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.
The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.
Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.1
Listers, as you may have guessed by this point, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was not only a magnificent writer but also a devout Catholic. This influence shines through his works, although not in the direct way often employed by other writers. He simply sought to tell great stories, stories that his readers would enjoy. For him, a great story is one that does not require conscious suspension of disbelief; instead, it is the responsibility of the author to guide the reader into the story smoothly. In particular, it is essential that the rules governing the secondary world that the author _subcreates_2 are believable and consistent. For Tolkien, this meant that his subcreated world must be consistent with the Truth. Naturally, various physical details differ from our familiar world, but the underlying philosophy is very much the same. As such, his work can provide unique insights into some of the mysteries of faith, a few examples of which I present here. Note that Tolkien does not achieve these insights through the use of allegory, which he professed to ‘cordially dislike’.3 Rather than parallelling Biblical stories, Tolkien tells new stories that are rooted in Christian principles and thus naturally develop many of the same concepts. In this list, I will briefly introduce a few of these ideas and leave the reader to explore both the further detail that can be enjoyed and the numerous other images that Tolkien has given us.
1. Free will and fate
If you lack time to read anything else by Tolkien, read the first part of The Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë. In it, Tolkien describes, in gorgeous almost-poetic prose, the story of Creation as a collaborative music directed by God but left to the freedom of His creatures. It begins with Ilúvatar, God, proposing a theme to his creations, the Ainur, angelic beings similar to the classical gods but different in their submission to and creation by the One:
Then Ilúvatar said to them: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.4
The Ainulindalë goes on to treat the specifics of the theme designed by Ilúvatar and its interpretation by the Ainur, but we can already discern one of the core ideas that Tolkien addresses in The Silmarillion: the interaction between free will and fate. Ilúvatar’s theme is later seen to greatly influence the playing out of history; indeed, wisdom in Middle-Earth is closely tied to one’s knowledge of this Music. However, even in its conception it is left up to the freedom of the Ainur: Ilúvatar does not command a performance, but rather requests that each being contribute, ‘if he will’.5 And so they do, each one working his own personality and thoughts into the theme, developing what will become the sky, the seas, the mountains, and the trees. Nonetheless, each is working within the bounds of the theme of Ilúvatar. Tolkien thus introduces a concept that will remain throughout his works: one can be under the guidance of a fate outside oneself and yet act freely.
2. The problem of evil
This emphasis on freedom is most evident in the way that Melkor, one of the Valar, the highest of the Ainur, exercises his freedom: he rebels from the proposed theme and seeks to dominate with his own will. Melkor thus introduces evil, but he does not go unchallenged. Instead, Ilúvatar stands and introduces a new theme, one of his own design, into the ongoing music:
Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm… But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it… Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew among the confusion…4
And the discord grows, until Ilúvatar rises and puts an end to the Music. He then addresses the Ainur:
Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.4
Tolkien here presents a traditional explanation of the problem of evil: evil is a result of misused freedom, but even evil cannot escape the great plan of God; indeed, it increases all the more the magnificence of His plan. Naturally, though, evil is not part of the plan from the beginning: rather, evil results from Melkor’s discord, but Ilúvatar takes his ‘most triumphant notes’ and weaves them into his own theme.4 Tolkien even suggests that this interaction is core to who Ilúvatar is: Ilúvatar does not state that he allows Melkor to continue in order to make an example of him, or to teach him a lesson, but rather to show that ‘I am Ilúvatar’. It is part of Ilúvatar’s very nature to allow his creation to make full use of their freedom; indeed, having given freedom, taking it away would devalue the majesty of his creation, and thus of himself. However, evil notwithstanding, ‘I am Ilúvatar’, and it is also part of his nature to govern all that is, and so the freedom of his creatures ‘redoundeth only to [his] great glory’.6
However, Tolkien knows that all of this explanation, while logical, is hard to accept in the face of our world, and he acknowledges this here: even the godlike Ainur ‘did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them’.4 Throughout all of his writing, he is sensitive to the very real suffering of his characters, never making light of their trials with a trite comment about the power of Ilúvatar. Rather, he treats them and their confusion about evil with the dignity that it deserves, but alternates this treatment with a wider view of the events of the world that reminds the reader that all is ultimately ordered for the good, whether or not we understand this now. Indeed, this wide view provides an (admittedly faint) undercurrent of hope through even the saddest tales of The Silmarillion: even Túrin eventually greets the Gift of Men and passes beyond the struggles of the world. Naturally, given the huge breadth of the problem of evil, there is much more to address here, and Tolkien continues to explore this idea in the rest of his work.
3. Spiritual imagery
Although complex philosophical thoughts are powerful and important, sometimes Tolkien’s words strike deeply but simply into the heart of a confusing topic, opening it to the light of understanding. One such is a description of the Ainur:
And this habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness; as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle; or who consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.4
We have all heard that God can govern both the entirety of the universe and each individual electron, but here Tolkien takes that thought and precedes it with an illustration that raises it to the level of grandeur that it truly should evoke: God can govern both the entirety of the universe and each individual electron!
Another beautiful image touches on the issue of free will in relation to obedience. Aulë, one of the Valar, grows impatient waiting for the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar, that is, Elves and Men, and undertakes the creation of his own children, who will become the Dwarves. However, he is not Ilúvatar, and he cannot give true life to his creation:
[T]hou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. 7
Aulë immediately sees his error and repents:
I did not desire such lordship… But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?… Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid…7
And Ilúvatar explains that he has granted the Dwarves being of their own, or else they could not have shrunk from the command of their maker. Tolkien here illustrates in a powerful manner the multifaceted connexions among freedom, obedience, and love.
Listers, this is but a sampling of the great value that can be found by one who delves the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, but even this value pales in comparison to the simple pleasure of enjoying a well-written tale. I would encourage you to take the time to explore Tolkien’s world more thoroughly; you will not regret it.
Ben VanBerkum has been obsessed with Tolkien’s work for as long as he can remember; this may or may not be because he has repressed the memory of those days in which he did not know Middle-Earth. He is pursuing a B.S. in Physics at Stanford University and hopes to enter the Dominican Order.
- J.R.R. Tolkien to Michael Tolkien, his son, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, nos. 43 and 250. There are many more such reflections contained within Tolkien’s published letters; you can use the index entry under Tolkien, Catholicism to explore further. ↩
- cf. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”. ↩
- Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Foreword. ↩
- Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Ainulindalë”. ↩
- The Silmarillion Seminar produced by Prof. Corey Olsen and some of his students has been very helpful in highlighting details I might otherwise have missed. I highly encourage you to check out his work if you’re at all interested in spending extra time with Tolkien. ↩
- Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, “The Music of the Ainur”. ↩
- Tolkien, The Silmarillion, “Of Aulë and Yavanna”. ↩