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A Review of
Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth
Paperback: Second Spring, 2014.
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Reviewed by Alden Lee Bass
At an event in San Francisco in 2003, when literary critic Joseph Pearce explained to a gathering of Tolkien fans that the author’s Catholicism was an integral and crucial part of The Lord of the Rings, several members of the audience got up and left. Yet it’s not only casual readers who miss this obvious point – Tolkien scholarship is divided between those who emphasize the pagan elements of his great works and those who see an underlying Christian infrastructure. For those versed in Christian theology, the Christian elements of Tolkien’s epic are unmistakable: from Gandalf’s death and resurrection to Gollum’s failed redemption to Frodo and Sam’s march up Mount Doom to destroy the ring. Tolkien himself said in one of his letters, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
Tolkien was undoubtedly a Catholic novelist. Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the most well-known of modern Catholic writers, defined the “catholic novel” in this way:
What we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.
This imaginative “light” is the Logos of John 1, a word which may be translated not only as “Word” but also as Meaning. Hence the Logos – who became flesh and dwelt among us – is in some sense the meaning which binds our world together. The metaphors of light and Logos flow in and out of one another in Tolkien’s work. In the poem he wrote for C.S. Lewis, Mythopoeia, he defines the human person as “the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” The Logos, like the unprismated White light, provides a view of the unified whole.
The villains of Tolkien’s world are those who insist on splitting the light, fragmenting the meaning. The great wizard Saruman who is introduced as “Saruman the White” in Fellowship soon becomes “Saruman of Many Colors”. “The white page can be overwritten,” he says, “and the white light can be broken.” Saruman speaks as the ultimate technocrat, literally analyzing (“breaking apart”) the world to death. Specifically, Saruman represents those who would sunder the material world from its spiritual meaning. Gandalf, who would later replace Saruman as “the White,” retorted: “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
The Christian novelist believes in a world saturated by the presence of God; as O’Connor said it, “the natural world contains the supernatural.” Yet, she cautions, “this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.” In this sacramental worldview, everything in the world points to the Creator if only one has the eyes to see the grace all around. As the French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade eloquently wrote in the 18th century:
By our senses we can see only the action of the creature, but faith sees the creator acting in all things. Faith sees that Jesus Christ lives in everything and works through all history to the end of time, that every fraction of a second, every atom of matter, contains a fragment of his hidden life and his secret activity. The actions of created beings are veils which hide the profound mysteries of the working of God.
For Tolkien, real life has a deeper meaning than the tangible surface allows. His novels probe that depth by depicting a parallel universe filled with signs of grace.
Craig Bernthal, a professor of English at California State and a long-time Tolkien scholar, makes four claims in his new book:
“1)The Lord of the Rings is a ‘Catholic Novel,’ written by a Catholic author; 2) The idea of the Logos, as set forth in the prologue of the Gospel of John and developed in patristic and medieval theology, is largely incorporated into Tolkien’s creation myth, The Ainulindale; 3) Tolkien is influenced by wide biblical understanding and imagery throughout his work, particularly the Gospel of John, letters attributed to John, and Catholic sacramental theology; and 4) Tolkien’s Logos-centric universe in the Ainulindale becomes the foundation for this portrayal of Arda (Earth) from a sacramental perspective in The Lord of the Rings.”
The word “grace” of course simply means “gift.” Despite all the sacramental parallels Bernthal finds, it is clear that Tolkien was not merely pointing to Christian sacraments or even directly to Christ. Lembas is sacramental precisely because it was a gift from the Lady Galadriel, a gift which literally sustains the travelers on the journey (hence the translation of lembas as “way-bread”). Before the hobbits’ can leave the Shire they pass through the Withywindle River valley, where they are nearly drowned by the malevolent Old Man Willow. Tom Bombadil, a heavenly figure if ever there was one, plucks them from the water and saves them from the Willow’s curse. Again, the symbols illustrate the life-giving potential of the signs, bread and water, oil and wine, and reflect the gifted nature of reality itself.
Ultimately, the recovery of the unifying sacramental Logic of the world culminates in friendship. For Tolkien, this meant looking backwards to a pre-modern sense of self which understands “its source of meaning to be located, not within an expressive and experimental self that is essentially private, but from without, in allegiance to neighborhood, friends, kingdoms, and however hidden, to angelic powers and ultimately to God.” Such loyalty to other requires a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of others; indeed, the Latin word sacramentum originally meant “oath of loyalty”. Gift and communion are themselves signs of relationship, of a human dependency which requires us to share our goods, to care for one another, and to continually look outside ourselves for assistance. The sacramental vision heals the breach between heaven and earth, God and humanity, but on a purely human scale it also brings people together as friends. Light, Logos, Love.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com