J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth

Bradley Birzer on the Religious Symbolism Behind “Lord of the Rings”

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HILLSDALE, Michigan, AUG. 29, 2003 (Zenit.org).- In his writings and in his life, J.R.R. Tolkien believed that true myth allows us to see things as they were meant to be, prior to the Fall.

So says Bradley Birzer, assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth” (ISI Books). Birzer shared with ZENIT his views on how Tolkien grounded the myth of “The Lord of the Rings” in Christian reality.

Q: How does Tolkien’s Catholicism impregnate his worldview and his fiction?

Birzer: Tolkien wrote in an oft-quoted letter to a close friend in 1953 that “The Lord of the Rings” is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. And Tolkien was a devout and practicing Catholic throughout most of his life. According to his son Michael, Roman Catholicism “pervaded all his thinking, beliefs and everything else.”

Indeed, Tolkien was very public about his faith. He once told an audience of Oxford dons, when it was rather unpopular to be open about one’s religious beliefs, that as much as he loved his academic specialty, philology, it was unnecessary for salvation. Tolkien, though, was much more cautious in his expression of his faith than was his closest friend, C.S. Lewis.

Tolkien believed that the true Christian should be an artist, not a propagandist. In other words, Tolkien rather strongly argued in his academic as well as mythological works that one should use what T.S. Eliot called the “moral imagination.” He should seek the higher, timeless truths, but put them in a new light.

The artist becomes a “sub-creator,” made in the image of God, the Creator. But, the human idea of sub-creation is to glorify Creation, never to mock or pervert it.

Tolkien rejected the idea of art for art’s sake, or innovation for innovation’s sake. There was a truth, and the artist was especially gifted to tap into that truth. To abuse the gift of artistry for one’s own glorification is to turn enchantment to power and domination.

Q: What are some of the main religious symbols in Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium?

Birzer: In “The Lord of the Rings,” several religious symbols exist.

My personal favorite is the Elvish Lembas, translated as the “way bread” or “life bread.” Even one piece of the bread can sustain a person for a day. Tolkien wrote that it “fed the will,” and certainly without it, neither Frodo nor Sam would have made the journey across Mordor and up Mount Doom.

For Tolkien, nothing represented a greater gift from God than the actual Body and Blood of Christ. “I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament,” Tolkien wrote to his son Michael. “There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

Tolkien once experienced a holy vision while praying before the Blessed Sacrament. “I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held.”

Tolkien also witnessed his guardian angel in the vision, not as a go-between but as the personalization of “God’s very attention.”

There are other Catholic symbols as well. Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn each represent the different offices of Christ: respectively priest, prophet and king. Each of these characters places himself in harm’s way for the greater good; each is willing to lay down his life for his brother.

When Gandalf faces the Balrog, he not only accepts death, but he names his master, the Secret Fire. According to what Tolkien told a friend, the Secret Fire was the Holy Spirit.

There are also several Marian figures throughout “The Lord of the Rings.” The most important, I think, is Elbereth, a Vala, or archangel, to whom Sam prays as he thrusts Sting, the Elvish sword, into Shelob.

As Tolkien admitted, the Mother of Christ provided him with all of his understanding of “beauty in majesty and simplicity.”

Q: How does Tolkien provide a social and ethical worldview through myth?

Birzer: Because Tolkien touches on timeless truths, it is impossible for his mythology not to provide a social and ethical worldview. Myth, Tolkien believed, touched each person at a very deep level.

One can, therefore, easily abuse myth, using it incorrectly, as, for example, Richard Wagner or Adolf Hitler did. True myth, though, drew its inspiration from the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Tolkien wrote in his academic essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” that to reject the Christ story is to lead to either sadness or wrath.

Q: In your book, you write that Tolkien’s mythical world is essentially truer than the one we think we see around us every day. Briefly, can you explain your argument?

Birzer: Only since the so-called Enlightenment have intellectuals en masse turned to studying primarily the material world at the expense of the spiritual world.

But man is the “metaxy,” the “in between.” He is flesh and spirit. To ignore one at the expense of the other is to verge very quickly into heresy; the results of such false materialism are all around us: the gulags, the holocaust camps and the killing fields are their unholy monuments.

God did not enter man at the conception of Jesus — God became flesh. The soul and the flesh became one. Tolkien and the Inklings, following the Catholic and Romantic traditions behind them, rejected the scientistic worldview.

Myth, Tolkien believed, allowed us to see things as they were meant to be, prior to the Fall. When we look at another human person, we should imagine him as he will be in heaven, as a fully sanctified being.

The Eucharist, for example, is a true myth. We could never explain transubstantiation in modern, materialist terms, but we believe and know it to be the real, actual body and blood of Christ. Again, it is the spirit becoming one with the material.

Q: In your research for the book, what evidence did you find of Tolkien’s social and political views?

Birzer: Tolkien rarely talked about politics in terms of parties. It seems rather clear, though, that Tolkien would have felt most comfortable with traditionalist English conservatism along the lines of Edmund Burke.

He despised ideologues of any stripe: communists, Nazis and fascists. He also held a strong bitterness against liberals and liberalism of any kind. He was certainly a man of his generation, and his views fit in very well with other traditionalist Roman Catholics in England.

English Roman Catholics tended to distrust liberals and liberalism not only as anti-clerical but also as conformist and statist. Tolkien once described himself as a philosophical anarchist. But he believed that true anarchy would ultimately result in a natural monarchy.

Q: Why have you placed Tolkien within the Christian humanist tradition represented by Thomas More and T.S. Eliot, Dante and C.S. Lewis?

Birzer: Christian humanism argues for a continuity of traditions: the Greek into the Roman, the Jewish into the Christian, and the synthesis of all in the Middle Ages. A true Christian humanist would not only understand Scripture and Tradition, but he would also understand the “greats” of Western civilization: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.

Christian humanism has often arisen as a strong force during some of the most tumultuous times of the Church: during the Renaissance and Reformation as well as during the 20th century rise of the ideologies of the Right and Left. Tolkien felt no kinship with the 20th century and its terror regimes, mass genocides and overwhelming, conformist technologies and industries.

Tolkien, an Augustinian Christian humanist, believed in the sanct
ity and individuality of all life. Each person, as best expressed in Gandalf’s conversation with Frodo regarding Gollum, is born into a certain time and a certain place. He is born for a reason.

As Aristotle wrote, “Nature makes nothing in vain.” Everything has a purpose. St. Thomas finished Aristotle’s thought: “Grace perfects nature.”

Within Creation, therefore, each person has a role, a set amount of time, and a number of gifts. He can chose to fight for God and the common good, he can use his gifts for avarice, or he can ignore them altogether.

Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology, powerfully Christian humanist, argues that we live as a part of continuity and that every being and time and event is vitally important to the whole, to Creation itself.

When Frodo complains of living in an evil, burdensome time, Gandalf replies: “‘So do I … and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

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