Tolkien Finds Fellowship at Christendom

November 5, 2001

Joseph Pearce at ChristendomBefore an audience of over 350 Tolkien enthusiasts, Joseph Pearce, noted English author, lecturer, and Catholic convert, presented a lecture on "Tolkien as a Catholic" at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, on November 5, 2001.

John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 and died in 1973. In addition to authoring a world's best-seller, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and other poems, stories, and myths. For many, The Lord of the Rings (comprised of three separate books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) is not simply a book, but a unique world of magic, wizards, rings, hobbits, and enchantment.

"J.R.R. Tolkien was neither a cradle Catholic nor a full-blown convert, but a charming mixture of the two – a cradle convert," began Pearce. He was referring to the fact that Tolkien was baptized a Catholic by his convert mother when he was eight years old. "Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Tolkien's conversion was crucial to both the making of the man and the shaping of the myth he created."

Tolkien preserved his mother's legacy and kept the faith, not only in his life but also in his work. In particular, and crucially, Tolkien's encounter with the depths of Christian mysticism and his understanding of the Truths of orthodox Theology enabled him to unravel the philosophy of myth that inspired not only the "magic" of his books but also the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity.

"In brief, the power of Tolkien lies in the way that he succeeds, through myth, in making the unseen hand of Providence felt by the reader," related Pearce. "In his mythical creations, or sub-creations as he would call them, he shows how the unseen hand of God is felt far more forcefully in myth that it is ever felt in fiction. Paradoxically, fiction works with facts, albeit invented facts, whereas myth works with truth, albeit truth dressed in fancy disguises. Furthermore, since facts are physical and truth is metaphysical, myth, being metaphysical, is spiritual."

According to some, like C.S. Lewis, myths are basically lies and are therefore worthless. But Tolkien refuted that sentiment by saying that myths are perhaps the best way of conveying truth that would otherwise remain inexpressible. "We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer, however shakily, toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress' leads only to the abyss and the power of evil," Pearce stated.

Tolkien began his magnificent career in writing by writing his "Letters from Father Christmas" to his children. As a devoted father of four children, Tolkien would pen letters from Saint Nick to his children each Christmas. As the children grew older and more suspicious of the letters, Tolkien would become more inventive and creative with his myth. He believed that myths and the role of story were of great importance. In fact, the role of story has been sanctioned by Christ Himself in the Gospels. Whenever Christ wanted to make a point, and ensure that his listeners would understand it, he would tell a parable. "The parables were not literally true," said Pearce. "Each parable presents a story that is timeless. Each story is true time and time again and can be applied to our own lives."

Joseph Pearce converted to Catholicism in 1989, through his reading of G.K. Chesterton and other works. He has written twelve books on such figures as Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and E.F. Schumacher, as well as a volume on literary converts.


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