Monday, 30 May 2016
Tolkien and me...
It's many years now since I desired to meet, or to have met, any famous or distinguished person. This probably has something to do with me having largely given up culture, literature and music for a life of puritan meanness. After all, what on earth would I say? Would they be interested in a philistine like me? And am I that interested in them? The answer is no. And I reckon that if we did meet, by chance, we'd probably end up talking about the weather or the price of milk, the sort of stuff you discuss with a dying relative. However great and wise these men and women have been, they are just men and women. [For those of you curious as to why I am being "correctly inclusive," I did meet a very distinguished woman, as old as the hills and in a wheelchair, when I was 9 years old].
Liturgiae Causa is, perhaps notoriously, dedicated to a convinced, committed Roman Catholic. So was my old blog. It was my father who bought me The Hobbit as a birthday present over twenty years ago. I don't know what instinct or foreknowledge informed that choice in W.H.Smith all those years ago but it was a good choice and I have spent many years reading Tolkien who has satisfied a deep longing in me that was unsatisfied by church, or the kind of music my parents listened to (Joseph Locke for my father, and Judy Garland for my mother). My father would read mostly military history books about the American Civil War and the Great War; my mother, if she read at all, would read trashy novels by Susan Glaspell, none of which I had any interest in. But Tolkien opened to me a world of dragon fire and hoarded gold; of sacred swords and enchanted woods, of great kingdoms founded upon a deep past held in reverent memory. This changed everything. And you'll no doubt have noticed that I turned to literature because I felt, even as a religious boy (teased at school with the name "God boy"), unsatisfied by church. I didn't read the Holy Bible cover to cover until I was 17 years old. The first attempt I made at this was when, as a boy, I read my mother's "New Jerusalem" Bible and I got as far as the Hebrews in the wilderness, and gave up. I suppose, being somewhat prejudiced, I was relieved to discover, upon first reading Carpenter's biography, that Tolkien was a Roman Catholic. This confirmed my interest in his work.
I owe Tolkien a great deal; my own literacy not least. If any of you have been moved or influenced by my writing here, please know that little credit for that is due to me. And that despite my invective against the church that he loved so well. Now this is a delicate subject and it would be monstrous of me to try to pierce with fallible sight to the depths of his heart, reading between his every word in a sniveling effort to find something there agreeable to me now about his religious beliefs. Tolkien was, from about 8 years old to his dying day, a convinced, committed Roman Catholic. Do my detractors suppose that I am embarrassed by this now? Do they think that I bemoan that my literary hero was, as I have heard it said, so blasphemous and so ignorant? Heaven forbid! Popery may poison contemporary traditionalists in their basic integrity but for Tolkien he seems genuinely to have found God, to have had a clear understanding of His Word, and to have lived life in His grace. This shews in his work, over which pervades a catholicity and ghostly conviction that oft reminds me of true legendaries of the saints. What can I say? I, who am mean, sinful and ignorant, am I to stand in judgement of Tolkien in my darkness? For so the Pharisees stood in judgement of Christ!
Of course, these days I am increasingly aware that Eternity comes, and that soon. This prospect doesn't leave much room for Tolkien's work, which, howbeit inspired by the Gospel, remains modern and secular. I seem to be faced with the very same dilemma that St Jerome faced (see Epistle XXII, § 30) when he stood tortured by the fire of conscience in Hades. Will I be asked on the Day of Judgement if I am Christian or Tolkienian? "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." As I turned first to literature because I disliked church (which hasn't changed), I think it behoves me now to set Tolkien aside at long last and turn again to the Word of God, where true joy is to be found (as the Collect says). What do you think?