The Catholic Genius of J.R.R. Tolkien

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament.”

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A good book, like a good wine, improves with age. This is so much the case that an objective critical judgment cannot be made of a great work of literature until it has had time to mature. And just as one should not judge a book by its cover, one should not judge a book’s literary merit on the fact that it has made the bestseller lists. A book can be very popular at the time that it is published for all sorts of reasons that have little or nothing to do with its literary merit. It can titillate or scandalize, and there are always plenty of people seeking titillation or scandal; or it can follow the latest fads and fashions, and there are always plenty of people seeking to be fashionable; or it can be topical, and there are always plenty of people who are not able to see beyond the end of the news. And yet titillation and scandal are transitory. They serve the desire for instant gratification of our lower passions after which they are tossed aside. And fads and fashions are as facile and fragile as their followers are fickle and feckless. Fads fade because there is nothing as unfashionable as yesterday’s fads. And as for topicality, it is as transient as titillation and scandal, and as fading as fashion. Yesterday’s news is as newsworthy as yesterday’s fashion is fashionable. It is forgotten as instantaneously as it was reported.

One of the finest things about The Lord of the Rings is that it made the bestseller lists and has stayed on the bestseller lists without succumbing to any of the pitfalls of popular fiction. It doesn’t titillate or scandalize, nor does it follow fashion. In fact, and ironically, the only people scandalized by it are those followers of intellectual fads and fashions who are scandalized by how unfashionable it is! And as for topicality, Tolkien’s story could not be further from the “stuff” of daily newspapers. It is not rooted in today’s news, or even in yesterday’s news, but in a world beyond the news. It is not rooted in contemporary times or in past times, but in all time. And yet this is the very root of its relevance. Fashions fade away and news ceases to be news, but the “stuff” or reality remains. Tolkien’s epic goes to the heart of reality, to the heart of good and evil, to the heart of the unchanging human condition, to the heart of the spiritual realities that make sense of the physical world in which we live. It is not a slave of the zeitgeist but a servant of the Heilige Geist. It is timely because it is timeless. Or, to put the whole matter in Tolkien’s own words, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”        

There we have it in a nutshell, and from the lips of the author himself. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” But how is it so? Or is it so? There’s no mention of Christ anywhere in the story; or the Church; or any religion. Is it really as “fundamentally religious and Catholic” as its author maintains? Yes, it is, and in ways that continue to surprise and astound the reader with each subsequent reading. It is so rich with religious and Catholic meaning that one could go on and on, seemingly forever, unraveling the multifaceted applicability of the doctrinal and spiritual truths that emerge from the story.  It is, therefore, difficult to know where to end in any discussion of this Catholic masterpiece. It is easier, however, to know where to begin. Tolkien gives us the vital clue we need to begin to understand the “fundamentally religious” character of the work in the date on which the One Ring is destroyed. It is cast into the maw of Mount Doom on March 25, a date that is so significant that it serves as the key with which we can unlock the rest of the plot.

March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the Word was made Flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. As a date, March 25 is more salvifically charged than Christmas. Although Jesus was born on Christmas Day he was conceived at the moment of the Annunciation. The significance of this date was not lost on the mediaevals, many of whom believed that the Crucifixion also happened on March 25, thereby connecting the beginning of the life of Jesus with His death. The date was also adopted by some mediaeval cultures as New Year’s Day, thereby connecting the date of the Incarnation and Crucifixion with the New Life of Redemption heralded by Christ’s Resurrection. And what, exactly, is achieved by this triune act of Redemption (Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection)? It is nothing less than the liberation of man from the bondage of Original Sin. And what, exactly, is Original Sin? It is the One Sin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them, just as the Ring is the One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. The One Sin and the One Ring are both cast into the hellfire from which they were made on the same date: March 25. 

From the supercharged significance of this one juxtaposition between God’s Creation and Tolkien’s subcreation, the rest of the plot falls into place with ineffable orthodoxy. Frodo as the Ring bearer, the bearer of Sin, is also the Cross bearer. He is a Christ figure and, at the same time, an icon of Everyman who is called to take up his cross and follow Christ. He is called to carry his cross through the land of Mordor (the valley of death, the vale of tears or the via dolorosa) to Mount Doom (Golgotha). He is fed on his journey by the “magical” power of lembas, which in elvish means “life bread” or “bread of life”, a clear allusion to the Blessed Sacrament. And this is to speak of the role of Frodo only. We have said nothing of Aragorn as an imago Christi, or of Gandalf. There is much more that could and should be said, but, as we have said already, it is much easier to know where to begin in any discussion of this wonderful work than it is to know where to end, if indeed there is an end. Since, however, one must make an end, there seems no better way of doing so than with Tolkien’s own words about the Real lembas that fed his Christian imagination and inspired the genius of his Catholic Muse.

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. ... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires. [Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: George Allen  and Unwin, 1981), pp. 53–54.]