Friday, June 3, 2011

As Catholic As The Day Is Long

So, just before heading out to Kalamazoo I ordered a copy of the new Joseph Pearce documentary about J. R. R. Tolkien as a Catholic writer. Originating as an hour-long show on Catholic TV (i.e., EWTN*), this had been discussed on the MythSoc list not long before, but I decided I'd like to see it for myself and also have a reference copy. And now I do, as it arrived here the day after I got back.

Unfortunately, I found it somewhat lacking. In format it went back and forth between three modes. First, we have narration by Pearce, who's standing in some woods wearing a backpack and carrying a walking stick. Occasionally we break away to a scene in which an actor playing Tolkien (and, in one scene, a second as C. S. Lewis) looks up from his desk, recites some snippet from JRRT's letters, and puts his pipe back in his mouth. Finally, rather too often we see a still picture of a piece of Tolkien-inspired art that serves as a backdrop to a voiceover reading of some passage from THE LORD OF THE RINGS or AINULINDALE.

As with any production, there are some minor errors (Fr. John Tolkien is referred to as "a Jesuit priest"), but on the whole they've done their homework and the biographical summary is fairly solid.

It's not the facts but the interpretation where this piece falls down for me. The argument is not just that Tolkien is a Catholic writer -- a self-evident truth -- but that a Cathl0centric point of view is the only valid one through which to interpret his work. To try to build his case, Pearce resorts to heavy allegorization of the evidence. Thus he asserts that "Tolkien's Melkor is merely another name for Satan" and "merely different words for the same thing: Melkor IS Satan". The Lord of the Ring himself is "Sauron, the greatest of Satan's servants".

But thinking through the consequences of its claims is not this documentary's strong point. Instead, its blurring of Tolkien's story and orthodox Catholic doctrine produces some odd effects and distortions to both. For example, Pearce claims that March 25th (the date of the Ring's destruction) is the most important holy day in the entire Xian calendar -- which shd come as a surprise to those of us who celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. Elsewhere, and rather bizarrely, Pearce claims The One Ring is Original Sin itself. One wd think this wd be good news -- if Original Sin got tossed into a volcano and destroyed for all time thousands of years ago at the end of the Third Age, then Satan has never been able to take physical form in historical time (Jesus must have been imagining his presence throughout the Temptation in the Wilderness of the Gospel account).

Pearce says quite bluntly at one point that a chain of allusions he constructs (Sauron > saurian > lizard-like > the Serpent in the Garden) has the effect of "rendering impossible, or at least improbable, any but a theistic interpretation of the book".

I cd not disagree more. Tolkien was a complex man. To seize upon one aspect of his life -- his medievalism, his faith, his love of trees, his language-creation, his status as a writer of fantasy or a survivor of the Great War or a mid-century writer, his compulsion to write even without hope of publication, his belonging to the Inklings or being a friend of Lewis's -- and insist it's the only one that's important is to seriously distort the picture.

Two final examples say a lot about this documentary.

First, one long scene (some fifteen minutes, out of a total running time over only about an hour) dramatizes the famous walk in which Tolkien and Lewis debated whether myths cd convey truth, which ended in Tolkien's assertion that Xianity was the one true myth. While v. well done, it contains two fairly major distortions. It presents Tolkien as doing almost all the talking while Lewis listens attentively, offering up a few respectful questions from time to time. This bears no resemblance to any account of Lewis as a conversationalist I've ever seen. It also portrays this as a dialogue, completely omitting Hugo Dyson, the third participant in that debate -- and assuming Dyson (a devout Xian but deeply bigoted against the Catholic church) held his tongue and had no influence on Lewis's decision to rejoin the Anglican church rather than become Catholic upon his return to Xianity is an iffy proposition.

Those changes can be defended on the grounds of dramatic license (after all, we only have Tolkien's account of this meeting, which doesn't include any indication of what Dyson said). But the second is far more problematic. Pearce has the actor playing Tolkien** repeat a passage from a 1958 letter to Deborah Webster Rogers: "I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic." But this is deeply deceptive, for the very next sentence goes on add "The latter 'fact' perhaps cannot be deduced". That is, Tolkien felt that his Xianity was obvious to an attentive reader but his Catholicism was not, and Pearce seems to be manipulating the evidence to hide this fact.

All in all, a missed opportunity. By overstating his case, Pearce has weakened it. I think it's one of those times when, having picked up a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Pearce's first book (TOLKIEN: A CELEBRATION) did a great job of pulling together pieces that argued for taking Tolkien's Catholicism seriously as an important part of his make-up; it was a genuine contribution to Tolkien studies. But by the time of his second book (TOLKIEN: MAN AND MYTH), Pearce had begun to claim that only Catholicism held the key to understanding Tolkien, granting it a sort of magical skeleton key status that cd unlock all doors. And this documentary belongs more in the latter category than the former.

current reading: THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END (Kindle)

*'Eternal Word Television Network': the 'Global Catholic Network'

**Kevin O'Brien, who does a wonderful job. Al Marsh, who plays CSL, does okay but has to struggle against type, being too tall, too well-dressed, and w. too much hair for the heavyset, chain-smoking, balding, disheveled Lewis.


N.E. Brigand said...

Pearce had previously related the One Ring to Original Sin in at least two articles in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, "Christ" and "Redemption"; some comments on these essays can be read here and here, respectively.

David Bratman said...

The reconstructed Tolkien-Lewis conversation is worse than that: not only is Lewis depicted as the passive recipient of Tolkien's lecture, but this Lewis is a stone materialist, not the actual man who loved myth and was desperately seeking a connection between it and primary-world religious belief. It changes the entire tone of Tolkien's argument.

I see an extra-Tolkienian theological-political agenda in Pearce's retroactive pushing of the Annunciation as the most important date in the church calendar, but I'll say no more about that.

Jason Fisher said...

John, thanks for this review. I think that Mythprint readers would be very interested in this, and so I wonder if you would mind my reprinting it in the bulletin. What do you think?