I just finished Tom Shippey’s excellent book, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, which I have wanted to read for some time now. In it, Shippey’s primary argument (as implied by the subtitle) is that twentieth century literature was dominated by the fantasy story, and that Tolkien holds the premier place of authorship among those who may be called fantasy writers — effectively putting him at the premier place of authorship among all writers of the century. Shippey understandably, and enjoyably, spends the bulk of the book looking at various aspects of Tolkien’s best-known works, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and pointing out that, though Tolkien’s stories about Middle-earth are indeed “fantastical” and “escapist” tales, the fantasy and escapism of them are products of much longer literary traditions than the modernist works to which the literati (i.e., the elitist and mostly academic literary critical establishment) have endeared themselves. In the last couple chapters, Shippey explores Tolkien’s other works, including the posthumous Silmarillion and shorter works that were published during his lifetime, as well as contemporary criticism and praise. There’s also a rather enjoyable segment of comparison with James Joyce.
One particular part of the book, however, reminded me of a comments discussion I had several months ago about the Catholic nature of The Lord of the Rings. It was in response to a post by Sasha Volokh at The Volokh Conspiracy legal blog asking readers to list their favorite Catholic-themed science fiction novels. The request is pretty well qualified:
I don’t mean just books written by Catholics, nor do I mean books where the Catholic church plays a plot role (like the Hyperion series), but books with a strong Catholic-related theme, like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Bonus points if canon law makes a strong showing there.
The comments run the gamut, with some of usual ignorant foofaraw that goes along with some things. Some obviously Catholic-themed works made the list, such as Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. On the other hand, some obviously non-Catholic-themed works made the list as well, such as Jules Verne’s20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which mentions a priest or two but otherwise fails the sniff test. I didn’t add anything to the list until Sasha opened it up to include all literature, rather than just science fiction novels, at which point I contributed a mention of A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
While many of the works listed seem to be pretty easily confirmed or dismissed as “Catholic-themed,” there were a few that are harder to classify. For example, although Philip Pullman is himself an avowed atheist, his His Dark Materials trilogy is a strong criticism of the Catholic church (and Christianity in general), and thus fits the bill of being “Catholic-themed.” Falling just on the other side of the fence, however, is Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, which despite having a priest as a main character, the theme of the book is hardly a Catholic one.
Then, someone mentioned The Lord of the Rings. It’s fairly common knowledge that J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic his whole life. At an early age, he was taken in by a priest, after his mother died (his father had died much earlier) and remained a faithful devotee of Catholicism for the rest of his life. It makes sense for Tolkien’s religious beliefs to have made their way into his fictional work. Tolkien himself even wrote in a letter that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (Letters 172) and Shippey points out a number of pretty clear allusions, symbols and images. For example, Shippey quotes Gandalf’s rebuke of Denethor’s decision to commit suicide, noting in particular the use of the word “heathen,” which has a decidedly Christian meaning (176-7). More specifically, Shippey likens Middle-earth to a sort of Limbo where “the characters…are counted as neither heathen nor Christian but something in between” (179) — that is to say, they are “virtuous pagans,” a simultaneously magnanimous and condescending label found in Catholic doctrine used to describe people who might be considered righteous except for the accident of their place and/or era of birth.
Shippey’s more interesting exploration, however, has to do with Frodo as a mediating (i.e., linking) figure. Essentially, Shippey points to Frodo Baggins as the literary namesake of Froði (pronounced “Frō-thee,” not “frothy”…), a king from Norse mythology who was known for his wisdom and peaceful reign. According to two 13th century authors, Froði was a contemporary of Christ, and because of his peaceful nature and kingship, the two can be seen as analogues. Thus, it seems that Tolkien is linking Frodo, by virtue of his name, explicitly to the Catholic idea of a virtuous pagan, and specifically to a Christ-like figure, through the Norse king Froði. Shippey remains clear that “[i]t would be quite wrong to suggest that [Frodo] is a Christ-figure, an allegory of Christ,” but rather that Frodo represents the ideal of “natural humanity trying to do its best in native decency” (Shippey 187).
I quite like Shippey’s analysis here, and I don’t know nearly enough about language and mythology to argue against his points, if I were inclined to do so. However, none of Shippey’s analysis suggests to me that The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic-themed work, even if it certainly is compatible with Catholic teachings via the doctrine of virtuous paganism. Perhaps I’m making to much of such a claim — which, again, was not made by Shippey but by a random person in the comments of a fairly recent legal blog post. In the end, perhaps there’s no real distinction between something that is “fundamentally Catholic” and something that is “Catholic-themed.” That’s the dismissive argument I received in return, at least, when I tried to explain how the two are different: “Some pretty fine hairs are being split here” was the exact phrasing of the recondite rebuttal.
However, I don’t really see how differentiating between “Catholic” and “Catholic-themed” is an exercise in fine-hair splitting. Is it splitting fine hairs to say there is a difference between “leopard” and “leopard-printed”? I think one would quickly, and intuitively, realize the difference if faced with a leopard on one hand and a leopard-printed object on the other. Especially astute intellectuals probably could differentiate the qualities of “leopardness” and “leopard-printedness” without putting themselves in the presence of either thing. Why, then, is the same not true of the qualities of “Catholic” and “Catholic-themed”?
Perhaps the biggest part of the problem is the very word “theme.” For the most part, people know what it means for something to be “printed,” so when something is called “leopard-printed” there’s very little confusion about the nature of the thing. But “theme” is often used vaguely, especially in relation to literature, to mean “anything I happen to want to see.” However, that’s not what a theme is. Although there are a number of variations on the definition of “theme,” most boil down to something like: The general idea, point or high-level meaning of a literary work.
With such a straightforward definition of “theme,” it’s hard for me to understand how people confuse theme with literary elements like allusions, allegory, etc. — all of which contribute to the theme, but are not in themselves themes. Quite possibly it has to do with the idea, brought up in some of the definitions linked to above, that a story’s theme is often not explicitly stated. “In fact,” Robert DiYanni writes, “theme in fiction is rarely presented at all; readers abstract it from the details of characters and action that compose the story.” This abstraction is often flawed, or abused, because people ignore some parts of the text or bring ideas to the text that aren’t actually in the text.
I don’t mean to argue that looking at only portions of a text or bringing in other ideas is inappropriate or useless. In fact, to do so would be to argue against Tolkien’s own ideas about applicability, which Shippey treats at length in several contexts. But to confuse applicability with theme is either incredibly ignorant, incredibly naïve or incredibly obtuse, since they are, in a way, opposite things. Although theme is deduced from the text, and thus requires interpretation, the theme must be divined from the objective evidence provided in the text. Applicability, on the other hand, is primarily subjective, taking some aspect of the text and applying (!) it to specific situations or ideas.
When Tolkien writes that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” we have to look beyond to the next sentence, in which he says, “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) This evokes, for me, an image of a powder being completely and invisibly dissolved into a glass of some liquid: It’s there, but it’s not. As Shippey and others point out, Catholic ideas are clearly present in The Lord of the Rings, but they are hidden in symbols and allusions and fragments of language. They are not theme.
Tolkien explains this idea a bit clearer in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman. In the early parts of that letter, Tolkien describes the elements of fairy-story that he has tried to find elsewhere. He touches on a number of different types of mythic traditions, and in particular calls out Arthurian legend. “For one thing,” he writes,
its ‘faerie’ is too lavish, too fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.
For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world. (Letters 144)
Once again we get the image of dissolving with the prepositional phrase “in solution” – not in the sense of dilution or reduced in power, but rather dispersed throughout, permeating. At the same time, it is unseen, although it can be ascertained or detected. It is something that supports the theme, not the theme itself.
One final thing to note is that the letter in which Tolkien makes his claim about The Lord of the Ringsbeing fundamentally Catholic was written to a family friend, Father Robert Murray, a Jesuit priest who saw resonances of the Virgin Mary in Galadriel. This is the same Galadriel who, Tolkien certainly knew (having written it), “yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will” (Silmarillion 84), yearnings not typically ascribed to the mother of Christ. Although it would be uncharitable to blame Father Murray for not seeing parts of Galadriel’s character that would not be revealed to the public for several decades more, one can imagine Tolkien’s chuckling as he assured his friend that, indeed, the work is completely and utterly Catholic, just as the good father divined it to be. In the penultimate chapter of his book, Shippey posits a different interpretation, that “Tolkien’s famous and much-quoted assertion…has an air of defensiveness about it.” (293) Whether Tolkien was just assuaging a good friend by agreeing to the religious perceptions the father was predisposed to read into the story, or defending his work from attack by an institution for which he cared deeply, perhaps the best answer comes in the sentences immediately after that oft-quoted bit:
However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little (Letters 172)
Maybe the best commentary of all comes from Tolkien’s close friend, C. S. Lewis: “[Y]ou must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books.” (Lewis 42) Or even, perhaps, what those books mean.
Lewis, C. S. Of Other Worlds. San Diego: Harvest, 1994. Print.
Shippey, Tom. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2001. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.
Volokh, Sasha. “Catholic science fiction.” The Volokh Conspiracy. 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 19 May 2013.