How Tolkien's Middle-Earth Introduced Me to Catholicism
Years ago, we began listening to Catholic radio for no reason, like it was a joke. And we started going to Midnight Mass on Christmas eve just to experience it. Our family would ask, "which one of you is Catholic?" to which we'd shrug, neither of us. We're just doing all of this Catholic stuff for no reason, for fun, we thought to ourselves. And around that time, in the earliest beginnings of our inadvertent journey into the Catholic Church, I somehow discovered that J.R.R. Tolkien had been a devout Catholic. And for some reason, it stuck with me. I joked with my husband,
"if it's good enough for Tolkien, it's good enough for me."
But I couldn't stop thinking about it, really. This was a man who, though I had never met, I had great respect for. He was kind of my hero. And the world he created was filled with so much truth and goodness - so where did it come from? He depicts so perfectly the innocence of hobbits, the destructive lust for power and glory, the heroic value of suffering and dying to oneself, the beauty of life and our duty to preserve it, and the slow rot as evil creeps into our hearts and minds.
Christianity is so thoroughly woven into every aspect of The Lord of the Rings; it must have been written, I had decided, by someone who was thoroughly steeped in Christian truth.
So imagine my surprise when I learned it was written by a Catholic. A devoted one, at that.
There is something to be said about knowing someone of a certain religion, worldview, or lifestyle that makes it feels so much more reasonable, tangible, understandable. And through his published works and letters, I felt like I knew him. Before Tolkien, I had never known a Catholic; I hadn't even known of a Catholic, really.
My childhood had been relatively devoid of them; I had never been evangelized by one, as I had been by by members of other denominations and religions. I had attended a non-denomination high school where I believed what I was taught about The Church without question. And so Catholicism was never even an option or possibility in my mind.
But there I was. Letting the concept sink into my brain. Tolkien was Catholic - on purpose - so maybe this whole thing deserved a little thought on my part.
I was searching for truth and was beginning to realize this might be a good place to look.
There were a few more years to go before my husband and I were confirmed into the Church, and many more hours of praying and softening my heart and reading the Bible, the Catechism, and the Church Fathers. But this, in a small way, may have been my first step.
As I've grown in my faith and my love for Middle-Earth, echos of Tolkien's Catholicism have become even more apparent throughout The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. I've come to recognize the life-sustaining grace of the Eucharist in the Elven Lembas. In the beauty and strength of Elbereth Gilthoniel and Lady Galadriel, I catch a glimpse of Our Lady, whom Tolkien was quite devoted to.
"“I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”
- Letters of Tolkien
Middle-Earth is not based in allegory, as Tolkien himself was quite annoyed by it, but it is woven with Catholic truths. He explained, in his letter quoted below, that it was unintentional at first but intentional in revision. For anyone who might not have grown up in a Christian home or within the Catholic Church, the elements which make The Lord of the Rings a Catholic work can be such a beautiful and encouraging starting point in a quest for truth.
"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. 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. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it."
- Letters of Tolkien
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