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The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth

28 August 2018

From Christianity Today:

Who was J. R. R. Tolkien? Nearly everyone knows him as the author of two of the most beloved books of the 20th century: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many also know him as a member of the Inklings and a close friend of fellow writer and scholar C. S. Lewis. Fewer know Tolkien’s work as a literary critic, a world-class academic in medieval literature, a linguist, an inventor of languages, and a visual artist or realize that he was also a devoted husband and father.

Much of this is captured this year in a nearly comprehensive exhibit at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries on Tolkien’s life and legacy. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” has been billed as the exhibit of a generation, and it is indeed that. But there’s a glaring omission: any mention of the author’s devout, lifelong Christian faith. Without that piece, we cannot have a true picture of Tolkien.

. . . .

The exhibit is certainly the most well-rounded portrayal of Tolkien to date. We see his imaginative capacity expressed in nearly overwhelming abundance, and we see a tender glimpse of his childhood and of his family life with his wife, Edith, and their four children.

The aim of the exhibit, as expressed in the catalog book, is “bringing to the public’s attention the fullest picture possible not just of the life and work of a remarkable literary imagination, but of a son, husband, father, friend, scholar and artist.”

. . . .

He was baptized as an infant in the Anglican cathedral in Bloemfontein. He followed his mother when she entered the Catholic Church. He was an altar boy at the Birmingham Oratory. After he was orphaned, his guardian was a Catholic priest, Fr. Francis Morgan, for whom he retained a deep respect and affection ever afterward. He was a regular Mass-goer throughout his life. He translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible. He wrote in his letters of the personal importance of prayer and the Eucharist. He, along with Hugo Dyson, played a crucial role in bringing C. S. Lewis to faith. Yet apart from a brief mention of Morgan’s guardianship, none of this is shown in the exhibit.

. . . .

Several examples of his Elvish calligraphy were displayed; one could have been selected from the prayers that Tolkien translated into Elvish, such as the Lord’s Prayer. Both the 1956 letter and this translation show the way that Tolkien’s faith, and indeed specifically his prayer life, had an influence on his writing—exactly the kind of influence we would hope to see emphasized in an exhibit on an author.

. . . .

There is also a small subset of readers and critics who emphasize Tolkien’s faith in the wrong way. Tolkien himself described The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (in a letter that could have been, but was not, quoted in the exhibit), but it is not a religious allegory, as Tolkien himself makes very clear. When I lecture on Tolkien to Christian audiences, I am often asked: “How can we use The Lord of the Ringsfor apologetics?” My answer is that we should not try to use it at all. As a literary critic, I recognize that skillful analysis of literature can yield great insight—including for apologetics—but if Tolkien’s work is used merely as a tool to convey an explicit Christian “message,” it is inevitably oversimplified and its effect deadened. It is possible that the Tolkien Estate and the Bodleian, in aiming for a nuanced portrayal of Tolkien, wished to resist this particular type of pigeonholing and were too cautious as a result.

. . . .

Tolkien himself was explicit about the theological foundation of his creative work, writing in his great essay “On Fairy-stories” that “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’s granddaughter Joanna mentions that one of his fundamental values was “his profound belief in God.” Clyde Kilby, in an interview, remembered him as a “devout Catholic,” and his friend and fellow Inkling R. E. Havard wrote of “the depth of feeling” of his religious convictions, noting that these were “apparent … but never paraded.”

Link to the rest at Christianity Today

Fantasy/SciFi

7 Comments to “The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth”

  1. You write what you are. How could you not?

    And that’s what the readers are attracted to (or not).

    If someone is a devout Mormon, it will affect his/her writing. Why is it so difficult to give credit to Tolkien’s beliefs?

    • It’s not difficult to give credit to Tolkien’s beliefs. It’s a matter of intent and execution.

      C.S. Lewis (whom Tolkien eventually succeeded in converting to Christianity) wrote the Chronicles of Narnia as Christian apologetica. This explains why the first book ends with deus ex machina and is ham-fisted, and the series is not particularly great. (Fantastic, but cloying.)

      Tolkien, however, believed in Sub-Creation. That is, if humans were made in the image of Yahweh, and Yahweh created everything, then it was a fundamental human need and desire to create. Since Christianity teaches that humans are corrupt and evil, it follows that humans cannot actual create, but that humans might desire to imitate Yahweh with no intended disrespect the same way that a child might play make-believe and imitate his or her parents through play in a childish way without comprehension or intent of disrespect, even thought they cannot actually perform the same functions his/her parents do.

      So Middle-earth has an alternate creation myth that respects the Christian/Judeo creation myth that only Illúvatar or Yahweh can actually create, and his followers can make changes but not actually create (which leads to later questions about Melkor/Morgoth and Sauron and how Orcs must be corrupted Elves if Illúvatar’s creations cannot create out of whole-cloth). We see no temples or outright prayer, but we do see the sort of echos of a Catholic-Christian faith, and we see that in The Lord of the Rings all of the heroes are fundamentally flawed but through divine providence, each hero does his very best even though it isn’t enough, and it is at the hand of a god that gently nudges everytone into just the right place that the combined efforts of god-fearing peoples of every race across all Middle-earth that Sauron and the ultimate evil of the age is finally defeated.

      Thus, Middle-earth (and its 30,000 years of history) manages to be suffused with Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs in a nicely consistent and supportive way which–unlike The Chronicles of Narnia illuminate and echo his beliefs without being preachy or trite.

      While Tolkien adapted his beliefs to a fictional but hopefully consistent world, C.S. Lewis leaned too heavily on the myths and fairy-tales of Christianity for the Chronicles of Narnia to be readable by anyone but children. The stories are no more believable than the Bible.

      • You do know that entire portions of the Old Testament have been found to be historically correct, right?
        Some parts are allegorical or metaphorical but a good portion, especially Kings, is based on verified history. Every once archaeologists dig up more evidence.

        It’s not all “myth”.
        An open mind is required to appreciate what is factual and what is open to debate. Some of the stuff is 3000-5000 years old.

        • I never spoke to the historicity of the Bible. The entire thing is myth, properly speaking, and Tolkien would probably have understood and agreed with that usage. My point was that Tolkien used some of the Christian myth as an underpinning: world made perfect, fallen creation leads to suffering, and gods work subtly and indirectly so that good peoples doing the best they can sort of add up into something greater than the sum of its parts to overcome each other’s shortcomings. (And of course, direct intervention: the Breaking of the World, the foundering of Númenor, the return of Gandalf, etc., but these being exceedingly rare). Anyone with a Christian background is going to find a resonance that is satisfying.

          CS Lewis wields Christian myth as a baseball bat to constantly swing at the reader.

          As for historicity, you do know that entire portions of the Old Testament have been found to be historically wrong or impossible, right?

          The Hebrews were ethnic Canaanites and El is the Canaanite god of war and storms. King David’s kingdom was tiny and didn’t go to war with anyone or they would have been wiped out. Jericho didn’t have walls or any significant population for 400-500 years before and after the (mythical) Battle of Jericho. There’s no reason to believe the Hebrews were enslaved by Egypt and they certainly did not wander the desert for 40 years. (In contrast, it’s clear they were under Babylonian rule because linguistic mingling changed religious practices as words changed meanings.) All supernatural events, of course, are complete fantasy.

          It’s all myth. Quite a lot of it’s untrue. The history is extremely unreliable, especially the early history. None of this invalidates the true parts, but the Bible isn’t a book, it’s a collection of 66 unrelated documents. An open mind is required to appreciate what is factual and what is open to debate.

          • Nope. Sorry. Not myth.
            The term you want is lore.
            The accumulated cultural heritage of a people.

            In the west, in modern times we separate received knowledge into science, history, legend, religious dogma, and myth but not all societies do that. And in earlier times nobody did.

            Verbal history was blended into religion, which was the cosmology of the times, and philosophy into engineering, to provide the people with a cohesive narrative of the world. They didn’t actively start making stuff up, creating myths, until much later.

            Myth itself is a much abused term.

            • Historical fact blended into religion, which was the cosmology of the times, and philosophy into engineering, to provide the people with a cohesive narrative of the world.

              This is true.

              They didn’t actively start making stuff up, creating myths, until much later.

              This isn’t true at all. Unless for some reason you’re trying to force some negative connotation to mythology over lore. But I’m going to reject that connotation in my comments above. (And any further ones.)

    • Because according to significant portions of academia and popular culture, Christianity is bad and all Christians are bad. Therefore, if they accept that Tolkien was a Christian, they have to either reject him and his huge influence on the culture, or accept that they may be wrong in their sweeping generalization.

      It makes them uncomfortable to think about that, so they prefer to erase his Christianity so they don’t have to challenge their own worldview.

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