As the world moves away from history's bloodiest century, Catholic author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien seems to be finally receiving the recognition he has so long deserved. A comprehensive 1997 British poll ranked The Lord of the Rings as the greatest book of the century. A 1999 Amazon.com poll took this even further, rating The Lord of the Rings as the greatest book of the millennium, and Amazon.com customers honored Tolkien with the title "Author of the Millennium."
As one might imagine, the literati have not been pleased. "Tolkien -- that's for children, isn't it?" wrote one British critic, adding, "It just shows the folly of these polls, the folly of teaching people to read." English reviewer Andrew Rissik dismissed Tolkien's relevance: "After the annihilating traumas of the last century, it's merely perverse to ascribe greatness to this airy but strangely simplified mock-Teutonic never-never land."
The British are not alone in their criticism. Famed American literature professor Harold Bloom contended that The Lord of the Rings is simply a period piece that "met a need in the early days of the Counter-Culture." That is, Tolkien's Middle-earth provided one of the many escapist fads for the hippies of the 1960s and early 1970s. They desired escape by any means necessary: drugs, music, or Tolkien. Further, Bloom asserted, the protagonist of the story, Frodo, is not a hero, and his sage companion, Gandalf, is "self-important" and rude.
Whatever one thinks of Tolkien's heroes or his writing style, one cannot objectively dismiss Tolkien as merely a cult figure. Tolkien clearly remains popular, despite his critics, and well beyond the hordes of "sword and sorcery" enthusiasts and hippie-era drug-culture types.
Why Tolkien remains so popular is a legitimate and serious mystery in and of itself. In religion, Tolkien was a Catholic and Christian humanist (a philologist, he was a principal collaborator in the translation and literary revision of the First Edition of the Jerusalem Bible). In his cultural views, he was anti-modern. In his politics, he was a Chestertonian agrarian-distributist. In his philosophy, he was an Augustinian and a Thomist. Certainly, none of these traits should have propelled him to the top of literary popularity for the average reading public.
Far from "airy but strangely simplified," Tolkien tapped into the longings and misgivings of modern man. Rooted deeply in Western Judeo-Christian ideas of sin, pride, justice, and right reason, his stories remain timeless. He did, though, despise the 20th century and modernity, especially its killing fields and socialist wars. As political scientist R.J. Rummel has uncovered, Communist and fascist governments murdered over 169 million of their own citizens between 1901 and 1987. Another 35 million more died in state-sponsored wars. When someone takes the final count for the 20th century, adding those slaughtered in Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and China since 1987, the figure may easily reach 200 million dead. The numbers are so vast, they render one numb.
Overwhelmed by modernity, Tolkien confronted in his works the 20th century and its deadly machines of war, industrialism, and nationalism. In one of the most haunting passages in The Lord of the Rings, he described the following:
Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-land, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces, some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were chocked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
Tolkien's closest friend, C.S. Lewis, argued that only someone who had witnessed the trenches firsthand could have written this passage. Indeed, Tolkien experienced much of World War I in the trenches, losing most of his close friends in battle. He knew whereof he wrote. Not all modern evils are as obvious as those of Stalin and Hitler, or as blatant as that of the mechanized and inhumane fighting of the First World War. Tyranny and modernity arrive in many packages, some of them brightly colored. Understanding this, Tolkien despised the impersonal machine-driven capitalism of the 20th century, especially its handmaiden, the oppressive democratic bureaucracies of the Western world. "Not a penny for Concorde," Tolkien wrote to the British equivalent of the I.R.S. As much as Lewis in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, he feared the democratic conditioners and the "men without chests" who planned for the sake of planning, draining life of its vast richness.
Though Tolkien disliked the 20th century, he did not resent living in it. It was, for him, his duty to do God's will and attenuate the worst aspects of the agnostic and atheistic society swirling around him. God had put him "here and now" for a reason. In a telling conversation in The Lord of the Rings, one character expresses regret for having to live in such a foul, evil world. "`So do I' said Gandalf, `and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'" For Tolkien, that reason was to express God's will through a new myth, reflecting the true myth, the story of Christ.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, especially those academics and journalists who apologized for the Hitlers and the Stalins, Tolkien knew very well one of his gifts: God allowed him to understand the reason for the bloodletting of modernity. It was simple, really. Man had fallen away from the Creator. With Nietzsche, man embraced the irrational and the passionate, throwing off the veneer of love, Judaism, Christianity, and true republicanism. The falling away from God stemmed from the first sin, pride. Rejecting the belief that he is made in his Creator's image, modern man now desires to be a god himself.
Tolkien's Christian project -- found in the Silmarillion, the Unfinished Tales of Númenor, and The Lord of the Rings -- attempted to expose the follies of pride and power. "In my story," Tolkien recorded in his personal notes,
Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.
Sauron serves as the first lieutenant of the devil, Morgoth. By wisely setting the story on our earth in the distant past, Tolkien created a timeless story, relevant to all conflicts between good and evil. To modern man, who has become accustomed to state-sponsored murder, Tolkien's works present a new vision of an old truth. Specifically, they lay waste to the atheism running rampant in Western culture. Indeed, this rather obscure English philologist did nothing less than attempt to reorder the shattered world of the 20th century, not through man's vision, but through God's.
No utopian or social-gospel advocate, Tolkien ended The Lord of the Rings on a dark note, for radical evil never wholly disappears. Good men attenuate evil, but it only subsides, waiting for the descendants of the good men to grow weak, lazy, and distracted. Then, when men have become comfortable again, ignoring the Divine and drowning in their own subjective realities, gross evil resurfaces. As in the New Testament, only God the Father, or Ilúvatar as Tolkien calls Him, knows the true End, when His divine justice will finally and conclusively destroy evil. Until then, it is the duty of good men to fight the good fight and to promote the will of God, even when failing to understand it completely.
When The Lord of the Rings first appeared in the 1950s, one of Tolkien's greatest disappointments was that Christian periodicals ignored it. He feared they missed the point that the 500,000-word story was to its very core Catholic. To a Jesuit friend he wrote: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision." When Tolkien began writing it in 1937, he merely wanted it to be a sequel to his clever children's story, The Hobbit. God shocked him, as he later believed, when a dark figure, one of the nine Ringwraiths, suddenly appeared in the story.
Tolkien was as surprised at the arrival of a servant of the devil as were his fictional, frightened Hobbits. While meditating on this unexpected arrival, Tolkien seems to have focused upon the Lord's Prayer. "I think rather of the mysterious last petitions of the Lord's Prayer: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," Tolkien wrote in 1956. "A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning. There exists the possibility of being placed in position beyond one's power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person." Tolkien firmly believed that his characters had existed long before he had, that God had given him the story. He believed he merely recorded it. Ultimately, Tolkien claimed, God was the true author of the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
With the appearance of the Dark Rider in the Shire, Tolkien crafted, through grace he believed, The Lord of the Rings into a story as much against pride as for mercy. It embodied the messages of the Old and New Testaments. At the beginning of the first part of The Lord of the Rings, for example, two of the main characters, Frodo and Gandalf, debate the merits of killing an evil creature, Gollum. Frodo states without hesitation, "He deserves death." Gandalf, the wizard, replies, "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." It is precisely because Frodo learns to understand the wisdom of mercy that the One Ring, which contains the power to rule the world, is destroyed in the end, and kept out of the hand of the Enemy. One should not, as Gandalf warns, distort God's designs as found in His economy of grace. Violating His natural laws, no matter how little sense the laws make to us, does exactly that. Pride always results in grave sin.
One can also find the themes of justice and mercy, the economy of grace, the persistence of evil, and the demand for hope in Tolkien's scholarship. In 1939 he delivered a profound academic paper entitled "On Fairy-Stories." Tolkien argued that the true artist is a sub-creator, creating in the image of God. One's creation must follow the laws of God's universe, and it should never try to supersede God's glory (that is the path to Hell), only to reflect His glory. The artist accomplishes this by revealing a bit of joy -- the true joy -- that the saved will experience in Heaven. Far from escaping reality, fairy stories embrace the higher reality, one well beyond sinful, pride-filled fallen man.
Though dead now for almost two decades, Tolkien is being vindicated as a Christian author by Christians. In the spring of 2000, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today rated The Lord of the Rings as the fourth most important religious work written in the 20th century. In 1998 Joseph Pearce's excellent literary biography, Tolkien: Man and Myth, demonstrated the deep Christian roots of Tolkien. Other authors such as Fr. James V. Schall, Peter Kreeft, James Patrick, and Charles Coulombe have argued the same. After reading these recent works of criticism, one finds it impossible to interpret Tolkien as an advocate of a libertine drug culture or merely a "sword and sorcery" writer.
Yet, while many scholars are finally establishing Tolkien as a vital 20th-century Christian author, his popularity may come back to haunt him and ultimately adulterate his legacy. New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson will be releasing The Lord of the Rings as a motion picture trilogy (following the paperback divisions of the story) beginning Christmas 2001, the following two films to be released each subsequent Christmas.
This is unsettling news. First, Jackson, based on his previous directorial offerings (which include several horror films as well as the disturbing Heavenly Creatures -- the true story of two teenage lesbians who beat the mother of one of the protagonists to death with a brick in a sock), seems little-prepared to convey the Christian nuances of The Lord of the Rings. Take, for example, that the lembas, the bread of the elves which sustains the ring (cross) bearer Frodo as he ventures into Sauron's realm of Mordor (Hell), can be translated as the "bread of life." It is, in essence, the Blessed Eucharist. Or, that Gandalf the Grey is really a reified angel sent by God to serve and inspire the good beings of Middle-earth. Or, that Gandalf's proclamation of himself as a servant of the Secret Fire really refers to his serving the Holy Spirit. Or, that the Elven Queen Galadriel is one of several representations of the Virgin Mary in Middle-earth. Any transference of Tolkien's stories to another medium should take into account his Christian intentions. For Tolkien, one could not separate his Christian message from his stories. With Jackson's movies, it seems, Tolkien's timeless story will become part of the politically correct, secular world the English philologist so very much despised.
Second, and perhaps most obvious, one must read Tolkien's novels to discover their immense creativity. They are in and of themselves works of a profound and God-breathed imagination. As one fan wrote Tolkien in the 1960s, making a movie out of The Lord of the Rings would "be like putting Disneyland in the Grand Canyon." Unfortunately, millions of young readers will experience Tolkien on the big screen rather than on the written page, and Frodo will always look to them like actor Elijah Wood and Sam like actor Sean Astin. To make matters worse, moviegoers unfamiliar with Tolkien's books may simply forgo reading the novels altogether.
Third, and finally, if the movie does, as it seems likely, divorce the Catholic message from Tolkien's stories, Tolkien's image as a cult figure will only accelerate. Hippie drug types and "sword and sorcery" fanatics seem to have landed themselves in their own adulterated Tolkien-derived worlds simply because they divorced the Christian elements from the stories, thus giving the books an eerily dark feel. This has occurred most recently in Russia, where young men and women in their 20s and 30s are turning Tolkien into a new occultist ideology, replacing the Communism of their youth.
In the end, it seems, as do all worthwhile things in our day and age, Tolkien's masterpiece will become adulterated and co-opted by the modern paradigm. Still, Tolkien the devout Christian always knew his priorities: "The only just literary critic is Christ, who admires more than does any man the gifts He Himself has bestowed."
Bradley J. Birzer is an Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and co-founder of the Hillsdale College Tolkien Society.
This article can be found on The New Oxford Review website (link closed). Reprinted with permission of The New Oxford Review 1069 Kains Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94706.