By Cordelia Fitzgerald (Rated G)
Is it a strict requirement for every Catholic or Christian writer to produce at least one work on Tolkien in the course of his or her career? Given the truly astounding number of such articles in existence, one has to wonder. It is almost ludicrous how easy it is to find one – only open the nearest Christian blog – or any blog, for that matter! Why does the modern Christian world entertain this preoccupation with The Lord of the Rings and its companions? Why this total and unconditional surrender of article topics to the man of Middle Earth, great though he is?
It would seem that Tolkien, who first introduced the land to the world by creating a bedtime story for his children, had not the ambition to take over the imagination of whole generations. Yet it happened so, perhaps because Tolkien did have one ambition, just not the sort that would be expected. Tolkien’s fame has been attributed to many things, but few become famous for following the mold and doing as others have before; not Dante, Einstein, or Jesus. For each of these (in varying degrees), there was a hollow, a vacuum, a yet-unfilled niche that they found and filled. And so it was for Tolkien.
The Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, the Native Americans – all these cultures, not knowing of their creator, reached toward Him for something other: a reason for existence, an explanation for the world around them, or a fulfilment of an untouched desire. This search pretty consistently found form in the various ancient mythologies that were passed down through generations, mythologies that were subsumed or fulfilled by the subsequent arrival of Christ. England, having mostly developed (in its present form) from a society which already had exposure to Christ, lacked this particular form of search, so while it had great ballads and epics (like Beowulf) and legends (like King Arthur), these stories had already been informed of Christ’s existence, and were set after His First Coming. They are not man’s search to find God, but man’s search to know God.
England, then, had a very good reason for lack in the myth realm, but her reason wasn’t good enough for Tolkien, who asked a new question that had previously been left unaddressed: How would the British spirit, in the absence of knowledge, reach for God?
Tolkien had the benefit, as the ancients did not, of knowing the goal. The prize had already been found, and he only needed to extrapolate backward, or start from scratch, or both, because ultimately, he knew where the story needed to end up. This view of all his works could provide some insight into common questions concerning his world. The very difference in origin between Tolkien’s story and organically formed myth points to a reason why, although ancient myth is more authentic, Middle Earth has more truth.
Therein could also lie Tolkien’s pervasive popularity. Firstly, England, lacking its own lore, would embrace this gift from one of her sons to fill that void; through it, the Knights of the Round Table were given fit ancestors for their chivalry. Middle Earth’s sudden advent, unlike the “musty” old tales from ages past, also had the benefit of easily understood, yet still rich clothing; Tolkien’s prose and world, refreshingly wholesome and beautiful amidst the modern world’s stagnant, featureless, saccharine contributions, cuts through like a clear hunting-horn on a foggy day.
Not old enough to fit the “dusty old classics” category, it became something different for those youth to ally to, rather than rebel against (as they tend to against Dickens, Shakespeare, and others). Youth of today (the generations forming since the 1970s publication of The Lord of the Rings) have this reason to rally round: this is their lore. While formed to be myth for one country, The Lord of the Rings was written at a time when barriers between geological regions had been dissolved through faster communication and travel. This has led our generation to claim Tolkien as its own by citing the one major distinction left – time. Tolkien managed to slide into the perfect slot in history that led his stories to fill the lack of myth in two places, and thus both England and a whole chronological crowd of people gain thereby.
This is why it is easy to apply Middle Earth to so many diverse subjects. It has been informed by God’s existence, yet turns from that knowledge to search for it again with its ancient fellows in a Chestertonian approach from a new perspective. It is a rallying point for the peoples of England, adding a rich embroidery to the bare fabric of their ancestral stories. It is a rallying point for the present generation, who can own it as their lore as no previous generation has been able to take possession of something; they can say, “We hear Tolkien’s voice calling us to arms in the battles against today’s dragons and can see the beauty he saw in the world. We search with him and Frodo and Faramir for the good and true that is the answer to the holes inside us.” Will we find it? Our hearts are restless, St. Augustine says, and Tolkien acknowledges that longing, hinting at the answer. His signpost meets modern souls at their lack and points ahead to the light.
He is unparalleled, and probably will, with complete justice, continue to dominate Christian thought for quite some time.