Some Core Concepts
Since various concepts are so interwoven, it's difficult to talk about one without referring to others. So how do we get started? These notes give some background with which to begin. They're not arranged alphabetically, but in an order that I hope will lead logically from one into the next (but there's an alphabetical list of links at the end of this page). They'll be repeated and expanded on throughout the essays. Besides actual core concepts, I've also listed some terms here that have multiple definitions; with these, I'll try to clarify what definition I'll be using in the essays.
Mystery: It's no secret that Catholics "love a mystery"- of the theological kind, that is. A mystery is sometimes brushed off as something that's unknowable, especially when dealing with questions from children: "It's a mystery, okay? We can't understand it." But it's actually the opposite. It's something that's infinitely knowable. No matter how much we know about it, or how deeply we understand it, there's always more.
Paradox: A paradox isn't the same thing as a mystery, but the two are often related. A paradox is something that seems like a contradiction but isn't. What someone sees as a paradox depends on their level of understanding. A young child might think it's a contradiction when the day is cold even though the sun is shining brightly. After the child learns a bit more, it's clear that this isn't a contradiction at all. It was a paradox - something that seemed contradictory to the child's limited understanding, but really wasn't.
So, it's easy to see how mysteries can lead to paradoxes. If we accept that there are things we'll never completely understand, no matter how much we learn about them, we should also expect to find things that, to our limited understanding, will always seem like contradictions even if they aren't. One that most Christians have in common is the belief that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine. So if our minds aren't capable of reasoning their way to an explanation, how do we know they're paradoxes and not actual contradictions? Some paradoxes we can accept only through faith, but many are things we recognize because we encounter their truth in our everyday lives. The Catholic mindset is paradox-friendly, and The Lord of the Rings is full of them.
Story: This term needs to be in the early part of any conversation about Tolkien's writing - whether we're talking about his fiction or his academic works. Immediately after mystery and paradox is a good place for it, as Story's purpose is to go beyond our intellectual reasoning and talk about things we don't have words - or even logical concepts - for. This is one of the things that makes it different from allegory; the author of an allegory needs to purposely construct it so that it "works" in all its different parts, and in order to get the author's full meaning the reader needs to intellectually understand what those various parts represent. Story isn't limited in this way. But getting to the "beyond intellectual" content of a story requires us to take a step closer to the center of it all, whether we do this consciously or unconsciously. That is, it requires us to go beyond dialogue, narration, and specific characters and events, to what it is that gives those pieces of the story their foundation. In the letter that gives this essay collection its title, Tolkien said that the religious elements of LotR had been "absorbed into the story." The image I've had of this since the first time I read the statement is of a liquid being absorbed into fabric so completely that it becomes part of the fabric - a dye, for example. The religious elements in LotR are found more in the very warp and woof of the story than they are in the embroidery of dialogue and events that use it as their base. My theory (and that's really what it is - a theory) is that, perhaps because during most of the history of Catholicism very few people could read, the Catholic mindset tends to take this step intuitively and unconsciously, which would also explain why Tolkien wrote this way even without planning to. Most of the core concepts discussed in this list and throughout the essays are ones that we find in the very fabric of LotR.
Eucatastrophe: In his essay "On Fairy-stories," Tolkien used this term to talk about the "joyful turn" in a story: the moment defeat becomes victory, or patient hope is rewarded. The beast becomes a prince, sleeping beauty awakens, the bite of apple falls from Snow White's mouth. Tolkien says very clearly that eucatastrophe can happen in our primary creation - and has happened for the human race in the Resurrection of Christ.
Free Will: Free will permeates Tolkien's cosmos and drives everything that happens in LotR. For Tolkien, free will is part of what defines us as humans. Catholic belief would support this, as free will is considered part and parcel of our being made in the image of God. Free will is so important that God allows us to sin rather than take it away from us, an idea Tolkien uses in his story of creation in The Silmarillion. Tolkien sees anything that has the aim of depriving another person of the use of his or her free will as - by definition - evil, a concept that plays a fundamental role in LotR.
Another effect of the importance Tolkien places on free will is that LotR is chock full of "what if's." There are myriads of ways the story could have played out if one or another character had at any point made a different choice than the one that's in the book.
Vocation: It's kind of like the old saying, "Remember that you're unique - just like everyone else." In Catholic belief and Tradition, each person has a vocation, i.e., is called to a form of life for which he or she is specially gifted and graced. I've placed this directly after free will, because it's each person's free choice whether to respond to the call. It's not too difficult to see how this would fit into any discussion of LotR.
Celibacy: (Note: As opposed to common contemporary usage, celibacy in Catholic vocabulary refers to not getting married. Whether or not one has sexual relations is a totally different question. An example of this is that a man can already be married when he's ordained as a Catholic deacon but, because this step includes a vow of celibacy, he can't get remarried if his wife dies. A man who's single when he becomes a deacon is making the commitment to remain single.) There are many fanfic authors who think it's a terrible shame that Frodo never married and/or had children, and try to remedy this in the stories they write about him (not all of the remedies actually involve marriage, and not all of them would have been approved by Tolkien). The hostility I've run into when I've suggested that Frodo's being single isn't necessarily negative has surprised me, and was one of the things that led me to write these essays. In the Catholic view of vocations, being single is as valid a calling as being married - whether the person is "just" single or is following a form of religious life that doesn't include marriage. One of Tolkien's three sons was a priest, and his one daughter (who's still living as I write this) has always been single; with his Catholic viewpoint, their father wouldn't have seen either of their vocations as being any less than that of his two married sons who gave him grandchildren. As I said in my earlier notes, I don't think it's necessary to believe what Tolkien did in order to "get" LotR, but I do think it's helpful to understand it. I'd venture to say that, from a Catholic point of view, Frodo's (and Bilbo's) celibacy is exactly right for the story - and even a positive thing for the character(s) as they follow their spiritual Roads.
Strong Group Society: This was becoming such a long entry that it got its own essay, which grew into an entire section of the collection. Put very simply, in strong group societies an individual's identity and sense of purpose is primarily based on belonging to the group or community. In weak group societies, the purpose of any group is to serve the individuals, who don't owe their sense of identity to any group. The strong group mindset that plays such an essential role in LotR comes from both Tolkien's traditional English background and his traditional Catholicism. "Vocation," as Catholics think about the word, is a strong-group concept, because an individual isn't called for his or her own sake, but to serve the needs of the community. Until other countries started becoming Americanized in recent years, the United States was the only prosperous weak-group society in the world, which makes for some basic differences in outlook between Tolkien and most Americans.
The Eternal Now: (Note: You probably won't find the term "Eternal Now" in a theology textbook, although I have heard and seen it used as an informal label for the concept of God's eternal existence. I use the term throughout these essays to keep things clear, since "eternity" can have various meanings.) Eternity is one of those mysteries we can't really wrap our minds around without our heads hurting a bit. It doesn't mean to simply go on without end. It means existing outside time or, put another way, existing in every moment of time simultaneously. This is God's view of things, which makes a big difference both in Catholic understanding of our primary creation and in Middle-earth. God exists in the Eternal Now - present in creation not only everywhere but everytime; time is as much a part of God's creation as is place, so God is limited by neither. If we can begin to wrap our minds around God's POV regarding time, much in LotR makes sense in new ways.
Providence: This is certainly not just a Catholic concept, but I've listed the term here because I often use it in the essays as shorthand for the action of God within his creation - whether or not the creatures being affected are aware of it or know what to call it. When talking about Middle-earth, I prefer the term "Providence" to, for example, "the plan of God", because the people involved with it do seem to know there's something or someone behind events, but they don't seem ready to put the name of "God" on that something or someone.
Non-Christian Truth: I've read more than one discussion of Tolkien that attempt to divide the Christian concepts in his writings from the pre-Christian ones (Anglo-Saxon, for example), with the idea that the former are good and useful and the latter are (at best) worthless. Tolkien would find this extremely odd, and so would most Catholics. Tolkien had great respect for the pre-Christian people whose language and stories he studied. Although, as Christians, we believe we've been blessed with a fuller knowledge of Truth, that doesn't mean all earlier peoples were evil or completely wrong. This obviously fits in with the Eternal Now; God was always present to our pre-Christian ancestors, although their understanding of that was more limited than ours. It also fits with the belief that humans are fundamentally good (although imperfect) because they're made in the image of God. It's entirely possible for non-Christians and pre-Christians to be holy. And even though this concept was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, it's by no means a new Catholic teaching or a liberal one. The most traditional Catholics base their theology on the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and he developed many of his ideas by "Christianizing" some concepts found in pre-Christian Greek philosophy.
Grace: The word "grace" has many definitions. When a Catholic uses the word in a spiritual context, it means a sharing in the very life of God. So when Tolkien says LotR is a book about persons who are "specially gifted and graced," he's making a specific, even profound, statement that the One shares his life with them. Catholic belief speaks of two different kinds of grace (although at the root, of course, they really refer to the same divine life). The first is "sanctifying grace," the life of God (the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) that exists within a person who is fundamentally united with God; the second is "actual grace," the presence/life/action of God that helps a person to follow God's will at specific times. You might say that sanctifying grace has more to do with who a person is and actual grace has more to do with what a person does. Both of them are active in LotR.
Salvation: Catholics and most other Christians mean the same thing by the word "salvation": the bridging of the gap between God and Men caused by sin. This was accomplished through the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (and, Catholics and some other Christians would add, the coming of the Holy Spirit). But the beliefs about how this occurs can vary widely among different groups of Christians. The Catholic way of looking at salvation is affected by its strong group point-of-view, incarnational spirituality, and penchant for looking at things through the Eternal Now.
Saints: Catholics recognize two kinds of saints: saints and, well, Saints (as in Saint Anthony). Everyone in heaven is a saint - just as much as a Saint is. It would be impossible for the Church to recognize every saint individually (which is the purpose of celebrating All Saints' Day every year), but she does pick out a special one here and there for us saints-in-process to see as an example and take encouragement from. In earlier days, someone was proclaimed a Saint by popular acclamation. Today, with a billion or so Catholics around the world, there's a specific process to go through. The Church never says, "Okay, enough examples - we don't need to go to all the trouble of naming more Saints," because she's always looking for saints who can serve as examples of holy lives lived in the world we live in now - to name as Saints.
The Road: This is one of Tolkien's major sacramental images. A physical road exists in itself as a road, but it also points to the existence of the Road, which is not always visible or even physical. Catholicism looks at life, and all of history, as a journey (that is, an ongoing process) more than is true of some kinds of Christianity. It's part of Catholic belief that each person has the capacity for and the calling to a deep, intense relationship with God. Close relationships take time to develop, and often grow so gradually that we're not aware of the process from day to day. Most Catholics would have a very difficult time thinking of "being saved" or "accepting Jesus" as a one-time event rather than a lifelong process. The way that Bilbo and Frodo talk (and sing) about the Road is entirely Catholic.
Spiritual Growth: If we put grace, salvation, and saints/Saints together with the Road, we get a sense of what Catholics mean by holiness - or, more specifically, growth in holiness. Growth in holiness might also be called spiritual growth, and when looking at LotR that might be a better term, since we're dealing with (fictional) pre-Christians. For a practicing, orthodox Catholic (and we're talking about Tolkien here), accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord isn't our final destination but is part of that lifelong process of deepening our relationship with God. A problem some non-Catholic Christians have with this idea is that it seems to set up a system where some people are holier than others, and, therefore, better than others. The saving grace - literally - is that the more spiritually mature someone is, the more they realize that any good within them and any good they are able to do for others is a gift from God made possible by the saving action of Jesus. And because this growth is a process, someone reaching a certain point on the Road before I do doesn't mean I won't get there, a dynamic we witness in Sam following Frodo West.
Tradition: With a capital "T," Tradition has a specific meaning in Catholic theology. It refers to the things that Christians have believed from the very beginning of Christianity that are not found in Scripture. Historically, the Christian Church existed before the New Testament did, and the earliest transmission of Christian teaching was oral, so the written New Testament was based on beliefs rather than beliefs being based on it. Rightly considered, of course, Tradition and Scripture can never disagree with each other.
Baltimore Catechism: This isn't really a "core concept," but it's helped me recognize some things that are. People of my generation who attended Catholic grade schools in the United States almost certainly memorized questions and answers from this book, meant to teach the basics of the Catholic faith. I was at the tail end of the baby boom, and of the group of people who memorized entries from the Baltimore Catechism. By the time I got past elementary school, both memorization and the Baltimore Catechism had gone out of style, so I never made it to the more complex questions and answers the older kids memorized. But, maybe because of that, I still have some of the earliest, most fundamental, ones tucked away in my brain. In writing these essays, when one of them has popped up I've considered it important evidence that the concept is, indeed, fundamental to the Catholic faith. After all, these are things we learned as six and seven year olds, to form the base for the rest of our Catholic education. I also find that they're things I so take for granted that I'm occasionally thrown a bit off course when (some) non-Catholic Christians look at a concept from a different direction. Tolkien probably didn't memorize the Baltimore Catechism (for one thing, it was written for Americans), but from what he wrote I suspect it was some of these same taken-for-granted fundamentals he was referring to when he said that LotR was in the beginning unconsciously Catholic and religious.
Incarnational Spirituality: "Incarnate," in its broad sense, means "enfleshed." It comes from the same root as "carnivorous" and "carnal." In its more limited sense, the Incarnation (with a capital "I") refers specifically to the Incarnation of Christ: God becoming "enfleshed" as a human being. The truth of the Incarnation is important not only because of how the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus affect us and our lives; in addition, it makes all of physical creation holy, because God has chosen to irrevocably be part of it, through Christ. This isn't a specifically Catholic belief, of course. The way it affects how we look at the world, ourselves, and other human beings is really a matter of degree. But the degree to which the Catholic mindset takes it is shown by our affinity for the physical, in statues, paintings, incense, Rosaries, visible rituals and symbols, etc., and for seeing the spiritual in things created by humans such as art, music and stories. It paves the way for Tolkien's concept of subcreation.
Christian Humanism: If the Incarnation of Christ makes all creation holy, how much more must it make the human race holy? Each person is made in the image of God and, although imperfect, is fundamentally good. 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. Someone with a negative view of humans would never have come up with Tolkien's philosophy regarding subcreation, which says we create because we are made in the image of a Creator; it's part of our nature, and we have the right to create. Christian humanism doesn't put Men above God, but recognizes and respects their relationship to God. The dignity of each human person is the basis of Christian humanism, a philosophy that is very Catholic and very Tolkienian - and absolutely fundamental to LotR.
Subsidiarity: This is a tenet of Catholic social teaching that says any form of control (whether governmental, financial, or otherwise) should be as close as possible to those who are affected by it. The Shire is essentially subsidiarity in action. I'm decidedly not an economist, so for a much better explanation of Tolkien's philosophy on the topic than I could ever write, see the chapter "Tolkien as Hobbit" in Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth. I don't believe Pearce ever uses the term "subsidiarity," but he gets the point across without it. He also gives an interesting historical discussion of English Catholic thought on the subject that Tolkien would almost certainly have been aware of.
Men: One advantage of communication among Tolkien readers is that we have a built-in, mutually recognizable form of inclusive language. With a capital "M," Men means the human race in general (the "big people" at least; Tolkien was quite clear that hobbits are also part of the human race, but they're not included in "Men"). With a lower-case "m," men means males or a specific set of males. Of course, the distinction can be more difficult when the word begins a sentence, but it still helps clarify things.
Sacramental Spirituality: Incarnational spirituality is very closely tied to sacramental spirituality which, in its broad sense, involves physical signs of invisible realities. Catholics recognize seven specific Sacraments (with a capital "S"), but sacramental spirituality, in its broader sense, affects how Catholics look at just about everything. It permeates Tolkien's writing. One concept found in sacramental spirituality is that of efficacious signs, that is, signs that actually bring about what they signify. Water used in baptism can be seen as a symbol of cleansing; but when used in a sacramental sense, it's an efficacious sign - it actually brings about the spiritual cleansing of which it's a physical sign. In LotR, the light of Eärendil is a sign of hope, but it's much more than just a symbol that stands for something other than itself. Its presence actually imparts the hope it signifies.
When incarnational spirituality and sacramental spirituality are joined, it doesn't take "fantasy" to see the divine working in everyday life and everyday people. That awareness makes allegory unnecessary and, indeed, limiting.
Liturgy: This word sat here awhile waiting for me to think of a way to approach it. For a Catholic, the word liturgy has a very clear-cut definition: it includes the Mass, the seven "capital S" Sacraments, and the Liturgy of the Hours (prayers and Scripture readings for specific parts of the day, sometimes called the Divine Office). Other types of prayer services are sometimes called "paraliturgical" but they're not liturgy. The original Greek that the word came from means "work of the people," and the liturgy is the prayer of the people of God who make up the Catholic Church. When a local group of Catholics celebrates liturgy, its prayer is part of the "work of the people" being carried out by all Catholics all over the world - a very strong-group concept (oh, the angels and saints are included, too, by the way). Some non-liturgical Christians don't understand why Catholics feel the need to use specific prayers and rituals in their worship, but, put very simply, when there are so many people in so many different places praying all at once, we need something to keep us together. Tolkien's background as a liturgical Christian affected his approach to a number of things in LotR - often, I think, unconsciously.
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