Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle-earth
by Craig Bernthal.
Angelico Press, 2014.
Paperback, 316 pages, $17.

In 1999, Joseph Pearce lamented that J. R. R. Tolkien “is not generally perceived to be one of the key protagonists of the Catholic literary revival, a fact which reflects the extent to which his work is misunderstood.” Due to the efforts of critics like Pearce, this misunderstanding has been considerably clarified. A “religious turn” in Tolkien scholarship has emphasized and elucidated the centrality of Catholic Christianity to his worldview and legendarium. Craig Bernthal’s helpful contribution to this corpus is a focus on the significance in Tolkien’s work of the sacramental principle: the Catholic conviction that external reality is a visible sign of God’s invisible, but real, presence as the creative and sustaining source of Being. Tolkien found this “panning the vein of spirit out of sense” especially manifest in language and in physical nature, while using specific Roman Catholic sacraments as crucial motifs in his fiction.

Tolkien’s view of language was grounded in his aesthetic anthropology. To him, humans are subcreators, who make afresh out of what God created ex nihilo. Adapting a notion of fellow Inkling Owen Barfield, Tolkien held that one facet of this human sharing in divine fashioning is that language participates in the synergy of sign and signified present in the Logos, the Word through whom all things were made. Language so being sacramental, he deduced, the myths it voices are as well, as they represent transcendent verities in original idioms. Such tales are “translucent to reality,” for “the mythopoetic world is a fully sacramental world, in which matter and spirit have not been divorced.”

In contrast, Tolkien depicted propaganda as his era’s distinctive challenge to this linguistic model. Whether in its totalitarian or consumerist guise, this perversion of communication sunders words from meaning; it hence treats language as a mechanism to induce conformity to artificial political and economic ends—the “mythos of central control and buying power”—instead of as an incarnation of objective truths about reality. In The Lord of the Rings, Saruman attempts such a rhetorical seduction at Orthanc, but Gimli and Théoden expose its manipulative vacuity: “The words of this wizard stand on their heads” because “You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts.” As this scene suggests, Tolkien’s poetics and practice of mythopoesis was thus a sacramental subversion of the perceived hegemony of nominalism and its propagandistic progeny.

Tolkien’s sense of the supernatural’s indwelling within the natural further fostered a keen ecological sensibility and an ensuing ethic of stewardship. In 1969, he declared that “our ideas of God and ways of expressing them will be largely derived from contemplating the world about us … and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.… [W]e may call on all created things to join in our chorus … all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing.” As all of reality bears the mark of its divine maker, it has intrinsic value and an independent identity rather than being merely the raw material for sating human desires. Conservation of nature is therefore an act of pietas and vigilance on its behalf is a vocation. Characters like the hobbits, elves, and Tom Bombadil express this respectful gratitude and exercise this harmonious guardianship in Middle-earth, while Gandalf explains its principles to the corrupt steward of Gondor, Denethor: “The rule of no realm is mine … But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I should not wholly fail of my task … if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come, for I also am a steward.”

This perception of the inherent worth of God-given nature and of an imperative to protect and preserve it gave Tolkien a Romantic distaste for Enlightenment rationalism and sterile scientific analysis, as well as their political and economic avatars, technocratic totalitarianism and utilitarian industrialism. In his mind, these outlooks and systems were anti-sacramental, for they split the spiritual and material, deeming the former illusory and considering the latter entirely plastic to the will-to-power. The autonomous dignity of the created order is consequently ignored by ideologues who exploit it as an instrument of their attempted dominion over reality. As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him.” Indeed, Saruman symbolizes the “scientific magus of modernity” whose Baconian privileging of curiositas over studiositas produces the ecological ruin of Isengard, and the later degradation of the bucolic Shire.

The hobbits’ scouring of the Shire of Saruman and his evil works and empty promises displays Tolkien’s antidotes to the ideologies personified by his fallen wizard. They resist totalitarianism by laughing at its pretensions and offering forgiveness to its instigators and collaborators, thereby dispelling the terror and divisiveness on which this tyranny depends, and thus saving the Shire from “a spiritual death as well as an occupation.” Once Saruman’s dictatorship is overthrown, the hobbits further reject industrialism’s Progressive impatience with divinely ordained cultivation cycles; instead, they revive an organic ethic that cooperates with natural rhythms and with supernatural grace, in the form of a box of Lothlórien’s soil that Galadriel had given to Sam. The end result of this renascent sacramental stewardship is an unprecedented fertility that heals the machine-made wasteland Saruman had imposed.

The theme of salutary stewardship also informs Tolkien’s evocations of particular sacraments, most strikingly in his conflation of extreme unction and matrimony in the relationship of Faramir and Éowyn. Faramir, unlike his father Denethor, understands properly the role of a steward as a humble servant of the king and the realm. This self-denying deference allows his personal healing by Aragorn, and begins the broader healing of the body-politic of Gondor from the disorder and despair spawned by Denethor’s arrogant usurpation of royal power. Faramir’s servant-leadership in turn reveals to Éowyn that martial valor is valuable not as a glorious way of remedying wounded pride (as she had long felt), but solely as a means of saving the polis so that its rulers can then serve and nurture it. He articulates this norm before he meets Éowyn, telling Frodo and Sam that “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend,” such as the hobbits’ pastoral home: “Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and there must gardeners be in high honor.” His later love for Éowyn helps cure her jingoistic death-wish and convert her to this life-affirming vision: “I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow.…” They choose to wed and then “dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden” that will complement Sam’s efforts in the Shire to regenerate lands ravaged by the War of the Ring. Their marriage is hence a Christian corrective to the Northern military honor culture that Tolkien also drew on, as it affirms the Augustinean precept that the only just end of war is the restoration of peace, while anticipating John Paul II’s call to replace a culture of death with a civilization of love.

Bernthal’s monograph demonstrates that the growing attention to religion in Tolkien studies has not only rectified misreadings of his work but also promoted deeper understanding of it. Discerning the holiness of hobbitry discloses that Tolkien’s Catholic sacramentalism shaped fundamental convictions about language, society, and human responsibilities toward one another and their fellow creatures. Belief that the world is charged with the grandeur of God gave Tolkien a heartfelt concern for authentic, truth-telling communication, the natural environment and the commonweal, and man’s duty to be a self-sacrificial steward of them. For him, such integrated relationships were a profound pathway for subcreators to learn and imitate the mind and heart of the Creator, making his vision akin to Dostoevsky’s: “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.… And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”  

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.