J.R.R. Tolkien

In Middle Earth

One hundred and ten years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien was born, a unique figure in twentieth century literature. On the occasion of the release of the first film taken from The Lord of the Rings, we offer here an interview with the American professor Thomas Howard, a great scholar of Tolkien’s work. “A Catholic masterpiece,” “analogy with life,” the struggle between good and evil…


Thomas Howard taught English literature for 25 years at St John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, until 1998. A convert from Evangelical Protestantism, Howard is the author of numerous works, including the book, Evangelical is not Enough. He was a friend of C.S. Lewis and an expert on the work of Charles Williams, both of whom, along with Tolkien, were members of The Inklings. Howard recently taught a course on The Lord of the Rings at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria.

Above all, does it make sense to speak of The Lord of the Rings as a “Catholic masterpiece”? Or, after the attempts made by the right and the left to co-opt the work, does one not run the danger of “baptizing” what is principally a (most beautiful) story?
Both on the surface of things, and at a profound level, we are entitled to speak of The Lord of the Rings as a “Catholic masterpiece.” Our first warrant is Tolkien himself, who said that he could not have written the saga if he were not a Catholic. He also identified various elements of the narrative as specifically analogous to Catholic categories (in a conversation with Clyde Kilby he remarked that he thought Gandalf was probably an angel). At the deepest level, of course, we find that the entire fabric of Middle Earth is 100% recognizable to any serious Catholic. Goodness and evil, for example, are identical in both Middle Earth and in our world as it is understood by the Church. Evil is parasitical, and has no function other than to destroy the good solidity and beauty that marks the creation. Gollum would be a case in point: he used to be a hobbit-like creature, but evil has reduced him to a hissing, snarling, scorched shard of any good “hobbit-ness.” Likewise with the landscape of Mordor: evil has blasted all fruitful and beautiful features, and we are left with ash-heaps and slime.

“Vicarious” suffering is also, of course, central to the saga, as it is for Catholicism: the Company of the Ring endure what they endure for the sake of the salvation of the world, so to speak. This bespeaks what is central to our own story, namely Our Lord’s suffering, and that of the saints, on behalf of fallen humanity. One caveat: Tolkien disliked allegory most sedulously (he thought Lewis’s Narnia was too allegorical), so there is, in fact, the danger of “baptizing” the whole thing too eagerly. Frodo is not Christ, nor is Aragorn (the unknown, but legitimate, returning king). Galadriel is not an allegory for Our Lady, pure and lovely though she may be. But, at the end of the day, we may, with Tolkien’s approval, speak of the saga as a Catholic masterpiece. A postscript to this might be the observation that no Protestant could conceivably have written this saga, since it is profoundly “sacramental.” That is, redemption is achieved wholly via physical means–cf The Incarnation, Golgotha, the Resurrection, and the Ascension–and the tale is sprinkled with “sacramentals,” such as lembas, athelas, Galadriel’s phial of light, mithril, etc.

More than the communication of a hidden message, the main value of the book seems to be that of being a great allegory of life. As C.S. Lewis said, “no other world is so obviously objective” as that created by Tolkien: men are men in a truer way, friends more friends than we often experience in daily life. In sum: reality in transparence. How is it possible that a fantasy-world brings us close to the nature of things?
Again, the word allegory would make Tolkien unhappy. Analogy would please him more. Characters and places and objects in his saga are not symbols, or allegories, of anything at all. They are what they are, for a start. But it may also be said that they are “cases in point” of this or that, which we recognize from our Primary World over here. Again, Gollum is not a symbol of a soul swiftly en route to final damnation: he is a case in point, recognizable from our world, of what evil in fact does to a creature. The only difference between the two worlds is that, in Middle Earth, we get to see the difference, whereas in our story one may “smile and smile, and be a villain” (Othello). The sense in which such a “fantasy” world, paradoxically, brings us closer to the real nature of things in our own world (whereas to a superficial observer such fantasy might seem the most unabashed escapism) is that this sort of narrative gives us distance and perspective. It takes us by surprise. Our guard is down. I once asked Lewis why the Passion of Aslan (cf. The Marnian Chronicles) moved me more than the Crucifixion story, when I knew perfectly well that Aslan is “only” a fantasy. Lewis replied that when I read the Gospel, all my “religious” expectations are up and quivering (“I ought to feel a certain response, namely gratitude and perhaps grief”), whereas I am taken unawares by the Passion of Aslan, and hence may find myself overwhelmed. Likewise, we find, to our surprise, that the very rocks, water, forests, and hamlets of Middle Earth quicken our capacity to “see” rocks, water, and so forth, in our own world. How many of us have said, in the course of a mountain walk, “Why–this is almost good enough to be Middle Earth!”

Gandalf, the wizard, is surely one of the most fascinating figures created by Tolkien, besides being certainly the most powerful among those that fight for the good in Middle Earth. At root, he seems to be a divinity that has assumed the limits of the human form. In the first part of the trilogy he dies (fighting with a demonic being from the bowels of the earth) in order to rise again purified. Why does Gandalf spend his energies above all in order that everybody commits himself freely in the fight against evil?
Gandalf spends his titanic energies in this selfless way because that is “how things are,” so to speak. That is, one of the mysteries at the heart of things (in our world; in Middle Earth) is that the Good must be chosen, not imposed. It seems to be a property of the Good–this freedom. Coercion cannot bring anyone, be he man or elf, to goodness. Gandalf knows this. Hence, he can only do so much. He cannot wave his wand and make the Ring go away, or make Saruman good again. He is a servant of the Good, not its owner. It might also be pointed out here, with reference to the phrasing of the question, that we cannot say that Gandalf “dies.” He “descends to the lower parts of the earth,” certainly, in his fight with the Balrog. And in his account of this later on, he touches sketchily on the experience entailed–cf The Harrowing of Hell in our story. But Tolkien stops short of telling us that Gandalf dies.

Frodo has received the Ring and so it is his task to provide for its destruction. Gandalf, who would be certainly more qualified, never seeks to replace him, but exhorts him to bring his task to conclusion, likewise the others in “the Fellowship of the Ring.” In the last stage of the ascent to the Crack of Doom, Frodo is no longer able to go on and Sam, who cannot bear the “burden” in his place even for a few feet, takes his friend on his back. Friendship and task: is there a connection between them? And then there is the tender friendship that binds the hobbits together. What is friendship in The Lord of the Rings?
Surely friendship in The Lord of the Rings would be akin to what Lewis discusses under the category “phileo” in The Four Loves. It is one of the manifestations of love. There could be no friendship amongst orcs, or the Dark Riders. Sauron loathes his minions. But Goodness depends, as it were, on this disinterested bond between Frodo and Sam, or among all the members of the Fellowship, since it is a property of true felicity (deriving from Goodness) that we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of”–Christ, in our story;–the Good, in Middle Earth. There is a twofold appropriateness, surely, to Frodo’s being obliged to be the Ringbearer: 1) it will fool Sauron, who would sneer at the very notion of halflings undertaking such a daunting task; 2) God has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the strong (and we may translate this into Tolkien-esque terms with very little trouble). Gandalf’s very power would be the danger point if he were the Ringbearer–as he, and Galadriel, and Elrond all recognize about themselves. Hobbits are not, by nature, much interested in power, so there is an aspect of their nature that “cooperates with” grace–or whatever we would like to call grace in the saga.

One of the most significant omissions Peter Jackson made in the film is cutting out Tom Bombadil entirely. What does The Lord of the Rings lose with this primeval man, without original sin, and his surprising relation to nature?
The film misses a very great deal in omitting Tom Bombadil. But on the other hand, he would, I think, elude all the resources of cinema if the greatest genius of a director undertook to show us Tom. The cinematic result would be a sad travesty of the sheer joy, freedom, and merriment of Tom.

There are qualities that will yield themselves only to certain forms (certain emotions can be caught only when the soprano hits the high A-moll; certain aspects of the ineffable are to be descried in the arches of Chartres and in no other modality; certain properties of sorrow find their unique epiphany in the Pietà). Cinema would fail–perhaps any conceivable visual mode would fail–to bespeak Tom Bombadil. What is lost to the film, of course, is precisely Tom’s glorious and merry innocence. He shares some qualities with the unfallen Adam, e.g., he is the “master” of the Old Forest, not its owner. Tolkien judged that his tale needed this icon of sheer, unsullied goodness, to stand in stark contrast to all the evil abroad in the land. Good as are Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Treebeard, not to mention the hobbits, in Bombadil we have a particular epiphany of sheer goodness.

Boromir , Saruman, and Gollum are some examples of characters of various measure being corrupted by the Ring. Its power seems to act upon a predisposition present in all, including Frodo, perverting a desire that is at root positive. What is the temptation of the Ring?
The Ring, for Middle Earth, must be in some aspects analogous to the “fruit” in Eden. That is, its promise is to make you wise and powerful–to raise you above your particular station (the Middle Ages would have called it your “estate”) and make you a god. The good which may lie at the root of this vulnerability would be the sense that any intelligent creature–hobbit, elf, or man–would have of the dignity that attaches to his being. The trouble is that this sense very quickly turns to “ambition” in the old sense of one’s wishing to insinuate himself illegitimately up the hierarchical ladder, hence evincing a state of discontent with the state appointed to him. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” says Milton’s Satan; and thus say Sauron, Saruman, and even Gollum, although his imagination seems to fall pitiably short of anything so lofty as dominion. He just wants his “precious.” If Adam wants to be a god, he misses tragically the majesty that attaches to “man”–and presumably if an Archangel is eaten up with the ambition to be a Domination or a Princedom, he is in trouble. An Archangel, or a hobbit, or one of the Valar, carries out its glorious destiny by being just that, just as a golden retriever carries about in his being the unique excellence that attaches to golden retrievers and not to eagles.

In the novel, the divine element never participates in the action, and references to it are obscure for those who have not read The Silmarillion. Besides, the characters do not have religious attitudes. And yet the wisest among them resist condemning anyone without appeal, because before the end everyone “has a part to recite.” The world seems to be ordered according to a plan. What is there, beyond the sea, in the West, and what importance does it have?
The apparent absence of any supreme being ordering things for the Good naturally puzzles many readers of the Trilogy. “God” never intervenes. The characters seem to be left to their own powers, and do the best they can against Evil. This is a piece of genius on Tolkien’s part. In lesser fairy tales there is usually some talisman that will do the trick. In Middle Earth there is not. This is because Tolkien’s tale is located on an infinitely higher and more serious level than your Rapunzels and Rumplestiltzkins.

Those tales are fetching, but Tolkien’s tale is as serious as our own story. And one of the baffling aspects of our story is “the silence of God.” The Ring Company (like the saints in our story) have to muddle along, doing the best they can with their resources, without the luxury of some ready hocus-pocus that will dissolve Dark Riders or send orcs packing. Our story, often, seems to us mortals to be like this. Where is God? And Tolkien’s characters are not “religious.” No one says his prayers (there is one instance where Faramir and company pause before they eat, but this is, I think, as close as we get to prayer, unless the cry “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” may be thus understood). Readers may think the following observation somewhat capricious, but, as a latecomer to Catholicism myself, I recognize in this inarticulateness as to “faith” on the part of the characters a very Catholic quality. Catholics don’t chat about the Faith ordinarily. Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, are stumped by this muteness. Catholics must not be believers, they think, if they can’t croak out at least some “testimony” to their faith. But Tolkien, as a cradle Catholic, would not, nay could not, have his characters forever nattering about God, any more than he (Tolkien himself) could have any part of a testimony meeting. The fugitive references to the West, and the spectacle of the elves “passing, passing, passing” to the West, tincture the whole narrative with the tincture of glory. Not here, not here, the word seems to be, is your ultimate home. Beautiful and appealing as the Shire, Rivendell, or Lothlorien may be, even they are not the final locale of felicity. All must go West. Here again, Tolkien has made the very fabric of his story virtually indistinguishable from the fabric of ours, and hence has gained a seriousness otherwise impossible.

What role has Tolkien played in twentieth century European literature, particularly in Catholic literature?
Tolkien has played a role in twentieth century European literature–indeed, world literature–which has infuriated the critics. He has simply ignored the entire tradition of fiction which has been sovereign since the eighteenth century, that is, the tradition of “realism” and the psychological novel. He has reached back to the most ancient and noble mode of narrative, namely, the Epic. Cartesian man has no categories with which to cope with this sort of thing, other than to patronize it as “primitive” or “frivolous.” For a Catholic, Tolkien’s work comes like a freshet of clear glacier water into a noisome and stinking fen, bringing with it all the glories that vanished with the advent of modernity–such glories as majesty, solemnity, ineffability, awe, purity, sanctity, heroism, and glory itself. Descartes and Hume would have a difficult time accounting for glory via the vocabulary they chose for themselves, and their unhappy descendants have no remote notion of what has been lost. Tolkien may have re-introduced the pauper-children of modernity to Glory.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to English parents originally from Birmingham. In 1894, his brother Hilary was born. After his father’s death in 1896, his mother–who had already returned to England the preceding year–moved with her two sons from Birmingham to the village of Sarehole. Tolkien inherited from his mother, who converted to Catholicism in 1900, a love of languages and ancient fables and legends. In 1900, Ronald began attending King Edward’s School in Birmingham, and from 1904 on–when his mother died of diabetes at the age of only 34–Ronald and Hilary were brought up by Fr Francis Xavier Morgan, a Catholic priest in the Oratorian Order. Tolkien then studied at Exeter College in Oxford, sitting for the degree exam in English Language and Literature in 1913. In 1916, he married Edith Bratt, and together they had three sons and a daughter. During the First World War, he enlisted in the Lancashire Riflemen and was sent to France. On his return home (due to shell shock) in 1918, he went back to Oxford, where he finished his studies, continuing to study ancient languages and literatures, concentrating especially on Beowulf. For two years, he worked on the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. From 1921, Tolkien was lecturer and then professor (in 1924) of English at the University of Leeds. From 1925 to 1945 he taught Anglo-Saxon Language and Literature at Pembroke College of Oxford University. In 1926, he met C.S. Lewis for the first time; this was the beginning of a deep friendship. Together they founded the Inklings Club. In 1945, he was given the prestigious Chair of English Language and Literature at Merton College, also of Oxford, where he taught until his retirement in 1959. Tolkien’s field of study was Germanic languages; he was awarded numerous honorary titles for his research in this area, including the high British honor, the CBE (for professional merit), from the Queen, and an honorary doctorate. He died on September 2, 1973, in Bournemouth.

… and Works
Tolkien, undoubtedly spurred also by his great interest in philology, began right after World War I to invent myths, sagas, and tales set in a mythical time and place, a world that he would later call Middle Earth. This world was introduced to the public with his first book, published in 1937, The Hobbit, which tells the story of a Hobbit (the Hobbits are a people created by Tolkien) named Bilbo. According to W.H. Auden, it was “the best children’s story written in the last fifty years,” even though the author denies having written it as a fairy tale for children. Tolkien’s fantasy world took shape around the original core of The Hobbit with the next book, Leaf by Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), but above all in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, written over a span of fourteen years: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955).

Also worthy of note are The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962), and the tales in Tree and Leaf (1964), which contains On Fairy Stories, 1938, and Leaf by Niggle, 1939. In 1967, Smith of Wotton Major and The Road Goes Ever On were published. The Silmarillion, a cosmogonical work which narrates the First Age of the World and gathers together all the mythological substratum of Tolkien’s narrative epic, was published posthumously in 1977, edited by his son (Tolkien had begun writing it in 1917).