Christendom faculty offered reflections on the life and works of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien this past week, touching upon his philosophy, imagination, and faith in a series of lectures for the Christendom community.
The influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the culture has been widespread for decades, with his works — in particular the Lord of the Rings trilogy — finding enormous popularity in print, film, and more for over sixty years. Faculty members Dr. Adam Schwartz, Dr. Ben Reinhard, and Associate Librarian Stephen Pilon sought to illuminate the context surrounding the figure in their lectures for the community, with Schwartz — an expert on Tolkien and his time — speaking first on the role of religion in Tolkien’s writing.
“Tolkien’s faith was essential to his work,” said Schwartz, who teaches history at the college — including his popular Inklings course, which delves further into Tolkien. He further drew attention to a quote from Tolkien where he said, “I am a Christian and in fact a Roman Catholic.”
Schwartz explained that, to better understand the role of Catholicism in Tolkien’s work, you have to look at his journey to Catholicism. His parents were a part of the Church of England but were lax in their faith. At a young age, Tolkien’s father died, leaving his mother to care for her two sons and questioning her faith. Soon after, Tolkien’s mom found herself drawn to the Anglo-Catholic Church but soon learned, as Schwartz stated, “she was more drawn to the ‘Catholic’ then the ‘Anglo.’” When Tolkien was eight, she converted to Catholicism.
“Catholics were really the minority class and it was shocking that she converted,” explained Schwartz. As a result of her conversion, both her family and her in-laws completely shunned her and cut off all support. Tolkien’s mother had to go out into the workforce to provide for her two children, and in 1903 she died due the stress of her conversion and work environments. Tolkien and his brother were left in the care of a priest.
“Tolkien truly saw his mother as a martyr for the Faith,” said Schwartz. “This idea of self-sacrifice, laying down your life for the good of another is a theme in all of his works.”
A final example that Schwartz provided to the eager audience was Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe. Schwarz explained, “this is where there is a sudden, unexpected turn of events where there is a happy ending.”
“This reveals a type of will that prevails, a turn that brings out the good, which emerges originally in the story,” said Schwartz. “This is found in reality with Divine Providence.”
“This eucatastrophe is found in the Gospels,” said Schwartz. “The birth of Christ was the eucatastrophe of history and the resurrection was the eucatastrophe of the incarnation. This is the moment when legend, history met and were fused.” Tolkien saw this and weaved this truth into his stories.
Following Schwartz, Academic Dean Dr. Ben Reinhard drew attention to the influence of fellow author Christopher Dawson on Tolkien’s work. Reinhard, who has written on Tolkien in the past and teaches English Language and Literature at Christendom, used his examination of Dawson and Tolkien to further explore the philosophy and imagination of both, resulting in a deeper analysis of Tolkien and his work.
Reinhard made the argument that the relationship between these famed authors was not one of mutual respect but instead that Dawson had much influence over the work of Tolkien. Reinhard recalled that these men lived very similar lives — they were close in age, parishioners at the same Catholic church, both medievalists, and studied at Oxford.
Dawson and Tolkien shared similar views on power and tyranny, noting that the “evil masters” were the engineers of the world that control people through propaganda, “using the human souls as fuel.” Soon after Dawson wrote on this topic, Tolkien wrote similar ideas and language.
“[Dawson] makes an analogy of the soul being naked and helpless against this power,” explained Reinhard. This analogy is in Tolkien’s work, especially with the characters Frodo and Arwen.
They also had a similar philosophy and imagination. In a letter written by Dawson in 1948, he recounted the Atlantis myth and alluded to the hour of darkness. This idea was found in Tolkien’s works as well.
“Dawson also surveys the doom that is coming to the west,” said Reinhard, “and likens this power to a volcano.” About a month later, this idea was found written by Tolkien.
“It is easier to believe than not,” said Reinhard, that Tolkien was influenced by Dawson. “If these are coincidences, they are most remarkable.”
Concluding the series of lectures, Associate Librarian Stephen Pilon dug into the mythology of Tolkien for the audience, drawing particular attention to one of Tolkien’s other famed works, the Silmarillion. Not as popular as The Lord of the Rings due to its density, Pilon argued for its essentiality in his lecture, pointing to Tolkien’s original desire for both books to be published simultaneously in order to give readers the full picture.
The Silmarillion, according to Pilon, fully expresses his desire to create an original English mythology, complete with creation accounts. Those creation accounts — of the fallen angel Melchor, the creature Sauron, and the idea of being remembered by your creator in order to have a function and purpose — reveal Tolkien’s own religious background, providing an even deeper meaning to the texts.
“Legends and myths are not without truth,” explained Pilon, “and all truth leads back to God.”
The works of Tolkien, Dawson, C.S. Lewis, and others are explored in deeper length in Christendom’s Inklings course, offered by Schwartz to upperclassmen. To learn more about this course, please explore the college’s Academic Bulletin.
This story was contributed by Ashlianna Kreiner (’22).