Review of Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien
Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien by Stratford Caldecott (Darton, Longman, & Todd Ltd., London, UK: 2003)
"He [Tolkien] created a body of work that is imbued with a profound wisdom-a wisdom that our civilization desperately needs-drawn very largely from the Catholic faith in which he was raised." Caldecott, p. 4
I was a sophomore in high school when the Tolkien craze hit America, back in the mid-1960s. I read The Lord of the Rings and fell into a passion to become a fantasy novelist. I had never imagined that such stories as this had ever been written. They set my brain on fire.
It took me some fifty years to achieve my dream, by God's grace. I am a fantasy novelist, with real books in print, published by Chalcedon. I read the Bible every day, but every two years or so, I revisit Tolkien's world of Middle-earth. His books have never lost their fascination for me. I dare to hope that God will bless my Bell Mountain novels and someday make them speak to their readers as Tolkien speaks to me.
Tolkien published only two novels in his lifetime, The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor, The Hobbit. What is it about these two books that has wrought so strongly upon my own imagination? And I'm not alone-their sales are in the many millions, worldwide.
This little book by Stratford Caldecott-director of the Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture, Oxford-has at least some of the answer to that question.
First You Have to See It
C. S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and many published meditations on Christian theology and themes, was one of Tolkien's closest friends. Tolkien is widely credited with having converted Lewis, then an unbeliever, to the Christian faith (p. 11).
I didn't read the Narnia books until much later in life; and when I did, their Christian message was, to me, quite obvious. Written for children, enjoyed by many adults, the Chronicles thinly disguise our Lord Jesus Christ as the great Lion, Aslan-who sang the world of Narnia into existence, died to save a sinner, and rose again from the dead to be revealed as the true king of all creation, forever. Some Christians do find these books unpalatable, pointing-as did Tolkien-to an overabundance of pagan influences. I can only answer that Lewis had a very long way to go, spiritually, before he was capable of writing Narnia. I'm sure he would have gone farther, had he lived longer.
But Tolkien's message is not so obvious. In fact, his message has eluded many readers to whom The Lord of the Rings is just a slam-bang fantasy, nothing more. The Christianity which is the foundation of Middle-earth was not apparent to me until, frankly, other writers pointed it out to me. But now I can't not see it!
If you haven't seen it, either, Caldecott's book will make it visible to you. He cites abundantly from Tolkien's many published letters, in which Tolkien wrote candidly of his vision and his methods. For example, Tolkien wrote to a friend in 1953:
"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; 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" (p. 50).
Christianity in Middle-earth
There is something to be said for not making your religious message so overt that it alienates readers who do not want to be preached to. But what did Tolkien mean?
Caldecott answers: "Thus, while the reader is never assumed to be a Christian believer, the cosmological setting of Tolkien's imagined world, along with the creatures and events with which he filled it and the moral laws governing his imagined cosmos [emphasis added], were all intended to be compatible with his beliefs about reality, and in fact provide ‘pointers' to a Christian world-view. Love, courage, justice, mercy, kindness, integrity and the other virtues are incarnated in the story through characters such as Aragorn and Frodo. It is a testimony to the power and realism of the Christian tradition that exposure to these patterns of the moral life can have a purifying effect on the receptive reader, yet without making us feel confined or oppressed within an ideological system. Many return to The Lord of the Rings again and again for refreshment of soul-perhaps even for the kind of healing that the author must have experienced in the writing of it" (p. 5).
So the evangelical element in Tolkien's work is intended to be subliminal. Christian readers who have read Caldecott's book will probably find it not to be so subliminal anymore. In that sense, I think it's fair to say The Lord of the Rings is a massively extended parable, another way of employing a teaching tool used often by our Lord Himself. Imagine the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) expanded into an enormous novel, and you'll see what Tolkien was up to. (There are, by the way, no overt "religious" references in that parable.)
Claiming New Ground for the Kingdom
Getting down to brass tacks, I have long advocated for fantasy as another means of claiming, or reclaiming, ground for Christ's Kingdom, and putting it to work in His service. More than any other prose genre, fantasy is like poetry. It can speak to us in regions of the heart and mind not easily accessible to other kinds of literature.
But fantasy has been wielded carelessly by a host of shallow, thoughtless writers; and poor fantasy, unimaginative fantasy, and even spiritually toxic fantasy are very easy things to come by.
Following in the footsteps of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, I decided to write fantasies in the service of Christ's Kingdom. It took me a long time to outgrow the delusion that I could imitate Tolkien and compete with him in being Tolkien. As for Lewis, I quickly realized he was inimitable. But both of them won ground for Christ, and I've tried to join my labors to theirs. The desire to march with them remains as strong as ever, but happily the urge to imitate them has passed away.
Stylistically, I consider Lewis impossible to imitate-at least for me. But having read Caldecott, I've learned that Tolkien the man was truly one of a kind-in spite of the fact that he may, at least for a time, have been the most imitated author on the planet.
C. S. Lewis lost his mother and grew up to be an unbeliever. Tolkien lost first his father, then his mother, too, and was raised by a Catholic priest. As young men, both he and Lewis went into the horror that was World War I. Both, before they gained maturity, received a more than ample taste of tribulation. Trench fever cut short Tolkien's war (p. 10). He went into the war as a Christian and came home still a Christian, to marry the girl he'd fallen in love with at sixteen (she was three years older), having had to wait five years before his guardian would allow him to propose to her.
Soon enough, John and Edith Tolkien had a family. Along with his religion-"Tolkien's personal devotion to the Eucharist was intense. He would try to attend Mass each day" (p. 64)-and his academic career in languages and medieval literature, Tolkien's family life was at the core of his being, and indispensable to his art. To this day his son, Christopher, now himself an old man, continues to work on his father's vast trove of unpublished material.
It was right after his marriage that Tolkien settled down to do something which no other writer-certainly none that I can think of-has ever done.
A Life's Work
As a writer, I find it impossible to imagine devoting one's whole life to the same continual story, or body of related stories, as Tolkien did. Aside from his academic career, Middle-earth was literally his life's work. From youth to old age, year after year, decade after decade, it was all one story. For all its three-volume length, The Lord of the Rings was only the tiniest tip of the iceberg that was Tolkien's literary legacy.
He wrote in prose. He wrote in poetry. He would work on this or that piece of the story, put it away for twenty or thirty years, then take it out again and work on it some more.
He wrote these stories for his family, in celebration of his marriage and his children. Much of it can be seen as a long love song to Edith, carried on for half a century. He wrote his stories for himself, endlessly delving deeper and deeper into the imagined world. Later on he wrote for his friends, C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings.
This was not a man who was easily distracted.
He never set out to be a published novelist, and the success of The Lord of the Rings astonished him. He wrote The Hobbit as a story for his children, and for himself, and only got it published seven years later, in 1937. "The Hobbit was an unexpected success and Tolkien's publishers wanted a sequel ... they demanded ‘more hobbits' ..." (p. 31). Pushed by his publishers and by his friends, that was how he came to write The Lord of the Rings-almost under protest, because he wanted to finish and publish the prequel, The Silmarillion, first.
Thankfully, he did not prevail in this. "It took all the dedication and scholarship of his son Christopher to bring this work into sufficient order to be published as The Silmarillion, four years after the author's death" (p. 23). And even at that, The Silmarillion is but an expanded outline of an enormous, epic work that might have been, but never really was.
No, there is no imitating this. Had it been left entirely up to Tolkien himself, we would have probably never had The Lord of the Rings and he would have gone on revising and adding to The Silmarillion until the day he died, without ever finishing it. Caldecott calls the writing and publication of The Lord of the Rings "providential" (p. 31), and I think we must agree that it was.
Catholic or Christian?
There is much in Tolkien's work that is specifically Catholic rather than broadly Christian. Caldecott writes, "Tolkien's spirituality was, of course, deeply Catholic. And the first thing to note is that the specifically Catholic dimension of Christianity is almost entirely bound up with the Blessed Virgin Mary" (p. 52). Tolkien's Marianism is easy enough for the reader to see, once it's been pointed out.
We who are Protestants do not follow Tolkien there. It's no use denying that deep doctrinal issues divide Catholics and Protestants. But surely we can all agree that God is the maker of heaven and earth, and sovereign over His creation. In The Lord of the Rings all things are subject to the providence of sovereign God.
As heroic as Tolkien's heroes are, what they set out to do is so difficult, so hopeless, as to be practically impossible. The wisest among them-Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel-admit their plan is nothing more than folly. Their enemy is much stronger than they are. How, then, is that enemy defeated?
"In the end," Caldecott writes, "only the Creator can triumph over Morgoth [the Great Enemy, or Satan], whose will precipitates the tragedy of the fall [of Middle-earth]. This he will do ... not by forcing the free will of his creatures, but by weaving their own failures and sins into a yet greater design of his own" (p. 94).
The heroes are not equal to the task imposed upon them; but God's providence is.
This is not a teaching for Catholics only, but for all Christians.
Tolkien and Me
So how does my work follow in the footsteps of Tolkien's? The differences between us are many; but in some important ways, I have followed him.
Both of our imaginary worlds are created and ruled over by God-not just any generic god or gods, but by the God revealed to Christians in the Bible. (It doesn't matter that Tolkien had the Elves call God "Iluvatar." No one can reasonably deny he means the God of the Bible.) In contrast to Middle-earth, my world has holy scriptures and an organized religion devoted to this God, even though the Temple in my books is flawed and wayward and in need of hard correction. I simply couldn't bring myself to imagine a civilization without religion. Such a thing has never existed on the earth. Tolkien was more bold in his imaginings.
In his world, Tolkien permits the use of magic. But it's not Harry Potter magic: ordinary people can't go to a wizards' school and learn it. "Magic" in Middle-earth denotes special powers delegated by God only to certain spiritual beings which may, from time to time, take on the outward form of flesh and flood-and who may even, like Sauron, become permanently trapped in it.
I've dispensed with "magic" altogether, following a self-imposed dictum of not allowing in my imagined world anything not allowed in the real world by the Bible. In Middle-earth all "magic" is done by beings acting as God's earthly servants, or by similar beings in rebellion against God. In the Bell Mountain books, all miracles are done by God or not at all-even though I have allowed things which may, to the characters in the story, look like magic or miracles without being so.
Tolkien's heroes act in obedience to laws that are implicit in their nature, but are of course derived from God. My heroes get their marching orders from God, either through the scriptures, through prophets, or by revelation. But in both worlds the heroes obey God, however they receive commands. It boils down to the same thing.
I will not live long enough to do with my imaginary world what Tolkien did with his. He had too big a head start on me; I would need an extra fifty years to catch up.
But like Tolkien, like C. S. Lewis-I don't mean to lump myself in with them, but you'll see what I mean-I have set myself the task of expressing Christ's Kingdom, as I understand it, in tales of fantasy: because fantasy can be another way of getting at reality. I pray that, like theirs, my understanding of the Kingdom will grow as I ponder it and write about it.
There are not many fantasy novelists doing this today. I pray the Lord will send more laborers to this harvest.