Continuing our Look at Tolkien

Having begun with the attempt to debunk the idea that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has anything whatever to do with Tolkien’s Christian beliefs, Jonathan Poletti is forced by the facts to misread both the Christians he accuses of misreading the text, then the Lord of the Rings itself, and finally to simply deny what Tolkien himself said about his own faith and his own work.  For instance, he absurdly declares:

Tolkien never made a statement of being Christian.

In 1977, Humphrey Carpenter published a biography that notes the resulting confusion:

“Some have puzzled over the relation between Tolkien’s stories and his Christianity, and have found it difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with such conviction about a world where God is not worshipped.”

In 1981, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, reprinted a 1953 letter that Tolkien had written to Father Robert Murray, a Catholic priest, and replied to his statement that Galadriel, the Elf queen, seemed to resemble the Virgin Mary.

Tolkien agreed, and added:

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

In other words, Poletti makes a plain statement of falsehood: that “Tolkien never made a statement of being Christian”. Rather than simply admitting he is wrong (since, as we have already seen, Tolkien famously said, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic.”), Poletti now begins the hopeless task of trying to call Tolkien deluded, a liar, or both. 

That Carpenter says that some people are confused by Tolkien’s statement of faith is nothing to the point.  Contrary to Poletti’s claim, Tolkien spent a long life stating his Catholic and Christian faith. Moreover, he is on record affirming the core thesis Poletti is committed to denying: that the LOTR is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. In other words, Tolkien, and not some mythical Christian rubes, is the source of the thesis Poletti has committed to denying in this essay.

For this reason, Poletti must now pass on from attacking mere anonymous and fictional “Christians” to directly attacking Tolkien himself.  And since Tolkien plainly states repeatedly both his own Christian faith and the Catholic nature of his Legendarium, Poletti will have to attempt the Soviet method of declaring that Tolkien either was lying and/or was too mentally or emotionally damaged to know what he was talking about with respect to both his faith and his own work.  So Poletti continues:

Christians like to cite one letter, and ignore others.

Tolkien was asked many times to reconcile his work to Catholic theology, and his replies were bizarre.

(The old, “If I can’t understand something, then it’s stoopid” approach.)

In 1971, he was asked again if Galadriel was the Virgin Mary, and replied:

“I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar….”

So Galadriel was Mary…but “actually” not?

No.  Galadriel is not Mary, she is Marian, because the idea is applicability, not allegory.  Tolkien’s understanding of beauty comes from Mary.  It does not follow that a female character in his fiction who is beautiful “is” Mary.  As anybody not committed to building a case for the prosecution come hell or high water can grasp, it is possible for a penitent sinner to both be a penitent and yet manifest the traits of a saint.  Indeed, in Tolkien’s religious tradition, apart from the immaculate Blessed Virgin herself, only a penitent sinner can do so.  So Galadriel is reminiscent of Mary for Tolkien, because all feminine goodness and beauty is reminiscent of Mary for him.  This does not mean Galadriel (or Luthien or Arwen or Goldberry or Rosie Cotton) “are” Mary.  Once again, Poletti’s Fundamentalist insistence that all fiction must be flat-footed, bullying allegory betrays him.

And The Lord of the Rings was ‘Catholic’…but ‘unconsciously’ so? What does that even mean? Tolkien’s story, as we’ll learn, was not a ‘devout Catholic man’ who unconsciously manifested his religion in a fantasy plot.

The Dunning-Kruger Meter is starting to peg out here, because Poletti is not so much reading as looking for ammo. Yet again, like the Fundamentalist he is, he cannot even begin to imagine a form of Christian literature that is not an allegory.  So if there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Galadriel and Mary, then it is utterly meaningless to say “I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary“.  It is as flat-footed a way of reading as to declare that Jesus cannot be called “Lamb of God” because he does not have horns and wool.  The notion that Tolkien could draw on his Catholic imagination without attempting to write an allegory never enters Poletti’s head.

It is impossible for Poletti to imagine that a fiction writer might have all sorts of unconscious influences and images well up as he is in the process of world-building, because he cannot fathom the idea that any Christian writer would ever think anything but “How can I write a heavy-handed coded retelling of the gospel?”  There’s a reason you have never read good fiction by fundamentalists, Christian or atheist.  When you write fiction, not to sub-create a world, but to dominate the reader with allegory, you are a very good Fundamentalist, but you are not J.R.R. Tolkien.  And if it is impossible for you to conceive of a writer who only later recognizes the Catholic wellsprings of his imagination and then consciously strengthens those images and themes, you understand neither the process of creating fiction, nor the way in which a person can make conscious choices about their Faith.  Relatedly, you don’t seem to grasp that the very fact that an author says he consciously expressed his faith in the revision of his work means your claim that the Lord of the Rings is in no way Christian is doomed. That is why he must now turn to the claim that Tolkien’s faith was, whether due to psycho-emotional damage or sheer dishonesty, unreal and his own claims about the Catholic nature of his Legendarium false.

His story was a publicly Catholic man who had written a non-Catholic work. He was left trying to deal with that problem.

The key is on view in the 1953 letter, but Christians only care about one sentence. Let’s read on? Tolkien seemed to agree that Galadriel is the Virgin Mary, but then undercut the priest’s point by mentioning another woman who influenced him. His whole religion, he adds:

“…I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it.”

Having made the blatantly false claim that Tolkien “never made a statement of being Christian” he now declares Tolkien a “publicly Catholic man”.  A little later he will call him an “actor”.  What he means is that Tolkien is a fraud who, through a combination of falsehood, self-delusion, and trauma, claims a Faith he does not believe, and who is therefore not qualified to understand his own fiction as Poletti is. who had written a non-Catholic work” and the project becomes one of trying to claim that Tolkien’s Catholic faith owes nothing to Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs and is really just some sort of sublimated fixation on Mom.  It is a marvel of quack Freudian mind-reading worth of a Stalinist.  But Poletti’s central thesis commits him to making it since he has to deal with the fact that, not just fictitious and anonymous Christian readers, but Tolkien himself clearly rebuts the core of everything Poletti is trying to assert.  So the Soviet treatment of Tolkien has to bear down harder and declare him either a liar, mentally ill, or both.  Therefore, he puts Tolkien on the couch, as we shall see tomorrow.


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