fbpx
Word on Fire’s Dr. Holly Ordway delivered an address at Christendom College on Monday, January 29, illuminating the deep Catholic faith of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien and how it helped lay the foundations of The Lord of the Rings and the rest of his Middle-earth tales.

Word on Fire’s Dr. Holly Ordway delivered an address at Christendom College on Monday, January 29, illuminating the deep Catholic faith of famed author J.R.R. Tolkien and how it helped lay the foundations of The Lord of the Rings and the rest of his Middle-earth tales. Ordway, who has written two award-winning books on Tolkien, spent the evening investigating Tolkien’s faith background, showing that his works are not a simple allegory, but rather are rooted in his Christian vision of reality.

“Tolkien is a very big deal in the wider world, yet we have a puzzle,” says Ordway. “Tolkien was both thoroughly English, and also a devout Catholic of a traditionalist mindset. His world of Middle-earth is grounded in English soil, and his religious views are shared by only a tiny fraction of his total readership — and this gives us a paradox that is worth investigating. We have a deeply Christian man who has produced an imaginative work that’s fantastically popular with readers of all faiths and none.”

Ordway, who is also the Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Houston Christian University, began her talk by dispelling the common notion that Tolkien’s writings were simple allegory. Rather, Tolkien was always emphatic that his writings could not be read this way, saying instead that, “The Lord the Rings is not about anything but itself. Certainly, it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political.”

This point of Tolkien’s is borne out by the massive popularity of his stories amongst people who do not share his religious beliefs, according to Ordway. And yet, while the stories are not simply allegory, there is something more to them.

“Whatever The Lord of the Rings is, it’s not a simple allegory of the Christian faith, it’s not an evangelical presentation of the Gospels wrapped up in a fantasy,” says Ordway. “But that is not to say that The Lord of the Rings bears no resemblance or no relationship to the Christian religion that Tolkien actually believed in. His great work is, as he puts it, ‘of course, fundamentally religious and Catholic.’ That ‘of course’ is very interesting. It seems natural and obvious to him that it should be so, and that is because, as Tolkien says, it is fundamentally Catholic.”

According to Ordway, Tolkien told his readers that, while The Lord of the Rings was not a simple allegory, his Catholic faith was woven into the story and its symbolism. This was not consciously planned by Tolkien — rather, the whole world of Middle-earth and the stories told within it by Tolkien were rooted in his Christian vision of reality.

Ordway met with students and faculty after her talk, including with History Professor Dr. Adam Schwartz (left) and English Language and Literature Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert Rice (right).

Ordway met with students and faculty after her talk, including with History Professor Dr. Adam Schwartz (left) and English Language and Literature Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert Rice (right).

“This rootedness, this unplanned but essential quality to his work, comes about because he had been raised and nourished in the Catholic faith,” explains Ordway. “He was a Christian, which means certain things in contrast to the generally secular approach of the modern world in his day and in ours. More specifically, he was a Catholic, which provided a particular shape and structure for his faith. And not just a Catholic, but one who lived out his faith through the first three-quarters of the 20th century, which featured two world wars and major changes in the way that the Church understood and expressed itself. Furthermore, Tolkien can really only be fully understood if we appreciate that he was not only a 20th-century Catholic, but an English Catholic, part of a faith community that experienced persecution, marginalization, and restrictions in civil rights, some of which lasted until Tolkien’s adult life.”

After guiding students through this important context to Tolkien’s writings, Ordway spent the rest of her address investigating Tolkien’s faith background, beginning with his childhood and working her way through his adult life. According to Ordway, in many ways it would have made Tolkien’s life easier if he had quietly become an Anglican during the strongly anti-Catholic culture of the early 20th century or made his faith a purely private matter — but he did not. His faith was that important to him.

Even after witnessing the horrors of World War I, in which he fought, Tolkien held onto and persevered in his Catholic Faith. While it was hard to do so, the choice to renew and strengthen his faith in the face of such darkness changed his outlook on life, which ultimately made it into his writings as well.

“His faith was ultimately renewed and made stronger, but it was hard one,” concluded Ordway. “This hard won quality of his faith meant that he understood beauty to be more lasting than sorrow, that he believed that there is a happy ending, not just in stories, but in reality. Beauty, humor, humility, sorrow, suffering, hope. These were all woven together in Tolkien’s spirituality. I believe that these aspects of his faith form part of the foundations of Middle-earth, that deep soil in which all the stories of his legendarium are rooted.”

Watch the video below to see Ordway’s address, including the Q & A following the address, in full.

YouTube player
Share via
Copy link