I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, wrote the above in a letter to a lady in which he discussed Frodo’s attitude towards the weapons and war. He was expressing his own skepticism about how much was possible to accomplish for the good of man through the force of arms. In so doing he quoted a remark of Galadriel about Gandalf and how for many ages they had together “fought the long defeat.”
History often appears to be a long defeat and under its burden we may break, or we may just live for the day and damn the consequences, or we may fight like hell in spite of it all. In any case, the “long defeat” itself may contain “the glimpse of victory” in spite of the fact that no such victory seems to be written into the historical circumstances we experience.
The Land of Shadow
Whether or not Tolkien was right about the “long defeat” in the real world, Galadriel seems to have been right about it in Middle Earth. And the sense of loss experienced by the elves was certainly something Tolkien himself experienced, and so at least to him history seemed to be a losing proposition, apart from an unanticipated but hoped for “fairytale” ending. Part of that experience, though it began after the publication of the trilogy, was the postconciliar crisis. In 1967 he wrote to his son the following:
Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time. ‘Back to normal’ – political and Christian predicaments – as a Catholic professor once said to me when I bemoaned the collapse of all my world that began just after I achieved 21. I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyally hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord’s followers in His earthly life-time?) I think there is nothing to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.
Like Pippin in Minas Tirith just before the storm was unleashed from Minas Morgal, Tolkien could have asked Gandalf: “Is there any hope?” And Gandalf would have answered: “There never was much hope . . . Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.” Yet both the Hobbit and Tolkien held onto the fool’s hope. For the one it paid off, for the other we presume it did and continue to pray for him. Requiescat in pace.
Tolkien “nakedly confronted the will of God,” with all his rightful condemnation of “primitivism,” his suspicion of “aggiornamento,” and his identification of the confused “ecumenicalness” in the Church of his day. But it was loyalty and charity directed toward Christian unity—one might say, the heroism of the Halfling—that kept him from capitulating to the long defeat. In the end, he showed himself to be the faithful Catholic by declaring that loyalty is only proved to be true when exercised “under pressure to desert it.”
It is thus somewhat incongruous that I, an avid supporter of Vatican II and an outspoken critic of traditionalism, should be defending the traditionalist Tolkien, who showed open disdain for the New Mass, from a traditionalist condemnation of his work. Truth is stranger than fiction. Last week, Rorate Caeli published a post on The Lord of the Rings, “The Fantasy of Tolkien was Catholic! . . . Well not so fast . . .”. The contribution is from an anonymous “traditional priest” whose conference was audiotaped and uploaded to YouTube by Video Sancto, and transcribed for Rorate Caeli.
I say it is a “traditionalist condemnation,” not simply because it appears on Rorate Caeli (heck, if Tolkien were alive today, he could well be a supporter of Rorate Caeli), but because it is presented there as a traditionalist argument against another error of modern times. In the critique the author sets it side-by-side many other clear aberrations against the faith and suggests that Tolkien is part of the modern problem. Indeed, Farther X (we shall call him, not knowing his true identity) actually apologizes that no one “at more authoritative levels” has had the courage to condemn Tolkien’s work earlier, and claims it his duty “as a priest of the Roman Church,” “confirmed by a special grace,” to root out Tolkien’s Gnosticism in the name of Tradition and all that is truly Catholic.
Father X thus assumes the responsibility of satisfying a rather heavy burden of proof. He is not just critiquing Tolkien’s work, or pointing out possible flaws. He is saying that it ought to be condemned by the authorities for propagating the heresy of Gnosticism. In my opinion, he never comes even close to meeting the burden of proof necessary to prove his case.
There certainly are some Tolkien lovers who in their misplaced zeal believe that there is only one legitimate opinion about the Catholicity of Tolkien’s writing, just as there are Potterites who believe the Christian credentials of J.K. Rowling are unassailable. But Father X has gone to the other extreme trying to prove that the only legitimate position of a good Catholic is to swear off Tolkien’s mythology entirely.
One would think then that his reasoning would be thoroughly backed up by thorough evidence, but it is not. I have to commend him on actually having a working knowledge of the books his criticizes, which is not always the case among those who warn us of books they allege to be dangerous. But he fails to make use of sources that he must know are available to him, such as Tolkien’s letters (except in one case brief case that itself seems to be gleaned from a third party), his lectures, including his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” and the many volumes of versions, fragments and redactions of his mythology published posthumously by his son Christopher. This is an important point, because Tolkien was aware of the objections to his mythology and the misunderstandings of what he was trying to do and why. And he was very forthcoming in his responses. There are long letters to his publishers, as well as handwritten responses to questioners on many of the topics addressed by Father X. And the “On Fairy Stories” essay offers precise information on what Tolkien does and does not mean by myth, and why to create it is man’s God given right.
Father X rightly points to the rules laid down by St. Ignatius of Loyola for “thinking with the Church,” (sentire cum ecclesia), which includes, though Father does not mention it, the principle
that we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.
Yet it is the traditionalists who are always reminding us how unyielding obedience to the living magisterium is “papalotry,” if it is not tempered with a critical spirit that plays the postconciliar magisterium off earlier teaching. In any case, the sacred magisterium, neither before nor after the Council, has had anything to say about the Catholicity of Tolkien’s work, so an argument from authority based on supernatural revelation goes nowhere. Father X needs to prove his case based on an accurate assessment of the facts, rendering the only thing available to him, a contingent non-authoritative theological opinion. And even at that I do not believe he has done a very good job.
Use and Abuse
One of the arguments Father X uses against Tolkien is similar to the one adopted most often and effectively by traditionalists against the New Mass, namely, that these are dangerous times in which good people can be lead astray easily, and in fact, there are indeed some very strange things indeed associated with this new fangled thing. But the same argument can be used against anything that has proven itself the subject of abuse.
If some weed smoking, acid dropping, Dead Head latches onto the allure of the fantastic found in some work of art or literature, it must be poison, or so we are told. If that were true, then The Apocalypse should not have been included in the canon of sacred scripture, as some of the early ecclesiastical writers argued, and rather placed on the index of forbidden books. Gnostics have always loved The Apocalypse and have exploited its fantastic imagery, ecstatic language and seemingly esoteric meaning for their own purposes. And they, as well as other enthusiastic new religionists, continue to do so. From the extremes of evangelical Christianity with The Late Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind series to the head banging heavy metal of Iron Maiden, to films like Terminator and TV shows like Sleepy Hollow, to the tragedy associated with Marshall Applewhite Jr. and his sect Heaven’s Gate (mentioned by Father X), as well as that of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, The Apcocalypse has been used and abused continually by those who have little or no regard for orthodox Christian revelation.
Of course there is an immense difference between The Apocalypse and The Lord of the Rings. The one has been canonized in an infallible way by the sacred magisterium and the other will probably never be the object of so much as an opinion from a magisterial office of any kind. The point here is that the argument from abuse is just not a very good argument at all. Tolkien put it this way in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum [abuse does not vitiate the use]. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
I would suggest that just about anything can be turned into a false god, even religious practices. Tolkien’s reasoning here is completely compatible with the Catholic faith he loved and professed.
Father X goes to work on Tolkien’s theory of myth beginning his well-known dislike for allegory. This is a good place for Father X to start as Tolkien’s position has always been a matter of debate and on the face of it not wholly consistent, so long as he insists on using the term “allegory” for describing what he dislikes. For how can Tolkien himself be acquitted of committing allegory in LoTR without excluding the basic definitions of allegory from consideration? Be that as it may, in his foreword to the trilogy in the same place where he says that he “cordially dislikes allegory in all its manifestations” (quoted by Father X with added emphasis on “all”), Tolkien distinguishes “applicability” from allegory, saying that “the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” In fact, in the foreword, Tolkien is responding to those who claimed he had some set purpose in mind in regard to motive and meaning, saying
[t]he prime motive was the desire of a taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.
Smuggling the Gospel?
Tolkien was simply saying that he had no intention of deliberately allegorizing because he did not like allegory insofar as it can be used as a method of selling a “philosophy” under the guise of a good story—what Lewis called “smuggling the gospel.” (This seems to be one of the reasons why Tolkien did not like Lewis’ Narnia series, but not the only one.) Nevertheless, in one of his letters Tolkien says that LoTR is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letter 142). And this brings us directly to his theory of myth, distinct from what he called “allegory” because myth has all the depth and symbolism of allegory in its applicability without the intention or at least appearance of manipulation by the author. It simply is written to be a good story, but the reader is able to perceive more—something transcendently more.
Father X’s response to this is telling:
Why did he have to consciously revise it to be Catholic…? This is a most strange way of approaching the truths of God. It is a statement that he did not set out to make his work Catholic at the start.
Father X misses simply misses the point. Tolkien did not revise his story to make it Catholic. He realized he had written a Catholic story without ever intending to and then consciously made revisions in that light of that revelation. And this is why there is no one-to-one correspondence between characters such as Gandalf and Frodo with Christ, or why at one point Gandalf’s staff may allude to the staff of Moses and at another not (a problem for Father X). There are allusions and typological correspondences, but they are glimpses, like those provided in poetry. And they are by definition imperfect glimpses. The moment they become more or less perfect, the story ceases to be a myth or even an allegory and becomes what Lewis called a “supposal.” Suppose Christ appeared in the form of a Lion. That’s Narnia. Alsan is not an allegory for Christ. Alsan is Christ under the form of a lion. This being the case, one is confronted with more serious theological problems in Lewis’s mythology.
The moment one tries to analyze the glimpses in the Tolkien myth and organize the pieces one has pulled apart into categories the effect is gone, because the effect is integrally related to the story and it power to delight and move without the appearance of the author trying to convey some transcendent message. Father X calls this “relativism,” but that is simply because he insists that if a story has anything important to say beneath the obvious, it will only happen if the author is trying to manipulate his readers. Much of what Father X has to say about Tolkien’s work is based on this error. He simply does not understand what Tolkien was trying to accomplish.
I would also submit that this explanation of myth is also the reason why, in spite of his protestations to the contrary (i.e., “dislike for allegory in all its manifestations”), Tolkien did not object to its use in sacred scripture, contrary to the attestation of Father X. For example, the allegorical sense of sacred scripture involves typology, usually some person, place or thing in the Old Testament that foreshadows a fulfillment in the New Testament. But the correspondence between type and antitype, for example, the Paschal Lamb and Christ, is not a matter of human calculation but of divine providence and inspiration. God is not manipulating the reader. In some wholly supernatural and mysterious manner, one which does not violate the free will of man, God uses the imperfect objects of true history to foreshadow their fulfillment in the future.
This is not the same as fictional allegory. It is myth in its perfect form. Not the “mythology” referred to by modernist scripture scholars, as Father X claims Tolkien is suggesting, but a story that points to something mysterious beyond itself without appearing to have done so by some contrived arrangement. In the case of sacred scripture, the myth happens to be true. Tolkien says that in the gospels myth and history coalesce (“On Fairy Stories”). In sacred scripture, there is no manipulation by an author, human or divine. This can be said about all the historical books of the bible.
The problem is that Tolkien says he dislikes allegory in “all” its forms, but I suggest what he means its all its uses in fictional literature. After all, he is a fiction writer talking about creative writing. I think that on the face of things, it is rash to suggest that he was criticizing the sacred canon.
Imagination or Imaginary?
One final but fundamental point on myth as Tolkien understood it: his ideas come in part from G.K. Chesterton’s teaching on myth and imagination. A particularly important source for this is Chesterton’s opus magnum, The Everlasting Man, a book refuting the idea that Christianity is really “comparative” to other religions. Chesterton gives both the pre-Christian mythological religions, like that of Greece and the philosophical religions such as that of Confucius, credit where credit is due. This is so because they were honest natural attempts at discerning the truth about the universe, the one through the imagination, the other through the intellect. Both served an important part in the search for truth, but neither arrived at fullness. Both were limited by a lack of supernatural revelation, both were guilty of serious error, and neither could be complete without the other, that is, the myth without the philosophy or the philosophy without the myth. Only in Christianity is there both myth (not a lie, but a story pointing to something beyond the obvious content) and philosophy, the intellectual comprehension of divine truth. And only in Christianity are both the myth and the philosophy absolutely true (corresponding to the truth, and/or historically factual) and, being found together, complete.
It is only in this sense that a story expresses something that a doctrine does not, a point concerning which Father X takes much exception. But what would our holy religion be like if we had only the catechetical teaching and not the gospels as story? We cannot even conceive of it. Something real and unique, as story, is conveyed by the weeping of Jesus over the death of Lazarus, and His weakness and suffering in the garden of Gethsemane juxtaposed with His majestic and deliberate choice to allow Himself to be arrested. We would be entirely impoverished if we could not, like Mary, ponder in our hearts, the events that She witnessed, not only the doctrine within, but the events themselves played out in the real drama of the cosmic conflict of salvation history.
Tolkien is not suggesting that myth as fiction has a necessary function in salvation, but one that is connatural to a true religious sense. Tolkien refuted various ideas of his day regarding the function of “fairy stories” in ancient cultures, and concluded from his studies, in particular way from his study of Beowulf, that language and myth are coeval. We have been telling stories, that is, making them up, since the beginning. Languages and the mythologies associated with them have developed simultaneously. Even ancient myths like Beowulf, according to Tolkien, were written as literature for the same reason he wrote LoTR, to amuse, delight, excite and hopefully deeply move the hearer. In Tolkien’s mind, the reason for this is that we have been created in the image and likeness of a Maker whose word executes the drama of history. Man connaturally imitates His creator by “sub-creation,” not by creation from nothing, but by ennobling what God has given us through art. At the most fundamental level this occurs in language with the power God has given man to tell a story.
This means that the Christian imagination must be taken seriously, a point that Tolkien defended when he refuted in the “Fairy Story” essay the idea that such stories were meant primarily for children. He makes a cogent point when he says that is not more surprising to find adults who like fairy stories than it is to find them just as interested in the latest gadget as children. Though not all children and adults have the same infatuation with the latest IPhone, no one is surprised to find both adults and children walking heedlessly across the street with their eyes glued to the touchscreen. The transcendent character of imagination is something very serious. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton puts it this way:
Imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.
Tolkien was not a “natural mystic” but a believer in the one true faith, and he therefore knew exactly where the pursuit of beauty would lead.
Art vs. Life
In my opinion, Father X brings up some perfectly valid questions, without ever producing the evidence necessary to arrive at a condemnation of Tolkien’s work, or even at the categorization of it as “dangerous.” It is entirely reasonable to question Tolkien, as well as Chesterton, on his view of imagination and myth, and ask just how far one can take the idea that art and imagination convey something that reasoned truth does not, and to ask what exactly is that something. Yet it hard to imagine that a faithful Catholic could believe that the Church would be anything but grossly handicapped without art.
In fact, in the East the visual tradition of icon prototypes is considered canon, that is, part of Apostolic Tradition. Liturgical art remains a fundamental aspect of the manner in which the faith is handed on. Though it is hard to imagine the world without them, the Church could survive without the works of Giotto, Bl. Angelico, Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. It could survive without the Pietá, and certainly without the Mona Lisa and even without The Lord of the Rings. But it could not survive without the imagination. And Tolkien is right at least about two things: we are created in the image and likeness of a Maker, and it is our birthright to tell stories, which hopefully, without really trying to, point beyond themselves to the One who records the whole of history in The Book of Life.
It is also perfectly reasonable to ask how something like The Lord of the Rings compares with the autobiography of St. Teresa of Jesus in aiding to bring about the conversion of sinners, as Father X does. I would surmise that good Catholic fantasy literature, even that which has the mythic character at which Tolkien aimed, does less than many enthusiasts would like to think. But Tolkien never set out to convert anyone by his fiction. I suspect that for Father X, that fact is damnable enough. But if one is reading or recommending fiction for primarily apologetical or catechetical reasons, then perhaps they really would be better advised to look at another genre. I think the real power of fantasy like Tolkien’s operates very much the way he wrote it. It is not going to change anyone because it has been designed or promoted to do so, but it might if one is willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the work as it was intended: as a great epic tail of heroism and perseverance in the face hate and the will to dominate and enslave. That is an intangible that must be left to the reader and the book.
The Gnostic No-No
Father X’s major contention is that the alleged defects in Tolkien’s mythology are manifestations of the heresy of Gnosticism. I won’t begrudge him this discussion. It is well worth having. After all the Gnostics have always used myth in the form of mysterious sacred texts as one of the principle means of conveying their doctrine and their secrets. This is a question that is valid for the examination of fantasy literature in general and in particular with respect to the Inkling tradition as it extends all the way out, like it or not, to J.K. Rowling. In fact, I believe Tolkien’s dislike of Lewis’ Narnia, was more out of concern for doctrine than it was for Lewis’ use of allegory, though I would not accuse Lewis of being a Gnostic.
And Tolkien was veritably creeped-out by what he considered the rather dark and bizarre ideas and literature of Charles Williams. And Tolkien had serious reservations about the thought and literature of of Charles Williams that seem to have been related to the latter’s sympathy for the occult [see clarification]. But we ought not to play guilt by association here. If anything, Tolkien as a Roman Catholic shows himself to be careful about his faith and orthodoxy, and distances himself from such accusations, both by his theory of myth and the rather wonky way in which he wrote his fantasy.
Heresy in Middle Earth?
Father X, however, thinks otherwise, and I believe this is largely because, as mentioned above, he altogether misses the point of Tolkien’s idea of myth. He believes that either Tolkien must have set out to write a Catholic story, or otherwise he must have had unworthy intentions, even if in good faith. In the light of this, according to Father X, any inconsistency within the perceived typology of the story as it might relate to religious truth constitutes doctrinal error, and is evidence that Tolkien’s philosophy is not Catholic. Likewise, any perceived similarity with historical heresies in the secondary world is in fact in instance of this heresy in the primary world. But this is to critique Tolkien’s secondary world as though is was intended to be or actually is the primary world, which it is not. Again, I am not going to touch upon every problem that Father X perceives in the mythology. Just keep this point in mind and I think you will see that he is tilting at windmills.
Father X, with the best of intentions, is heresy hunting in Middle Earth. I don’t know how he managed to time travel that far back into millennia virtually beyond remembering, were it not for Tolkien’s imagination and the Hobbits’ chronicling, translating and compiling. But, for the life of me, he has. Even so while there he is playing by rules that no longer apply. He is no longer is here and now, but then and there. Unfortunately, he is not aware of this.
The Gnostics of the primary world can and do lay claim just as easily to The Apocalypse as they can and do to The Lord of the Rings. However, while The Apocalypse is vindicated by the Church, LoTR enjoys no such protection. Instead, Tolkien’s care for the faith is fortified by the wall of time and imagination that separates the secondary world with its own rules from the primary world and its rules. This separation for example, does not exist in the Harry Potter series, where the primary and secondary worlds overlap and interpenetrate each other, and where the rules of the secondary world coalesce with those of the primary world, particularly because of the presence of historical figures associated with Gnosticism, like Nicholas Flamel, Cornelius Aggripa, Zou Yan, and real world gnostic practices such as alchemy, the attempted production of a homunculus with the Mandrake root, the practice of scrying and astrology. I don’t intend to take on the whole question of Harry Potter here. I just note the difference, without denying the similarities either. There is, for instance, a scrying pool in LoTR, namely, the Mirror of Galadriel, but I would submit it is not so much the similarities but the differences that are operative here, and the fact that the reader can easily become clear what the rules are in the secondary world of Tolkien, and not so much in that of Rowling. Clearly, Tolkien does not intend the historical references, while it is not at all clear what Rowling intends. Indeed, it seems to me that she intends to be ambiguous.
Hence, yes, Tolkien’s creation account, Ainulindalë, reads like scripture, precisely because it is already an ancient narration of the beginning of Arda when it is translated from the Elvish and included in The Red Book of Westmarch by Bilbo. But the idea that it is thus intended by Tolkien to be an alternative account to Genesis in the primary world, as Father X suggests, is ludicrous. And yes the Ainur, the secondary world approximation of angels, might look like primary world Gnostic demiurges to the primary world heresy hunter prowling around Middle Earth. But this is only because there is subjective confusion in the mind of the heresy hunter, who might be best served to visit Hobbiton and have a long chat with the master of Bag End before he tries to rope himself any more heretics.
In fact, there is one thing that separates the creation account of Arda, as well as the rest of the history of Middle earth, from the mind-numbing Gnostic intellectual static of the primary world, and that is the absolute separation of good and evil. There might be instrumental creation in Tolkien’s sub-creation, but good and evil are never codependent. In Middle Earth evil is never necessary and is always the misuse of free will. It is ever a fall and a tragedy. But Father X thinks contrariwise. He counts the escape of Bilbo from under the Misty Mountains by his following of Gollum (The Hobbit), Gandalf’s escape from the pit in Moria by following the Balrog, as well as the ultimate destruction of the Ring through the misadventure of Gollum, and not by Frodo’s agency, as Tolkien’s way of sneakily allowing good to triumph through evil means. But has he looked to find out what Tolkien himself says about this? Apparently not. And Tolkien does have something to say about it (cf. Letter 246).
Frodo and the Gnostics
Tolkien himself does not begrudge those who have a problem with Frodo’s failure at the Mount Doom. But he makes it clear that he had no intention from the beginning of contriving Frodo’s failure, but saw it a consistent with the logic of the story as it proceeded forward, and felt that Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring was “central the whole ‘theory’ of true nobility and heroism that is presented.” Yes, Frodo failed to reach the ideal, something that he himself was profoundly aware of and which left him broken and prevented him from fully enjoying the fruits of victory in Middle Earth. But Tolkien says that those who judge Frodo harshly manifest two weaknesses: 1) they fail to recognize the complexities of the situation “in which the absolute ideal is enmeshed”; 2) they fail to consider the requirements of “Pity or Mercy” which demand us to pursue the absolute ideal ourselves and manifest the good will of Mercy to others when they fall short.
What Father X fails to consider is that according the rules of Tolkien’s secondary world the Ring could neither be hidden from the enemy forever, nor used to destroy him. The only possible deliverance from Sauron involved someone attempting to take the Ring back to the fire from whence it was forged in order to destroy it forever. Such an attempt would be futile if entrusted to the mighty, as the Ring’s power to control and corrupt was proportionate to the power of the one who wielded it. And yet entrusted to the weak and humble, which seemed the only alternative, the task also involved the seemingly overwhelming risk of failure, both because Ring Bearer would be ill equipped for the task and because the longer he bore the Ring the more inevitable it was that he would be overcome by its power. (See my post “Frodo and the Machine.”)
For this reason, Tolkien does not see Frodo’s failure as involving moral culpability. Frodo was starved and exhausted by the time he reached Mount Doom and, by the rules of the secondary world, had never had a choice but to continue bearing the Ring for months, unless he had been willing to allow Middle Earth to fall. Tolkien writes:
Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed (Letter 246).
And this brings us to the question of Gollum’s role in the affair. Is this really an instance of Gnostic dualism? Or of good succeeding through evil means? No. Gollum is a tragic figure, who has enmeshed himself in a life of sin and gradually but surely has become a twisted and perverse image of what he once was before he fell. Early on in The Fellowship of the Ring, during a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf, Frodo expresses his regret that Gollum is not dead: “. . . What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” Gandalf replies:
Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.
And then Frodo:
I am sorry. But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum. . . . he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.
Gandalf then gives us the comprehension we are looking for:
Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not the least.
Gollum’s fate is not tied up with Gnostic dualism or utilitarianism. It is bound to mercy and the overarching providence of God. We see this above all in the primary world in the very matter of salvation when it matters most. God never wills the evil of the sinner, but in His providence even man’s sins contribute in a paradoxical way to the final victory. Man will either glorify the mercy of God in heaven or His justice in hell. This paradox is operative also in the sins of Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate and even those of Judas on the very day of our salvation. Satan believes that everything is falling into place and soon the trap will be sprung. All the while he is never cognizant that even his closest allies are in fact unwittingly closing the noose around his neck. Providence in Middle Earth, just as in the primary world, sees to it that even the works of the wicked contribute to the ultimate victory. I submit that the other events Father X mentions in which allegedly good is brought about through evil means should be understood in the same way.
Out of the Depths
Father X does not touch directly upon the question of depth in Tolkien’s writing, but I think it is pertinent to the topic of hidden meaning relative to the accusation of Gnosticism. This is because depth, especially when it is combined with the fantastic, can give the impression of esotericism and might seem to give Father X’s objections a ring of truth. There has been much discussion by scholars about how Tolkien creates depth within his world, which gives it the appearance and a real measure of internal consistency as well as the impression of a mysterious past. Such depth, for example, is given through the various, sometimes oblique and mysterious references to characters, stemming from “earlier” oral and written “traditions” of the legendarium, such as those concerning Túrin, Beren and Lúthien. But the depth that renders mystery and wonder is not the same thing as hidden esoteric meaning.
Tolkien’s world has the “inner consistency of reality,” which is paradoxical, because he manages to give that which is least likely to be believed, namely, the fantastic, the appearance of true history, by bestowing upon his secondary world the complexities and mysteries that are typically present in the primary world. And it is this combination of unlikeness and likeness of the secondary world with the primary that produces the particular kind of joy and consolation associated with the history of Middle Earth. Tolkien writes in “On Fairy Stories”:
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” [the unexpected, “turn” or happy ending producing consolation] we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.
This takes us right back to Tolkien’s whole theory of myth and its quality as distinct from that of what he calls “allegory.” The secondary world is not to be confused the primary world, and there is no direct intention of the part of the author to allegorize. However, there is a relation of the sub-creator, made in the image and likeness of a Maker, to the Supreme Story Teller in whose Word myth (not a lie, but a story that points to the transcendent) enters history and becomes our salvation. The happy ending of a fictional story is something we all crave because we are looking for one in real history. When a story is told as well as Tolkien’s, that happy ending produces a particular kind of joy and consolation that is related to the one we experience in salvation history.
Tolkien’s love for language and myth and his desire to supply for the lack of a mythological tradition in England was somewhat of a nerdy preoccupation to say the least. He would be more than happy to talk one’s ear off about those things that lay beyond the horizon, some of which he had not yet completely worked out for himself. But none of this has to do with some hidden doctrine accessible only those to who are expert in the Tolkien canon or who can speak Elvish, or who can wink at each other every time they recognize something clever in the text that others do not. It is just a very well made story.
Because Tolkien has told his story so well and has given the fantastic the “inner consistency of truth,” we not only achieve a certain kind of consolation, we also “want” the story to be true in the primary world. Some people appear to “want” that more than others. But those who can speak Elvish or who can read the Dwarvish runes are not Gnostics. They are nerds. They may have no social life, but that does not make them heretics.
Again, many of the problems Father X has with Tolkien’s work would be resolved if he was just a bit more familiar with the background, both of the secondary world that Tolkien created, and the primary world circumstances in which he wrote. But that just may require of the majority of us more time than is reasonable to devote to fantasy literature, which is probably part of Father X’s problem.
Not everything that is lawful is convenient. And not everything convenient for one person is necessarily so for someone else. Fantasy is not for everyone, as Tolkien himself admitted. And it very well may be true that this or that person spends too much time reading Tolkien, or begins to blur the line between fantasy and reality. It might even be true that they begin believing things that are contrary to the faith because they simply do not understand what they are reading. But these are peculiarities related more to the reader than to the author or the book—and they are not even necessarily faults. They are just things to consider before one decides what to read and what to leave on the shelf.
In my opinion the problem with Father X’s argument is that it stems from a prejudicial reading of Tolkien. The specific prejudice is his concern about the times in which we live that becomes for him, in my opinion, excessive anxiety. He fails to provide even a good critique, let alone does he justify an outright condemnation because he does not use his sources well, either because he misunderstands them or because he ignores them altogether. Thus:
- His argument from abuse is a scare tactic more than anything else. He fails to show why the ancient and Catholic principle abusus non tollit ususm does not apply here, nor does he show why the condemnation of Tolkien should not extend to other things that are abused which we know are objectively harmless.
- His condemnation of Tolkien’s work is largely based on a misunderstanding of basic concepts in Tolkien’s theory of myth, such as “myth” itself as well as “allegory” and “imagination.” He confuses Tolkien’s work with the “mythologization” of the bible. He condemns the work on the basis of what he thinks Tolkien is saying, without actually finding out what Tolkien meant.
- He raises valid questions about the relationship of art with life and faith, and about the relative power of “Catholic fantasy” to change peoples hearts, but he does not investigate these questions at any length but only suggests that because Tolkien might be taken too far he should not be taken at all.
- He also raises a valid question about the possible relationship of fantasy literature with Gnosticism, but he confuses primary world heresy with secondary world imagination, again, largely, because he has not taken the time to understand Tolkien’s theory of myth. Furthermore, what he provides as evidence of Gnosticism is shown by Tolkien himself to be nothing of the kind. Tolkien’s work has internal consistency, whereas Father X’s presentation of “evidence” does not.
- Tolkien’s rendering of the fantastic with the internal consistency of reality brings a great deal and depth and complexity to his myth, but this is not Gnosticism. It simply makes Tolkien’s fantasy particularly capable of enkindling joy and consolation in the reader. Nevertheless, it may not be for everyone, and like other things in life should be used with discernment.
The Glimpse of Victory
I don’t know whether the majority of traditionalists or even the majority of RC’s readership would agree with Father X or not, but while I fully respect Father X’s right to argue as he does and completely believe in his sincerity, I think his position is symptomatic of problems found often among those with a traditionalist mindset.
Somehow, Father X has made the lack of vigilance against the alleged Gnosticism of Tolkien a dereliction of duty on the part of postconciliar Church and the namby-pamby, feel-good, all-is-well, head-in-the-sand attitude that prevails among so many Catholics today. Hypothetically, that is a possibility. But it is also possible that Father X is a bit alarmist, and that his misreading of Tolkien is based, however sincerely, on his bias, for the reason that the culture of many traditionalist Catholics is mired in an unhealthy climate of fear and a sectarian “we are the last remnant” mentality.
I make no pretensions of speaking with any particular authority about Tolkien and I acknowledge a wide range of perfectly lawful opinions on the matter, including those of Father X. But I really hope at some point influential traditionalists begin to recognize that they are a small minority of the small minority of Catholics that actually believe in anything, and that the only thing in the end that this kind of argument will do is serve to keep the circle of believing Catholics the weird subculture that it so often is. I hope that we do not guarantee that the long defeat becomes even longer.
As a good Catholic, Tolkien believed in the power of divine providence, present throughout history, stemming from the “unexpected” turn of the Resurrection. And so while many times history seems to be a long defeat we know the story that really matters and is woven into the fabric of our existence “begins and ends with joy,” that is, with Christmas and Easter. Myth has truly entered history and has transformed it. It is beyond our wildest imagination and hope, and yet it has “the inner consistency of reality.” Tolkien writes:
There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
So even when we feel trapped, or are convinced quite justly that the world around is a “dangerous place” we have reason to know that loyalty is more determinative, and that there is a “glimpse of victory” couched even in the “fool’s hope.” Joy will have the last word. That is our hope against hope (Rom 4:18), and the lesson of Tolkien’s work.