A visitor to this blog drew my attention to a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, preserved in one of his letters:
“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.”
In my life I have read LOTR (and The Hobbit) many times and have yet to discern anything Catholic about it. Indeed, the most unreal thing about Tolkien’s imaginary world is the total absence of places of worship, clergy of any kind, sacred writings, explicit references to any deity or deities, and so on. Here on Earth there has never been a civilization that looked like that. Where would archeology be without temples, shrines, idols, etc.? Meanwhile, I’d give a lot to see the manuscript of Lord of the Rings as it was before Tolkien revised it.
I recognize Tolkien as a giant of fantasy literature, but I suggest that maybe he buried his “religious element” too deeply in the story, where hardly anyone could see it. When his work was published in paperback in the 1960s, Tolkien was appalled to find himself becoming one of the icons of the hippie movement, and more admired by pagans than by Christians. But he had only himself to blame. We can see from earlier works, published later in his life (like The Silmarillion) that, yes, Middle-Earth rested on a firm religious basis. But in Lord of the Rings hippies saw more of pipe-weed than of piety.
Well, nobody ever said it’d be easy to write compelling fantasy that serves the cause of Christ. Would Tolkien’s books had served it better if he’d left in the “religious” details that he took out? Or would the result have been something unconvincing and heavy-handed that would have pleased nobody?
I agree that Christianity, even if presented in an unearthly and fantastic form, ought to be embedded in the story–embedded, mind you: not slapped on like a decal. It’s hard to achieve this, artistically.
Readers, whom do you think are the best-ever writers of Christian fantasy–and why?