Fridays are Famous Catholics Day!
Every Friday I’m going to do a profile of a famous Catholic to provide a sample of the vast diversity that is found in the Universal Church.
To kick things off, we have one Catholic that every nerd knows about; Prof. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings.
|Here seen shortly after his marriage looking dashing in his army uniform|
Catholic Credentials: Raised by a priest from the age of 12; lifelong devout Catholic; devoted husband and father of four children; author of the greatest work of Catholic literature of the 20th century.
Nerd Credentials: Polyglot and first-rate scholar of Philology and Medieval Literature; champion of fairy tales and monsters; made up his own languages and a mythology to match; author of The Lord of the Rings; creator of the modern fantasy novel.
‘Ronald’ (as he preferred to be called) was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa to English parents. His only souvenir from Africa was arachnophobia brought on by a large spider. When he was three, his father died, necessitating him, his mother, and his younger brother to remain in England (where they were visiting family) without any income. Not long afterwards, his mother converted to Catholicism, earning her the ire of her Baptist family and removing the last financial assistance they had. She died shortly thereafter, when Ronald was twelve, leaving the two boys in the care of Father Francis Morgan.
The two boys would rise early every morning and toddle along to help Fr. Morgan say Mass before going off to school. Ronald had proved himself a bright pupil early on (he could read and write fluently at age four) and soon excelled at studying languages.
As he grew into young adulthood, however, his studies encountered an unexpected distraction in the form of a raven-haired fellow boarder at the lodging house where he lived named Edith Bratt. By Ronald’s seventeenth year, the two were in love, despite the fact that she was a Protestant.
Fr. Morgan was not impressed. Angry that Ronald was falling behind in his studies and worried about his romancing a Protestant girl, he forbade Ronald to see her until his twenty-first birthday. After a few attempts to find a loophole (e.g. by wandering around town for hours until he ‘happened’ to run into her), Ronald settled down and obeyed the order, diligently working to complete his studies under his guardian’s watchful eye. Midnight on his twenty-first birthday, however, Ronald wrote to Edith asking her to marry him.
A few days later, he got his reply: she was engaged to another man.
After Ronald had (presumably) finished wailing in despair, he discovered that things weren’t quite as bleak as they appeared. Edith had admitted that she had only agreed to marry the other guy because she had thought Ronald had forgotten about her, and it was more a match of prudence than of love. They agreed to meet and, after talking it over, renewed their love. Edith gave back her fiancé’s ring, converted to Catholicism (though a little more hastily than she would have liked, at Ronald’s insistence), and the two were married at long last.
Unfortunately, their honeymoon had to be cut short. By the time they were married it was 1916, and Europe was at war. Ronald had resisted pressure to enlist straight away in 1914 (as so many of England’s youth did), opting instead to finish his studies before entering a junior officer program. In June 1916, just two months after his wedding, Ronald shipped out for the killing fields of France, arriving just in time for the Battle of the Somme.
For those who are unfamiliar with the First World War, let me describe it this way; if you took every battle in every war ever fought and tried to make a list of the top ten worst, bloodiest, most nightmarishly horrific battles of all time, the Somme Offensive would be somewhere near the top of the list.
The battle (which lasted for almost five months) was a nightmare for all involved, junior signal officer Ronald Tolkien no less than anyone else. At the same time, however, Tolkien was always grateful for one aspect of the battle; it taught him a profound respect for the ‘Tommys:’ the enlisted soldier whom, in Ronald’s own words, “was far braver and more noble than I was.” As with many other officers, Tolkien learned to disdain the divisions of class and to revere the common man.
Before the end of the battle, Ronald came down with trench fever, causing him to be shipped back to England to recover. All but one of his closest school friends, however, would never return to England at all.
Ronald spent the rest of the war alternating between guard duty and sick leave, but during his down time he began to write stories; stories based on languages he had developed. You see, Tolkien was a firm believer in the power of languages, and their inseparable connection with culture and folklore. So, having come up with languages, he naturally needed to create a culture for them to exist in.
Meanwhile, the war ended and the impoverished young scholar with his growing family first got a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary, then took a teaching job at the University of Leeds before finally settling down as Professor of Philology (the study of languages, for those who don’t know) at Oxford, a position he held for the rest of his life.
In the course of his scholarly work, he translated Medieval works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into English and convinced the rest of the academic world to take the former seriously for the first time. He also championed the serious study and reading of ‘Fairy Stories,’ wrote on the power and meaning of the storytelling instinct, and helped convert his atheist friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity (though, to his disappointment, Lewis stopped just short of Catholicism).
Oh, and when he was 45 years old he also pounded out a little children’s book that you may have heard of; name of The Hobbit. Then, when his publisher asked for a sequel, he spent the next decade or so composing the greatest literary work of the twentieth century: The Lord of the Rings.
Having achieved a work of artistic genius, sparked a literary revolution (which he was not entirely happy about), and made major contributions to the fields of Philology and Medieval Literature, Tolkien pretty much continued as he ever had; teaching his classes (until he retired in 1959), attending meeting of “The Inklings:” a small society of authors who met at a local pub to share their works and views, raised his family, and set to work compiling his many, many other writings about Middle-Earth into what eventually became The Silmarillion.
His works and his life reflect his devout Catholic faith. His writings are laced through with Christian philosophy and beliefs: the parasitic nature of evil and the primacy of good, the dangers of pride and greed and the greatness of humility and love, the need for mercy and repentance, the imperfectability of mankind. In life he was a frequent communicant and was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin (Galadriel, and Gimli’s love for her, was intended as an image of Marian piety). Of course, as a philologist and lover of languages, he didn’t much care for the changes of Vatican II and would continue to loudly use the Latin responses at Mass for the rest of his life.
In 1971, Tolkien’s beloved wife Edith died; a blow that he never recovered from. Twenty-one sad months later, Ronald joined her. On their tombstone, under their respective names are inscribed “Beren” and “Luthien:” the subjects of Tolkien’s romantic masterpiece, The Lay of Lethian, which tells of how Luthien, the most beautiful of all living things, forsook her immortality to marry the mortal, Beren.
Tolkien teaches us that we can and ought to imbue everything we create with our faith, and that we can love the things we are suited to love while still finding God in them.
Vive Christus Rex!