My Conversation With Tolkien’s Daughter

Priscilla Tolkien

A couple of years ago I was visiting England and was invited to celebrate Mass for a friend at his parish. I happened to know that Priscilla Tolkien–J.R.R. Tolkien’s only daughter was a parishioner there, so I asked the sacristan if she was likely to be in attendance.

“Oh yes, Miss Tolkien is there in the second row.”

So I had the privilege of celebrating Mass with her in attendance. After Mass she stopped and commented on my homily and I had the chance to chat with her for a few moments. I was kicking myself that my phone and camera had dead batteries so I missed the chance of a photo with her.

I said how much I enjoyed her father’s books and that I considered him to be the greatest lay evangelist of the twentieth century. She looked surprised and said she had never heard him called that and why did I think so?

I answered because he baptized the imagination of so many by introducing them to a world that was structured according to a Catholic worldview. The moral universe of the Lord of the Rings is a Catholic universe. The plot line and development of characters follows the inner dynamic of the gospel.

I explained that there is faith, hope and charity woven into the deepest structures of the story and through the story the ideas of Divine Providence, truth, beauty and the necessity of sacrifice are kept alive in the world. These ideas are presented not just as abstract true ideas or doctrines to be believed, but as truths that are foundational–truths that are woven into the world as they are woven into the story. These true and Catholic ideas are therefore not up for discussion–they are simply the way the world IS.

This deep, implicit and undeniable goodness, truth and beauty in Lord of the Rings is therefore a great accomplishment and the greatest work of evangelization for it keeps alive in the culture an understanding of a moral universe that priests and apologists and theologians might argue for when all along these are the foundational assumptions that should not need to be argued for because they are as obvious and undeniable as the sun rising and water running downhill.

Miss Tolkien was very polite and I think she pretended that she had never heard such ideas about her father’s work before. The English are quite good at that sort of thing…pretending that your ideas are new and interesting. They do it to make you feel good. Very nice.

These are some of the themes of Stratford Caldecott’s book, The Power of the Ring- the Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings.

  • Chesire11

    I was raised Catholic, or rather “Catholic-ish” in the Catholic-ish church of the 1970′s and 80′s. Like many cradle Catholics of my generation, I received my earliest instruction in the faith from my parents, after which, I was catechized by a succession classmates’ somewhat confused and harried mothers for 45 minutes/week around a kitchen table with four or five other bored and squirming peers. We were taught that it is nice to be nice, and being good is probably a pretty good thing to be. We were told that it is important to do the right thing, but not to worry too much about it because God loves us, so it’s all good.

    After eight years of pablum, I was successfully confirmed without knowing anything about the faith by “some guy” with a fancy cane and a big hat, while trying to keep a ridiculous felt stole with a clumsy white felt dove glued to it from getting uneven and ruining the look of my polyester suit.

    It was Tolkien who taught me about my faith. He presented me with a world of noble beauty and greatness in tension with a base, corrupting evil that defiled all it touched. My soul rejoiced at the triumph of humility and sacrifice over pride and avarice. I began to look for similar themes, and inspirations somewhere in the beige world around me, and I found them in the Church, and only ever fully in the Church. The rest of my life has been an exploration of the faith, and a mission to pass the faith along to my family, and to my friends.

    In a very real and true sense, though I never met him, Professor Tolkien is my godfather.

  • GS

    This piece fascinates me. But from what is written, I do not understand your premise that Tolkien’s works are structured with a Catholic world view. I would agree with Christian… Bit I don’t see the Catholic. Could you explain more?

    • Julia

      Also if you’re on ITunes, there are some free podcasts from Peter Kreeft that talk a lot about Tolkien and Catholicism.

    • steve5656546346

      Protestantism is reductionist with its 5 solas. Many of he disputes are between the Protestant “either/or” versus the Catholic “both/and.”

      There is nothing flat nor reductionist about Tolkien’s vision.

    • Mariana Baca

      I this part of it is that Middle Earth is incarnational. The magic and power come from real things. The one ring is evil in itself, beyond the intention of the user or what it might represent for them, and despite just looking like a gold ring. Another part of it is that the “pantheon” present in the Lord of the Rings are meant to echo saints and Angels. Elbereth Githoniel is an allusion to the Virgin Mary. And her protection is invoked in times of trouble and is actually effective.

      Small examples, but I think it is a slightly different worldview.

  • Fr Seán Finnegan

    You are quite right. Priscilla Tolkien is a very courteous Christian and she has spent most of her life coping with similar questions. I think that there may be some real grace of state available to those with a famous relative.

  • mmatthew

    Not much of a conversation. One sided at best. Not what I hoping for or expecting. Too bad.