Tolkien’s Establishment

To those of us in the universities, the Left’s animus to Catholicism revealed by Wikileaks this past week is not news. What Podesta and the Clinton circle said might have been exposed, but such slights about Catholicism are heard around universities all the time. As the Wall Street Journal points out, if such things were said about Islam they would be denounced as bigotry.

Catholics are aware, more than others, of the frailties, and sometimes immoralities, that are part of the history of their church. Yet it is also true that there is grandeur of ideals, thought, and art in that history. The ever-popular J.R.R. Tolkien is a case in point.

It is a remarkably common experience to encounter liberal, humanitarian, globalist, secular people who love, absolutely love, The Lord of the Rings and vigorously insist it is not a religious story. One can even meet this attitude amongst Tolkien scholars. But what does Tolkien say? In one of his letters, he writes that the work

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.[1]

Tolkien was a conservative, English, Catholic gentleman. Let’s do each in turn.

He explains his conservatism in an interesting way in this important, somewhat long, passage about The Lord of the Rings from his correspondence:

The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kinship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were taken “a vow of poverty,” renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view . . . but the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope.

The Elves and Hobbits share this contemplative attitude but, like their creator, stop short of its pacifist end-point. The vow of poverty, as Tolkien puts it, is a deferential or obedient attitude to Establishment, we might say, a bow to the sovereignty of objects.  Establishment as I use it here typically refers to the settled institutions of a people.

For ourselves, this means the civil service, diplomatic corps, our military and its famous regiments, the courts, universities, the places of worship, and other such institutions. In Tolkien’s own life, it meant his fondness for his ancient high school, the regiment he fought with, the colleges and city of Oxford, his sons fighting with the Royal Air Force and attending Britain’s famous military school, Sandhurst, as well as his support of monarchy in fact and literature, as well as the pub!

Each of these institutions house and express discrete value clusters and, more profoundly, regard for these is also a refusal to use power to manipulate objects contrary to their nature.

Tolkien knew about natural law but he thought of it more as a realist theory of values.  The Scotsman W. D. Ross, a Professor of Morals at Oxford during Tolkien’s time, defended a realist theory of values claiming that humans have ready access to discrete, extra-mental value-tones. For example, if I say “peach” you now have the taste and smell of a peach clear to your mind, and not that of a lemon. We can replicate this value-tone in lip balm, soda, and even gin, once we have distilled it into a chemical formula. Morals have a similar value standing: If I tell you a story about how I met a benefactor, or about a respectful chat I had with a man on a train whose conversation suddenly flashed with malice, you have clear to mind a range of value-tones that make these encounters comprehensible.

The most influential Catholic philosopher of Tolkien’s time, the German Max Scheler, also defends this theory, but it can claim heritage in Plato, Aquinas, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. Lord Shaftesbury speaks for them all, writing, in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, that:

There is a power in numbers, harmony, proportion and beauty of every kind, which naturally captivates the heart and raises the imagination to an opinion or conceit of something majestic and divine.[2]

All of these thinkers believe that civilizations exist to ensure the refinement of human persons and refinement requires deference to the range of moral, aesthetic, and technical values acknowledged to stand above us. For Tolkien, Elvish craft traces the contours of values structuring nature, and most especially the values exhibited by wood, and Hobbits tend to the seeds of the garden, potencies of color, texture, movement, space, structure, and scent.

Tolkien was, moreover, emphatically English—I don’t even mean emphatically British, but English. Certainly he was no globalist humanitarian. He wrote The Lord of the Rings as a “myth for England.” Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and I know no place where he apologizes for that fact. Indeed, as he remarks in a number of places, his master work is about war and warriors.

He was the very definition of a Brexit voter and would thrill to the thought that old-style British passports might be brought back; that champagne can now be sold in pint-sized bottles rather than the 750 ml bottle; and that HMS Britannia might sail the seas again.  His hobbits even carry umbrellas! It is surely part of Tolkien’s greatness to have so artfully weaved national sensibility and myth (particularity) with heroes who exhibit objective moral qualities (universality). He tempers sentiment with Establishment.  Catholicism helped him with this balancing act.

Lastly, Tolkien was utterly Catholic, and perhaps to a degree that is quite rare today (Podesta can breathe a sigh of relief). He told one of his correspondents that he owes to Our Lady “all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity.” In a 1944 letter, he urges his son, Christopher, in the RAF, to learn by heart, and in Latin, the Magnificat, the Litany of Loretto, and the Canon of the Mass: “If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy.”

It is no surprise then that the theology of The Lord of the Rings is unrelentingly monotheistic: “In LOTR the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom,’ though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”

Also this passage from the Letters makes the point:

The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person an abomination. Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world.

Tolkien explains that in The Silmarillion, his massive effort to tell a story from within Elvish consciousness, Sauron rules as Lord of the World, his reign an “evil theocracy (for Sauron is also the god of his slaves).” When his wings are clipped for a time by the Numenoreans, he humbles himself to become an advisor to the Numenorean king, Tar-Calion the Golden, and soon persuades him to deny the existence of the one God and launch an attack upon the guardians of Middle-earth, the Valar. In this period “a new religion, and worship of the Dark, with its temple under Sauron arises,” writes Tolkien. Human sacrifice begins and the ashes of the burnt victims slain on the altar rise into the sky.

Originally, the Numenoreans—Aragorn’s forbearers—were “pure monotheists” and set the top of a mountain apart, The Pillar of Heaven, “dedicated to Eru, the One, and there at any time privately, and at certain times publicly, God was invoked, praised, and adored.”

One might wonder whether the sheer multiplicity of high beings in Tolkien points to his being a pagan. But I think for Tolkien the key point is whether any of these high beings are worshipped, and, for his heroes, that is assuredly not so. Tolkien was mindful of the 8th century English monk and hinge of the Carolingian Renaissance, Alcuin, who asked: What have fairy stories to do with Christ?

Tolkien takes pains to answer:

The descendants of Men that tried to repent and fled Westward from the domination of the Prime Dark Lord, and his false worship, and by contrast with the Elves renewed (and enlarged) their knowledge of the truth and the nature of the World. They thus escaped from “religion” in the pagan sense, into a pure monotheist world, in which all things and beings and powers that might seem worshipful were not to be worshipped, not even the gods (Valar), being only creatures of the One.

In our age of celebrity and political messiahs, Tolkien and Catholic theology are useful reminders that no human should be worshipped, that sensibility should be tied to Establishment, and that Establishment itself should defer to an objective moral order.

[1] This and the other quotations of Tolkien are from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), pp. 38, 65, 66, 144,145, 154, 156, 172, 178, 179, 193, 194, 197, 204, 243, and 244.

[2] Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 3 vols., Foreword by Douglas Den Uyl (Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 2001), Volume 3, p. 31.