Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Friday, February 8, 2013

Light from an Invisible Lamp: J.R.R. Tolkien, Catholic Novelist

“I take my models, like anyone else—from such ‘life’ as I know.” J. R. R. Tolkien, 1956, letter to Michael Straight.
“My subject of fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Flannery O’Connor
Chapter 1
“Light from an Invisible Lamp”: J. R. R. Tolkien, Catholic Novelist
The Lord of the Rings, though panned by many academics and intellectuals, has for half a century been one of the most popular books in the history of English literature.[1] Those who dislike Tolkien’s work tend to dislike both it and him intensely; some associate Tolkien with an atavistic and authoritarian Catholicism, and all the baggage they assume goes with it; others see him, usually in addition, as the constructor of an infantile and escapist fairy-story, naively patriarchal, and misogynistic.[2] I find among my students that those who enjoy Tolkien are initially drawn in by an exciting adventure with hobbits, elves, wizards, and orcs; but there is something more in Tolkien that attracts his huge audience and my students: his creation of a world that is meaningful all the way down. As they begin to understand the religious and metaphysical underpinning of Middle-earth, students become even more attracted to it. There is a good reason for this. They come to the humanities looking for meaning—they want to understand what a good life is and how to live it, whether there is “truth” and what it might be; and maybe more than anything, they want beauty. Although it used to be the province of the humanities to offer wisdom and beauty, during the last several decades, under the influence of thinkers like Frederich Nietzsche, J. P. Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and a battalion of their lesser disciples, we professors have mainly occupied ourselves in challenging the idea that “goodness,” “truth” or “beauty” mean anything whatsoever. In contemporary literary studies, they are routinely taken to be the camouflage in which malevolent power clothes itself and are considered “under erasure.”
In this cynical intellectual climate, Tolkien alerts us to a deep hollow in our lives and a way it might be filled. It is a hollow many nineteenth- and twentieth-century English writers felt and resisted: Eliot, Auden, Waugh and their immediate predecessors, John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and G. K. Chesterton, all of whom held out for a meaningful universe in which the three transcendentals were assumed to exist, objectively, not according to taste. These men, with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy on the American side, are either Roman Catholics or “Catholic” in the broad sense of the word. They believed in a Christian reality that just was reality, period.[3] A secularized literature, by excluding God, was a maimed literature; it could only present a maimed and distorted view of the world, for it had sliced away the most real thing in it.
Tolkien’s main contribution to the “recovery” of reality in art was, he claimed, to write not a novel, but a heroic romance, “a much older and quite different variety of literature,”[4] of which Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien edited, and Morte D’Arthur are examples. The Lord of the Rings is in many ways a novel—the hobbits of necessity bring in the level of mundanity which is the novel’s hallmark—but it is also full of the elements of chivalric romance: great martial deeds, fiercely loyal lovers, wizards, strange creatures, the eruption of the supernatural into the natural. Tolkien creates with a pre-modern sense of reality—a mythopoetic sense—and Middle-earth, though under attack by evil forces and deathly assumptions, is so alive that trees talk and even mountains can have malevolent dispositions. “Mythopoesis,” a word of his own coinage, refers simply to myth-making, whether by an individual or through long tradition. It is the process through which the numinous dimension of reality is set forth in story. Tolkien gives us a world, 6000 years in the past, which he positions theologically between man’s fall and ultimate redemption[5]—a world which has not yet been “disenchanted,”[6] which is uninformed of Christian revelation and yet informed by it.
Whether his readers realize it or not, Tolkien’s meaningful world is specifically embedded a Roman Catholic Christian account of what reason is and more importantly, what is real. This account combines Hellenic and Judaic thought to give an explanation of why we assume the world can be rationally understood in the same way, day after day. Andrew Davison gives a thumbnail description of the genealogy of Western rationality that might make even atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett feel uncomfortably Christian:
As Einstein is said to have put it: ‘what is most incomprehensible about he world is that it is comprehensible’. In other words, why does the world make sense? What right have we to assume that it should? Christians can make sense of he universe’s sense, saying that it is God’s creation, made after the pattern of the Son, who is Word, Reason, or Logos. There is logic because there is Logos; the world is open to reason because there is Reason in God. . . . It is part of the Christian faith that we have an account of why it is so.[7]
Tolkien’s universe is not only meaningful but graceful. A universe created by the Logos runs on an economy of grace, and graceful transactions—sacramental transactions—fill The Lord of the Rings from beginning to end.
In this book, I will argue for four general propositions: 1) The Lord of the Rings is a “Catholic Novel,” written by a Catholic author; 2); The idea of the Logos, as set forth in the prologue to John is largely incorporated into Tolkien’s creation myth, The Ainulindalë; 3) Although influenced by wide biblical understanding and imagery throughout, Tolkien is significantly influenced by the Gospel of John and other books traditionally attributed to John; 4) Tolkien’s Logos-centric universe in the Ainulindalë becomes the foundation for his portrayal of Arda (Earth) from a  sacramental perspective.
None of the support for these propositions leads an existence independent of the others. However, The first proposition will be the main burden of this chapter. The second proposition will be discussed in the second chapter on The Ainulindalë. The third and fourth propositions will be the matter for part of the third chapter and the rest of the book. Tolkien had strong ideas about the relation of truth to myth, and it is necessary to understand these in order to understand the relation of the “true myth” of Christianity to his mythopoetic works, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. I set forth his ideas about myth and story and their relation to truth in the third chapter. Those who are already convinced that The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Christian work may find, in the first three chapters, additional reason for thinking so.
Although many people have written books on the Christian content and orientation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,[8]  it is not a universally accepted way of approaching his work. A recent collection of essays, The Ring and the Cross[9] takes up the issue of whether Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular have a substantial presence in the book. No one challenges the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, but Tolkien’s love of Anglo-Saxon literature and Norse legend is a massive presence in the book, and those who reject a Catholic dimension hold that his myth is grounded in those sources to the exclusion of others. To me, this initially seemed the kind of issue which academics devise to generate conference papers. I recognized the presence of Christianity when I first read The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf’s resurrection, Frodo and Sam’s trip up Mt. Doom, the Ring as something like the Edenic apple—all seemed to have easy biblical connections. Disagreement, however, is so substantial that it must be taken seriously.
            Before arguing about Tolkien’s status as a Catholic novelist, it makes sense to define the category. What might a Catholic novelist be? At least for my purposes, Flannery O’Connor provides the most guidance in two essays from Mystery and Manners.[10] A Catholic novelist is not an apologist, because an apologist is not a novelist. A Catholic writer is not an evangelist, because novels are not concerned with evangelization. A Catholic novelist is a writer who sees reality from a Catholic perspective:
What we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. . . . [11]
The novelist is required to create the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it, and the chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And his doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater. . . .[12]
A minor example of how Tolkien uses Christian light to see the world is his perception that Frodo’s very humility would him the strongest person to carry the Ring, and that Gandalf would see this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The obligation to the natural is greater because it is through the natural that the action of grace—divine aid—is discerned; and it is in nature that the supernatural comfortably resides. Tolkien makes the reader feel that the soil of the Shire and the trees of Lothlórien are full of grace. Closely related to the presence of the supernatural, at least as something whose reality is assumed, is the presence, in some way, of the Catholic sacramental view of the world:
The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth.[13]
. . . Every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses.[14]
Open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.[15]
The Catholic vision is that the holy is not located outside of a material universe that is corrupt, but within a material universe that is mainly good, though fallen, and this means that holiness can enter through the senses, that the world at large has a sacramental quality. Christianity makes spiritual goods out of the most mundane materiality: bread, water, wine, oil, but everything is meaningful. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Finally, O’Connor says, this way of seeing is so habitual a part of the Catholic mindset, that it works unconsciously:
The tensions of being a Catholic novelist are probably never balanced for the writer until the Church becomes so much a part of his personality that he can forget about her—in the sense that when he writes, he forgets about himself.[16]
In sum, a Catholic novel, like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock or O’Connor’s Wise Blood, may not look Catholic at all on their face. One deals with a small time thug in Brighton, the other with an atheist evangelist in the Protestant South. Both bring a supernatural reality into the novel, both assume a meaningful universe. All of these can be said of Tolkien’s work. Additionally, Tolkien is scrupulous in his portrayal of nature, and by his own statement, in the first composition of The Lord of the Rings, he was largely unconscious of Catholic content. O’Connor’s main point, that a Catholic novelist sees a world that illuminated by the light of Catholic culture and thought—or more specifically by commitment to Christ—is the important one, but although this illumination may touch everything, it may not establish itself in symbols or action readily identifiable as Catholic. O’Connor has one important addition in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”: all fiction writers need to have an anagogical vision, “the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or situation.”
 Anagogical visions goes hand in hand with having a “sacramental view” of life, for the sacramentality of the world is apprehended through such vision. Fr. Andrew Greeley describes a general Catholic imagination into which O’Connor’s view of Catholic novelists fits very neatly:
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace. . . .
            This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a “sacrament,” that is, a revelation of the presence of God. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality.[17]

Tolkien’s letters are a treasure trove for anyone trying to understand his habits as a writer or the multiple ways in which his Roman Catholic beliefs shaped his view of reality and his sub-creation of Middle-earth. He had comparatively very little to say about these topics in interviews or other public forums. He did not want to steer the interpretation of his own work, and this, perhaps, is a general characteristic of serious novelists. It is not hard to understand why writers are reluctant to become their own interpreters. They are already communicating in the medium that allows them to say what they want. A novel or poem cannot be recast as an essay and mean the same thing. It has to stand on its own, and interpretation, however illuminating, also narrows. The “heresy of paraphrase” recognizes that something is always lost in translation.
Moreover, readers have an important part to play in the creative process of realizing a narrative; authorial interpretation is, perhaps, an infringement of the reader’s prerogatives.  Tolkien explicitly recognizes this in his “Foreword to the Second Edition” of The Lord of the Rings, though at the same time, he cannot help but give some directions to readers who have mistakenly taken the path of allegory:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Emphasis added; xxiv)
So the reader gets freedom to “apply” the work as he will. If you want to apply Sauron and the Ring to the Cold War and see Stalin and the H-Bomb, more power to you. Just don’t imagine that I want you to limit the meaning of my book to that association. I’m not Edmund Spenser.
            Yet, the temptation to interpret one’s work, especially when readers are not “getting it,” and are asking for help, must be intense, especially to a literature professor whose raison d’etre is furthering the understanding of literary texts. When people wrote letters to Tolkien, expressing an interpretation that delighted him, he had no compunctions about affirming it, sometimes with enthusiasm and sometimes with restraint. When they wrote letters to him, and he clearly believed they had gone wrong or needed a suggestion to go right, he also responded, sometimes with restraint and sometimes with amazingly lengthy and forthcoming letters. This may seem to contradict his “Foreword to the Second Edition,” where he also says of The Lord of the Rings, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none” (xxiii). Now, in one sense, this is true of all good novels. The message is not “inner,” as if the novel were a nut that needed cracking—the message is the entire novel itself.  “Inner” is the problem word for Tolkien, but that he had a message is made quite explicit in his letters. Let us see what some of them have to say about Catholicism’s impact on his imagination and The Lord of the Rings.

            Tolkien’s letters reveal a writer who used Christian concepts not only as commonplaces for the construction of fictional reality, but as the ideas through which he understood his own life and analyzed the meaning of The Lord of the Rings. This occurs in so many places that a complete listing and analysis would take a book in itself. What I offer here is a representative sample as partial warrant for my specifically Christian and Catholic reading of Tolkien’s work. For those who want more, I can only commend them to The Letters.
            The most direct letter authorizing a fundamentally Catholic reading of The Lord of Rings is to Robert Murray, S. J., where Tolkien simply declares the work to be fundamentally Catholic. Murray, I suspect, has brought up the question of Marian influence on Tolkien’s creation of Galadriel, and perhaps an association of Galadriel with Grace. Tolkien replies:
I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.[18]
Such a letter to a critic is as a red flag to a bull. “A fundamentally religious and Catholic work?” “The religious element . . . absorbed into the story and the symbolism?” Let the games begin! Yet there are cautions in this response. What does “fundamentally” mean to Tolkien? When he says that the book was unconsciously Catholic at first, but consciously so in revision, what does that imply? In what sense does cutting out “religion” as an element of his imaginary world allow the fundamental Catholicism more visibility? Tolkien does not answer these tantalizing questions in his letters, but we can be sure that he is not going to portray, for instance, formal sacraments or even allegories of sacraments. But he may portray events that reveal a sacramental reality because he just sees the world that way; he may construct plots and characters out of the models furnished by deep Catholic belief, which Tolkien certainly had. To do so would be to match Flannery O’Connor’s description of the Catholic novelist.
            We get some clues as to how this “Catholic imagination” might inform The Lord of the Rings in a 1958 letter to Deborah Webster who inquired about Tolkien’s life and its relevance to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien first says that he doesn’t like biographical criticism (bad for me!) because it only distracts attention from the author’s works and because “only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works.”  Yet, perhaps Tolkien draws a distinction between personal facts and beliefs, especially those which might provide models:
[M]ore important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The later ‘fact’ perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary. Another saw in waybread (lembas)=viaticum and the reference to the feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist. (That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)[19]
Tolkien clearly believes that Christianity is in his stories to be deduced, and
although he says Roman Catholicism “perhaps” cannot be deduced, he cites two correspondents who have deduced it, to which Tolkien does not object. I suspect the letter writer who found Marian influence in Elbereth and Galadriel is Fr. Murray, of the previous letter. Tolkien provides us with interpretive clues about how to read him when he discusses lembas as like a communion wafer because of its Eucharistic associations: it feeds the will and is more potent on an empty stomach. Tolkien does not say that lembas is a communion wafer, or that it allegorizes the communion wafer, but lembas has a spiritual reality which is Eucharistic in a broad sense. Like a communion wafer, lembas gives one the power to stay on the journey. It communicates grace. Tolkien never gives a catalog of specific characters, items, or scenes which could be deduced as products of a Catholic imagination at work. One would never expect him to. But what this letter reveals is a facet of how his imagination operates—that he creates with a Catholic mind.
            How does a Catholic understanding of reality affect Tolkien as the creator of plot? He gives a very detailed discussion of this in a 1956 letter to Michael Straight, in which he discusses Frodo’s “catastrophe,” the moment in which Frodo decides not to destroy the Ring, but keep it for himself. The plot, Tolkien says, can be understood as exemplifying (a word he italicizes) two petitions from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Tolkien says, the Quest is “the story of humble Frodo’s development to the ‘noble’, his sanctification” (my emphasis). He explains that the prayer, not to be led into temptation, is a prayer that one retain the power to resist temptation, but finally, at the end, Frodo’s will is completely overborne. Then, using Eucharistic language, he describes how Frodo has been confronted with a “sacrificial situation”:
[T]here are abnormal situations in which one may be placed. ‘Sacrificial situations I should call them: sc. Positions in which the ‘good’ of the world depends on the behaviour of an individual in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance far beyond the normal—even, it may happen (or seem, humanly speaking), demand a strength of body and mind which he does not possess: he is in a sense doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his ‘will’: that is against any choice he could make or would make unfettered, not under duress.
            Frodo was in such a position: an apparently complete trap. . . [20]
What is striking about this passage is how thoroughly theologized it is. Tolkien is not saying Frodo is a “Christ-figure,” but he is saying that Frodo acts very much like a disciple who takes up his cross to follow Christ. Frodo’s trek into Mordor sanctifies him, sanctification being a specifically Christian term referring to one’s growth in grace as a result of commitment to Christ, a commitment that always has a sacrificial aspect. To carry Frodo’s imitation of Christ further, his sacrifice brings about the salvation of the world.
As this point, another petition of the Lord’s Prayer that brings Frodo’s plot-line to conclusion: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” for it is Frodo’s forgiveness of Gollum which finally saves the day when Frodo’s will gives out and Gollum has to bite off his finger to get the Ring. Tolkien explains:
[A]t this point the ‘salvation’ of the world and Frodo’s own ‘salvation’ is achieved by his previous pity and forgiveness of injury. At any point any prudent person would have told Frodo that Gollum would certainly betray him, and could rob him in the end. To ‘pity’ him, to forbear to kill him, was a piece of folly, or a mystical belief in the ultimate value-in-itself of pity and generosity even if disastrous in the world of time. He did rob him and injure him in the end—but by a ‘grace’, that last betrayal was at a precise juncture when the final evil deed was the most beneficial thing any one cd. Have done for Frodo! By a situation created by his ‘forgiveness’, he was saved himself and relieved of his burden. (234)
Here, Tolkien gives us the imaginary scaffolding of the central plot line of the Lord of the Rings, which extends from the beginning of the book, when Frodo wishes that Bilbo had killed Gollum, to the point where Frodo’s pity for Gollum loses him a finger and saves the world. Pity, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, grace, salvation, the Lord’s Prayer: these are all part of the Christian lens through which Tolkien is envisioning his story. Tolkien does very little to foreground or “flag” characters, scenes, objects, events, plot lines, or places as having a Christian valence. But he clearly believes that Christian categories of all kinds are tools that he is using in the construction of Middle-earth, and the product is a sub-creation that is “fun
damentally religious and Catholic.”

            In several letters Tolkien declares, in so many words, the Christian orientation of The Lord of the Rings. In his private notes on W. H. Auden’s review of the book, Lewis noted, “In The Lord of the Rings the conflict is basically not about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour.”[21]  In a subsequent letter to Auden, Tolkien wrote: “I don’t feel under an obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief, which is asserted somewhere . . . where Frodo asserts that the orcs are not evil in origin.”[22] Frodo in that scene tells Sam that Mordor can create nothing, only mar what is already created—a thumbnail description of the Thomistic idea that evil has no positive existence, but is an absence, a deformation of something by subtraction.

            This is perhaps enough to at least establish that looking for a Christian and more specifically Catholic subtext in The Lord of the Rings is not only legitimate, but the very thing which Tolkien’s letters, if not Tolkien himself, would goad a reader to do[23]. But the task does not promise to be a simple one that will yield precise results, for as Tolkien says, he wants the religious element “absorbed” in story and symbol. Tolkien gives no announcements, waves no flags, and claims to shun allegory (with some reservations yet to be discussed). Still, to read Tolkien well, we cannot ignore the religious element of the book, which many have sensed on their own and which he clearly intended. Here, the freedom of the reader may well come into play, accommodating an applicability that can be sustained by the text, even if not mandated by it.
Tolkien’s intention, in part, is to give the reader this freedom, and, as he says in his prologue, it is not his intention to determine outcomes. My goal as a reader is to stay within the playing field of Tolkien’s texts, as inferred from the texts themselves, his letters, and the artistic program he sets forth in “Mythopoesis” and “On Fairy Stories.” My goal as a critic is to say something about the Catholic subtext of the book that marshals enough evidence to be convincing. I hope not to take Gollum as my role model in dealing with the inevitable tensions between these roles.
Let us look at two of the most personal of Tolkien’s letters to see get a sense of where the Catholic apparitions in Tolkien’s story may reside. These letters deal with religious experiences of Tolkien that border on the mystical. The first, a letter to Carole Batten-Phelps in 1971 deals with the origin of The Lord of the Rings and spiritual power in the book itself:
A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten (though I believe he was well-known). He had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to hi to have been designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and language. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent. I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: ‘of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?’[24]
This rather jolted Tolkien, who relates in previous letters that he had long felt he wasn’t making up his story about Middle-earth but discovering it.[25]
Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: ‘No, I don’t suppose so any longer.’ I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff any one up who considers the imperfections of ‘chosen instruments’, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.
Indeed! But look what Tolkien, even if imperfect (as, after all Moses and Jeremiah claimed to be as well), is considering: that he is writing with inspiration, perhaps even divine inspiration.  This implies that he has produced a book that contains “divinity,” at least in the less exalted sense that it is about divine truth. But where does that truth reside? For his visitor, in Tolkien’s descriptions, perhaps of landscapes. But even in Tolkien, rivers and mountains do not announce their doctrinal preoccupations or allegiances. Yet I, and perhaps millions of others, have felt what Tolkien’s visitor felt. Tolkien goes further yet, to address his correspondent’s sense of “sanctity” in the book:
You speak of a ‘sanity and sanctity’ in the L.R. ‘which is a power in itself. I was deeply moved. Noting of the kind had been said to me before. But by a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling . . . but you’, he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light form an invisible lamp’. I can only answer: “Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel noting, 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.”
            This correspondence concerns itself with the taste of The Lord of the Rings, the overall impression that it gives Batten-Phelps and the two people Tolkien writes about. “Sanctity” and “grace” and “light” are the words they apply. Tolkien doesn’t refuse them, and I don’t think it’s an act of pomposity on his part. He also feels The Lord of the Rings has been given to him a gift. Moreover, to react to the book with violent disgust, as Gollum does to the communion wafer-like lembas, is to refuse grace. (The phrase “if some other spirit was present” is probably derived straight from the language of Ignatian meditation—“discernment of spirits.”) These are speculations verging on enormous Christian claims, and a critic who wants a full understanding of The Lord of the Rings must account for this response, which I doubt is unusual, on the basis of the text. 
            The last letter to consider is an account by Tolkien of a religious experience that is independent of The Lord of the Rings, or any of his writings, but sheds light on the kind of mind he possessed—acutely visual, symbolic, attentive to detail, and mystically inclined. The letter is to his son Christopher, in the RAF, who has written about his guardian angel. The date is November 1944.
I had [“a sudden vision”] not long ago when spending half an hour in St. Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean ‘personified’, by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person. Thinking of it since—for the whole thing was very immediate, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love)—it occurred to me that (speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate: it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the poised mote) this is a finite parallel to the Infinite. As the love of the Father and the Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person [the Holy Spirit], so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.
This mystical experience may well have something to teach us about scenes in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien describes its demonic reversal in the scene on Amon Hen, where the eye of Sauron searches for Frodo, attempting to connect to him and then does connect. Its more angelic equivalent is the opening of the dawn sunlight on the Rohirrim before Théoden leads the charge against the orcs at the Fields of Pelennor, or perhaps the blazing light around the White Rider in Fangorn Forest, the guardian angel of Middle-earth. These scenes do speak of grace or its reverse, and Tolkien’s letters provide a warrant for talking about them, and the rest of The Lord of the Rings, in the language of Catholic spirituality. In fact, Tolkien seems to guarantee that it is there to be found, in one way or the other.

[1] Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 2000.) Shippey’s “Foreword” has an excellent summary of Tolkien’s popularity and the vitriolic intellectual response.
[2] Edmund Wilson was one of the first detractors in “Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” The Nation (April 14, 1956); For more current examples, see Jenny Turner’s ironically titled “Reasons for Liking Tolkien,” London Review 23, no. 22 (15 November 2001), in which she credits Tolkien and his work with paranoia, soggy-sentimentality, and male supremacy. My favorite detractor is Germaine Greer: “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized,” in ‘the book of the century—’, W: The Waterstone’s Magazine (Winter/Spring 1997) 8: 2—9; W. H. Auden, on the other hand, hardly a sentimentalist, loves the book. See his two reviews, “The Hero is a Hobbit,” The New York Times (October 31, 1954), on The Fellowship of the Ring; “At the End of the Quest, Victory,” The New York Times (January 22, 1956), on The Return of the King.
[3] This group of artists and thinkers was mainly powered by Catholic converts such as Newman, Hopkins, Chesterton, Waugh, Graham Greene and at a very young age, through his mother, Tolkien himself. Christopher Dawson, the historian, was one of the most influential. On the American side, converts included Orestes Brownson, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton. Books about this efflorescence of Catholic thought, which passes unnoticed by the big literary anthologies or departments of English, are Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2003) and Peter Allitt, Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
[4] Letters, 414.
[5] Letters, 387: “The Fall of Man is in the past and off stage; the Redemption of Man in the far future.”
[6] The famous phrase is Max Weber’s, adapted from Frederich Schiller. See H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, “Bureaucracy and Charisma: A Philosophy of History,” in Charisma, History and Social Structure, ed. Ronald Glassman and William H. Swatos, Jr. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986), 11.
[7] “Christian Reason and Christian Community,” in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition, Ed. Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012); Kindle Location 680 – 97.
[8] See Bradley Birzer, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2002); Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings (New York: Crossroad, 2005); Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf: Epic Battle and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003); Matthew Dickerson, A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012); Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005); Louis Markos, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Chicago: Moody, 2012); Joseph Pearce, Tolkien, Man and Myth: A Literary Life (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998); Joseph Pearce, Ed. Tolkien, A Celebration: Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999); Richard Purtrill, J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984); Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-earth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
[9] Paul E. Kerry, Ed. The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and The Lord of the Rings (Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).
[10] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961)
[11] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists,” 173.
[12] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists,” 175.
[13] O’Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” 152.
[14] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists,” 176.
[15] O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists,” 178.
[16] O’Connor, 181
[17] Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 1 – 2.
[18] Letters, p. 172.
[19] Letters, 288
[20] Letters, 233.
[21] Letters, 243
[22] Letters, 355
[23] And many people have done it.
[24] Letters, 413.
[25] Letters, 

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