J.R.R. Tolkien: A Cause for Canonization (Part Two)
The horror of the First World War would greatly affect Tolkien’s spiritual life and influence the expression of his faith in his later works. On August 4, 1914, after Germany invaded Belgium, Great Britain declared war in response, initiating the First World War. During this war, one out of every eight soldiers in battle died. This percentage was even higher for officers, like those from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, who most often led assaults. However, Tolkien decided to postpone enlistment, thinking ahead to his future with Edith and their family and desiring to graduate first, particularly with his need to attain a First Class degree in order to pursue an academic career. Serendipitously, around this time Tolkien also discovered an ancient Old English verse, from the eighth-century poem Crist (or ‘Christ’), “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology”:
Eala Earendel engla beorhtastOfer middangeard monnum sended.(Hail Earendel brightest of angels,Over Middle-earth sent to men.)
During his time at Oxford, Tolkien, like most other students, following enlistment also took part in officer training, Tolkien having enlisted after his discovery that he could continue his academic pursuits while still performing drills. Participating in training while remaining at Oxford also gave Tolkien time to prepare for his family life with Edith.
Before his inevitable deployment, Tolkien and Edith were married on March 22, 1916. The incomprehensible number of casualties from France made his return from war unlikely, and so they were driven by urgency and an eagerness built up from years of separation. Before their wedding, Tolkien finally built up the courage to alert Fr. Morgan, who promptly wished them “every blessing and happiness” and even offered to officiate the wedding for them at the Oratory, but sadly due to Tolkien’s trepidation other arrangements were already set. Then, upon signing their register, Tolkien learned that Edith was an illegitimate child, but he responded with gentleness and compassion. Their wedding marked a final point of happiness before Tolkien would be thrust into the crucible of battle.
In the trenches, his experience of the closeness of death and the stark reality of evil, alongside acts of great heroism, inspired Tolkien to develop the mythology behind his fictional world. While being moved to various camps, Tolkien continued working on his poetry, forming what would become his elvish languages. He sent one of these poems to his T.C.B.S. friend Geoffrey Smith, stationed in a trench dugout at the time, and Smith would again testify to the purpose of their fraternity, saying he was serving in the War so that poems like Tolkien’s, and the beauty they showed, could live on. Soon after, on February 3, 1916, just before patrolling the No Man’s Land between an opposing line of trenches, Smith wrote again to Tolkien, praying for him, encouraging him to keep the dream of the T.C.B.S. alive by publishing his work, and asking him to “say the things I have tried to say long after I am not here to say them, if such be my lot.” Soon after a brief visit from Smith to Tolkien and Edith, Tolkien was deployed to France, on June 6, 1916, right in time for the Battle of the Somme, one of the most deadly and hellish conflicts in human history. During that battle, which lasted from July until November 1916, at least 300,000 soldiers died on both sides and twice as many were wounded, one of whom was Corporal Adolf Hitler. On the first day of fighting, July 1, Tolkien’s dear friend and fellow T.C.B.S. member Rob Gilson was one of 19,000 British officers, up to sixty percent of all those involved in the battle, who perished. During this battle, Tolkien would experience what he called the “animal horror” of modern, dehumanized robotic warfare. As Tolkien biographer Colin Duriez remarks, “The law of the jungle was amplified by machine-efficient slaughter.” Soon after Gilson’s death, a former member of the T.C.B.S., Ralph Payton, also died in combat, on July 22. His body was never recovered. Tolkien would only be saved from death himself by illness.
Surrounded by mutilated corpses infested with lice, he contracted what was called ‘trench fever.’ A short time after Tolkien was taken to hospital in Birmingham, yet another friend, Geoffrey Smith, died from a gangrenous shrapnel wound on November 29. Tolkien’s experience of the “animal horror” of war, the immediacy of evil and death, the loss of two of the four main members of the T.C.B.S., the “blasphemy and smut” from his fellow soldiers and his observation that, while the war itself was justified, there were “orcs… on both sides” – all of this not only galvanized the creation of Middle-earth and its mythology, but also inflamed his desire to pursue the goals of the T.C.B.S.: “to testify for God and Truth.”
After recovering from the War, Tolkien settled into his professional and family life, heroically living out his faith in both sectors. Throughout the lives of his four children, Tolkien would act not only as their loving father and true friend, but also as their spiritual director, providing them with formation in the Faith, encouragement through life’s difficulties, practical advice and even correction when needed. The importance of Tolkien’s involvement is corroborated by his eldest son, John, eventually being ordained a Catholic priest. During the Second World War, Tolkien counselled his son Christopher to keep his faith at heart and be inspired by it amid the darkness around him, continually reminding him of the nearness of God:
If you don’t do so already, make a habit of the ‘praises’. I use them much (in Latin): the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Laudate Dominum; the Laudate Pueri Dominum (of which I am specially fond), one of the Sunday psalms; and the Magnificat; also the Litany of Loretto (with the prayer Sub tuum praesidium). If you have these by heart you never need for words of joy. It is also a good and admirable thing to know by heart the Canon of the Mass, for you can say this in your heart if ever hard circumstance keeps you from hearing Mass.
Tolkien’s piety and experience of sorrows and war made him especially sensitive to the evils of the world, and yet he always retained hope in God, as he expressed to Christopher:
If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens!... No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.
Later in his children’s lives, as they began their own families, Tolkien continued to advise them in their choices and remind them of the spiritual realities within their situations. He once explained to his son Michael that man can “refuse to take other things into account” than purely physical relations in marriage, but only “to the great damage of his soul (and body) and theirs.” As Tolkien warned: “The dislocation of sex-instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall… The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favorite subject.” He reminded his son that men and women are both fallen human beings with their own temptations, to see one another as “companions in shipwreck,” and that true Christian marriage is not about mere pleasure, the singular pursuit of which, as he says, often ends in “divorce courts,” but rather requires sacrifice to become genuine love: “Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification.” Tolkien would also discover the suffering required to remain a faithful Catholic while working as a professor in a largely non-Catholic environment.
During his career as a lecturer and preeminent authority in Old and Middle English at Oxford University, despite being in a strict minority as a Roman Catholic, Tolkien never faltered in his faith. He endured many persecutions, including an instance at dinner with his colleagues when a Master had said, commenting on the recent election to the Rectorship of Lincoln, “Thank heaven they did not elect a Roman Catholic to the Rectorship anyway: disastrous, disastrous for the college,” while sitting next to Tolkien. Tolkien continued to boldly live out his faith, however, in charity and truth. As Colin Duriez notes, “he always treated [his students] courteously and conscientiously.” The clearest example of his spiritual influence is Tolkien’s witness to the Inklings, an Oxford group of like-minded academic friends who shared their thoughts and literary works with one another, a kind of successor to the T.C.B.S. Tolkien was one of the only Catholics in the group, and yet he was the primary factor in the conversion to Christianity of C.S. Lewis, renowned Christian apologist and writer of the Chronicles of Narnia series. When Tolkien and Lewis first met, Lewis was still an atheist, his perception of Tolkien colored by anti-Catholic prejudices resulting from his Ulster upbringing and most often shown by his calling Tolkien a ‘Papist.’ However, one night after a long conversation with Tolkien, who explained to him that the Gospel is the true fulfillment of all the myths they both loved and yet also historical fact, Lewis finally became Christian.
Tolkien more clearly expounded his views of the relation between Catholicism and myth in his foundational work, “On Fairy-Stories.” In the ‘happy ending’ of fairy-stories, he explained, we come to see what he termed the eucatastrophe, the “sudden joyous ‘turn’” which is in fact a foretaste of the salvation which Christ brought to life in His Passion and Resurrection, the “Great Eucatastrophe.” Human artistry is not a mere tool but is in fact a reflection of our being made in the image of God, whereby we “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.” God has “redeemed” our imaginations through the story of the Gospel. As Tolkien explained:
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy… There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits… To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
 John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War (London: HarperCollins, 2005), 8.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 76.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 78.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 77.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 79-80.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 87.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 102.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 89.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 91.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 93.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 96.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 99.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 101.
 Tolkien, Letters, Letter 66.
 Tolkien, Letters, Letter 71.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 102.
 Tolkien, Letters, Letter 5.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 140.
 Tolkien, Letters, 54.
 Tolkien, Letters, Letter 64.
 Tolkien, Letters, Letter 43.
 Clyde S. Kilby, Tolkien & The Silmarillion (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976), 68.
 Tolkien, Letters, 72.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 133.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 152.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 144.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 154.
 Duriez, Tolkien: Legend, 167-169.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), 88-89.
Thank you for this wonderfully detailed article!
Very intresting. I am learning a lot!