The name J.R.R. Tolkien may not be a household name but he is certainly one of the most brilliant writers of English literature of the 20th century. He is best known for his works ‘The Hobbitt’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ which were both made into films, the latter being a blockbuster trilogy that appeared in cinemas in the early years of the new millennium.
A more recent film - ‘Tolkien’, portrayed the story of his life that began in South Africa in 1892 and ended in England in 1973. In that eventful life, he became orphaned when he was 12, fought for the Allies during the Great War and eventually became Professor of English in Oxford University during which time he wrote ‘The Hobbitt’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’.
In reviews of the film ‘Tolkien’ that narrated his life’s story, while many affirm its positive elements, some criticise the absence of the influence of Tolkien’s Catholic imagination as a writer. Tolkien was a lifelong Catholic although his mother was a convert from Anglicanism - a decision that made her destitute and alienated from her family. After her death, Tolkien and his brother Hilary were cared for by priests from the Birmingham Oratory which was founded by Cardinal Newman a few decades previously.
On first glance, Tolkien’s works seem to have little to do with Christianity. He wasn’t an apologist in the classical understanding - unlike his friend C.S. Lewis who moved from atheism to faith and became one of the best defenders of the Christian faith in the English speaking world. Before ‘Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien wrote a letter to his friend named Fr Robert Murray saying: ‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally a religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision…the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism’.
Anyone familiar with ‘Lord of the Rings’ who has read the book or seen the films will quickly recognise what he is talking about. Figures like Gandalf and Frodo are Christ-like figures with the themes of death and resurrection prominent throughout the stories of both. Frodo is also like Abraham, setting out from the idyllic life of the shire and embarking in trust on a great adventure that will break the power of evil. This power of evil is symbolised by the ring of power. Those who lust to have it get corrupted but those who seek to give it away and destroy it, redeem themselves and others. As they travel, Frodo and his companion Sam get their strength from a waver like bread, symbolic of the Eucharist. Sauron and his orks represent the devil and his demons. Even since the films are now nearly 20 years old, the work of Sauron includes cutting down a forest – an act of vandalism that has a contemporary ring to it as we find ourselves in the crisis of the environment and the scandal of deforestation.
It is well known that Tolkien has a strong devotion to Our Lady. He chose 25th March as the date for the destruction of Sauron which was no coincidence. In a letter, Tolkien revealed that Mary was his inspiration and ‘the person upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded’. He also wrote of her: ‘I attribute whatever there is of beauty and goodness in my work to the Holy Mother of God’. Some interpreters of his work link his depiction of the elf queen Galadriel who possesses great beauty and wisdom to Our Lady. Contrast her words to Frodo: ‘Even the smallest person can change the course of history’ to Mary’s in her Magnificat - ‘he cast down the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly’ (Luke 1:52).
J.R.R. Tolkien died on 2nd September 1973 aged 81. His work was a masterful attempt to narrate the great mysteries of our faith in a different way and to share his Catholic faith that shaped his brilliant imagination. We pray that the gift of faith may ignite many more writers to follow his footsteps.