Of A Dear Fat Ol’ Elf and Diverse other Heathenries

fatherxmasletters_jpg

I teased Patty a bit about her question, but I am actually glad she asked it:

I have a totally off the subject question for you…There’s Catholics for Obama, right? Well, what’s your whole take on Catholics for Santa? Could you write a post on that?

First off, I think the comparison is a bit of a gargantuan stretch, but perhaps not everyone would agree with me.  I suppose there are those who believe that both Obama and Santa are pure Freemasonic constructions with no other purpose than to destroy Christianity.  While I am less sympathetic to a defense of Obama against this criticism, I certainly think that Santa deserves a fairer shake.

I want to address Patty’s question directly, but in so doing I would also like to deal with a more general and larger question, namely, what should be our general attitude toward all the “heathenries” about us?  I use that term a bit tongue in cheek because there are any number of heathen customs which over the ages have been baptized and purified by the Catholic religion.

The picture above is the cover of the published version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas.  These letters were originally handwritten and illustrated by Tolkien himself for his children.  Each Christmas from the years 1920 to 1943 Tolkien’s children would receive a special letter from Father Christmas himself (the English Santa Claus), or so they thought!  In each of the letters the old elf told the children of the goings-on and adventures in the North Pole.  In the picture below are several of the North Pole postage stamps illustrated by Tolkien for some of the Father Christmas’ letters.

tolk-christmas

I guess my point is that Tolkien’s Catholic credentials are pretty much impeccable.  He even was somewhat of a traditionalist, having a strong dislike for the new rite of the Mass, though he continued to be a daily communicant in his local Novus Ordo parish to the end of his life.  His intuitions were entirely Catholic, but many of his inspirations were of heathen origin.  If it weren’t for these, there would never have been The Lord of the Rings.

It was Tolkien’s love for the ancient literature of the North that in a large measure inspired the form of his mythology.  Such things in the hand of a master produce masterpieces; however in the hands of a knave, the same things can produce atrocities.  One such knave was Adolf Hitler.  Tolkien wrote the following to his son during the great war:

You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. . .Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense.  Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22:  against that ruddy little ignoramus Adof Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature:  it chiefly affects the mere will).  Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.  Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized. . . (Letters, # 45).

Hitler had taken Norse mythology and turned into a diabolical religion of hate and racism.  Tolkien took the same material and Christianized it in way that is almost mystical.  The myth of Santa Claus or Father Christmas is an element of Western culture that has the same quality.  It is what you make of it.

sinterclaus

I most certainly think that we do well to lift the Christian history out from the myth so that we can once again see it for what it is.  We need to celebrate the memorial of St. Nicholas of Myra (December 6), with some solemnity and make sure our children hear the true story and develop a devotion to the real saint.  There are all kinds of Catholic, ethnically based customs that could be adopted to do this.  But that the Father Christmas myth should be banished from every true Christian home?  I don’t see that such a precept should follow from an authentic understanding of the Catholic faith.

True, much of the image and story of the modern Santa Claus takes its origin from heathen mythology, some of which is of that Norse persuasion for which Tolkien had such a fondness.  But so what?  I have heard arguments that the Christmas Tree is of pagan origins also and I have heard arguments to the contrary.  I have never bothered to resolve the issue because I really don’t see the point.  It is true, there are elements of culture that are truly beyond rescue (to my mind, I think Rap and Hip Hop may be such), but I don’t see a historical or doctrinal basis for the narrowest possible interpretation of these issues.

I can’t imagine that Tolkien’s children were harmed by the letters from Father Christmas.  Even though, like all other children who have been told the myth, eventually they had to be disabused of their belief, I can’t imagine that as adults they had anything but fond and wholesome memories of their childhood Christmases.  What would it have been like to be a child at the feet of J.R.R. Tolkien and hear him tell a story or read a letter from Father Christmas?!

merryoldsantaAnd this brings me to the larger issue.  I have no problem with people arriving at their own solution to this question or ones like it, and I don’t see why anyone should be particularly bothered that we might make up our minds differently.  I fully understand the reaction that traditional Catholics have had against secularization, particularly when they have felt themselves left out to sea by their fathers, both within the family, in the government and in the Church, but I grow more and more suspicious of the way that personal opinions become absolutized as the only real “Catholic” option.

I see the attraction of it for sure.  There are so many voices and so many unwholesome influences.  We want to control the environment as much as possible and we want to offer relatively simple solutions that can be explained easily and applied without variation.  I can see a father of a family making a simple and sweeping generalization about a certain kind of music, for example, and then expecting unquestioning obedience.  But the real dimensions of this issue are not confined to this, especially in America, where our individualism leads us either to throw off the yoke of rules completely, or on the other hand, to absolutize our own opinions as necessarily to be followed by all those of good faith.

There is here a larger question of the governance of communities, whether they be loose associations of families or parish communities, or organizations like the MIM.  It is one thing to speak of the relative dangers, say, of rock music, it is another to assert that all men of good shall not have any CD that is not first approved by the local pastor or the acknowledged oracle of the community.  For example, I have been generally willing to talk about cultural issues and the moral implication of Catholics’ participation in world around us, but I am loathe to pronounce generalized condemnations of cultural elements where the Church has not.  I even avoid being the arbiter in disputes about whether this or that movie or music is okay, not because I think such guidance is misplaced, but because my opinion is likely to be accepted as gospel, or on the other hand, if another priest has given different advice, there appears to be some scandal, which there is not.   I think there is a real danger of orthodox and traditional communities and associations of becoming merely sectarian sub-cultures within the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, not enough of us realize this.  We tend to think that persons who do not wish to live with all the restrictions generally assumed to be necessary in more orthodox circles to not be sufficiently converted, when in fact they merely find our narrower interpretation of what is permissible to be just that, our narrow interpretation.

Once again, with eyes wide open I set myself up to be misinterpreted and misunderstood.  But it is necessary.  I have argued strenuously for the restoration of Catholic Culture (unfortunately I can only find the third part online) and have thought long and hard about it, but I don’t think it can be accomplished by piling rule upon rule, or assumption upon assumption about what is universally best for everyone.

A few years ago, I looked with suspicion upon an effort to build a traditionalist Catholic village in the Eastern United States, because I thought that throwing a pile of money at a mountain to build something that looked like a medieval town and engineering a pristine Catholic culture to be imposed on this little community of people was naive.  Perhaps I am too harsh.  I do understand that these are the days when radically Catholic ideas and the courage to implement them are necessary, but I also think that practical common sense and the good will to know the difference between doctrine and opinion are more necessary today than ever.

The Church has always been in dialogue with the world.  She has sought to escape the world, it is true, but never completely, otherwise the evangelization of the nations and the conversion of souls would be impossible.  I have said this before and I will say it again:  orthodox and traditional circles of people need to direct their attention outside their own little worlds and quit assuming that they have everything all figured out for everyone else.

I know what is likely to happen, I will be quoted out of context as though I am supporting some form of mushy Catholicism.  In the post-Vatican II disarray some have suggested that the only way to counter the disintegration of Catholic life is to fight it with the other extreme, as though if we are left with any liberty to think for ourselves we will be betraying the faith.  This can only be based on revisionist history.  Not even the Middle Ages was like this.  It is myth that there was no diversity of culture and usage among the people of Christendom.  In fact I will go a step further, with Chesterton I say:

[T]here never was a time in the whole history of the human race when it was more necessary to defend the intellectual independence of man that this hour in which we live.

In our world gone wild we don’t need more and more secondary restrictions, we need people who have the fulness of the faith, but who are also intellectually independent enough to find creative solutions to the problems which we face, or in the words of Tolkien who defended his mythology against the supposition that it could be misused and abused:

. . . Abusus non tollit usum [the abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use]. . .[W]e 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 (“On Fairy-stories”).

We should use this power wisely, but use it we must;  and never was it more important that we should do so than now.

Laying Our Knights to Rest

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after” (J.R.R. Tolkien).

As unspeakably sad as the last week has been, I cannot remember one that was more filled with grace and peace. I have been privileged to witness heroism, steadfastness and mercy.

Thom and Marc, their family and friends have been searching earnestly for the ideals of chivalry; however, none of us would have considered the plate we have been served “quite the something” we “were after.” We must always praise God for His goodness.

Last Monday, when through one of the friars I received a distressed call from Carol in which she asked one of us to meet her at Bachus Hospital, I was swept up into a series of events so inconceivable to me that the mind still balks at its consideration. I knew the situation was dour when I heard the words “drowning” and “Life Star” though in reality, I had no idea of the real dimensions of the tragedy.

My mind still short circuits when I think of the hole left in so many lives by the absence of Thom and Marc, but at the same time, the past week has etched into my mind some of the most precious memories of my life. Like many who were privileged to know Thom and Marc and to participate in their sending off, I have been overwhelmed by the presence of God during this difficult time. Continue reading

Adam Tolkien on Peter Jackson’s Movies

Very CGI

Very CGI.

Q: What did you think of films?

Adam Tolkien: My point of view is completely personal: I am not a big fan of these Hollywood adaptations. I very much like Peter Jackson’s early movies, but, considering the immense size of his Lord of the Rings project, I think that he lost the breath and the poetry of Tolkien. The decorations are very beautiful, because they are real, but the special effects were not there yet. You could really see them…

Me, I would have liked to see another thing, an environment like that of The Seventh Seal, of Bergman. It would have been interesting to make a series, which would have made it possible to develop a movie adaptation, without losing the breath.

[This interview is a translation from the French. I think the translator meant to use the “breadth” not “breath” in both paragraphs.]

I am not surprised by this response of J.R.R.T.’s grandson. Someone being so close to the book and the author would, I think, want to see the depth, breadth and pace of the book reproduced in the films. I felt the same way, although I know that anyone who would want to tackle the story was going to need a lot of money and would have to convince a studio that the films were going to be blockbusters. I think this factor more than anything else necessitated the transformation of the story into a kind of adventure/thriller.

His suggestion that the environment should be more like The Seventh Seal, I find intriguing. I admit that I got tired of the ubiquitous cgi camera that flew through the orc tunnels under Orthanc like a video game, and the fighter pilot view of the Nazgul on their fell beasts over Gondor. Adam is right that the cgi was a bit too transparent, but for me, even were the cgi better, I think it was still too much. For example, the momentary glimpses of the Nazgul in the sky from the point of view of Frodo and Smeagol would have been much more effective, frightening and realistic. . . and cheaper . . . and more like the book.

In general, I would have liked to see much more subtlety, but of course, the series would have to have been much longer, perhaps like a cable series, instead of big screen films.

Here is an example of The Seventh Seal.

Did Tolkien Object to Narnia on Doctrinal Grounds?

aslan.jpg

Steve found this article some time ago and asked me to comment. It’s an extremely interesting topic to me, so I’ll give it a go.

If you are really interested in this topic you can also follow this thread on Mark Shea’s blog from last month. (I have a terrible time getting a link to Shea’s blog to work permanently . Follow the link provided above and then scroll down the page to An Interesting (and Pretty Persuasive) Essay on the Anti-Catholicism of C.S. Lewis and Why It Bugged Tolkien. There are about thirty comments.)

The article, by Eric Seddon, is entitled Letters to Malcolm and the Trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their 1949 Crisis. Anyone who is familiar at all with the friendship of these two literary giants knows that while they both shared an appreciation for mythic literature and for much of each other’s literary work, Tolkien had no use whatsoever for The Chronicles of Narnia, and he made Lewis acutely aware of his distaste for it. In fact, Tolkien’s frankness on the matter seems to have put somewhat of a damper on their relationship, or at least was a contributing factor to its cooling. Continue reading

Sold to the Knights of Lepanto!

last_tolkien_photograph1.jpg

The last known photograph taken of Tolkien is being auctioned off with a first impression of The Hobbit. Now while the book may be out of our league the photo is only valued at £400-600.

Now all one of you has to do is get a ticket for London. You have plenty of time. The auction isn’t until March 18. Make sure you bring a attache case of sterling with you, and presto.

I will gratefully accept the donation on behalf of the Knights of Lepanto, and of course the photo will be displayed in the Tower of Lepanto for all the professed knights to see. Thank you very much.

That was Tolkien’s favorite tree, by the way. Any tree chopping orc would have had to deal with that cane, I am sure.

Tolkien on the BBC

I don’t know whether to hyperventilate or just stop breathing altogether.

Here is an explanation and transcript of the video from the Tolkien Library.

Here is another video down below on the Tolkien Library page:

An eccentric genius if ever there was one. I am taken back by his accent, diction and mannerisms.

Adam Tolkien, the authors grandson talks about the recent publication of The Children of Hurin, which is one my personal favorites of all JRRT’s tales. He puts his assessment plainly in a way I found humorous for some reason:

And it may or may not strike a chord. People may think it doesn’t have enough Hobbits in it, because there aren’t any.

Well there it is. I need to lie down.

Pullman: Trivializing Tolkien

pullman3.jpg

I am not particularly eager to attend to Philip Pullman or his atheistic propaganda piece, His Dark Materials, but a few days ago I read something he said that makes my blood boil. In an interview, recently published in Intelligent Life Magazine, Pullman called Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings “trivial”:

Several times Pullman reminds me that a work of fiction is not an argument. Perhaps it’s safest to say that in “His Dark Materials” he has constructed his own imaginative world so as not to submit to anyone else’s. He likes to quote William Blake’s line: “I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.” His story is a rival to the narratives put forward by two earlier Oxford writers, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia”. Pullman loathes the way the children in Narnia are killed in a car-crash. “I dislike his Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn’t touch it at all. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with” [emphasis mine].

Continue reading

Kings in Disguise

167-seven-out-14-men.jpg

With all the work I am doing with the friars here in Australia, and with the men’s retreat I gave over the weekend, I have not been able to do much blogging, but I thought I would begin again with some reflections that I made during the retreat. The theme was “The Return of the Church Militant,” which of course is a play on Tolkien’s The Return of the King.

Fourteen men attended the retreat over the weekend. Unfortunately, we Yanks were not aware that there were national elections across Australia on Saturday, for which voting is mandatory by law, so the men had to work around their voting obligation to attend the retreat. All in all, it was very successful.

During the retreat, I mentioned something Chesterton had once written about, namely, that all of us are “kings in disguise.” The idea is that all of us have a kingly destiny through Baptism; however, we are fallen from that dignity and are fighting to recover it. I would seem that Tolkien may have been influenced by this notion in his development of Aragorn’s character. On Saturday night I gave a little talk on Tolkien and developed the following ideas. We then sat down and watched the extended version of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King.

Strider’s Secret

In The Lord of the Rings, Middle Earth finds itself in a time of great need. The shadow of Mordor lengthens. The elves are leaving Middle Earth for the Western Shores, and men have become weak and leaderless. Aragorn is one of the Dúnedain, a man of the West from the Northern Kingdom and the lost heir to the throne of Gondor. Few know his true identity, though. He is a ragged and grim wanderer, more a vagabond than a king, as far as the eye could discern. Continue reading

Night Watch Chronicles III

weathertop.jpg

When I read Marc’s description of the Encampment Night Watch, I couldn’t help but think of the encounter of the hobbits and Strider on Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring. I am not sure whether there is more a comparison or contrast to be found. You decide.

Having experienced the encampment Night Watch, it is easy to understand how a “watchfire” is a mixed blessing for those who are near it. The light of the fire illuminates a large area around the fire itself, but the brightness of that near light makes it more difficult, not easier, to see into the darker distance. What is more, the watchmen’s long and deep shadows, cast by the fire, create large areas of vulnerability. In fact, Father Ignatius successfully “captured” the Night Watchmen by sneaking up on them right in their own shadows!

The situation seems to be different in The Lord of the Rings. When on Weathertop the danger of the approaching Black Riders was first perceived, Strider had the hobbits surround the fire and face outwards. With the approach of the Nazgûl, not much else was to be done. Fortunately for Strider and the Hobbits, they had two advantages over our Night Watchmen. First, they were able to sense the presence of the Riders by the sheer terror and dread that the nearness of the wraiths caused. Frodo felt a “cold dread [creep] over his heart,” before anyone of them had yet definitely spotted one of the enemy. Secondly, what they were looking for could not be illuminated by the light, but was perceived by its absence of any reflected light. The hobbits “saw” the approaching wraiths as black shapes in the form of men. “So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade behind them.” Continue reading