David Alton gave the Liverpool 2011 Catholic Chaplaincy lecture. To listen to the lecture click on: http://lordalton.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/tolkien-speech-audio.wav
The text follows below:
More knowledgeable people than me have written prodigiously about JRR Tolkien. I rashly accepted your invitation to give this talk about Tolkien's hidden story, not because I have anything original to say, but in scratching the surface of interest it might stimulate those who read this to go deeper: As Tolkien’s great friend, CS Lewis put it in “The Last Battle”:
"Welcome, in the lion's name. Come further up and further in....the further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside."
Later, as we go deeper and further in, I want to say more about that friendship and the links between the two men. They had a huge amount in common - both experienced great suffering, the pain of early bereavement and the traumas of the trenches: and those experiences and their faith were given expression in their books.
Half a century after their deaths, the books of both men continue to sell in phenomenal numbers. The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies worldwide.
The famous opening line of The Hobbit , “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” paved the way for “The Lord of the Rings”, which followed in 1954. The trilogy has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide . Voted Amazon’s Best Book of the Century in 1997; it subsequently emerged as the most popular work of fiction in surveys by Waterstones and Channel Four. Peter Jackson’s magnificent screen adaptation, and critically acclaimed film trilogy, has further popularised the saga of Middle Earth.
Some of Tolkien’s best known short stories include “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” (1962) “Leaf by Niggle” (1964), “Smith of Wooton Major” (1967) and “Farmer Giles of Ham” (1949).
Following Tolkien’s death, in 1973, his youngest son, Christopher, who, like his father, became a philologist and taught Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old Norse at Oxford, posthumously published “The Silmarillion”(1977); and then, between 1983 and 1997, his twelve-volume “History of Middle Earth” ; and, in April 2007, “The Children of Hurin.”
Often called “the father of high fantasy” Tolkien weaves together a connected world of fictional histories, mythology, legend, poems and tales linked to imaginary realms, such as Middle Earth. His letters were edited and published in 1981 by his principal biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. In 1998 Joseph Pearce published “Tolkien Man and Myth” and in 2003 came Stratford Caldecott’s “Secret fire: The Spiritual Vision of JRRTolkien”.
Countless people have become devotees of Tolkien’s books. If readers simply see the books as fantasies about Middle Earth they are both missing the hidden stories and misunderstanding the motives and intentions of the man who wrote them.
I want this evening to talk about three things:
Who was JRR Tolkien?
What influences formed him; and
What he believed.
So who was JRR Tolkien?
Born in Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, in 1892, his father died in 1896, and his mother returned to England, to the Midlands. Her conversion to Catholicism led to her repudiation by her mixed Baptist, Unitarian and Anglican relatives. She was reduced to poverty.
In 1903 Tolkien obtained a scholarship to King Edward’s, Birmingham, and in 1904, after his mother’s death, he was shunted between relatives until a lodging was found for him by an Oratorian priest, Father Francis Morgan, who was his legal guardian.
While at King Edward’s, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Smith and Christopher Wiseman formed a secret society which they called the “TCBS” – the acronym meaning “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”. The name had its origins in their fondness for drinking tea at the nearby Barrow’s Stores and, illicitly, in the library of their school.
From King Edward’s, Tolkien won an exhibition to Exeter College, Oxford in 1910, and graduated with First Class Honours in 1915.
He showed early promise as a philologist and gifted linguist with a remarkable facility to decode ancient languages. He used these gifts in scholarship and in prose. In 1966, in the last decade of his life, he was one of those who worked on the translation that became the Jerusalem Bible.
The friends of the TCBS stayed in touch after leaving school, meeting at Wiseman’s London home in 1914 for a “Council.” In many respects the TCBS was a forerunner of the Kolbitar (Coalbiters) which Tolkien would form at Oxford in 1925 – and which was devoted to reading Icelandic sagas. Lewis attended their meetings and from this fellowship of friends would finally emerge the Inklings in the 1930s.
In Birmingham Tolkien had met Edith Bratt, with whom he fell in love; he also commenced his practice of daily Mass attendance, which he continued throughout his life.
Fr Morgan counselled him not to rush into marriage but, having been commissioned into the Lancashire Fusiliers, he feared that he might be killed. He and Edith, who was received into the Catholic Church, married in 1916.
After seeing action in the Somme, acting as Battalion Signalling Officer – and, having contracted trench fever, Tolkien spent the rest of the war as an invalid.
The news from his friends in the TCBS was bleak. On July 15, 1916, Geoffrey Smith wrote to tell Tolkien of Rob Gilson's death:
My Dear John Ronald,
I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst news. Now one realises in despair what the TCBS really was.
O my dear John Ronald what ever are we going to do? Yours ever. G BS.
Five months later, Christopher Wiseman wrote to Tolkien to say that Smith had died in a mission. Just before seeing this final action Smith wrote these words to Tolkien: “My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight - I am off on duty in a few minutes - there will still be left a member of the great TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.” – Yours ever, GBS.
Like Lewis, and so many of his generation, Tolkien was deeply affected by World War One and the death of his friends.
As his closest intimates were cut down, it put an end to the circle of friends and, challenged by Smith’s haunting words: “may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them”, Tolkien began to write his epic mythology on a notebook entitled "The Book of Lost Tales." The tales would come to be known as “The Silmarillion.”
At the end of the War, Tolkien spent two years working for the Oxford English Dictionary, before being appointed, in 1920, aged 28, as Professor of English Language at Leeds University – a post he would hold until 1925 and translation to Oxford as Professor of Anglo-Saxon.
In 1929, while marking examination papers, he started to jot down some words for a story to read to his children – of whom there were now four: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Tolkien would later say of himself: “I am in fact a Hobbit, in all but size…I like gardens, trees…I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking…”
“The Hobbit” was completed in 1936, published in 1937, and then, with the encouragement of Lewis and the other Inklings – and WH Auden, with whom he was in contact – the epic of the Ring had begun. The trilogy would be published between 1954 and 1955.
What do we know of the faith that underpinned Tolkien’s fiction?
All the elements, from the genesis and "the great music" of “The Silmarillion” to the awesome climax at Mount Doom, take us from the alpha of creation to the omega of judgement. This is a story that exists for itself.
Tolkien tells us that:
“The Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”. Elsewhere he states "I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic" (ibid.). In 1958 he wrote that The Lord of the Rings is "a tale, which is built on or out of certain 'religious' ideas, but is not an allegory of them."
So this is more than allegory, much, much more; what, then, were those "certain 'religious' ideas" that inspired Tolkien?
Consider some of the themes and the characters who populate his work:
In the Lady Galadriel, for instance, the reader can be allowed to hear an echo of the Virgin Mary "Our Lady, upon which all my own small perceptions of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded" (letter to Fr Robert Murray SJ); Galadriel's grand-daughter, Arwen, also has a Marian role, saving both Frodo's life and soul as she utters the words - not in the original text but crafted by Peter Jackson, who in his use of the word grace makes a more explicitly religious statement than even Tolkien himself -
"What grace is given me, let it pass to him. Let him be spared."
Galadriel bestows upon the Fellowship seven mystical gifts, which are surely analogous to the seven sacraments, and as such are real signs of grace, and not mere symbols (and hence this is a specifically Catholic feature of the book).
Aragorn has Christ-like qualities; he has a kingdom to come into, a bride to wed. One powerful image that is very powerful is that of the “Hands of the Healer” – in the Houses of Healing, Aragorn, the King, has the ability to heal people by touching them with his hands. Another King had the touch that healed Jairus daughter, the centurion's servant, the lepers, the blind man and the sick who were lowered through the roof at Capaernum.
Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo all have Christ like marks - with Aragorn the king entering his kingdom, the return of whom everyone is expecting; the apparent “resurrection” of Gandalf after he dies fighting the Balrog they meet on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum; or Boromir's surrender of his life for his friends in order to save his companions (made all the more remarkable because of his earlier attempt to seize the ring by force and by his subsequent repentance); and Frodo's willingness both to serve and to carry his burden.
Then there is the provision of lembas, in which we can see the Holy Eucharist. Before the Fellowship depart from Lorien they have a final supper where the mystical elvish bread lembas is shared, and they all drink from a common cup. The immortal elves are nourished by the lembas, the mystical bread - the bread of angels - which both nourishes and heals.
Lembas, we are told, "had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone, and did not mingle it with other goods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure." This allusion reminds us of the manna that fed the people of Israel and of saints such as Theresa Neumann who survived by eating nothing other than the holy Eucharist.
Given Tolkien's remark that "I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again" some comparison with the Last Supper is inevitable. And it would be strange if Tolkien's tryst with the saving bread was not somewhere replicated in his great saga.
Beyond these individual instances are far deeper stories with the story.
Take for instance, the endless contest between good and evil.
In 1956 in a letter to Amy Ronald he wrote: "I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect "history" to be anything but a long defeat - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory."
As the ring bearer struggles towards his destiny many die before the evil forces of Sauron are at last subdued; and even then Saruman remains at large in the Shire.
The constant presence of Sauron that is felt throughout the book also reminds us of the constant threat of evil in our own lives. Frodo and Gandalf both understand that if they use the ring to overcome the Dark Lord then they too will become enslaved by evil. For the Christian the use of evil to overcome evil is a frequent temptation.
The general weakness of humanity (which can be taken to cover not only mankind, but all creatures in The Lord of the Rings) reminds us that humanity is fundamentally good, but that those who fall turn to evil. All that is evil was once good – Elrond says, “Nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.” In this commentary and in the fallen orcs – which were themselves once elves – we see the story of the fall.
Temptation appears first in The Hobbit as the travellers are warned as they enter Mirkwood, don't drink the water and don't stray from the path. How like all of us, the descendants of Adam, who when urged not to eat at the forbidden tree or not to stray from Him who is the Way we so often follow our own path.
By contrast, Frodo's self-sacrifice and willingness to take on seemingly impossible odds reflects a central tenet of Christian belief.
The temptation of the Serpent is reflected in Boromir’s temptation by the Ring, as well as in Gollum’s. In Gollum we also see the idea of a conscience – he fights with himself and with his conscience while he is being tempted. The theologian Colin Gunton was of the opinion that the way in which the Ring tempts people to use its power is analogous to Jesus' temptation by the devil.
Other aspects of evil also recur in the book. The destructive nature of evil is there in the Scouring of the Shire, and in the way in which Saruman’s troops destroy the trees and the timeless quality of Shire life, something especially abhorrent to Tolkien. The orcs themselves are cannibals, and are hideous – showing how evil corrupts. The dark and barren lands of Mordor are the very face of evil.
Connected with this is the self-destructive nature of evil.
After Gollum falls to the power of the Ring, he is consumed by its power, and he becomes weakened to such an extent that he can no longer resist it. Even getting close to evil has a subverting effect: take Bilbo's reluctance to give up the Ring, and its disappearance from the mantle piece and reappearance in his pocket. Or, despite his epic and heroic journey into darkness, Frodo ultimately fails to throw the ring into the furnace. Here is the powerful mixture of the intoxicating allure of the forbidden with our human weakness and frailty.
In this part of the narrative we are also reminded of the Christian virtue of mercy. Sam would have gladly disposed of Gollum whom he sees as a threat to Frodo. Gandalf commends Frodo for showing mercy and invokes the belief in providence that even Gollum may one day have his moment. As the ring is committed to the depths that providence comes to pass.
Tolkien's epic also dwells on unlikely victories over seemingly intractable and daunting odds such as at Helm's Deep. Even when evil appears to be triumphing – such as when Saruman gloats over what he considers to be the foolhardiness of Aragorn’s troops as they march towards Mordor, he is defeated by them.
Evil also brings with it desolation and barrenness.
Contrast the destruction of Isengard, and the brutality of the orcs, with the simple homely life of the Shire - so resonant of GK Chesterton's Merrie England – Chesterton, who had such a significant effect on the thinking and work of Tolkien and Lewis.
Contrast also the creativity of Iluvatar, the One, and his first creations, the Ainur, the Holy Ones, with Melkor, "the greatest of the Ainur" who, like Lucifer, falls as he succumbs to the sin of pride and seeks to subvert both men and elves (“The Silmarillion”). William Barclay said "pride is the ground in which all other sins grow, and the parent from which all other sins come."
Tolkien presents another side of evil too – the fact that inherent in evil is the desire to dominate, rule and have power over others.
There are other images in the book, which, while not being specifically Christian, are certainly images of good, or of bad. One fundamental image that Tolkien repeatedly uses is that of dark and light. Compare and contrast, for example, The Shire and Mordor (“where the shadows lie”) – The Shire which contains so much of the England Tolkien loved, and Mordor, the dark and sinister land where Sauron and Mount Doom are to be found, and which contains so much of the England that Tolkien hated.
Compare also the man-eating trolls and orcs with the elves – the disfigured (fallen) creatures and the beautiful and immortal elves.
Even in his use of names Tolkien's sign posts take us to places and people that seem good or bad – Galadriel, Aragorn, Frodo and Arwen are beautiful-sounding names, whereas Wormtongue, the Balrog, Mordor and Mount Doom are unlikely to be forces for good.
Tolkien is too good a storyteller to reveal the end of the story too soon. Just like John Bunyan's Christian, the pilgrim must steer his way through good and evil and although learning as he travels that evil is powerful, he learns, too, that it is not all-powerful, and it cannot but fail in the end.
The narrative also deals with, death, immortality and resurrection.
In 1958, in a letter to Rhona Beare, Tolkien wrote: "I might say that if the tale is 'about' anything it is not as seems widely supposed about 'power.' …It is mainly concerned with Death and Immortality."
One of the great temptations of today - represented in the battles over euthanasia, genetics and the immortality craved for through genetics and cloning - is the powerful temptation (shared by some of the men and elves of Tolkien's realm) to artificially manipulate our allotted span of life and to usurp the role of the Creator. The Ring Rhyme that opens each volume of The Lord of the Rings reminds us of the order of Creation and that we cannot cheat our maker:
"Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die…"
The Silmarillion puts it like this:
"Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought evil out of good and fear out of hope."
Resurrection – and a life beyond the present - is evoked as Gandalf dies and then comes back again even stronger as Gandalf the White.
His transformation also tells us something about the Christian idea of justice, which is at the heart of the book. Everyone gets what they deserve in the end. Saruman starts off as Saruman the White, but following his fall, ends up as Saruman of Many Colours. The order of “rank” in the wizard hierarchy holds white as the highest, followed by grey and then brown; they almost sound like orders of monks and friars. Conversely, after his fight with the Balrog, Gandalf, initially Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White and justice is done.
Here, too, is salvation.
The very future of Middle Earth is at stake, and it is the Fellowship which wins salvation for Middle Earth, although not without cost, including self-sacrifice. How potent are the words of Jesus as we think of Boromir or Gandalf that “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends”.
Repentance should also be mentioned here; the Christian notion of repentance clearly exists in Middle Earth. Boromir is rewarded for his repentance by dying a hero’s death by an orc’s arrow and being given a hero’s funeral. All of the fallen characters are given a chance to repent, although most of them– such as Wormtongue, Gollum and Saruman - unlike Boromir, do not.
Like Lewis, Tolkien reminds us of the destructive sin of pride: the Ring itself frequently represents the sin of pride.
Providence and free will - main tenets of Christianity – are here, too.
Catholic teaching on free will has always rejected pre-deterministic Calvinism, where no one has any influence over their destiny. The free men of the Middle Earth and the hobbits of the Shire are greatly in evidence in The Lord of the Rings.
Each of us has a destiny and we are free to embrace it or to reject it.
Cardinal John Henry Newman put it well when he said that there is some unique task assigned to each of us that has not been assigned to any other. The challenge is to discern it.
Newman’s prayer on “Purpose” sums up an approach to Christian theology and practice which Tolkien was both familiar with and would have shared.
Newman also said this about the use of gifts:
“What are great gifts but the correlative of great work? We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin.”
So we each have unique talents and a unique destiny.
Elrond tells Frodo that it is his destiny to be a ring bearer; but this is no pleasurable occupation. Frodo, like Christ, takes up his cross.
Throughout the quest Frodo's strength in increasingly sapped by the burden he carries and of which he seeks to be rid. His stumbling approach to Mordor, under the Eye of Sauron, is like the faltering steps of Christ weighed down by his Cross as he repeatedly falls on the path to Golgotha; and, like Christ, Frodo is tempted by despair.
Indeed, Frodo does succumb. His free will, hitherto so strong in resisting the powers of the Ring, gives way to the power of the Ring, and he cannot bring himself to throw it down into the fires of Mount Doom. Despite all his inner strength Frodo gradually succumbs to a dark fascination with the ring and he loses his free spirit and free will the closer he comes in proximity to Mount Doom
Enter here the Christian foot soldier, Sam Gamgee.
One of the most attractive characters in The Lord of the Rings is based on the private soldiers Tolkien encountered at the Somme in 1916:
"My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself."
Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest hero in the book. Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, it is he who saves Frodo and ultimately the Shire. Mary Magdalene, in her first resurrection encounter with the Lord mistakes Jesus, thinking that he too is only a gardener. Tolkien is reminding us that so often we miss what is important about the people we meet, what matters most, and too frequently judge them by the job they do or their social origins.
Sam is like Simon of Cyrene, sharing his Master's burden and at the climax his devoted loyalty in following Frodo to the very end is rewarded as the burden is lightened and he is transfigured.
Stratford Caldecott quotes Tolkien as saying that the plot is concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’ - and the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth.
At a crucial moment in Mordor he must carry the Ringbearer, and even the Ring itself. He moves from immature innocence to mature innocence: and finally, in his own world (that is, in Tolkien’s inner world of the Shire), this ‘gardener’ becomes a ‘king’ or at least a Mayor. The fact is that Frodo could not have fulfilled his task without the continuing presence of Sam, and he relies utterly on him; yet Sam remains humble always and faithful to his master.
There is also something here of a Catholic love of order, of tradition and a longing for restoration of that which has been lost. There are glimpses in the shire folk of the Catholic recusants - bravely clinging on to their persecuted faith and longing for its restoration.
During the 16 years he was compiling his trilogy Tolkien stayed regularly here at Stonyhurst College - the heart of "the sacred county" of Lancashire and home of the recusant Shireburn family. He worked in one of the guesthouses and in one of the classrooms, writing and drawing. One of his sons, Michael, taught classics and John trained at Stonyhurst to become a Catholic priest.
Although Tolkien draws on many influences - not least those of his childhood Worcestershire and the Midlands - a walk along Hurst Green’s Shire Lane and a detour to Woodlands where Michael planted a copse in his father's memory, are well repaid. Look to the distance where Pendle Hill, associated with the occult and witch trials, dominates the landscape. In walking around this parish Tolkien would have encountered the descendants of the never wavering recusants who still farm the land and live with faith and simplicity.
In the Shire and other lands where the “good” live, there is a social hierarchy, and, some might argue, even a sort of papacy in the wizard Gandalf – after all, he acts as leader to the free and faithful people, and he even crowns kings, as did popes of old. Tolkien himself said of the papacy: "I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims…for me the Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honour, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place.”Feed my sheep" was his last charge to St.Peter."
There is the further thought that along with the papal colour of white, the name of the Holy Father's summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, is translated into English as Gandolf's Castle. Perhaps it means nothing; perhaps it is another hidden clue.
Among the other riddles and runes there is the day on which the Ring is finally destroyed in Mount Doom – March 25th. Tom Shippey, in “The Road to Middle Earth”, says that in “Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradition both before and after that, March 25th is the date of the Crucifixion”, and it is also the date of the Annunciation. Days to recall beginnings and endings.
The Lord of the Rings then is a story with many stories concealed within it. Tolkien's subtlety is that he lays a trail of clues for his readers. It is up to us whether we choose to "go further up and further in", as Lewis put it.
I want to end by referring to Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis.
He once wrote that “There’s no sound I like better than male laughter” – and it was in the early 1930s that he began to cultivate his friendship with the new Professor of Anglo-Saxon, appointed in 1925. Throughout those highly productive years – and as he journeyed from atheism to Christian belief – Lewis became close to Tolkien.
In 1933 they began to hold meetings in college rooms and on Tuesday mornings at The Eagle and Child (The Bird and Baby). Tolkien later wrote that “CSL had a passion for hearing things read aloud.” The Inklings met regularly during the next two decades – their circle of friends, their round table, included Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Charles Williams and, after the Second World War, Tolkien’s son Christopher.
Although Tolkien would later be displaced in Lewis’ affections, and a rift opened between them, these gatherings enriched them both inestimably. Lewis would write of the importance of such friendship in “The Four Loves”: “He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest or funniest in all the others.” The Inklings were conceived as a circle of friends which would practice solidarity and engender camaraderie; intuitively and challengingly counter cultural.
For Lewis the Inklings also provided a familial intimacy which his own family could not. They also had a common faith.
He recorded the moment when, in 1931, he decided to embrace Christianity: “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. …My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
Two year earlier he had come to believe in God: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England…The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
These two men were formed by common experiences – notably the First World War. They also came to share a common Christian faith and a love of myth and legend. Both had decided and traditional views about the shaping of society; the corrupting and emasculation of education; the importance of friendship; and the championing of orthodoxy against heterodoxy.
Lewis particularly loathed the educational ideas of the American educationalist, John Dewey. In “The Abolition of Man”, he castigates modern educationalists as “the new Conditioners”: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise….we castrate them and then bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Of the Conditioners he says “It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all…they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”
Mark Studdock, in “That Hideous Strength” – part of the Cosmic Trilogy – and my favourite work by Lewis - is the product of such a values-free education.
After Lewis wrote his first book of prose, “The Pilgrim’s Regress”, in 1932, he authored more than thirty five more books of prose. He wrote science fiction , Christian apologetics, theology, satirical letters from a devil, radio broadcasts, poetry, sermons, lectures, and scholarly works on English literature - and whether it is through the Narnian Chronicles, Screwtape, The Cosmic Trilogy, his Christian apologetics or “Shadowlands”, or the dramatised version of his late flowering love affair and marriage to Joy Davidman, Lewis remains a captivating figure.
Lewis life as a Christian should not simply be assessed in terms of his writings. He was a rumbustuous, engaging and kindly man who took a lot of trouble over his friends and acquaintances. Kenneth Tynan, an unlikely admirer, was one of his students in 1945, and recalled later that Lewis was “terribly sound and funny”…He was a deeply kind and charitable man too.” On one occasion when Tynan went to see his tutor he said “I had entered the room suicidal, and I left it exhilarated.”
Lewis did not believe Christians needed to be morose or detached. In 1944 The Daily Telegraph misleadingly referred to Lewis as “an ascetic”. Tolkien scoffed at this in a letter to his son: “Ascetic Mr.Lewis!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’”
The friendship of these two men did not lead to rivalry but to mutual encouragement. For two men formed in the harrowing trenches of the Great War, who had seen so many of their friends pay the ultimate price, pain and suffering did not disable or incapacitate them. Both believed that beyond the pain and the suffering of today is the certainty of eternity. Both believed that through their story telling they could encourage their readers to see beyond the catastrophic and destructive effects of war and the evil in our world to a hopeful and joyous future.
It is a journey we must all make – from pain to gain. It is also the final clue to understanding Tolkien’s epic work
That final hidden clue is the word Tolkien invented to describe what he saw as a good quality in a fairy-story – and that word was eucatastrophe, this being the notion that there is a “sudden joyous ‘turn’” in the story, where everything is going well, “giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy”, whilst not denying the “existence of dyscatastrophe – of sorrow and failure”. It also reminds us that catastrophe can be reversed. Hatred and fear need not win; violence need not have its day; destruction doesn't have to triumph. Eucatastrophe is the hosanna for the Prince of Peace, the King of Joy, and the Lord of Life - who enters the stable on the back of a donkey and departs for his Kingdom on the back of another.
Tolkien believed that a story containing eucatastrophe was a story at its highest function – and that the Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of human history.
To read the fiction without understanding that faith – the faith of both of Lewis and Tolkien – would be to do them and their work a fundamental disservice.
So this then was who JRR Tolkien was. I hope I have shed some light on his life, the things which influenced him and the beliefs that he held. I hope it will encourage you to go back to Tolkien and to look for some of these hidden clues to the real meaning of his stories.
Tolkien died on September 2nd, 1973; Lewis had died ten years earlier, on November 22nd 1963 – the day on which President John F Kennedy was assassinated.
Two years earlier, the librarian at our local public lending library recommended that I read The Narnian Chronicles, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: I remain deeply appreciative that she did.