'...but forecasts are more favourable'


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

'...but forecasts are more favourable'

This essay and the next are a bridge between the previous section and this one, and are being added after both sections have already been written. They're late arrivals primarily because I hadn't felt that looking at Catholic concepts in The Lord of the Rings needed a discussion of J.R.R. Tolkien as a person, beyond acknowledging the existence of his traditional, devout Catholic faith and considering his own insights into his writing. In addition, the concept involved is so much a part of Catholic spirituality that I confess it didn't dawn on me that it needed to be addressed until I was reviewing some of the non-Catholic Christian commentaries on Tolkien that had first led me to write these essays, to see if I'd forgotten anything - and I had.

We've just finished following some of the events of Frodo's journey, concentrating on how they affected his spiritual growth. Frodo's very much an individual rather than a representation of something, and his Quest isn't allegorical. When we read it, we're reading about a specific fictional person having fictional experiences that are specific to him. It's not meant to be a pattern for anyone else's (much less everyone else's) spiritual journey. But (you knew there'd be a 'but,' didn't you?), it's also an example of what JRRT said in a letter to his publisher regarding the question of whether The Lord of the Rings was allegorical:  

Of course, Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth. So that the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life; and the only fully intelligible story is an allegory. And one finds, even in imperfect human 'literature', that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easily can it be read 'just as a story'; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it. But the two start out from opposite ends.

I love the "Of course" at the beginning of that quote. When I read the paragraph, I can sense the truth of it and agree that, "of course," that's how things work. But if asked to explain it, I could do about as well as St. Augustine could when asked to define time. Limiting this discussion to LotR, and the reason so many people have been so determined to make allegory out of it, I might say it's because this specific Story contains so much Truth that it can, indeed, meet Allegory there. This is also, I believe, one of the reasons this same story has had the ability to move so many hearts and touch so many souls over the last five decades. That is, a huge number and a wide range of people have individually been able to read it as the story of their own lives, with each person seeing that in a different way, through different characters and events, and/or various deeper aspects that are woven into the story. Tolkien understood human nature well enough to be able to create completely believable characters who respond to things in completely believable ways - so much so that we can see ourselves in them, consciously or unconsciously. Many authors can do this with characters who resemble themselves, but Tolkien's ability to do it with such a variety of wildly different types of characters is unparalleled. His understanding of how life and the world "work" enabled him to give the characters lives that mirror our own at some level - simply because both they and we are human (well, more or less) and live in the same world with the same natural and, more importantly, the same supernatural forces. And, as said often in these essays, Tolkien saw this world and these forces as a Christian would see them, and that's how he writes about them in LotR. From the same letter (emphasis added):
You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work.

In LotR this "only because all... does so work" applies to much more than attempts to defeat evil power by power. It applies to jealousy, fear, despair, pride, love, sacrifice, hope, humility, and a myriad of other aspects of life as we know it. And those elements of life are so universal that they can seem allegorical. They're also so universal that I can apply many of them to myself and my life. It's not surprising that many of them can be applied to the author who wrote the story that gives them a framework, not because he was writing autobiographically but because life "does always so work."
Something we see strongly in Frodo's story - and in varied ways in the stories of other characters in LotR - is that doubts, darkness, and trials of faith are a normal part of spiritual growth. Why this is so is a mystery, in the true sense of being "infinitely knowable." John of the Cross's 300+ pages on the subject are only a fraction of what's been written, and I don't know of anyone who would claim to completely understand the process. Even John's work is an "observational study" that describes the experience rather than an attempt to explain why it happens the way it does. I'm sure the purpose behind it is related to our human limitations rather than to any that God might have; God can read our hearts without collecting "test" scores, but our humanity often needs to be "tested by fire" as metal is to melt away impurities.

This was discussed earlier, in the essay on "...those as just went on", which also mention's Peter Kreeft's statement (referring to Tolkien's writing) that "Calvary is the rule, not the exception." In fact, a paragraph in that essay started out in this one, until I realized it said things more generally than is needed here. That essay ends with a statement that the story of Jesus reminds us that "contentment is not the usual fate of those that just go on," when going on means accepting and following God's will. When Mother Teresa of Calcutta's journal was published posthumously, it shocked a lot of non-Catholics, and even some Catholics whose thinking had been influenced by the dominant culture. To people operating from a traditionally Catholic view of life and the world, the intense darkness and doubts she experienced weren't only unsurprising; they were, you might say, expected. They simply confirmed what had been believed for years: that Mother Teresa was someone who'd reached a high state of holiness during her time on earth by being someone "as just went on."  Such trials, especially toward the end of life, are often the final testing by fire experienced by a person who has faithfully followed the Road that God has laid before them: the spiritual darkness and sense of having been abandoned by God experienced during her final illness by St. Thérèse, whose earlier experience of her relationship with God had been that of a beloved child to a loving Father; the physical, emotional and spiritual pain Francis of Assisi experienced in the later part of his life, as he carried the wounds of Christ in his own body and watched his life's work head in a direction that he was sure would destroy it; Frodo's darkness of woundedness and his feelings of guilt about the Quest that had defined his life.  

To those who've read some of the evangelical Christian commentary on Tolkien, it may be obvious where I'm going with this. That Tolkien had grave doubts toward the end of his life about the subcreation he'd built is fairly well known. Christopher writes about sweeping changes his father thought he needed to make to his Legendarium*, but which he wasn't able to accomplish before he died. Some commentators have seen this as a warning against taking JRRT's writing too seriously, especially when the doubts involved the expression of his faith. (The  most sweeping changes he thought needed to be made involved other things, such as having his cosmos agree with modern knowledge about astronomy.)

Tolkien hadn't meant his Legendarium to be specifically Christian writing. But because he believed the Christian view of the world was true, he would have seen anything in his writing that was inconsistent with the Christian view to also be inconsistent with how life "does always so work," and he didn't want such inconsistencies in his subcreation. I also wonder if his experience of writing The Lord of the Rings as a "fundamentally Catholic and religious work" - at first unconsciously - led him to think of what he could have accomplished if he'd written the entire mythos that way. He never considered his subcreation to be finished, so he was continually reworking things that he decided weren't quite right. But, not unexpectedly from a Catholic perspective, the doubts toward the end of his life went much deeper than tinkering with Galadriel's life story or trying to figure out where taters had come from. They involved the foundation of his cosmos as it was traced back to the earliest days, with moonlight and starlight coming into existence before sunlight, with both sun and moon rising in the west and setting in the east, and the earth being flat before it was "bent."

When I first read Christopher's account of these doubts, I was troubled. Making the changes that would be necessary to bring the secondary creation into consistency with current knowledge about primary reality didn't involve only the Legendarium itself. The very idea that the changes needed to be made beat against much older foundations, including JRRT's own structure of the meaning of subcreation as he wrote about it in "On Fairy-stories," "Mythopoeia," "The Monsters and the Critics," and even "Leaf by Niggle." He'd built not only his fiction on it, but also much of his academic work involving early myths and legends of our primary creation. It called into question his entire life's work! Which would be expected during someone's final dark night. Bereft of his Lúthien, he's also alienated from his own work by his doubts concerning it.

As with Mother Teresa and Saint Thérèse, though, JRRT's final doubts don't seem to have been obvious to anyone except those who knew him best. He didn't give up in despair, or throw his work into the fire as some authors have done (remember that, at this point, none of his Middle-earth work was known to the public except The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and a few earlier poems). He went ahead as he always had, considering how to make the changes he thought were needed. Living, perhaps, very close to John's "Nada," what he still had left were faith, hope, and love.

Some people who've studied Tolkien may recognize the title of this essay - and some most likely won't. It's the final words of J.R.R. Tolkien as given to us in his published letters, at the end of a very homey, unassuming letter to his daughter Priscilla. His final illness was sudden, and the letter gives no premonition of death. The words I've quoted for the title are referring to exactly what they sound like: the weather. In the midst of the homely content - in fact, while writing about very homely things - JRRT twice in that letter makes what I've come to consider a very Tolkienian shift. First, he describes what "seemed like a hopeless quest" of finding suitable rooms in Bournemouth, as well as losing his Bank Card and some money. But between the help of friends and the workings of chance (if chance you call it), things ended up much better than he could have imagined - and he tells Priscilla all about that, too. Secondly, after signing off with "My dearest love to you - Daddy," he adds the postscript, "It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present - but forecasts are more favourable."  

I can almost hear Niggle in the background talking about his relationship with his neighbor Parish. The relationship hadn't always been on the best of terms, but after the two men are reunited following death and are able to better understand and love each other, Niggle says to Parish, "Things might have been different, but they could not have been better." Which is, I think, one of the best descriptions of the workings of Providence that I've ever come across. Although Tolkien's final letter was written many years after "Leaf by Niggle," in its simple descriptions of life working out for the best, I find hope that Tolkien was still able to "expect everything from the other without binding him in any way," that is, that he was still living by hope without assurance even when experiencing serious doubts about his life's work.

In these days of word processing's correction-by-deletion, the many drafts of his work that Tolkien held onto seem unfathomable. But I believe they show how important he thought the process of subcreation was. I've certainly learned a lot from them. Not surprisingly, I've paid the most attention to the process of writing The Lord of the Rings; the changes that took place to make it more and more a "fundamentally Catholic and religious work" are fascinating. One I've mentioned only briefly is that, at first, Gandalf survived his fall into the abyss because the "abyss" wasn't as deep as it seemed. Putting that side-by-side with the Gandalf who passed through death and was sent back briefly "to finish his task" shows in microcosm the depth of those changes. This section of essays talks about how the Catholic mindset looks at inspiration, and about Tolkien's own growing belief that The Lord of the Rings was an inspired work. As far as I know, there's no evidence that he believed this about any of his other writing, and some of his later doubts may be related to this. For myself, I see all of Tolkien's Legendarium as part of the process that led him to the place in his life where he could cooperate with grace in writing The Lord of the Rings. "Things might have been different, but they could not have been better."


Once in a very great while, I feel strongly enough about something to state a disagreement with established Tolkien scholars (I've written elsewhere about my disagreement with Christopher over the importance of Frodo's 'I do not choose now to do...'). At this point, I want to disagree with Verlyn Flieger's assertion (in her chapter "A Sad Song's Best for Winter" in Interrupted Music) that Tolkien's subcreation is much darker than the Judeo-Christian creation upon which it's based. Hope is always present in both, even in times of darkness.
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*"Legendarium" has become a common way of referring to the entirety of Tolkien's mythos for his secondary creation, although that statement raises more questions than it answers. Each person using the term seems to have a different idea of what's included and excluded in that definition.