This is part three of a conversation between two authors whose books discuss the faith of J. R. R. Tolkien and the religious values underpinning The Lord of the Rings. Parts one and two appeared on our website earlier this week.

Bradley J. Birzer is assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he specializes in the history of the American West, and related topics. His book, J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, was just published by ISI Books.

Mark Eddy Smith is a graphic designer at InterVarsity Press, which published his book, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings, earlier this year. (purchase)

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From: Brad Birzer
To: Mark Eddy Smith

Dear Mark,

Thanks for the great response. I agree with you completely regarding Faerie. We are inadequate to speak or write about it, as it's beyond us. In the modern world, Tolkien did get as close as anyone in describing it. I do, however, think we could go back to the saints and mystics of history and find many who also described it accurately.

Each of the New Testament writers had an intimate understanding of Faerie. As Tolkien wrote in his brilliant academic essay, "On Fairy-Stories," "The gospel contains a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: 'mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance . …But this story has entered history and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of creation."

For Tolkien, as with all Christians, God's story ("God's spell") reaches its highest fulfillment with the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. As Tolkien concludes, "To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath."

This, I think, ties into your questions regarding grace/faith/works and Tolkien and Lewis. The Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is certainly complex. Though Catholic theology argues that one is saved only by grace (and sanctified by works, inspired/moved by grace), the question of how or why an individual originally accepts that God-given faith remains unanswered in any concrete way. While the purer Augustinians lean toward the predestinarian side and the purer Thomists toward the free-will side, orthodox Catholic theology embraces neither extreme. The answer of salvation, according to the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent, resides somewhere in the unexplained middle:

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That they who sin had been cut off from God, may be disposed through his quickening and helping grace to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace, so that, while God touches the heart of man through the illumination of the Holy Ghost, man himself neither does absolutely nothing while receiving that inspiration, since he can also reject it, nor yet is he able by his own free will and without the face of God to move himself to justice in his sight.

Tolkien wrestled with this great Catholic dilemma in the entirety of his adult life. In a letter to his son Christopher, he wrote that a soul has free will, but "God is (so to speak) also behind us, supporting [and] nourishing us." Specifically, Tolkien noted, God supports each of us individually through a guardian angel. "Faith is an act of will," Tolkien wrote to his son Michael, but quickly added that will is "inspired by love." Additionally, Tolkien wrote, "faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act."

But, the differences between Tolkien and Lewis were more cultural, I think, than theological. As Warnie Lewis explained about his brother, he was first and foremost an Ulsterman. Orange suited him far better than Green. Certainly, in many way, Lewis accepted fundamental tenets of Catholicism—especially the belief in purgatory. Lewis's understanding of it, however, is quite different than the Catholic understanding. For Lewis, one could go either to heaven or hell from purgatory. From the Catholic perspective, one can only go to heaven from purgatory. It is, in essence, a process of purifying fire (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

The Catholic understanding of sanctification, as Tolkien believed it, also explains his reluctance to know much—if anything—regarding evil. The more a person knows about evil, the less he knows about Good. And I would argue that one of the most brilliant aspects of The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien's ability to glorify Good, something very difficult in the modern world. As I mentioned in the first letter, modernity assaults us. It assaults us everywhere and in almost everything. I believe, along with the Christian Humanists, that this weakens our souls, as it diminishes our communication (prayer) to God. When we get back on the right path—as we forget our own sinful wills, and embrace grace—we do so at a lower level than when we left the path, having to retrace much of what we have already accomplished. I think of Dante in the Purgatorio. When someone recites his poetry to him, he listens and falls in love with himself, only to realize moments later that his pilgrimage to heaven—the most important journey he will ever take—has halted.

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Sam, I think, provides the best example of the sanctification of the humble. Though he would much rather be with Rosie, his garden, his pipe, his mug, he knows that as a true person, he must lay down the plow and pick up the sword. The goal is not to kill, but to defend, so that he and his kind can live again in peace, comfort, and freedom—a freedom not to do anything, but, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, the freedom to do what is right. Sam also knows that he himself may die in the effort. "There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)

St. John was Tolkien's patron saint, but he also served as a great inspiration for the character of Sam. Just as St. John was the only one of the twelve to stand with our Lord at the foot of the cross, Sam remains faithful to Frodo, even to the Cracks of Doom.


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From: Mark Eddy Smith
To: Brad Birzer

Dear Brad,

Thanks for shedding some light for me on the Catholic understanding of salvation. It is indeed complex! And ultimately unfathomable. But it's good to attempt to sound its depths. One of the things I love about Tolkien is that he attempted to sound such depths not abstractly, but through story, through the imagined lives of specific people. The brilliance of this method lies in the fact that stories are not intended to be normative. Another person's journey may be quite different, but either through contrast or comparison, the characters Tolkien created can help us understand ourselves and each other exactly because they are themselves, single and unique, and generalizations drawn from their experiences must only be made with great care.

I love the fact that characters such as Aragorn and Faramir and hobbits in general (even Ringwraiths) appeared in Tolkien's writing process from an unknown source, and that he followed their stories until he figured out who they were. At the Prancing Pony, according to what I've read, Tolkien was as nonplussed as the hobbits to find a hooded, roguish-looking man with long legs smoking in a corner. The stranger turned out to be Aragorn, the heir of kings, because that's who he was, not because Tolkien needed a King Arthur-type figure for his plot. Tolkien knew that if he surrendered his will to the process of sub-creation, and worked diligently to get the true story down as he was receiving it, then it would perforce be imbued with the truths he believed most strongly.

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I have to admit I'm uncomfortable with your (and Tolkien's) profound distaste for modernity and refusal to look too closely at evil. It is certainly possible that the reason for my discomfort lies in the fact that I am too accepting of modernity and too comfortable with evil, and I agree that knowledge of evil does not help us to overcome it. But my understanding of the Fall (which I picked up during a brief stint at Wheaton College) is that, having partaken of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve (and through them, all of us) doomed themselves to being able to understand the good from the vantage point of evil alone. Of course, now that Christ has come into the world, our fallen natures are beginning to be redeemed as his grace works in us and through us. And, oh my gosh, I am so out of my depth.

So, how about that Sam, huh? He comforts me when I'm feeling untutored. One of the biggest treats of reading your book was the glimpses you gave of the extracanonical Tolkien, particularly the intended epilogue to The Lord of the Rings, featuring Sam's life as Mayor of Hobbiton and his visit with Aragorn and Arwen, which Tolkien excised because he thought it might seem trite. In this epilogue Sam's many children respond to him the same way hobbit-children of previous generations responded to Gandalf, underscoring the profound ways in which Sam's adventures transformed him. I heartily agree with you that he is the true hero of the story, its heart, and the true successor to Bilbo.

One of Sam's chief gifts is his understanding that he is part of a story. This is not, of course, postmodern irony on Tolkien's part, as if Sam understood he was a character in a novel, but rather a true statement about the relationship between a creature and his Creator. We in the 21st century are part of that same story, and Sam reassures me that we don't have to understand intellectually the complexities of the story, so long as we understand implicitly the aspects that make a story good. These include loyalty, the willingness to walk open-eyed into danger, risking death for the sake of a friend, having the ability to accept our smallness, and the courage never to accept defeat. Intellectual understanding and wisdom may come in time, but they are not essential to performing well the tasks set before us.

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I apologize for copping out on the discussion about the evils of modernity, but it really does seem like the topic is beyond me, and the more I dwell on it, the more I feel I am delving into the arts of the enemy myself, and perhaps losing my focus on God, and pulling the conversation farther away from Middle-earth. I guess my biggest problem is with the assertion that modernity qua modernity is evil. Modernity, at least in my understanding of it, is too abstract a thing to be labeled. There are too many exceptions to prove the rule.

Finally, I'd like to mention the movie. In J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth you speak glowingly of Peter Jackson's first installment. My own appreciation for it was enhanced by your analysis. It was indeed glorious, and captured some of the wonder I felt when I first discovered Middle-earth. But I have one bone to pick with it: I do not believe for a moment that Aragorn would willingly have let Frodo journey toward Mordor alone. I have other quibbles, as is my duty as an LOTR fan, but this seems unforgivable. What do you think?


Tomorrow: Hobbits don't vote—Tolkien's dislike for "radical democracy"

Related Elsewhere

Part one of this conversation appeared on our website yesterday.

Today's Film Forum rounds up what Christian critics and others are saying about The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Earlier articles on the Lord of the Rings movies include:

Soul Wars, Episode Two | The second Lord of the Rings film raises the spiritual stakes (Dec. 18, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner: Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source (Feb. 18, 2002)
Film Forum: The Fellowship of the Raves | Critics grope for superlatives for The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Film Forum: Gandalf and the Gamblers | As everyone talks about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, critics also get around to reviewing Ocean's Eleven, In the Bedroom, and The Business of Strangers. (Dec. 13, 2001)
Film Forum: First Looks at a Feature Fantasy | Early reviews for Fellowship of the Ring are in. (Dec. 6, 2001)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania (Nov. 11, 2001)

Earlier articles on Tolkien include:

Christian History Corner: 9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective (Sept. 13, 2002)
Christian History Corner: Intro to the Inklings | C. S. Lewis's intellect was stimulated at one of the most fascinating extracurricular clubs ever (May 18, 2001)

Our sister publication Books & Culture asked in its January/February 2002 issue if Tolkien should be acknowledged as the foremost author of the twentieth century.