J.R.R. Tolkien and his Catholic Imagination

Gillian Weyant

J.R.R. Tolkien and his Catholic Imagination

The human imagination is a topic that has fascinated everyone from philosophers to farmers.  In our everyday lives, our imagination has a constant presence in ways large and small.  We apply it to the day-to-day situations we encounter, and we use it in its fullness when we create new pieces of art, literature or music.  “The soul of man must quicken to creation,” writes the poet T.S. Eliot in his beautiful poem Choruses from “The Rock.”  It is in creating that man finds a way to mimic his own Creator, and so one could say that it is in creating that man fully acts in the imago Dei, the image of God.   

It is interesting to contemplate the fact that God chose to reveal so much about Himself through stories.  If we have read the Bible frequently, it can sometimes be easy for us to forget the magnitude of the stories therein. Stepping back a bit, however, causes us to realize that the stories in the Bible are deeply wonderful and thrilling.  Every aspect of our humanity seems to be contained in the stories of the Old and the New Testaments.  As we read through the stories, we encounter the full spectrum of birth, love, sin, betrayal, death, redemption. This helps us to consider the elements of our own storytelling, and reflect on the idea that perhaps all of the stories we tell are in some way retellings of the stories in Scripture.   

Tolkien’s Catholicism in His Works

This notion prompts us to think that God and Catholic ideas will always have an elemental presence in literature.  However, it is possible for Catholicism to be reflected in literature in a more specific way.  Reading literature written by Catholic authors often offers deeper portrayals of many aspects of our faith, whether explicitly or symbolically.  One Catholic author who has recently reentered the conversation is J.R.R. Tolkien, owing to the recent film Tolkien, a biographical drama about his life. Although the film may not delve into Tolkien’s faith as deeply as a Catholic moviegoer might wish, in reality, Tolkien’s Catholicism was central to both his life and to his imaginative storytelling. He once wrote in a letter to a friend that it could be said that “the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, 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.”  This quotation speaks volumes to both Tolkien’s religious character in general and to his involvement of his faith in his writing. 

Throughout his most known work, The Lord of the Rings, Catholicism is portrayed in a multitude of ways.  Some of these ways are extremely specific to Catholicism, whereas others involve more of a general idea of virtue.  An example of a general portrayal of virtue is in the character of Frodo Baggins, the hobbit who must destroy the Ring.  Although Frodo at various points falls prey to weakness, he ultimately rises from his selfishness and is able to set himself aside for the good of others.  In this way, he is an image of Christ: as Frodo bears the Ring on his journey up Mount Doom, we see a parallel between his journey and Christ’s bearing of the Cross up Mount Calvary to redeem humanity.   

Other parallels that arise in The Lord of the Rings are much more specific. One such parallel comes from Galadriel’s gift of Lembas bread to Frodo and Sam. This Lembas bread ultimately sustains Frodo and Sam on their journey up Mount Doom, and provides not only strength of body but also strength of will. This is an obvious representation of the Eucharist, as the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic life and provides us with the necessary grace to reach our ultimate destination of Heaven. The Eucharist was of immense importance to Tolkien, who wrote:

“The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.” 

It is clear that this particular idea was very present in Tolkien’s mind as he wrote of Frodo and Sam’s journey and their reliance upon Lembas bread. Catholicism, then, served as the foundation of Tolkien’s imagination; although he certainly could not have written the story without his own fantastical ideas, Catholicism is what inspired his world in many ways and proceeded to imbue his stories with meaning and goodness. 

Via Pulchritudinis, or The Way of Beauty  

The importance of Catholic literature like Tolkien’s is not to be underestimated.  This importance was described beautifully in Pope Benedict XVI’s document The Via Pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelization and Dialogue. In this, Pope Benedict states:

“The communicating capacity of sacred art renders it able to break down barriers, filter prejudices and reach the heart of people from different cultures and religions and let them perceive the universality of the message of Christ and His Gospel.” 

One wonders about how many people have been impacted in a religious way by the works of Tolkien.  Considering the popularity of the books as well as that of the films, it is clear that the story of the struggle of good and evil is one that fascinates people from all backgrounds, whether or not they are practicing Catholics.  In this way, Catholic authors who fulfill their vocation have a marvelous presence in the Church.  Their works strengthen the faith of those who already believe in the truths of Catholicism. In addition, they can also be a unique tool to draw people to the Church who are impacted by the ideas of the Faith as they are presented in literature, even in an allegorical or an indirect way.   

The Role of Catholicism in the Imagination  

In this way, we see that the imagination and Catholicism have a mutually beneficial relationship.  The truths of Catholicism spur on human imagination and give to it a springboard from which come incredible new ideas.  Conversely, imagination is something from which works of art are created that draw people towards God and towards Catholicism.   

Ultimately, one might say that the role of Catholicism in imagination is like that of a source of water.  Those who come to the source carry it back with them to use in a multitude of ways influenced by their stations in life: a mother might give it to her thirsty child to drink, a farmer may use it to water his crops.  Likewise, the human imagination comes to the truths of Catholicism and carries those truths back with them to interpret them and thus make them into something new.  They transform the ideas in Catholicism into stories and works of art, each of which are unique and different depending on the creator.  Each work of art that is created is a new interpretation of the Faith, a retelling of the perpetual struggle of good and evil, a reflection on man’s journey in life towards the summit of Truth.   

The Lord of the Rings is an amazing example of such a work.  In reading it, we find ourselves immensely appreciative of the human mind as we explore the wondrous world that J.R.R. Tolkien created.  We also are prompted to meditate on the ideals of the Christian life: the fundamental importance of a virtuous life, our need for the Sacraments to attain eternal happiness, the triumph of love over death.  As members of the Church, may we always be called to use our imagination to draw ourselves and others to goodness and to the love of God, and may Catholicism always inspire us to creation of beautiful works of art.