This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.” These opening words to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” have been inscribed in my mind from my earliest memories. My father used to read the book aloud, long before I could read it myself, and the ideas of hobbits and elves, dragons and dwarves, adventures and heroism, were embedded in my imagination as firmly as my own family history. As I grew older, eventually reading “The Lord of the Rings” and then watching Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations, I fell in love with the world of Middle Earth that Tolkien created in his stories. I found a comfort in Tolkien’s stories unlike anything else I’ve read since; and, as an English major and dedicated bookworm, I’ve read quite a lot.
It wasn’t until I came into the Catholic Church when I was in my 20s that I began to really appreciate the deeper qualities of Tolkien’s work that were resonating so powerfully with me, and it wasn’t until I started diving into biographies about him and reading his personal letters that I began to appreciate how his upbringing in the Church influenced so much of his work.
A Catholic from his early youth, Tolkien had a sincere and devout faith that infused every aspect of his life, from his marriage and the raising of his children, to his conversations with students and fellow faculty at Oxford, to his writing and the imaginative world to which he dedicated so many years. In a 1953 letter to Jesuit Father Robert Murray, a good friend of the family, Tolkien wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision… For the religious element is absorbed into the very story and symbolism.”
Tolkien received his faith as a great gift from his mother, who, as a young widow, sacrificed all her family relations and financial support to convert to the Catholic faith and raise her two sons in it. Ostracized by her Protestant relatives and friends, Mabel Tolkien was left nearly destitute. As the sole provider for her small family, the situation led her into illness and an early death. Yet, she never wavered in her dedication to the Catholic Church, instructing her young sons in the tenets of the faith herself.
When Mabel Tolkien and her boys settled in Birmingham, England, she explored all of the Catholic churches in the area to find a true spiritual home that could sustain them in their adversity and isolation. They settled on the Birmingham Oratory, founded in 1848 by then Cardinal, now Saint, John Henry Newman. Newman had died in 1890, only two years before Tolkien’s birth, and when the Tolkiens began attending the Oratory in 1902 many of the priests there had directly known the future saint, who spent the last four decades of his life dedicated to the Oratory. Prime among these priests was Father Francis Morgan, who became pastor of the Oratory and a dear friend to Mabel Tolkien, eventually taking on the guardianship of Tolkien and his younger brother when their mother passed away just a few short years after their move to Birmingham.
Just as we are each formed and affected by the generations that come before us in our family, Tolkien was greatly formed by his guardian, Father Morgan – by his good humor, humility and dedication to the faith. Father Morgan in turn had been formed by Newman, his own spiritual father.
Newman was canonized by Pope Francis last October. Hailed in his own time as a great evangelizer, theologian and preacher, Newman was also greatly beloved by his own community and was devoted to them in turn. When Newman was made a cardinal by St. Leo XIII, it would have been customary that he also be made a bishop and would then have been required to reside in Rome to advise the pope, but Newman requested that he forgo that honor and be able to return to Birmingham and live out the rest of his life at the Oratory. This love of place and home, and especially of the English country, would find great resonance in Tolkien and his work. Tolkien’s characters speak often of their love for home, and it is the greatest cause they fight for.
Newman and Tolkien would have also been bonded across the years in their great love for the University of Oxford, where both men in their time studied, lived and taught – the smell of books in the libraries, the late-night conversations in the rooms of the dons, the views of the spires reaching towards heaven.
Newman’s intellectual prowess and deep devotion to the faith would have echoed throughout the halls of the Birmingham Oratory, where Tolkien was nurtured in his most formative years. Tolkien learned his faith first from his mother, who discerned that the Oratory was to be their spiritual home, and then from the priests and religious brothers who had known and served under Newman, the great preacher and defender of the faith.
Where does our own faith come from and to what degree does it permeate the rest of our life?
Tolkien’s faith was first planted by the devotion of his mother, whom he considered a martyr for her beliefs due to the many hardships she suffered because of her conversion. That faith was further fed by the teaching and example of Tolkien’s guardian, Father Morgan, and the other priests and brothers of the Oratory, the community founded and nurtured in his time by Newman. It was with this great faith at its core that Tolkien was able to produce one of the greatest masterpieces in literature that the world has known. The themes of love, honesty, self-sacrifice, humility and perseverance still speak to the hearts of readers because these are the eternal truths spoken of in the Gospels.