Sacramental Imagination

Tolkien claimed that all of his work was massively influenced—nay determined—by his Catholicism. Questions crowd in straightaway:

"I've read the trilogy and The Silmarillion ten times, and I never saw anything Catholic in it.” Or, “How can he say that? The characters have to get along in their quest without a bit of ‘divine’ help.”

True, the hobbits and the men of Aragorn’s ilk don’t seem to have any “god” to invoke, though there are some talisman-like cries for help from above—most notably “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” But unless one has read The Silmarillion, one has only the sketchiest notions of the immense theological backdrop to the trilogy’s “fragment” (see p. 28).

Magnetic north

The saga of The Ring most certainly draws upon Norse and Icelandic saga for its ethos and not, apparently, on Catholic categories. Tolkien, like his friend Lewis, was intoxicated by “northernness.” When they came upon the Nordic tales, each found himself pierced with the dart of sehnsucht.

This is a sweet desire; an insupportable nostalgia for—for what? It is an inconsolable yearning that finds itself not only not satisfied, but intensified, by any small taste of beauty available to us mortals. Dante’s Beatrice, the Alps at sunset, T. S. Eliot’s “moment in the draughty church at smokefall"—such glimpses serve only to drive the knife deeper into the wound.

Midgard, or “middle earth,” was the name given to our world in Nordic saga. And the world of which Tolkien writes is our world, only the events occur in a “time” not locatable in our calendars. The Age of Men is about to come forth in Tolkien’s trilogy. Titanic events mark the waning of the elder world. The elves and their kind are “passing, passing,” throughout the whole drama, and finally disappear through a gray screen of rain just before the final scene, when we return to the meat-and-potatoes world of Mr. Samwise Gamgee, his wife Rosie, and their baby Elanor.

Buying the package

All of this seems distant from Catholicism, unless we wish to suppose Tolkien’s religion was a mere fancy that found a lodging in the immense mystery of the Church of Rome. Certainly many people suppose that conversion to Catholicism entails a large dollop of romanticism.

But first, Tolkien never converted to Catholicism: he was born into it. And second, no convert to Catholicism finds anything like the pre-Raphaelite magic that he might, in his non-Catholic days, have fancied lay in the region across the Tiber River.

Tolkien’s Catholicism was, if anything, at a polar extreme from the romantic or the nostalgic. It was utterly and unsentimentally matter—of—fact. We would never have found Tolkien rhapsodizing about The Faith. He got himself to Mass regularly, and he said his prayers, and he counted on the Sacraments and banked on the Magisterium of the Church as the authoritative teacher of Sacred Scripture-and that was that.

Tolkien’s Catholicism was as intractable and given as the stones of the old buildings at Merton College. Odd as it may seem, there isn’t much to say about Tolkien’s faith unless one wants to embark on a log of Catholic dogma. He simply bought the whole package. And that is archetypically “Catholic.” His “faith” was of one, seamless fabric with his body, his teaching, his daily routine, his writing, and his family.

So. What about this flinty Catholicism of Tolkien’s and its effect on his work?

First, Catholics are profoundly narrative. Where Protestants gravitate towards the immense abstractions of sovereignty, election, depravity, atonement, and grace, Catholics characteristically come to rest on events: Creation; Annunciation; Gestation; Parturition; the Agony in the Garden; the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Mass is an enactment, as opposed to the Protestant service, with its center of gravity in the sermon.

Stoups, relics, and lembas

Second, Catholicism is sacramentalist. The point where the Divine touches our humanity is a physical one. Creation; pelts for Adam and Eve; the Ark; the Tabernacle; the Womb of the Virgin; the flesh of the Incarnate One; splinters, nails, whips, and torn flesh. The entire Gospel is enacted—physically, in the Catholic liturgy. Hence the ease with which the Catholic mind reaches for narrative. Tolkien believed he could not have written the saga if he had not been a Catholic. He trusted in his imagination in a way sadly rare among Protestants.

Tolkien’s saga is also sprinkled with “sacramentals": the lembas, the athelas (a healing plant), mithril (finely woven magical armor), Bilbo’s sword “Sting": these aren’t magic, much less omnipotent. But they do have virtu—spiritual character, excellence. Tolkien was used to holy water stoups, crucifixes, relics, the Rosary, and so forth, which stand on the cusp between the seen and the Unseen.

Third, good and evil in Middle-earth are indistinguishable from Christian notions of good and evil in our own story. To be sure, we do not find Gollum about today, but what does a soul en route to damnation look like? Whereas good and evil are usually veiled in our world (is that man a lecher or a good preacher?), in the stark air of myth, the murk is blown away and we get to see. Goodness, too, takes a shape (Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, Galadriel, Aragorn); and the matter need not be burdened with a homily.

Ultimately, the hobbits and the rest must struggle on in faith—substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen. But Tolkien, being a Catholic, would never smuggle in a paragraph to that effect. We must find it in the narrative, as Catholics do in the whole treasury of Catholicism.

By Thomas Howard

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #78 in 2003]

Thomas Howard is Chairman (ret.) of the Department of English at St. John’s Seminary, Boston.
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