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Catholicism, Tolkien, and Diversity

1 July 2021 | Tolkien on the webRobin Anne Reid

… I have prepared this handout to address a number of claims that have been made to denigrate or dismiss presentations that are scheduled for the Tolkien Society’s Summer Seminar, Tolkien and Diversity. I am one of those speakers. I am not linking to the outraged mobs because I have no desire to give them any more attention than they’ve received.

Instead, I list evidence that can be used to rebut an assumption about the relationship between Tolkien’s religion and his legendarium that I have found to be common in Tolkien scholarship and fandom. 

The evidence consists of excerpts that come from Tolkien’s Letters (edited and selected by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien) that Verlyn Flieger analyzes in her ground-breaking essay, But What Did He Really Mean?” (Tolkien Studies, 2014); along with some of Verlyn’s analysis of the letters; and excerpts from a letter by Father Robert Murray, S. J., that is archived at Marquette University and reprinted, with permission, in Tolkien Studies, 16, 2019, pp. 133 – 139), introduced by Richard C. West.

The excerpts all complicate the assumption that Tolkien’s religious beliefs must be taken into account in reading and interpreting his work.…

This particular handout is being created because, in the current backlash against Tolkien and Diversity, too many people were claiming that Tolkien was Catholic, his work was Catholic, and there could be no discussion or interpretation that went against Catholicism without ever defining what Catholic” means, or assuming that there is a single/​universal/​unchanging and conservative stance which happens to be theirs and which they assign to Tolkien as his intentionality.…


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I LIKE CHERRIES, BUT.… Robin Anne Reid July 1, 2021

[if you would like a PDF version of this piece, feel free to email me at robinareid AT fastmail DOT com]

I have prepared this handout to address a number of claims that have been made to denigrate or dismiss presentations that are scheduled for the Tolkien Society’s Summer Seminar, Tolkien and Diversity. I am one of those speakers. I am not linking to the outraged mobs because I have no desire to give them any more attention than they’ve received.

Instead, I list evidence that can be used to rebut an assumption about the relationship between Tolkien’s religion and his legendarium that I have found to be common in Tolkien scholarship and fandom. 

The evidence consists of excerpts that come from Tolkien’s Letters (edited and selected by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien) that Verlyn Flieger analyzes in her ground-breaking essay, But What Did He Really Mean?” (Tolkien Studies, 2014); along with some of Verlyn’s analysis of the letters; and excerpts from a letter by Father Robert Murray, S. J., that is archived at Marquette University and reprinted, with permission, in Tolkien Studies, 16, 2019, pp. 133 – 139), introduced by Richard West. 

The excerpts all complicate the assumption that Tolkien’s religious beliefs must be taken into account in reading and interpreting his work. This question is one I asked on a 2018 survey I did focusing on Tolkien fans who are atheists, agnostics, and animists, a project I’m presenting on at the Seminar. 

This particular handout is being created because, in the current backlash against Tolkien and Diversity, too many people were claiming that Tolkien was Catholic, his work was Catholic, and there could be no discussion or interpretation that went against Catholicism without ever defining what Catholic” means, or assuming that there is a single/​universal/​unchanging and conservative stance which happens to be theirs and which they assign to Tolkien as his intentionality. 

So, first, the introduction to Verlyn’s essay: 

Almost from the date of its publication, The Lord of the Rings has been subject to conflicting interpretations, appealing equally to neo-pagans who see in its elves and hobbits an alternative to the dreary realism of mainstream culture and to Christians who find an evangelical message in its imagery of stars and light and bread and sacrifice. Tolkien was more patient with enthusiasts of both sides than many authors would have been, but he was also ambiguous, even contradictory in stating his own position — for example in his letters as to whether there was intentional Christianity in The Lord of the Rings, or in his essay On Fairy-stories” (written before The Lord of the Rings but strongly influencing it) whether elves (aka fairies) are real.

Thus he could tell one correspondent that The Lord of the Rings was fundamentally” religious and Catholic (Murray, Letters 172) and another that he felt no obligation to make it fit Christianity (Auden, Letters 144). He could, in On Fairy-stories” both as published and in its rough drafts, argue for elves as real yet on the same page — sometimes in the same paragraph — call them products of human imagination. He could in one breath talk about Faërie as an actual place and in the next say it was the realm of fantasy. There are many such turnabouts, reversals of direction that not only make him appear contradictory but invite contradictory interpretations of his work, permitting advocates with opposite views to cherry-pick the statements that best support their position (Flieger, 149). 

Next: quotes from the letters she analyzes: 

Letter 131 to Milton Waldman” Date: [“not dated but was probably written late in 1951”]

[in context of the lack of English stories… (bound up with its tongue and soil)”] 

Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing, its faerie’ is too lavish and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to be fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary real’ world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian dahs. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read) (144).

Letter #142 to Robert Murray, S. J.” Date: 2 December 1953

I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. 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. However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it (172).

Letter 153 to Peter Hastings (draft)” Date: September 1954 

Note: the letter was never sent. 

Reincarnation’ may be bad theology (that surely rather than metaphysics) as applied to Humanity; and my legendarium, especially the Downfall of Númenor’ which lies immediately behind The Lord of the Rings, as based on my view: that Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become immortal in the flesh.* But I do not see how … any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of re-incarnation as a mode of existence, prescribed for certain kinds of rational incarnate creatures (189).

*Since mortality’ is thus represented as a special gift of God to the Second Race of the Children (the Eruhíni, the Children of the One God) and not a punishment for a Fall, you may call that bad theology’. So it may be„ in the primary world, but it is an imagination capable of elucidating truth, and a legitimate basis of legends. 

Letter #163 to W. H. Auden” Date: 7 June 1955. 

The Lord of the Rings as a story was finished so long ago now that I can take a largely impersonal view of it, and find interpretations’ quite amusing; even those that I might make myself, which are mostly post scriptum: I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual intention in mind at any point.* 

*Take the Ents for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called Treebeard,” from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading someone else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in my unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that the Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the old eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connexion with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the male’ and female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening (211−12).

Letter #269 to W. H. Auden” Date: 12 May 1965

[Auden had asked Tolkien if the notion of the Orcs, an entire race that was irredeemably wicked, was not heretical.]

With regard to The Lord of the Rings, I cannot claim to be a sufficient theologian to say whether my notion of orcs is heretical or not. I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theory, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief, which is asserted somewhere, Book Five, page 190, where Frodo asserts that orcs are not evil in origin. We believe that, I suppose, of all human kinds and sorts and breeds, though some appear, both as individuals and groups to be, by us at any rate, unredeemable .… (355).

I highly recommend reading the entire essay because my chosen excerpts can only hint at the richness and complexity of Verlyn’s argument. But for those who cannot or do not wish to, I’ve selected some excerpts analyzing how quotes from the same (short) quotes from these letters have been used to support conflicting arguments and presenting her argument about how best to engage with the contradictions. 

She makes her purpose clear on page 150: The question in my title, But What Did He Really Mean?” is not intended to provide an answer, but to use the ambiguity as a guide to what may have been issues as unresolved for Tolkien as they were for his admirers.One result of this ambiguity is that the same cherries can be picked by both sides to support contending positions. For example, the same passage in a letter to Robert Murray is cited by Joseph Pearce to defend Tolkien’s Christian orthodoxy (Pearce, Man and Myth 109), and by Patrick Curry to support his intentional paganism (Curry 109, 117 – 18). Maybe this is what Tolkien intended. Maybe not. Michael Drout’s 2005 article Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism” points out that the overreliance of critics upon the Letters guides Tolkien scholarship down the narrow channel of finding a single theological meaning in Tolkien’s works (21)” (149 )

.…

Joseph Pearce uses them to show that Tolkien meant The Lord of the Rings, to be theologically orthodox” (Pearce 109), while Patrick Curry cites them to support the book’s blend of Christian, pagan, and humanist ingredients” (117). Pearce calls the statements paradoxical. Curry describes them as syncretism.”

Pearce is not far off the mark. It does seem paradoxical to cite the religiousness of a work as your motive for cutting out religion. Moreover, for an author who emphatically disavowed allegory to invoke the symbolism” of a work seems disingenuous to say the least. But Curry is not wrong either. To omit all reference to religion opens the door to a wider, more syncretistic and ecumenically inclusive audience, allowing Curry, for example, to point out that the Valar are related to the ancient elements (fire, earth, air, and water) in a characteristically pagan way” (Curry 110 – 11). Such widely differing readings may tell us as much about the scholars quoted as they do about Tolkien, but it is significant that Tolkien opens the door to both. The key to this apparent inconsistency may lie not just in the differing philosophical adherence of the interpreters but also in the relationship of the writer to the addressee. While Tolkien was writing to Milton Waldman, he was speaking through Waldman to William Collins, chairman of the publishing firm. The wording of the letter makes it plain that he was seeking to get acceptance on its own terms for what he knew was a highly idiosyncratic work and was thus forestalling comparison. He likens his Valar to the gods’ of higher mythology, which can be accepted — well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity” (Letters 146), pointing out the difference, not the similarity.

The addressee of the other letter and its more orthodox statements was Robert Murray, the grandson of Sir James Murray, founder of the Oxford English Dictionary, on which Tolkien worked when he first returned from France in 1917. Murray’s close friendship with the Tolkien family was instrumental in his conversion to Catholicism in 1945 – 46 (Scull and Hammond 614). At the time at which Tolkien wrote, and for the many years after, Murray was a priest, a member of the Society of Jesus. For Tolkien and Murray Catholicism was more than a shared religion; it was a basis for their friendship. Tolkien prefaced his statements by telling Murray that he had even revealed to me more clearly some things about my work” (Letters 172). To reply to Murray’s comments by saying what he said to Waldman would have been not just uncalled for, but insensitive and inappropriate (151−52).

.…

In his 1967 interview with Henry Resnik, he came close to outright repudiation of intentional Christian reference: 

You don’t have to be Christian to believe that somebody has to die to save something. As a matter of fact, December 25th occurred strictly by accident, and I left it in to show that this was not a Christian myth anyhow. It was a purely unimportant date, and I thought, well there it is, just an accident.” (Resnik 43)

Note that he does not say sacrifice is not Christian, just that it doesn’t have to be, and the accident” of December 25 as the Fellowship’s departure date from Rivendell was left in” to show difference from, not correspondence to, Christianity. He echoed this in a letter to Houghton Mifflin, writing that, the Third Age’ was not a Christian world” but a monotheistic world of natural theology’ ” (Letters 220), and in one to W. H. Auden, writing, I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief” (Letters 355). It scarcely needs pointing out that the phrases fundamentally religious,” consonant with,” and strictly by accident” show a wide spectrum of positions (153).

I suggest he didn’t want a theological argument with anyone and so expressed his more adventurous views with caution and ultimately kept them to himself, and to his fiction. He certainly espoused orthodox Catholicism, but his letters and his fiction show an imagination transcending Christianity without disagreeing with it. Elvish reincarnation remained a staple of his mythos, even in such late writings as the appendices to the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” where he insisted that the reincarnation of the Elves seems an essential element in the tales” (Morgoth 363) (154).

His Catholic faith was central to his life, but at a level beyond doctrine he also believed in fairies, and might have, like Frodo and Looney and Ramer, had direct experience of the strong potion” of Faërian Drama. The conflict between faith and imagination fueled his art, creating the complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance” that is The Lord of the Rings (Letters 136). Resolving that conflict might have removed the bitterness and the terror, but it would also have removed the power and tension of a story whose virtue is its indeterminacy, a story in which Frodo can be both guilty and innocent, in which Boromir is both admirable and culpable, and Sam is both beneficent and destructive. We see Éowyn at her best when she has the courage of her desire to be a warrior-maiden but also when she is strong enough to let go of it (164).

The final excerpts are from A Letter from Father Murray” which was found in the Marquette Archives by Richard C. West who arranged for permission to publish the letter as a whole in Tolkien Studies, 6, 2019, pp. 133 – 139. The letter was written to Michael A. Witt, who, while a graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, wrote his master’s thesis on the influence of Catholicism on Tolkien” (134). Witt wrote to Murray (also to Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien) to solicit feedback on parts of his draft. 

Fr. Murray’s second letter (dated 15 July 1980) is worth quoting in its entirety. It can be made public here thanks to the kind permission of Fr. Murray’s estate, the British Province of the Society of Jesus:

As for what concerns my letter to Tolkien, on page 28, lines 7 – 9, I did not express the opinion that the trilogy (nb you constantly spell this word triology) contains references to grace and to the Virgin Mary’. That would be to suggest that it contains theological statements, which nobody could have thought. I meant that the work is bathed in an atmosphere suggesting the order of grace and that the female characters each in their way seem like reflections of Our Lady. I don’t think you really misunderstand what I meant, but that sentence needs expressing more precisely. Later in the article, when you talk about Tolkien’s attitude to allegory you have the right idea. Incidentally in 1953 I was six years away from ordination. 

I hope my remarks are not too dampening. There is a case to be made about Tolkien the Catholic, but I simply could not support an interpretation which made this the key to everything. In my opinion the key lies in Tolkien’s imaginative response to the heroic literature which had always gripped him.

Nobody can know Tolkien’s intentions (which he claimed not to have), but at least one of his closest friends and fellow Catholics pushes back against the attempt to make Catholicism the key to everything.” 

And I would hate to try to make an argument against Verlyn’s conclusions in But What Did He Really Mean” because, among other things, she knows the material she’s analyzing so well, probably better than just about everybody else living. But if people are going to try, they need to engage with more than just a few cherry-picked quotes (keeping in mind that all the Letters were selected and edited from a larger group of work and overseen by one of Tolkien’s sons who, like all of us, is going to have a bias).

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