“THAT’S the place where the taxi would drop him off,” my late friend Walter Hooper said as we passed the modern and, truth be told, hardly picturesque church of St Anthony of Padua, in Headington, Oxford. “Tolkien had all sorts of concerns over Vatican II, and also the style of modern church architecture” — we both laugh — “but his Catholic faith shaped everything about him.”
This was the church that the older Tolkien visited for the daily mass. Hooper himself became a Roman Catholic in 1988, 15 years after Tolkien’s death, having known the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit through his work and friendship with C. S. Lewis. Tolkien and Lewis were part of the Inklings, the now famous literary Oxford group that met in the 1930s and ’40s.
Catholicism, Christianity, and faith were indeed at the epicentre of Tolkien’s life, and ripples of that emerge in his writing. I’m not sure, however, whether that will be apparent in the new Amazon Prime blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The rings of power, which, at a cost in the region of £160 million per season, will be the most expensive television series ever made. Set thousands of years before Tolkien’s better-known works, it remains to be seen how loyal this history of Middle-earth will be to the text.
Tolkien was actually somewhat enigmatic and inconsistent, even teasing, about the connection between faith and writing. While he described The Lord of the Rings as “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”, he also stated in an interview that “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” That was one of the reasons that he was so critical of Lewis’s Narnia stories.
But themes — yes, allegories — of creation and fall, sacrifice and sin, resurrection and redemption, darkness and light, and good and evil permeate his writing, and it is almost impossible to conceive of a Tolkien world detached from a Christian foundation. He once wrote to a friend: “I am a Christian, and whatever I write will come from that essential viewpoint.”
HE WAS three years old when his father died. His mother, a far from prosperous widow in Edwardian England, had become a Roman Catholic, and received generous support from the priests of the Birmingham Oratory. She died when Tolkien was 12, having given his guardianship to her Oratorian friend, Fr Francis Morgan. It was Morgan who pretty much raised the boy.
From then on, there is no evidence that Tolkien ever really wavered, although the same cannot be said of his wife, Edith. She had been raised an Anglican, changing to Roman Catholicism — largely because of Tolkien’s insistence — three years before they married in 1916. She later distanced herself from the Roman Catholic Church, and resented her husband’s taking their children to mass. While the couple managed to reconcile their differences, Edith would never share her husband’s dedication to Roman Catholicism, and it’s unlikely that she was even a regular churchgoer.
While that may seem entirely unremarkable today, it must have been deeply painful to Tolkien. In one of his letters he wrote: “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.” And: “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 is, clearly, a certain rigidity about all this. Tolkien’s grandson, Simon, told of attending church with his grandfather in Bournemouth, after the liturgy had changed from Latin to English. Tolkien “obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but My Grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.”
Yet there is also something timeless — even progressive — about the man and his faith: his startlingly early awareness of environmental challenges, and demand for responsible dominion over creation; his insistence on the importance of simplicity, and warnings of the dangers of wealth and materialism; an acknowledgement of the temptations of power, and a grasp of brokenness and inner beauty.
It is perhaps those qualities, as opposed to formal religiosity, that have led to his enduring popularity. One of his earliest dedicated readership bases was within the hippie movement of the 1960s: a sub-culture known for rejecting rather than embracing organised faith. And it could be argued that, for some — lovers of science-fiction, progressive-rock fans, New Age believers, for example — Tolkien has become an alternative to the very orthodox Christianity that he revered.
He was aware of that, and was often amazed at some of the letters that he received from devotees. But it is to his credit that this bemused rather than disturbed him: his faith informed his personality for the better, and the brighter.
There is an indicative story that is worth the retelling. In 1938, when far too many people, Christians included, were still ambiguous about Hitler’s Germany, a Berlin-based company considered a German translation of The Hobbit. Tolkien told his publisher that he considered Nazi race doctrines to be “wholly pernicious and unscientific”.
The German publisher eventually wrote to him, asking for a guarantee of his “Aryan descent”. In his response, Tolkien dismisses the definition as absurd, and then explains that’s he not Jewish: “I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
Amazon Prime awaits. Have faith.
The Revd Michael Coren is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada, and a biographer of J. R. R. Tolkien.