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St. Bernadette

Tolkien, “Beloved Bernadette,” and the Immaculate Conception 

December 7, 2023


December 8th marks the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It was a date of great importance to J.R.R. Tolkien, who had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He confessed that it was upon Mary that “all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”1 He had a “special devotion,” so he said, to the feast of the Immaculate Conception in particular and a profound veneration for a figure closely associated with it, namely St. Bernadette Soubirous, whom he referred to as “beloved Bernadette.”2 Having encountered this aspect of his Christian life in my research for Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography, I was delighted to find that the recently released Revised and Expanded Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien3 contains fresh material about Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes and even provides a fascinating new link to The Lord of the Rings

In one of the newly published letters, we learn that on January 8, 1945, Tolkien and his wife Edith went to see The Song of Bernadette, the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Franz Werfel, which was based on the real-life history of Bernadette. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher: 

The story of Bernadette Soubirous, one of the most amazing things of the whole 19th C., is both profoundly moving, and true, and therefore all the more moving, and also in some aspects puzzling (as shd. be expected) . . . I was moved deeply, and I am v. pleased indeed that I went: not so much to have seen the film but to be reminded of Bernadette (and Lourdes) whom (& which) we take too much for granted. A most marvellous story in every aspect, human and religious.4 

Who is Bernadette Soubirous, what is her connection to the Immaculate Conception, and why were they important to Tolkien?

“Dear most blessed Sancta Bernadette”

Bernadette Soubirous was a French peasant girl who, in 1858, saw a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto outside her hometown of Lourdes. The beautiful lady, as Bernadette described her, prayed with her, revealed the existence of a spring of water that became the source of miraculous healings, and asked for pilgrimages to be made and a chapel to be built there. Most importantly, the ‘beautiful lady’ identified herself as ‘the Immaculate Conception’: she was Mary conceived without the stain of original sin, a truth of the faith that had been declared a dogma of the Catholic Church just four years earlier in 1854, and which the illiterate Bernadette knew nothing about at the time. 

Bernadette’s story was carefully examined by Church authorities and, in 1862, the apparitions were officially declared to be worthy of belief—which means that the faithful may believe them, not that they must do so. A shrine was established, and many miracles of healing were documented there. By the early 1900s, pilgrims came to Lourdes by the thousands. Bernadette, however, refused invitations to go to the shrine herself and died of tuberculosis at the age of 35. 

Although Bernadette was not yet officially recognized as a saint in Tolkien’s youth (she was beatified in 1925 and canonized in 1933), he would nonetheless have been familiar with her story from an early age. Not only would he have been taught the dogma as part of his religious formation, but the Birmingham Oratory in the English midlands, where he grew up, is the parish Church of the Immaculate Conception, and had been officially opened on December 8, 1904. 

“Quanta Eruanno”

Often confused with the Virginal Conception of Jesus, the “Immaculate Conception” refers to the Catholic dogma that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”5 

A key point to bear in mind with regard to this dogma is that ‘Mariology’ is really a subset of Christology: in other words, correct beliefs about Mary derive from and depend upon a correct understanding of Christ. In Catholic teaching, Jesus is the “new Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) who reverses the effects of Adam’s sin. Whereas Adam’s sin brought death into the world, so Christ’s gift of himself on the cross brings life. And importantly, “the gift is not like the trespass” (Romans 5:15). The gift is greater. For “if many died through the trespass” of Adam, “much more” has “the free gift of grace that came by the one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” And one of the ways in which Christ’s gift is greater is that it can even act ahead of time, so to speak. By a unique anticipatory act, God bestows on Mary from the first moment of her conception those graces that Jesus would procure for the whole world, so that, whereas all other believers would be delivered from sin after the fact, Mary would be preserved from sin beforehand. For that reason, her salvation by grace is an even more wonderful testimony to God’s generosity than that of any other creature. Biblical scholar Brant Pitre puts it like this: “as the new Eve, Mary is the supreme example of what God’s grace can do.”6 

Mary’s preservation from sin is the archetypal instance of what theologians call “prevenient grace,” that is, grace going before grace, grace that enables the life of grace. All Christian believers show that they have received prevenient grace when they confess faith in the Lordship of Christ, for it is “by the Holy Spirit” that they are able to say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3): the gift precedes the confession. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is prevenient grace ‘to the max’ and therefore a source of great joy to all those who, like her, follow Jesus—Tolkien among them.

As Tolkien put it in a letter of 1958, Mary was “the only unfallen person,”7 by which he meant, of course, the only unfallen person other than Christ himself. His view of Mary’s sinless state is reflected in his Elvish translation of the “Hail Mary.” The opening phrase of the prayer, “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” refers to Luke 1:28, in which the angel Gabriel addresses Mary before disclosing that she has been chosen to become the Mother of the Savior. The salutation “full of grace” indicates that the Virgin is as full of God’s grace as it is possible for a human to be. In his invented language of Quenya, Tolkien renders the phrase as “quanta Eruanno.” “Eruanno” means literally “of the gift of Eru,” [i.e., God] and ‘quanta’ means “full,” with associations of “full to the brim.”8 

“A shattering thrill and vision”

What moved Tolkien so deeply about The Song of Bernadette was not the film itself, but the underlying story, which had, he said, “Every quality of a ‘fairy story’, plus both truth and sanctity, an overwhelming mixture.”9 He was immediately inspired to learn more about the real Bernadette, telling Christopher that on the same day he saw the movie he “read Martindale’s pamphlet . . . from which it would seem that book and film took great liberties with fact, though without damaging the essential core.”10 This pamphlet was Bernadette of Lourdes, written in 1934 by C.C. Martindale, a Jesuit priest and Oxford colleague of Tolkien. 

A week later and Tolkien was still under the film’s influence: “I have not recovered from it, & I hope I shall not.” He was struck by the way that the movie, despite its flaws, had produced in him a “shattering thrill and vision.” The events at Lourdes, were “strange and beautiful and true” and remained so even after being reflected through “the cracked and murky mirrors” of Werfel’s novel and its Hollywood adaptation. He even implies that he’d like to see the movie all over again: 

as the people first went merely to gaze with awe and overwhelming emotion at the mere reflection of the glory on little Bernadette’s face, so I would go and see the reflection of that reflection through all its dismal stages down to the frousty Electra [Theatre] if I could.11 

The film had an effect, both immediate and lasting, on his prayer life. Straightaway, he told Christopher, “I am going to pray to dear most blessed Sancta Bernadette for you”12 and his heart was so “filled with the thought of that little girl saying the Rosary with Our Lady” that he resolved, “I must now say the Rosary often.”13 Two years later, his affection for Bernadette had not diminished. C.S. Lewis’s brother, Warren, who was in the hospital recovering from illness, recorded in his diary that Tolkien wrote him a “most kind and sympathetic letter . . . saying that he had invoked the aid of ‘that child of Grace who is nearest his heart,’ St Bernadette, to assist his own feeble prayers for my recovery.”14 

Frodo and Bernadette

The Expanded Letters give one further intriguing glimpse of Tolkien’s interest in St. Bernadette. In 1954, he wrote to Katherine Farrer about her review of The Lord of the Rings

I was delighted that you stressed the ‘morality’. I think actually it is that which gives the story its ‘realness’ and coherence . . . It was not ‘planned’, of course, but arose naturally in the attempt to treat the matter seriously; but it is now the foundation. For me the ‘kernel’ is in Frodo’s last words to Sam: ‘I have been too deeply hurt. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them . . . all that I had or might have had, I leave to you.’ Bernadette refused to go to Lourdes for her own healing.15 

Tolkien’s implicit comparison of Frodo and Bernadette is intriguing. That he should see a sort of resemblance between his fictional hero and the little French girl he so admired provokes deep reflection. Obviously, we should not take his words in an allegorical sense, but we would do well to consider what connects the hobbit and the saint. 

The connection seems to be suffering and the gift of self. Some wounds, Tolkien seems to be saying, are too severe to be dealt with in this mortal life and can only be fully healed in the next. It therefore makes sense to move towards that next life boldly and deliberately, not in a spirit of self-neglect, let alone self-destruction, but in the same spirit that motivated Frodo’s decision to take the last ship to the Grey Havens. Frodo, having spent himself in the saving of the Shire, doesn’t linger listlessly in Middle-earth, but wisely steps ahead to the next chapter of his life. He makes a kind of spiritual self-sacrifice that will, in a mysterious way, benefit those whom he leaves behind, just as Bernadette, having met Mary, the Immaculate Conception, and founded the healing shrine of Lourdes, does not avail herself of its miraculous powers, but entrusts them joyfully and generously to those who come after. 

1 Letter 142, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 172.
2 Letter to Patricia Kirke, December 24, 1956, in Sotheby’s English Literature and History 18 July 1991, Lot 362.
3 The new edition of the Letters is available in the US on Amazon and elsewhere, but I have linked to the UK edition available at Blackwell’s (which ships to the US) because the UK edition (HarperCollins) is noticeably higher in production quality, with better paper and cleaner print than the US edition (William Morrow). For an overview of the contents, see my ‘first look’ at the Revised and Expanded Letters.
4 Letter 94a, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: Revised and Expanded Edition. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter (London: HarperCollins, 2023), p. 154.
5 Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus. Apostolic constitution. December 8, 1854.
6 Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary (New York: Image, 2018), p. 39.
7 Letter 212, Letters, 286n.
8 Tolkien, “‘Words of Joy’: Five Catholic Prayers in Quenya,” part 1. Edited with notes and analysis by Patrick Wynne, Arden R. Smith, and Carl F. Hostetter. Vinyar Tengwar 43 (January 2002), p. 28.
9 Letter 94b, Expanded Letters, p. 155.
10 Letter 94b, Expanded Letters, p. 155.
11 Letter 94c, Expanded Letters, pp. 155-156.
12 Letter 94a, Expanded Letters, p. 155. For more about what Tolkien understood by prayer to the saints, and about other saints who were important to him, see my Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography, chapter 22.
13 Letter 94c, Expanded Letters, p. 156.
14 Warren Lewis, Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis. Edited by Clyde S. Kilby and Marjorie Lamp Mead (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 203.
15 Letter 148a, Expanded Letters, pp. 275-276. It is interesting to note that Tolkien did not always use the “St.” prefix when referring to canonized saints; in this instance, he might have been taking into account the fact that Farrer was Anglican, not Catholic.