Beauty, Truth and Goodness

For Advent and Lent I return to my favorites for reading. Advent: Lord of the Rings. Lent: Divine Comedy.

For those who are interested, here beginneth a little series of reflections on the tale.

Starting with Fellowship of the Ring, I am struck once again with the simple radiance and goodness of the text. Where does the beauty, truth and goodness come from? There is little to give by way of example, or there is too much to give by way of example. Perhaps it is the homely goodness of the hobbits, maybe it is the mysterious presence of Gandalf–full of wisdom and truth. Is it the touches of humor–like Samwise wiping his mouth at the departure from Bag End because he had been ‘saying farewell to the beer barrel.’? Is it the hobbits’ first encounter with the elves which trembles with such restrained beauty? Is it their hymn to Elbereth on a starry night?

All of these contribute, but as soon as you try to pin down this quality within the writing it escapes you. Another writer may just as well have included such details, and it would not radiate the beauty and simple goodness in the same way. To my mind, the only explanation for such a quality is the quality of the life of the author. The last time I re-read the trilogy I remember crying out aloud from the bathtub (where I was reading) “This could only have been written by a daily Mass Catholic!”

There are many debates about the validity of judging a work by the life of the author. I have always been suspicious of those critics who wish for the work to stand alone, and wish us to judge the work objectively and separately from the life and beliefs of the author. How dull is that? A work of art is not a machine which may be taken apart and put back together again with spare parts. A work of art cannot be described with a user’s manual. A work of art must flow from the life of the artist. This is part of the incarnational mystery of art. What I produce reveals me to the world. This is the risk and the beauty and the danger of art.

The beauty, truth and goodness in Tolkien’s work comes from the beauty, truth and goodness of his beliefs and his own life. He produced a masterpiece full of grace and truth because, by the touch of divinity, he himself was a miniature masterpiece full of grace and truth–reflecting the One who was Grace and Truth Incarnate.

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  • blarg

    “The beauty, truth and goodness in Tolkien’s work comes from the beauty, truth and goodness of his beliefs and his own life.”Yeah, Middle-earth and England seem struck by the same fascination with Shire weed. What picture of the 1960 English–or American– male is complete if not seen through the same haze of tobacco smoke and hairy feet.

  • Beautiful post…

  • Hey Dwight…you must be channeling my brain. Come over to my blog…I just posted the same exact post title (but not about Tolkien!)

  • Thanks for reminding me to re-read LoTR. 😀

  • Lirioroja

    I often lurk your blog, but I had to come out at this post. I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time as an adult right before the first film came out. It had been on my “to read” list for years but I wanted to read it before I saw the films because I wanted my own image of it before I saw someone else’s. So in November of ’01 I read The Hobbit and in December of ’01 I read the whole trilogy. Of course, that’s Advent. Before Advent was over I finished the books (they’ve been my favorite books ever since). When you said you read it every Advent I was struck, not only because it was Advent when I first read it, but because every year around this time I start thinking of elves and hobbits and dwarves and Dunedain and Rohirrim and wizards and even Valar. I get a strong urge to re-read the trilogy yet again, stronger than the rest of the year. I do enjoy your blog and I’m frequently edified by what I read. I’ll be coming back more frequently these next few weeks, even if I don’t post a comment.

  • I haven’t read Lord of the Rings since I’ve been Catholic; I really want to now!I was listening to a Fr. Newman homily from about 18 months ago on my iPod, and he referred to the Eucharist as “waybread”. “Wait a minute…” I thought. That was the first time I realized what blatant Catholic imagery is in LOTR. 🙂

  • Thank you, thank you Father! For a good old fashioned belly laugh at the mental image of a priest exclaiming ‘eureka’ style in the Bathtub, and all regarding my beloved JRRT!You are in good company. I recall reading that St Thomas was known to suddenly exclaim loudly in the middle of a mundane task or inane dinner conversation “And THAT is the answer to [problem]!” suprising all around him.

  • Templar

    I have always attributed Tolkien’s “special gift” of writing style to the simple fact that he is not an “author” in the classic sense, but a story teller. There is a huge divide between those two skills.

  • I still love the way he had to make up an entire mythology to support his “Secret Vice” of inventing languages!

  • I think the best way to analyze a work of art is to break your analysis into different approaches. You can do a historical reading, an authored reading, a personal reading, a cultural reading, etc, and any combination. But it’s smart to let an audience understand your approach from the onset of any essay.But ultimately, a work must be divorced from its author (time will do all the separation work regardless) Art is an offering and a collaboration with an audience.