Since I’ve already referenced The Lord of the Rings’ Catholic nature in at least one post and will stoop to any chance to reference it, it’s high time I should address what I take for granted: that just like J.R.R. Tolkien himself called it, The Lord of the Rings is a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Tolkien was a devout Catholic who did not hesitate to let his faith shine through in his works, especially in The Lord of the Rings. Both Peter Kreeft and Joseph Pearce have written and lectured extensively on the subject. I heartily recommend both of them for further reading/research if you are interested in the subject. However, I wanted to take an approach to Tolkien inspired by a reading of Tolkien’s own essay “On Fairy Stories” and the philosopher Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture. I learned this approach to Tolkien’s infusion of Catholicism into his works from my Philosophy of Education class at UST. It was so mind-blowing that I want to share the fruits of my paper that I wrote on the subject on this blog.
Josef Pieper’s ideas on how we know is particularly helpful to form the basis of why Tolkien’s fairy stories can teach us anything at all. Pieper distinguishes between the forms of knowing ratio and intellectus. Ratio is linear understanding. It involves logical, step-by-step processing, in which a result naturally follows from premises. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the understanding which is the “light-bulb moment.” Like a flash of lightning, you can understand something that up until that point puzzled you, and understanding becomes as easy as seeing. Pieper names intellectus as the higher form of understanding, and even goes so far as to call it “superhuman,” because it is more of a gift than something earned. It is a sudden opening of a clouded vision to the brightness of knowledge.
One of the greatest ways to lead and to be led to intellectus is through art. Art, in all its forms, not only presents a physical vision to the recipient, but the vision of meaning. It allows artists to share in their own way their moments of intellectus and thus guide and allow the audience to participate in the insight of the artist. In a collection of his talks titled “Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio,” Josef Pieper says this of the vision and power of artists to convey truth and reality:
The true artist…is not someone who simply and in any way whatever “sees” things. So that he can create form and image (not only in bronze and stone but through word and speech as well), he must be endowed with the ability to see in an exceptionally intensive manner…to see in contemplation, moreover, is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality; it certainly perceives more than mere appearances. Art flowing from contemplation does not so attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is.
Tolkien has this power. Moreover, he is consciously aware of that power and uses it to reveal the archetypes of the universe as revealed by God and upheld in the Catholic faith. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes the art of writing fantasy as building up a “secondary world” from the materials of the “primary world” in order to make the things of the primary world clearer: “fairy stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.” Fantasy’s purpose is to move the reader to the form of knowledge that unveils reality to the mind’s eye: intellectus. J.R.R. Tolkien’s primary world on which he built his secondary world of middle earth was formed upon the conviction that the Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth. To leave out the archetypes of this world would not only be to defeat the purpose of a fairy story as he himself understood it, but it would be to produce bad art.
The Lord of the Rings is certainly not allegory nor is it a fable. It is a fairy story, born from the contemplation of a Catholic artist and presented as an invitation to the contemplation of intellectus.
To see exactly how the archetypes of the world are presented by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, watch either Peter Kreeft: Christian Themes in ‘Lord of the Rings’ or Unlocking the Catholicism of “The Lord of the Rings” | Joseph Pearse
For further reading:
“On Fairy Stories,” by J.R.R. Tolkien
Liesure, the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper
Only the Lover Sings, by Josef Pieper