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Tolkien and Birmingham | St. Mary's College Oscott
  • on 19th October 2017

Tolkien and Birmingham

lord of the rings frodo and sam

Samwise Gamgee is the hero of Lord of the Rings. He is Frodo’s gardener and it is he who drags Frodo, the Ring-bearer, across the finish line and saves Middle-earth from Lord Sauron’s evil. You can imagine Tolkien’s astonishment when he got a letter from a real, living Sam Gamgee. Not only astonished by the man’s name but by the fact that the man lived in such a hobbit sounding town, Tooting!

Tolkien writes back to the man explaining the man’s name is very rare and that Tolkien came up with the name for his hero because as a child in Birmingham cotton wool was called `gamgee’ (Letters, 244-45). Is that term still in use?

Bilbo Baggins has, Tolkien tell us in The Hobbit, many rooms devoted to clothes. When attending reunions for the boys of the prestigious Birmingham school, King Edward’s, Tolkien was remembered for “my taste in coloured socks” (70). Tolkien struggled for money his whole life but would die a millionaire – in the `70’s a rare feat: one of the first things he did when the money from LOTR rolled in was buy himself a pair of hand-made brogues.

I will not discuss much more of Tolkien’s biography, but an important tie-in to his Catholic mind is his mother, whom Tolkien loved dearly. She converted to Catholicism and Tolkien always believed that in their anger her relations cut her off from family money and hounded her to an early grave. She died and is buried in Rednal, mere miles from here, and the place where Cardinal Newman is also buried.

Tolkien and the Meaning of LOTR

A remarkably common experience: meeting liberal, humanitarian, globalist, secular people who love, absolutely love, Lord of the Rings and vigorously insist it is not a religious story. Astonishingly, one can even meet this attitude amongst Tolkien scholars.

What does Tolkien say?

“LOTR is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsci-ously so at first, but consciously in the revision. 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” (172).

Tolkien was a conservative, English, Catholic gentleman. Let’s do each in turn:
Tolkien was a conservative, which he explains in an interesting way in this important, somewhat long, passage:
“The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kinship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were taken `a vow of poverty,’ renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view… but the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope” (178-79).

Tolkien smoking a pipe

The elves and hobbits both share this contemplative attitude. It is also a deferential or obedient attitude to Establishment, we might say, a bow to the sovereignty of objects. The vow of poverty, as Tolkien uses the expression, is an abandonment of the power to manipulate objects contrary to their nature.

To my knowledge, Tolkien does not talk anywhere about natural law but he was likely comfortable with natural law thinking. However, I expect he thought of natural law more as a realist theory of values. Well supported in England at least since the Baroque age Cambridge Platonists, and vividly by the White’s Professor of Morals at Oxford during Tolkien’s time, the Scotsman W. D. Ross, a realist theory of values assumes humans have ready access to discrete, extra-mental value-tones: e.g. if I say `peach’ you all now have the taste and smell of a peach clear to your mind. We can replicate this value tone in lip balm, fizzy pop, and even gin, once we have distilled it into a chemical formula. Morals have a similar value standing: if I tell you a story about a benefactor or about a civil chat with a man whose conversation suddenly flashes with malice, you all have clear to mind a range of value tones that must have been present.

The most influential Catholic philosopher of Tolkien’s time, the German Max Scheler also defends this theory, but it can claim heritage in Plato, Aquinas, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Burke, Thomas Reid, and more recently Saint John Paul II. Lord Shaftesbury speaks for them all, writing: “there is a power in numbers, harmony, proportion and beauty of every kind, which naturally captivates the heart and raises the imagination to an opinion or conceit of something majestic and divine.” All of these thinkers believe that civilisations exist to ensure the refinement of human persons and refinement requires deference to the range of moral, aesthetic, and technical values acknowledged to stand above us. For Tolkien, elvish craft mines the contours of values structuring nature, and most especially the values exhibited by wood, and hobbits tend to the seeds of the garden, potencies of colours, textures, movement, dimensions, structures, and scents.

Tolkien was emphatically English, not even emphatically British, but English, and certainly not a globalist humanitarian. Not to ruffle any feathers but Tolkien was the very definition of a Brexit voter and would thrill to the thought that old style British passports might be brought back, that champagne can now be sold in pint size bottles rather than the 750 ml bottle, and that HMS Britannia might sail the seas again. His hobbits even carry umbrellas! (197)

Tolkien was utterly Catholic, and perhaps to a degree that is quite rare today. He owes to Our Lady, he says, “all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” (172). In a 1944 letter, he urges his son, Christopher, in the RAF, to learn by heart, and in Latin, the Magnificat, the Litany of Loretto, and the Canon of the Mass: “If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy” (66).

Expanding upon Tolkien’s realist ontology of value, which demands a contemplative and obediental stance to nature, there follows now a series of quotations from Tolkien’s Letters to further clarify the religious centre of Lord of the Rings. This will take us a little into the weeds of Tolkien lore.

The book’s monotheism:

  • “In LOTR the conflict is not basically about `freedom,’ though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters. 243).
  • “The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person an abomination. Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world” (243-44).

Tolkien explains that The Silmarillion is an effort to tell a story from within Elvish consciousness (38; 145) and is set in part in the Second Age, when Sauron rules as Lord of the World, an “evil theocracy (for Sauron is also the god of his slaves)” (154). When his wings are clipped for a time by the Numenoreans, he humbles himself to become an advisor to the Numenorean king, Tar-Calion the Golden, and soon persuades him to deny the existence of the one God (155) and launch an attack upon the guardians of Middle-earth, the Valar. In this period “a new religion, and worship of the Dark, with its temple under Sauron arises” (156). Human sacrifice begins and the ashes of the burnt victims slain on the altar rise into the sky.

Originally, the Numenoreans were, as Tolkien emphatically says, “pure monotheists” (194) and set the top of a mountain apart, The Pillar of Heaven (193-94), “dedicated to Eru, the One, and there at any time privately, and at certain times publicly, God was invoked, praised, and adored” (194). And perhaps a clarification: I have a colleague at Loyola, Dr. Meghan Page, who is both a philosopher of physics and very Protestant. She suggested that the sheer multiplicity of high beings in Tolkien points to his own paganism but I think for Tolkien the key point is whether any of these high beings are worshipped, and, for his heros, that is assuredly not so. But perhaps in the Q&A we can chat about this as my colleagues question is a very old one. Alcuin, the 8th century monk and hinge of the Caroligian Renaissance asked: What have fairy stories to do with Christ? Tolkien was well aware of Alcuin’s question.

The peoples of what Tolkien terms “the West” of Middle-earth are the hero peoples of the story:
“That is they are the descendants of Men that tried to repent and fled Westward from the domination of the Prime Dark Lord, and his false worship, and by contrast with the Elves renewed (and enlarged) their knowledge of the truth and the nature of the World. They thus escaped from`religion’ in the pagan sense, into a pure monotheist world, in which all things and beings and powers that might seem worshipful were not to be worshipped, not even the gods (Valar), being only creatures of the One” (204).

Tolkien’s account of evil:

Tolkien was a man who saw a lot of war and whilst not a metaphysical pessimist, like Schopenhauer, he was sober-minded: “I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle” (90).

“The presence of the terrible” for “a safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds” (24). Tolkien almost single-handedly rehabilitated the literary significance of Beowulf and he firmly believed that its Grendel, the monster hateful of things human, was a very true accounting of the sort of power always hostile to human good.

He admired the refinement and manners of the Jane Austen period – though was no real fan of the literature – for they “cloaked or indeed held in check… the everlasting cat, wolf, and dog that lurk at no great depth under our social skin” (72). He explains his keen sense of original sin in terms of Lord of the Rings: saying of WWII, “we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall… but the penalty is… to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs” (78). He believed post-war governments would be stricken with an ethos of planning, organization, and regimentation (78), the Ring, in his lexicon.

This is why he favoured a Catholic style anarchism joined to a distant, aloof monarchy (64; 179). The Shire is an embodiment of this politics. The Shire is an autonomous, agricultural region of self-sufficient communities, where beer drinking and pipe smoking are primary activities, and though the king’s law is acknowledged the king also seems far away. As Tolkien amusingly says – and the British monarchy does somewhat echo – “Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier… if he does not like the cut of his trousers” (64).

He even thought of God in terms of liberty, to some important degree. In a beautiful account of a vision of an angel he had whilst praying before the Blessed Sacrament at Quarant’Ore, he writes: the angel was “not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized” (99).

Tolkien and Pope Benedict

Tolkien thinks restricting worship to a monotheistic creator God essential to human freedom. Benedict agrees. The Pontiff writes:
“…the kingdom of God is not a secular realm [he means it is not an historical entity] but an appeal addressed to human freedom and a support offered to reason so that it may fulfill its own task. In the last analysis, the temptations of Jesus concern this distinction, the rejection of political theocracy” (Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 114).

One of the most interesting things about Benedict’s thought for me is what might be called his religious geography. He sees Europe at its origins as being north and south of the Mediterranean. About the beginning of Christianized Europe he writes:

“It consisted of the lands around the Mediterranean that formed a genuine “continent” through their cultural links, through travel and trade, and through a common political system. It was only the military victories of Islam in the seventh and early eight centuries that drew a border through the Mediterranean, slicing across it in such a way that what had formerly been one continent now split into three: Asia, Africa, and Europe” (Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 130).

Now consider Tolkien’s spiritual geography. Tolkien looks to a “northern atmosphere” (21), though not so much Celtic for which he had “a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason” (26). He does not connect the North with night, darkness (39) (144), or a Dark Ages.

Tolkien was a young officer who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and in a 1941 letter to his son Michael, at Sandhurst, he says he’d make a better soldier aged 49 than at 22 because he finds Hitler particularly irksome. He believed him inspired by the devil and, by contrast, termed Churchill “our little cherub” (65). During WWII, he believed Germany under “the curse of God” (55):

“Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized” (55-56). The northern spirit raised by Christianity is the seed mentioned in the title to this talk: “A man is both a seed and in some degree also a gardener” (Letters, 240).

Tolkien had a dear love of gardening and that love clearly shaped Lord of the Rings. Think only of the setting of the story: as happiness turns to bitter struggle, so the land changes from the fields of the Shire, to the savannah of Rohan, and finally to the rank sterility of Mordor.

The hero of the book is Sam Gamgee, the gardener:

“I think the simple `rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the `longing for Elves,’ and sheer beauty” (161).

Hobbits also tend to have lots of children, much to Bilbo’s dismay sometimes! It is noteworthy that George Martin’s Game of Thrones also thematizes the North and links it to rusticity, an ordinary life of decency, and nobility.

Opposed to the “simple `rustic’ love” and husbandry of hobbits is the history of Men, and especially the kings of Gondor, and even the Elves, whom Tolkien fans tend to adore. Tolkien is a bit more wary, however, and calls both “embalmers.” He writes, and profoundly in my opinion:

“[Elves] wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be `artists’ – and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret. In their way the Men of Gondor were similar: a withering people whose only `hallows’ were their tombs” (197).

The Elves are not gardeners but think of Middle-earth, God’s work, as a playing field, a pleasaunce, a setting for their own works of art. They live amongst tress and admire them but this devotion has an obverse: Elves are aloof and partly what they love about tress is their sufficiency. The subsidiarity of trees, if you will, is used by the Elves to skip the ties of solidarity.

Benedict has a similar insight:

“But man’s domination of his own self nonchalantly takes ever greater steps… Man is no longer to be born in an irrational manner but is to be produced rationally. Man as a product is subject to the control of man… the path of planning and production must aim at the perfect man” (157).

Yet the planned production of man, what Pope Francis calls technocracy, is tied to sterility, whether the idea of gay marriage, or the idea that children are an environmental threat, or just the idea that, as Benedict points out, children are often now not seen as hope but as restrictions. Powerfully, Benedict writes: “There is an obvious parallel here to the Roman Empire in the days of its decline: it continued to function as a huge historical framework, but its own existential vigour was dead, and it already lived thanks only to those who in fact wanted to destroy it” (Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 140).

Pope Francis continues Benedict’s theme, and does so relying on a priest who delivered sermons at Oscott. Speaking of technocracy in The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis quotes Cardinal Newman; In some places a spiritual “desertification” has evidently come about, as the result of attempts by some societies to build without God or to eliminate their Christian roots. In those places, “the Christian world is becoming sterile, and it is depleting itself like an overexploited ground, which transforms into a desert” (Blessed John Henry Newman).

I wanted to show the theological centre of Lord of the Rings and, beyond anything else I have written, I suggest the consensus between the two Birmingham men and the two popes is a significant confirmation of this essay’s central thesis.

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