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The Christian World of the Hobbit
By Devin Brown
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Devin Brown
All rights reserved.
AN "ESSENTIALLY" CHRISTIAN STORY
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"In a Hole in the Ground There Lived a Hobbit"
In a letter he wrote to the poet W. H. Auden, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien describes the events that took place on a summer's day in 1930 as he was working at home in his study: "All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time" (Letters, 215).
Had Professor Tolkien not needed the money that grading secondary school exams provided, had there not been so many of them, had there not been a blank page left in one exam booklet, there might never have been the story we know today as The Hobbit. Without the 1937 publication of The Hobbit, there certainly would never have been the public demand for a sequel, which resulted in the publication of The Lord of the Rings sixteen years later in 1953. Even with the now-famous opening line written, the whole thing might have ended there, except for the author's extraordinary interest in names and word origins. "Names always generate a story in my mind," he later explained (Carpenter, 175). "Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like."
The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again tells the tale of Mr. Bilbo Baggins's unlikely meeting with thirteen dwarves and the even more unlikely adventure that follows as, under the occasional guidance of Gandalf the wizard, the company sets out on a perilous journey to reclaim a treasure from a dragon named Smaug. From the subtitle, readers know in advance that Bilbo will eventually make it back home. What they do not know is that the treasure our Mr. Baggins will return with will be quite different from the one he initially sets out to obtain.
In this brief description, The Hobbit does not sound like a very religious book. But in fact, Tolkien's Christian beliefs are a fundamental part of the story from start to finish and are certainly, in part, what was behind C. S. Lewis's observation that the story is "so true."
A Life of Deep Conviction
In 1953, looking back on his life at the age of sixty-one, Tolkien wrote to a friend about how deeply grateful he was for having been brought up in the Christian faith. "A faith," Tolkien concludes, "that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know" (Letters, 172). As Joseph Pearce points out, for Tolkien this faith was not "an opinion to which one subscribed but a reality to which one submitted" (23).
On January 3, 1892, just three days into the new year, John Ronald Reuel was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, now South Africa, to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. Two years later, the Tolkiens had a second baby son, whom they named Hilary. Economic opportunity as well as economic necessity had drawn Arthur and Mabel to relocate in the dust, heat, and treeless plains of Bloemfontein. The temperature proved to be particularly oppressive, especially for Ronald, as they called him. In 1895, Mabel sailed back to England with the two boys for an extended visit. While Arthur had plans to eventually join them, he became ill and died before these plans would materialize, leaving Mabel husbandless and the two young boys without a father.
Mabel Tolkien, now in part dependent upon help from relatives, rented a small, inexpensive cottage a mile past the southern borders of Birmingham in the village of Sarehole Mill, a location that, much later, would provide Tolkien with his pastoral setting of the Shire as well as his lifelong opposition to the industrialization and mechanization that were gradually overtaking the countryside. As Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter notes, Christianity began to play "an increasingly important part" in Mabel Tolkien's life following her husband's death (31). Though the family had been Anglican, in 1900 she and her two sons converted to Catholicism.
On November 14, 1904, Ronald Tolkien received the second major blow of his young life: his mother died of complications related to diabetes. She was thirty-four. He was twelve.
What effect did the loss of his beloved mother—who had also been his schoolteacher, spiritual director, and close companion—have on Tolkien's later development as a writer of a certain kind of fantasy literature? Any speculation would be purely conjecture and precisely the sort of psychoanalyzing about authors that Tolkien hated. Still, a set of extraordinary coincidences confronts us that can at the least be labeled remarkable. Mabel Tolkien died in November 1904 when Ronald was twelve. Flora Lewis died in August 1908 when Clive Staples Lewis was just short of his tenth birthday. Helen MacDonald died in 1832 when her son George was eight years old. Three of the greatest fantasy writers in the English language all suffered the childhood loss of their mothers, a painful loss that sent them to imaginative realms for consolation.
About the influence his mother had on his lifelong vocation in philology, Tolkien would write, "My interest in languages was derived solely from my mother.... She knew German, and gave me my first lessons in it. She was also interested in etymology, and aroused my interest in this; and also in alphabets and handwriting" (Letters, 377). Even more important than her role in encouraging her older son's interest in linguistics, Mabel was instrumental in starting him on a path of deep, abiding faith. Regarding the profound and genuine belief that he had embraced since childhood, Tolkien later wrote, "That I owe to my mother" (Letters, 172).
With both parents gone, guardianship of the boys was given to Father Francis Morgan, their priest at the Birmingham Oratory, who took charge of making sure that Ronald and Hilary received a proper education. In the coming years, Tolkien would graduate from Oxford and fight in World War I. He would marry and have children of his own. He would become a university professor, first at Leeds and then at Oxford. All during this time, he continued with pious devotion to pray, attend church, and receive Communion. He raised his growing family to share his deep convictions.
About a third of the way into his roughly three-hundred-page biography, Humphrey Carpenter recounts how Tolkien moved back to Oxford in 1925 to accept the professorship he would hold until his retirement in 1959. Then Carpenter writes, "And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened" (118). Carpenter continues, "It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars.... And that would be that—apart from the strange fact that during these years when 'nothing happened' he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers" (118).
In the curious creation of these two books—The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which now have had more than a hundred million readers each—we could say, using words from Hamlet, "even in that was heaven ordinant." In a real-life story as fascinating as the imaginary ones they would later write, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis became friends, Tolkien became instrumental in Lewis's conversion to Christianity, and then Lewis became instrumental in Tolkien's writing his great works. Together they formed the Inklings, the close-knit Oxford reading and writing group that met in Lewis's rooms and at a pub named The Eagle and Child. It was at these meetings that the early versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were first read aloud, critiqued, and made into what they are today.
In a letter written in 1965, two years after Lewis's death, Tolkien would describe the "unpayable debt" he owed Lewis, explaining: "He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my 'stuff' could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The Lord of the Rings to a conclusion" (Letters, 362).
In chapter 3 of The Hobbit, the company arrives at Rivendell for a much-needed rest. The narrator breaks in to comment that "things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to" (48). Unlike Lewis, Tolkien did not go through a dark and stormy phase of atheism followed by a return to belief. Nor did Tolkien became a great spokesperson for the faith, as Lewis did, although Tolkien did serve as one of the translators for the Jerusalem Bible. Tolkien's faith journey can be said to more resemble "days that are good to spend" than a journey to the Lonely Mountain and so is soon told about.
While there is no way to paint an adequate portrait of his life of quiet devotion, perhaps two further glimpses will serve to suggest the vitality of Tolkien's belief. In a letter written to a longtime friend and correspondent in 1969, Tolkien offers these words of belief in a God who hears and answers prayer, who comforts, and who calls his followers to be a comfort: "I am perturbed by and sorry for your afflictions.... I pray for you—because I have a feeling (more near a certainty) that God, for some ineffable reason which to us may seem almost like humor, is so curiously ready to answer the prayers of the least worthy of his suppliants—if they pray for others" (Letters, 401). The Tolkiens knew firsthand the promise found in James 5:16 that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much," as they were firmly convinced that one of their children had been cured of a heart ailment through prayer.
In another letter, this one written to Camilla Unwin, his publisher's young daughter, Tolkien was asked to describe the purpose of life as part of Camilla's school project. The chief purpose of life for all of us, Tolkien responded, is to "increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks" (Letters, 400).
The author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings saw the ultimate goal of life—his life and everyone's life—to be an ever-increasing knowledge of God, the kind of knowledge that leads to praise and thanks. Tolkien's readers might add one more response to his list, one that Tolkien's fiction helps to kindle and keep alive in their own lives: hope—the kind of hope that, as Legolas tells Gimli in The Return of the King, is born when all is forlorn.
Essentially Christian Works
On December 2, 1953, with apologies for its unfriendly, formal appearance, Tolkien typed out a fairly short, five-paragraph letter to his good friend Father Robert Murray. Though he had enjoyed drawing and calligraphy throughout his life, now at age sixty-one, Tollers, as he was known to his friends, was finding that holding a pen for any length of time was tiring and painful. So more and more, even for personal letters, he used the small manual typewriter kept in the cluttered study of the house on Sandfield Road where he and his wife, Edith, lived just outside of Oxford.
In the years that followed, this letter would become well-known among Tolkien enthusiasts.
Robert Murray had come to Oxford nine years earlier, in 1944, and shortly afterward, to a large measure through Tolkien's influence, had converted and was received into the church. Going on to become a Jesuit, he had remained a close friend of both the Tolkiens and had helped the author by reading and commenting on parts of the galley proofs and the typescript for The Lord of the Rings. After a long and difficult genesis, the massive work was finally about to be published, with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers to come out a year later in 1954 and The Return of the King to follow in 1955. Tolkien's letter was a reply to several comments Father Murray had provided, among them Murray's claim that the work had left him with strong sense of a "positive compatibility with the order of Grace" (Letters, 171–72).
Tolkien wrote back that he thought he understood exactly what Murray meant, and then, after a few brief intervening remarks, made his now-famous, often-quoted, and much-discussed declaration: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision" (Letters, 172).
The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious work—and not just in a vague, subconscious way, but intentionally and consciously so, as its author revised the story again and again in the years leading up to its publication.
At first glance this may seem a strange statement, one that despite having the author's own word on it, may be difficult for many who have read the work to accept. As Fleming Rutledge has rightly pointed out, on the surface Middle-earth is "a curiously nonreligious world" (6). A careful look reveals practically none of the elements we typically associate with religion. The word God is never mentioned directly in either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Both stories are set in a time that is pre-Christian and even pre–Old Testament. Thus readers find no cathedrals, temples, or churches; no priests, ministers, or clergy; no Bibles; and no liturgy. Save for those who gave devotion to Sauron in the Dark Years; and Gollum, who bows and offers homage to Shelob, there is no mention of worship. Except for two vague incidents, there are no prayers. In appendix A at the end of The Return of the King, readers find a reference to the "One" who placed the Valar in guardianship over Middle-earth (1013), and, in Arwen's farewell words to Aragorn, a reference to the "One" who gave the gift of death to men (1038).
So what could its creator possibly have meant when he said The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious work?
The key to understanding Tolkien's statement to Father Murray hinges on the word fundamentally. Paraphrasing Tolkien, we could say that The Lord of the Rings is in its fundamentals or at its foundations a religious work. In "The Quest Hero," his seminal essay on The Lord of the Rings, the great poet W. H. Auden expresses this idea in slightly different words, stating that "the unstated presuppositions of the whole work are Christian" (44).
Tolkien's use of the phrase "fundamentally religious" is made more precise as he goes on to explain to Father Murray: "That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world" (Letters, 172). Tolkien makes clear his strategy, writing that "the religious element is absorbed into the story."
In an interview, Tolkien told the American scholar Clyde Kilby, "I am a Christian and of course what I write will be from that essential viewpoint" ("Mythic," 141). Here, instead of the word fundamentally, Tolkien uses the word essential. Tolkien's writings—The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—are in their essence, at their core, Christian works, but only at their core, not on the surface. The Christian viewpoint, and Tolkien's own words, tells us that he has included one, has been absorbed, has been embedded into his stories and so, except for a few very minor instances, cannot be seen on the surface.
Nearly five years after his famous letter to Father Murray, Tolkien expanded on this idea in a letter dated October 25, 1958, in which he responded to a number of questions Deborah Webster had sent him. There the author tells her, "I am a Christian" and then adds in parentheses "which can be deduced from my stories" (Letters, 288). Here the word deduced is key, making it clear that the Christian element in Tolkien's stories is present but is not directly evident and must be deduced. In addition, the author tells us it can be deduced from the stories themselves, not something else. While Tolkien's letters, lectures, and other external materials can shed additional light on the Christian aspect in his fiction, if we look below the surface, we can find it in and deduce it from the actual stories. As one of Tolkien's fans put it in a letter to the author, "You ... create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp" (Letters, 413). We could say that Tolkien's fiction is permeated with his beliefs, that the Christian element has been infused into the story.
While some readers discern the Christian aspects in Tolkien's stories, many others do not. Does someone need to be Christian to enjoy Tolkien's works? Certainly not. As Joseph Pearce has noted, readers can enjoy Tolkien's fiction "without sharing the beliefs which gave it birth," as is "evident from the many millions who have read and enjoyed Tolkien's books without sharing his Christianity" (100). In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is their universal appeal—their unique ability to charm and inspire people all over the world, young and old, from many differing backgrounds. At the same time, Pearce claims that to fully understand Tolkien's fiction, serious readers "cannot afford to ignore Tolkien's philosophical and theological beliefs, central as they are to his whole conception of Middle-earth and the struggles within it" (100).
Excerpted from The Christian World of the Hobbit by Devin Brown. Copyright © 2012 Devin Brown. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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