Wednesday 27 March 2024

Review of Tolkien's Faith: a spiritual biography by Holly Ordway (2023)

Word on Fire publishers deserve congratulation for producing such a handsome and well-made volume

Holly Ordway. Tolkien's Faith: a spiritual biography. Words on Fire: Washington, DC, USA. 2023. pp 480 total: 365 pages of text, plus appendices and index; plus 72 photographic plates. 

The publication of Tolkien's Faith is a significant event, because it provides substantially more information on JRR Tolkien's biography than has existed before about an aspect of his life - and work - that he himself often stated to be of prime importance. 

It also provides a properly contemporary Roman Catholic context for his religion - which may be almost as valuable for modern Catholics as it is for non-Catholics; since the Church of Tolkien's childhood, youth and mature adult life, was a very different environment than it began to become during the last decade of Tolkien's life. 

This divergence of practices from the Catholicism of Tolkien's prime has continued over the past half-century - so that a good deal of information and explanation is now needed to help modern people understand what being a devout Roman Catholic actually meant for Tolkien and his generation.

Where this book really makes a difference is in understanding Tolkien's later childhood and youth, in that vital period between the death of his mother - when he and his brother were orphaned - and going up to Oxford. 

This period has been well covered (especially by John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War) in terms of his experiences at King Edward's school in Birmingham. But Holly Ordway brings a new dimension to the non-school aspects of the Tolkien' brothers'life, who were in the very unusual situation of being orphans raised by a guardian, Father Francis, who was a priest at the Birmingham Oratory. 

Ordway describes the history and nature of the Oratory - about which I had previously been very hazy. It was founded by the famous Church of England ("Tractarian") to Roman Catholic convert John Henry Newman - who later became a Cardinal, the founder of University College, Dublin; and later still has been canonized. Father Francis had been a colleague of Newman - so Tolkien had a personal link to the great man. 

The Oratory itself was not a monastic institution, but encouraged each of the Fathers to develop his individual talents and vocation, while aiming at an atmosphere of friendship and mutual support among the 15-20 priests in residence. Therefore the Tolkien brothers had the tremendous benefit not only of Father Francis's personal love and (generous) support; but they also had a surrogate family among the Fathers - with whose devotional life the boys were intimately involved. 

That this upbringing was meaningful and important to JRR "Ronald" Tolkien, and regarded with affectionate gratitude, is evidenced by the fact that he maintained lifelong and close personal contact with Father Francis (who often visited the Tolkien family, and went on holidays with them); and also the Oratory itself - which ran a boarding school where all three of JRRT's sons were later educated.  


The focus on Tolkien's faith brings-out a very important aspect of his character which I had missed: forgiveness. 

While it has long been known that Tolkien blamed his relatives for ostracizing his widowed and impoverished Mother (and therefore the two boys) after her conversion to Roman Catholicism. For instance, during the months when Tolkien's mother Mabel lay dying, only one relative visited her: even Mabel's parents apparently refused to see their dying daughter!

Ordway points-out that this trauma did not prevent the later development of warm and lasting relationships between Ronald and these same relatives in later years. In other words; despite that he (very reasonably) regarded them as at-fault; Tolkien forgave his relatives, and showed no sign of harboring continued resentment against them.   

This insight is typical of Holly Ordway's strengths as a biographer and scholar - her eye for the significant detail that reveals character, or sheds light on a question. 

An example is the section on Lembas, or waybread. She describes how, before Lord of the Rings, the English word "waybread" was only used to refer to the English meadow and garden plant called Plantago major or plantain. 

(We used to play with a type of plantain as children, in a competition we termed "spuds", and that is similar to "conkers" - whereby each child would try to use one plantain to swipe-off the black flower-seed-head from another.)

Waybread makes sense in the context of LotR as "food for a journey", but "waybread"  is also the semantic equivalent of the Latin word viaticum (provision for a journey - i.e. the metaphorical journey of death); which is a term for the Blessed Sacrament (i.e. the Bread of Holy Communion) when given to a dying person. 

Ordway then describes how the wheel has now turned full circle! The Oxford English Dictionary currently records not just Tolkien's use of "waybread"/ lembas in Lord of the Rings; but also notes that waybread is today being used as a term for The Eucharist - with the first illustrative quotation being from a letter by Tolkien!

Despite the rich detail throughout, there were a few omissions that might be addressed by future biographers. 

One is the matter of Tolkien's apparently intense interest in "paranormal" or supernatural phenomena, which is mentioned in some accounts of Inklings meetings, and evident in The Notion Club papers. Phenomena such as ghosts, psychometry, lucid dreams, previsions of the future and visions of history, and auditory hallucinations of unknown languages. Some of these were confirmed by Christopher to be based on personal experience.  

There is much discussion of marriage in Tolkien's Faith; but I suspect, there is more to be said on this matter. Tolkien's own marital difficulties during middle age have been known in general terms since Carpenter's biography of 1977; but the specific nature of these difficulties and the consequences remains unreported (so far as I know).

Furthermore, given Tolkien's strict and orthodox Catholic beliefs on the subject; I presume that Christopher Tolkien's divorce and re-marriage must have been a very difficult matter for JRRT to cope with - but nothing at all is mentioned of this matter.   

So - there is (of course!) significant work still to be done on the faith and spiritual life of JRR Tolkien. 

One pregnant suggestion made by Ordway is that Tolkien's physical, and secondarily psychological, health seems permanently to have been damaged by the prolonged and severe "trench fever" that affected him during the Battle of the Somme and throughout the rest of the war. I am sure she is correct about this - there seem to be many references in letters and the Chronology (made by Hammond and Scull) to weeks long spells of debilitation and prostration. Here is a subject for further and detailed study!

In the meanwhile; this biography by Holly Ordway is a major, indeed definitive, contribution to understanding the Christianity of a man who has turned-out to be perhaps the most widely-influential English Catholic of the twentieth century. 

Friday 1 March 2024

Notice of the expanded - but underwhelming - "new" edition of selected Letters by JRR Tolkien (2023)

The main benefit of this new, expanded, version of the original 1981 selection of The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien; is that it induced me to "read the whole thing" again, from beginning to end, without skipping (except for a few paragraphs of technical linguistics). 

And the main benefit of this thorough re-reading (probably the third) was to realize how much I had forgotten of this indispensable gem of Tolkien's secondary literature. I really ought to have gone through the volume again, long before now; and for making me do it, I am very grateful to the 2023 edition!

If you are going to read any "Tolkien scholarship", then the Letters should be one of your first choices. 

But it has to be said that - following a gap of more than forty years between the first and second edition - this new collection is distinctly underwhelming. This because the new edition is in its essentials qualitatively the same as the old edition: qualitatively the same, although quantitatively larger. 

The reason behind this sameness is given in Chris Smith's Foreword to the revised edition; which is that the 2023 Letters are, in effect, the Zeroth  (i.e. 0th) Edition of the 1981 Letters - that is, the 2023 Letters are the 1981 letters before cuts were made by Carpenter and Tolkien, to bring the volume down to a publishable size.   

What we can now say is that the process of cutting the Zeroth edition down to the published 1981 Letters was very well done, because so little of substance was lost. Which (unfortunately) also means that there is not much that has been gained by making available this 40-plus-year-old selection of Letters. 

Indeed, I found it hard to locate many of the expansions, short of continually comparing the two editions (which would have destroyed the pleasure of re-reading). There are quite a few new letters, mostly to family members, labelled with a, b, c, etc appended to the numbers, in the correct Chronological position (and without, therefore, disrupting the established Letter numbering scheme).  

But many of the 2023 expansions were extra paragraphs added to the 1981-published letters - and the decision was made Not to indicate these expansions in the text (or anywhere) - so that they can only be discovered by a comparison of editions.

Such a lack of editorial explicitness adds to the impression of laziness in preparation of this not-really-new edition of Letters. 

My points is that - although the 2023 edition is certainly better than the 1981 edition; the new selection does Not address the core deficiencies of the 1981 selection. I am thinking, in particular, of the lack of any specific reference to Tolkien's psychological and marital difficulties. It was understandable and proper that such references were excluded when Tolkien's children were still alive, but now they have all died it is overdue that these were articulated explicitly in print.

In particular I was disappointed to discover no new letters to cover the 1945-6 period of Tolkien's "nervous breakdown" after he took up the Merton professorship, and during which he was writing The Notion Club Papers. 

This was when (apparently) Tolkien and his wife Edith seem to have (informally-) separated for some weeks, and JRRT went off to live with Christopher in an hotel. 

I regard this as important in the history of Lord of the Rings, since it was only afterwards that writing of LotR was resumed after a long break.

This crucial period is covered by a distinct gap in the published Letters - whether because none were available, or because they have been excluded, I don't know. 

I suppose (eventually....) time will tell. Perhaps this information is being held back for a desperately needed new authorized biography to replace/supplement Carpenter's unsympathetic, indeed semi-hostile, biography of 1977. In the meanwhile, new letter 38a to son Michael from 1940 provides confirmation of the significant and sustained marital problems of Ronald and Edith's middle years - and that these were explicitly known to at least the older boy children. 

In sum; the 2023 Letters are in every way better than the 1981 Letters; yet... without really adding anything-much substantive to what was already known. 

So that, overall, the 2023 Letters of JRR Tolkien represent a pretty enormous lost-opportunity to publish a genuinely new edition, rather than what is, in effect, an older-than-old edition!