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As did St. Augustine as the barbarians tore through Rome’s gate on August 24, 410, at midnight, J.R.R. Tolkien looked out over a ruined world: a world on one side controlled by ideologues, and, consequently, a world of the Gulag, the Holocaust camps, the Killing fields, and total war; on the other: a world of the pleasures of the flesh, Ad-Men, and the democratic conditioners to be found, especially, in bureaucracies and institutions of education.

In 1958, at a Dutch bash held in his honor, Tolkien told his audience: “I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”[1] To Tolkien in 1958, the world must have appeared as though it were trapped in deepest and darkest winter. Clyde Kilby, an English professor from Wheaton College, worked with Tolkien in the summer of 1966. “Tolkien was an Old Western Man who was staggered at the present direction of civilization,” Kilby recorded after a summer of conversations with Tolkien. “Even our much vaunted talk of equality he felt debased by our attempts to ‘mechanize and formalize it.’”[2] Like many Englishmen, he feared a world divided in two, in which the smaller peoples would be swallowed. Only fifteen years earlier, in reaction to the Teheran Conference, Tolkien had written: “I heard of that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition of tyranny and intolerance!” One would be blind to miss Tolkien’s disgust. “I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you). The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be one blasted little provincial suburb.” Soon, he feared, America would spread its “sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production” throughout the world.[3] Neither “ism”—corporate consumer capitalism or communism, both radical forms of materialism—seemed particularly attractive to Tolkien, a man who loved England (but not Great Britain!) and who loved monarchy according to medieval conventions, while hating statism in any form.

Indeed, as with St. Augustine as the barbarians tore through Rome’s gate on August 24, 410, at midnight, Tolkien looked out over a ruined world: a world on one side controlled by ideologues, and, consequently, a world of the Gulag, the Holocaust camps, the Killing fields, and total war; on the other: a world of the pleasures of the flesh, Ad-Men, and the democratic conditioners to be found, especially, in bureaucracies and institutions of education. Both east and west had become dogmatically materialist, though in radically different fashions. In almost all ways, the devastation of Tolkien’s twentieth-century world was far greater than that of St. Augustine’s fifth-century world. At least barbarian man believed in something greater than himself. One could confront him as a man, a man who knew who he was and what he believed, however false that belief might be. “I sometimes wonder,” C.S. Lewis once mused, “whether we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.”[4] Twentieth-century man, led by fanatic ideologies, used state-sponsored terror to murder nearly 200 million persons outside of war. War in the same century claimed another 38.5 million persons.[5] Simply put, the blood ran frequently and deeply between 1914 and Tolkien’s death in 1973.

Despite the fifteen centuries separating the lives of the two men, Tolkien’s own world view closely paralleled that of St. Augustine’s, and the attentive reader finds much in common between the City of God and Tolkien’s larger mythology of Middle-earth. Tolkien would have received his understanding of St. Augustine from his boyhood upbringing in the Birmingham Oratory, founded by the most famous nineteenth-century convert to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman. After Tolkien’s mother passed away in 1904, Father Francis Morgan, a priest of the Oratory and friend of Newman’s, became Tolkien’s legal guardian.[6] Certainly, St. Augustine had influenced Newman in a number of ways. In his Apologia, for example, Newman admitted that “the main Catholic doctrine of the warfare between the City of God and the powers of darkness had been deeply imposed upon” him. To Newman, nineteenth-century liberalism and philosophic utilitarianism were the harbingers of a secular, modern City of Man, and God would not stay his wrath. “A confederacy of evil, marshalling its hosts from all parts of the world, organizing itself, taking its measures, enclosing the Church of Christ as in a net, [was] preparing the way for a general Apostacy from it,” Newman feared in 1838.[7] Though the Cardinal never lived to see his fears realized, Tolkien did. Tolkien even experienced the horrors of modernity first hand in the trenches at the Somme.

Dreadful as the Dead Marshes had been, and the arid moors of the Noman-land, more loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces, some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were chocked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.[8]

Though about Frodo and Sam passing through the Dead Marshes, the passage reveals much about Tolkien’s first hand experiences with modernity and all of its inhumane brutality.[9] It was there—in the trenches of World War I—that Tolkien first conceived of his mythology. “I sense amongst all your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering,” he wrote to his son Christopher during the second world war, then an R.A.F. pilot. “In my case it generated Morgoth,” the master of lies of the entire legendarium.[10]

The mythology that Tolkien created—or “discovered” as he preferred—contained numerous Augustinian theological insights. One of the most important theological contributions of St. Augustine’s (and they were many!) was his sanctifying of Plato’s understanding of the two realms: the perfect Celestial Kingdom and the corrupt copy. For Plato, though, the two realms never met, except on rare and mystical occasions. For St. Augustine, one could not readily separate the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, in any strict dualism or profound opposition. “In truth,” St. Augustine wrote, “these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effect their separation.”[11] Christians live in the City of Man, but exist as pilgrims in this world, as citizens of the City of God. Love separates the two cities; that is, a proper understanding as well as a prideful, false understanding of the nature and significance of love divides this world from the next. “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the early city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self,” St. Augustine argued. “The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.”[12]

For Augustine, the wholesome and beneficent God intertwined Himself in history—not only through the deepest profundity of the Incarnate Word, but also through the actions of angels and men, chosen by God to do His Will and perform His Miracles. For St. Augustine, eternity and time readily mixed after the Incarnation, the former informing history at its deepest levels. But, unlike St. Augustine’s more platonic two cities, Tolkien posited three cities: the City of God (as represented by the Fellowship of the Ring); the City of Man (Orthanc under Saruman); and, because it is a mythical rather than historical time, a third city, that of the devil (Barad-Dur under Sauron).

The City of the Devil

The leader of the mythical diabolical city, Sauron, like all creatures, started well.  “For nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond stated at his Council.[13] “Beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth,” Tolkien explained. “But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.”[14] Sauron, originally a Maia, followed the lead of the rebel Devil Morgoth. Indeed, Sauron became the first and greatest of all evils, serving as Morgoth’s lieutenant.

His master, Morgoth, was indeed powerful. Like his non-mythological equivalent, the devil, Morgoth too was “good by God’s creation, wicked by his own will.”[15] Indeed, Ilúvatar gave him more gifts than any other entity, and yet Morgoth only craved more. Rather than singing Ilúvatar’s song at the creation of Arda, he desired to create his own and become a god himself. His pride proved his undoing. After his rebellion, Morgoth thrives on destruction and enslavement.[16] “To corrupt or destroy whatsoever arose new and fair was ever the chief desire of Morgoth,” Tolkien wrote.[17] Even more bluntly, “his dominion was torment.”[18] Though Morgoth did not possess the power to change the nature of any of Ilúvatar’s creatures, he had the power to ravage as much of creation as possible. “The whole of Arda . . . had been marred by him.  Morgoth was not just a local Evil on Earth, nor a Guardian Angel of Earth who had gone wrong: he was the Spirit of Evil, arising even before the making of Eä, and of Arda in particular, and [to] alter the designs of Eru (which governed all the operations of the faithful Valar), [and] introduced evil, or a tendency to aberration from the design, into all the physical matter of Arda.”[19] Morgoth and Sauron represent the two most concentrated manifestations of evil in Tolkien’s legendarium, though others abound: dragons, balrogs, werewolves, orcs, goblins, half-orcs, Ringwraiths, wights, hounds of hell, vampires, wargs, wolves, and trolls to name only a few. With Morgoth chained in the void at the End of the First Age, Sauron remained the only concentrated manifestation of evil. He “was a problem that men had to deal with finally: the first of many concentrations of Evil into definite power-points that they would also have to combat, as it was also the last of those in ‘mythological’ personalized (but non-human) form,” Tolkien wrote.[20] After the destruction of the one ring, Sauron disintegrated into nothingness, annihilated. But, the lies that he and Morgoth introduced entered history and remain to this day, controlling, ultimately, the City of Man, preventing many from becoming citizens of the City of God. “The evils of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed.” Gandalf admitted. “Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!”[21]

The City of Man

Saruman and his Tower of Orthanc represents the City of Man. The Valar had originally sent Saruman, a Maia or second-order angel, to Middle-earth to help its inhabitants battle against Sauron. Saruman arrived as the greatest and most skilled of the Istari (meaning “The Wise”—each of the five being incarnate angels sent by the Valar to aid Elves and Men).[22] From nearly the moment of his arrival at the Grey Havens, though, pride crept into his soul as he became jealous that Cirdan gave Gandalf, the least of the Istari, Narya the Red, the Elven ring of fire “for the kindling of all hearts to courage.”[23] In Saruman’s heart, however, the gift of the ring only worked mischief, as the wisest and most skilled of the Istari “begrudged” the ring, and it proved “the beginning of the hidden ill-will that he bore to [Gandalf], which afterwards became manifest.”[24] For rather than humbling himself for the good of all Men and Elves, Saruman thought only of himself and the power he might wield for his glory. “The earthly city,” St. Augustine reminds us, “which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life.”[25] In the earthly city, “the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling.”[26] To secure his peace in the City of Man, Saruman turned to studying the dark arts, by which he became almost wholly corrupted. “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill,” Elrond warned.[27] Indeed, as Saruman’s knowledge of Sauron’s ways grows, so grows his pride.[28]

The “citizens” of Orthanc, under the strict command of Saruman, are the Orcs. Meaning “demon” in Anglo-Saxon, Orcs are corrupted and tortured Elves.[29] “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own,” Frodo said to Sam. “I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures. Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison.”[30] Still, they have fallen quite far as the Eucharistic lembas terrifies them, and they most eagerly eat man-flesh when Saruman feeds it to them.[31]  Indeed, Orcs despise all beauty and glory in mechanization. As Tolkien explained in The Hobbit:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.[32]

Still, Tolkien concluded, the Orcs, like all creatures except for Satan, are redeemable.[33] They “are fundamentally a race of ‘rational incarnate’ creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today,” Tolkien wrote in 1954.[34]

To increase his own power, Saruman selectively cross-breeds Orcs and men to create the bloody and vengeful Uruk-hai. Additionally, he turns to industrial mechanization. “He is plotting to become a Power,” the ancient Treebeard says. “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.” The land, once forested and lush, had been destroyed by Saruman’s minions.

Most of the valley had become a wilderness of weeds and thorns. Brambles trailed upon the ground, or clambering over bush and bank, made shaggy caves where small beasts housed. No trees grew there; but among the rank grasses could still be seen the burned and axe-hewn stumps of ancient groves. It was a sad country, silent now but for the stoney noise of quick waters. Smokes and steams drifted in sullen clouds and lurked in the hollows.[35]

As the Ents attack Isengard, they discover Saruman’s “treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces. Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded. At night plumes of vapour steamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.”[36]

With the perversion and attempted domination of both creatures (the Orcs, the Urak-hai, and allied Men) and nature with the development of industry, Saruman has become, in essence, a modern man. And, he has fallen back on the first sin, the sin that leads to all others, the sin of pride: “Ye Too Shall be as Gods.” But, of course, the serpent lied.

Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived—for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dur, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival, and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.[37]

The serpent would not be mocked.

The City of God

How, then, does one fight the serpent, Morgoth, his servant Sauron, or the many Sarumans? The solution for St. Augustine and Tolkien was the same; it is frustratingly simply. For Christ has already showed us the way: to humble ourselves, to give up our selfish wills, and to become His instruments. Just as Christ humbled Himself on the cross, so do we.

Choose now what you will pursue, that your praise may be not in yourself, but in the true God, in whom there is no error. For of popular glory you have had your share; but by the secret providence of God, the true religion was not offered to your choice. Awake, it is now day; as you have already awaked in the persons of some in whose perfect virtue and sufferings for the true faith we glory: for they, contending on all sides with hostile powers, and conquering them all by bravely dying, have purchased for us this country of ours with their blood; to which country we invite you, and exhort you to add yourselves to the number of citizens of this city.[38]

The Church, after all, as St. Augustine knew well, was built on the blood of the martyrs such as Sts. Perpetua, Felicity, Boniface, Sir Thomas More, John Fisher, Maximilian Kolbe, and the Blessed Miguel Pro. Martyrdom, though, is not the only thing that separates these men and women from the rest of humanity. All true Christians humble themselves to God and to God’s task for us, even if it leads one to physical death.

How salvation occurs on an individual level remains a mystery, even within Catholic theology today. And, the question regarding the interplay of free will and pre-destination plagued Tolkien. Though Catholic theology argues that one is saved only by grace (and sanctified by works, inspired by Grace), the question of how or why an individual accepts that God-given faith remains unanswered in any concrete way. It remains, simply stated, a mystery. While the purer Augustinians lean toward the pre-destinarian side and the purer Thomists toward the free-will side, orthodox Catholic theology embraces neither extreme. Neither pure free will nor pure pre-destination, the answer of salvation resides somewhere in the unexplained middle. As the Council of Trent stated in 1547:

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.[39]

Tolkien wrestled with this great Catholic dilemma in the entirety of his mythology. In a letter to his son Christopher, he wrote: a soul has free will, but “God is (so to speak) also behind us, supporting [and] nourishing us.”[40] 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.”[41] Additionally, Tolkien wrote, “faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act.”[42]

While God is always present, though, He remains unnamed in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo inquires of Gandalf how Bilbo found the Ring, Gandalf answers: “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”[43] Gandalf admits that in Middle-earth what one calls “chance” is really the will accepting Ilúvatar’s design.[44] And, as Elrond calls his council to order, he offers a very important caveat. “Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.”[45]

One of the most important ways to glorify God and repay the gift of faith is to discover one’s place in the Economy of Grace. That is, one must know he was born in a certain time and certain place for God’s purpose. St. Paul wrote about this numerous times in his letters, especially in those to the Romans, the Corinthians, and the Colossians. To the Christians of Corinth, St. Paul wrote: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”[46] St. Augustine wrote: “All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good. And when they are in the places assigned to them by the order of their nature, they preserve such being as they have received.”[47] Very diverse elements, then, make up the Church. “The heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions,” Augustine explained. The Church “therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adapts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced.”[48]

The Fellowship of the Ring represents, as scholar James Patrick has pointed out, the Church, traversing the perilous landscapes of Middle-earth, making its way slowly but surely to fulfill Ilúvatar’s mission.[49] It would be impossible to find greater diversity than its company: an incarnate angel, two Men, one Elf, one Dwarf, and four Hobbits. Along the way, others—Tom Bombadil, Elrond, Galadriel, Theoden, Treebeard, and, unwittingly, even Gollum, to name but a few—aid in the common mission, to destroy the Ring of Power before the enemy reacquires it. Ultimately, of course, the mission of The Fellowship is just one mission among thousands. Hugh of St. Victor described it as the Church militant:

For the Incarnate Word is our King, who came into this world to war with the devil; and all the saints who were before His coming are soldiers as it were, going before their King, and those who have come after and will come, even to the end of the world, are soldiers following their King. And the King himself is in the midst of His army and proceeds protected and surrounded on all sides by His columns. And although in a multitude as vast as this the kind of arms different in the sacraments and the observance of the peoples preceding and following, yet all are really serving the one king and following the one banner; all are pursuing the one enemy and are being crowned by the one victory.[50]

Each of the members of the Fellowship ultimately fulfills his purpose. Gandalf, known as Olorin in the True West, has been the least of the Istari sent to Middle-earth to aid Men and Elves in their war against Sauron. Though the least powerful, he was the wisest, and he spent many of his days walking among the Elves “unseen, or in a form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.” The Silmarillion records that “those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”[51] So as to not become too taken with any one people or place, thus attenuating his temptations to power, Gandalf became the “Grey Pilgrim” and wandered from place to place. Even at his imminent death at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, Gandalf stated his place in Creation as he faced the Balrog: “You cannot pass [for] I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass.” The Secret Fire, Tolkien told Clyde Kilby, was the Holy Spirit.[52] So empowered, Gandalf plunged to his death, but not without taking the Balrog to his doom.

The men of the Fellowship humble themselves as well. When Aragorn first appears in the story, he does so as Strider, the mysterious Ranger who remains untrusted by those he protects. Yet, he quickly reveals himself to be the true king of Middle-earth, a descendent of the men of Numenor and the Elves. He reveals this through his physical and mental prowess, his never-ending willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good, his power as a healer, and, especially, in his wrestling with Sauron through the Palantir. Even Boromir, who betrays the group because of his pride, finds redemption in self-sacrifice as he attempts to protect Merry and Pippin from the Urak-hai. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,” Boromir confesses, his body riddled with Orc arrows “I am sorry. I have paid. . . . I have failed.” In response, Aragorn took Boromir’s hand and assured him “You have conquered.” As Boromir’s pilgrimage ended, he smiled.

Legolas, the Elf, and Gimli, the Dwarf, play vital roles in the Fellowship as well. Not only do they offer the skills of bow and axe, wit, and wisdom as they endlessly cleave the heads of the enemy soldiers, but, more importantly, they begin the healing process between their two races. Since the awakening of the Dwarves, the two races had been mutually antagonistic to one another. Now, in the Third Age, with a common enemy, they must put their differences aside to defeat the common foe. In the process, they become fast and life-long friends.

The Hobbits play the most interesting role in the Fellowship, for they are the least of all creatures in Middle-earth, in terms of wielding any form of political power. An agrarian people, they shun adventure.[53] There were exceptions, though, in the history of the Hobbits. The most important, prior to the days of Bilbo and Frodo, was their ancestor, Bull Roarer Took. Indeed, when Gandalf sought a thief for Thorin’s expedition, he said, “I want a dash of the Took (but not too much, master Peregrin), I want a good foundation of the stolider sort, a Baggins perhaps.”[54] The Hobbits, Pippen Took and Merry Brandybuck, become famous warriors and aids to kings and stewards.

Frodo establishes himself as a suffering servant at the end of the Council of Elrond. “I will take the Ring,” Frodo said, “Though I do not know the way.”[55] He trudges through the various terrains of Middle-earth, is betrayed by Gollum, suffers near fatal wounds from Ungoliant’s spawn, Shelob, and the indignities of the Orcs holding him prisoner at the beginning of The Return of the King. Yet, he makes it to the precipice of the Cracks of Doom before succumbing to the weight of the Ring. While Frodo offers a means by which to act in a Christ-like fashion, he also offers an example of what not to do. The claiming of the Ring had been only a minor sin, though, as Ilúvatar had not given Frodo the Grace to overcome the temptation. Frodo’s only serious failure came after he claimed the ring as his own. When Gollum dances for joy into the Cracks of Doom, carrying the Ring with him, Frodo feels stunned that he remains alive. Frodo desired martyrdom, and yet, Ilúvatar’s task for him was over; he was to live. Martyrdom, Tolkien tells us, cannot be claimed by the will, it must only be accepted through an act of Grace. The “Divine economy [is] limited to what is sufficient for the accomplishment of the task appointed to one instrument in a pattern of circumstances and other instruments.”[56] To claim more, would be to claim the sole right of Jesus Christ, as the savior of mankind. “In its highest exercise,” Tolkien explained, mercy “belongs to God” and to God alone.[57]

Sam, the real hero of The Lord of the Rings, begins the trilogy appearing to be merely a simpleton. Yet, Graces flow to Sam as he proves to have one virtue in spades: the virtue of loyalty. He is Wiglaf to Beowulf, Sir Gawain to King Arthur, St. John to Jesus. Though Sam would much prefer living the good life as all Hobbits desire—a good beer, a good smoke, a well-tended garden, the company of friends and family, and fathering a large family—he knows that only if Frodo’s task is accomplished will the Hobbits of the Shire live in peace. Like a good citizen-republican, Sam puts down his plow, picks up his sword, fights the good fight, and returns to hearth and home. Ultimately for Tolkien, the truest heroism, then, stems from “obedience and love not of pride or wilfulness.”[58] This remains true in ordinary as well as in extraordinary life.

And, Sam is well rewarded: with the good life, life as it is meant to be. In fact, God has blessed him and Rosie with a whole parcel of children. Most likely, a number of children have yet to arrive. “Regular ragtag and bobtail,” Sam says of his children, “old Saruman would have called it.”[59] Evil sees children merely as obstacles. Sam wisely knows they are essential for the good life. Sam also notes that while Frodo received proper acclaim for his deeds, he himself has “had lots of treasures.”[60] When King Aragorn writes Sam a letter, almost twenty years after the destruction of the Ring, he translates Sam’s name in Elvish not properly as “Half-wise,” but instead as “Plain-wise” or “Full-wise,” reflecting Sam’s significant growth during and after the quest to destroy the ring. As Aragorn’s letter reveals, Sam has grown from the silly Hobbit arguing with Ted Sandyman in the pub to a wise and virtuous statesman. Perhaps, most important, his many children treat him with immense love and respect, respecting his authority as father. When Sam speaks, Tolkien wrote, his children respond to him “as hobbit-children of other times had watched the wizard Gandalf.”[61] Indeed, the adult Samwise carries the authority of an incarnate angel.

Looking Backwards and Forwards from 2003

On January 3, 2003, Tolkien would have celebrated his Eleventy-first birthday. What would Tolkien think on this most famous of birthdays, the birthday on which Bilbo departed The Shire? Unfortunately, not much has changed since 1958. He would look out and see Christian persecutions throughout the world. Indeed, if he summed up the achievements of bloodthirsty ideology over the past century, he would most likely note that 65% of all Christian martyrs were murdered in the twentieth-century. Most likely, he would lament, this will continue in the twenty-first century as ideologues continue to wage war on the world, a world they desire to order to their own wishes, just as Sauron had. Such concentrated evils as Sauron, though, do not readily appear in the world of history. Instead, his numerous servants and imitators, the Sarumans that Tolkien saw in the East, West, North, and South, reign in every continent. The City of the Diabolus continues to influence the City of Man, the land between heaven and hell, the Middle-earth. Chaos spreads through pornography, abortion, ideological terror, bureaucratic conditioners, and the general exploitation of the human person created in the Image of God.

Yet, this most pessimistic of Catholics would also see signs of hope. If the blood of the martyrs of the second and third centuries built the church, perhaps the blood of the twentieth-century martyrs will bring in converts by the thousands. Perhaps men such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who willingly traded his life for a father and husband in the concentrated hell hole known as Auschwitz, have something to teach us. Perhaps. It is an old lesson, of course, but a true one: that only by humbling one’s self to the Grace of God will the Will of God prevail in this world of sorrows, this City of Man, this Middle-earth. A recognition that only Grace—in the form of the Incarnate Word, humbling Himself before the World and the Universe, through his Death and Resurrection—can make us Citizens of the City of God. And, what better leader could we have on this earthly pilgrimage than a poet and a playwright, a survivor of the anti-Fascist and anti-Communist underground; a man who echoes Christ: “Be Not Afraid.”

The incarnate angel of Tolkien’s mythology, Gandalf the Grey, said it well in a conversation with Frodo. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” laments the young Hobbit. “So do I,” Gandalf replies, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[62]

The War is greater than any one of us; but the battle is ours, and we must claim it—but we can only do that through the mystery of Grace.

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; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. 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. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. . . . To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.[63]

Deep in Mordor, Tolkien’s mythological equivalent of an earthly hell, “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”[64] Sam saw beauty; the beauty of the white star demonstrated for him the permanence of goodness, and he fought for the truth of the One, the One who created all things and allows us the privilege of being actors in His Story.

Sam’s hope is the hope that springs forth from the Grace imparted by the Incarnation, the Death, and the Resurrection of Christ. It is the hope that reminds us that the baptized must sanctify the world and “redeem the time” as St. Paul commanded. It is the hope that reminds us that God makes nothing in vain, and that Grace and Grace alone perfects fallen nature. It is the hope that each one of us is born in a certain time, and a certain place, for a certain purpose, or purposes. It is the hope that reminds us that we mean something, that God loves us so much that He blessed us by making us a part of His Story: the story that began when the Blessed Trinity spoke the Universe into Existence, when The Father sent His only Son to live with us for 33 years, fully God and fully man, to teach, and then to suffer, and then to die on a piece of Wood, betrayed by even his closest friends. But St. John remained. And from the cross, Jesus turned to His Mother, and said, “Behold your son.” It is the hope that Mary and St. John held in their hearts. It is the hope that comes after three days of anxiety, gripping frustration, and utter despair, as the women at the tomb understand that Christ conquered Death, ransoming us from sin for no other reason than Love. Indeed, it is the hope that all things are created and animated by the Love of the Holy Spirit. Love, not the Ring of Tolkien’s mythology—not worldly power—is the greatest force in the Universe. Even Samwise Gamgee, the mythical Hobbit living in a pre-Christian world, the land between heaven and hell, this Middle-earth, understood that. And, so should we.

Let not future generations say of us: We slept.

Author’s Note: This article, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Joseph Pearce’s St. Austin Review. Before that, it was a talk delivered on January 3, 2003, Tolkien’s 111st birthday, at the IIC in Philadelphia. I published it in The Imaginative Conservative on the same day in 2011 to celebrate Professor Tolkien’s 119th birthday. From my very biased standpoint, I think all Imaginative Conservatives should look to Tolkien for inspiration. Deeply conservative, Christian, and, above all others, brilliantly creative, Professor Tolkien spent his life challenging the evils of his day, through the elements of story, faerie, poetry, and myth.

This essay was first published here in January 2011.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] On Tolkien’s Dutch bash, see Rene van Rossenberg, “Tolkien’s Exceptional Visit to Holland: A Reconstruction,” in Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. Goodkknight, eds., Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Keble College, Oxford, 1992 (Mythopoeic Society, 1995), 301-09.

[2] Kilby, “Tolkien the Man” from Tolkien and the Silmarillion, unpublished parts of chapter, “Woodland Prisoner,” pg. 13 in Wheaton College Wade Collection, Kilby Files, 3-8.

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, ed., Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 65.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1986), 66.

[5] On these figures, see R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (1994); and Stephen Courteois, ed., The Black Book of Communism (1999).

[6] On Newman’s influence on Tolkien, see Joseph Pearce, “Tolkien and the Catholic Literary Revival,” chapter in Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration (London: Fount, 1999), 105-112 especially.

[7] Christopher Dawson, “A Return to Christian Unity,” unpublished mss., Harvard University/Andover Theological Library, pp. 12-14. See also, Christopher Dawson, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement (1933; London, ENG: The Saint Austin Review Press, 2001).

[8] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 239.

[9] Daniel Grotta, J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth (Philadelphia, Penn.: Courage Books, 1992), 52-53. Tolkien acknowledges as much in Carpenter, ed., Letters, 303, but stressed that William Morris’s novels also influenced him.

[10] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 78.

[11] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 1, Section 35.

[12] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 14, Section 28.

[13] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 281.

[14] Carpenter, ed., Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 243.

[15] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 11, Section 17.

[16] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 141, 156.

[17] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 141.

[18] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 156.

[19] Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, 334.

[20] Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, 404.

[21] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 155.

[22] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 300-01.

[23] Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, 407.

[24] Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, 407.

[25] St. Augustine, City of God, Book 19, Section 17.

[26] St. Augustine, City of God, Book 14, Section 28.

[27] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 270, 278.

[28] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 57.

[29] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 287. One should not, however, take this definitively, as Tolkien seems to have been unsure how to deal with the Orcs and their origins.  See, for example, his late essays on why Orcs come from men rather than from Elves: “Orcs,” in Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, 409-24.

[30] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 190.

[31] On the Orcs hating lembas, see Tolkien, The Return of the King, 190. On the Orcs eating man flesh, see Tolkien, The Two Towers, 49.

[32] Tolkien, The Hobbit, 60.

[33] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 90.

[34] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 190.

[35] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 159.

[36] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 160.

[37] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 160-61.

[38] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 2, Section 29.

[39] Council of Trent, “Decree Concerning Justice,” Sixth Session, 13 January 1547.

[40] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 66.

[41] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 337.

[42] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 338.

[43] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 65.

[44] Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, 326.

[45] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 255.

[46] St. Paul, Letter to the Corinthians (RSV 12:12).

[47] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 12, Section 5.

[48] St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 19, Section 17.

[49] James Patrick “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Literary Catholic Revival,” Latin Mass (Spring 1999): 82-86.

[50] Hugh of St. Victor, De Sacramentis, II.2.1-2.

[51] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 30-31; and Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, 406.

[52] Clyde Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion (1976), 59.

[53] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 10.

[54] See, “The Quest of Erebor,” in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Annotated Hobbit, ed. Douglas Anderson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 371.

[55] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 284.

[56] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 326.

[57] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 326.

[58] Tolkien, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhtelm’s Son,” 14.

[59] Tolkien, ed., The End of the Third Age, 115.

[60] Tolkien, ed., The End of the Third Age, 125.

[61] Tolkien, ed., The End of the Third Age, 117.

[62] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 60.

[63] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 155-56.

The featured image is a combination of an image of Saint Augustine (detail from Saint Augustine and Saint Lawrence by Tomás Giner, 1458), uploaded by DonCamillo; and an image of J.R.R. Tolkien, uploaded and colorized by TuckerFTW. Both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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