Tolkien and the Catholic Imagination
Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a paper—“Tolkien, Chesterton, and the Catholic Imagination”—that the author delivered at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture’s 2016 Fall Conference.
The imagination is a funny thing. It comes and goes. Unlike the ability to ride a bike, for instance, the ability to imagine does not remain with one for life. The gift of imagination must be cultivated lest it be lost.
At one point in the recent past, I worried that my generation was losing its ability to imagine—but that was before I began law school. There, I discovered that law students, at least, have no trouble imagining seemingly infinite inane hypothetical scenarios for purposes of determining the contours of, say, contract law—an impoverished form of imagination, but it counts for something. Here, however, I wish to focus on a more fruitful exercise of the imagination, one that, if cultivated correctly, can contribute to the transformation of vision that living a Christian life demands.
If the imagination is our ability to perceive things not present to the senses, then a central feature of the Catholic imagination must be that it allows us to perceive God’s hand at work everywhere and in all aspects of life. Reading Christian novels is one fruitful way in which we can cultivate an imagination that allows us to achieve this transformation of vision.
Flannery O’Connor writes that the Christian novel is not a novel about Christianity but one “in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.” This is why J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and a vast array of related works set in his Middle-Earth, can affirm that his is a fundamentally Catholic work of art despite its complete lack of overt reference to religion. In his work, the truth as Catholics know it is the light that illuminates and gives meaning to an otherwise unfamiliar world.
Tolkien saw man as a sub-creator, through whom the light “is splintered from a single White to many hues, endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” The artist as sub-creator mediates, in a way, between God and man, refracting the light of the Gospel into different hues that reach men where they are. Tolkien aimed to enrich God’s creation through his myth-making via “the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home.’”
One thematic illustration from The Lord of the Rings may reinforce the value of elucidating truths by “exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments.”
One aspect of the Catholic imagination underlying Tolkien’s work is the ideal of sainthood and heroic virtue. That we are all capable of heroic virtue and are called to holiness—to sanctity—is a basic truth of the Catholic faith. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council described this universal call to holiness in Lumen Gentium when they wrote that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.” The reader of Tolkien’s story will come to see that many of Tolkien’s heroes are not superheroes. They are ordinary people who were called upon to do extraordinary things—not unlike Jesus’ Apostles—and they exemplify the humility and obedience that we all strive to embody in our quest to become saints. The ennoblement of the humble is a major theme of both salvation history and Tolkien’s mythology.
Two of the main heroes in The Lord of the Rings are Frodo and Sam, the hobbits whose task it is to carry the Ring into the heart of enemy territory and destroy it. Tolkien explains, “The Hobbits are … really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race … They are made small … mostly to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’.” He writes that the story contained in The Lord of the Rings is told through the eyes of the hobbits because it is meant to exemplify a recurrent theme: “The place in ‘world politics’ of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, [and] forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great.”
This theme is illustrated in the story itself when one of the characters admits that the seemingly foolhardy quest to destroy the Ring “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong.” He then adds, “Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
When Frodo volunteers for the task of carrying the Ring, it is clear that he is almost surprised to find himself doing so. He is described as speaking “as if some other will was using his small voice.” Despite his wish to remain in Rivendell and enjoy some well-earned peace and quiet, Frodo is depicted instead as finally aligning his will with some will other than his own in choosing to accept the quest, which comes to be seen as Frodo’s personal vocation—that is, as his unique calling to contribute something to the building up of the good, the true, and the beautiful that no one else is called upon to or, possibly, can contribute. Despite his reluctance to play the hero, his ultimate obedience to the call makes Frodo a type of the Christian saint—a kind of crypto-Christian in a pre-Christian world—who is faithful, obedient, humble, and prepared to potentially sacrifice himself for the sake of the quest.
Readers who care to flip to the back of the book to look at Tolkien’s carefully worked out chronology of events will find that Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship set out from Rivendell on their quest on December 25th, the same day that the Church celebrates the nativity of Jesus. Rest assured that this was not merely coincidence.
Frodo and Sam’s only nourishment as they struggle to reach the end of their journey is a kind of Eucharistic bread given to them by the Elves, which “fed the will, gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” And after the ring is destroyed, Frodo and Sam are rescued by eagles in a scene evocative of the biblical verse: “They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings” (Isaiah 40:31). Again, those who check the chronology at the end of the book will find that the Ring is destroyed on March 25th, the very day on which some early Christians believed Christ to have been crucified. Thus the quest begins on the day of Christ’s birth, and succeeds on the day of Christ’s death.
Frodo is a type of the Christian saint because of his humility, his obedience, and his self-sacrificial love. He gave up his own life to save the lives of his fellow hobbits, and while he cannot enjoy life in his homeland after the completion of the quest, he is granted the gift of a passage across the waters to what Tolkien describes as the Blessed Realm. As Frodo’s ship passes into the West, he smells a sweet fragrance on the air and hears music coming over the soft rain. Then, Tolkien writes, “the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and [Frodo] beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
After all that he has been through, Frodo passes into paradise and will no longer be wounded, but whole. Tolkien’s readers will come away from the tale with transformed vision, by which the most ordinary of people can be called to do the most extraordinary things, not by their own strength but with the help of something or someone greater than themselves.
The Catholic imagination allows us to see that God lifts up the lowly. It allows us to see that the foolish things of the world shame the wise, and that the weak shame the strong. It allows us to see the purpose and beauty of self-sacrificial love. Tolkien’s story offers a vision of reality that captures these truths, which are lost on the “wise” both in Tolkien’s story and in our world of today.
A story is, for many, a more effective teacher than philosophy—in one sense, God communicated Himself to man through story, in what Tolkien called the true myth. Being made in God’s image, man participates in God’s story-telling by making myths of his own, through which he refracts God’s Light into different hues, suited to reach men where they are and bring them closer to the truth. Myths animated by the Catholic imagination, such as Tolkien’s, can contribute immensely to the work of offering to the world a much-needed vision of truth, goodness, and beauty that can help to lead people to faith.
Tim Bradley is a J.D. candidate at Notre Dame Law School. He is not under a contractual obligation to promote Tolkien’s work.