The Christian Humanists
NO AUTHOR WORKS ALONE—even an author who creates a new world out of his own imagination. Born in 1892, J. R. R. Tolkien came of age in a dark, secular time. He responded in terms common to a group of English Christian writers—mostly Catholics and Anglo-Catholics—who upheld older, truer values against the dehumanizing trends of rationalist science and secular philosophy.
G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and others all lit bold flames against the century’s darkness. Tolkien’s torch joined theirs as he turned to classical and Norse mythology and the timeless teachings of the church to forge a new “Christian myth.”
Each of these “Christian humanists,” including Tolkien, wrestled against the legacy of two men: Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde.
Friedrich Nietzsche died, after twelve years of insanity, in the opening months of the new century. He was the most outspoken philosophical foe of Christianity in the late nineteenth century, and his ideas flourished in the twentieth. Convinced that Christianity was bankrupt, he proclaimed Schopenhauer’s “will to power” and emphasized that only the strong ought to survive.
He maintained that Christian charity served only to perpetuate the survival of the weak and counterposed the idea of the “superman” (the Ubermensch) who would overcome human weakness and vanquish the meek. In Tolkien’s mythical world, Nietzsche’s shadow emerges in the “will to power” of the Enemy, most specifically in the designs of Sauron and Saruman but also in the ambitions of Boromir and Gollum.
Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. The inheritor of the decadent romanticism of Byron and Baudelaire, he flouted traditional morality and was sentenced to two years in prison as a result of his scandalous homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.
Nietzsche’s pride found deadly “fruition” in the Nazi death-camps and in the rise of the abortion clinics. Wilde’s prurience flourished in the sexual “liberation” of the 1960s and beyond. Nietzsche died impenitent and insane; Wilde was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed.
Against the influence of thinkers like these, the Christian humanists reacted.
G. K. Chesterton, the most important figure in the Christian literary revival in the early years of the century, fell under the spell of Wilde and the Decadents as a young man at London’s Slade School of Art during the early 1890s. But he quickly recoiled in horror from the moral implications of their position.
Much of his early work, particularly his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, was a faith-founded attempt to clear the Wildean fog of the 1890s. Chesterton also crossed swords with the ghost of Nietzsche, refuting the neo-Nietzschean ideas of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. “Nietzsche’s Superman is cold and friendless,” Chesterton wrote in Heretics. “And when Nietzsche says, ‘A New commandment I give to you, be hard,’ he is really saying, ‘A new commandment I give to you, be dead.’ Sensibility is the definition of life.” Chesterton’s words, written more than ten years before the Bolshevik Revolution and almost thirty years before Hitler’s rise to power, resonate with authenticated prophecy.
Those literary figures who have expressed a specific and profound debt to Chesterton as an influence on their conversions include C. S. Lewis, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Alfred Noyes. Thus, without Chesterton, the world might never have seen the later Christian poetry of Noyes, the subtle satire of Knox, the masterful translation and commentary on Dante by Sayers, and the blossoming of Lewis’s many talents.
If Chesterton, along with his friend Hilaire Belloc, were the giant figures of the Christian literary revival during the first twenty years of the century, the Christian literary catalyst in the next twenty years was undoubtedly T. S. Eliot.
Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922, is probably the most important poem of the twentieth century. Although misunderstood and misinterpreted by modernist and postmodernist critics, The Waste Land is Christian in its deepest layers of meaning. Eliot’s reaction to Decadence is rooted in the same sense of disgust as Chesterton’s, but whereas Chesterton alluded to the “diabolism” of Decadence, Eliot portrayed it in all its lurid, seedy detail.
Eliot’s next major poem, “The Hollow Men” (1925), reiterates The Waste Land’s depiction of modernity as vacuous and sterile. Following his open profession of Christianity in 1928, Eliot’s poems become more overtly religious, more didactic and “preachy,” and perhaps less accomplished as poetry.
Eliot strongly influenced the writers of his generation, including the young novelist Evelyn Waugh, who rose to prominence following the 1928 publication of his first novel, Decline and Fall. Two years later Waugh was received into the Catholic Church, and thereafter, his darkly sardonic and satirical novels could be described as prose reworkings of The Waste Land’s fragmented imagery. Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust even took its title from a line in The Waste Land. Its plot could be seen as a tangential commentary on the disgust at Decadence Eliot had expressed in his great poem.
Waugh’s 1945 masterpiece, Brideshead Revisited, is perhaps (setting aside The Lord of the Rings) the finest novel of the twentieth century. Though still akin to Eliot’s “waste land” theme, its principal source of inspiration was a line from one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories about how the grace of God pulls back wayward sinners with “a twitch upon the thread.” In this wonderful novel, Waugh wanders through the wayward world of Wildean debauchery, depicts its allure and futility with Eliotic precision, and finally emerges into the cheering charity and clarity of Chestertonian conversion. This one book thus embodies the full range of influences (negative and positive) that had animated British Christian authors in the 40 years previous.
If Chesterton and Belloc dominated the first twenty years of the twentieth century, and Eliot and Waugh the next twenty years, the century’s middle years belong to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Lewis’s manifold talents shine in a variety of writings—from the peripatetic Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce, to space travel and children’s stories, to works of straightforward Christian apologetics. Tolkien, for the most part, channeled his own considerable gifts in one direction only.
His “sub-creation,” Middle-earth, was the labor of a lifetime, as Tolkien carved the narrative of The Lord of the Rings out of the rich substrate of The Silmarillion. In his mythical epic we see Sauron’s “will to power” countered by the hobbits’ humility, and we see the poison of the Dark Lord’s decadence healed by the purity of relationships (for example, Aragorn and Arwen) in which eros is bridled by the charity of chastity.
Tolkien’s mythical masterpiece stands as a pinnacle of achievement on the mountain range of the Christian humanists’ writings. It may justly be classed with the most important poem, The Waste Land, and the finest novel, Brideshead Revisited, of the twentieth century. All three are faithful, profound responses to a dark time. CH
By Joseph Pearce
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #78 in 2003]Joseph Pearce is writer—in—residence at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan and editor of the Christian Cultural Journal The Saint Austin Review, saintaustinreview.com.
One Truth, Many Tales
How did tolkien’s approach to writing for a secularizing world compare with those of his Christian contemporaries?David Mills
Christian History Timeline: The Life and Times of J.R.R. Tolkien
Chronology of major events related to Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings.the Editors
From the Editor — He Gave Us Back Myth and with it, Truth
Tolkien found in all stories echoes of the greatest story of all.Chris Armstrong
Catholicism anchored Tolkien’s life and suffused his writings.Thomas Howard