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Book review: Tolkien’s Faith: A spiritual biography by Holly Ordway

by
16 February 2024

J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction is imbued with his faith, says Alexander Faludy

THE Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision”. So wrote its author, J. R. R. Tolkien, in a 1953 private letter as his magnum opus was being prepared for publication.

The extent to which Christian sensibility informs the work, however, escapes most readers. That perhaps helps to explain its enduring popularity not only in the secularised West, but in non-Christian cultures, such as that of Japan.

The gap in understanding, which this book addresses, arises partly because the narrative force of The Lord of the Rings (TLoR] engages readers of all backgrounds, and also because the overlay of Norse mythological elements distracts them. Holly Ordway’s reading of TLoR in dialogue with Tolkien’s documented spirituality, however, clarifies the picture.

Tolkien has had good previous biographers — notably, Humphrey Carpenter. Thus, although Ordway unearths interesting details about Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism, her work’s value lies more in placing known facts in new patterns of relationship with each other and Tolkien’s literary oeuvre.

Earlier writers’ struggle to articulate how Tolkien’s faith fed his creativity is understandable. Unlike his Anglican friend C. S. Lewis, Tolkien took no public part in Christian apologetics and also sometimes played down TLoR’s Christian features in media interviews. Ordway argues that obliqueness with vis-á-vis TLoR’s Christianity reflects not just commercial prudence, but, paradoxically, his Oratorian spirituality.

That tradition fosters robust private habits of spiritual discipline, but deplores showy piety. St Philip Neri, its progenitor, encouraged humour and cheerfulness in his Brothers (in contrast to St Benedict), seeing laughter as medicine against pomposity. Such a spirituality refuses to take itself too seriously — while taking God very seriously indeed.

It is unsurprising, then, that Tolkien, given to scrupulosity, worried that talking about the things of God in relation to his own work risked “making me sound more self-important than I feel”. It also likely explains his presentation of the Hobbits as not only “merry and full of laughter”, but also “curiously tough” — the balance reflecting the Oratorian ideal of personality.

Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, an impoverished widow, an Anglican, became a Roman Catholic in 1900. At eight years old, John Ronald Ruel (J. R. R.) was, just, above the age of “reason”. Thus, he was not conditionally baptised together with Mabel, but went through his own reception and confirmation at the age of 12.

The family worshipped at the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Birmingham, which had been founded 50 years before by John Henry Newman. It enjoyed a high reputation for learning and culture and became a sympathetic “home” for the precocious Tolkien. Its priestly community also offered father-figures to supply the void left by the untimely death of his own father.

Tolkien became literally a “child of the oratory”, aged 12, after Mabel died of diabetes. Orphaned John Ronald and his brother, Hilary, became wards of the Oratory priest Fr Francis Morgan: the boys lived across the road, and their own lives were subsumed into the Oratory’s daily schedule of masses and activities. Morgan remained Tolkien’s guardian until he was 21, but the influence of the Oratory’s culture was lifelong.

alamyJ. R. R. Tolkien, subject of a new “spiritual biography”

Tolkien took the confirmation name “Philip” in honour of Neri. A hidden, but detectable, “P” features in Tolkien’s personal monogram, which graces today’s TLoR editions. A similar “encoding” occurs inside TLoR itself .

Unlike Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien’s TLoR is not a Christian allegory: its “narrative arc” manifests no structural transposition of Jesus’s vicarious suffering, death, or resurrection. Paradoxically, Ordway argues, Christianity isn’t the “picture” that we see painted on TLoR‘s canvas. Instead, Christianity is the “canvas” — and the “paint”.

TLoR has no Christ-figure, but its protagonists’ moral sensibility becomes fully intelligible only within a Christian framework. On Mount Doom, Gollum’s surprise intervention to fulfil the task that Frodo cannot (thereby relieving him of his moral and physical burden) occurs only because Frodo has first shown Gollum mercy. Privately, Tolkien linked this with the Lord’s Prayer petition “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. On their journey, Frodo and Sam are also sustained with lembas, the special Elven bread that strengthens their wills — recalling the eucharistic host as viaticum (“journey money”).

TLoR’s core action occurs between 25 December (Christmas) and 25 March (the Annunciation), disclosing to those “with eyes to see” the Christian co-ordinates of its moral universe. Thanks to Ordway, more readers can now see likewise.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.

 

Tolkien’s Faith: A spiritual biography
Holly Ordway
Word on Fire Academic $27.96*
(978-1-68578-991-6)
*from bookstore.wordonfire.org

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