Page 7, 28th February 2003

28th February 2003
Page 7
Page 7, 28th February 2003 — A Catholic epic that entered the mind of a godless age

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A Catholic epic that entered the mind of a godless age

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is intimately, though often unconsciously, related to his personal faith, argues David Alton In 1925, OK Chesterton published

The Eve rlas ring Man. In a chapter entitled "The Escape from Paganism" Chesterton takes us directly to the Truth: "Nothing short of the extreme and strong and startling doctrine of the divinity of Christ will give that particular effect that can truly stir the popular sense like a trumpet; the idea of the king Himself serving in the ranks like a common soldier. By making that figure merely human we make that story much less human. We take away the point of the story which actually pierces humanity; the point of the story which was quite literally the point of a spear."

Chesterton adds that faith "is not a process but a story. The life of man is a story; an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God.

"The Catholic faith is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story."

Perhaps prefiguring the way in which Tolkien was to tackle his epic tale, Chesterton observes that "Every story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgement." All the elements, from the genesis and "the great music" of The Silmarillion to the awesome climax at Mount Doom, take us from alpha of creation to the omega of judgement. This is a story that exists for itself, Tolkien tell us that "The Lord of The Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision", Elsewhere he states "I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic" . In 1958 he wrote that The Lord of the Rings is "a tale, which is built on or out of certain 'religious' ideas, but is not an allegory of them."

So this is more than allegory, much, much more; what were those "certain 'religious' ideas" that inspired Tolkien?

Let me register some of the obvious parallels that can be drawn with particular characters and events, while recalling Tolkien's words that "The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write".

In the lady Galadriel the reader can be allowed to hear an echo of the Virgin Mary "Our Lady, upon which

all my own small perceptions of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded" (letter to Fr Robert Murray SJ); Galadriel's grand-daughter, Arwen. also has a Marian role, saving both Frodo's life and soul as she utters the words "What grace is given me, let it pass to him. Let him be spared."

Galadriel bestows upon the Fellowship seven mystical gifs, which are surely analogous to the seven sacraments, and as such are real signs of grace, and not mere symbols (hence, this is a specifically Catholic feature of the book).

andalf or Aragorn (and even possibly Frodo) may be seen as Christ

like: with Aragom the king entering his kingdom, the return of whom everyone is expecting; the apparent "resurrection" of Gandalf when he dies on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum after the fight with the Balrog; or Boromir's surrender of his life for his friends in order to save his companions (made all the more remarkable because of his earlier attempt

to seize the ring by force and by his subsequent repentance); or Frodo's willingness both to serve and to carry his burden.

Or, in the provision of lembas, can we not see the Eucharist? Before the Fellowship depart from Lorien they have a final supper where the mystical elvish bread lembas is shared, and they all drink from a common cup. Given Tolkien's remark that "I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again" some comparison with the Last Supper is inevitable. And it would be strange if Tolkien's tryst with the saving bread was not somewhere replicated in his great saga.

Beyond these individual instances are far deeper stories within the story.

Perhaps the most obvious of these is the struggle between good and evil. This never-ending struggle is clearly defined by Tolkien's faith. In 1956 in a letter to Amy Ronald he wrote: "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."

As the ring bearer struggles towards his destiny many die before the evil forces of Sauron are at last subdued; and even then Saruman remains at large in the Shire.

Frodo's self-sacrifice and willingness to take on seemingly impossible odds reflects a central tenet of Christian belief. The constant presence of Sauron that is felt throughout the book also reminds us of the constant threat of evil in our own lives. Frodo and Gandalf both understand that if they use the ring to overcome the Dark Lord then they too will become enslaved by evil. For the Christian the use of evil to overcome evil is a frequent temptation.

The general weakness of humanity (which can be taken to cover not only mankind, but all creatures in The Lord of the Rings) reminds us that humanity is fundamentally good, but that those who fall turn to evil. All that is evil was once good — Eirond says, "Nothing was evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so." We can see the concept of the fallen human in the ores — which were themselves once men and elves — as well as the concept of temptation, which causes someone to fall.

The temptation of the Serpent • is reflected in Boromir's temptation by the Ring, as well as in Gollum's. In Gollum we also see the idea of a conscience — he fights with himself, and with his conscience while he is being tempted. The theologian Cohn Gunton was of the opinion that the way in which the Ring tempts people to use its power is anal gous to Jesus' temptation by the devil.

Other aspects of evil are also recur in the book. The destructive nature of evil is there in the Scouting of the Shire, and in the way in which Saruman's troops destroy the trees and the timeless quality of Shire life, something especially abhorrent to Tolkien. The ores themselves are cannibals, and are hideous — showing how evil corrupts. The dark and barren lands of Mordor are the very face of evil, onnected with this is the selfdestructive nature of evil. After Gollum falls to the power of the Ring, he is consumed by its power, and he becomes weakened to such an extent that he can no longer resist it. Even getting close to evil has a subverting effect: take Bilbo's reluctance to give up the Ring, and its disappearance from the mantlepiece and reappearance in his pocket. Or, despite his epic and heroic journey into darkness, Frodo ultimately fails to throw the ring into the furnace. Here is the powerful mixture of the intoxicating allure of the forbidden with our human weakness and frailty.

In this part of the narrative

we are also reminded of the Christian virtue of mercy. Sam would have gladly disposed of Gollum whom he sees as a threat to Frodo. Gandalf commends Frodo for showing mercy and invokes the belief in providence, that even Gollum may one day have his moment. As the ring is committed to the depths that providence comes to pass.

Tolkien's narrative also dwells on unlikely victories over seemingly intractable and daunting odds such as at Helm's Deep. Even when evil appears to be triumphing — such as when Saruman gloats over what he considers to be the foolhardiness of Aragorn's troops as they march towards Mordor, he is defeated by them.

Evil also brings with it desolation and barrenness.

Contrast the destruction of Isengard, and the brutality of the orcs, with the simple homely life of the Shire — so reminiscent of Chesterton's Music England. Contrast the creativity, in The Silmarillion, of Iluvatar, the One, and his first creations, the Ainur, the Holy Ones, with Melkor, "the greatest of the Ainur" who, like Lucifer, falls as he succumbs to the sin of pride and seeks to subvert both men and elves.

Tolkien presents another side to evil too — the fact that inherent in evil is the desire to dominate, rule and have power over others.

There are other images in the book, which, while not being specifically Christian, are certainly images of good, or of bad. One fundamental image that Tolkien repeatedly uses is that of dark and light. Compare and contrast, for example, the Shire and Mordor ("where the shadows lie") — the Shire which contains so much of the England Tolkien loved, and Mordor, the dark and sinister land where Sauron and Mount Doom are to be found, and which contains so much of the England that Tolkien hated. Compare also the man-eating trolls and arcs with the elves — the disfigured (fallen) creatures and the beautiful and immortal elves, who eat the lembas, the mystical bread — the bread of angels which nour

ishes and heals. Lembas "had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone, and did not mingle it with other goods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure." This allusion reminds us of the manna that fed the people of Israel and of saints such as Theresa Neumann who survived by eating nothing other than the holy Eucharist.

Tolkien is too good a storyteller to reveal the end of the story too soon. Just like John Bunyan's Christian, the pilgrim must steer his way through good and evil and although learning as he travels that evil is powerful, that it is not all-powerful, and it cannot hut fail in the end.

Dtaring the 16 years he was compiling his trilogy Tolkien stayed regularly at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire — the heart of "the sacred county" and home of the recusant Shirebum family. He worked in one of the guesthouses and in one of the classrooms, writing and drawing.

One of his sons, Michael, taught classics at the Jesuit school and another, John, trained there to become a Catholic priest. Although Tolkien draws on many influences — not least those of his childhood Worcestershire and the Midlands — a walk along Shire Lane and a detour to woodlands where Michael planted a copse in his father's memory are well repaid.

Look to the distance where Pendle Hill, associated with the occult and witch trials, dominates the landscape.

At Mass in St Peter's Church, Tolkien would have encountered the descendants of the never wavering recusants who still toil the land and live with simplicity and humility.

This article is an edited extract from a lecture given to the Catholic Society of Bath University and Bath Spa University College last week. Theft!! text is to be published in the St Austin Review.

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