13 February 2014

Thoughts on those "Tolkien's world is gnostic and of the occult" conferences

A short time ago Rorate Caeli published the texts of two curious conferences in which an anonymous priest makes the rather bizarre claim that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is Gnostic and of the occult.

When I first became aware of the claim I gave the text a quick read and thought about commenting on it, but since is largely composed of one non sequitur after another I judged it not worth my time or effort. However, since several friends have asked my thoughts on it in recent days I will now make a few observations.

The first - and greatest - difficulty I have with the conferences is that their author remains anonymous by his own choice. When given the task of determining which decrees and canons of the Church where authoritative, Saint Peter Damian (d. 1072/3) used a simple process to begin examining them:  "If they do not have an author," he said, "they doubtlessly do not have any authority."  It is very easy to make bold claims anonymously and quite another to make them publicly and be willing to defend them from criticism and even further explain them.  This is a simple matter of honesty and integrity and is why anonymous letters go immediately to the rubbish bin.

My second difficulty with these texts is that the anonymous author, in the twelve printed pages of text, cites Tolkien directly only three times, and then partially and without context.  The majority of the author's criticisms are not so much criticisms of Tolkien's work as they are of Joseph Pearce's applications of Tolkien's work (for the record, I think Pearce has excellently explained Tolkien's philosophy, basing himself on the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien's letters and other works).  The anonymous priest seems blissfully unaware of Tolkien's published letters and his essay On Fairy-Stories in which Tolkien addresses most of the criticisms of the anonymous priest.

A third difficulty I have with these conferences is the fact that the priest rather childishly dismisses "the ways of modern science which is all but completely fantasy-based now... with all their silly claims of a multiverse...or multi-verse, UFOs and life on other planets" and the describes the theory of evolution and of the big bang as more than fantasy (ellipses original). In addition, he regrets that we no longer have the Index of Forbidden Books.

N.B.: The Index of Forbidden Books was begun in 1559.  The final edition of the Index of Forbidden Books was published in 1948.  The Index of Forbidden Books was abolished in 1966.

The Hobbit was first published in 1937 and The Fellowship of the Ring was first published in 1954. The Church had twenty-nine years to condemn The Hobbit and twelve years to place The Fellowship of the Ring on the Index of Forbidden Books and did not. Why, then, does this priest wish to set himself up as a sort of Super-Magisterium?

My fourth difficulty with the priest's conferences is that his principle concern seems to be that the Lord of the Rings (by which he also means to include The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and anything to do with Middle-earth, whether by Tolkien or no) is that "there is no mention of God at all nor is there mention of faith or belief in God."  He asks, "Why did he try to baptize myth?" and, "Why did he have to revise it to be Catholic...? This is a most strange way of approaching the truths of God. It is a statement that he did not set out to make his work Catholic at the start" (ellipsis original).  If the priest had done his homework he would know that Tolkien himself addressed these questions.

First of all, Tolkien did not set out to try to baptize myth.

Second, there is no mention of the Gospel because, as Tolkien rightly says with profound humility, "The Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write" (Letter 181, To Michael Straight, undated draft, emphasis original).

Third, Tolkien freely admits that:
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.  That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.  For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.  However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel.  For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know (Letter 142, To Robert Murray, S.J., 2 December 1953)

What is more, there is no mention of the Gospel because "the 'Third-Age' was not a Christian world" (Letter 165, To the Houghton Mifflin, Co.).  In reference to this, and in the same letter, Tolkien explains that the Lord of the Rings
is not 'about' anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular, or topical, moral, religious, or political. The only criticism that annoyed me was that it 'contained no religion' (and 'no Women', but that does not matter, and it is not true anyway). It is a monotheistic world of 'natural theology'. The odd fact that there are no churches, temples, or religious rites and ceremonies, is simply part of the historical climate depicted.
If I have time and begin to feel so inclined, I may address the author's more specific accusations of gnosticism and the occult in Tolkien's writings in individual posts, but the above remarks should be enough to show that the anonymous conferences should be taken with a large helping of salt, if not simply ignored.

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