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. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this!

I've just now finally (!) also very happily caught up with a source cited repeatedly by Holly Ordway, José Manuel Ferrández Bru's Uncle Curro - which gives a lot more detail about Francis Morgan and his ancestry and family and friends and the history of the Oratory in his time.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I haven't read but did know of Uncle Curro. It was and is an expensive hardback, and when it came out, I offered to review it here, but the publisher's didn't reply. I see that U.C. is now available quite cheaply on Kindle - but Now I don't feel the need to read it! having had so much information on the subject from the Ordway biography.

Anonymous said...

If you could urge a nearby library to order a copy of Uncle Curro, you could have a look that way and do other Tolkien fans a pleasure... (but I have no idea what success anyone anywhere might have, these days, making such a suggestion to a public or academic library). One of the fascinating - but tantalizing - things José Manuel Ferrández Bru attends to is Father Francis's personal library, to which Tolkien refers in at least one of his letters. From him I have also learned that Juan Nicolás Böhl de Faber is among Francis Morgan's ancestors, and books by, or otherwise related to, him might have been there and given the young Tolkien access to Spanish classics not widely known to English readers.

Both José Manuel Ferrández Bru and Holly Ordway help to heighten readers' attention to things probably familiar to many a Catholic of Tolkien's generation - though Ordway is very interesting about Tolkien's non-Catholic Bible study, too - from the Greek New Testament at King Edwards's School on.

David Llewellyn Dodds

NLR said...

I was able to get a paperback of Uncle Curro 2 years ago (directly from the publisher (lunar press) if I remember correctly). It was clearly based on extensive research, with a lot of detail.

My one criticism would be that it did not do a great job weaving the details together to give a picture of Francis Morgan's life. (Which despite their other faults, I would say Humphrey Carpenter did achieve in the Tolkien and Inklings biographies).

Though, the best chapter in that regard was the appendix on the Spanish Civil War.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - Thanks for that perspective.

I agree that Carpenter was a very skilful storyteller - able to include a great deal of information clearly and readably.