C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who first met in 1926, became the centre, with Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson and later Charles Williams, of a group that by the 1930s was meeting weekly in the Eagle and Child pub in St Giles (occasionally the Lamb and Flag or the Trout), and in 1933 inherited the name ‘Inklings’ from another reading club in Oxford. The Inklings have been described as Christian Romantics. That is to say, they believed in the power of the imagination to reflect and express truth, in distinction from the intellect or the reason. This they had in common with the great poets of the Romantic movement such as Wordsworth, Yeats and Coleridge. Like most Romantics, they were also lovers of mythology – in their case especially of Northern European mythology. The word that is sometimes used to describe what they were interested in, and what they did, is mythopoiea. They believed in the power and truth of the ‘mythopoeiec’ imagination, the myth-making faculty of the human mind that was able to capture in symbolic narratives the deepest realities of the human condition: often things which could not be expressed in any other way.
Philosophically the inklings were closest to Plato and Platonism – this comes out very strongly in the Narnia stories, for instance. Owen Barfield, who was the first member of the group (he met Lewis in 1919) and died as late as 1998 at the age of 99, was an anthroposophist – a follower of Rudolf Steiner. But Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were Christians: the turning point for Lewis was a long conversation with Tolkien along Addison’s Walk next to Magdalen College, when he became convinced that the fact that Christianity was a good story, like the most interesting of all fairy tales, didn’t mean that it couldn’t also be true. In fact, if it answered the deepest desires of the heart, that made it more likely to be true, not less. He wrote the account of his conversion in Surprised by Joy (1955).
Born in 1898 in Belfast, C. S. Lewis became a Christian in 1931. He was then living with his brother in the Kilns in Headington Quarry, a house which is now a C.S. Lewis Study Centre maintained by the Lewis Foundation (www.cslewis.org). After being asked to do some religious broadcasts by the BBC during the War, he started writing for a non-academic audience, and proved to be very successful at it. His book The Screwtape Letters published in 1942 sold a million copies by 1974. His most famous book of ‘apologetics’ was Mere Christianity (radio essays published in 1952). He set up a charitable trust to aid the poor (the Agape Fund) with 2/3 of the royalties of his books.
Increasingly disenchanted with writing philosophical books about Christianity, Lewis soon turned to the imagination and to fiction. Tolkien and he agreed to write respectively a novel about time travel and a novel about space travel: his became the famous ‘Space Trilogy’ (1936-45), starting with Out of the Silent Planet, and Tolkien’s became The Lord of the Rings. Lewis went on to write The Chronicles of Narnia in 1950-56. He died the same day (22 Nov. 1963) as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley.
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The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been read by several hundred million people. In a number of popular polls The Lord of the Rings was voted the best book of the twentieth century – or of any century. It was panned by most of the literary establishment (it didn’t fit with their conception of a ‘modern novel’), but its influence has been immense. It spawned a whole new genre of fantasy literature.
Tolkien (1892-1973) was an Oxford don, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Merton College. Writing fantasy was only a hobby, which he indulged in his spare time – encouraged by his friend C.S. Lewis and the other ‘Inklings’. His writing grew partly out of his love of language. He invented several new languages (for Elves, Dwarves and even Orcs) which are studied and even spoken by fans around the world.
All Tolkien’s work was informed and permeated by a Catholic sensibility. This is very clear from a fascinating volume of Letters. Although he tried not to put religion into his books, both the moral framework and the invented cosmology are compatible with Catholicism. He was brought up in Birmingham after his parents’ death, under the guardianship of a priest of the Oratory. He remained a faithful Catholic all his life, and a daily communicant. When he lived in North Oxford he would attend Saint Aloysius (at that time a Jesuit church, now an Oratory).
The conception of the books goes back before the First World War. There were at least four main sources or ‘moments’ of inspiration.
1) As a student in Oxford he was inspired by a mysterious verse in a poem by Cynewulf: Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle Earth sent unto men.
2) In a woodland glade in Yorkshire he saw his young wife dancing. Her name was Edith. In the mythology she became the Elvish maiden Luthien Tinuviel, and he became the man Beren, who sees her dancing and for her sake ventures on a great Quest. The names Beren and Luthien are carved on their tombstone in Wolvercote, and the story is one of those that forms the essential background to The Lord of the Rings.
3) During the War Tolkien served in the trenches and saw most of his friends die on the Somme. He became aware of the immense evil in the world. He saw the England he loved passing away. He wanted to create a ‘mythology for England’ that would somehow express the things that he felt and saw, and the great moral dangers of the twentieth century.
4) Finally, one day, years later as he was marking some student papers, the phrase popped into his mind from nowhere: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.’
In the context of Christianity and Society, it is important to mention four main themes:
(Others would include death and immortality, nostalgia for paradise, creation and creativity, light and darkness.)
The Lord of the Rings has several heroes. Frodo is the ‘Ringbearer’, whose Quest is to return the Ring of Power to the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. But although it requires great courage, this Quest is not to be achieved in the conventional way of the great heroic sagas: by force of arms. It can be achieved only by self-sacrifice, by avoiding detection, by resisting temptation. Aragorn is a more conventional hero – the hidden King who wins back his kingdom partly by force of arms – but he plays a supporting role in the Quest, largely by protecting Frodo and by distracting the Dark Lord. Aragorn demonstrates the full range of virtues: courage, strength, wisdom, patience, a willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends, the power of healing, and so on. At his side is the Merlin-figure Gandalf, sent from across the Sea and back from death to coordinate the war against Sauron. Like Aragorn, Gandalf’s true nature only becomes revealed slowly as the story unfolds.
Then there is Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s servant. In some ways he is the greatest hero of them all. It is he who carries Frodo to the fulfilment of the Quest, he who returns to the Shire and heals its wounds, he who becomes Mayor and the founder of a great dynasty of Hobbits. If it seems strange to call Sam the hero of The Lord of the Rings, remember that Tolkien saw the novel as concerned with the ‘ennoblement of the humble’, in the spirit of the Beatitudes and of Mary’s Magnificat. Humility is the great virtue that shines out in all the main characters. The novel is about Englishness, which is represented by the Hobbits. Part of its originality is the way it takes very ordinary, everyday folk of rural England, projects them into an epic setting, and then brings them back in such a way that they can apply the virtues that they have learned to the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ and the restoration of their own society and culture.
The descriptions of nature in The Lord of the Rings are one of its most attractive features. Tolkien loved trees, and evokes a sensitivity to them as living creatures throughout the story in many ways. The book became a Bible for the Hippy movement and the Greens. Part of the evil against which the heroes strive is the pollution and destruction of the natural environment. This is seen in Mordor, at Orthanc and eventually in the Shire itself under Saruman’s influence. The Great and the Wise are always described as ‘Stewards’: Galadriel is the preserver of the natural beauty of Lothlorien against the ravages of time and decay, Elrond does the same for Rivendell, Gandalf describes himself to Denethor as a ‘steward’ of Middle Earth. Denethor is an example of stewardship gone bad, as is Saruman – both of whom thereby forfeit their authority.
Patrick Curry has written a whole book about this theme (Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity: Floris, 1997). A non-Christian, he claims that ‘Tolkien’s work urges a new ethic of human conviviality, respect for life, and ultimate humility. That ethic is to be based on the experience of life on Earth – and therefore the lineaments of life – good earth, clean water, fresh air and the like – as sacred. Finally, for that resacralization to succeed it must be deeply rooted in culture, through being celebrated and communicated in local and traditional ways. The result is not simply a negative critique of "positivist, mechanist, urbanized, and rationalist culture" but a positive vision of what one reader well described as "sanity and sanctity’ (p. 154). Curry admits that Tolkien’s ‘new ethic’ and respect for nature as blessed by and filled with the divine presence is a Christian vision, but he claims that because faith is not explicit in the novel it offers a vision for everyone, post-moderns included. ‘Tolkien’s Middle-earth gleams with the light of an ancient hope: peace between peoples, and with nature, and before the unknown’ (p. 165).
The range of social systems described in The Lord of the Rings is quite diverse. Monarchy, of course, in the restored Kingdom of Aragorn. But how would one describe the Shire? The government, to the extent there is one, is extremely minimal. And the regimented, militaristic state run by Sauron is clearly an image of dictatorship, equally applicable to Fascism and Communism. The ideal Kingdom which results from the destruction of the Dark Lord is one that values and tolerates – even encourages – diversity. It operates by subsidiarity: everything that can be done locally is devolved to local authorities, which operate according to their own cultural traditions. The monarchy in Minas Tirith operates not like a central government, but as a final guarantor of freedom and justice for all.
What about the allegation that Tolkien supports the class system? He certainly portrays such a system, as he must have known it in England growing up: Sam is of a lower social class than Frodo, for example. The Hobbits as a whole are of a much less ‘noble’ lineage than the Men of Numenor. But it is clear that in Tolkien this is just part of the value he gives to diversity. Not everyone is the same, or has the same aspirations. But the respect with which each person is treated is exactly equal, no matter what their race or social milieu.
There is another accusation that is sometimes made: that Tolkien writes for men, and that women hardly get a look in. That isn’t quite fair, as a number of feminist writers have pointed out. While Tolkien is an ‘essentialist’ about gender – that is, he believes there are natural differences between masculine and feminine – he is also very clear that one gender is not ‘superior’ to the other, and that they function best when they function as complementaries. There are in fact a number of key female characters that exemplify Tolkien’s attitude to women: Galadriel, above all (the real power in Lothlorien), but also the woman warrior Eowyn, Arwen Evenstar, and eventually Rosie Cotton.
Power and Corruption
All three themes come together in the fact that the Ring represents power, and the temptation of pride to abuse that power. It was the Englishman Lord Acton who said that all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Tolkien’s writing was forged in response to the great temptation of the twentieth century: the temptation posed by technological and military power. One way or another the nations were tested and they fell: the Nazis, the Italian Fascists, the Japanese. Even the Allies resorted to using the weapons of the Enemy: bombing innocent people in huge numbers in Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But in The Lord of the Rings, the Wise refuse to employ the Ring even to defeat the Enemy who forged it.
By renouncing the use of an evil means to achieve a good end the Wise acknowledge that earthly power is always a form of stewardship, on behalf of the greater Power that rules all: the Creator whom Tolkien’s Elves call Iluvatar. They accept that true heroism lies not in victory at any cost, but in the moral victory over the darkness in one’s own soul. Thus the earthly victory that they do in fact secure may not be lasting, but it is more profound than any merely external conquest of the enemy would ever have been.
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