"Course it's true, praise God!"


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

" 'Course it's true, praise God!"

When we were both much younger, a friend of mine who's now a priest loved to quote Father John Bertolucci (well known among Catholic charismatics), imitating Father Bertolucci's rather - shall we say - enthusiastic way of speaking when in front of an audience. We'll talk about my favorite quote later, but my friend's was "'Course, it's true, praise God!"

If hope without assurance is one pole of a paradox, this is the other. There are some things that orthodox Catholics absolutely believe God will do: such as transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass. Most things Catholics are really sure about are spiritual things. We're not as comfortable with Matthew's broad "Whatever you ask for in my name..." as we are with Luke's more specific "how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him." In fact, Father Bertolucci's use of  "'Course, it's true, praise God!" was related to the presence of the Holy Spirit in each of us.

One thing a traditional, orthodox Catholic accepts on faith (although that person might suffer doubts) is that God will always do what's best for us. Even if evil enters the picture, God can - and will - bring good out of it. This belief runs throughout Tolkien's fiction, starting with the story of Creation at the beginning of the Silmarillion, when Eru weaves Morgoth's discord into the music of creation to make it even more beautiful. Tolkien's most autobiographical character, Niggle, who struggles through a difficult relationship with a neighbor, ends up telling him, "Things might have been different, but they could not have been better."

Since The Lord of the Rings puts us in a subcreation that gives us Tolkien's view of the world, this belief is incorporated into the very fabric of the story. It's much diminished in the recent movies, although even they couldn't completely omit it without destroying the story itself. We see it in many of the LotR events talked about in the essay on "The Eternal Now." Sometimes it's explicit, as in Tom Bombadil's "if chance you call it." But most of the time it's simply there, working quietly in the background, as Tolkien would have seen it working in everyday life in our primary creation. Eventually, even Frodo's stabbing on Weathertop is turned to good, as it leads to him becoming a "clear glass" who so carries the light of Ilúvatar that even Saruman sees - and obeys - it. Merry and Pippin's capture by the orcs leads to the destruction of Isengard and brings the Three Hunters to Rohan just when they're needed. Gandalf's fall in Moria brings about the defeat of the balrog and the increased power of the White Rider. Gollum's attack on Frodo and Sam gives Frodo the chance to practice mercy - which proves to be his salvation at the Sammath Naur.

But there's a strange - and, I'd say, quite Catholic - tone to all of this in Tolkien's writing. There's no "happily ever after," at least within the pages of the book. Good things happen: the Ring is destroyed, the king returns, the marvelous year of 1420 S.R. occurs; but Frodo still needs healing, the Elves leave Middle-earth, Arwen is grief-stricken and dies, and the Shire will never again be the innocent place it was. To see good being brought out of these things we have to have faith beyond the book, or at least faith in its implications: Frodo has become spiritually mature and has the opportunity to be healed, the Elves return into the West having gained some wisdom from their contact with Men, Arwen passes beyond the bounds of the world to the place where love is more than a memory, and the Shire-folk gain the wisdom of the Red Book.

Tolkien tried to write a sequel to LotR. It was set during the time of Aragorn's descendants, when much of the wisdom gained at the end of the Third Age was being forgotten, people were turning traitor to the kingdom, and evil was regaining strength. Tolkien couldn't bring himself to write it, as if bringing good out of that much evil - again - was too much for him. And to write about evil without turning it to good would be untrue to the world as he knew it, where such things are never too much for God.

But that lack of a "happily ever after" reminds us that we haven't reached the end. We'll discuss that more when we talk about the problem of evil. Until the real End of All Things, there will always be more for God - and us - to do.