in Mordor, the home of the evil one on Middle-Earth.
The last theme which emerges time and again is the corrupting power of evil over man’s will. The ring and Sauron function quite explicitly as types of evil – disembodied and, in a sense, powerless except by the force they exert over man to distract him from noble ends. Human’s fail when their wills are passive with regard to evil, as when Frodo is being drawn to the ring and almost succumbs.
More obvious are the effects of evil on Gollum and Boromir. Gollum is Frodo’s unofficial guide on his path to Mordor. He once was a hobbit, we learn, but has become a creature purely at the mercy of evil, decrepit and deformed by the experience. He has no will of his own and now doesn’t recognise goodness at all, recoiling from the sun, or any pure light, and good food.
Similarly, Boromir, a noble but impetuous warrior, shows how evil tempts us to see it as responsive to man’s will – that man can use evil for his own ends. But it can’t be, as evil is parasitic on good and by its use corrupts us. Had Boromir taken hold of the ring, he would have become like Gollum – not free, but completely subjected and enslaved. Freedom, which comes through grace, is the exertion of our will for good. And that is the essential theme and drive of the story.
Bolstered now with an understanding of how the novel’s style and themes work, perhaps The Lord of the Rings will prove less daunting. It is a book that can take you out of the world, so that whether the sun shines or the rain pours, the final month of summer will be a memorable one.