This is part three of a conversation between two authors whose books discuss the faith of J. R. R. Tolkien and the religious values underpinning The Lord of the Rings. Parts one and two appeared on our website earlier this week.
Bradley J. Birzer is assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he specializes in the history of the American West, and related topics. His book, J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, was just published by ISI Books.
Mark Eddy Smith is a graphic designer at InterVarsity Press, which published his book, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings, earlier this year. (purchase)
From: Brad Birzer
To: Mark Eddy Smith
Before we begin our discussion regarding Tolkien and Christianity, I would like to thank Christianity Today for inviting us to write on this topic. My favorite historian, Christopher Dawson, argued that it is impossible to separate the cult—that is, a community of persons who worship the same God—from the culture. Indeed, without a religious foundation, it is impossible to have a culture of any kind. Religion is the basis of each and every culture. A culture that loses its religious foundation can only continue for a limited amount of time, and only so long as it maintains at least some semblance of its religious inheritance. Tolkien, who attended the same parish as Dawson in the 1940s, I am sure agreed with this, and he would be happy to see the Christian elements of his mythology affecting Christian and non-Christian alike.
Second, I want to note how much I enjoyed your book, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues. I think your use of G.K. Chesterton and Josef Pieper is brilliant, and I think you're an excellent writer. Your book is a wonderful contribution to the literature on Tolkien and myth.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book, you have two sentences that stand out from the rest. The first: "When God does call us, it may be to a journey of danger and terror, with the possibility of no return, or it may be to the simpler danger and terror of confronting a boss whose practices seem a little shaky" (p. 21).
In this one sentence, I think you've captured perfectly Tolkien's understanding of myth and Faerie. To enter Faerie, Tolkien wrote, was always perilous. One never knew what one would find, and the sheer beauty of even the smallest thing would overwhelm any mere human visitor, no matter how saved and sanctified. For Tolkien, Faerie is a sacramental understanding of life: Grace abounds, but we usually ignore it, more enticed by the things of this world. And, such enticements grow ever greater as we begin the 21st century: not just the Xboxes and Nintendos to numb our children, but the outrageously sexualized sitcoms and advertisements, appealing to the basest level of our physical selves. Indeed, it's hard to turn any direction without some thing, some noise, or some eye candy attempting to tempt us. Modernity, Tolkien believed, distracted us from that which is the only thing real and necessary: Jesus Christ.
Real Life—as opposed to the dull, murky, substitute life that modernity provides us—is much greater than what we can understand through our physical senses, our science, and our facts. Truth itself, Tolkien knew, was much greater than our finite minds could understand or comprehend, even with the glorious gifts of Scripture, tradition, and the Natural Law. The greatest thing we do in life is the least thing (if it registers at all) in Faerie. In other words, while our works are important, they are important for the here and now, not for salvation in the life to come. Salvation, the Augustinian Tolkien knew well, was strictly a gift, bought for us by the True Myth, the Incarnate Word, sacrificing Himself on the Cross. Jesus did this not out of obligation, but out of Love.
Your second stunning sentence comes at the end of the book and deals with the heroism of Sam: "A gardener who was moved by stories, he lived out a story that moved a mountain" (p. 140). No matter how small our gifts and creations are compared to the Creator and His Creation, our individual roles are vital and necessary in the Divine Order. God placed all things according to His Will. Each of us is born in a certain time and a certain place for a certain reason. When we give up our will and accept His Love, we become who and what we are supposed to be. All Being, of course, comes from the Trinitarian God. There is no life, no animation, no love outside of that reality. Sam, whose name means half-wise, best represents the sanctification of the humble.
This is a theme I hope we can discuss more.
Thanks Mark. And, God bless,
From: Mark Eddy Smith
To: Brad Birzer
I appreciate your kind words regarding my book and echo your gratitude toward Christianity Today for this opportunity to spend some time conversing with you. I very much enjoyed J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth and was glad to get a sneak peek at it. I finished it in one sitting, and had it not been 4:30 in the morning, I would have turned right back to the first page.
I'm glad you've begun the conversation with Faerie. We are, of course, inadequate to speak much on it. Tolkien arguably spent his entire life creating (or sub-creating, as he would prefer) Middle-earth, and in so doing, came as close as anybody to describing the essence of Faerie. You've described it well in a few words: It is Real Life. It is the Truth of our significance and insignificance in the grand scheme of things. It is a place that anyone can enter, by the grace of God, but few are able to stay for very long without being overwhelmed and retreating to the seeming safety and familiarity of the "dull, murky, substitute life," the dim reflection of a dim reflection of the glory of Creation.
It is perilous to enter Faerie, even to invoke it. As Annie Dillard said, "It is madness to wear ladies' hats and straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets." But let's forge ahead anyway. Let us with all fear and trepidation strap ourselves in and take a joy ride through Faerie.
In the larger context of Faerie, the divide between Catholics and evangelicals (indeed, between all those who desire to follow Christ), seems especially troubling. You speak in your book about the abiding friendship and occasional tension between Tolkien (a Roman Catholic) and C. S. Lewis (an Anglican Protestant). Are there lessons we can glean from their relationship that can help us better understand and accept those of different (and differing) traditions, or is the difference too essential? I'm thinking particularly of the faith/works issue you allude to: "While our works are important, they are important for the here and now, not for salvation in the life to come. Salvation, the Augustinian Tolkien knew well, was strictly a gift."
I was fascinated by your chapter on "The Nature of Evil," particularly where you write that "Tolkien believed that a virtuous person should understand that evil exists, but should acknowledge or act on little more than that" (p. 90). This is, indeed, the root of one of the tensions between Tolkien and Lewis: that Tolkien disapproved of the very nature of the exercise Lewis undertook in writing The Screwtape Letters. You quote Elrond saying (in reference to Saruman): "It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill." Modern culture thrives on studying these arts too deeply, yet I am not personally convinced that this is altogether as bad as Tolkien believed. Modernity has its own myths — if they dwell at times too much on evil, at their best they point the way toward redemption.
As Tolkien himself said, in his famous talk with C. S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson, which Lewis credited as being integral to his acceptance of the Christian faith:
We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic "progress" leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.
Tolkien and Lewis were united in their belief that Truth never goes out of fashion, a point that, thanks in part to their own efforts, has not been entirely lost on this generation. As modern society "progresses" more and more recklessly towards the abyss, the storytellers still occasionally get it right, and thereby encourage their listeners to look beyond the stuff of this world and into the terrifying glory of Faerie.
As I look over what I've written, I realize with disappointment that I failed to mention Sam. I feel I gave him short shrift in the pages of Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues, as well. I seriously think that his small gifts of humility, endurance, and hope are too bright for me to look at directly. I hope that we can speak more of him as our conversation continues.
Mark Eddy Smith
Tomorrow: Does The Lord of the Ringsteach salvation by works or by grace?
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See also our review of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Earlier articles on the Lord of the Rings movies include:
Books & Culture Corner: Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source (Feb. 18, 2002)
Film Forum: The Fellowship of the Raves | Critics grope for superlatives for The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Film Forum: Gandalf and the Gamblers | As everyone talks about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, critics also get around to reviewing Ocean's Eleven, In the Bedroom, and The Business of Strangers. (Dec. 13, 2001)
Film Forum: First Looks at a Feature Fantasy | Early reviews for Fellowship of the Ring are in. (Dec. 6, 2001)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania (Nov. 11, 2001)
Earlier articles on Tolkien include:
Christian History Corner: 9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective (Sept. 13, 2002)
Christian History Corner: Intro to the Inklings | C. S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever (May 18, 2001)