It is no exaggeration to call J.R.R. Tolkien a genius. It would be enough for his lasting fame that he is the author of The Lord of the Rings—an epic tale that brought about the fantasy genre as we know it today—and The Hobbit. As the creator of Middle-earth and its languages, his tremendous imagination also resulted in the manifold tales of The Silmarillion and associated stories, the latest of which, The Fall of Gondolin, has just been published. He illustrated many of his works himself, having considerable talent as a visual artist.
But Tolkien’s fiction-writing was not how he earned his living. Professionally, he was a scholar of medieval literature and language, and a philologist who contributed to the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. He knew more about the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf than anyone in the world. He spent most of his academic career at Oxford, where he was instrumental in helping his colleague and friend C.S. Lewis convert to Christianity, and was a key figure in “the Inklings,” the circle of writer friends who gathered around them and met weekly in a local pub, The Eagle & Child.
Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library holds in its archives many of Tolkien’s manuscripts, papers, and drawings, as well as having a world-class collection of scholarly works about Tolkien—a treasure-trove for scholars from around the world.
The Library’s 2018 exhibit, “J.R.R. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” billed as the exhibit of a generation, is testimony to Tolkien’s genius. Assembled by the Bodleian’s Tolkien Archivist, Catherine McIlwaine, and drawing on resources from around the world, including the Tolkien Archives at Marquette University, Wisconsin, the exhibit gives visitors a three-dimensional view of his life and work. We see vignettes of his life from early childhood in South Africa, to his student days and service in World War I, to his mature life as a busy academic and family man. Many manuscripts and artworks are on display, some for the first time ever, including his own original paintings for The Hobbit and some of the “Father Christmas Letters” that he wrote and illustrated for his children. Even some of his early abstract paintings and a few of his elegant doodles on newspaper crossword-puzzles are on display. The exhibit has received very positive reviews.
I myself reviewed it positively, but with a significant reservation. Though the exhibit gives a well-rounded portrait of Tolkien as a creative writer, artist, scholar and family man, it almost completely avoids mentioning his religious commitment.
To an extent this omission is redressed in the handsome book that accompanies the exhibit. This is outstanding and contains a great deal of material not included in the exhibit itself, including a number of references to Tolkien’s lifelong Catholic faith and its importance to him—such as the observation that the “driving force” of Tolkien’s “creative aspirations was religious and more particularly Catholic. He wished more than anything to ‘make England Catholic’ again, and in doing so to reintroduce beauty, purity, and love to his country.” Still, only two objects are presented in the book that are related to Tolkien’s faith: a photograph of his guardian, Fr. Francis Morgan, an Oratorian priest, who took care of Tolkien and his brother after they were orphaned; and a 1914 letter to his future wife Edith Bratt, mentioning going to church and receiving Holy Communion. A portion of this letter is transcribed in both the display and the exhibit book from Tolkien’s difficult-to-read handwriting, but interestingly not the part referring to church or Communion.
Most visitors to the Bodleian exhibit—such as the student groups that I observed being taken through it—will not buy the exhibit book, which at £40 (about $50) for the hardback version (£25 for the paperback) will be beyond most pockets. Anyone who only visits the exhibit, or who merely skims through the exhibit book rather than reading it closely, will find it easy to overlook Tolkien’s faith if they do not already know that Tolkien was a Christian, and a Catholic.
Why does this matter? Because Tolkien is that rare figure, a serious Catholic whose religiously-infused work is tremendously popular with a wide audience: Catholics, Protestants, and non-Christians alike. The high-profile, highly regarded Bodleian exhibit gives us a window into the way our culture reacts to a figure such as this.
The exhibit book shows that the Bodleian was not trying to avoid the topic entirely. Rather, I would suggest that the Bodleian may have felt, and (alas) probably correctly, that Tolkien’s faith would not be of interest to most attendees. Indeed, being faced with Tolkien’s Catholicism might unsettle viewers, and cause them to jump to faulty and uninformed conclusions—to assume that because he was a Catholic, he must have been a narrow-minded bigot. Given the lamentable state of religious literacy in the UK, as well as in the US where the exhibit will travel next year, any presentation of Tolkien’s faith would have required careful explanation to avoid misunderstanding, and even then would probably have offended at least some fans of Tolkien’s work.
I have myself seen discussions online amongst Tolkien fans degenerate into vitriol at the mere mention of his faith. For instance, a popular Tolkien Facebook group now has a policy in which the moderators turn off commenting on any post that references his faith at all. The fact that otherwise mild-mannered and friendly Tolkien enthusiasts can’t be trusted to discuss the topic in a civilized manner speaks volumes about current cultural attitudes toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular.
Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who practiced his faith throughout his life and considered it of paramount importance. For example, he knew by heart, and frequently used, a selection of Catholic prayers in Latin; some of these, including the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and part of the Litany of Loreto, he translated into his invented language of Qenya. Tolkien had a deep love for Our Lady and a special devotion to St. John the Evangelist. A reference in a 1944 letter to his son Christopher shows that Tolkien participated in the Forty Hours devotion of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, held in this instance at the church of St. Gregory and St. Augustine in Oxford. Indeed, Tolkien had a deep and special reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, writing to his son Michael that it is “the one great thing to love on earth.”
But even if some readers of Tolkien are uninterested or hostile to this important aspect of Tolkien’s life, we should not err on the other extreme, and present Tolkien as if he were a Catholic apologist or as if his works are religious allegory. He wasn’t, and they aren’t. Tolkien’s approach to evangelization was just as serious and ultimately is just as powerful as his friend C.S. Lewis’, but it is indirect. As Tolkien wrote in a letter, The Lord of the Rings is “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. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
Tolkien’s faith shaped him in no small part because it was not compartmentalized; it was not just something on the to-do list for Sunday mornings, nor a mere lifestyle choice like choosing a ballpoint over a dip-pen—as he did. (Lewis, contrariwise, did prefer the dip-pen: he was a Mac-user, we might say, over against Tolkien’s choice of PC!)
Tolkien knew thoroughly the demands as well as the rewards of marriage and family life. His marriage to Edith, his first and great love, was faithful and lasted for fifty-five years, until her death. They raised three boys and a girl, all four of whom attended Oxford University; Tolkien was as supportive of his daughter Priscilla’s education as that of her brothers. No narrow-mindedness there!
His eldest son, John, became a priest. Another son, Christopher, served as an RAF pilot in World War II, one of the most dangerous combat roles. His third son Michael recalled that for both himself and his three siblings, Tolkien “retained a close interest in every detail of our lives up to the date of his last illness,” and had the gift “of combining fatherhood with friendship.”
Here we see a life lived faithfully: striving to do, with God’s help, all that he was called to do, as a teacher, colleague, writer, husband, father, and friend. By his own admission he sometimes failed, but even here we can see Tolkien’s essential humility and openness to the workings of grace.
It is impossible to trace the course of his life, if we do so comprehensively, and not recognize that we are in the presence of someone very special. I, for one, would have preferred for the Bodleian exhibit to call attention to Tolkien’s faith, as it was such a vital part of his life and indeed a key element of his creativity, both shaping and helping to direct his imagination. Nonetheless, even without a proper presentation of his faith, this exhibit may be of religious benefit for some people in the long run. Serious, thoughtful attention to Tolkien’s work can encourage an interest in his life and his faith. That was the case for me when, as an atheist graduate student, I started wrestling with Tolkien’s thought in his academic essay “On Fairy-stories.” It challenged some of my facile assumptions about Christianity and eventually helped me become interested in learning more. His fiction is infused with the truth of the Catholic faith, and so allows readers to experience these ideas imaginatively, and taste their beauty, without feeling threatened.
Tolkien was indeed a true genius, and his creative achievements will perhaps never be surpassed—especially not in their sum total as academic, linguist, writer, and visual artist. One of the strengths of the Bodleian exhibit is that it not only highlights his creative work, but shows a well-rounded, three-dimensional picture of the man, as creative artist, academic, student, husband, and father. As varied and disparate as the elements of his life might seem to be, Tolkien was a deeply integrated man, and it was, I would suggest, his Catholic faith that unites all the different parts of his life into one unified, deeply meaningful and inspiring whole.
Note: “J.R.R. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” is open in Oxford until October 28, 2018. It will then be hosted by the Morgan Library, New York, from January 25 to May 12, 2019.