LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"
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Made in the Image of God
Tolkien had a basically positive view of us mortals, which is something I think draws many people to his writing in the midst of so much fiction that looks on the human race pretty pessimistically.
This is true not only of "mainstream" literature but also in most of the genres. Within fantasy, there's the "dark fantasy" subgenre, which can basically be thought of as fantasy in which there are no good guys. There are struggles between opposing forces, and the author might (or might not) give hints as to which side the reader "should" support, but neither side is fundamentally good. In not a few cases, both sides are fundamentally evil. Who's the reader supposed to identify with in a story like that? What disturbs me more than the stories themselves is what they say about the worldview of their authors, and of their avid readers. And more disturbing than the demons, vampires, etc., who inhabit their stories, are the "regular" human beings in them. The world is presented as a place full of danger in which we shouldn't expect to find good in anyone. If we throw in our lot with someone we think we can trust, we'll find out in the end that we've been deceived (meaning that other people should look at me that way, too). I wouldn't want to live in a world like that, and I don't believe I do.
Literature, including fantasy, lies along a spectrum, and there are fantasies that are dark without being true "dark fantasies." That is, they do give us some characters who are on the side of good. But the good people are shown as being exceptions who have to defeat a world (and sometimes more than a world) of evil forces and evil - or, at least, apathetic - humans. The world I live in has individual heroes who fight against huge odds, but it also has a lot of plain, down-to-earth good people who try to make a positive contribution, even if it seems small. Using as an example the behavior of Shirefolk while the ruffians were in charge, I believe the world has many more Farmer Cottons than Ted Sandymans; Farmer Cotton might not have thought he was doing much, but he kept the Gaffer alive long enough to see his son return, and he probably saved a number of the other "goodbodies" as well. Yes, it took the leadership of the heroes to scour the Shire, but they couldn't have done it if the majority of hobbits had been on the side of evil, or if they'd been completely unwilling to help.
Not surprisingly, a few of the authors whose fantasy lies toward the dark end of the spectrum are among Tolkien's most vociferous critics. Their basic charge is that Tolkien's fiction paints too rosy a picture of the world and doesn't make evil, well, evil enough. Supposedly, this doesn't prepare children to face the world as it really is, which makes two assumptions I'd question: that most of Tolkien's readers are children, and that these authors' view of the world is the real one.*
Remembering again that the world of Middle-earth is our world in an earlier age, and that the human beings living there are basically the same as human beings living now, Tolkien could not have made Middle-earth a profoundly evil place with fundamentally bad people, and still remained true to what he believed as a Catholic.
I've surprised some people on discussion boards when I've said that Tolkien's view of us mortals as fundamentally good is based on his religious beliefs. Most responses have been along the lines of, "But Christians think people are evil and damned to hell if they don't accept Jesus." Well, some Christians might believe that (although I think even many evangelical Christians would say that statement's too simplistic), but Catholics aren't among them. We'll get into the "damned to hell" part in the next section. Here let's stay with the fundamentally good/bad part.
The bottom line for Catholic belief in the dignity and worth of each human being is that each person is created in the image of God, with a free will and a nature that is designed to be united with God's. We learned as children that the reason each individual human being is created is "to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him in the next." Although each person decides how to respond to this purpose, the fact that he or she is created with the capacity for such a calling is a profound statement of each person's worth to God and to creation. It doesn't matter if the person is good or bad (morally speaking), old or young, sick or well, intelligent or mentally disabled, employed or on welfare, on "our" side or "their" side in a war, well-fed or starving, educated or illiterate, a law-abiding citizen or a murderer on death row, a native or an illegal immigrant, Catholic or non-Catholic, Christian or non-Christian, monotheist or polytheist or atheist or agnostic or someone who doesn't know what any of those words mean, or (as if it needs to be mentioned) born or unborn. At least one congressman who's on the "other side" in the abortion debate has said that although he doesn't agree with the Catholic stand he respects it - because it's consistent. Cardinal Bernardin of happy memory called the Catholic view of human dignity a "seamless garment." If you start pulling out a thread by, for example, denying basic health care to the children of illegal immigrants, you weaken the entire fabric. We don't have the right to decide who is and who isn't worthy of being respected as a person, because each one is created with the breath of divine life and an immortal soul.
This recognition of human dignity is one of the things that makes The Lord of the Rings a fundamentally Catholic and religious work, because it's woven throughout the story. There are some events that put it in the spotlight, such as Frodo's decision not to kill Gollum (and the earlier words of Gandalf that he remembers at the time), the aid the Wild Men of the Woods give even to those who haven't been respecting their human dignity (it's the Wild Men who are the models here, not the Rohirrim), and Sam's reflections on the Southron whose body falls near him (in a manner that some military historians say is exactly the way a slain enemy soldier could have fallen into a World War I trench - perhaps one that Tolkien was in?).
But even when not being specifically emphasized, it's always present. Frodo and Sam are saved by the fact that Faramir acts from it and takes the time to discover who they are and why they're in Ithilien, instead of immediately killing them as the law calls for. It's behind Gandalf's chiding of Aragorn and Éomer for not attempting to understand what Éowyn was facing. We see it in Bilbo's habit of calling the Gaffer "Mr. Gamgee," and teaching Sam to read, as well as in Frodo's respectful attentiveness to the Gaffer's complaints about his taters being dug up - to say nothing of ultimately making a servant his heir. It's obvious in the information we're given that no hobbit has ever purposely killed another; it wasn't really necessary to the plot that we learn this, but the person relating the history to us thought it was important enough to include. I could go on for quite awhile, but you get the idea. I think the entire book would make sense if read with only this one idea in mind.
As we watch the efforts of Good acting through respect, it's not surprising that the worst actions of Evil deny it. We'll talk later, when looking at Frodo's spiritual journey, about how this applies to the Ring's effect on him, especially while he's crossing Mordor. Anyone who seeks the power to control others ends up advancing the cause of Evil, no matter what motive they start with. Any attempt to deprive others of the use of their free will, even for a "good cause," is inherently evil, according to Tolkien's philosophy and, I believe, according to what we see in his subcreation. The One refused from the very beginning of creation to limit free will (in both Tolkien's subcreation and in our primary creation as he perceived it), and if anyone has a right to control it, it would be Him. This is linked to Tolkien's statement, which we'll look at in more depth later, that in his cosmos if power is not connected to Eru, either directly or through the Valar, it is a "sinister word."
It seems to me that this respect for human dignity and free will plays a large part in Tolkien's avowed preference for applicability over allegory. Applicability, he says in the "Foreword to the Second Edition" of LotR, is based on "the freedom of the reader," while allegory is based on "the purposed domination of the author." Tolkien admitted that readers found things in LotR that he hadn't meant to put there, but as long as their way of looking at something agreed with the larger mythos, and as long as they realized it was their way of looking at something, he had no problem with it; in fact, it's evident in his letters that he welcomed their insights. The people he chastised were those who interpreted something in his stories in a way that contradicted something else and, even more, those who proclaimed that their interpretation was the interpretation. Those who did the former were possibly just illogical (not a good quality, especially from an Oxford professor's point of view, but not necessarily evil). On the other hand, those who did the latter were not only saying they knew what Tolkien meant but were saying that any readers who looked at something from a different angle were wrong. If Tolkien guarded the freedom of each reader throughout the writing of his fiction, he wasn't going to be complacent about someone else attempting to take that freedom away by claiming to have found the only correct point of view.
The poem Bilbo wrote for Aragorn begins "All that is gold does not glitter..." We're used to hearing that statement turned around the other way: "Not everything that glitters is gold." While Tolkien would have agreed with that, too, I think this line from the poem is more distinctively his. His writing is more likely to remind us to look for hidden good within a person than it is to warn us that we might be taken advantage of if we're not careful.
*I don't think it would help us at this point to go into detail on the specific authors and their specific comments. For more reading on this, I'd suggest the chapter "The Nature of Evil" in Bradley J. Birzer's J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, especially pages 90-93 which have a number of direct quotes.