Seeing the Light

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Seeing the Light

In order to be evenhanded, here's a place where I disagree with what's been written by some Catholics about Tolkien's fiction. In fact, for an example I'll use what I think is one of the top five books ever written on Tolkien: Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth. In a chapter titled, "Deep Well and Shallow Water," Pearce seems to say that the only people who can really "get" Tolkien are Christians. Other readers can enjoy the story, but because they're drawing from shallow water instead of the deep well of faith, they can't move beyond that level.

I completely agree with this when applied to the examples Pearce gives of critics and reviewers who've had very negative reactions to Tolkien's writing, especially LotR, because they haven't been able to see it as anything other than "juvenile trash," and maybe I'm taking Pearce's point more broadly than he means it. But I've certainly known non-Christians who have a very good sense of the deeper reality Tolkien shows us through his secondary creation. I think this says something positive about Christianity rather than something negative: If someone writing from a Christian point of view creates a world that even non-Christians can sense as spiritually real, it seems more likely that the truth underlying that world is the Truth, than if the only people who can see its reality are those who share the subcreator's religious beliefs. I believe the fact that I have a friend who is a devout Muslim and who sees aspects of her own faith in LotR says more about Christianity than it does about Islam.    

Non-Christian readings of Tolkien can lead to misinterpretations, such as the statement that Tolkien had a Manichean philosophy, or that his respect for nature made him an animist or pantheist (which would also make the same true of Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, all good monotheistic Catholics who loved the physical world as God's creation - not as God).
There is a road from eye to heart that does not go through the intellect.
- G.K. Chesterton
But even though they might make some mistakes, I think the people who grasp something of the essence of Tolkien's writing are Christians or non-Christians who allow themselves to read beyond the words without needing this to be an intellectual exercise. The fact that Tolkien put much of his faith into LotR without doing so consciously makes it a book that speaks to the heart and the spirit as well as the mind. A woman on one message board began her Tolkien experience by seeing the LotR-FotR movie, and started a discussion thread afterward titled, "Does this movie hurt your heart?" (And, yes, she has read the book since then.) If we can allow LotR to hurt our hearts, we're heading in the right direction.

And for some readers, heading in that direction will lead them straight to the Good News of Christ. The first time I heard the word "pre-evangelization," I recognized immediately that this was the role The Lord of the Rings had played in my life. Like anyone raised in a Christian home, when I was mature enough I still had to make my own decision about whether I was going to accept that Good News. LotR came into my life at precisely the right time during my formative years to prepare me for that decision. It wasn't the Good News itself, but it softened the ground to make it ready for the seed. It "hurt my heart" in a way that was beyond the self-centered pain of childhood and led me outside myself to a beginning awareness of the suffering of others. Perhaps most of all, through the author's faith in Providence found on every page I discovered my own belief that God is always with us, even (or especially) when we can't see the Road beneath our feet.  

Of course, if something is going to serve as pre-evangelization it can't just "preach to the choir," but has to speak to, illuminate, and wound the hearts of those who approach it with an openness to the Truth that shines through it, even when they can't yet see the lamp itself. The reader who used the metaphor for Tolkien's faith as glimpsed through LotR that serves as the title of this part of the essay collection, wasn't Christian at the time he read the book (in his letter he called himself "an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling" - which sounds like someone ripe for pre-evangelization), but Tolkien's response to him reminds me somewhat of Jesus' statement to one of His listeners that he was "not far from the Kingdom of God":

...If sanctity inhabits [a man's] work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel nothing, or (if some other spirit was present) you would be filled with contempt, nausea, hatred. 'Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!' 'Lembas - dust and ashes, we don't eat that.'"*

I'd venture to say that it's those who "see and feel nothing" and those who respond like Gollum who are drawing out of shallow water, and those who perceive the light - even if they don't (yet) know its source - who have access to the well.

*From a letter written to another reader (#328), but inserted as a quote indicated as his answer to the previous one. I assume "neither of you" refers to both readers together.