Tolkien week, ISI Community Chat/Board, April 7-11, 2003

Bradley J. Birzer writes:

Paul Rhein and the good folks at ISI graciously invited me to lead a discussion (or several discussions with multiple threads) this week on the meaning and significance of J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. Any chance to write/discuss Tolkien is a treat. And, to do so for ISI is a double treat.

Tolkien, I believe, was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Far from the LSD-induced, unimportant, nonsensical escapist literature that his critics often claim of them, Tolkien’s works have a depth-theological, philosophical, and literary-equal to the best literature of the past century.

Though couched in myth, legend, and fantasy, Tolkien’s legendarium speaks to the dignity and significance of the human person as well as for the need for order and liberty for the human person. An Augustinian, he viewed the history of the worldly things as trapped in a cycle while the history of the Christian and the Christian Church has real purpose and progresses. The twentieth century, though, as Tolkien believed-and as I think is obvious from the statistics of state- and party-sponsored murder by the Communists, the Nazis, and the other ideologues infected with the diabolical imagination-was possibly the worst of all centuries.

Though much of the tyranny was in the East, the rampant materialism, invasive corporate consumer capitalism, and softly tyrannical bureaucracies in the West seemed, in the long run, just as dangerous. The past century produced sixty-five percent of all the martyrs over the last two-thousand years of Christian history. And, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, 160,000 Christians are still being martyred annually throughout the globe. An anti-modern, Roman Catholic conservative, Tolkien often fell into despair, especially toward the end of his life, as he took account of the world situation. “The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations,” Tolkien wrote in 1969, “that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras’ heads.” The world, he thought, seemed little better than a new Tower of Babel, “all noise and confusion.” As Ransom explained in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength: “The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.”

The project of the Inklings-of whom Tolkien was a vital member, along with Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams-was nothing less than the re-formation of the world, away from ideology and toward the mythical and poetic imagination. Lewis described it as a group of “literary friends. [Williams] read us his manuscripts and we read him ours: we smoked, talked, argued, and drank together.” Lewis asked a Benedictine friend, “Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” Lewis also called himself-and his friends-“Old Western Men.” That is, importantly, they believed that the pre-modern West offered the best society yet to exist. One of the Inklings, John Wain, wrote that the group that met either at the Bird and the Baby or Lewis’s rooms in Oxford was “a circle of investigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.” No matter what the world had done with the Truth, it could not have destroyed it, for the Truth is the Truth. It is the foundation of the world. When one submits his fallen will to perfect Grace, all things are possible.

Grace, as it always has and always will, abounds. It was and is everywhere, a gift freely given at the moment of creation from the Creator. It animates all things; it ties all things together; it calls us Home. As the Old Testament assures the world, there is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, all things come from the One, animated by the love of the Holy Spirit, which itself proceeds from the Love of the Father and the Son. Grace abounds. It comes from Eternity and has entered Time, as Christopher Dawson often wrote.

As long as Time exists, Grace could and cannot do otherwise. Each of us, then, is formed by Grace, animated by Grace, called by Grace, and judged by our response to Grace. Sam, perhaps, best represents what the humble can do when accepting the gift of Grace. Ever loyal, Sam is a Wiglaf, Sir Gawain, and St. John figure.

Importantly for the Inklings, Grace often appears in Language, and the Language forms the beginning, middle, and end of the Story, God’s Story, God’s spell, or the Gospel. The Author spoke the universe into existence. When His people ignored, mocked, or perverted the abundance of Grace, the Creator sent His Only Son, to live as one of us, while remaining fully God, to teach us, to die on a tree, betrayed by many of His closest friends, and to conquer death itself through the Love of Grace three days later. As Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-Stories”:

The Gospel contains a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels-peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. The story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it either leads to sadness or wrath.

Each of us formed and animated after the Incarnation lives sometime in the second half of the Story. Even the Son does not know the End. But, it will come. And, until then, it is our duty to do what is right, what is good, what is God’s will.

Born in a certain time and a certain place, each person, animated, called, and judged by Grace, is allotted a set amount of time on this Earth. A participant in the Story, we each play a role. Some of us have multiple roles, some of us fewer roles, some of us greater roles, some of us lesser roles.

Yet, each has his place, his importance, his uniqueness, his dignity in the Economy of Grace. We may even resent the time in which we live. Gandalf cautions: “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” We must order ourselves, then, according to His Will-revealed through tradition, scripture, the Magisterium, and the Natural Law. With the Incarnation of Christ, Eternity entering Time, humanity can now be redeemed, and Grace will finally perfect Nature.

For Tolkien, mythology touches the deepest part of our souls, and invites us to explore the beauty of creation and to discover and participate in the sacramental nature of life. Only in the True West could one find a proper understanding of order, virtue, and liberty. As Tolkien himself said, the mythology and purpose guiding The Lord of the Rings was nothing less than the return to Christendom. His Middle-earth mythology, he hoped, would serve as a wake-up call for the West, to return it to its pre-statist, pre-imperialist, pre-materialist phase.

With the return of Aragorn the king, the “progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome,” Tolkien admitted in 1967.

Certainly Tolkien, as with most of the Augustinian Christian Humanists, had a Jacobite streak. Stephen Lawhead, an American novelist, may have captured the sentiment for a new Christendom best in his “Dream of Taliesin” from his six-volume Pendragon Cycle. When a Stuart arises to reclaim the British throne at the beginning of the twenty-first century, he repeats the Dream, a vision of the “Kingdom of Summer”:

There is a land, a land of shining goodness where each man protects his brother’s dignity as readily as his own, where war and want have ceased and all tribes live under the same law of love and honor. It is a land bright with truth, where a man’s word is his pledge and falsehood is banished, where children sleep safe in their mother’s arms and never know fear or pain. It is a land where kings extend their hands in justice rather than reach for the sword; where mercy, kindness, and compassion flow like deep water, and where men revere virtue, revere truth, revere beauty above comfort, pleasure or selfish gain. A land where peace reigns in the hearts of men. Where faith blazes like a beacon from every hill and love like a fire from every hearth; where the True God is worshipped and His ways acclaimed by all.

This represents a dream, of course. But, it a stunningly beautiful and enticing dream that is deeply imbedded in myth, a myth that has held much of the western world captive for fifteen hundred years. As with all myths, it contains elements of truth. “The Arthurian and the Jacobite are united in the authenticity of the authority they represent. They are bound by the Faith and in the Faith,” Joseph Pearce writes. “They are the timeless defenders of Christendom against the infidel. They are beyond the transient rebellion of Time. They have fought the Long Defeat without ever losing sight of the far-off glimmers of Final Victory. They are unconquerable.

They will return.” The truth, as the Christian Humanists know, was not the return of any random king, no matter how good, but a longing for the return of the True King, the Divine Wisdom. Because of the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of the True King, the human person has gained new dignity, according to Tolkien and the Christian Humanists. Each person is “an allegory,” Tolkien conceded to his former student, famed poet W.H. Auden, “each embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”