Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography
by Holly Ordway.
Word on Fire Academic, 2023.
Hardcover, 532 pages, $ 34.95.

Reviewed by Adam Schwartz.

J. R. R. Tolkien famously described The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” In the half-century since his death, however, that bedrock connection between his faith and art has not been grasped fully. Scholars such as Joseph Pearce, Bradley Birzer, and Stratford Caldecott have delineated aspects of the relationship, but a comprehensive portrait of Tolkien’s religious life and thought has been lacking. Holly Ordway supplies that needed “spiritual biography” decisively. Through exhaustive research and insightful analysis, she recounts Tolkien’s lifelong, tested, textured engagement with Roman Catholicism, and thereby establishes how fundamental it was to his identity as a person and a writer.

Ordway’s chief contribution is revealing the “substantial and lasting” effect on Tolkien’s life and faith of the Congregation of the Oratory. Founded by Philip Neri in sixteenth-century Italy, this religious community was brought to Britain by the newly-converted John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who established the Birmingham Oratory in 1852. Tolkien’s affiliation with it seems unlikely, as he was born in South Africa in 1892 to Anglican parents of Nonconformist backgrounds. But after her husband’s untimely death in 1896, Mabel Tolkien settled near her native Birmingham to raise “Ronald” and his younger brother Hilary. As she mourned, she was drawn to Roman Catholicism, and was received into the Church in 1900. Her Protestant relatives sundered social and financial ties quickly, and in 1902 she moved closer to the Oratory, which had a reputation of solicitude for convert women. She soon befriended Father Francis Morgan (Newman’s final private secretary), who began providing the family with vital spiritual, and even monetary, support. Ronald Tolkien had grown so attached to the Oratory by 1903 that he took Philip as his confirmation name when he entered the Church formally that Christmas.

But the Oratorians’ assistance could not entirely alleviate the family’s cares and poverty. Mabel’s health deteriorated rapidly until she succumbed to diabetes in 1904. Tolkien thenceforth characterized his mother as a “martyr” whose death had been “hastened by persecution of her faith.” Her will designated Father Morgan as her sons’ legal guardian, and Tolkien dubbed him a “second father,” and the Oratory that he frequented for the rest of his upbringing “a ‘good Catholic home’—’in excelsis.'” This experience of domesticity rooted in human and divine love helped assuage Tolkien’s grief at being orphaned, and the Oratorian charism of “fellowship in community” was formative for his art. The fellowship of the ring, for instance, must learn to appreciate its members’ diverse talents and reconcile deep wounds among the peoples of Middle-earth to achieve their common goal of defeating Sauron. Indeed Tolkien’s own bond with Father Morgan was not exempt from hurtful tensions, most notably when his guardian barred him from communicating with his future wife for three years to ensure that Tolkien concentrated on his studies. Yet all these relationships survived this trial, and Father Morgan and the Oratory remained charitable and centripetal forces in Tolkien’s (and his later family’s) life; in fact, Tolkien’s three sons were educated at the Oratory School.

Tolkien’s saturation in Oratorian spirituality did not spare him periods of religious “half-heartedness,” including a decade when he “almost ceased to practice my religion” as he underwent a bout of acedia while grappling with the physical suffering and emotional trauma of his Great War service. Although he felt the “oppression” of that industrialized carnage enduringly, his faith proved to be an effective enough “Consolatrix Afflictorum” to enable him to avoid the lasting disillusionment wrought in many of his peers by the “War of the Machines.” By 1965, he could therefore describe himself honestly as a “devout Roman Catholic,” as for years he had been memorizing many lengthy prayers and Scripture passages while receiving the sacraments regularly, even being a daily communicant, which he considered the “only cure” for “sagging faith.”

These later years nevertheless brought new spiritual challenges, as Tolkien confronted Catholicism’s mid-century alterations, especially those associated with the Second Vatican Council. Although he bemoaned “strife and change” in the Church, particularly the substitution of poorly-translated English for Latin in the liturgy, his disgruntlement was not as fierce as that of literati like Evelyn Waugh and David Jones, whose public protests on behalf of the Tridentine rite he neither imitated nor joined. Instead, attuned to the Newmanian idea of development, Tolkien focused on seeing the Church as a “living organism” whose “changes in externals” were necessary to preserve the inner continuity of its permanent truths by devising a style of worship “more suitable to the ways of life of modern Christians.” In fact, he eventually became a lector at the vernacular Mass. In so struggling against his misgivings, Tolkien felt he was exercising the “virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.”

This nuanced, hard-won Catholicism was so deep-seated in Tolkien that he deemed it “impossible to disentangle” his faith and his art and thought. For example, he transposed the Pauline dictum that God chose what is weak to shame the strong into the humility of his hobbits, as Elrond elucidates at his eponymous council: “This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” Tolkien thus concluded that “far greater things may color the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.” His religion shaped not only such literary themes, but also his poetics. One of his signature notions is “subcreation.” For Tolkien, to be made in the image and likeness of God is to “be made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Although humans cannot create ex nihilo, they can “in our derivative mode” make something afresh out of divine Creation that “may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.” Similarly, he coined the term “eucatastrophe” to denote the dynamic of an “apparent sad ending” being upset by “its sudden unhoped-for happy ending.” To him, this “highest function” of fairy stories was epitomized in the Christian mythus—”the Great Eucatastrophe”—with its felix culpa of the Incarnation and the joyous Resurrection of Christ following His sorrowful Passion: “this story is supreme; and it is true.” Tolkien hence judged correctly that there is “quite a lot of theology” in his practice and theory of fantasy.

Yet even as he acknowledged Christianity as “far the most powerful ultimate source” of his writing, he nonetheless insisted that “I neither preach nor teach.” Rather, Tolkien enacted R. W. B. Lewis’s distinction between “applied” and “absorbed” Catholicism. Respecting the autonomy and “inner consistency” of his subcreation, Tolkien eschewed overt didacticism and instead allowed his core religious concerns to imbue the imaginative fabric of his secondary world. As he remarked strikingly in 1945, intellectual and imaginative ventures are “in keeping with the Catholic tradition” solely “by seeking the truth without bias, whether one ends up in a convent or not.” This more subtle approach helps explain Tolkien’s ongoing appeal to increasingly secular audiences, while confirming how integral his religion was to his self understanding and expression, as well as to the “moral ecology” of his compositions.

From adolescence, J. R. R. Tolkien pledged to “testify for God and Truth.” As he matured, that commitment became more complex and rounded but its essential sense that “religion is the moving force and at the same time the foundation” of his efforts persisted, even as he feared his faith was an “ever-losing cause” in an irreligious era. But Tolkien’s blend of ever-ancient creed with ever-new myth made traditional Roman Catholicism an implicit, yet intrinsic, presence in the seminal legendarium of his century. That creative interplay demonstrates the durability of Christian convictions in a post-Christian culture, and the compatibility of personal devotion with artistic vision. In the end, then, it was not just the The Lord of the Rings itself, but also its author, that was fundamentally religious and Catholic.

Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). A professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.

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