Introductory Notes

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    
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Introductory Notes

When talking about the effect of Tolkien's Catholicism on his writing in The Lord of the Rings, I'm talking not so much about Catholic doctrine or theology as I am about what you might call a Catholic view of life and the world, or a Catholic way of looking at things. When Tolkien called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally Catholic and religious work," he said that this was originally unconscious on his part, although it became conscious as he revised the book. I find this statement intriguing, because it says that Tolkien's faith was so much a part of him that he drew on it naturally, without making any effort to do so or even noticing that he was doing it. This is where I believe his "Catholic mindset" came into play, along with the fact that his faith is so "absorbed into the story" that it's found within the weave of the book - in the background and in the assumptions at its base - more than it is in specific events, narration, and dialogue.  I'll occasionally refer to some of Tolkien's other fiction, but the evidence says that even Tolkien considered LotR to be a work that grew from his faith in a unique way. Especially since Tolkien never set out to write specifically religious or Christian fiction, It seems only fair to the author to look for his "fundamentally Catholic and religious" view of life and the world primarily in the book where he saw it most clearly himself.

My original plan was to compose a book of meditations on LotR for Catholics. But my reading and research for that project began turning up misunderstandings that caught me by surprise (lifelong Catholic that I am): misunderstandings of the Catholic way of looking at things that have caused some non-Catholic Christians to pass by much of LotR's spiritual nourishment without recognizing it. I don't think it's necessary to believe what Tolkien did to appreciate this element of the book, but I think understanding what he believed helps the reader to see more clearly how the light of his faith shines through the clear glass of LotR, making it not a book that is partially Christian and partially not, but the fundamentally Catholic (and, therefore, Christian) work Tolkien believed it to be. This collection of essays is primarily about ways of looking at life and faith that so permeate the Catholic mindset that we don't always think about them consciously, which I believe played an important part in LotR being a Catholic work "unconsciously at first." The process of writing these essays has helped me uncover some of my own unconscious assumptions and ways of thinking that I take for granted because I've always lived with them.

As you go through this collection you might find yourself thinking there's an awful lot of theology in it for something that's not about theology. But everything affects everything else, and it's impossible to draw clear lines or compartmentalize someone's life. The beliefs we're raised with (whether religious or otherwise), and how they affect our lives while we're being raised, are at least a subconscious influence on the way we look at things, as Tolkien discovered. When we ask why a particular concept is part of the Catholic way of looking at things, we usually find ourselves talking about beliefs or theology, although the question will sometimes lead us to historical explanations. (Which, of course, circles around to the statement that theology and history are so interconnected that in many cases it's impossible to completely separate them.)

Another line that's impossible to draw clearly is that between Catholic belief and non-Catholic Christian belief. Catholics are, first and foremost, Christians - after all, we were here first (at least that's how we see it). Often the difference between Catholic and non-Catholic Christian ways of looking at something is a matter of degree or slant.  I'll try to emphasize this at appropriate places in the discussion, but if you're a non-Catholic Christian please don't take offense at seeing some of your own beliefs labeled as "Catholic." Saying that Catholics believe something doesn't mean that other Christians don't. Besides this, there's an entire spectrum of non-Catholic Christians; the way an Anglican or a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church looks at something might be more "Catholic" than the way a Baptist or a non-denominational Christian sees it, for example. Trying to make distinctions among all of these would take up several books in itself!

Although I've run into misconceptions of Tolkien based on various kinds of theology (and lack of it), the Tolkien-related books, articles and websites I've read that prompted me to write this collection of essays were written by and/or for evangelical Christians; the angles from which Catholics and evangelical Christians look at some things are so different that it can seem as if we're not looking at the same things at all. I was more drawn to write about this than to write about, for example, neo-pagan misconceptions regarding Tolkien, because Tolkien's work is so profoundly and fundamentally Christian that I'm saddened when some Christians miss much of its richness because of a different slant or word usage. I'm not trying to convince anyone that the Catholic angle is the only correct one - or even that it's correct - but with an author as deeply affected by his faith as Tolkien, getting a glimpse of things from his point of view will hopefully open up some new understandings of what he wrote.

This isn't a scholarly work; I've lived with one foot in Middle-earth for over 40 years, but I don't claim to have an academic knowledge of it, only the familiarity of a long-time resident. Although part of the "never finished" nature of these essays is trying to track down sources, I'm afraid they do suffer from the common "fan writing" problem of not always being able to go further than "I read somewhere..." Anything I present as a fact is trackable to one or more sources, but my thoughts, comments, insights, and opinions have been simmering in the "soup pot" with those of other Tolkien readers for so long that I can't always remember where one came from or how it developed. On the other side of the topic, I do have a master's degree in pastoral ministry with an emphasis on Scripture, from a Jesuit University, but even most of what I say about Scripture and Catholicism comes from having lived my life in that world rather than from studying it academically. I've been in training to be a Carmelite (which didn't fit me) and a Franciscan (which did).

I'm also much better at writing essays than books. So this is basically a collection of interrelated essays touching upon some of the practical problems of interpretation I've run into when reading non-Catholic commentaries and communicating with non-Catholics (both Christian and non-Christian) about Tolkien's writing and, specifically, about LotR. As such, you'll run into some repetition for the benefit of people who aren't reading the essays in order, and also some hyperlinks to other essays where a topic is discussed more.

If these essays pique someone's interest enough to want to read a more orderly discussion of the topic, I'd especially recommend The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings, by Stratford Caldecott (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2005), which is actually a second edition of Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., London, 2003); the only addition I see in the newer book is about seven pages related to the recent movies. So, if you've already read one of these two books there's no need to read the other. Caldecott has the gift of being able to write scholarly material without being dry or inaccessible.  

And a couple of specifically LotR-related notes to clarify where I'm coming from in my own approach to the book:
Ever since I came across the idea in a discussion some years ago, I've been reading LotR as if the information was supplied by the authors of the Red Book of Westmarch: Bilbo at the beginning (following There and Back Again), Frodo then gradually taking over and writing most of the story, and Sam finishing the final chapter.  Reading LotR as if Tolkien used the information from the accounts of these three authors to retell the story just plain works so completely and consistently that I've come to believe that Tolkien must have had it in mind as he wrote the book*. So this has become my assumption when reading or studying LotR. Any interpretations of LotR that I make from within its secondary creation (that is, ones that deal directly with characters and/or events, rather than with the way Tolkien wrote about them) are consistent with that assumption. This will, actually, come into play at times in these essays.

It will also be obvious that I'm incurably (and unapologetically) Frodocentric. I have been ever since the first time I watched him silently drain his glass to Bilbo's health and slip out of the pavilion. Intellectually I know and accept that by Tolkien's design LotR has no one, central hero, and I'll be discussing all of the major characters to some degree. But for me to attempt anything close to a balanced look at all of them would be hopeless, so I haven't tried. Other people have written - and will write - more about them.

*Since originally writing these introductory notes, I've read quite a bit of the History of Middle-earth that tells us how The Lord of the Rings evolved, and now I'd say "...that Tolkien must have had it in mind as he revised the book," because his early drafts don't carry this quality.