Making Sense of Sensus Catholicus (oct3ssc.htm)

October 3-9, 2004
vol 15, no. 175

The Theology of Tolkien's Mythology

While some have tried to delve inside the creative mind of J.R.R. Tolkien, they fail to realize the guiding light that illuminated his ventures into the world of Middle Earth - his Catholic Faith and the solid sensus Catholicus of his writings. Fans of Tolkien might find this interesting. Critics of Tolkien might find this frustrating. Fans might become critics or critics might become fans on reading it. Or nothing might come of it all.

Father Lawrence Smith

      "Tolkien's Ring is analogous to the Blessed Sacrament in reverse. Each is a material manifestation of the Presence of its maker. Each renders its recipient a lesser reflection of the being of its maker. The one, the Ring, ought never be used, else death come to the living. The other, the Blessed Sacrament, must be used, else death come to the living. The Ring usurps the will of the user; the Blessed Sacrament ratifies the will of His recipient. The Ring must be destroyed, thus destroying its destructive maker. The Blessed Sacrament can not be destroyed, for He is the Creator, nor can His faithful members be destroyed in being in communion with Him."

Q: What do you think of J.R.R. Tolkien in general, and of Tom Shippey's book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century in particular? (A Brother Priest)

Dear Father and all Readers,

    I enjoyed Professor Shippey's book a great deal.

    Now, to say that I enjoyed it is not to say that I agreed with Dr. Shippey in every detail. There are several instances throughout the book where his fine scholarship is befuddled by what only an authentic sensus Catholicus can appreciate about J.R.R. Tolkien. This is a pity, since Dr. Shippey so obviously understands the man's work. Alas! Dr. Shippey falls short of understanding the man's Faith, thus he does not truly comprehend the man, and he fails to fathom some of the depths of the work he so well explicates on the whole.

Faith in the Facts of Tolkien's Myths

    There is something of a false dichotomy established by Dr. Shippey in the contrast which he makes between the so-called "Boethian" and "Manichaean" views of evil. Deprivation of good as the definition of evil need not lead to the conclusion that "evil does not exist". The rebellion of a contingent being against his Creator excludes the dualist proposition of coeval good and evil in eternal war. The reality of sin is the internal acquiescence to the external temptation to refuse the good. Satan is not evil in his origin, but refuses to continue to be good and, thus, becomes forever evil. The devil is not an omnipotent evil capable of conquering good; he is an impotence whose malice toward the good can be imitated and willed by other creatures. The damned soul is neither coerced by satan nor abandoned by God; she elects to succumb to the devil's lie that he can bring her pleasure, and she refuses to believe the truth that God really desires to give Himself to her and to receive her love for Him.

    A tension exists, perhaps never fully comprehensible to man in time, between the soul as victim of satan's malice and the soul as accomplice to satan's evil. Simultaneously, none can say definitively how far the grace of God can go while preserving human free will; and how much human free will is true cooperation in God's grace, yet distinctly and absolutely dependent on God in the soul's existence as a contingent being. Satan is not omnipotent, but he is stronger than any man. God is omnipotent, but He never does violence to a man's free will. Original sin renders man vulnerable to the rape of his being by satan; Baptism lends God's omnipotence to the soul, thus making it possible for her to make a reciprocal, 'tho' unequal, offering of self to Self with God.

    Tolkien's description of the Ringwraiths and the "wraithing" process is a brilliant exposition, not of ambiguity, but of ambivalence. Man is not confronted with confused choices; he is confused about which choice to make. The evil and good in Tolkien's cosmology are very well defined (too well, according to some of his critics). The wraith is the being whose initial goodness is becoming evil, on the way to being endlessly evil. When Tolkien speaks of, for instance, the vision Frodo has of the Ringwraiths on the one hand and Glorfindel on the other, it is abundantly clear that the "two worlds" are not Middle Earth and the void; the bifurcation is between the void and utter goodness. Middle Earth is the liminal reality. The wraith is the being who has chosen to become evil and has taken the first steps on the path to the void first reached by Morgoth - both before and in Ea. By the end of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, the Ringwraiths, and Saruman have followed, and, arguably, Gollum as well.

    Hobbits, dwarves, and men can be enthralled by the glamour of evil, and thus moral (self) destruction. They have no means to choose deathless bliss. Bilbo, Frodo, (Sam?), Gimli, and Tuor are exceptions by virtue of extraordinary graces available only to them for their fidelity in service to the good. Thus stood the (pagan) world from Adam until the Immaculate Conception, with only the extraordinary instance of (some of) the Jews as the exception.

    On page 147, Dr. Shippey opines that "no mere mortal can be sure" if choosing an evil will or will not be counterproductive. He is wrong. Willing evil is absolutely forbidden. It should be painfully obvious that all of the good characters in Tolkien's works wish to be wholly good and to do only good. Even in failure, they realize that endeavoring good is worth the risk of defeat. A little evil chanced for the good always diminishes the moral agent. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, Bonum est ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu. A little evil does no good.

    It seems to me that Dr. Shippey's difficulty with this concept is most egregiously displayed in his woefully erroneous remark on page 179, "…[evil] is allowed to exist in order to create free will." Ouch! No! NO! NO!

    Free will is not a choice between good and evil. Free will is the choice between God and nothing - and God, not the devil, temptation, or human pride, creates. Eek! To suggest that the defining attribute of man as a material/spiritual being is the work of evil is, is - is evil!

    Indeed, God creates ex nihilo, but 'tho' He creates from nothing, He most certainly does not create for nothing. To be or not to be is not the question; to be good or to not-be good - that is the question! The damned deny God's will toward being good, but their being evil does not undo His original act of creation. To be evil is to not-be good, but it is not to be nothing. The damned may want to be nothing in opposition to God's will that they be good, but in attempting to deny God's will that they be good, they still do not get the nothing that they want, they only get to not-be good. Neither God's will nor their will is done! That is the essence, the being of evil. It is a slavery, an impotence, in which both divine omnipotence and creaturely free will are rejected.

    Neither God nor man can create nothing. Man can choose nothing, but this perversion of his free will in opposition to God's will does not gain nothing, it becomes evil. What damned men are left with, then, is not the nothing of denying God, but the condemnation to being evil. God does not ratify the rebellious soul's disobedience with oblivion, for God can not deny Himself, or His act of creation. God forever upholds His original creation, but the denial of the good of that creation becomes the eternal experience of evil for the damned soul.

    What Dr. Shippey calls "addiction" is more accurately termed "possession". Tolkien's account of the descent into the loss of personhood endured by Gollum and the Ringwraiths is not novel except in the type of characters employed. This theme is as old as the hills. Take a look at the conversation Jesus has with Legion in the Gospels. Examine the records of an exorcist. Spend time with a schizophrenic.

    Neither "addiction" nor "possession" is without a moral element. Drugs do not self-ingest, demons are not squatters. Narcotics and the devil are invited guests. Guests who then refuse to leave. It takes a very strong host or the police to evict them. And if the host is too weak or insufficiently disinviting, the police have no authority to expel the unwanted guest.

    The fact that Merry, Pippin, and Sam show little or no desire to take the Ring is as understandable as the fact that most people are not dope fiends. That Frodo and Bilbo are grievously harmed by the Ring is as explicable as the harm done to marriage by the solitary vice. That Denethor, Saruman, and the Ringwraiths end ignominiously is as predictable as the fate of any suicide - prideful despair is fatal to body and soul.

    Iniquity's mystery is less its existence than the fact that the iniquitous find it mysterious. To choose nothing is to become evil. It is to be without meaning. The mind-bending quandary is that such meaningless, insubstantial, wrong things are. It is not that evil does not exist, but that evil ought not exist, but it does!

    That is hell. Hell is where all laws - of non-contradiction, of morality, of love - are forever broken. They are beyond repair. This is not the work of the loving God, but of His creatures determined to reject the God Who is Love. If that makes no sense, good - only the damned consider such to be reasonable. If this sounds like the clever manipulation of words, remember that God Himself can make no sense of this: I tell you, I never knew you! (see St. Matthew 7:23).

The Ring vs. The True Presence

    Tolkien's Ring is analogous to the Blessed Sacrament in reverse. Each is a material manifestation of the Presence of its maker. Each renders its recipient a lesser reflection of the being of its maker. The one, the Ring, ought never be used, else death come to the living. The other, the Blessed Sacrament, must be used, else death come to the living. The Ring usurps the will of the user; the Blessed Sacrament ratifies the will of His recipient. The Ring must be destroyed, thus destroying its destructive maker. The Blessed Sacrament can not be destroyed, for He is the Creator, nor can His faithful members be destroyed in being in communion with Him.

    The Ring is used externally on the body of its victim, thus consuming him body and soul. The Blessed Sacrament is received internally in physical consumption, giving its recipient eternal preservation from death. Where the Ring is nothing but evil, the Blessed Sacrament is wholly good. Where the Ring brings destruction even to the most good, the Blessed Sacrament brings redemption even to the most fallen. A malign spirit crafted the Ring to entrap all wills, while the Blessed Sacrament is the cooperation of mortal wills with the divine Will to bring true freedom. Life is destroyed by the Ring without bringing death; the Blessed Sacrament is the Sign of Life in the midst of a world bent on death. But one hand can wield the evil of the Ring, but the holiness of the Blessed Sacrament is made available to all. Evil is isolation, holiness is communion.

    Within Tolkien's mythology, one can see another contrast between two material objects with spiritual potency. The Silmarils offer an analogue to the good of the Blessed Sacrament in contradistinction to the evil represented by the Ring. The Silmarils are hallowed by Varda, never abiding the touch of evil hands. The Ring renders any hand evil that touches it long enough. That holiness brings blessing wherever the Silmarils go (except Angband), but the Ring is a curse to whomever keeps it. Curiously, curses attach to the lust for either the Silmarils or for the Ring. No one is essentially changed by holding a Silmaril, but the user of the Ring is unmade in his very being. Ultimately, the Silmarils are preserved but inaccessible to mortals; while the Ring is destroyed, the power of evil in which it was first made remains to plague the world.

    Dr. Shippey does not seem to understand that neither good nor evil can coerce the soul. They can entice, persuade, and awe, but never compel. No one has to use the Ring, no matter how much it might excite the lust for power; none goes to Heaven who desires his own will.

    Elves, ents, and hobbits love Middle Earth because no more than Ea is available to them. Tolkien knew that, in the words of St. Augustine, "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until thy rest in Thee!" Creatures too enamored of Middle Earth demand the Ring. "Good" pagans reject the Ring, but have no means to salvation. In Christ, the Catholic can release his claim on a wonderful, 'tho' fallen, world, and become heir to a Kingdom unfallen, unmarred, and unstained.

    Dwarves, Saruman, and Sauron all used rings. They are not changed by those rings, but rather become more of what they are. What renders them evil is their lust for power or wealth, which their rings exploit and magnify. Although they are bound to Middle Earth, they are not satisfied with their states therein. They seek a mode of being available to them neither in the circles of the world nor beyond it.

    Theoden, Osse, and Aule all fall into despair, error, and/or rebellion. Each is given a chance to repent, and each avails himself of the opportunity to do so. Repentance results in them changing back to what they were before their faults, but no more than that. They are yet bound to and in Middle Earth with no means or conception of reaching beyond it.

    Damned souls will themselves for themselves. They are not referent to the Creator. This is foolish, irrational, and false - hence its horror. To be without God as one's ultimate end and purpose is to be for nor reason other than oneself. A finite creature can not find satisfaction in the finite, for all being apart from God comes to and means nothing. "Good" elves, ents, dwarves, and hobbits have a deep intuition that all for them is for naught. Only men, ignorant, of course, before Christ of the fullness of this truth, have any hope. Only men can break out of the circles of the world to be more.

    Not in the sense of evolution. Once can see Tolkien's disdain for such imbecility in what happens to "evolved" creatures in Middle Earth. Elves become orcs, ents become trolls, and men become Ringwraiths. In all of these examples, an evil will, either Morgoth's or Sauron's, is at work. In each instance, a good that is becomes an evil which it is not and ought not be.

    But the Fourth Age begins long before Our Lady is born. So, yes, ultimately Tolkien has created a pagan world. However, it is a pagan world whose imaginative thrust is towards the good. These pagans might, just might, recognize and welcome their Savior when He comes.

    This is more than can be said for modern men, lo these two-thousand years after the Incarnation. Dr. Shippey, perhaps unwittingly, (justly) indicts the modern Church on pages 95-97. Some ancient pagans chose the good according to its own merits and resisted evil even when commanded by due authority. Modern, ahem, "Christians" obey the dictates of the powerful because of their power - not in deference to the authority of the Truth whom they represent, but in fear of the oppression their resistance might bring about. A pagan able to discern truth from falsehood is in a much better position to accept salvation than a "Christian" whose compass points north only when the winds blow that way. It is a harsh irony that pagans walking in the darkness of ignorance might be more free to choose Truth than willfully blind Catholics apostasizing from the Light of the true Faith. It is much, much easier to convert a pagan, than to retrieve an apostate. Prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners enter the Kingdom of Heaven…

    Take a look at G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man for a singularly insightful description of paganism; and at his mini-biography of Robert Louis Stevenson in Twelve Types for a terrific defense of heroic characters more interested in meals than in heroism.

Something about Nothing

    I conclude this lengthy exposition of my opinion with the opinions of many learned men expressed in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. What follows is about many things in general, but it is about "nothing" in particular. Comparing what Professor Tolkien described about the ontology of morality with the philosophers' groping in the dark, it seems to me that Tolkien's cautionary tales advocating je ne sais quois, are far more convincing than the Godless, soulless, hopeless erudition of modern scholars.

        Nothing is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic. Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would, of course), and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing. Philosophers, however, have never felt easy on the matter. Ever since Parmenides laid it down that it is impossible to speak of what is not, broke his own rule in the act of stating it, and deduced himself into a world where all that ever happened was nothing, the impression has persisted that the narrow path between sense and nonsense on this subject is a difficult one to tread and that altogether the less said of it the better.

        This escape, however, is not so easy as it looks. Plato, in pursuing it, reversed the Parmenidean dictum by insisting, in effect, that anything a philosopher can talk about must somehow be there to be discussed, and so let loose upon the world that unseemly rabble of centaurs and unicorns, carnivorous cows, republican monarchs, and wife-burdened bachelors, which has plagued ontology from that day to this. Nothing (of which they are all aliases) can apparently get rid of these absurdities, but for fairly obvious reasons has not been invited to do so. Logic has attempted the task, but with sadly limited success. Of some, though not all, nonentities, even a logician knows that they do not exist, since their properties defy the law of contradiction; the remainder, however, are not so readily dismissed. Whatever Lord Russell may have said of it, the harmless if unnecessary unicorn cannot be driven out of logic as easily as it can be out of zoology, unless by desperate measures which exclude all manner of reputable entities as well. Such remedies have been attempted, and their affects are worse than the disease. Russell himself, in eliminating the present King of France, inadvertently deposed the present Queen of England. Quine, the sorcerer's apprentice, has contrived to liquidate both Pegasus and President Truman in the same fell swoop. The old logicians, who allowed all entities subsistence while conceding existence, as wanted, to an accredited selection of them, at least brought a certain tolerant inefficiency to their task. Of the new it can only be said that…they make a desert and call it peace. Whole realms of being have been abolished without warning, at the mere non-quantifying of a variable. The poetry of Earth has been parsed out of existence - and what has become of its prose? There is little need for an answer. Writers to whom nothing is sacred, and who accordingly stop thereat, have no occasion for surprise on finding, at the end of their operations, that nothing is all they have left.

        The logicians, of course, will have nothing of all this. Nothing, they say, is not a thing, nor is it the name of anything, being merely a short way of saying of anything that it is not something else. "Nothing" means "not-anything"; appearances to the contrary are due merely to the error of supposing that a grammatical subject must necessarily be a name. Asked, however, to prove that nothing is not the name of anything, they fall back on the claim that nothing is the name of anything (since according to them there are no names anyway). Those who can make nothing of such an argument are welcome to the attempt. When logic falls out with itself, honest men come into their own, and it will take more than this to persuade them that there are not better cures for this particular headache than the old and now discredited method of cutting off the patient's head.

        The friends of nothing may be divided into two distinct though not exclusive classes: the know-nothings, who claim a phenomenological acquaintance with nothing in particular, and the fear-nothings, who, believing with Macbeth, that "nothing is but what is not," are thereby launched into dialectical encounter with nullity in general. For the first thing, nothing, so far from being a mere grammatical illusion, is a genuine, even positive, feature of experience. We are all familiar with, and have a vocabulary for, holes and gaps, lacks and losses, absences, silences, impalpabilities, insipidities, and the like. Voids and vacancies of one sort or another are sought after, dealt in and advertised in the newspapers. And what are these, it is asked, but perceived fragments of nothingness, experiential blanks, which command, nonetheless, recognition? Sartre, for one, has given currency to such arguments, and so, in effect, have the upholders of "negative facts" - an improvident sect, whose refrigerators are full of nonexistent butter and cheese, absentee elephants and so on, which they claim to detect therein. If existence indeed precedes essence, there is certainly no reason of a sort for maintaining that nonexistence is also anterior to, and not a mere product of, the essentially parasitic activity of negation; that the nothing precedes the not. But, verbal refutations apart, the short answer to this view, as given, for instance, by Bergson, is that these are but petty and partial nothings, themselves parasitic on what already exists. Absence is a mere privation, and a privation in something: take the thing away, and the hole goes, too; more precisely, it is replaced by a bigger if not better hole, itself relative to its surroundings, and so tributary to something else. Nothing, in short, is given only in relation to what is, and even the idea of nothing requires a thinker to sustain it. If we want to encounter it as such, we have to try harder than that.

        Better things, or rather nothings, are promised on the alternative theory, whereby it is argued, so to speak, not that holes are in things, but that things are in holes, or more generally, that everything (and everybody) is in a hole. To be anything (or anybody) is to be bounded, hemmed in, defined, and separated by a circumambient frame of vacuity, and what is true of the individual is equally true of the collective. The universe at large is fringed with nothingness, from which indeed (how else?) it must have been created, if created it was; and its beginning and end, like that of all change within it, must similarly be viewed as a passage from one nothing to another, with an interlude of being in between. Such thoughts, or others like them, have haunted the speculations of nullophile metaphysicians from Pythagoras to Pascal and from Hegel and his followers to Heidegger, Tillich and Sartre. Being and nonbeing, as they see it, are complementary notions, dialectically entwined, and of equal status and importance; although Heidegger alone has extended their symmetry to the point of equipping [That-Which-Is-Not] with a correlative (if nugatory) activity of noth-ing, or nihilating, whereby it produces angst in its votaries and untimely hilarity in those, such as Carnap and Ayer, who have difficulty parsing "nothing" as a present participle of the verb "to noth".

        Nothing, whether it noths or not, and whether or not the being of anything entails it, clearly does not entail that anything should be. Like Spinoza's substance, it is [its own cause]; nothing (except more of the same) can come of it; [from nothing, nothing is made]. That conceded, it remains a question to some why anything, rather than nothing, should exist. This is either the deepest conundrum in metaphysics or the most childish, and though many must have felt the force of it at one time or another, it is equally common to conclude, on reflection, that it is no question at all. The hypothesis of theism may be said to take it seriously and to offer a provisional answer. The alternative is to argue that the dilemma is self-resolved in the mere possibility of stating it. If nothing whatsoever existed, there would be no problem and no answer, and the anxieties even of existential philosophers would be permanently laid to rest. Since they are not, there is evidently nothing to worry about. But that itself should be enough to keep the existentialist happy. Unless the solution be, as some have suspected, that it is not nothing that has been worrying them, but they who have been worrying it.

    P.L. Heath, from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    God bless you,

Father Lawrence Smith
Sacerdos vagus
29 September 2004: St. Michael the Archangel

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    October 3-9, 2004
    vol 15, no. 175
    Making Sense of Sensus Catholicus