A Book About Death II


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

A Book About Death II

This doesn't seem like the best place to put this particular essay, but every time I try to put it earlier in the collection I realize there's some topic necessary to it that hasn't come up yet. But maybe it's not too out of place, since the continued inspiration of the Holy Spirit is involved.

The one time I know of that Tolkien boiled down The Lord of the Rings to one word, he said it was a book about death, which (he also said) simply meant it had been written by a Man. Throughout his mythos, of course, there's the polarity of the immortal Elves and the mortal Men - the Elves bound to the created world until its end and the Men who live temporarily in the created world before moving beyond it.

If the Elves of Middle-earth still have a fault at the end of the Third Age, even after their millennia of growing in wisdom, it's their desire to keep things unchanged. During the Council, Elrond describes the power of the Three by saying, 'Those who made them did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained. These things the Elves of Middle-earth have in some measure gained, though with sorrow.' Part of the magic of Lothlórien is its seeming timelessness.

I find Frodo's descriptions of Lothlórien especially poignant because he knows that if the Quest is successful, one of its effects will almost certainly be the fading of everything accomplished through the power of the Three, and it's that power that holds Lothlórien in its state of timeless purity. When Galadriel speaks of what she expects will happen if the Ring is destroyed, Frodo asks her, 'And what do you wish?' At that point, Galadriel shows the maturity she has reached by replying 'That what should be shall be.' It has taken her thousands of years of internal growth to be able to let go of the realm she founded as an exile who was too proud to accept forgiveness when it was offered to her* - the realm she has held in unchanging beauty through her power and that of the ring she bears. Her final test, as we know, was to also refuse the One Ring that could have not only kept the works of the Three intact, but given her power over the others.

Both at the Council of Elrond and in the words of Galadriel, we're told that the Elves of Middle-earth are willing to allow the "tides of Time" to sweep away their works if that is what's necessary to defeat Sauron's evil. Seeing the Elves departing from Middle-earth as the Fourth Age begins, I even wonder if their time living among mortals, who must face change and loss every day of their lives, wasn't an important part of their maturing process. Did the Exiles need those ages away from the Blessed Realm to be ready to return to it as wiser people? Did they need to live among mortals to understand that not everything is, or should be, without change?

It's interesting that Tolkien gave the Elves a tendency that also was his own: the desire to preserve the beauty of the world unchanged. I believe this adds to the importance of the Elves' willingness that 'What should be shall be,' even if it's not what they would most like to occur. The author feels their loss himself and so is able to let us experience it through his writing to a degree that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

But, as I've said before, Tolkien was a complex person. His grief (and sometimes anger) over the mindless destruction of nature in the name of "progress" wasn't a simple nostalgia for "the good old days." He disliked cars because of their effect on the world around them, but liked typewriters (he wished for one with Fëanorian script, which he could probably get as a computer font today) and marveled over voice recorders. And although he studied languages of the past, as a philologist his main focus was the study of how languages develop and change. Sindarin and Quenya are designed as two languages that developed from the same root - they shouldn't be the same.

I'm bringing this up here because of a misunderstanding I believe exists regarding Tolkien's "conservative" Catholicism. When many people (including a lot of Catholics, conservative and otherwise) learn that Tolkien didn't believe the Second Vatican Council was necessary, and that he wasn't personally happy with many of its results, they simply stamp him as "conservative" and apply to him everything they think that label implies, which generally involves wanting things to remain unchanged. But his detailed letters on the subject to his sons give a more nuanced picture. What he seems to have found most "unnecessary" in the Second Vatican Council was its call to examine our beginnings - especially when that was interpreted as returning to what Tolkien called "primitive Christianity." While some Catholics were working to remove the "cultural accretions" they felt the Church had picked up over two millennia, Tolkien's thought seems to have been, "Why would we want to abandon the place it's taken us 2000 years to reach?"

Tolkien died less than a decade after the Council ended, when the pendulum swing it had caused was still rising and looked as if it might go that way indefinitely. It's just my opinion, of course, but I think the results we have over 40 years after it ended might not be as bad (or as "primitive") as he feared they'd be. One example that has affected almost every parish, at least in the United States, is the renewal of the catechumenate. That certainly sounds like something old, doesn't it? When we looked at our history, one thing we discovered was that the process by which an adult joins the Church had gotten to look far too "weak group" over the centuries. The basic strong group beliefs about what it means to be part of the Church were still there, but they often weren't very visible as the pastor met with the person privately for necessary education and then baptized him or her privately with only close friends (if that) present for the occasion. That isn't how it was done in the beginning, when the entire process took place in the midst of the community of believers and those who were preparing to join the Church (the catechumens) became a supportive community themselves. Bringing the process more in line with the strong group reality has affected parish life, adult education and faith sharing opportunities, and even the liturgy. On the other hand, returning the process to its proper place in the midst of the community hasn't "turned back the clock" on the substance of our understanding of what it means to be part of the Catholic Church, something which has changed since those early days when it was likely to lead to martyrdom and when believers expected Christ to return during their lifetimes, and has continued unfolding since the days when Church leaders believed their responsibility involved increasing not only the Church's spiritual power but earthly power as well. We have learned something in 2000 years - thank God! - but that doesn't mean we can't also learn something from those who went before us.

Part of being mortal is living with the paradox that roots and new leaves are both essential to life. But referring to the Vatican Council in a letter to Michael (#306), Tolkien noted that when you have a tree you can't dig down into the soil and still find its seed. He respected origins and beginnings but didn't believe we need to limit ourselves to them. Catholic belief is that we learn not only from Scripture and Tradition, but also through the Holy Spirit living in the Christian community. Ignoring 2000 years of such instruction would be every bit as rash as Tolkien considered it to be. Even when the directions taken weren't ones he would have chosen, his hope for the Church was always "That what should be shall be."


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*At the time of his death, it seems that Tolkien was still sorting out Galadriel's life story. What I refer to here is how he saw it at the time LotR was published.