Academic journal article Mythlore

But Grace Is Not Infinite": Tolkien's Explorations of Nature and Grace in His Catholic Context

Academic journal article Mythlore

But Grace Is Not Infinite": Tolkien's Explorations of Nature and Grace in His Catholic Context

Article excerpt

"Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story."--J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters 100-101; to Christopher Tolkien

"Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision."--Pius XII, Humani Generis (1950)

Paul Kerry's recent edited volume, The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and The Lord of the Rings, reminds us that the role of J.R.R. Tolkien's Roman Catholicism in interpreting his work continues to be a subject of a lively debate, especially in regards to the use of his letters. Whether there might be a Pagan, as well as a Catholic Tolkien, whether The Lord of the Rings can or should be read as a great Christian work, even while many readers remain unaware of Tolkien's religion, are questions that, I suspect, will continue to be discussed for some time to come. (1) My goal in the following is not to insist upon the normativeness of positions that can be acquired from Tolkien's letters, or even to argue for the legitimacy of such readings, though my essay perhaps assumes this. Neither do I intend to focus upon the correspondences between lembas and the Eucharist, the Marian echoes in Galadriel and Varya, or the Christian kingship of Aragorn. Instead, I want to draw attention to a Catholic context that made such theological readings possible, one that supported Tolkien in affirming the separate validity of the pagan, even while positioning it within his larger Catholic structure of beliefs. Thus, with some hesitation, I cite the ubiquitously quoted 1951 letter to Robert Murray, then training to become a Jesuit:

But, to tell you the truth, though praise (or what is not quite the same thing, and better, expressions of pleasure) is pleasant, I have been cheered specially by what you have said, this time and before, because you are more perceptive, especially in some directions, than any one else, and have even revealed to me more clearly some things about my work. I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace [...]. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (Letters 172)

Notice that Tolkien wrote back to Murray, thanking him for having "revealed to me more clearly some things about my work" and himself admitting that this involved "the order of Grace." What I will argue is that the positioning of pagan and Christian elements was at the heart of Catholic concerns with nature and grace, and that Tolkien, grateful to have Murray help him discover that such grace was present in his long labor, would see the order of Grace as calling for an account of the relationship of natural and supernatural in his secondary worlds.

In the following I am not attempting to establish direct influences on Tolkien's thought, though I do note connections and friendships as they arise. Instead, I am concerned with establishing that the Catholic Tolkien moved in educated circles that would have shaped his general concerns with the theological implications of what he had already created. As he told W. H. Auden, "I don't feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief" (Letters 355). Furthermore, he felt that it is "some test of the consistency of a mythology as such, if it is capable of some sort of rational or rationalized explanation" (Letters 260). Tolkien's Catholic context would have inclined certain readers (including himself and Robert Murray) to notice and locate nascentally Christianizable elements in "pagan" cultures, and this impulse (though it may appear as terribly exclusive and judgmental to non-Christian readers) in Tolkien's context was actually concerned with showing how a Catholic Christian could hold on to and praise the good in those non-Christian cultures. …

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