Tolkien . . .
Further Notes On The Art Of Middle Earth

By John O'Connor

I have cited to the Christian symbolism in Tolkien, not because this is my interpretation or imagination, but because these are specific items which, in extensive reading and browsing, I have seen attributed to the author's intent, either by himself or by plausible others. If an author says, in writing, that he intended such-and-such a thing, I think it is safe to say he intended it.

Tolkien's collected letters and his authorized biography reveal and clarify his own intentions authoritatively, and in his own words. In his collected letters, for instance, he explains that the "lembas" is a communion reference. He was also on record as to the Christian-calendar aspect of the story, which has Frodo's trip take place in a single liturgical year. These are written records in which the artist explains his symbolic intent. They cannot be explained away.

Tolkien's own published literary theory makes plain that he does not approve of authors being overly-clear with their readers. One complaint he has about allegory, in particular, is that it tends to diminish the literary nature of any given work, reducing its literary stature and shrinking it to propaganda or agitprop. In the 20th century, this problem was probably most common in socially committed or leftist literature; but Tolkien's complaint was a timeless one, and intended as such. Allegorical writing and allegorical reading, in his view, directly threaten literature by diminishing the pleasure of reading as such and by reducing the story to a mere message, or a mere vehicle for a message. (The process by which a person becomes corrupted into a ring-wraith is not unlike the process by which literature becomes corrupted into propaganda.)

Tolkien's seminal essay on Beowulf makes plain that Tolkien's ideal writer of allegory would not spell everything out for his audience. Quite the contrary. What made the Beowulf essay revolutionary in its day was its insistence on the literary value of the Beowulf poem as a piece of literature, and not simply as a mine from which data or meanings were to be extracted. Because Tolkien's Beowulf essay was written and published just as Tolkien was producing The Hobbit, it has much relevance, not merely to Tolkien as a reader of literature, but also to Tolkien as an author thinking out loud about his own crafty craft. He is very emphatic that an author is to sublimate whatever allegorical intentions he may have, and that the message should be subordinate to the art. (Poetry should instruct by pleasing.)

With the Beowulf essay in mind, and a few clear clues as to what is coded into the text, a hunt for symbolism becomes not only plausible but unavoidable.

Tolkien's other significant piece of literary theory came in his essay on fairy tales. Here he advances his theory of the "eucatastrophe" in literature. More important, though, he puts forward his theory of the gospels. According to Tolkien, the gospels are fairy tales. That is their literary genre. He means this as a high and serious compliment. The corollary, however, is that some fairy tales are thus the gospel.

I take this to be a Catholic way of interpreting the Christian religion, radically different from a fundamentalist approach. Fundamentalists of all varieties tend towards an idolatry of the text -- just as, in Catholicism, Catholic fundamentalists tend towards an idolatry of the church. Because Tolkien has an essentially Roman Catholic relationship to the gospel texts -- one which does not view them as an end in themselves -- he reads them differently and imagines them differently, as well. Seeing the gospels as fairy tales, he writes fairy tales which are gospels. All this is based on what is plainly stated in writing in his own literary theory and is not a projection onto the text of his stories.

Leo Strauss popularized the idea of code writing -- the idea that sometimes the message of a text must be deciphered rather than read. The Jewish experience of reading and writing under difficult circumstances and amidst untold persecution led Strauss to emphasize this way of interpreting, and it is an accepted fact that certain Jewish texts contain coded messages not intended for the general public, but only for the initiate.

In my opinion, there is a Straussian element in Tolkien's work As a patriot and nationalist, Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for England -- yet he was also a rock-ribbed Catholic. The challenge was to combine those two commitments. For many centuries, the self-definition of Englishness has not included Catholicism -- somewhat the reverse, actually. Tolkien does not hide his debt to English literature or to German mythology, but he does hide his Catholicism. It is there, but you must search for it.

Tolkien's Catholicism has important literary consequences. As noted, there is a crucifixion-and-resurrection in the narrative. However, this is not how salvation occurs. It turns out that the most important thing in the trilogy is an act of compassion, not an act of crucifixion. Specifically, Bilbo's act of compassion in not killing Gollum turns out to be the single deed which saves the whole world. The narrative underlines and emphasizes this moral, so it is difficult to miss.

Less emphatically, and with more subtlety, Tolkien has shifted the emphasis from crucifixion to compassion. It is not quite a heresy, but it is not exactly what a conservative Christian (Mel Gibson, for instance) would recognize as the essence of Christian salvation. One act of forbearance saves the entire world -- this is a Christian message, but it is not the Christian message. The shift is away from human sacrifice and towards two other things instead -- compassion and luck. This last idea, that the world might be saved by luck, is surely anathema to any orthodox Christian, Catholic or not. And yet it is hinted at in the text by a vigorously orthodox writer.

Strauss, anyone?

An Eastern comparison to Tolkien's cosmology is helpful, I think. In Asian religion, the figure of Kwan Yin is suspiciously like that of the Virgin Mary. She functions, like Mary, as the female face of the divine. Also like Mary, she is the incarnation of compassion. The difference between the Virgin Mary and a boddhisattva strikes me as small to the point of debatable. Gandalf, in particular, who as discussed is a kind of Christ figure, is also very like a boddhisattva. In his youth, as Olorin, he studies under a female spirit (this is from The Silmarillion) and from her he learns pity and patience. Gandalf is a Christ figure -- but he is also a Mary figure.

I have explained before that Tolkien would probably accept the papal teaching that Mary is as important as Christ. This teaching is, as discussed, anathema to most Protestants, although Eastern Orthodox Christians would probably align more with Rome on this questions. (Mary wins two out of three, and has certainly won the popular vote. The electoral college is another matter.) If one interprets Mary as being the incarnation of compassion, then Tolkien's book is not merely written by a Catholic, it has a specifically Marian moral. An act of compassion by an ordinary creature is what saves Tolkien's world. This is a Marian lesson, taught by one of Mary's devotees, and it is beyond the purview of many conventional Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

This aspect of Tolkien's work is there for those who are meant to see it, but not for the general reader. If Mel Gibson were to make a movie out of Tolkien, he would focus on Gandalf at the bridge, or, with several hours of slo-mo, on Gollum biting off Frodo's finger. In that sense, Tolkien's book, like any great book, is a Rorschach test for the reader or potential film-maker. The recent movie trilogy left out Bombadil, for instance.

The whole book, of course, is a marriage novel. It could plausibly be titled, Sammy And Rosie Get Married. For those who prefer a military or church-militant view of the story, the marital dimensions of the epic might as well be written in a lost runic language.

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