The Generosity of Tolkien

In the 1930s, a young Catholic professor at Oxford University began writing stories to read his children at Christmastime. They were tales full of well-known magical creatures — elves, dwarfs, knights, wizards, witches — but what made them unique was a race of his own imagining: the noble, plump little halflings he called “hobbits.” The best description for them is this: Imagine G. K. Chesterton’s idealized Englishmen — generous, earthy, self-mocking, but deeply courageous — shrunk to the size of ten-year-old boys, equipped with pipes and mugs of beer.

Professor John Ronald Reul Tolkien (1892-1973) started with no thought of publishing this story, The Hobbit, although he’d idly dreamed of issuing his longer, unfinished epic The Silmarillion. When he did submit The Hobbit, it was vetted by the publisher’s eight-year-old son, who loved the book. It sold respectably, and the publisher begged him for more. Largely to feed his growing family, Tolkien spent the war years writing The Lord of the Rings (1955). The books started strong and became wildly popular in the 1960s, serving as Tolkien’s subtle apostolate, inspiring tens of millions of readers around the world, helping to steer back from the abyss of modern nihilism many a shaky soul — one of them mine. But more about me later.

Besides teaching Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, Tolkien graded hundreds of university entrance exams each year for extra income to support his family. (No one who hasn’t taught high school or college can imagine what kind of hell Tolkien put himself through.) While at Oxford, he joined luminaries such as C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and Owen Barfield in the Inklings, an informal club of Christian writers. Tolkien was instrumental in winning Lewis back to Christianity, as that great apologist recounts in Surprised by Joy.
Tolkien spent his scant free hours constructing the parallel world found in his books, “Middle-Earth.” He acted as its loving father, peopling it with a vast array of species. Instead of doing what most writers (trust me) settle for, the minimum needed to move the story forward, Tolkien showed all the Liberality of those medieval craftsmen who would carve even the backs of pillars that no man would ever see — since they worked for the glory of God, Who would. Tolkien crafted for his creatures’ use entire languages with alphabets and whole continents with maps. He limned out their history for thousands of years, from the mists of our own faded legends (such as Beowulf and the Brothers Grimm) all the way back to Creation. The opening of The Silmarillion describes the fall of a mighty angel and his expulsion from heaven. It begins:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.
Tolkien didn’t see his work as a piece of Catholic apologetics, but as something more ambitious. Tolkien hoped to create for the English-speaking peoples a literary myth — as the Germans had in the grail legends, and the French in chivalric romances. The stories of King Arthur, Tolkien sniffed over his pipe, were actually Celtic, and too mixed up with French infusions for his Anglo-Saxon tastes. So he spent his life creating a replacement — which, to his cackling delight, took root. Let’s test that assertion: If you’re reading this in English, write down the names of as many knights of the Round Table as you can think of. Now name all the hobbits you can. Case closed.
But the Catholic element in Tolkien’s work keeps peeping up from the shadows — which isn’t really surprising, since he grew up enduring a kind of persecution for the Faith. Mabel Tolkien, a young widow, lived with her two sons, John and Hilary, in slum-like conditions in Birmingham, after her family cast her out and cut her off for the crime of converting to Catholicism. After four years of bitter toil, Mabel died, leaving the boys to the care of Rev. Francis X. Morgan, one of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s protégés at the Birmingham Oratory.
Tolkien became a daily communicant and a weekly confessor. He especially held the Eucharist in awe, as he made clear in a letter to his son:
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 upon 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
Tolkien’s faith carried him through a lonely childhood, then through the squalid futility of the Battle of the Somme — where he saw three of his four closest friends die uselessly in the trenches. Tolkien’s dogged prayer life sustained him through a sometimes difficult, always tender marriage to Edith Tolkien. Their romance was the basis for the poetic love-story of Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion –a fact now carved on his and Edith’s tombstones.
As a teenager, Tolkien had neglected his Latin and Greek to study Norse. And Finnish. And Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien thrilled at studying medieval eddas and sagas, mastering dusty grammars to decode half-forgotten tales. At Oxford, he made himself the university’s expert in Nordic literature and won a prestigious chair that he’d hold for the next four decades. Indeed, his love for Nordic languages is what first led Tolkien to set pen to paper; delighted by the Finnish epic the Kalevala, Tolkien decided to create his own language that mirrored its structure. The result was the language that geeks like me know as Elvish. (If you go to the right Renaissance fairs, you can hear it spoken — usually over a game of Dungeons and Dragons among a bunch of guys who can’t get dates.) Once he’d developed the language, Tolkien felt the need to invent a race that spoke it, then a history for that race . . . and thus were planted the seeds of The Silmarillion. It all started with Finnish.
What attracted Tolkien to Nordic tales in the first place was their unique, heroic ethos. Written down by recently Christianized barbarians, stories such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight intertwined the old, pagan values of individualism, courage, and promise-keeping with biblical themes of self-sacrifice, defense of the helpless, and piety toward the One God. Thus were the warriors of the North civilized and urged to guide the use of their swords by the codes of Hebrew prophets and Christian theologians. The grandsons of the Viking raiders began to bind themselves to the Ten Commandments and Augustine’s Just War doctrine.
Tolkien saw in this literature a great, unsung moment in the birth of the West, and he called the proud hatred for tyranny that pervades these sagas the “Nordic” spirit. He pointed to it as the single quality that separated medieval (and modern) man from the obedient subjects of Rome and Byzantium. As the great Wilhelm Röpke wrote, this freeman’s spirit survived for centuries among the stubborn cantons of Switzerland, the “free cities” of the Holy Roman Empire, and the gentry of England. The privileges won by Anglo-Saxons from their kings formed the basis of English common law and its great modern descendant — the U.S. Bill of Rights.
The work of Lewis also refers to “the North” as the source of individualism and resistance to unjust authority; in The Chronicles of Narnia, his heroes’ battle cry is “for Narnia and the North.” In Narnia, as in The Lord of the Rings, the heroes were based on medieval, Northern European knights, who fought for free societies based on tradition, custom, and courage — against slave armies recruited from southern climes, who carried scimitars, lived in the desert, and cringed before Oriental despots. (But let’s leave current events out of this.)
Even as Tolkien wrote to immortalize the great synthesis of Northern heroism with biblical morality, modern barbarians were laboring to reverse it. The proto-Nazi Völkisch movement, born in the blood and humiliation of Napoleon’s conquest of Germany, had for a century agitated against Judaeo-Christian “softness” in favor of pagan ruthlessness. Völkisch boosters of Nordic literature ignored its heroic individualism in favor of its residues of pagan tribalism, “deconstructing” the Judaeo-Christian elements as inauthentic overlays on the pure originals. The artistic pinnacle of this project appeared in Wagner’s grand operas, based on “pure” pagan sources. Its political apogee came with the victory of a Völkish-socialist demagogue in Germany.
As a fervent Catholic, a war veteran, and a genuine scholar of Nordic cultures, Tolkien despised these thuggish poseurs. In 1938, Tolkien denounced the Nazis’ “wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.” When German publishers Rütten and Loening wished to translate The Hobbit from English, they wrote him, inquiring whether his name was of “Aryan” origin. Tolkien’s reply dripped scorn:
I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is, Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.
He wrote his son, Michael, in 1941 (then a cadet training for the British army):
I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler. . . . Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble, northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor ever more early sanctified and Christianized.
Tolkien’s life, opinions, and work are one long rebuff to a totalitarian century. The moral key to The Lord of the Rings is the refusal of ruthlessness and the changelessness of the moral law. The Ring is a mighty weapon of war — but profoundly tinged with evil. The Ring may not be used, even against the Dark Lord himself, lest its user be corrupted and become what he hates. Some means are so evil that no end can justify them. Some laws are so sacred that we must die rather than break them. We may never target the innocent in order to weaken the guilty. These lessons, which Tolkien drew from the Christian, heroic sagas of the North, should linger in our minds and restrain our passions — especially in time of war.
Other lessons abound. While Tolkien always insisted he wasn’t writing allegory — twisting his story to fit a hidden agenda or comment on current events — he was happy to see the truths he’d laid out applied to understanding the real (all too real) world. So, here is Tolkien on moral relativism and “situation ethics”:
Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them (The Return of the King).
On suicide and euthanasia:
Authority is not given to you . . . to order the hour of your own death. . . . And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaughtering themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death (The Return of the King).
On our current culture of death:
But the fear of death grew ever darker upon them, and they delayed it by all means that they could; and they began to build great houses for their dead, while their wise men laboured unceasingly to discover if they might the secret of recalling life, or at the least of prolonging Men’s days. But those that lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry, desiring ever more goods and more riches . . . (The Silmarillion).
And finally, on Satan himself:
From splendour he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless. Understanding he turned to subtlety in perverting to his own will all that he would use, until he became a liar without shame. He began with a desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness. And darkness he used most in his evil works upon Arda [Creation], and filled it with fear for all living things (The Silmarillion).
Tolkien’s books have deepened and enriched the lives of countless millions of readers — and helped save not a few souls, including (I hope!) mine.
At age eleven, having no idea who Tolkien was, I read The Hobbit. To me it was a simple story of an unexpectedly heroic little person who finds a magic ring. That book led me to its sequels. I thrilled to read about Gandalf, a wise old wizard in long gray robes, whose hands wielded magic to strengthen good creatures and fend off the wicked; of bravely bearded dwarfs named Oin and Gloin, Thorin and Ori, who delved the earth’s bowels for treasure; of the greedy dragon, Smaug, who must be slain; of long-lost languages, realms, and lore. It was the kind of world that really should exist, that must exist — and, in a sense, does exist. It profoundly complemented the mysteries I glimpsed each week at Mass.
I learned of the fallen Kingdom of Numenor, the noblest human realm ever founded, which failed in its piety, embraced a culture of death, and rebelled against the Creator — only to be swallowed by the waves. I dreamt of Elbereth Gilthoniel, the pure-hearted Queen of the Stars invoked by pious elves at the hour of danger. I dreaded the Ring of Power, an evil talisman that granted its wearer the might to master other men’s wills and make them slaves — a Ring so evil that even the wisest and best might not use it, even to fight against demons, lest they too be corrupted.
Best of all, I walked in the footsteps of the hobbits — a race of pudgy, homely men about three feet high. (I was tall by comparison!) Their quiet courage and humility suited them alone to bear the Ring through mine and mountain, goblin-pit and poisoned swamp, without succumbing to its sinful urgings. These hapless, home-loving hobbits, in some ways like the boy I was, must carry the Ring like a cross into the kingdom of death and beyond.
Then I met another mentor. At age 15, in Catholic school, I sat hearkening to a bearded sage — Mr. Faustus, let’s call him. Trained at top seminaries to the brink of priesthood, he’d been chosen by the nuns and the chaplain to hand on the ancient mysteries of the Faith.
Mr. Faustus’s eyes glinted cleverly as he tossed off the names of wise men we would learn about in his class: “Tyrrell, Loissy, Teilhard, Rahner, Kung . . .” He traced words in Latin and Greek in spidery lines across the dusty blackboard, glints of erudition that shimmered like gold.
Thunderstruck, we drank it all in. Here at last was secret knowledge — to which not even the pope was privy! Pope John Paul II had been blinkered, Mr. Faustus explained, by his narrow upbringing in a faraway land among backward peasants (like hobbits?). We should view him as a lovable but slightly befuddled grandfather who told us fables containing grains of truth — fables, Mr. Faustus added, like the New Testament.
By learning the secrets of sophisticated Catholicism, he promised, we would emerge smarter, savvier, more upscale than our immigrant forebears. We’d be modern, American Catholics, fair and free. The mists of ignorance that had cloaked our pope and parents would pass away in the cool modern winds of research. So would our sexual guilt — one promise that perked up our pubescent ears. Things we’d been taught were sins were actually complex and morally ambiguous — and sometimes allowed. Ethics depended upon the situation.
My youthful skepticism took fire as Mr. Faustus nuked one myth after another. The virginity of Mary? A mistranslation from the Greek. An infallible pope? Undemocratic. The devil? A symbolic bogeyman. Women priests? Inevitable. Christ’s resurrection? A psychological event. Christ’s ban on divorce? Rendered irrelevant by longer modern lifespans. The Eucharist? Mr. Faustus warned us against “magic theology,” and pointed out that “Hoc est enim corpus meum” was the origin of the term “Hocus-pocus.” What’s more, as Mr. Faustus quipped to us, “Jesus didn’t have a Master’s in Theology. I do.”
I felt enlightened. When I went to see John Paul at Madison Square Garden, I looked down upon him benignly, savoring this irony: At 15, I understood (as the poor pope couldn’t) the truth about Catholicism.
I had lost something in return. Mr. Faustus’s world lacked romance. My boyish love of kings and popes, of miracles and sacraments, could not attach itself to dissident biblical scholars and feminist nuns. Attempting to re-mystify my world, I even borrowed manuals on the occult from a creepy, drug-dabbling schoolmate. (In retrospect, he reminds me of one of the Columbine killers.) Compared to what I remembered of the works of Tolkien from childhood, these books seemed spooky and shallow, and I soon lost interest.
I went back and dug grimly through my pile of old hobbit books, wondering: Do these stories hold a key to Creation’s real mystery and wonder? If Mr. Faustus was right, that was impossible. The universe was just a lab experiment, and God a disengaged bureaucrat whose memos kept getting garbled by his staff. I poked at the books, depressed, and wandered off to Sunday Mass, not sure why I still bothered.
I looked past the liturgy, the sermon, the grimly “contemporary” music, and waited for the Consecration. I watched the “presider” elevate the small white wafer, and wondered what on earth it meant. Then I heard the bells, and felt my knees buckle. My wise-guy’s wisdom trembled for a moment, as boyhood fancies, loves, and dreams awoke, sputtering like the fuse on a roman candle. The wide, mysterious world for which Tolkien had prepared me might really exist. There might be a Virgin Queen of Heaven, a Dark Lord whom she fought, and a reason for any hobbit to shoulder his cross. I might be a dupe, a fool. Thank God!
I went back to Tolkien for inspiration, to an old catechism for answers, and employed some real skepticism at last. I saw that my newly cultivated doubts were cheap excuses, blasé retorts to the ultimate questions, graffiti sprayed across the Sistine ceiling. As once I’d read The Silmarillion to explicate The Hobbit, now I delved into the Catholic Encyclopedia, delighting in the real complexity, the exquisite depths and heights and breadth of God’s love and truth, His works and world. I found my very own Gandalf in Rev. John Hardon, S.J., who graciously let me sit in on his college classes.
I decided that Mr. Faustus was more like Saruman, the brilliant wizard who turned his lore to evil; I spent the next three years or so debating with him and the colleagues who seconded his opinions; I reported them to my parents and the principal, and then to bishop and papal nuncio, in a carefully detailed document that nearly got me expelled. When consequences came — when angry fellow-students confronted me, when a radical sister stood me before the class alone to defend Humanae Vitae “in the face of a starving world,” when I went in alone to face the teachers, and chaplain, and principal, who demanded to know what I was doing and why — I simply thought of Frodo, carrying the ring to the brink of Doom. And I wasn’t afraid.
For me, as for every believer, Faith came as a gift. While God was its origin, it passed through many human hands — and Tolkien’s were the gentlest. He wrapped the starkness of Mystery in the exquisite fabrics of Myth, in gold-wrought watered silks that proclaimed its preciousness. The Pearl of Great Price can only come from Christ, but Tolkien packed it up for me in a bright blue Tiffany’s box. In an age when “experts” and “specialists” teach us the price of everything and the value of nothing, the generosity of artists may yet work our redemption. As Father Zossimov promised Alyosha Karamazov, “Beauty will save the world.”


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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