I recently read a movie review for the biopic Tolkien written by my former professor Dr. Michael Ward. I have to admit that when I saw that this movie was going to be released, I was really excited. He is a fascinating historical figure, and I was hoping that the film could do him justice. That said, Dr. Ward’s review has me highly concerned, and there is one thing that I have noticed in my time studying Tolkien that seems to becoming more and more common yet remains problematic.
“This handsome, earnest, yet overstuffed and poorly paced film deviates frequently from the historical record. Most seriously, it ignores Tolkien’s devout Christian faith: there is no indication that he served Mass daily as a boy or ever even entered a Catholic church. His punch-ups with Wiseman and drunken night-time profanities are, in comparison, unimportant inventions.”
Modern Tolkien scholarship has very little place for seriously understanding his devout Catholic faith. Even just reading the edited collection of his letters that was compiled by Humphrey Carpenter, you cannot help but notice that he was a very devout believer, and there is no way to deny that his faith impacted his writing. Even if you are so blind as to not even see the Christian worldview present in Middle-earth, it is simply unreasonable to fail to mention his faith as one of the most formative influences in his life as a matter of biographical note.
That raises the question as to why this seems to be the case. No one has to endorse his Catholicism. No one has to say that he was right in his beliefs. However, it seems that there is some type of intentional plan to disregard this element of his life. I recently took a class specifically on Tolkien, and we spent a lot of time reading the recent academic literature on Tolkien in journals whose purpose is to study his writing specifically. Very few articles analyzed or mentioned his religious beliefs. That seems highly problematic to me.
The main problem is that when people are very religious, that religious perspective influences the way that they view the world. For Tolkien, he did not set out to write an allegory. He was very clear about that. However, the thoughts that came into his head were largely Christian thoughts. As he was sub-creating this world, when he began to think about what might happen or how the world should work, it simply makes sense that his world would be influenced by his own thoughts. We know that as a devoutly religious man, his thoughts would also be influenced by his faith. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense that his writing would be influenced by his faith, but no one talks about it. If they do mention it, it is largely as a side note rather than as a central theme that deserves a great deal of consideration.
I still haven’t really addressed why this willful ignorance matters. Why don’t people want to engage with Tolkien, the complete man, instead of Tolkien, sans religion?
It seems to be the case that Tolkien, the complete man, makes people uncomfortable. His stories seem to be so true and consistent with human nature. He has understandings of heroism, death, immortality, time, suffering and so many other topics that are remarkably perceptive. Very few people deny that if they are serious scholars. Most people realize that his stories are certainly fantastical but do not feel inconsistent with the way the world is.
As a result, scholars, realizing this, have to figure out why Tolkien’s understanding of the world seems to be so accurate. However, they cannot follow the simple process I outlined above. They cannot say that his faith is what led him to write stories that seem so true. If they acknowledged that, then the inevitable conclusion would be that Christianity put forward a belief system that makes sense of the world around us.
That’s where the current faith commitments, or lack thereof, of the modern academy do Tolkien a great disservice. Rather than acknowledge the simple fact that he was devoutly Catholic, he wrote stories that seemed highly consistent with human nature, and they very well might be a connection between those two facts, they go to whatever lengths they can to find alternative explanations. After all, it cannot be the case that someone who views the world from a biblical worldview actually has an accurate understanding according to the secular academy. There is a prior commitment to not believing in the truth of Christianity, so even if it is a possible explanation, and perhaps probable explanation, to explaining why Tolkien wrote what he wrote, they cannot acknowledge that fact without undercutting their own assumptions.
I know that I may sound like some type of conspiracy theorist here. You may say that academic freedom dictates that truth will be followed wherever it leads. I would agree that that is perhaps the ideal of the academy, but particularly in the case of Tolkien, that just does not seem to be the case. There are obviously Christian scholars who study Tolkien, and there are certain outlets for people who want to present a more comprehensive picture of the man himself, complete with his religious convictions. However, by and large, unless these are Christian outlets in the first place that are obviously sympathetic to this dimension of his life, it just doesn’t seem to be the case that secular Tolkien outlets are even interested in acknowledging the important role that is religion inevitably placed in his writing. These are simply the facts of the situation, and as much as the journals would probably deny everything I’m saying, just go look through their tables of contents. You are going to find evidence supporting what I am saying.
Is there a way to address this problem? I’m not really sure. I see two potential options, but neither one is particularly probable. First, secular outlets could broaden their horizons and be willing to discuss his religious persuasions. That is probably the easiest option. The institutions and respected journals in the field are already in place, so it would make a lot more sense for them to just accept a different interpretation of Tolkien, the man, than perhaps their philosophical assumptions are willing to accept. I say this is the easier alternative, but changing philosophical assumptions is probably unlikely.
The second option is that there needs to be the development of new institutions. If these publications become respected and influential, then those who would formerly submit to secular journals would publish in these new, more comprehensive projects. The field could gravitate away from journals that have problematic philosophical assumptions that interfere with academic freedom and gravitate towards newly formed journals that are willing to consider a broader array of questions.
In either scenario, this is sad news about the most recent Tolkien movie. It is a shame that a highly formative portion of Tolkien’s life is largely ignored in a movie that is supposed to tell us about his life. It is really hard to do justice to his story without recognizing that reality. It would be the equivalent of trying to tell his story while leaving out the massive impact that World War I had on his creative endeavors. No one denies that, and no one should deny the equally important role that his faith played in his work.