Readers of my earlier essay, “Defending Tolkien from the Cloak-and-Dagger Priest,” will know something of the controversy surrounding the attacks on Tolkien by an anonymous priest, whom I will henceforth refer to as Father X. Since, in that essay, I only addressed Father X’s inadequate understanding of allegory and myth, 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.
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.