Finishing up the argument about Tolkien

Jonathan Poletti keeps demonstrating his Fundamentalist atheism with his scattershot bill of charges again Tolkien attempting to prove that he was not a Real Catholic[TM], many of which are frankly funny to anybody with even a passing familiarity with ordinary Catholic life. For instance:

He’d speak of his dislike of most priests.

This is adorable. St. John Chrysostom remarks that the road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.  Dante places popes in hell in his Divine Comedy. A priest I know once remarked that the purpose of the coffee hour after Mass is to leave room for the laity to rebut the homily. Catholics have made clear their likes and dislikes of priest since Eutychus got bored and fell asleep (and out the window) while Paul droned on. Hilaire Belloc famously remarked that, “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine – but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” Heck, Pope Francis is famous for complaining about priests.   Are we to assume that he too is not a Catholic?

He’d say he attended church regularly, but he’d also he he’d been “too depressed” to go.

And again: so what?  Depression cripples many people.  Only a Fundamentalist thinks that depression or illness is proof of “not having enough faith”.

He refers to the Eucharist with affection. He seems to have viewed it as a meditative moment to practice compassion.

No. He refers, very passionately, to the Eucharist as the center and core of his whole life. Only a dedicated polemicist, bent on minimizing all evidence to the contrary of his doomed thesis and exaggerating the most desperate shreds of misread language could read “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 write such a thing.  It reminds me of the TV Guide summary of The Wizard of Oz: “Girl visits unusual land.”  That’s one way of putting it.

Christian fans prefer to ignore this point, but Tolkien’s Catholic advice to his grandson Michael had been to go to a church that will “affront your taste,” and be among people in states of distress.

He makes a special note about sympathy for working women (i.e. “women in trousers”). He adds:

“Go to Communion with them (and pray for them).”

I don’t know which fans he is referring to because I’ve never met one who thinks this passage should be ignored.  Personally, I love it, have cited it many times, and have profited from his advice which, given in full and taking into account Tolkien’s own temptations to aesthetic perfectionism, show us a man acutely aware of his snobbery and his need to crucify it in obedience to the gospel:

Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.

Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children—from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn—open-necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them).

It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.

It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand—after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.

This is a man who appreciates hobbits and who has worked to internalize, in the teeth of his own class snobbery, the counsels of St. James:

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name by which you are called? (James 2:1-7).

But Poletti is blind to all this as he continues building his Soviet case for faith as a strange combination of fraud and mental illness:

This is a story about his mother.

No. It’s just not. It is, as Poletti forgets he already quoted, about “nothing but itself”. Tolkien’s faith, to be sure, is something he believes his mother died for (and Poletti’s connection of LOTR with her makes clear that he recognizes that her and Tolkien’s Catholic faith are reflected in the novel). But the book is not “about” her any more than it is “about” Christian allegory or the Atomic Bomb.

When Tolkien talks about his religion, in the very next breath he is re-telling his mother’s story. In a ‘Christian world’ that punished single working mothers and religious searchers with unrelenting fury, he grieved her.

And his Catholicism was one mode of grieving.

Here again, Poletti completely loses the thread of his argument. The novel is about his religion, except that it isn’t; Tolkien isn’t really a Catholic, but his Catholicism is a mode of his grief; a story that is about nothing but itself is actually about Tolkien’s Catholic faith, which was not real; LOTR is “godless” but also monotheistic. What?

As Humphrey Carpenter writes:

“Indeed it might be said that after she died his religion took the place in his affections that she had previously occupied.”

There are biographical points that I’m seeing which seem very suggestive, if hard to directly place. Tolkien had seemed Christian to the Christian scholar Clyde S. Kilby, who spent time with him in the summer of 1966. Tolkien could get story ideas, he’d say, through prayer.

But Tolkien also said to Kilby that he viewed his Middle-earth stories as being present in him “at birth.”

He seemed to view them, Kilby added, as “almost prenatal.”

To Kilby, Tolkien seemed like an “actor.”

He’d chatter on, like about his dislike of biography, and “the difference between the outward facts and the inward motives of a life…”

Kilby felt a wall guarded Tolkien’s inner life, and it wasn’t coming down. He writes: “I realized that any discussion of his most deeply private world was simply impossible for him.”

It seems to me that Tolkien was a survivor of a world that was torn by sectarian violence. He was a part of it—imposing on his family the very struggles that he’d seen destroy his mother.

Poletti, faced with the clear fact that Tolkien sees himself as a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, in the end has to simply shout it down with the crudest Freudian assertions that he knows better than Tolkien what his faith really consisted of.

Likewise, confronted with the fact of Tolkien’s own insistence that LOTR is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, Poletti incoherently ends an essay which initially insisted the book to be “godless” by concluding that it is, in fact, an attempt at a sacred text: the one thing Tolkien absolutely insisted it was not and the very reason why Tolkien did all in his power to keep it from becoming any basis for a “deplorable cultus”:

He couldn’t end the cycle within Christianity. But he began writing his own sacred text, drawing from the Bible, perhaps, if scrubbed of religion. The Silmarillion, an unfinished collection of mythic scripts, could seem ‘biblical’.

Having crashed head on into himself with such a conclusion, Poletti then adds a final absurdity:

Christians don’t like to note the many differences. Many of Tolkien’s ‘gods’, for example, are female.

Prescinding from the fact that if LOTR has “gods” then his contention that it is “godless” makes no sense, the reality is that Tolkien’s legendarium has only one God: Eru/Iluvatar.  That is why he describes it as monotheistic.  The Valar are not gods, but something more like subcreative angelic spirits charged with administering the created world.  And Christian fans of Tolkien have no problem with recognizing the feminine nature of these angelic being, precisely because they know there are detailing with a fictional legendarium and not a theological allegory about the Christian religion.

And The Lord of the Ring is still a story about people learning to work together, to go on journeys, opposing evil and improving the world—without appeal to a deity.

Again and again, LOTR appeals to reality of divine grace and Providence at work in the world.  Gandalf tells Frodo that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring and therefore Frodo also was meant to have it.  Elrond tells Frodo that the task of destroying the Ring is “appointed” to him, not by the Council, but by Someone or Something Else he never specifies.  When Frodo is attacked on Weathertop he calls out for help to Gilthoniel and Elbereth.  And the whole story culminates in a moment of thoroughly Pauline theological conviction in which Frodo, having reached the limits of the strength nature can provide, fails in his mission, claims the Ring for himself, and is only saved by providential grace when Gollum bites off his finger and falls into the Cracks of Doom to destroy the Ring. 

So, yes, to be sure, the story is about cooperation between the various peoples of Middle Earth.  But it is supremely about our need for the providential grace of God.  That Poletti is stone blind to this is why he, like the critic he cites, manages to get things completely backwards in this conclusion:

As Catherine Madsen puts it:

“If, for whatever purpose of his own, he images a world without Christianity, he makes that world imaginable to his readers; he may even make it worth longing for.”

Precisely what Tolkien does not long for is a world without the grace of God.  Like nearly everything Poletti has to say, this act of wrong-headed projection says everything about the purposed domination of his polemical Fundamentalism and nothing about Tolkien or his great work of literature.

Of which more tomorrow.


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