- "I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic."
- ― J.R.R. Tolkien in Letter 213
Tolkien belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. Converted as a child thanks to his mother Mabel, he would remain a devout Catholic till his death. His faith was an essential part of his life, which formed an aspect of his writings.
The parents of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien were Anglican. He was baptized four weeks after his birth, on 31 January 1892 at the Anglican Bloemfontein Cathedral.:13[note 1] Some time after becoming widowed, Mabel Tolkien began to visit a Roman Catholic church: St Anne. After receiving formation there, in June 1900 she was received into the Catholic Church. Her conversion was not accepted by her family or the Tolkiens, who belonged to other Christian denominations, and Mabel lost the only help she had from her father and brother-in-law. Despite the pressure and the economic distress, she began to instruct her two sons in the new faith.:23-24 Looking for a better place of worship, Mabel felt attracted by the Birmingham Oratory, where the family met Father Francis Morgan. This priest became a friend of the family, who would go on to support them. On Christmas of 1903, Tolkien received his First Communion.:26-28
Despite the help of Father Francis, their mother had to work very hard to raise her children and have them schooled. Finally she fell ill of diabetes and died in 1904. Tolkien himself wrote nine years later: "My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.":31 Even sixty years later, he would refer to his mother as an example to others, showing that she would always be one of the pillars of his faith.
In her will, Mabel appointed Father Francis as the guardian of her children, both because of her trust in him and to ensure their continued Catholic education.:32 The boys lived for four years with an aunt, but they spent most of the day in the Oratory, as it was nearby. They served Father Francis' early mass, and participated enthusiastically in the parish activities.
Morgan's guardianship was not only economical and spiritual, but also intellectual: the Catholic environment of the Oratory, motivated by the anti-modernist reform of Pope Pius X would have a great impact on Tolkien that can be seen later in his life. Such reform will later be considered by him as the greatest reform of our time, surpassing anything achieved by the Second Vatican Council.
When Tolkien was seventeen, he began a love interest with Edith Bratt, but Father Francis ordered him to wait till his coming of age (21) to even talk to her. Despite that strict situation, Tolkien observed the order with perfect obedience, and on 8 January of 1913, he and Edith got engaged. The recovered relationship increased Tolkien's religious fervour, and began a diary entitled "JRRT and EMB in account together, AMDG", in which he accounted, among other things, his performance of religious duties. The only condition Tolkien asked of Edith was that she convert to Catholicism, which she accepted despite the inconvenience that it would bring her. They would marry on 22 March 1916, with the blessing of Father Francis.:78-79
Tolkien met C.S. Lewis while working at the Oxford University. They became close friends when Lewis was still an atheist, and religion was one of the main topics in their conversations. In 1929, Lewis was convinced with theism, although he could not accept Christianity, yet. In 19 September 1931, Tolkien, Lewis and Hugo Dyson had a dinner, followed by a walk that ran till 4 a.m. There Lewis was moved by Tolkien's ideas that the truth inherent to all myths and its relation with the historical myth of Christ's Resurrection.:146-148 Lewis' conversion supported a new step in their friendship, although Tolkien always regretted that Lewis did not become a Roman Catholic: Lewis chose Anglicanism, which Tolkien considered a distortion of the previous Catholicism.:151
In the following years, a literary club was formed around Lewis, called 'The Inklings', which he describes as "a sort of informal club [...] the qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write, and Christianity". His secretary Walter Hooper will later compare it with the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement begun a century before, in which their members also shared their Christian passion for Truth with conversation and comradery.[note 2]
After Lewis's death, Tolkien once refused an invitation to write an obituary for him on religious grounds, stating that a Catholic could not possibly say anything sincere about Jack's books without giving widespread offence due to Lewis' bad understanding on denominational differences. However, he also imagined a reconciliation between Lewis and the Virgin Mary: According to my fashion and in a remote way this is an ingredient in the meeting of Gimli and Galadriel.
For the many years Tolkien lived in Oxford, he had a routine life, in which he attended daily mass very early in the morning. He usually went with his children by bike to the 7:30am mass, served at St Aloysius Catholic Church.:115 His wife Edith did not like at first that Tolkien took the children to church, as her view of Catholicism had declined over the years, even giving up attending mass. Sometimes the couple had tough discussions about this, which ended after a reconciliation in 1940, with Edith leaving any resentment towards religion and resuming interest in church affairs.:157
Humphrey Carpenter describes Tolkien's religion as "one of the deepest and strongest elements in his personality", affecting him both with great joy and sadness. This led him to have a strict spiritual practice, being very scrupulous when attending communion, which he denied himself if he had not confession before.:128 It is probable that this excessive scrupulousness was episodic, not something typical of his daily life as presented by Carpenter: Tolkien did explain he always liked to go to Confession before receiving Communion, but attending daily mass would imply many occasions of missing Confession. No spiritual director would allow this behaviour and it would contradict the own importance Tolkien gave to Frequent Communion:
The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.
—Letter 250 (dated 1 November 1963)
In any case, Tolkien did have a crisis of deep sadness, as he describes in one occasion in which was helped by Humphrey Havard, his personal doctor and fellow Catholic Inkling:
All right now, but I've been in a very bad state. Humphrey came here and told me that I must go to confession and that he would come early on Sunday morning to take me to confession and communion. That's the sort of doctor to have.
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. [...] There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
—Letter 43 (dated 6-8 March 1941)
He even explains that this was why he believed in the Petrine claims, because along the history of Christianity, only the Pope had defended the Eucharist, giving it the main place as Christ intended.
Tolkien placed importance on prayer, considering that God was most ready to attend the prayers of the least worthy supplicants if they pray for others. While his son Christopher was in the war, Tolkien advised him to remember his guardian angel, as well as to recite memorised prayers in Latin: the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Laudate Dominum, the Laudate Pueri Dominum (which he especially liked), the Sunday psalms, the Magnificat, the Litany of Loreto, the Sub tuum praesidium, and even the Canon of the Mass in case he could not attend mass.
Rejection of liturgical reform
Tolkien agreed "in the abstract" with the gradual liturgical reforms of the Liturgical Movement, but already in 1956 he expressed his sadness of knowing that some ceremonies and modes would never hear again. In that year, the new Easter Vigil had just been introduced, but in the following decade came a more significant liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council. The change of the Latin language with vernacular was rejected by Tolkien, both in theory and practice, as his grandson Simon tells:
I vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My Grandfather obviously didn't agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but My Grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.
—Simon Tolkien, "My Grandfather" in The Mail On Sunday, 23 February 2003
He did agree that the Church was a living organism that grew and changed with the ages, but precisely for that, the research for a simplified and primitive Christianity was a Protestant regression, "and primitiveness is no guarantee of value and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance". On the other hand, he frequently complained about how the translations of the new liturgy were inaccurate or in bad or clumsy English. But language was not the only change that affected Tolkien; he was saddened more by the spiritual decay that came thereafter: the irreverence and immodesty within churches, as well as unprepared priests. The first time he noticed that people no longer made genuflections, he was so disappointed that he rose up and stomped out of the church.
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- "His creation, as he himself said, was a kind of sub-creation under the inspiration and aegis of almighty God. His grand themes — good and evil, truth and falsehood, power and glory and honor and sacrifice — all flow forth from his Christian faith and his decidedly sacramental view of the world. For Tolkien, all the world is shot through with meaning by a Creator who loves mankind and is manifest in His works."
- ― John Daniel Davidson
Tolkien himself admitted, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Possible examples include as follows:
- Tolkien makes his world monotheistic with a single God who created all things by simply speaking it into being, which is consistent with the Christian view of the creation
- Tolkien writes, "Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter 'fact' perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary. Another saw in waybread (lembas)= viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist. (That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)"
The early Qenya Lexicon (written in 1915, before Tolkien had written any of the Lost Tales) included a remarkable set of religious words, not only related with the later stories (like Vala, Ainu), but also with explicit Christian themes. Thus we have evandilyon ("gospel"), tarwe ("crucifix"), valmandui ("heaven and hell"), anusta ("monastery"), among others. We cannot know if he ever used this vocabulary or if it was just composed as an expression of his own daily life. In the later years, his Elvish languages focused only on his stories, so this vocabulary was left behind.
He used again his invented languages with religious purposes in the decade of 1950, when his languages were more mature, as he had finished The Lord of the Rings. Translating directly from the Latin versions, he made Quenya translations of the Lord's Prayer (Átaremma), the Ave Maria (Aia María), Sub tuum praesidium (Ortirielyanna) and Gloria in excelsis (Alcar mi tarmenel). Other unfinished translations are the Quenya Litany of Loreto and Alcar i Ataren, and the Sindarin Ae Adar Nín.
- The Catholic Imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien
- Christianity in Middle-earth at Wikipedia
- Amon Sûl - A podcast about Tolkien's life and works from an Orthodox Christian perspective, hosted by Orthodox Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick.
- In an unpublished letter, Tolkien dated his baptism on 8 January, but the correct date is 31 January, according to the baptismal records of the cathedral. Cf. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: I. Chronology, p. 776
- It must be noticed that Father Francis was a personal disciple of John Henry Newman, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement. Therefore, Tolkien was a direct heir of this movement, and this would have a great impact on the Inklings. Cf. José Manuel Ferrández Bru, "Uncle Curro". J.R.R. Tolkien's Spanish Connection, "Tolkien and Cardinal Newman"
- Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 267, (dated 9-10 January 1965), pp. 353-354
- "Tolkien and the Oratory", The Oratory, Birmingham (accessed 28 July 2020)
- A. R. Bossert, "Surely You Don't Disbelieve": Tolkien and Pius X: Anti-Modernism in Middle-earth, Mythlore 95/96, p. 53
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 250, (dated 1 November 1963), p. 339
- Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (2006), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: I. Chronology, p. 36
- Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (2017), The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (Revised and Expanded Edition): II. Reader's Guide, "Religion", pp. 1070-1072
- C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters, vol. 2 (2004), Letter to Charles Williams, 11 March 1936, p. 183
- Walter Hooper, "The Inklings: The Other Oxford Movement", first published in Catholic World Report, June 1997. It was included in Tolkien: A Celebration (edited by Joseph Pearce)
- Unpublished Letter to George Sayer (28 November 1963). Cf. quotes in Christies' lot
- George Sayer, "Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien", in Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, ed. Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. GoodKnight, pp. 23-24
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 312, (dated 16 November 1969), p. 401
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 54, (dated 8 January 1944), p. 66
- Letter to Patricia Kirke (28 March 1956), Gerard A.J. Stodolski Catalogue 299 (1999), item 29
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 306, (undated, late 1967 - early 1968), pp. 393-394
- Bradley J. Birzer, "Roman, Catholicism", in Michael D.C. Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, p. 86
- John Daniel Davidson, "" dated 18 June 2021, (accessed 23 June 2021)
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131, (undated, written late 1951)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur"
- J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 213, (dated 25 October 1958)
- Paul Strack, "Early Quenya Semantic Categories: Religion and Beliefs", Eldamo - An Elvish Lexicon (accessed 28 January 2023)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Qenya Alphabet", in Parma Eldalamberon XX (edited by Arden R. Smith), pp. 4-6