Friday, January 10, 2014

Tolkien and Hobbit Theology

Are the stories of the Hobbits just imaginative tales based in Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology? Or is there more to Middle Earth and the events that fascinate modern readers? The life of the author, Tolkien, gives us a hint of the source of his literary achievements.

Tolkien’s Early Life
JRR (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892. His mother and father, Arnold and Mabel Tolkien, were English but had moved to South Africa where Arnold worked as a banker. The Tolkien family’s home in England had been in Warwickshire but the name ‘Tolkien’ originated in the Saxon Duchies of what later became the German Republic. Mabel Tolkien (nee Suffield), who came from a religious Anglican family, had been a missionary with her sister in Africa before her marriage. The Tolkien family attended Church of England services. Arnold and Mabel had a second son Hilary, born when Ronald, as JRR was called, was only two.
As children, both boys were sickly and the parents decided that Mabel would take the boys back to England in hopes that their health would improve there. Arnold was to follow them when he could resign his post and find similar employment in England. Mabel left when JRR was only two and Hilary just a baby and they settled in Sarehole, a small, quiet village outside Birmingham. Shortly after their arrival in England they received news that Arthur had died of acute peritonitis after influenza.
This was a great tragedy for the family and Mabel was left to raise the two boys by herself. She was qualified to teach and took the education of her sons upon herself teaching them Latin, Greek, literature and mathematics. Even at the age of nine Tolkien began inventing languages but this was thought by his mother to be a waste of time and was discouraged. Mabel did encourage her sons to appreciate fairy stories that were popular in Victorian times, particularly the writings of George MacDonald, Spencer and the Grimm Brothers. She also shared her enthusiasm of nature, classical mythology, pageants and parades with the boys.
Around 1900, Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism. It is not known what led her to do this, although there was a surge of interest in Roman Catholicism in Birmingham at that time because of John Cardinal Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845. Newman had been accepted into the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and established the Oratory in Birmingham in 1851. He was made a Cardinal in 1879 and died in 1890. Birmingham had traditionally been an anti-Catholic city but through the Oratorian Fathers many converted to the Catholic faith.
Mabel Tolkien had depended on her relatives for moral and financial help but her family did not approve of her conversion and a strain was now placed on the relationship. During this time, Mabel came to rely on Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest at the Oratory, for advice, especially on the raising of the boys. He was said to have “... a firm but gentle manner, a keen intellect and an unusual sensitivity toward children.” (Grotta-Kurska, p. 33). Father Morgan was influential in the boys’ upbringing and Tolkien said later that he had been like a father to him.

Tolkien and Studies
In 1904, Mabel Tolkien died leaving 12 year old Ronald and Hilary orphans but she had made arrangements for the boys before her death. As she wanted them to continue in the Catholic faith rather than leave them with their Protestant grandparents, Mabel had appointed Father Morgan as their legal guardian and he placed them in a boarding house where other orphans attending the Oratory school lived. Tolkien missed the quiet village of Sarole and although he hated the poverty and squalor of Birmingham he came to enjoy the museums, libraries and parks. Father Morgan took them on trips to the English countryside, to Wales and once even to the Alps for mountain climbing.
Tolkien eventually outgrew the physical weaknesses he had as a child and by age 16 he was an enthusiastic athlete. It was also when he was 16 that he met Edith Bratt, who lived at the same boarding house. She was his first and only love. Edith was also an orphan and from a similar background to Tolkien’s. Because of their youth and because they were expected to concentrate on their education, they were kept apart. In fact, they were even forbidden to write to each other until Tolkien was at Oxford and Edith reached the age of majority!
Tolkien studied at King Edward VI School and chose to focus on Anglo-Saxon studies rather than the usual Classics. In 1911 he was able to begin studies at Exner College at Oxford as an ‘exhibitioner’ which was similar to a scholarship that provided his tuition.

Tolkien and The War
The world was drastically changed in 1914 when the Great War began but Tolkien was determined to finish his degree before joining the army. When he did join as an Oxford graduate he was automatically given a commission. Before being sent to the front in France in 1916, he went on a short leave to Birmingham where he and Edith were married. In France he took part in the terrible Battle of the Somme where many were killed.
After 1917, after suffering trench fever, Tolkien did not see active service again and later that year he and Edith had their first child, John Francis Ruel, the ‘Francis’ after Father Morgan. This first son later became a priest following in the footsteps of Father Francis. The war ended in 1918 and Tolkien worked for a time at the Ministry of Labour. He was able to join the faculty of the University of Leeds in 1921 and returned to Oxford to teach in 1925.
Tolkien at Oxford
One of Tolkien’s closest friends was C.S. Lewis, the author of Tales of Narnia, whom he met while teaching at Oxford. Lewis wrote in his autobiography, “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.” (Lewis, p. 216) Tolkien was, of course, a major influence in the conversion of Lewis from atheism to Christianity. Tolkien told a friend, “I got him as far as the Church of England from atheism”. Lewis, who was from Belfast, never became a Catholic although his thinking fits well with Catholicism and his books are loved by Catholics. The two were part of an informal literary group, known as The Inklings, who met at the pub, The Eagle and Child, in Oxford.

Tolkien The Author
Tolkien doesn’t mention Catholicism or Christianity in his books and many of his readers are not aware of the influence that his faith had in his writings. Tolkien once wrote to a friend, “The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a religious and a Catholic work.” (quoted by Pierce in “Tolkien, Man and Myth: A Literary Life”)
Middle Earth is created, monotheistic and fallen; the primary sin is that of pride. Evil is bound to failure and ‘God’ will bring good out of evil. The enemy, Morgoth, is like Satan. The ring (the symbol of original sin) is destroyed on March 25 which coincides to the Feast of the Annunciation, that is, the date when God became man. In medieval times people believed that this was also the date of the resurrection. Frodo is the one who ‘takes up his cross’ and follows Christ. In our world the cross is the symbol of sin, in Frodo’s world, the ring is the symbol of sin. ‘Elves bred’ is bread to help them on their way. Tolkien once said, “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect.” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to his son.
Unfortunately, fans of Tolkien’s works know the background of Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon tales but often fail to see the important connection between his Catholic faith and his literary works. The books remain popular and the movies (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and now The Hobbit) have fans of all ages but how many of those fans know the real meaning of the characters and plot?

Grotta-Kurska, Daniel. J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth. New York: Warner Books. 1976
Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1984
Pierce, Joseph. Tolkien: A Catholic Worldview. EWTN television, December 15

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