Monday, August 27, 2012

Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and The Redemption Of The Modern World

Dear T,

I have long pondered the remarkable fact that the modern world's mythic/religious imagination has been captured by three devout Christians: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling . (A Catholic, an Anglican and a mainstream Protestant.)

Although secularists will rankle at the suggestion, I believe C.S. Lewis  - in an autobiographical observation - reveals why deep-culture Christians are well-suited to the modern "role" of awakening religion's fundamental urge to mend the rent in the human psyche/soul by focusing "the image of wholeness" which, like it or not, lies at the heart of the modern world. 

"All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald (the Scottish fantasist) had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete -- Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire -- all seemed a little thin, what as boys we called "tinny." It wasn't that I didn't like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books..... The only non-Christians who seemed to me really to know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity. The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland's great line in the Chanson --- "Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.""

In addition to the article pasted below, be sure to see "Theological Discourse, Literary Worlds, and Tolkien as Theologian" at

From Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center, don't miss "The Moral Mythmaker: The Creative Theology of J. R. R. Tolkien",%202002/moral-mythmaker-creative-theology-j-r-r-tolkien

Finally, here are some views of J.K. Rowling's "embedded" Christian curriculum at Hogwarts. 

1.) "J.K. Rowling Opens Up About Books' Christian Imagery"

4.) And finally, from "Christianity Today," explore the "Deeper Magic" of "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows."



PS I also draw your attention to C.S. Lewis fundamental "act of faith" - a credo so strong it holds up even in the absence of God. 

"The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete. But Puddleglum, desperately gathering all his strength, walked over to the fire. Then he did a very brave thing. He knew it wouldn't hurt him quite as much as it would hurt a human; for his feet (which were bare) were webbed and hard and cold-blooded like a duck's. But he knew it would hurt him badly enough; and so it did. With his bare foot he stamped on the fire, grinding a large part of it into ashes on the flat hearth. And three things happened at once. First, the sweet, heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone's brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes. Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, "What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I'll turn the blood to fire inside your veins." Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum's head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic. "One word, Ma'am" he said coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia." "The Silver Chair"

Don't miss Rowling's Harvard Commencement Talk

J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth


Tolkien preserved his mother's legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien’s encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the "magic" of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the world's best-seller The Lord of the Rings, qualifies, technically, as a "literary convert" because of his reception into the Church as an eight-year-old following his mother's conversion to the faith. It could be said, therefore, that he joins the ranks of the literary converts by creeping in through the back door or, perhaps more correctly, through the nursery door. With beguiling ambiguity he is neither a cradle Catholic nor a full-blown convert, but a charming mixture of the two — a cradle convert.
Wordsworth reminds us, "the child is father of the man," and since in Tolkien's case this is particularly true, the eight-year-old's "cradle conversion" was destined to shape the remainder of his life in a profound manner. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Tolkien's conversion was crucial to both the making of the man and the shaping of the myth he created.

Following the death of her husband in February 1896, a few weeks after her son's fourth birthday, Mabel Tolkien began a new love affair that would soon estrange her from her family. She became passionately devoted to Christianity, taking her two sons every Sunday on a long walk to a "high" Anglican church. Then one Sunday they were taken by strange roads to a different place of worship. This was St Anne's, a Roman Catholic church amidst the slums of Birmingham. Mabel Tolkien had been considering conversion for some time, and during the spring of 1900 she received instruction and was received in June of the same year.

Her conversion incurred the immediate wrath of her family. Her father, who had been brought up Methodist but had since lapsed further from orthodoxy into Unitarianism, was outraged. Her brother-in-law withdrew the little financial help that he had provided since she had become a widow, plunging her and her children into poverty. She also met with considerable opposition from her late husband's family, many of whom were Baptists with strong anti-Catholic prejudices. The emotional strain affected her health adversely but, undaunted, she began to instruct her sons in the faith.

Tolkien made his First Communion at Christmas, 1903. The joy, however, was soon followed by tragedy. Less than a year later his mother died after lapsing into a diabetes-induced coma. In her will, Mabel Tolkien had appointed her friend, Fr. Francis Morgan, to be the guardian of her two orphaned sons. He arranged for them to live with their Aunt Beatrice, not far from the Birmingham Oratory, but she showed them little attention and the brothers soon began to consider the Oratory their real home. Each morning they served Mass for Fr. Morgan at his favorite side altar in the Oratory church. Afterward they would eat breakfast in the refectory before setting off for school. Tolkien remained forever grateful for all that Fr. Morgan did for him and his brother. "I first learned charity and forgiveness from him . . ." The Oratory was a "good Catholic home," which contained "many learned fathers (largely 'converts')" and where "observance of religion was strict."

The virtues of charity and forgiveness that Tolkien learned from Fr. Morgan in the years after his mother's death offset the pain and sorrow that her death engendered. The pain remained throughout his life, and 60 years later he compared his mother's sacrifices for her faith with the complacency of some of his own children toward the faith they had inherited from her:
"When I think of my mother's death . . . worn out with persecution, poverty, and, largely consequent, disease, in the effort to hand on to us small boys the faith, and remember the tiny bedroom she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman's cottage at Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it very hard and bitter, when my children stray away."
Tolkien always considered his mother a martyr for the faith. Nine years after her death he wrote: "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it was not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as He did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labor and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith."

Tolkien preserved his mother's legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien's encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the truths of orthodox theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the "magic" of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.

Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were "lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver."

"No," Tolkien replied. "They are not lies." Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic "progress" leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

"In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion." It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, "Mythopoeia," is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their "mythopoeia" to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.
Such a revelation changed Lewis' whole conception of Christianity, precipitating his conversion.

Lewis was one of the select group of friends, known collectively as the Inklings, who read the manuscript of Tolkien's timeless classic, The Lord of the Rings, as it was being written. This work, which has been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a succession of polls, was described by its author as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

Space does not permit a full exposition of the depths of Christian orthodoxy in The Lord of the RingsThe Silmarillion, or Tolkien's other work. Those wishing to discover more are referred to my books, Tolkien: Man and Myth and Tolkien: A Celebration, in which the relationship between Tolkien's faith and the myth he created are examined at greater length.

In brief, however, the power of Tolkien lies in the way that he succeeds, through myth, in making the unseen hand of providence felt by the reader. In his mythical creations, or sub-creations as he would call them, he shows how the unseen hand of God is felt far more forcefully in myth than it is ever felt in fiction. Paradoxically, fiction works with facts, albeit invented facts, whereas myth works with truth, albeit truth dressed in fancy disguises. Furthermore, since facts are physical and truth is metaphysical, myth, being metaphysical, is spiritual.

The writer and poet Charles A. Coulombe concluded his essay, "The Lord of the Rings: A Catholic View," with the following incisive assessment of Tolkien's importance. It was a fitting conclusion to his essay on the subject. It is also a fitting conclusion to mine:
"It has been said that the dominant note of the traditional Catholic liturgy was intense longing. This is also true of her art, her literature, her whole life. It is a longing for things that cannot be in this world: unearthly truth, unearthly purity, unearthly justice, unearthly beauty. By all these earmarks, Lord of the Rings is indeed a Catholic work, as its author believed: But it is more. It is this age's great Catholic epic, fit to stand beside the Grail legends, Le Morte d'Arthur and The Canterbury Tales. It is at once a great comfort to the individual Catholic, and a tribute to the enduring power and greatness of the Catholic tradition, that JRRT created this work. In an age which has seen an almost total rejection of the faith on the part of the Civilization she created . . . Lord of the Rings assures us, both by its existence and its message, that the darkness cannot triumph forever."

Joseph Pearce. "J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth." Lay Witness (September 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Joseph Pearce is a full-time writer who grew up in East London and now lives in Norfolk, England. His book,Literary Converts(Ignatius Press, 1999), inspired this ten-part series which focuses on some of the leading writers at the forefront of the Catholic literary revival in the 20th century. Joseph Pearce is also the author of Tolkien: Man and MythOld Thunder: A Life of Hilaire BellocC. S. Lewis and the Catholic ChurchJ. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, andSolzhenitsyn.
Copyright © 2001 LayWitness

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