J.R.R. Tolkien captured me at age thirteen, and he never let me go. I have been many times in the Hobbit holes, forest paths, and epic battles of Middle Earth. What I didn’t realize as I read, and re-read, his works, was that I was imbibing a thoroughly Catholic worldview. I attribute to him a significant part in the currents which eventually pushed me into the faith in my early 50s.
Tolkien’s Catholicism has not been a secret, and some biographers and scholars have referred to it in their writing: Joseph Pearce in his solid biography, Tolkien, Man and Myth: A Literary Life; Bradley Birzer in his Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth; and Philip and Carol Zaleski in their group biography The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. But only recently did we get a much-needed comprehensive examination of the Lord of the Ring’s author by scholar Holly Ordway: Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography (Elk Grove Village, IL: Word On Fire, 2023). Ordway has done Tolkien aficionados, as well as a much broader audience, a great service by showing us how the Faith shaped and guided the Oxford professor’s life and career.
The themes of fragility and resilience figure strongly in our time. Tolkien, orphaned at a young age not long after he converted to the Catholic Faith, might have seemed destined to a life of fragility, yet he rose to the heights of popularity as well as success in academia. That, despite struggles with his religion and the fact that Catholicism was a sometimes-feared minority faith. Ordway helps us understand Tolkien’s path through the challenges of life by explaining the content and practice of Catholicism experienced by the author and Oxford don.
Tolkien’s Faith begins in South Africa, where John Ronald Reuel was born in 1892. The books carries us along all the way to Tolkien’s death in 1973. The prose is accessible and the tone is matter-of-fact. It is a gentle book, free of harsh polemics. It neither idealizes Tolkien nor delves into the sludge of a warts-and-all approach. We see the great author as one who loved life, sought the truth, gave generously, loved his family, and grew in wisdom over the years. Ordway helpfully includes a timeline plus an appendix with some of the texts (in Latin and English) Tolkien memorized. There are also numerous informative footnotes and a glossary of mostly religious terms.
That brings us to one uneven quality of the book. Who is the intended audience? Firstly, of course, there are Tolkien fans, many of whom will not be Catholic nor familiar with Catholic terms and thinking. There may also be Catholics who are not familiar with Tolkien’s works. Ordway’s book may be of interest to them as well. For avid Tolkien readers who are deep in the Faith, this book may seem a bit tame or elementary; however, it might be good for that audience to treat the explanations as a refresher course in Catholicism. One authorial device I did find over-done was Ordway’s use of the “I’ll get to that in chapter so-and-so” note, which became monotonous in its repetition and interrupted the flow of the text.
Related to the potential lack of clarity about audience is the effort to downplay the disruptions in Church life beginning with the liturgical reforms under Pius XII but snowballing from the 1960s onward, especially in light of Vatican Council II. This part of the book is where Ordway stumbles. Tolkien seemed ill-at-ease with those changes, especially the loss of Latin and wholesale liturgical reconstruction. While it is true that Tolkien does not fit the current definition of Catholic traditionalist, neither was he a promoter of aggiornamento. Ordway uncharacteristically sounds a false note and setting up a false dichotomy by portraying the struggles of Vatican II as between opening up the Church versus a “primitivism,” when in fact influential “reformers” at the council cloaked themselves in a fabricated return to the sources. Ordway omits mention of the group of council fathers like Cardinal Ottaviani and Abp. Marcel Lefebvre who objected to the repudiation of previous Church teaching on, for instance, other religions, ecumenism, and duties of the nation-state toward truth and religion. J.R.R. Tolkien’s faith was deep, firmly rooted, and organic in its development, and thus he struggled to adapt to these changes in the last years of his life.
Tolkien’s Faith skillfully shows us what kept the Oxford don anchored: family, friends, his writing and teaching, the influence of priests and saints, and three fundamental Catholic practices—devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, reception of the Eucharist, and reading the Bible. Regarding family, this book tells the story of how Tolkien’s mother converted to the Faith at great cost to her and her two sons. Later on, Tolkien formed his own family and worked hard to instill the Faith in his children. As for friends, the most famous is C.S. Lewis, who was Tolkien’s sparring partner and encourager. But there were other colleagues and of course the rest of the famous Inklings who were also important.
Ordway supplies many anecdotes of Tolkien’s students who tell of his kindness and generosity. Tolkien knew many priests over the years, including Fathers Ronald Knox and Louis Bouyer. The priest who played the largest role was the Oratorian Fr. Francis Morgan, who was guardian to the Tolkien brothers after their mother’s death. He helped a young J.R.R. develop important skills and virtues. The Oratory helped Tolkien become a well-formed Catholic man. Founded by St. Philip Neri in the sixteenth century, St. John Henry Newman had helped establish it in England in the nineteenth century. The Oratory and its priests set a high standard for liturgical excellence, prayer, and intellectual achievement. But St. Philip also valued music and friendship. All those elements played a role in Tolkien’s life.
The reader of this book would naturally wonder how Faith interacted, informed, and undergirded Tolkien’s writing, especially the Lord of the Rings. Ordway writes about this topic, but not in exhaustive detail. Indeed, that might spoil the fun for Tolkien readers trying to connect the dots of Faith and fantasy! Tolkien was astute enough not to make his books too rigidly Catholic at the expense of story and authenticity to the characteristics of Middle Earth. Tolkien wrote: “The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write” (263). The book does provide examples of the Faith popping up in the books, such as March 25 (Feast of the Annunciation) being the day of the destruction of the Ring. Tolkien was aware of the potential pitfalls of writing as a Christian. For example, he criticized Lewis for making his books overtly Christian allegories. So, as Ordway writes: “To take up the work of writing stories as a Christian artist is a serious endeavor, but that does not squash creativity; rather, in Tolkien’s view, it blesses and encourages it” (266).
The tales of Middle Earth are a great gift to us, simultaneously enthralling and instructing us. This examination of Tolkien’s Faith shines an unkind light on second-rate interpretations of The Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion, and The Hobbit. Fantasy is a genre often rightly derided for its shortcomings of truthfulness, virtue, morality, and usefulness. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien transcend those limitations, and much of that can be attributed to the Faith he embraced. Holly Ordway is to be commended for this important book about a supremely important author.