Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Valor, Fellowship, and Sacrifice: Tolkien's Catholic Myth

“Is there any pleasure on earth as great as the circle of Christian friends by a good fire?” When C.S. Lewis penned these words, he probably didn’t have in mind a large lecture room in DeBartolo Hall. Nevertheless, taking this warm image as an inspiration to consider the works of J.R.R. Tolkien during our annual Catholic Culture Series, the Center certainly expanded its circle of friends with record attendance at a series of lectures each Tuesday evening from October 25th to November 15th.

Each Fall since 2002, the Center has sponsored a week of evening lectures for undergraduates by experts on various aspects of the lives and works of particular Catholic writers. In the past three years, this series has spotlighted G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, and Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. This year, we changed the format of the series by spreading the lectures out over the course of a month, rather than holding them all in one week. This format seems to have worked quite well, as we had approximately 200 persons in attendance each week of the series, including many new faces from the local South Bend community.

The series opened with a lecture by Ralph Wood, the University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, entitled “J.R.R. Tolkien: A Catholic Writer for our Uncatholic Age.” Professor Wood is a dear friend of the Center and has lectured at several of our past events. Once again, he enriched us all by providing reflections on how Tolkien “gave us such a deepened Catholic vision and understanding of the world.” According to Wood, Tolkien’s Catholic world-view, as depicted in Middle Earth, provides a powerful remedy to the ills of our anti-authoritarian and anti-sacramental modern culture. Tolkien depicts our modern culture in a unique way by using the image of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.

For example, the Ring has the quality of deathlessness which has the effect of making the Ring-bearers live longer, but not necessarily of living, or dying, well. This quality of the Ring stands in stark contrast to the specifically Catholic ideal of a good and holy death, such as that made by Boromir. After the lecture, Professor Wood signed copies of his book, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (Westminster John Knox, 2003).

The following week, Joseph Pearce, Writer in Residence and Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University, gave a lecture entitled,,“Tolkien: Truth and Myth.” In his talk, Professor Pearce gave us the “key” to unlocking The Lord of the Rings. This key, he said, is found in the appendices of the text: March 25th, familiar to us as the Feast of the Annunciation, is the date of the un-making of the One Ring in Middle Earth. Professor Pearce explained how the One Ring—the “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”—is a symbol of the Original Sin which binds us all. In the Christian tradition, the Incarnation of Christ is the un-making of Original Sin. Professor Pearce used this key to unlock the Christian themes and Catholic imagery in The Lord of the Rings. After the lecture, Professor Pearce signed copies of his book, Literary Converts (Ignatius Press 2000). He has also written numerous other books, including Tolkien: Man and Myth (Ignatius Press 2001).

Notre Dame assistant professor of political science, Mary Keys, gave our third lecture, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Politics of Friendship and Humility.” Professor Keys focused on The Hobbit and its dialectic between justice and friendship. During this lecture, several of the questions from the audience revealed a frustration among common folk—us mere hobbits—with contemporary government and political administration. Professor Keys provided an admonition, on behalf of Tolkien, that may not be intuitive to the modern political mind, but is thereby even more persuasive: if you want justice, work for friendship; if you want friendship, set a high value on humility. Understanding the role of friendship and the virtue of humility are essential to unlocking the works of Tolkien, suggested Professor Keys, and are critical to establishing social and civic happiness in our own world.

In the fourth and final lecture, Greg Wright, Writer in Residence at Puget Sound Christian College in Everett, Washington, provided his reflections on The Lord of the Rings films in a lecture entitled, “Missing the Spirit: The Scouring of the Shire, Tolkien’s Catholicism and Peter Jackson’s Return of the King.” Mr. Wright’s critical analysis of the relationship between J.R.R. Tolkien’s work and Peter Jackson’s trilogy was a wonderful way to end our series, as it tied together many of the themes addressed by the other speakers, including Tolkien’s Catholicism, from a new perspective that all in the audience could appreciate—that of the wildly successful films.

According to Mr. Wright, the films’ significant departure point from the books is the failure to include the “Scouring of the Shire.” The victory at Mount Doom, suggested Mr. Wright, is meaningless if the hobbits could not fight evil in their own backyard. While acknowledging practical reasons for omitting the Scouring of the Shire from the film, Mr. Wright declared that in so doing, Peter Jackson missed Tolkien’s spirit. After the lecture, Mr. Wright signed copies of his book, Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (Hollywood Jesus Books 2004). He has also written Tolkien in Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (VMI Publishing 2003).

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