Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Tolkien and Fr Murray

So, the newest of new arrivals here are a copy each of the only two volumes of TOLKIEN STUDIES I'd lacked, Volume XIV (2017) and Volume XVI (2019). I'd somehow wound up with two copies of Volume XV (2018) instead, and similarly failed to pick up the newest issue, Volume XVI, when it came out. Now I once again have a full set among my working library of books by and about JRRT and major journals devoted to his work.

As is usually the case when a new Tolkien/Inklings themed journal arrives, there's one piece in these that particularly caught my eye: in this case, Richard West's Note on Fr. Rbt Murray. While brief I think this is a major contribution on a major point in Tolkien criticism: to what degree is LotR a 'Catholic' book and Tolkien a 'Catholic' writer? Tolkien's 1953 letter to Rbt Murray (later Fr. Rbt) contains the oft-cited line

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious 
and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first,
 but consciously in the revision (LETTERS .172)

This is often taken to mean that, however much he denied it elsewhere,* Tolkien intended his work to be read as allegory, not just Christian but explicitly Roman Catholic. It's a revelation, then, to find that the person to whom Tolkien wrote this passage didn't agree with that interpretation at all.

The main substance of this Note is Richard's reproduction of a letter Murray wrote in 1980 in answer to a query from Michael A Witt. In it Murray gives his evaluation on this point:

Tolkien was a very complex and depressed man 
and my own opinion of his imaginative creation 
is that it projects his very depressed view of the 
universe at least as much as it reflects his Catholic faith

. . . I don't think I would care to say more than that
on one level the values underlying Tolkien's imaginative
works are Catholic in a rather mediaeval form. But
I would subsume all theological evaluation under a
literary appreciation of them as works of imagination
inspired by ancient and mediaeval literature . . . 

There is a case to be made about Tolkien the Catholic,
but I simply could not support an interpretation which
made this the key to everything

("A Letter from Father Murray", ed. Richard C. West, TOLKIEN STUDIES XVI.135-136)

 As Richard points out,  '. . . it is of special interest that the person to whom Tolkien wrote that The Lord of the Rings was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work" himself took that in a very nuanced and cautioned against reading too much into this statement' (ibid. 137)

All in all, I'd call this an important contribution to Tolkien studies (and to TOLKIEN STUDIES).

--John R.
--current reading: THE GRAPES OF WRATH (reminds me of CITIZEN KANE), MR. FAIRLIE'S FINAL JOURNEY (August Derleth pastiche)

*e.g. in the Prologue to THE LORD OF THE RINGS itself (Foreword 10-11)

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

We were very excited to get Richard West's piece, which came in quite close to the deadline. But it was important enough that we made room for it in that issue rather than postponing it.

I do not read Tolkien's statement in his letter to Fr Murray as saying that he intended, either consciously or unconsciously, for The Lord of the Rings to be an allegory for Christianity or Catholicism in particular. "Allegory" was a loaded word for Tolkien, and the fact that, for instance, the spiritually healing quality of lembas was invented by an author who had the ritual of the Eucharist imbued into him from childhood, and even that he might have realized that he was doing this, does NOT mean either that lembas is actually a communion wafer in disguise, or stands for it in some kind of larger code. That's what an allegory would be.

In other words, I agree with Fr Murray, who in his letter to Mr Witt is warning against precisely this kind of misreading.