January 24, 2004
This piece is rather long to be read on the Web. I've added bookmarkable section numbers intended to make it easier for the reader to break off reading and return later.
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This is the story of my relationship with a book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is perhaps somewhat presumptuous of me to write at such length in so subjective a manner, but my intention is to say something about the richness of one of the great works of the Catholic imagination, and of the way different aspects of it may show themselves to one at different points in life. If you have never read The Lord of the Rings, you should not read this essay, because it will spoil the story. You can only read a story for the first time once, and while you may re-read it many times with pleasure after you know how it all turns out, you should have, with this story especially, the experience of reading it without that knowledge.
The Tolkien fad passed me by at its height in the mid-1960s. Or rather I should say I passed it by, for I had chance enough to catch hold of it, and refused. This was in 1966, my freshman year in college. My closest friend, who lived in the room next to mine in the dormitory, was swept up even to the point of having a map of Middle Earth on his wall. I found the map intriguing: names such as Mordor and Wilderland rich and somehow already familiar, like great poetry; the “elvish” (actually vaguely Celtic) script evocative of something I could not name. Even the man’s nameJ.R.R. Tolkien—had an air of romance about it. But there was nonetheless a cutesy and cartoonish quality about the map, and the fad itself had about it, or at least smelled to me as if it had, a knowing Disneyish air of simulated play, of a coy game of pretend in which the participants winked at each other while talking of Gandalf and Frodo as if they were real.
The reputation of Tolkien’s work seemed to say that it was no more than a superior fairy tale, and I had never been especially fond of fairy tales. Then, too, the work itself was daunting: three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, plus The Hobbit, which needed to be read first if one were to do it properly. I couldn’t quite imagine so long a work not being tedious. Nevertheless I did make a half-hearted try at The Hobbit. That was perhaps a mistake, as The Hobbit is in fact best described as a superior fairy tale, and is not free of the archness and slight condescension which sometimes dog such stories when they are written in modern times by people for whom the magic they are describing is a deliberate invention. As I recall I read no more than a few pages, enough to make me think that it was, after all, only a children’s story; in those opening pages there is little of the deep clear wonder of the Ring trilogy:
…Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I have heard about him, and I have only heard very little of all there is to hear, you would be prepared for any sort of remarkable tale.
That’s so, but from this description you’d expect those tales to be merely charming and perhaps slightly amusing. You would not be at all prepared for the Gandalf of the later books, Mithrandir as the elves call him, who appears to the friends who had thought him dead “white, shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings,” the Gandalf who “has passed through fire and the abyss” and who tells them
Naked I was sent backfor a brief time until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world.
There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of over-burdened stone.
This is a world apart from
In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole....a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.I had no inkling that entry into the hobbit-hole would take me to Gandalf’s abyss, or to the mountain top, or to the holy wood of Lothlorien. I went no further.
Another friend gave me a copy of The Tolkien Reader, a collection of miscellaneous uncollected writings trotted out by Tolkien’s publisher in an effort (I suppose) to keep the vogue going. In this I noted some poems, mostly light if not silly, and a fairy-story-ish thing called (unpromisingly in my eyes) Farmer Giles of Ham. I don’t remember noticing the great and wise essay On Fairy Stories and its companion story, Leaf by Niggle, that glorious study of work and redemption in which can be seen the struggle Tolkien waged against his own sense that his labor was inadequate and futile. These two treasures sat unread on my bookshelf for many years while I journeyed, without the light they might have given me, to my own Mordor.
It was not until 1973 or 1974 that I tried Tolkien again. I was adrift in the backwash of the great crisis of the late ‘60s, and deeply unhappy. I was moving in a vague and wandering way toward the Faith, but I didn’t know that; I did know that I was struggling against the nihilism of the times toward some sort of affirmation. I cannot recall now what prompted me to take up The Hobbit againI suppose it may have been the recommendation of a trusted friendor how it happened that I had several days of mostly free time in which I was able to read much of the four volumes as one would wish to read them for the first time: alone and with great stretches of uninterrupted time.
I believe I had a little of my old reaction to the opening pages of The Hobbit, but had determined to give Tolkien more of a chance this time, and so pressed on. It was of course not long before I was caught up in the tale, and I remember thinking, as the dwarves dangled from the trees where they had been bound by the giant spiders of Mirkwood, that Tolkien certainly knew how to tell a story.
And then I began The Lord of the Rings and understood at last what all the fuss was about. When Gandalf revealed to Frodo the nature and history of the Ring, the quaint and perhaps over-charming world of the hobbits was abruptly revealed as a small corner of a great canvas on which was painted an apocalyptic struggle stretching thousands of years into the past, revealing something close to a paradise lost and a hell about to be born. Clearly this was going to be a story full of complex and fascinating invention. I don’t remember the rest of the experience very clearly: in memory I find only a rush of wonder and excitement, and a sense when it was over that I had had a glimpse of something far-off and magnificent, a heart-piercing and unattainable glory. The great quest of the Ring had gripped me and kept me hanging avidly on every turn of the plot, and the vast lore of Middle Earth which undergirds the story was rich and fascinating, but I think it was the elves, or rather the presence, mostly in the background, of elvish beauty which gave the story that intangible air of longing which matched an unnameable longing in my own heart. When I closed the last volume I was like Sam after the night spent feasting with the elves in the woods of the Shire:
Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: ‘Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.
Perhaps this encounter was not one of the chief events of my life, but it was certainly influential. I longed for the elves: the supernatural beauty and richness that surrounded them, their communion with all living things and their own gift for creation, their starlight walks and their singing. It was some years later that I read Tolkien’s comment (in one of the letters, I believe) that the elves are essentially unfallen men. What Tolkien has done with them is a rare achievement: he has made goodness hauntingly desirable. This is almost unheard of in modern literature, in which the good are as often as not dull and a little stupid, and evil has all the glamour. I don’t see how anyone can read the story and not wish to be an elf. Though not untainted, they are closer to the pure source of things than we can ever be in this life, and the delight they know is something of which we have only intimations but for which we deeply long.
I told a friend who had, like me, avoided the books, that I had finally read them. Well, he replied, is it literature? I think I mumbled that it certainly was, but I hesitated because I was somehow astonished and almost offended by the question, for the work seemed to me then, in those first few days after its reading, outside all categories. This is not really true, of course; what the work is outside of is the category of naturalistic fiction, and it was those who read it with naturalistic expectations in mind of whom Tolkien was no doubt speaking when he said of critics who have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible that he had no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing they evidently prefer. Even in my first enthusiasm I could see that in some literary ways the work was a bit creaky: its humor sometimes strikes the cynical modern as cornball, the portrayal of the friendship among the hobbits as sentimental, the portraits of heroism as boyish and naïve. But none of this matters because the work is illuminated by a pure and shining beauty unlike anything else I know of in modern literature.
My second reading of The Lord of the Rings was in 1980. I had returned to Christianity a few years earlier and was now in the process of becoming a Catholic. The fact that Tolkien was a Catholic probably affected my decision to re-read him, but mainly I simply wanted to experience the pleasure of reading the story again. I know that I had promised myself after the first reading that I would read it again now and then. And I had, over the previous few years, discovered Lewis and Chesterton and been much pleased and influenced by them. I may have know of Tolkien’s association with Lewis and been curious to see if I had missed some Catholic theme in his work.
My Evangelical sister-in-law once told me that she had long heard that The Lord of the Rings was a Christian work, but that she was totally unable to find any evidence of that fact in the story. And indeed there is none, not if you are looking for a direct statement of doctrine or even the allegory and very plain, if not heavy-handed, symbolism of Lewis’ Narnia stories. Yet the Catholic faith is in Tolkien’s work as a soul is in a body, animating it invisibly. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision, said Tolkien in a letter. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.
Tolkien’s theory of art as being a sub-creation, a mimicking in the finite mind of God’s work of creation (see On Fairy Stories), more or less required this approach. Just as we find everywhere in the created world the evidence of God’s creation but not himself, so Tolkien wished his sub-creation to be permeated with the thought of its creator and yet not be a direct and immediate revelation, so to speak, of his presence: not an explicit statement of his belief, but the natural flowering of it. The removal of any plain religious element was not, as it might be taken at first glance to be, a Walker Percy-style strategy of indirect evangelization, but a necessity for the integrity of the work. The presence of any explicit Christian reference would have been a confusion of the two orders of creation: the primary order of God, in which we are all invented characters, and the secondary order of the writer’s work.
Anyway, I did certainly find, on this second reading, a Christian theme. What struck me most, and what seemed to me at the time the most clearly Catholic aspect of the story, was the centrality of the struggle between good and evil. In the Third Age of Middle Earth, the setting of The Lord of the Rings, evil and good are not so mixed up as they are in our world, and as they later became in Middle Earth. The lines are clear, and the mission is clear: the good are to do battle with all the strength and with all the purity of purpose they can muster against the evil. I remember writing to a friend at the time that this was the great power of the tale: that I came away from it with a conviction that this struggle was the essence of life, the only really important thing, that though motives and actions are confused in external life, in our spiritual lives we are waging a war in which the lines are as clearly drawn as those between Sauron and the elves. And, as the elves make the good seem desirable, so the war in The Lord of the Rings makes the struggle for it seem desirable: the stakes become clear, evil becomes recognizable for what it is, and the necessity for a total commitment to the good becomes plain. For one of the most clearly Catholic elements in the story is the law, understood and insisted upon by the wise when others do not see it, that evil means may not be used for good ends. The whole drama of the Ring rests upon this point; the Ring is immensely powerful but intrinsically evil, and the temptation to try to use it for good is to be resisted at all costs. This was, in some ways, I suppose, a convert’s reading: not erroneous by any means, but certainly not exhaustive.
In my next reading of the work my concern was to give it to someone else. When my sons Will and John were something like nine and seven years old I thought they might be ready for The Hobbit, and I read it aloud to them. By this time I had entered the long plateau of middle life, where the only milestones are the birth of children and changes of employer and residence, but I think this was roughly 1988.
They were delighted by The Hobbit and when they learned that there were three more books (though of course only the one story) in the same setting and involving some of the same characters they begged for me to read The Lord of the Rings, too. I put them off for a little whole, thinking it might be a little difficult for them, especially for the younger one. But they badgered me until I gave in and agreed to try a chapter, at least.
The effect was everything I might have hoped for. They were as enchanted as I had been on my first reading, and for many weeks we read almost every night, often well past their supposed bedtime. They began to live in Middle Earth as much as possible. They became evangelizers for Tolkien and pressed their friends to read The Lord of the Rings. And when their best friends did so and reacted very much as they had done, getting together to play Hobbits, Elves, and Men became their great delight. Will was Gandalf. John was Legolas. Their friends Jean and Dan were Frodo and Gimli. The younger children who did not know the story were pressed into service as various other characters when needed.
They didn’t get to do it as often as they would have liked, because the friends lived a half-hour’s drive away and so the gatherings were dependent on the convenience of the parents. My wife made them grey elven-cloaks and wooden swords which they wore everywhere. I don’t know what strangers thought of these children going about in dark capes and hood; I was occasionally concerned that someone might think these the outfit of some weird cult, or of the Ku Klux Klan (the hoods had sort of a point at the back, like a monk’s cowl). It was an especially strange sight when they played in the nearby cemetery: small cloaked figures dashing from one gravestone to another, waving swords and calling out strange words.
This would no doubt have ended of itself in time, but circumstances forced an end before anyone was ready when both families moved away. Both husbands worked for the same company and were unhappy with their jobs. Both wives wished to live somewhere else, nearer their childhood homes. We decided on a long-considered move to the Gulf Coast when I had a chance to get out of the high-pressure corporate world and work for a Catholic college. We thought the other family would still be in reasonable visiting distance, only to find that they were also movingto Philadelphia. The fellowship was broken. At the valedictory party Karen presented the four older children, those who had read the story, with banners bearing their names in Elvish script, which hung on Will and John’s walls for some years after.
I don’t recall much of my own reaction to this reading of The Lord of the Rings. I was far more interested in the reaction of the children, and when they took to it so avidly I had one of the pleasures dearest to a parent’s heart: that of bestowing a gift which brings all the delight he had wished, and that not a purchased gift, but something which is a kind of heirloom, a part of himself. Moreover, the story is a kind of medicine against many of the ills of modernity: it is not cynical or worldly-ironic; it is heroic, and at the same time homely. Like certain other Catholic books of the twentieth century, it serves as a sort of touchstone of sanity by picturing, on the one hand, the high beauty of the elves as a pure (in both senses of the word) pleasure which can be, at least momentarily, tasted, and on the other hand the simple sanity of hobbit village life which, comically idealized as it may be, still strikes us as a vision of what mundane life might be like at its best; it confirms our suspicion that a village-based agricultural life has about it a fundamental sanity that is mostly lost from our communities, for it is difficult to imagine an idealization of the American commercial mall-and-subdivision culture which would seem as fittingly human as does Tolkien’s idealization of the English village. And of course there is the presence of industrialism in The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Shire is a miniature comic England, so the mills of the corrupt wizard Saruman and the arch-evil Sauron are an exaggerated and darker factory system: huge and hugely unpleasant engines of production in which sheer might is valued above everything.
A couple of years later came the time when it seemed that Ellen, our third child, was old enough to enjoy the story itself (as distinct from the games based on it), and so we started reading it aloud again. This was the least satisfactory reading of all. We were not especially pleased with our new home. The children had not found new friends. My first year or so in the new job was thoroughly miserable; it seemed that I might have made one of the worst mistakes of my life. The neighborhood was a little suburban island of three or four blocks accessible only from a major highway, and felt isolated and bare. I felt that we had done a wrong to the children by uprooting them and placing them there. The two years that we lived there, from 1990 until 1992, seem in retrospect sad, drained of pleasure, uneasy.
It seemed difficult this time to keep up the reading. Whereas before I had sat on the floor in Will and John’s room and read to them alone, with the rest of the family in another room, this time we tried to read with everyone present. There were many distractions and interruptions. Our fourth child, Clare, was only two or three years old. Ellen was, after all, perhaps not quite ready, and somehow we couldn’t get our schedules together: she was ready for sleep much earlier than the others, and frequently fell asleep while we were reading. Will was impatient. John was distracted. I remember no particular insight, and no great pleasure. Indeed I do not remember it very clearly at all, nor, it seems to me, do the children.
It is the spring of 1996. Four years ago we moved to our present home in Fairhope, Alabama. This is Karen’s home town, and she had long wanted to return. I have written here of Fairhope before; it is a small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, formerly an ordinary town with a great deal of charm, perhaps a little too much for its own health, for it has attracted money and many people, is now self-consciously charming, and is dominated by well-to-do newcomers who have driven housing prices out of sight and turned what was a working downtown into a boutique, while real business is carried out on the strip outside of town or eight miles up Highway 98 at WalMart. But I suppose automobile-driven development would have happened in any case, and a boutique is better than decay. We were fortunate enough to find an inexpensive, if small and shabby, house. We are in a patch of woods at the bottom of a hill within walking distance of the bay. When Daniel Nichols visited us a couple of years ago he described it as a hobbit hole; one reaches the house down a steep hill and onto a narrow road through trees. We like it here.
Clare is eight and has been an eager and capable reader for several years now. Last fall it seemed time to introduce her to The Lord of the Rings. Our progress has been slow, but pleasurable. I am reading only to the three ladies of the house, Karen, Ellen, and Clare. The boys are sixteen and fourteen, shortly to be seventeen and fifteen, and their attention is elsewhere now. Though they are not uninterested in the book, they are often away from the house and busy with their own interests. Will is eager to be off to music school; John has a very active social life and spends his spare time trying to learn rock-and-roll songs on the guitar. I had wondered if they now thought of the Tolkien books as something for children, something they had left behind, but when I asked Will if this was the case he answered No! with a distinct are-you-crazy tone. I hope they will one day take up the story again, for my experience is that it only grows more rich as I get older. And I hope that at least they will carry with them something from it that will be a light and a secret strength to them, though they may not even know they have it, in the dangerous path they must now walk.
As for the rest of us, we stand now with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum at the gates of Mordor, which are shut fast. If Ellen and Clare are not quite as hungry for the story, not quite as caught up in it, as the boys were on our first reading, still they are eager enough, and our only difficulty is in finding quiet times for the reading, as the family is busier with outside activities, and the children have more neighborhood friends, than was the case when I read it to Will and John.
And for my part I don’t remember noticing before how fundamentally sad the story is. My fiftieth year is not far away, and now, below the intricate plot and the seemingly inexhaustible flow of imaginative detail, behind the potent imagery of elves and their love of beauty, men and their heroism, and hobbits with their love of simple things, I see in The Lord of the Rings a meditation on time, a melancholy reflection on the inevitable passing of every good thing and the necessity of renunciation. Sauron is conquered and the threat of the Ring is removed, but because of its connection with the other Rings of Power its destruction means that all that is most beautiful in Middle Earth must fade into commonness. The elves must dwindle and depart, leaving Middle Earth forever. Men will rule the new age, and it will be a duller one; no longer will the starlit forests be haunted by elf-song, and Lothlorien itself will become an ordinary wood. And the elves themselves had to choose this end, to choose between the evil of Sauronin which they might have joined and so kept their power, at least for a whileand the slow withering of everything they love. By neither choice can they hold back the passage of the beautiful into time. The world is changing is a motif repeated throughout the story, and for the elves especially it is a sad one: beautiful things are passing, and what will come after is lesser.
The quest of Frodo, on whose courage and pluck the fate of the world has rested, succeeds, but at the last moment Frodo himself fails, and would have kept the Ring from the fire, with who knows what evil consequences, had the ravening madness of Gollum not removed the choice from him. And then when it is all over Frodo cannot rest; troubled in body and mind, he cannot resume his old life in the Shire and must join the elves and Gandalf in a passage to the Blessed Realm, which he does indeed gain, but only at the cost of renouncing everything else.
There is a brief scene, fairly early in the book, which now leaps out at me as a sudden and almost brutal statement of this theme of loss, and which strikes me as having far more importance than its brevity might suggest, for it sums up the powerlessness of any character in the book against the flow of time and the unforeseeable turnings of fate. When the Fellowship has its sojourn in Lothlorien, Frodo comes upon Aragorn holding a flower and lost in reverie. Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth, he says to Frodo, and here my heart dwells ever. They walk away, and it seems a casual end to a casual conversation, until the swift knife-like stroke of the final sentence of the chapter: And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.
Such moments are nothing less than the basic fabric of mortality, and though we may or may not hold (as Tolkien himself tended to believe) that the world is growing steadily worse, we are all, as the inscription on the Ring has it, Mortal Men doomed to die. As one grows older one’s memory holds more and more moments of golden promise which have borne no fruit, or at least not the fruit one had hoped, and to which one can never return. I read The Lord of the Rings in 1980 filled with the excitement of conversion and heard in it a romantic call to arms against evil. Now my entry into the Church seems, most of the time, another faded moment of promise and my attitude toward it (though, thank God, not usually to the Faith itself) more like that expressed by Tolkien himself in a letter written late in his life to one of his sons: …the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. And I read The Lord of the Rings most conscious of its elegiac temper.
And it strikes me now that perhaps the most Catholic element of the story is its transmutation of a pagan Nordic sense of heavy destiny into something more akin to the idea of providence. The characters refer frequently to fate, to doom not only as downfall but also as unavoidable destiny. But one gradually realizes that the fate which does indeed seem to guide events, subtly and remotely, is not a blind force but a subtle yet powerful hand which somehow enables the good to be rescued against all odds. This is most striking and mysterious in the relationship of Frodo and Gollum: Frodo’s goodness is salvaged in the end only because his kindness (and that of many others) to the pathetic Gollum made it possible for the latter to live long enough to be overtaken at last entirely by evil. This is a paradoxical outcome, as difficult to fit into theological order as Judas’ role in the Gospel, and leaving Gollum’s eternal destiny unknown but doubtful. Yet it strikes one as perfect and inevitable.
As an ex-Protestant, I always hear first in the word grace something like the traditional definition of actual rather than that of sanctifying grace. I think of it first as God’s favor and assistance, perhaps given in specific acts. The fate or providence depicted in The Lord of the Rings may be seen as the continual work of actual grace. And it strikes me that the living beauty which permeates it might be thought of as the presence of sanctifying grace, God’s own life imparted to us. It is not, perhaps, theologically correct to say that grace has been imparted to a book, but the light which shines from it may reasonably be thought of as an analogy of what may happen when sanctifying grace fills the human soul, and it is surely not far-fetched to suppose that the book has this secondary grace because its creator had primary grace from his own Creator. I called it in the beginning a great work of the Catholic imagination. Let me rephrase that now in terms used by C.S. Lewis in speaking of George Macdonald: it is a work of the baptized imagination, and its presence in my own life and that of many, many others, whether or not they have recognized it as such, has most certainly been an actual grace.
I have often wondered how Tolkien’s work could have been so popular in the 1960s and yet, apparently, had so little power to bring people out of the darkness. But the end of that story has perhaps not yet come, and at any rate will probably remain hidden from us. It is our place only to do what is required. As T.S. Eliotwhose work at first glance seems entirely different from Tolkien’s and which Tolkien, a man of decidedly narrow tastes, undoubtedly dislikedsays, in words which would not have been out of place in The Lord of the Rings:
For us there is only the trying; the rest is not our business.