Man and Mythmaker:J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings
by David Bardallis
Like many people, I read J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings as a child. The experience catapulted my pre-adolescent imagination for the first time into the wondrous and varied world of wizards, dwarves, goblins, and yes, hobbits. From that moment on, I was never quite the same.
Now Tolkien's imaginary world is set to hit the silver screen. Will the movies do as good a job as the books did in transporting young imaginations to the enchanting land of Middle Earth? They will if they preserve a key element of the books: a profound and mature religious worldview.
That worldview is not one I was consciously aware of as a child reader. But thanks to a recent biography, Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce, I have come as an adult to understand the essential role Tolkien's devout Catholicism played in making his books as compelling as they are.
Man and Myth sheds light on the ways Tolkien expressed complex spiritual truths through the thoughts and actions of his characters and through the internal logic of his created world relying less on the type of heavy-handed allegory that is the hallmark of Lewis's Narnia books (which Tolkien loathed). Those characters express the same wondrous religious sensibility of their author, who described his work as "fundamentally religious and Catholic."
"For Tolkien," writes Pearce, "Catholicism was not an opinion to which one subscribed but a reality to which one submitted . . . . Tolkien remained a Catholic for the simple if disarming reason that he believed Catholicism was true."
LotR as a religious work "falls into three distinct but inter-related areas," writes Pearce. These areas are "the sacrifice which accompanies the selfless exercise of free will; the intrinsic conflict between good and evil; and the perennial question of time and eternity, particularly in relation to life and death."
The theme of sacrifice in LotR is pervasive, with protagonist Frodo freely choosing to carry a "great weight" the enemy Sauron's ring into the dark realm of Mordor, the center of evil in the world, where it can be destroyed. Frodo's undertaking of this quest perilous forms the nucleus of the story, and the irony is all the greater that Frodo is a hobbit, a small and weak race, upon whose brave shoulders the fate of all races rests.
The forces of good in Tolkien's works are represented as being far outnumbered and overpowered (at least on the surface) by the minions of evil. The story is as old as time itself: good vs. evil, with evil seemingly in control of the whole wide world. But ultimately, the virtue of the few overcomes the overwhelming numbers of the evil many, with the mystery of grace guiding the affairs of men not to mention those of hobbits.
Like LotR in general, Tolkien's portrayal of evil is not explicitly Christian, but its orthodoxy lies in its understanding that evil is in and of itself a fearsome but ultimately impotent force. Only good can create, while evil but lends itself to corruption and destruction. Of the monstrous races that serve evil, Frodo says, "The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to [them], it only ruined them and twisted them." The actual act of positive creation is reserved for God but everyone in Middle Earth is, to a greater or lesser extent, a victim of the Fall.
Pearce also notes the mortality of man and his relation to eternity as a central theme in Tolkien's work. "Three Rings for the Elven Kings under the sky," begins the Ring Rhyme, which goes on to add, "Nine for mortal men doomed to die." In LotR, elves are immortal, but men are, as they are in reality, "doomed" to depart the earth. To Tolkien, however, this "doom" is a gift from God, though man's understanding of it is warped by his sinful state. Throughout the entirety of LotR, it becomes clear that the final resting place of the faithful and valiant is not in the fallow tombs of Middle Earth, but in the as-yet-unglimpsed fertile lands beyond. If elves are a sorrowful race, it is the logical result of their permanent term of exile in a fallen world.
In all, Pearce's book isn't as exhaustive as is Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, but it does provide many interesting insights into the life and work of a fascinating man. Especially gratifying to me was the discovery of Tolkien's apparent political libertarianism.
"My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs),'" Pearce quotes Tolkien as saying. It is no coincidence that The Shire is portrayed as an idyllic rural society with little formal government, while Mordor is quite emphatically an industrial, collectivistic slave-state.
Tolkien: Man and Myth is likely to be disappointing to those who want a play-by-play account of Tolkien's life. But it is particularly valuable to those of us who struggled in ignorance for years to understand just why Middle Earth and its denizens appealed to us so strongly.
As Pearce quotes poet Charles Coulombe, "In an age which has seen an almost total rejection of the Faith on the part of the Civilisation she created, the loss of the Faith on the part of many lay Catholics, and apparent uncertainty among her hierarchy, Lord of the Rings assures us, both by its existence and its message, that the darkness cannot triumph forever."
And if the filmmakers have done their job right, that message soon will be experienced by millions of moviegoers, too.
December 12, 2001