J.R.R. Tolkien, a man of faith

Tolkien's Faith: A Spiritual Biography    
by Holly Ordway | Word on Fire, 2023, 544 pages 

Modernity has flattened and fractured our cultural understanding of the human person. Dr Holly Ordway, Word on Fire’s Cardinal Francis George Professor of Faith and Culture, offers a refreshing counterpoint to this decline in her recent book, Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography. Laying out meticulously researched evidence, she presents J.R.R. Tolkien as a whole man, a man whose faith enlightened his mind and his relations, a man fully alive.

Several notable biographies explore the life and works of the famous author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized edition, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, first appeared in 1977, four years after Tolkien’s death. It benefits from immediacy, capturing a personality still in living memory. John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War (2003) examines a pivotal period in Tolkien’s life. Raymond Edwards’ Tolkien (2020) focuses primarily on his academic career. 

But despite their merits, these biographies are incomplete. Garth intentionally limits his scope to a few years, and Carpenter and Edwards ignore a major influence in the life of this complex man: Tolkien’s Christian faith. Carpenter dismisses Tolkien’s faith as an emotional attachment related to his mother, while Edwards relegates it to an appendix. Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth (2001) engages Tolkien’s Chrisitan worldview more directly from the perspective of a literary critic, but it is Holly Ordway who adds a “whole new dimension” to our understanding of the integrality of Tolkien’s faith as “co-inherent”—to borrow a phrase from his friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams—to all aspects of his life.

One of Ordway’s most striking themes is the influence of Oratorian spirituality on Tolkien. Upon her death in 1904, Tolkien’s widowed mother entrusted her twelve-year-old son John Ronald and his younger brother Hilary to her friend Fr. Francis Morgan, an Oratorian priest. Though Fr. Francis arranged for the boys’ lodging nearby, the Birmingham Oratory served as both school and home. The community of “learned fathers” became their family. Tolkien later described it as a home “in excelsis” (in the highest). There he studied languages, music, drama and played sports. He learned the faith within the legacy of the Birmingham Oratory’s founder, St. John Henry Newman. Though Newman died two years before Tolkien’s birth, his influence was carried forward through Fr. Francis who had served as Newman’s secretary.

To illustrate this connection, Ordway includes an 1878 photograph in which Newman is shown seated with a young Fr. Frances Morgan standing behind and to his side. “Given that Fr. Francis, Tolkien’s guardian and ‘second father’ was one of Newman’s spiritual sons at the Birmingham Oratory,” Ordway states, “we might even venture to entertain the beguiling notion that Tolkien was the grandson Newman never had.” This was a spiritual relationship that bore much fruit. Scribbled in the margins of his work diary, Tolkien wrote, “Per Umbras Et Imagines” (“through shadows and images”), which is evocative of a marble plaque at the Oratory which read, “Ex umbras et imaginibus in veritatum” (“from shadows and images into truth”). This is a phrase that served as Newman’s own epitaph, but its substance echoes throughout Middle Earth.

Ordway takes the reader even deeper into Oratorian tradition back to its sixteenth-century founder, St. Philip Neri. Enshrined in the Birmingham Oratory is a full-color portrait of St. Philip encased in an elaborate frame and engraved with “Exaltavit humiles,” (“He has exalted the humble,” Luke 1:46–55). Ordway explains: “Tolkien used these words in relation to hobbits, who, he said were ‘subjects for ennoblement’ and ‘heroes more praiseworthy than professionals.’” St. Philip Neri’s humorous, exuberant spirituality is seen mirrored in these most beloved sub-creations. Significantly, Tolkien chose St. Philip Neri—not the Apostle Philip, as is commonly assumed—for his Confirmation name, a detail verified by Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla in an interview Dr. Ordway conducted on one of her research trips to Britain. Tolkien’s monogram cleverly intertwines his initials (J, R, P, R, T for John Ronald Philip Reuel Tolkien). Philip hides in plain sight, like a cleverly hidden joke honoring his patron saint’s sense of humor. These details are not trivial, but shining threads binding together the themes of Oratorian influence: an emphasis on education, beauty, music, humility, humor, and joy. These interests and traits contribute to Tolkien’s integrity as a whole man.

Drawing on years of teaching and research, Ordway’s intimate familiarity with Tolkien’s work makes her an expert guide. Who else would have connected the phrase, “the roots of the mountains” used in reference to Gollum’s home in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, with Tolkien’s beautifully crafted translation of the Book of Jonah for the English edition of the Jerusalem Bible: “The waters were all about me to my throat, the abyss encompassed me. The seaweed was wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down into the countries beneath the earth, unto the peoples of the past.” Her keen observations reveal Tolkien’s depth of meaning in those images. His faith nourished his imagination; Gollum and Jonah represent themes of God’s mercy and repentance.

The question of suffering has snared many a soul on their journey of faith. Ordway digs to the roots of this mountain when she explores Tolkien’s personal experience with suffering. He lost his parents at a young age and was estranged from his Anglican relatives following his mother’s conversion (and his own) to Roman Catholicism. By Tolkien’s own account, he endured an “extremely hard, painful and bitter” separation from his fiancée, served on the Somme during the summer of 1916, and lost many friends during the Great War. And this only covers the early years of his life.

Ordway conveys how difficult his spiritual journey was, how “hard won.” Faith was never assured through these trials. However, Ordway does not turn this spiritual biography into a hagiography; she shows the reader his humanity. In a frank letter counseling his son Michael, Tolkien acknowledges the reality of sin: “grace may help [man] in the struggle; but the struggle remains.”

In Ordway’s account, it was the knowledge of the struggle, the “long defeat,” that kept Tolkien humble. She describes how he sustained his faith through prayer, Scripture, friendships (not the least of which was C.S. Lewis) and practiced charity in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Most importantly, as a Catholic, he nurtured an enduring love for the sacraments, especially frequent Confession and “the one great thing to love on earth,” the Eucharist.  


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Tolkien never lost hope, even when “grief freshly fallen” laid him low. On the day his beloved wife Edith died, he wrote: “I am utterly bereaved, and cannot yet lift up heart.” Ordway emphasizes his choice of words, “he nevertheless struck a distant note of hope (‘cannot yet’) that came from his deep Christian faith.” Hope steeps through Tolkien’s life and work. What Carpenter and Tolkien’s other biographers failed to recognize was that it was his Christian faith that was the source of that hope.

Ordway brings to the study of Tolkien’s life an understanding of the complex interplay of historical, cultural, and ecclesial factors influencing Anglican and English Catholic relations during his lifespan. Tolkien had been baptized into the Church of England as an infant but became a confirmed Roman Catholic by age twelve (the same year Pope Leo XIII died and was succeeded by Pius X). This shift from Anglicanism to Catholicism, from privileged to persecuted, was not easy. A historical timeline contextualizing Tolkien’s lifespan is included as an appendix. It is rather jarring, with its side-by-side view, to realize that Penal Laws against Catholics were still on the books in 1926 until the Catholic Relief Act removed them, which was the same year Tolkien moved his young family to 22 Northmoor Road, Oxford.

Ordway, herself a convert to Catholicism, addresses the subtlety of differences between Catholic and Anglican articles of faith by carefully defining terms. She provides clarifying footnotes, a glossary, biblical index, and an appendix of prayers and liturgical extracts. The latter includes both Latin and English translations, a reminder not only of Tolkien’s love for languages (he had translated many of these prayers into Elvish), but also that he lived through Vatican II when the liturgy switched to the vernacular. These details frame the changing environment in which Tolkien lived and adapted, and Ordway’s carefully crafted (oftentimes poetic) prose serves as a hospitable guide through terminology that might otherwise appear as dark and confusing as Fangorn Forest.

Tolkien’s Faith is somewhat like an Ent living in Fangorn. It protects the wholeness of a man as if he were a forest made up of individual trees co-inherent to one another. But also like an Ent, it takes its time moving in a steady, thoughtful manner which may, at times, spur the reader to impatience. Perhaps this is because he is so absorbed in the story of Tolkien’s life—Ordway’s sleuthing and thrilling discoveries—that the reader (paradoxically) wants to eat chips (more and faster) at a nine-course meal. Like Ordway’s earlier book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading, each section is best savored slowly, right up to its satisfying end.  

Does this add to your appreciation of Tolkien? Tell us in the comments. 

Theresa Pihl teaches history at Blue Mountain Community College, Oregon, and pursues her MFA in creative writing through the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Her prose, poetry and/or fiction may be found in An Unexpected Journal, Vermilion, and Evangelization & Culture.  

This book review has been republished with permission from Humanum Review

Image credit: from the cover of "Tolkien's Faith: A Spiritual Biography"


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