It's Natural


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

It's Natural


I once read an essay on fantasy literature that divided fantasy authors into two groups: animist and monotheist. The author of the essay placed Tolkien with the animists, which I think would have greatly surprised Tolkien since he believed it was obvious from his writing that he was a monotheistic Christian.

One trait the writer of the essay ascribed to monotheist fantasy authors was the use of hierarchy. She didn't address this specifically regarding Tolkien, who linked healing power (and power over the palantir) with the kingship and indicated that the proper, king-appointed, hereditary Thain should take the reins if necessary in the Shire. Tolkien's cosmos is definitely hierarchical with the One (how monotheist can you get?) being the source of all that is, and the bestower of all legitimate power. The Valar give us another level of hierarchy, completely subordinate to the One.

But the main thing the essay writer used to differentiate between animist and monotheist fantasy authors was their attitude toward nature. How does Tolkien fare here?

In general, animism finds divine spirits in nature. This would be opposed to monotheism, which says that all divinity resides in the one God. In the Old Forest, Tolkien gives us sentient trees as well as Tom Bombadil who, in a letter, Tolkien equates with "the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside." Tolkien's respect for nature, especially trees, can also be seen in the Ents. But none of these - not even Bombadil - is divine.  In calling Bombadil "the spirit of the... countryside," I believe Tolkien was using the word "spirit" in a more general way than would an animist. Tolkien readers have been discussing the identity of Tom Bombadil for five decades and some people think he's one of the Valar, but I don't believe I've ever seen anyone equate him with God.* (Also in a letter, Tolkien says that there's no need for "philosophizing" about him.)

Pantheism (another ism Tolkien's been accused of) says that divinity exists only in relation to nature. Monotheism says that nature exists only in relation to God. Even a monotheist with a great respect for and love of nature, such as Tolkien, would find those to be two very different concepts.

But seeing nature in relation to God certainly makes it valuable and lovable. I've placed this essay here, following the discussion of incarnational and sacramental spirituality, because I think the Catholic penchant for recognizing the Creator in creation and deeper layers beneath physical realities is important here. Through the Incarnation of Christ, God has entered into creation, making it holier than it would be if He had "simply" created it. I think it's in line with Tolkien's Catholicism that subduing creation was not high on his list of priorities. Although he certainly honored gardening and good tilled earth, he also thought living by "the machine" took things too far. We're called to be stewards of creation, not its destroyers. Tom Bombadil gives us someone who lives in harmony with nature as it is rather than turning it to his own uses.

There's something of a paradox here, which we see in the story of the Ents and Entwives. The Ents, like Tom Bombadil, love nature as it is and have no desire to alter it. The Entwives want to improve upon it. We see the sad story of their separation from the perspective of the Ents, but I don't think Tolkien would say that either side was totally wrong. Both could be seen as wise stewards of creation. The tragedy was that they could find no way to join the two sides of the paradox so that they could remain together.

There's a deep Catholic proclivity to recognize the hand of the Creator in creation. Tolkien was very strong in this, even becoming angered at destruction of nature that he considered unnecessary. But no orthodox Catholic (and we are talking about a very orthodox Catholic here) would consider nature itself divine.


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*This might be a good place to look at one line that can seem uncomfortably close to making Tom Bombadil divine - Goldberry's statement that "He is." In letter #153, Tolkien points out that "He is" is different from "I am," and continues in a footnote: "Only the first person (of worlds or anything) can be unique. If you say he is there must be more than one, and created (sub) existence is implied. I can say 'he is' of Winston Churchill as well as of Tom Bombadil, surely?"