Was Tolkien a Heretic?: Defending Tolkien’s Catholic Orthodoxy from the “Cloak-and-Dagger” Priest
I have never trusted those who hide behind a cloak of anonymity. It seems to me that they do not have the courage of their convictions, or else that they have something to hide. I have, therefore, been very suspicious of an anonymous “priest” who gives talks on the internet attacking J. R. R. Tolkien as a heretic and attacking me as a heretic because of my books elucidating the deep Catholicism of Tolkien’s work. In these talks Tolkien is condemned as a Gnostic and I am a Gnostic for defending him.
Up until now I have chosen to ignore this “priest” because I will not argue with those who will not show themselves. I am, however, breaking my silence because I have heard that some people have burned their copies of The Lord of the Rings after hearing the “priest’s” talks. Faced with such hard evidence for the harm he is doing, I have decided to confront him. I am doing so in the hope that he will have the courage to come out of the closet and reply to me as a man of honesty and integrity, using his true name, and that he will not continue to lurk in the shadows, out of sight, in masonic secrecy, like a cloak and dagger villain who stabs his victims in the dark.
Before proceeding to the arguments the “priest” employs to suggest that Tolkien is a heretic, I would like to take a closer look at the “priest” himself, insofar as we can know anything about one who hides from those who seek him. On the website, he describes himself as “a traditional Catholic priest… in good standing with his local ordinaries and Rome, incardinated with normal faculties and jurisdiction, and serving in North America.”
Perhaps I might be accused of skepticism, but I am suspicious of someone who says that he is “in good standing” but who fails to reveal himself, or one who claims to be “incardinated with normal faculties and jurisdiction” but who refuses the normal decency of appending his name to such assertions. How do we even know that this anonymous person is even a Catholic priest, “traditional” or otherwise? He could be anyone! Such masonic shenanigans should not go unquestioned.
And what reason does the “priest” give for his decision to lurk in the shadows, thereby avoiding the light of day which would allow his interlocutors to see the whites of his eyes? Here is what we are told on the website:
Because this priest has duties and responsibilities to care for the souls of the Faithful entrusted to him, he chooses to remain anonymous. By remaining unidentified, attention to his flock will not be divided with those outside of his parish who might seek him out for questions rather than going to their local priests. Moreover, the message he is preaching—the Catholic Faith—is what is important, not the human being who is preaching it.
This is all very high-sounding but it is not very high in terms of ethical accountability nor very sound in terms of reason. Is this “priest,” if priest he be, holier than the numerous saints in heaven who, during their earthly lives, had the courage to put their names to their words and deeds? Did these saints fail to give due attention to their flocks by answering questions from those who were not of their flocks? Indeed, who exactly is excluded from the flock? Why should this “priest” refuse to answer questions? Why on earth should “local priests” be able to answer the questions which his own sermons prompt?
And, contrary to the “priest’s” claim to the contrary, why should we trust that someone is preaching “the Catholic Faith” properly if the person doing the preaching doesn’t trust us with his name? Who is he? Is he really a priest? If so, is he really in good standing? How “traditional” is he? We can’t check any of these facts because we are being deliberately kept in the dark. We only have the “priest’s” word for it, if indeed he is a priest.
This long preamble was necessary not merely as a means of introducing my rebuttal of his claims of heresy against me and Tolkien but as a means of showing that masonic “cloak and dagger” secrecy is never a bona fide way of engaging in discourse. It is worthy of neither man nor priest.
Proceeding to the actual content of the “priest’s” talks, I must say that his arguments against the deep Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings are so poor as to be pathetic. They are, in fact, so poor that I wonder that anyone would resort to the burning of their copies of Tolkien’s work having heard them.
The first thing that is clear is that the “priest” is not in the habit of reading books. He announces that he was in the habit of listening to The Lord of the Rings annually and makes no mention of ever having read it. I have nothing against listening to books, and The Lord of the Rings especially lends itself to being read aloud, but you cannot study a text unless you read it. It is essential that particular passages be read closely and perhaps repeatedly to glean the depth of their meaning, and it is equally essential to be able to compare passages from different parts of the book, side by side, to see the thematic threads that an author is weaving into his work.
None of this is possible with an audio “reading” of the work, or at least it is much more difficult. Listening to a book is fun as recreational “reading” but it does not offer a deep enough engagement with the text for anything that could be called or considered a scholarly reading.
Similarly, the “priest” mentions that he had prepared for his talk by listening to my eight-part course on The Lord of the Rings for Catholic Courses. He seems to have never read any of the three books I’ve written on Tolkien’s works, nor the fourth book of academic essays on Tolkien’s works which I have edited, though he claims to have “looked through various parts” of my books and my articles on the subject. His engagement with my critique of Tolkien is, therefore, largely superficial, or, at least, is much more shallow than it ought to be if his arguments against my reading of Tolkien are to be taken seriously. That said, let’s proceed to the arguments he presents.
In essence, the “priest’s” arguments are based upon an inadequate understanding of “allegory” and “myth.” Citing Tolkien’s oft-quoted words from the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings that he disliked allegory, the “priest” condemns Tolkien for criticizing allegory on the grounds that “God loves allegory.” What the “priest” doesn’t mention, though he should have known if he’d listened to my lectures carefully, or had read the right “parts” of my books, or had studied Tolkien’s own works in greater depth, is that Tolkien’s lamentably loose use of language in the foreword was not representative of his true understanding of allegory.
In fact, in several of his letters he refers to The Lord of the Rings as being “an allegory,” which, on the banal level of argument on which the “priest” is working, would presumably mean that God loves The Lord of the Rings! There is no space within the confines of this article to examine Tolkien’s use and understanding of allegory at greater length, though I will devote a whole essay to it in the near future.
Having seen that the “priest’s” understanding of allegory falls short of the manner in which Augustine, Aquinas and Tolkien understood it, we then come to see that his understanding of “myth” is equally deficient and defective. There are two ways of using the word “myth.” The first is to see a “myth” as being synonymous with a lie. This is the way that the “priest” sees it and discusses it. The second is to see it as a “story,” which being the fruit of the God-given talent of creativity, contains truth in some form. This is the way that Tolkien, Chesterton and C. S. Lewis use the word.
Since God is Himself a Storyteller, history being His Story, and since Jesus taught many of His most important lessons by telling stories about fictional characters, such as the Prodigal Son, story or “myth” has been sanctified. Our own stories or myths are good, true and beautiful insofar as they reflect the goodness, truth and beauty of the True Myth which God is telling. Compare this sublime understanding of truth and myth, which Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton had, with the banal level of argument that the “priest” employs: “Freemasonry is very much based on the myth concerning Solomon’s Temple. In other words, masons love myths.”
One hardly knows where to begin in responding to such a line of irrational “reasoning.” First of all, we would have to insist that “the myth concerning Solomon’s Temple,” being biblical, is a true myth, which means that “God loves myths,” irrespective of whether masons erect a lie upon the true foundations.
In the final analysis, and resorting to allegory, the “priest” is like the proverbial man in a glasshouse who should beware of throwing stones. One wonders why one who insists on secrecy, placing the Ring of invisibility on his finger, should have the gall to use the freemasons in a pejorative sense.
I would like to look at some of his other arguments against Tolkien’s work. Let us begin with this odd juxtaposition of ideas: “Freemasonry is very much based on the myth concerning Solomon’s Temple…. When looking at the historical development and use of myths, it is very important to know that no one traces any of them back to the Sacred Scriptures, because the Bible contains no myths!” Since Father X refers to the “myth concerning Solomon’s Temple,” which is biblical, how can he claim, at one and the same time, that “the Bible contains no myths?”
Once more, and to labour a point that Father X refuses obstinately to see, it is important to distinguish between the modern understanding of the meaning of “myth” as being a lie, and the older understanding of it as being a story. Tolkien always uses myth in the latter sense, which is why, as a believing Christian, he could call Christianity the True Myth, i.e. the True Story (not the True Lie!). According to this latter understanding, the Bible contains an abundance of true stories, some of which are stories of what happened in history, such as the story of Solomon’s Temple, and some are fictional stories, such as the parables told by Christ.
And what are we to make of this sweeping assertion: “We know how [God] works with men and His Creation because He told us. We do not need any myth! We have the Word Incarnate! Hear ye Him!” Does this mean that we need no stories at all? Should we not only burn The Lord of the Rings, as Father X encourages us to do (or at least to throw it in the trash), but also all the other great works of Christian Civilization? Should we make a bonfire of the “vanities,” throwing the works of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Chesterton into the flames? Do we do not need any literature because we have the Word Incarnate?
And what are we to make of this interesting line of reasoning: “Now it should be noted that Joseph Pearce says over and over again how misunderstood Tolkien is…. Now if you know anything about the heretics, they always claim ‘Oh, I’m misunderstood!’” Perhaps any comment on such a peculiar leap of logic would be superfluous. And yet I would add that Joseph Pearce also believes that there is a man who is much more misunderstood than Tolkien. Indeed, he is the most misunderstood man in history, a man who was put to death for his “heresy,” indeed his “blasphemy?” I refer, of course, to Jesus Christ. Am I a heretic for stating that Christ was misunderstood? Is Christ a heretic because I claim that he was misunderstood?
And while we are on the subject of misunderstanding what Christian orthodoxy teaches, Father X seems to believe that Tolkien was a heretic for suggesting in The Silmarillion that the cosmos might have existed for millions of years: “Tolkien has the worlds unfolding over eons, thereby supporting the evolutionary theories of our own time…. As you know, we and others have spoken many times on the pseudo-science of evolution and its complete lack of orthodoxy.” It is clearly a bit of a stretch to suggest that Tolkien’s belief that the stars might be millions of years old suggests that he, therefore, ipso facto, is a proponent of Darwinian evolution. This odd conflation ad absurdum is, however, the least of Father X’s problems.
He seems to be advocating a Young Earth Creationist perspective—i.e., that the universe is less than ten thousand years old, rooted in what might be termed biblical literalism or biblical fundamentalism. Although this is the position of some Protestant Fundamentalists, it is emphatically not the position of the Catholic Church, either before or since Vatican II. If anyone is looking a little theologically suspect and pseudo-scientifically odd at this point in the argument, at least from an orthodox Christian perspective, it is Father X, not Tolkien. It gets worse.
Take, for example, Father X’s complete misunderstanding of Christian teaching on Sin and Death: “In the Middle-Earth of Tolkien, death, for men, is a gift.… The Church teaches that death is a punishment for sin.” Oh dear! Father X seems to know nothing of the ancient Christian concept of the felix culpa, the “happy fault” in which the punishment for sin is also a gift and a blessing from God. Does Father X not know the traditional Exsultet for the Paschal Vigil Mass: O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem, “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”
Apart from his apparent ignorance of the theology underpinning the celebration of the Traditional Mass at Easter, Father X also seems to know nothing of the teaching of such great saints as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Ambrose on the felix culpa. St. Augustine, who is believed to have coined the phrase, discussed the great blessing, or gift, that God bestowed on humanity in response to the Fall of Man: “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” (Melius enim iudicavit de malis benefacere, quam mala nulla esse permittere.)
St. Thomas Aquinas, citing the Exsultet from the Easter Liturgy, explained how the principle that “God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom” underlies the causal relation between original sin and the Divine Redeemer’s Incarnation. St. Ambrose, another great saint of the Church, speaks of the fortunate ruin of Adam in the Garden of Eden in that his sin brought forth a greater good than if he had stayed perfectly innocent. Yes indeed, Father X, death was both a punishment and a gift! Tolkien is right, and you are woefully wrong.
For what it is worth, one need not be a theologian to see the obvious truth that a punishment is also a gift. Any loving father, be he God or merely a man such as I, punishes his children in order to bring about their growth in wisdom and virtue. For any father, punishment is exacted as a gift to those he loves in order to bring his children the blessing of goodness. Only a sadist metes out punishment simply to get revenge for a wrong done. God is not a sadist. Death is therefore a gift. It is not rocket science. It is simply common sense. In this context, Tolkien can be seen as a man of uncommon genius who exhibits great common sense. The latter, alas, seems somewhat lacking in Father X.
My final words of exhortation to the “priest” is that he should take the Ring from his finger so that he can leave the realm of shadows and enter into the light, because, as Samwise Gamgee reminds us all, “above all shadows rides the Sun.”
By Joseph Pearce
(This article is a welding of two articles originally published on The Imaginative Conservative)