What’s the deal with all the JRR Tolkien stuff?

I thought I’d take a break from my more serious posts, and answer a question that may be in some minds after seeing my blog: why is JRR Tolkien featured so prominently??

Like most people my appreciation for him started with the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I started reading them in 5th grade and became hooked. It is one of the only series that I have read multiple times, and at one point in junior high I read the Hobbit in its entirety to my younger brothers so that they wouldn’t miss out!

However, at this point in my life I would say that the Lord of the Rings is no longer my *primary* reason for having such a high appreciation of Tolkien (although I still enjoy those books very much!). What really appeals to me is his life, philosophy, and faith. I started to get to know him by reading the collection of his writing called “Tree and Leaf,” and by reading the biography written of him by Joseph Pearce (Man and Myth). “Secret Fire” (by Stratford Caldecott) and “Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth” (by Bradley Birzer) are two other great works on his life and writing. Probably the most powerful appreciation, though, came from reading Tolkien’s collected letters. The letters do contain a lot of interesting trivia about Middle Earth, but much beyond that. They include many letters of advice to his children or reflections to his friends. Between all of these sources I began to get a better glimpse at the man behind the stories.

His life itself was surprising to me—not your stereotypical path to professorship at Oxford University. Tolkien was born in South Africa to a British family that had traveled there for business. When he was three his mother brought him back to England for a vacation, and while they were gone his father passed away of rheumatic fever. His mother remained in England with her relatives to raise her children, but was cut off by her family when she became a Catholic. She worked hard (and to the detriment of her health) to support the children all alone as a single mother in the early 1900s, and passed away herself when Tolkien was 12. Without family to turn to, his mother had made arrangements for his guardianship to pass to one of the priests of their church, the Birmingham Oratory (side note: this was founded by Cardinal Newman- of “Newman Centers” fame- and was part of the religious order founded by one of my favorite saints, Philip Neri!). Despite the difficulties, Tolkien flourished at the Oratory, developed a deep faith, and found good soil for his intellectual gifts to blossom. He fought in the First World War (experiencing the horrors of trench warfare), and later (on account of his excellent education) was able to become a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

His writings show the depth of his faith throughout his life. In one of his letters he wrote, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth … which every man’s heart desires.”  He gave profound reflections on human love and marriage. He discussed the interplay of power, violence, virtue, and humility (all themes powerfully contained in his work on Lord of the Rings). In the Silmarillion he gives a beautiful image of the work of Creation, along with an insight into the advent of evil.

These themes appear in his writings, but indirectly. He opposed an excessively allegorical approach and tried to include these themes through rich symbolism. For example, Frodo (the central hobbit of the Lord of the Rings) isn’t supposed to be an exact image of Jesus, although at times he reflects him (e.g., carrying of the Ring and the carrying of the Cross). Tolkien believed that in this way myth portrayed truth. As he explained in another letter, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.” While we may limit “truth” merely to quantifiable data, Tolkien saw deeper aspects of truth that couldn’t be quantified. Instead, they could be contained in story and conveyed through the generations. It was this insight that played the critical role in CS Lewis coming to faith, and I think is what gives his Lord of the Rings such enduring value.

I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say, Tolkien has had a large impact on me! In faith and philosophy I find in him a kindred spirit. If you have any interest in knowing more, I recommend that you take up one of those books I mentioned above. God bless!

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