LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"
back to Part II: "...we make still by the law in which we're made" | back to home page of site
Beer, Pipe-weed, and the Springle-ring
The movie Babette's Feast is a great glimpse into a Catholic way of looking at physical things, as culturally Catholic Babette prepares an opulent banquet to show her thanks to her Protestant neighbors, who try not to allow themselves to enjoy it too much for fear that finding pleasure in something so appealing to the physical senses will put them on the road to perdition. (There's another, more profoundly Catholic, element in the movie that we'll bring up later.)
Catholics tend to enjoy eating and drinking (including alcohol), dancing, going to movies, and some even use gambling as a form of entertainment. The fact that some people are alcoholics or can become addicted to gambling doesn't make the activities sinful for those who don't take them so far that they harm themselves or others. (Smoking used to be included in this, but even a lot of Catholics are rethinking that as there doesn't seem to be any level of smoking that doesn't harm you and the people around you. Tolkien's pipe-smoking characters long predated any scientific knowledge about the dangers of second-hand smoke, of course.)
I don't know the historical reason(s) behind this. You'd think that Catholics, who "work out our salvation in fear and trembling" would be more careful around temptations than those who know they're saved through faith alone (that whole argument involves a paradox, by the way, not a disagreement). I'm not talking here so much about Catholic theology as I am about what might be called a Catholic way of approaching life. If you look at the countries that are traditionally culturally Catholic (even though the majority of people may not currently practice any religion), you come up with a list of places known for their food and/or drink(ing), and the world's primary sources of "Latin lovers." Cultures that you might call earthy. I don't know if this is cause or effect of these cultures being traditionally aligned with Catholicism. If it weren't for Ireland, I might blame it on the climate.
It does seem that the root word of "Reformation" could be involved, as people who feel the need to reform the religious group they belong to are often reacting, at least in part, to that group being more lax or more "worldly" than they think it should be. This has happened to religious orders as well as denominations; it led to Teresa of Avila's reform of the Carmelite order, as well as to the current existence of three separate "brands" of Franciscan friars.
A Christmas Carol was a defense of the celebration of Christmas written at a time when some people felt it needed defending. Charles Dickens's Scrooge is a miser, which all Christians would agree is not a Christian attitude toward our neighbors. But his feeling that Christmas shouldn't be celebrated was shared by people who weren't miserly and who were definitely Christian; many of the Puritans, who thought the Church of England was too worldly (a danger inherent in being a state religion, as Catholic history has shown only too well), had emigrated to America, where they had outlawed Christmas celebrations. The Puritans were being true to what they believed, and were willing to accept exile for it. In that light, it's interesting that Dickens doesn't give Scrooge any religious motivation for his attitude toward Christmas, but instead attributes it to psychological problems stemming from an unhappy past. Whether he meant to or not, he gives the impression that there must be something wrong with people who disagree with the traditional English ways of celebrating the holiday.
Tolkien makes a statement about hobbits that might have something to say about this: "...they were, perhaps, so unwearyingly fond of good things not least because they could, when put to it, do without them..." This could be used as a description of what Catholics might call "detachment": the virtue of being able to let go of things that get in the way of a higher good, even if the things aren't evil in themselves.
I think it's also important to note that, for hobbits, "good things" are still simple things. Even the S-B's turn out to be rank amateurs when it comes to power grabbing and acquiring wealth; they're easily defeated when the professionals show up to take over. Pre-adventure Bilbo may be the most ostentatious hobbit we get to know well in Tolkien's fiction, with his pantries full of food and entire rooms dedicated to clothes. But his belongings are fairly tame compared to what a Man in his situation might have acquired, and we never see him scrambling to acquire more. "When put to it" he's also ostentatiously generous and detached from what he owns. Bag End and the mithril shirt are minor things when compared with being able to give up the Ring. We could do some "reverse engineering" of the character, and say that Bilbo's ability to let go of the Ring came from years of practicing the virtue of detachment. He doesn't stop enjoying the good things of life when they come his way, but he can also do without them. He spends the last couple of decades of his life in Middle-earth living at Rivendell, in what we're told was his "little room," and not going in much for "such things" as feasts.
Bilbo's detachment was given a jump-start on the spring day he ran out of Bag End without a pocket handkerchief. His adventures, culminating with his detached use of the Arkenstone, seem to have taught him that it's better not to think of possessions as something to hoard (a mindset he certainly would have seen plenty of when hanging around with thirteen dwarves and a dragon), but to think of them as an opportunity for generosity. The fourteenth share of Smaug's treasure that the original agreement with the dwarves would have given to Bilbo "was wealth exceedingly great, greater than that of many mortal kings." But in the end he takes with him only his mithril shirt along with two small chests, "such as one strong pony could manage." He says to Bard, 'How on earth I should have got all that treasure home without war and murder all along the way, I don't know. And I don't know what I should have done with it when I got home. I am sure it is better in your hands.' As in Thorin's final words to Bilbo, 'If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.'