New biopic highlights J.R.R. Tolkien’s lifelong commitment to Christianity

The Lord of the Rings author had a deep faith that influenced his fantastical and epic depictions of good vs. evil. As explained by a Hobbit fangirl.

British writer J R R Tolkien (1892 - 1973) at Merton College, Oxford, England, 1955. Haywood Magee | Picture Post | Getty Images

I have a confession to make: When I was 13, my most treasured possession was a t-shirt emblazoned with a drawing of a short figure and the words “Bilbo Baggins.” Yes, I was a Hobbit fangirl, a devotee of novels about a mythological race of English countryfolk whose snug sod homes and love of second breakfast were threatened by a mysterious ring with mysterious powers. Back then, before the film adaptations of The Hobbit and its companion books, I was a relatively lonely nerd. But no more: the films, of course, brought the books to the big screen, and now there’s an exciting new biopic in the works that will certainly feature the author’s lifelong commitment to Christianity.

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J.R.R. Tolkien was an English writer, philologist, and professor at Oxford University’s Merton College, but what a lot of people don’t know? His Roman Catholicism greatly influenced his fantasy novels.

The spirit behind the fiction

Tolkien was born in 1892, and after taking a degree at Oxford, served in WWI as a lieutenant. During his active duty he saw much carnage, including the horrendous Battle of the Somme, which later inspired some of the great conflicts in The Lord of the Rings. The trauma saw him discharged due to illness.

It was during his post-war recovery that the young Tolkien began to compose fantasy fiction, and his interest in English mythology and its natural surroundings was strengthened during his graduate studies in medieval English literature. By 1925 he had written The Hobbit and the first two books in The Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. (The last volume, The Return of the King, would not be finished until 1955.) Tolkien served in World War II as a codebreaker.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003. | MoviestillsDB
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001. New Line Cinema | MoviestillsDB
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001. New Line Cinema | MoviestillsDB

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Our myths contain small fragments of God’s truth.

However, many people who adore J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic works of fantasy are not aware of his spiritual life and work—or how deeply his religion affected his fiction. They soon will, as James Strong, who directed Downton Abbey, has signed on to direct a biopic about Tolkien’s life and work, with an emphasis on his early life as a professor. Although more information is not yet available, including an approximate date for release, a movie about Tolkien will surely fascinate the many fans of his books.

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It should also give more reason for people to appreciate his devout Christianity. At Oxford, Tolkien belonged to a group of fellow professors—including his Anglican colleague C.S. Lewis—who called themselves “The Inklings,” a name that referred to their professional tools of pen and ink as well as the “inklings” of spiritual wisdom and literary wisdom they sought. The dozen or so members met informally at pubs and homes to discuss story, literature, fantasy, mythology, language—all of the areas and ideas that they attempted to cover in their teaching and writing.

Although Tolkien was rather liberal in his social and political beliefs, he remained staunchly traditionalist as a churchgoer. His grandson Simon recalls that after Vatican II, his grandfather refused to acknowledge the change from Latin to English during Mass, and made “all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English.”

Myths as truths from God

Lest anyone think Tolkien’s work in myth-making was separate from his faith, the man himself believed that mythology was essential to man’s belief in God. When Lewis told his friend that myths were lies, Tolkien replied: “No, they are not lies.” He believed that myths and stories were the best, and sometimes only, way of conveying truths that might otherwise remain inexpressible.

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J.R.R. Tolkien believed fervently that our myths contain small fragments of God’s truth, that they can help us reorient ourselves towards that truth. Today, decades after Tolkien’s 1971 death, many literary and religious scholars acknowledge the real impact of the author’s personal commitment to Christianity on his own fiction, his own attempt to orient himself to God’s truth. Although Tolkien frequently spoke and wrote about Catholicism, one of his quotes that gets to the heart of his belief is this one:

“The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.”

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien attempted to connect his great loves of the English countryside, the power of language, and the continuous growth of faith through the exercise of good. As a man who served his country through two wars, the exercise of good against evil was more than a concept; it was a reality, and sometimes a desperate one. Through a century that tested most people’s faith (and sadly saw some lose it), Tolkien not only kept his but used his work and platform to bolster that of others.

Bethanne Patrick
Bethanne Patrick

Bethanne Patrick is a writer and author whose latest book is an anthology: “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections from 100 Authors, Artists, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People” (Regan Arts, 2016). Patrick tweets @TheBookMaven, where she has over 215,000 followers, and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives with her husband and their daughters in the DC metro area, where she can often be found on her porch—reading.

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