The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

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Digging deep into J. R. R. Tolkien’s spiritual biography—his religious scholarship and his love of both Christian and pagan myth—Stratford Caldecott offers a critical study of how the acclaimed author effectively created a vivid Middle Earth using the familiar rites and ceremonies of human history. And while readers and moviegoers alike may appreciate the fantasy world of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, few know that in life, Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic and that the characters, the events, and the general morality of each novel are informed by the dogmas of his faith. Revised and updated, this acclaimed study of Tolkien’s achievement—previously released as Secret Fire in the UK—includes commentary on Peter Jackson’s film adaptations and explores many of the fascinating stories and letters published after Tolkien’s death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780824549831
Publisher: Crossroad Publishing Company
Publication date: 12/04/2012
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 509,226
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Stratford Caldecott is the director of the Centre for Faith and Culture in Oxford, England, and the author of All Things Made New, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, and Beauty in the Word.

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The Power of the Ring

The Spiritual Vision Behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

By Stratford Caldecott

The Crossroad Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Stratford Caldecott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8245-5000-4


The Tree of Tales

Tolkien was an explorer. The stories in which he invested so much time and energy are notes of his expeditions in search of an older or "inner" world. Over the years he added revision after revision, layer by layer, often working late into the night, filling in a vast historical canvas, weaving theme upon theme, until the whole collection resembled a great "tree of tales," like the gnarled oaks he loved.

Now that we have access to the vast corpus of unfinished and reworked stories and background material, thanks to his son Christopher's labors on the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth, we can see how much time and energy went into this writing. If his contemporaries and peers had known the full scale of his enterprise, they would have been shocked. What drove Tolkien so late into the night was not merely the obsession to tell a story, but the belief that "legends and myths are largely made of 'truth,' and indeed present aspects of it that can only be perceived in this mode" (L 131). He knew he was writing fiction, but at the same time he felt that he was telling the truth about the world as it revealed itself to him. And this truth he discovered as he wrote, through the very process of writing. He claimed always to have had the sense that he was recording what was already "there," rather than inventing stuff out of his own head (L 131), a feeling that lay behind the fictional device of the "Red Book of Westmarch" on which The Lord of the Rings itself pretended to be based. In a letter to Christopher he admitted that the story seemed almost to write itself and sometimes took a direction very different from the preliminary sketch, as if the truth was trying to emerge through him (L 91). In some sense, then, he did actually believe what he was writing. ("There are secondary planes or degrees," he writes in the "Notion Club Papers.")

His stories were set not in a distant galaxy or another world, but in this world a long time ago. In a draft letter to an admirer dated 1971 (L 328), Tolkien described writing with great care for detail, so as to produce a "picture" that would appear to be set against a limitless background, with infinite extensions through both time and space. Each particular element of the story had to appear to belong to a much larger and more ancient body of literature, in order to evoke the symbolic resonances without which it would fail to cast its spell. There had to be a sense of great vistas around and behind each story, as there is in the legends of a people like the Norsemen or the Celts, each of which comes down to us out of its own tremendous "mythic space."

But what follows in the same letter is especially interesting. It seems to suggest that, while he could analyze to some extent what he was doing and why, and how he achieved the literary effects he did, he was at the same time extremely puzzled by what had been give to him — that he felt a mystery at work. He goes on:

Looking back on the wholly unexpected things that have followed its publication ... I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again. As if indeed the horns of Hope had been heard again, as Pippin heard them suddenly at the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the West. But How? and Why? (L 328)

This sense of mystery is deepened by an encounter in real life with a figure he identifies as Gandalf, in the person of a man who visited him to discuss certain old pictures that seemed almost designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings, but which Tolkien had never before seen. The man remarks after a silence: "Of course you don't suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?" Tolkien goes on:

Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: "No, I don't suppose so any longer." I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff any one up who considers the imperfections of "chosen instruments," and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.

A "chosen instrument"? I don't want to make too much of this, but the letter is revealing, especially in light of his early sense of mission, discussed in John Garth's book (see Bibliography). Tolkien seems to have felt that it had been given to him to sound the horn of hope in a darkling world, and those many thousands of readers who return again and again to the book and film for refreshment of soul might well agree with him. This is a story that tells us things we need to know. It cannot be taken in all at once. It is one of those that we have to grow into, stories that deal with the way the world is made and the way the self is made. These stories are like dreams, but dreams that can be shared by an entire culture; wholesome dreams that restore a balance to the psyche by turning our energies and our thoughts toward truth; dreams that resemble an oasis in the desert. Reading them can be a meditation. Why is that? This is the question I want to answer.

The Hall of Fire

J. R. R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892 and lived there until the age of three. Then for reasons of health his mother, Mabel, brought him and his younger brother Hilary back to England, for what was intended originally to be a temporary visit; but his father, Arthur, who was supposed to join them later, died before the family were reunited, and Mabel settled with the children at Sarehole, a beautiful corner of rural Warwickshire just outside Birmingham.

When Mabel became a Roman Catholic in 1900, she was cut off from the support of her mixed Anglican, Baptist, and Unitarian family and reduced to poverty. She was forced to move from the countryside into the town, and there she was taken under the wing of Father Francis Morgan, C.O., a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, a religious community whose English branch had been founded by John Henry Newman fifty years earlier. It was Fr. Morgan who helped to look after the family financially and provided their main source of spiritual guidance.

Tolkien was only twelve when his mother died of diabetes, worn out (he later wrote) by the poverty that was a direct result of her conversion to Catholicism, and Fr. Morgan became the boy's guardian. Thus it was that he grew to manhood under the protection and guidance of an exemplary Catholic priest. Most of his life he tried to attend Mass daily, finding in it a constant source of strength and grace.

Thereafter the story of his life might be presented under three main headings. The first of these would be Romance. He falls in love at the age of sixteen with the nineteen-year-old Edith Bratt, but is not allowed by his priest-guardian to propose to her until he comes of age five years later. Edith having consented to be received into the Catholic Church, they are married in Warwick just before Tolkien sets off with the Lancashire Fusiliers to fight the Germans in the First World War. Only when he returns are they able to live happily as man and wife. The image he has of her is always that of a young beauty dancing among the hemlocks in a forest glade near Roos in Yorkshire, close to the military camp where Tolkien was stationed in 1917: it is one of the seeds of his writing, for it becomes the encounter between his hero Beren and the Elven princess Lúthien — echoed also in the story of Aragorn and Arwen which, though it is mainly found in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien regarded as a vital element of the story.

Heading number two: War. The earliest beginnings of the written mythology date from 1914, the year Britain entered the First World War, although Tolkien is allowed to finish his studies at Oxford in 1915 before beginning his full-time military training. He survives the war through the "luck" of being sent back from the Somme with trench fever. As he recovers, he writes the first sustained fragment of the Silmarillion, "The Fall of Gondolin." Most of his male friends are killed within a few years, and he is awed by the heroism of the ordinary English soldier. That heroism will find its way into The Lord of the Rings, into the Hobbits, and the figure of Sam Gamgee in particular. Published in 1954–55, the whole novel is a tribute to the spirit of ordinary, decent men who died for their country in the Great War, and it is largely composed during the Second World War, in the face of the later, almost demonic evil unleashed on the world by Adolf Hitler.

The third heading is Oxford, where Tolkien (after five years teaching in Leeds) becomes Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1925, and forms the Kolbitár (Coalbiter) reading group devoted to the Icelandic sagas. He later becomes part of the Inklings group that formed around C. S. Lewis after 1933. The influence of this real-life fellowship on his writing cannot be overestimated: without it he would have lacked the encouragement or confidence to continue. The friendship of Lewis in particular (another survivor of the trenches), whom he helped to convert to Christianity in 1931 after a late-night conversation in the grounds of Magdalen College, played a crucial role, as did that of George Sayer, who at one point revived his determination to find a publisher.

Much has been written on the Inklings over the years, as the fame of Lewis and Tolkien spread around the world, not least an important study by Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien's biographer. I will not try to summarize it all here: as with the details of Tolkien's life, the facts are easily available. Though Tolkien influenced Lewis's conversion to Christianity, the latter never became a Catholic. The other members of the group were an even more varied bunch, ranging from Charles Williams, the High-Church Anglican with his mystical and somewhat unorthodox ideas about love and magic, to Owen Barfield, the Anthroposophist with an interest in language and the evolution of consciousness. Anyone who has lived in Oxford and attended the pubs where the group often met will be able to picture the scene — pints of bitter wreathed in smoke, loud conversation (especially from Lewis), ancient languages, fragments of story and new poems intoned, frequent interruptions, critical comment, and laughter.

I sometimes think of the Inklings (not to mention the "Coalbiters"!) when I read the description of Elrond's "Hall of Fire" in Rivendell, for it is there that they would have been most at home. The hall was a constant element in Tolkien's writing, its first appearance being the Room of the Log Fire in a story he wrote back in 1916–17 called "The Cottage of Lost Play," where "old tales, old songs, and elfin music are treasured and rehearsed."

It is easy to idealize the Inklings, but the reality was often humdrum enough, with its fair share of frustration and human weakness. It was an informal group, and members came and went. In the end even Tolkien and Lewis fell out somewhat, partly over Lewis's marriage to a divorcée, to which Tolkien, as a devout Catholic, took exception. Perhaps, as some allege, there may have been some jealousy on Tolkien's part of Lewis's apparently easy success with the Narnia stories, which he thought rather clumsy and allegorical (L 265), and of Lewis's close friendship with Charles Williams (this by his own admission in L 252, 257, 259).

Nevertheless, the friendships among "the brotherhood" were real and deep, and many moments of intense communion more than made up for the occasional tensions. Lewis never ceased to praise Tolkien's work, even during the period of estrangement, and for his part Tolkien was deeply shaken by Lewis's death in 1963, writing: "this feels like an axe-blow near the roots. Very sad that we should have been so separated in the last years; but our time of close communion endured in memory for both of us" (L 251). For many years, Lewis had been Tolkien's only audience for what might have remained, but for this, a private hobby (L 276).

Although The Lord of the Rings may have depended on the encouragement of Lewis (combined with the success of Tolkien's children's story The Hobbit) to get it going, the secret life that was to feed into it was well under way before the Inklings ever started to read to each other in the Eagle and Child — the Oxford pub they called the "Bird and Baby" — and long before Tolkien wrote the famous academic essays that summed up his thoughts on literature: "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936) and "On Fairy-Stories" (1939). It was under way even before the war that had marked him permanently with the experience of great evil and suffering. The seeds of that secret life lie back in his childhood, and especially in the happy days he spent playing with his brother Hilary in the countryside around Sarehole (the inspiration for Hobbiton) and in the intimations of "beauty and majesty" he received on a daily basis in the Catholic Mass.

Going "Inside Language"

From his earliest introduction to Church Latin by his mother he loved languages, and quickly began to make up some of his own. Through the study of languages, a whole range of other influences began to reach him. Eventually Tolkien was to master many European tongues, both ancient and modern, but he always retained a particular affection for Latin, Gothic, Welsh, and Finnish. He loved poetry more than prose, probably because it expressed the rhythms and character of each language in purest form. The "Sister Songs" of the mystical Victorian Catholic poet Francis Thompson may have helped kindle his love of elves, but in 1912 he began to study Finnish, and here he tells us he found the seeds of Quenya, the High-Elvish of his own invention. He once wrote to W. H. Auden of the pleasure he experienced reading a Finnish Grammar in Exeter College library, when he was supposed to be preparing for an exam: "It was like discovering a complete wine cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before" (L 163).

It was the mystique of Northern Europe (which he sometimes called "Northernness") that particularly appealed to him, a spirit that he felt in the Norse or Icelandic sagas, for example the "Prophecy of the Seeress" in the Elder Edda concerning the beginning and end of the world. He believed that the mythology of his own land in particular had been lost or destroyed (or overlayed by Celtic and French influences). It needed to be recovered in something of the way Nikolaj Grundtvig had compiled the Danish and Norwegian legends and the Grimm brothers the "Teutonic" in the nineteenth century, or Snorri Sturluson the Icelandic in the thirteenth. These men had been, like Tolkien, Christians trying to preserve what they saw as enriching or beautiful in Pagan material.

Just as influential, and very much an inspiration to Tolkien, was Elias Lönnrot, a Lutheran Christian who reconstituted Finnish folklore from surviving oral and runic traditions during the nineteenth century. It is generally agreed that Lönnrot's Kalevala played a crucial role in the development of Finnish national identity, consolidated when Finland achieved independence at the end of 1917. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Anthroposophical Society and a major influence on Owen Barfield, lectured on the Kalevala in Helsinki in 1912, believing it to be one of Europe's great sacred texts, the vehicle of a secret wisdom. For Tolkien it represented the possibility of a "good Paganism" compatible with Christianity. Probably in the same year that Steiner was lecturing, Tolkien began to work on the Kalevala and to adapt some of its themes and characters into stories of his own (the tragic hero Kullervo, mingled with Sigurd and Oedipus from other sources, became Túrin in Unfinished Tales).


Excerpted from The Power of the Ring by Stratford Caldecott. Copyright © 2012 Stratford Caldecott. Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the Revised Edition,
1. The Tree of Tales,
2. The Hobbit: There and Back Again,
3. A Very Great Story,
4. A Hidden Presence: Tolkien's Catholicism,
5. Let These Things Be,
6. Behind the Stars,
7. Tolkien's Achievement,
1. An Archetypal Journey: Tolkien and Jung,
2. Tolkien's Social Philosophy,
3. The Shadow of King Arthur,
4. Friendship in The Lord of the Rings,
5. Tolkien for Homeschoolers,
6. Tolkien and Paganism,
7. The Beginning of Days,
8. Myths Transformed,
9. The Film of the Rings,

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The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing introduction to a Catholic perspective of the Christian influences of Tolkien and Middle Earth, despite the misleading title ("Spiritual" is too broad for the specific emphasis on Christian perspectives throughout this book) and lack of adequate coverage of pagan perspectives. Impressive, in-depth analysis, but some connections may be a little far-fetched. Just a little.  The Appendix of short essays is awesome, although the way they are pushed to the end instead of being incorporated into the first (and main) part of the book makes the Appendix feel more like an afterthought.