When he was eight, his mother had to go back to work to support her children when an Anglican relative withheld financial support because of her conversion to Catholicism. (The establishment in England at this time was prejudiced against “popery” to an extent scarcely conceivable today.)
Four years later, his mother—overworked and worn out from poverty and the emotional pressures of family members who continued to criticize her conversion—lapsed into a diabetic coma and died in six days.
The boy was left in the care of Fr. Francis Morgan, a priest appointed by the mother to act as guardian.
Two obsessions to Two Towers
Do you know what else Tolkien wrote besides books and stories about Middle Earth?
Virtually nothing of note. He worked on Middle Earth for over fifty years. It was his obsession.
Unless his religion can be described as an obsession. He was a fervent Catholic, which isn’t surprising given the role Catholicism played in his mother’s premature death. She gave her life for the faith and Tolkien never forgot it.
Here’s how he described it: She “was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts… giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.”
Tolkien, with devotion to his mother, loved and clung tightly to the faith his entire life. It informed everything he did.
Catholicism in Middle Earth?
These twin obsessions lead to an interesting question that has been much disputed: Are his books about Middle Earth Catholic?
Many say “no,” though Tolkien himself said they are: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
So where’s the Catholicism? There’s no Jesus. There are no priests or nuns, scarcely any praying, no churches. No pope. There’s hardly anything that could even be called religious.
The Catholicism is in the background. Middle Earth is a thing Tolkien called a “sub-creation.” A sub-creation, Tolkien wrote in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” involves “the creation of an imaginary world as much as possible along the lines God might have used, had he decided to create it.”
In Tolkien’s sub-creation of Middle Earth, the Catholicism is infused. It reflects his view of God—which was stridently Catholic. He soaked Middle Earth with Catholic premises: the Fall, the role of grace, virtue and vice, the sin of pride, a sacramental view of things, to name just a few.
Got a couple of hours?
I could run on for hours about the ways these Catholic premises surface in Middle Earth, but that’ll have to wait another day. (If you want an extensive treatment, see Tolkien: A Celebration or Celebrating Middle-Earth.)
For now, merely consider these few examples: Sauron’s desire to usurp Middle Earth and its parallels to Satan; the lembas bread provided by Galadriel and its eucharistic traits; the importance of a good death (as seen in the deaths of Thorin Oakenshield and Boromir); an array of Christ-like figures, especially Gandalf and his death and resurrection; and my favorite: the overarching importance of humility, embodied in the heroism and ultimate importance of those little people everyone had forgotten: the hobbits.
Tolkien’s mother wouldn’t be denied her Catholic faith and she endeavored to make sure her son would never be denied it.
Unsurprisingly, that legacy goes on as the Catholic themes of her son’s work shine forth from the shadows of Middle Earth.