Tolkien’s Imagination

Arman J. Partamian has written a fascinating piece entitled “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Catholic Imagination.”  My question:  What is distinctly “Catholic” about what he describes?  Could a Lutheran or an Anglican or Orthodox or other kinds of Christians (at least sacramental Christians) have this kind of imagination as well?  From the post (but read it all):

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a genius. The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of Catholic literature, and in fact was a big factor in my conversion to Catholicism. The books are rich in the “sacramental imagination” – seeing the extraordinary behind the ordinary. In its deep and complex history and its high symbolism, it beautifully tells the story of our Fall and Exile (especially in the Silmarillion, which contains the creation myth and the ancient history of men and elves), and our longing to return to Eden/Heaven. It is a Christian story that powerfully draws non-Christians into its world, and it does this by concealing its Catholicism. In fact, Tolkien’s genius was to re-tell the Christian story in a hidden way. Unlike C.S. Lewis, whose fantasy books were overtly Christian stories, Tolkien purposely hid his Catholicism deep within the story – thus freeing the imagination of the reader from the constraints of centuries of pre-conceived images and patterns. As a result, Tolkien accomplished something remarkable in the history of Christian literature – he made the story of Christianity new again, and wonderful.

To the non-Christian, beginning a discussion about Christianity with the crucifixion and atonement of Christ is a bit like talking about marriage and babies on a first date. It’s just too much, too soon. Like courting, a person first needs to be drawn in by the romanticism and beauty of Christianity. The fact that there is romanticism and beauty in Christianity might be news to some folks! This is what Tolkien accomplished with the Lord of the Rings. The essence of his approach is what I described above as the “sacramental imagination”. This is the ability to see the extraordinary behind the ordinary. It is a sense of the supernatural, but not like the cartoonish wizardry of Harry Potter, or the “demonic-light” magic of the vampire/werewolf genre. The supernatural sense of Tolkien is a way of seeing the gleam of eternity behind Creation itself. It is a sense of permanence amid decay, of light beyond the darkness, and of a true Home waiting at the end of time, where there is no more death and suffering. It is the recognition of the eternal significance of moral choices, and the effects of those choices, good and bad, in this world. And it is an affirmation of Divine Providence, and angelic (and demonic) realities. In short, Tolkien creates an entirely new world upon Catholic/Christian realities, and tells us the story of that world in a way that makes us see those Christian realities in a new way.

Keep reading at J.R.R. Tolkien and the Catholic Imagination | Matins Musings.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.youtube.com/ptmccain Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Short answer to your question: “Absolutely, yes, any small “c” catholic Christian shares the imagination that animated Tolkien.

    Sadly, there are too many Lutherans who regard themselves as Lutheran only to the extent they can put distance between themselves and the Western Catholic Church tradition, something that the confessors at Augsburg never had any intention of doing.

  • http://www.whenisayrunrun.blogspot.com Andrew

    The answer is yes, but like the Lord of the Rings books each tradition would heavily influence the direction of the imagination.

  • SKPeterson

    I just finished Lars Walker’s latest installment in the Erling Skjalgsson saga, Hailstone Mountain and I could say that there is a good Lutheran catholic imagination at work in that story. Moreover, I’ve never noticed anything specifically Roman about Tolkien’s work, but I have noticed that it is [C]atholic in the sense of being traditionally Christian without being overtly Christian. In fact, I would also argue that Tolkien’s imagination was also fired by what might be described as a solidly Lutheran catholic notion of vocation and regard for the neighbor. I suspect that Partamian became a Roman Catholic because Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and not because of a supposed specific and implicit Roman Catholocity in Tolkien’s works.

  • larry

    Yes, absolutely and Pastor McCain nails it @1.

    The take away line is “Tolkien is a way of seeing the gleam of eternity behind Creation itself. It is a sense of permanence amid decay, of light beyond the darkness, and of a true Home waiting at the end of time, where there is no more death and suffering.”

    Is that not the sacramental reality lost in our age of scientific reductionism and rationalization! That’s the beauty of the sacramental reality, it hides underneath the death and decaying of this life the great eternal things. That was the genius of Tolkien, hidden in the small and the nothing over comes what seems to be insurmountable power – from the hobbits, to the small moths saving the day bringing the eagles against insurmountable power and odds.

    Is that not a picture of the Christian faith, every part of it, the church, the cross, the incarnation, a ordinary pastor, ordinary believers, water, bread & wine.

    As secularism spawned by the “age of reason”, “rationalism”, “science”, anti-sacramentality have advanced over the centuries and especially the later decades one cannot help but notice the increased lack of creativity in writing. Even the movies that are made from scripts have gotten increasingly just plain out and out bland and uncreative. Most today are not so much morally bad but just straight out dull.

    A good Christian friend of mine once said trying to capture the essence of atheism said, “I’ve always thought atheism was mostly due to a lack of imagination.” Now he didn’t mean imagination as in Christianity is imagination, rather he was making a point about the degradation that the philosophy of atheism makes upon the mind, body and soul.

    One wonders when the eschaton closes that this dying creation in an instant will be peeled back like a sloughing off facade, all that was thought to be knowledge, power, truth and reality revealing that underneath (in, with and under) the rather heretofor seemingly nothings the church, the ordinary pastors and saints, the water, bread and wine comes the very glory of God and the new creation.

    In summary, yes the sacramental confessions SHOULD be producing powerful works like Tolkien, they just need to no longer be ashamed of being boldly sacramental!

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    “Could a Lutheran or an Anglican or Orthodox or other kinds of Christians (at least sacramental Christians) have this kind of imagination as well?”

    OK, I’ll bite…http://www.caryschwarz.com/the-cowboys-office/

    “Tolkien purposely hid his Catholicism deep within the story – thus freeing the imagination of the reader from the constraints of centuries of pre-conceived images and patterns. As a result, Tolkien accomplished something remarkable in the history of Christian literature – he made the story of Christianity new again, and wonderful.”
    This strikes a cord with me…only make the capital ‘C’ a small ‘c’.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    “Could a Lutheran or an Anglican or Orthodox or other kinds of Christians (at least sacramental Christians) have this kind of imagination as well?”

    OK, I’ll bite…http://www.caryschwarz.com/the-cowboys-office/

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    Apologies for the double post…unsuccessful the first time, then it posted both on the second try.

  • CRB

    I’ve never understood this seeming dichotomy: “Catholic/Christian”. It would appear that in using such a phrase, the reader might wonder: “Isn’t a Catholic a Christian?

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    CRB, simply put one would do well to ponder the following:

    Whatever is uniquely “Roman” in Roman Catholic doctrine is not catholic.
    Whatever is catholic in Roman Catholicism is not uniquely Roman.

  • CRB

    Thanks! That makes a lot os sense.

  • Steve Bauer

    I don’t know. Although I will not take second place to anyone concerning my love and enthusiasm for Tolkien’s work and my admiration of his genius for writing Christian myth (or Fairy Stories), I wonder if it is not easier to do so from Roman Catholicism’s anthropology and “enthusiastic” elements. I think a Lutheran attempt has to “let go” a little more of the distinctives of its theology (the bondage of the will, encountering the “saving God” only through the Means of Grace, etc.) to get a “christian” story that engages the fallen human imagination. But maybe I am being too picky. I think it would be a fascinating subject to explore further.

  • Michael Shearer

    “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” he wrote, “unconsciously 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” (Letter 142).

    Tolkien said it was a “Catholic” work.

  • SKPeterson

    Michael @ 12 – Nice quote. However, it does not invalidate the notion that other sacramental Christians could also have capacity to create an “Imaginary world.” In fact, his very quote would seem to support not only Roman Catholicism, but all of liturgical Christianity. I do think this is a ripe topic for enterprising scholarship though – manifestations of Christian theology and practice in the imaginary worlds of literary fiction. This would not even need to be confined to fantasy genre such as Tolkien or Lewis, but could include explorations of the differences and similarities between their fantasy fiction and the fiction of Dostoevsky or Hugo within the contextual realm of the modern.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Question to Michael:

    What in LOR is actually uniquely Roman Catholic?

    I find it much more catholic, not necessarily or even at all Roman Catholic.


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