by Bradley J. Birzer
The White City, in its pride and presumption, lay under siege.
Having gathered “his most cunning smiths and sorcerers,” Melko, the twisted one, had directed the creation of organic machines, through “iron and flame” to attack. Led by the leader of the demonic balrogs, Gothmog, and armed with such unholy weapons, Melko’s forces breached the walls of the city. Troops of scimitar-wielding Orcs spitefully slaughtered as they entered the city. Prophets had warned of this, and one of the citizens of the city, Meglin, had betrayed his family and friends to Melko.
The city burned.
In one of the earliest parts of what was to become a life-long lengendarium, a vast and, at times, overwhelming mythology, [Lieutenant] John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote one of his “lost tales,” “The Fall of Gondolin,” after his participation in the horrendous Battle of the Somme and during his convalescence in an English hospital in December 1916.
It would prove to be the first of two major writings of the entire mythology.
Indeed, 1916 changed many things in the young man’s life. Prior to the war, Tolkien had experienced an incredible and meaningful friendship with three others in his public school, King Edward’s: Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Smith, and Rob Gilson. The best of friends, they had called themselves the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. They stayed close to one another after graduating, holding periodic “Councils” to share poetry and ideas.
Gilson died on July 1, 1916, at the Somme. Shaken, Tolkien had written that the three remaining had a duty, a duty to achieve greatness, not for personal glory, but for God’s glory, to be a “great instrument in God’s hands.” Just has Gilson had achieved greatness through his sacrifice for something greater than himself, so the remaining three friends must be “steeped with the same holiness of courage, suffering and sacrifice.” Tolkien considered July 1 a holy day, to be remembered for the rest of their lives. So he wrote Smith on August 12.
Sometime in the week before Christmas, Tolkien received a letter from Wiseman. German shrapnel had taken the life of another friend, G.B. Smith.
Now, only two remained. “Of course the TCBS may have been all we dreamt,” Tolkien had written in that letter to Smith, “and its work in the end to be done by three or two or one survivor and the part of the others be trusted by God to that of the inspiration which we do know we all got and get from one another.”
These words must have echoed in Tolkien’s mind and soul as he pondered the death of Smith.
By no means did the deaths of these two close friends provide Tolkien with his only glimpse of brutality in the war. Having served at the Somme from July through November, Tolkien witnessed the destruction of almost entire battalion at Chemin des Dames.
“He saw, and was opposed to, the horrors of war, but was never a pacifist, as wars made him angry and bitter,” two of Tolkien’s children explained in 1974. “He was never a soldier, but went to war out of a sense of duty.”
The enemy had breached the walls of the White City, flame engulfing nearly everything.
The sheer scale of the violence overwhelmed many after the First World War. Indeed, for most literati, seemingly, World War I destroyed their innocence. “The Great War,” Cecil Day Lewis wrote, “tore away our youth from its roots.”
But, for Tolkien, after every battle, remembrance and repairs must come as well, the White City must be rebuilt, ready to fight a new evil in a new and more powerful guise. For it was in the trenches that Tolkien realized the significance of faerie and myth. “The war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world I remember,” Tolkien said in 1968. “I remember miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.”
For men such as Tolkien, World War I only increased their belief that England must save western civilization.
For Tolkien, remembrance of beauty undid much of the horror and terror of the world. “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood,” Tolkien told an academic audience in 1936, “and quickened to full by war.”
Modernity: The White City Betrayed
Tolkien understood that World War I served as a symptom of a deeper problem in Western Civilization. By focusing on the particular, modernity removes a thing from its (or his) relationship to another thing (or person). Modernity divorces the fact from its context by its emphasis on fact alone.
In intellectual life, no three more important figures than Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud had contributed to this intellectual narrowing. By focusing on a particular aspect of the human person, each of these figures either ignored the whole of the human person, or, worse, exaggerated a particular aspect claiming it to define the whole person. For Marx, man is at heart, economic. For Darwin, man is biological. For Freud, man is psychological. Each of these things is true. But, man—a complexity and mystery even unto himself—is all of these things and much more.
As scholars such as historian Christopher Dawson and theologian Romano Guardini have penetratingly noted, modernity compartmentalizes all things—breaking things into units, and then breaking down such units even further. In an attempt to dissect the thing, not only is the thing lost, but all connection to a universal truth and reality is lost.
“No longer does the unity of the different spheres of man’s existence and of his activities seem obvious….Man begins to hesitate moving from one sphere to another….Each sphere tends to find its own roots in itself, seeking what especially sets it apart from all other spheres. Each sphere seeks its own specific meaning and purpose, its own basic values, its authentic standards of validity and its corresponding norms….Science recognizes nothing except what arises in methodical consequence from the quest for truth within its own sphere. For art there is nothing except what serves exclusively the realization of aesthetic values, the perfection of expression and form. Politics has no other aim but to maintain and increase the power and welfare of the state….Each domain asserts itself so emphatically that the unifying view of the whole is lost before each domain’s claim to autonomy.”–Romano Guardini
In his own life, Tolkien experienced the loss of community. Indeed, with the loss of his parents and his friends, his relationships withered, one by one. While the loss of his mother and father cannot be blamed on modernity, it taught much the same lesson. Tolkien knew, first hand, what it meant to be removed from his context. Much of the rest of his life, then, saw his search for order and friendship.
Understanding the isolation of the thing from its context, many understood the dangers of modernity. One of the most important cultural critics of his age, T.E. Hulme (1883-1917), adopted and accepted modernist forms of art while rejecting the meaning and essence of modernity. In one of his most powerful essays, calling for a return to classical virtues, Hulme argued that all scholarship and art must begin with the premise (fact) of original sin:
“What is important, is what nobody seems to realise—the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. That man is in no sense perfect but a wretched creature who can yet apprehend perfection.”
Rousseauvian and enlightenment thinking had moved society away from understanding this fundamental truth of the human person. As Hulme saw it, Rousseauvianism is a “heresy, a mistaken adoption of false conceptions.”
By focusing on feelings and individual desires and blind lusts (and glorifying them) it attempts to allow man to become a God. Progress, itself, Hulme believed, had become a substitute for religion.
A figure no less important than T.S. Eliot considered Hulme one of the most important thinkers of his generation. Eliot saw him as the “new man”—the “twentieth-century man.” In the April 1924 editorial notes of The Criterion, he wrote:
“When Hulme was killed in Flanders in 1917…he was known to a few people as a brilliant talker, a brilliant amateur of metaphysics, and the author of two or three of the most beautiful short poems in the language. In this volume [Speculations] he appears as the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own.”
Hulme, Eliot continued approvingly, is
“classical, reactionary, and revolutionary; he is the antipodes of the eclectic, tolerant, and democratic mind of the end of the last century….A new classical age will be reached when the dogma…of the critic is so modified by contact with creative writing, and when the creative writers are so permeated by the new dogma, that a state of equilibrium is reached. For what is meant by a classical moment in literature is surely a moment of stasis, when the creative impulse finds a form which satisfies the best intellect of the time, a moment when a type is produced.”
Hulme and Eliot called for a new classicism, rejecting any aspect of romanticism. So, while Hulme, Eliot, and Tolkien each rejected the essence of modernity, finding much more traditional and effective solutions in some form of Catholicism, Tolkien rejected, adamantly, the forms of modernity as well. Hulme and Eliot almost certainly find their way into C.S. Lewis’s world as well in “Three Pale Men” from the openly allegorical The Pilgrim’s Regress. While it is difficult to tell who is who, Hulme is most likely “Neo-Angular” and Eliot is “Neo-Classical.”
The White City Remembered: Myth
As he had with the TCBS, Tolkien hoped to fight the trends of the modern world with poetry, imagination, myth, Christian romance, and Christian friendship.
“We may indeed be older now, in so far as we are heirs in enjoyment or in practice of many generations of ancestors in the arts. In this inheritance of wealth there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and ‘pretty’ colours, or else to mere manipulation and over elaboration of old material, clever and heartless,” Tolkien lectured to an academic audience at the University of St. Andrews in the late 1930s. “We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like ancient shepherds, sheep, dogs, and horses–and wolves.”
Further, why should one protest so-called “escape” that literature and mythology provide, Tolkien asked?
“For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable’, products.”
One can also think of Tolkien’s description of Gandalf in The Silmarillion. Gandalf, known as Olorin in the True West, has been the least of the Istari sent to Middle-earth to aid Men and Elves in their war against Sauron. Though the least powerful, he was the wisest, and he spent many of his days walking among the Elves “unseen, or in a form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts.” The Silmarillion records that “those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”
Tolkien’s closest adult friend, C.S. Lewis, also admired the art of escape through poetry, literature, and the imagination. “The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power,” Lewis wrote for the New York Times in 1956, “to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies.” In its best form, the fantastic can “add to” life, not just “comment on” it.
In his 1928 book, Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield had written: “A civilization which must look more and more to art—to the individualized poet—as the very source and fountain-head of all meaning.”
In a 1984 interview, Barfield nicely summed up the thinking of Lewis and Tolkien on art and literature: all “felt that literature shouldn’t be used as a means of propagating a message.” Further, he noted, “The thing that mattered was that it was a good work of art, and that had its own value, which in the long run was a Christian value. I think that that would perhaps be as fair a ways as I could imagine of stating both Tolkien’s and Lewis’s attitude.”
By and large, one could correctly describe the group of friends who centered around C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, the Inklings as conservative, traditionalist, Platonic, Augustinian, Stoic, anti-ideological Christian poets and mythmakers. They believed in the True, the Good, the Beautiful, and, especially, the One behind all things. They recognized their position in society as countering the trends of modernity, not through reaction, but through remembrance. As Lewis’s successor at Cambridge, Jack Bennett said of him, “The stance of a last survivor always attracted him [Lewis]; it is one of the likings he shared with William Morris, and it early drew him to the sagas and the doomed Eddaic gods.”
The same could be said of Tolkien. Lewis, in his Cambridge Inaugural Address, described himself as a dinosaur, one of the last “Old Western Men.”
“It is my settled conviction that in order to read Old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature. And because this is the judgement of a native, I claim that, even defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”
Tolkien, too, “was an Old Western Man who was staggered at the present direction of civilization,” Clyde Kilby, a Wheaton College English professor, recorded after a summer of conversations with Tolkien. “Even our much vaunted talk of equality he felt debased by our attempts to ‘mechanize and formalize it.’”
Like many Englishmen, Tolkien feared a world divided in two, in which the smaller peoples would be swallowed whole by the bigger powers. While he saw evil in 1916, he also saw it in 1969. “The spirit of wickedness in high places is now so powerful and so many-headed in its incarnations,” Tolkien wrote, “that there seems nothing more to do than personally to refuse to worship any of the hydras’ heads.” The world, he thought, seemed little better than a new Tower of Babel, “all noise and confusion.”
It would be difficult for a conservative and traditionalist such as Tolkien to have viewed the world in any other way. In addition to recognizing the effects of original sin in all eras and over all humans, Tolkien found the twentieth century especially troubling and downright horrifying. Tolkien had lamented the rise of what he and his friends called the machine, mechanizing life, dulling and conforming it, draining it of its vitality. The machine had appeared in a variety of forms. Democratic governments had bureaucratized the beauty out of language on the more benign end of the continuum. At the other end, fascistic and communist ideologues had raped, plundered, murdered, and dehumanized entire populations, massacring upwards of 200,000,000 persons in the century. Additionally, warfare had claimed another forty million soldiers. Tolkien, like most men of his generation, had done their duty in the first world war, only to see their sons go off to fight in the second world war. The machine was everywhere, making its unholy peace with the White City.
The History of the Inklings, Thus Far
While much has been written about the contributions of the individual members of the Inklings, very little of what has been written about the group as a whole has progressed beyond the basic thesis presented by Humphrey Carpenter in his 1979 book, The Inklings. In it, Carpenter asserted rather strongly that “the Inklings owed their existence as a group almost entirely to” C.S. Lewis.
That is, the group revolved around the rather charismatic personality of C.S. Lewis. Carpenter presented firm evidence for his nearly absolutist claim. The Inklings first appeared in print, though not by that name, in Chad Walsh’s 1949 biography and analysis, C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptics, at, roughly the moment Lewis entered the popular consciousness of the American mind. “The stretch of time from 11:00 to 1:00 on Tuesday mornings Lewis ordinarily manages to keep free so that he can join a small circle of close friends at a certain small, sedate pub,” Walsh recorded.
There, in a private parlor, he and the half a dozen others pass an hour or two conversing on everything from the nature of God to the latest University events. This particular group dates back to the war years when the Oxford University Press (whose headquarters are normally in London!) fled from the blitz to Oxford, and one of its staff, Charles Williams, became the center of a little circle which met Tuesday mornings at the pub and Thursday evenings in Lewis’s college rooms. Charles Williams died in 1945, but the Tuesday morning meetings continue. The group is a fluctuating one. It is likely to contain a couple of Lewis’s colleagues such as Professor Tolkien, one or two students, sometimes a relative of someone or a distant friend.
The sheer scope and content of the meetings astounded Walsh.
“Only in retrospect did I realize how much intellectual ground was covered in these seemingly casual meetings. At the time the constant bustle of Lewis racing his friends to refill empty mugs or pausing to light another cigarette (occasionally a pipe) camouflaged the steady flow of ideas. The flow, I might add, is not a one-way traffic. Lewis is as good a listener as talker.’”
In 1947, C.S. Lewis described it as a group of “literary friends. [Williams] read us his manuscripts and we read him ours: we smoked, talked, argued, and drank together.”
John Wain, a student member of the Inklings, described the group in a similar manner, again, focusing on Lewis. In his 1962 autobiography, Sprightly Running, he wrote of Lewis’s “dramatic personality.” Wain wrote that they were “a circle of investigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life. Further, Wain argued, C.S. Lewis led the group as a pro-Christian political cell, working with “fellow travelers” such as Dorothy Sayers, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Roy Campbell. In his scholarly The Precincts of Felicity: The Augustinian City of the Oxford Christians, Charles Moorman gave as much weight to Charles Williams, who was an Inkling from only 1939 to 1945, as he did to Lewis. Further, he tried to find a corporate mind at work among the Inklings. Visitors, too, viewed the Inklings as essentially Lewis’s group.
Typically, as J.R.R. Tolkien himself admitted, Lewis led the group and the discussions of the group, as he thoroughly enjoyed having others read to him. The Inklings, Tolkien explained were “the undetermined and unelected circle of friends who gathered about C.S.L., and met in his rooms in Magdalen.” Lewis, especially, “had a passion for hearing things read aloud.”
Since Houghton Mifflin first published Carpenter’s group biography of the Inklings, an enormous number of primary sources, interviews, and manuscripts have appeared. While no one could or should rightly deny the extraordinary influence of Lewis’s personality and charisma on the Inklings, stating that “without Lewis’s influence, the Inklings would not have been” is simplistic. Two other major factors—and a whole host of smaller ones—contributed to the makeup, ideas, and purpose of the Inklings. The first, though not necessarily in importance, was the publication of Owen Barfield’s 1928 work, Poetic Diction. Written originally as an undergraduate thesis to earn his B.Litt and defended against Lewis’s dramatic intellectual attacks during a series of letters known as the “Great War” in the 1920s, Barfield’s book exerted a profound influence on the Inklings.
In it, Barfield followed Plato’s ideas of “divine madness”, arguing that not only did imagination allow one to understand his sense data, but also men “do not invent those mysterious relations between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings, which it is the function of poetry to reveal.” Instead, Barfield continued, “These relations exist independently, not indeed of Thought, but of any individual thinker.”
“Further, men, in the development of consciousness, have lost the power to see this one as one. Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. Thus, the ‘before-unapprehended’ relationship of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships. For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen. And imagination can see them again. “
Barfield, therefore, holds the poet as one of the most importance offices in western civilization. Without the development of poetry and the recognition of the necessity of the poet, the western world will become lost in scientific or scientistic nominalism and pragmatism and the organic unity of the West will be lost, perhaps permanently. While brilliantly argued, Barfield here falls neatly into the work of a number of important Christian humanist thinkers of the 1920s: that of Nicholas Berdyaev, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Paul Elmer More.
As mentioned above, the influence of Barfield’s thought and works upon the various members of the Inklings cannot be exaggerated. In many ways, Poetic Diction set the tone for the Inklings, as they saw themselves, as Wain best put it, “redirecting the whole current of contemporary life and art,” and myth, metaphor, and poetry would lead the revival. Tolkien may have been the most profoundly influenced, though he had already arrived at the same conclusions as Barfield. Poetic Diction, though, allowed Tolkien to order and shape his not fully formed thoughts. In a letter to Barfield, Lewis wrote: “You might like to know that when Tolkien dined with me the other night he said a propos of something quite different that your conception of the ancient semantic unity had modified his whole outlook and that he was always just going to say something in a lecture when your conception stopped him in time.” Barfield held a strong affinity with Tolkien’s notions on myth as well.
And, though the atheist Lewis of the 1920s had fought vehemently against Barfield’s Platonic metaphysical ideas, as a Christian, Lewis embraced them, at least in part. In his learned study of the Barfield-Lewis “Great War,” Adey concludes that Lewis “could not, however, have developed as religious apologist, novelist or literary historian and expounder of the medieval Weltanschauung but for the stimulus of his controversies with Barfield.” One can readily see the influence of Barfield on Lewis in his space trilogy, especially in the first one, Out of the Silent Planet.
The other major influence came from Tolkien’s legendarium. Though already members of Tolkien’s academic group dedicated to reading Icelandic and northern myth in the original languages, the Koalbiters, Lewis and Tolkien first discovered their profound friendship in 1929 after a long discussion about their mutual love of the northern giants and gods. Tolkien first presented the minor manifestations of the mythology—The Hobbit, written in the early to mid 1930s, and The Lord of the Rings, written between 1938 and 1949—to the Inklings, reading them aloud, chapter by chapter. While each of these things may individually be mere temporal coincidences, the coincidences collectively are too strong to be dismissed. Tolkien met Lewis when he had completed the first major outline of the Silmarillion, served as members of the Koalbiters which evolved, for the most part, into the Inklings, and the Inklings met less and less after 1949 when Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, Tolkien’s mythology served as both a backdrop and as a centerpiece for the Inklings.
As with any group, individual whims, logics, emotions, and quirks played their roles, day to day, week to week, and year to year. The Inklings proved to be no different. But, their differences aside, friendship truly mattered to the Inklings. Throughout Tolkien’s legendarium, friends gather around fires, around food, and around drink. In each, they tell tales. The tales inspire, serving almost as prayer (go into Aragorn at Weather Top). As Lewis wrote: “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I shd. say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.”
The White Cities: England and Christendom
In 1950, Tolkien admitted that he originally conceived what would become his Middle-earth mythology, the “Lost Tales” of World War I, as a mythology for England. “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands.”
Even “Beowulf,” the greatest of Anglo-Saxon poems, dealt with Scandinavians. Tolkien told Clyde Kilby that the seed of the mythology came from the Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf, and his poem “Crist”: “Lux fulgebat super nos. Eala Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended.” These are “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology,” Tolkien admitted.Kilby asked Tolkien in person to translate the Anglo-Saxon. “Here Earendel brightest of angels, sent from God to men,” Tolkien replied.
Entitled “The Book of Lost Tales,” Tolkien’s original mythological stories follow a mariner by the name of Eriol, Angol, Waefre, or Aelfwine. Eriol means “one who dreams alone,” Angol is obviously Angle, Waefre is Anglo-Saxon for “restless,” and Aelfwine is a character who appears in the Old English poem, “The Battle of Maldon.” Much, perhaps, like Tolkien himself, Eriol is a restless, wandering Anglo-Saxon, in search of legend and truth. As Christopher Tolkien noted in his commentaries in the History of Middle-earth, “Thus it is through Eriol and his sons the Engle (i.e. the English) have the true tradition of the fairies, of whom the Iras and Wealas (the Irish and Welsh) tell garbled things.” With these stories, Christopher continued, “a specifically English fairy-lore is born, and one more true than anything to be found in Celtic lands.”
Though Tolkien eventually abandoned much of his material from “The Book of Lost Tales,” the love of—and inspiration from—Anglo-Saxon culture and literature continued. Tolkien’s hobbits represented the best of the pre–Norman invasion Anglo-Saxons. Like the English (made up of Jutes, Angles, and Saxons), the hobbits (made up of Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides) migrated from the east.
Additionally, the hobbits lived on land that was originally not theirs but had once belonged to a greater, and now long-gone, power. There were other specifically Anglo-Saxon elements as well. Tom Shippey speculates that the Rohirrim are Anglo-Saxons as they might have developed had they had a mounted horse culture. Much of the ceremony, for example, of Gandalf entering the Golden Hall mirrors Beowulf’s entrance into the Great Hall. Additionally, the Riders call their own land, “The Mark.” The old translation for Mercia (an Anglo-Saxon medieval kingdom) was “The Mark.” Indeed, Shippey believes that Tolkien mixed his affection for the Anglo-Saxons with his regard for the warrior culture of North American Indians found in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.
Tolkien mentioned in “On Fairy-Stories” that he liked “Red Indians” better than Alice in Wonderland or Treasure Island, as they offered him “glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and, above all, forests.”
Though Tolkien had originally envisioned his myth as a specifically English myth, in his re-conception after the Book of Lost Tales, the Anglo-Saxon and northern languages, cultures and mythologies became a means by which to re-energize the world. The myth became one of universal—rather than national—significance and import. The Christian should embrace and sanctify the most noble virtues to come out of the northern pagan mind: courage and raw will. “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage,” Tolkien wrote. “The northern [imagination] has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times.” Tolkien thought that a vigorous Christianity needed that northern pagan myth spirit to make it stronger. The German-Italian theologian Romano Guardini argued along the same lines.
Deeply significant for the new religious outlook of medieval man was the influx of the Germanic spirit. The religious bent of the Nordic myths, the restlessness of the migrating peoples and the armed marches of the Germanic tribes revealed a new spirit which burst everywhere into history like a spear thrust into the infinite. This mobile and nervous soul worked itself into the Christian affirmation. There it grew mightily. In its fullness it produced that immense medieval drive which aimed at cracking the boundaries of the world.
From its original conception as a myth for England, first conceived in muck and blood-filled trenches in northern France, Tolkien’s legendarium grew much larger in scope and significance. The story, especially The Lord of the Rings, became much more than a myth for any one people or any one nation. It, instead, became a myth for the restoration of Christendom itself. The intrepid Anglo-Saxon missionaries, in particular St. Boniface of Crediton, created medieval, Christian Europe by carrying classical and Christian traditions into the heart of pagan, barbarian Europe. St. Boniface converted innumerable barbarians to Christianity, unifying them under Rome. St. Boniface even crowned Pepin, son of Charles Martel, an action that would eventually lead to the papal recognition of Charlemagne as the revived Holy Roman Emperor in 800 a.d. With the return of the king Aragorn to his rightful throne, Tolkien argued, the “progress of the tales ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome.”
In his own private writings, Tolkien equated numerous parts of Italy with various geographical aspects of Gondor. In his diary, for example, Tolkien recorded that with his trip to Italy, he had “come to the head of Christendom: an exile from the borders and far provinces returning home, or at least to the home of his fathers.” In a letter to a friend, Tolkien stated that he had holidayed “in Gondor, or in modern parlance, Venice.” That Tolkien should place a mythologized Italy, and ultimately Rome, at the center of his legendarium is not surprising, as he viewed the Reformation as ultimately responsible for the modern, secularized world.
That Tolkien believed that the Anglo-Saxon world might offer us strength to redeem Christendom, should not surprise us. The hero of The Lord of the Rings, after all, is an Anglo-Saxon farmer turned citizen-warrior. Even as an uneducated gardener, this most loyal of companions recognized hope deep in the heart of Mordor. “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”
Only through myth could the White City be remembered and seen. Only through friendship could the White City be rebuilt. Only through heroism and sacrifice could the White City be defended.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.