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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 78 > One Truth, Many Tales

One Truth, Many Tales
How did tolkien's approach to writing for a secularizing world compare with those of his Christian contemporaries?
David Mills | posted 4/01/2003 12:00AM

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Tolkien and his Christian literary peers wrote for people who did not know the faith, or did not like it, or did not think it important—"a public which knows no History, no Classics, no Theology, and has almost forgotten its Bible," Dorothy L. Sayers complained.

"At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily," said Flannery O'Connor.

T. S. Eliot described the writers (and readers) of the day as "those who have never heard the Christian Faith spoken of as anything but an anachronism."

This was the reader to whom writers like Tolkien, Sayers, Eliot, O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene wrote. Yet Tolkien's books were less obviously Christian than theirs. He did see his Lord of the Rings as a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work." He even expressed some frustration that readers did not see this. But in writing Christian truth to a swiftly secularizing modern world, Tolkien took a different tack.

Where's the faith?

First, he only wrote stories. He wrote nothing directly Christian or apologetic. C. S. Lewis wrote apologetics, literary criticism, theological studies, allegories like The Great Divorce, and whatever The Screwtape Letters is. Williams wrote apologetics, biographies, histories, and theology. Sayers wrote apologetic essays like "Creed or Chaos?" and theological works like The Mind of the Maker. Waugh, Eliot, O'Connor, and Walker Percy all wrote essays on the faith and reviewed religious books for secular magazines.

These writers used their literary gifts to present the old arguments in a new way. Tolkien did not do this at all. Besides his stories, he wrote a few academic papers on early English literature and just one essay, "On Fairy-Stories," giving his own religious ideas in any explicit form.

Second, he did not give his stories an overt religious meaning. Almost all his peers wrote stories whose Christian meaning was fairly obvious. In Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, Aslan, an obvious Christ-figure, tells the children that they were brought from earth to Narnia so "that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." At the end of Sayers's play The Zeal of Thy House, the archangel Michael argues theology with the main character. Eliot wrote poems with titles like "Ash Wednesday" and reflected on prayer in his poetry and his plays. In O'Connor's Wise Blood, a young man tries to establish the "Church of Christ without Christ" and The Violent Bear It Away is the story of a boy called to be a prophet.

Stories, plain and simple

Tolkien did not do this at all. Even his story "Leaf by Niggle," which takes the painter Niggle from life through Purgatory to Heaven, does so without making it obvious in any way. Tolkien wrote the story he felt he had been given to write, and wrote it for those who cared to read him (he didn't expect many would).

He had a reason. Whereas his friend Lewis thought that "the author as author" should only write what "the author as man, citizen, or Christian" approved, Tolkien thought that writing stories was good in itself. Writing them was the job God had given him.

The stories were stories, he insisted over and over. They were not disguised sermons, or even stories with sermons hidden inside them. The Lord of the Rings "is not 'about' anything but itself," he wrote his American publisher. It "was written to amuse (in the highest sense): to be readable. There is no 'allegory,' moral, political, or contemporary in the work at all," he told a reviewer. Elsewhere he wrote, "I neither preach nor teach."

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