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Tolkien is a big problem? Traditional-type priest says so. February 3, 2014

Posted by Tantumblogo in Basics, catachesis, disconcerting, error, General Catholic, Interior Life, priests, sadness, Society, Spiritual Warfare.
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I have never been a fan of Tolkien.  While still a kid, I tried reading The Hobbit, but I found it – even at 11 or 12 – boring and pretentious.  That opinion never changed. But I know Tolkien has a ton of fans.  I have been surprised how popular he is among even many tradition-leaning or -embracing Catholics.  The recent movies are also widely embraced.

Before I continue, I should say that I have not completed either video below.  Having said that, what I’ve seen is enough to convince me that this priest – who is anonymous, per Audio/VideoSancto rules – may be on to something.

The priest argues below that Tolkien’s writing, often perceived as “safe” or even virtuous  by many faithful Catholics (Tolkien was, after all, reputed to be a devout Catholic), is actually problematic and/or disordered in many respects.  The talk is long, taken from a conference, and the priest-speaker goes into a great deal of detail.  In essence, he finds in Tolkien’s mythology a sort of competitor for the Christian ethos, and he finds numerous detailed elements that could, possibly quite unintentionally, plant ideas in Catholic minds that could later end them in trouble.

Part I:

Part II:

Now, before anyone gets excited, I want to say that while I think the priest raises many valid points of concern, it is up to the individual soul – well formed, I pray – to determine the risks, if any, posed by reading Tolkien and how to proceed based on this analysis.  I am not taking a strong stand here, declaiming Tolkien and all his works.  As I said, I’ve never been a fan, and I haven’t read fiction in a decade or more.  I’m more of a non-fiction kind of guy.  But I do know a lot of people have a strong attachment to Tolkien and his writings, so this might be upsetting.  Don’t shoot the messenger.

I also want to say something else:  while I’m certain the priest in the videos above is motivated solely by concern for souls and defending Holy Mother Church, I do think we can almost make a habit of scandalizing ourselves, or looking for things to cast aside to prove our superior orthodoxy.  I see a little of that here and there.  I say that only as a slight note of caution, and I don’t intend to dwell too much on it (and bear in mind, I haven’t listened to half of the above, yet).  I strongly recommend reading mostly books related to the Faith, especially those with an author who has an St. in front of their name, but I understand many people cannot only and ever read specifically Catholic books.  I read some secular books from time to time.

At the same time, I recently came to the realization that an author I really liked in  my younger, much more pagan, life, that I recognized held some bad ideas even at that time, now appears to me an unmitigated disaster and a moral monster.  I had already turned away from him, so to speak, knowing now as a Catholic that he espoused some wrong and even immoral beliefs.  But I had a sort of epiphany of late reading something completely unrelated that made me realize what an unmitigated disaster this guy really is.   I need to scour my library and destroy any copies of his books that remain (I don’t think there are any, but some might have made the move).

And I mean destroy.  Arthur C. Clarke was such an advocate of wanton immorality and extreme partisan of God-hatred, I cannot in good conscience put his books back into circulation.

Having said that, I’m not putting Tolkien in the same class.  There may be problems, but he’s not actively advocating for the death of religion and the promotion of the worst kinds of lust.

UPDATE: One final note.  Sort of contradicting myself above, but I would say that the fantasy genre in general is one that is best avoided.  Not so much because of problems with Tolkien, per se’, but most of the rest of the genre is highly problematic to outright immoral. My old best friend had a wall full of that kind of stuff, as did the previous owner of our new home, and if the covers are any indication, the vast majority of those books contain imagery, scenes, and ideas that are extremely toxic.  Tolkien is probably one of the most tame in that genre, but much of what has been published in it in the past 40-50 years is just trash.

Now, if Tolkien serves as a sort of entre into that genre, then that would be a very powerful reason to avoid him.  I think most well-formed Catholics could make the distinction, but some less well formed souls could fall into really bad things, potentially.

Just a thought.

Comments

1. Magdalene Prodigal - February 3, 2014

I also gave up non-fiction almost entirely some years ago–no time for it and too much excellent more relevant materials–but I read all of Tolkein in high school. I really like the Ring Trilogy videos.

I do often list to the sermons on audiosancto but will pass on these ones. While the Harry Potter stuff should be cautioned against, not every fantasy writing need be.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 5, 2014

+1 to that.

2. Lorra - February 3, 2014

“I have never been a fan of Tolkien. While still a kid, I tried reading The Hobbit, but I found it – even at 11 or 12 – boring and pretentious. That opinion never changed.”

You are the first person I have encountered that shares this view. Back in the Stone Age when I was in high school, his books were making the rounds and were required psychedelic reading. I disliked him back then and, like yourself, have no changed my opinion even after countless decades.

An interesting point you bring up about reading fantasy. I, as you may have deduced by now, read a lot. In one of my books about a religious order that ran girls’ schools in the 1800s, it said that they discouraged their young ladies from reading modern romance novels precisely for this reason. Rather than helping them be logical thinkers, it caused them to base decisions on emotions and engage in too much daydreaming about nonsense.

Tantam, by the way, I thought you’d like to know that I cannot subscribe to the notification of new posts or threads on your blog. It takes my email, but when it says they are sending a notice to that email address, I never receive it.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 3, 2014

Tolkien’s works causing folks to base decisions on emotions and to engage in daydreaming about nonsense?! You must meet my dear wife. Through Tolkien’s book, The Lord of the Rings, ironically given her by her atheist uncle, she was led to a deeper faith in Christ ultimately paving the way for her to enter Holy Mother Church.

Lorra - February 3, 2014

Please go back and read again what I wrote. Don’t put words in my mouth.

What can I say to someone who puts the works of this author along side The Imitation of Christ and Holy Scripture?

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 3, 2014

You appeared to equate fantasy literature, and in particular the works of J.R.R. Tolkien based on the primary topic of this post, with that of romance novels. My apologies for having jumped to this conclusion.

It is my general policy to never trust a soul who has read Tolkien and not loved it. In my opinion, they fail to appreciate the beauty of a fairy story and thus the experience of the joy of redemption. They are an unhappy fundamentalist, or so I have found it.

Lorra - February 3, 2014

“It is my general policy to never trust a soul who has read Tolkien and not loved it. In my opinion, they fail to appreciate the beauty of a fairy story and thus the experience of the joy of redemption. They are an unhappy fundamentalist, or so I have found it.”

Who cares what your general policy is?

tantamergo - February 3, 2014

Let’s try not to cast aspersions because someone doesn’t like something we read, or whatever. I know this will show under Lorra, but it’s not intended for just her. It’s a general comment. Different people have different tastes, I wouldn’t write someone off because they found Teresian theology unappealing.

skeinster - February 4, 2014

Now that’s interesting. I was a enormous reader of fairy tales as a child, and still enjoy them as an adult. Yet, after eight or nine tries at reading TLR over the last forty or so years, I have never succeeded in getting past the first third of the first volume.

TE has described it: boring and pretentious. I think the reason Grimm resonates when Tolkein doesn’t, is that the former takes place in the real world and the latter in an over-elaborate made-up one. I’m not explaining this well, but it has something to do with finding creation so amazing on it’s own, that it needs no jazzing up.

tantamergo - February 4, 2014

That’s my opinion. It is worth precisely what you pay for it.

Having said that, I did state in the update to the post that I had concerns about the fantasy genre in general. I probably should have been more specific. There is a certain class of fantasy books produced especially since the 70s that features a lot of sex and titillation. Those were what I had in mind. The friend I described in the post had a whole wall full of that kind, including graphic illustrations on the front cover. There is probably more fantasy type stuff that is not such a problem, I have just been exposed to a particularly troublesome kind.

3. DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 3, 2014

Here again, as with music, much discernment is required. Fantasy literature can take the soul to spiritual highs as in the case of Tolkien’s works, but unfortunately in the case of George R.R. Martin’s banal works can also bring us to the gates of hell itself. What is evil but the corruption of the good? And what is man but a soul in conflict between the two? Right along side everyone’s copy of The Lord of the Rings should reside the Holy Scriptures and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ for do not the latter two inform the former?

4. c matt - February 3, 2014

I liked 2001:A Space Odyssey, although I thought the deification of man at the end (and its horrible sequal, 2010: A Space Ghost and His Computer) was a bit much. The ending of Childhood’s End just sucked. I remember feeling completely ripped off for having wasted time to read it only for the crappy ending. As for Tolkein, to each his own. I suppose a case could be made that Michelangelo’s David or rendering of Adam in the Sistine Chapel is soft porn.

tantamergo - February 3, 2014

See, and that’s it. That’s kind of when I pause and say: can’t we basically exclude everything that is not specifically Catholic and not only that, but way-back hardcore Catholic.

Should we? Is that going too far? Should we literally not look, see, or do anything that wasn’t made by a canonized Saint?

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 3, 2014

Only since I converted to Catholicism could I truly appreciate the world in which our blessed Lord has made and the works that man has wrought with the tools given him either materially or spiritually. Now I view the world with Catholic eyes. Now I can see Christ in just about anything. This is helpful as a father for it informs my approach to aiding my children to see Christ in everything and in everyone whether it be fantasy literature, ‘magical’ cinema, the birth a chick, the charity of a neighbor, the work of one’s hands, the humility of chasing after one’s hat, et al.

This, the Church has been doing considering all things secular and interpreting them in the light of Christ, cf. St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.

5. c matt - February 3, 2014

he makes some points, sure, but he also has a limited view of myth, describing it as only a means of describing a culture’s origin or a natural phenomena. I assume, for example, he refers to things such as Remus/Romulus and the founding of Rome. Another use of myth is to transmit truths related to human nature – the Oddyssey, for example, for things such as loyalty, betrayal, etc. I think he overemphasizes the danger (which can be present) with the first use of myth.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 3, 2014

+1 to that.

6. c matt - February 3, 2014

Sorry, kind of doing this piecemeal as i listen. I think another category error he may be making is that myths of false things (e.g, greek mythology) of course are going to contain falsehoods, and the apostles and Church fathers rightly condemned those false mythologies that sought to promote the cultus of Greek or Roman gods. That does not mean myth is a poorer means of transmitting ideas – in fact, given the extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology commonly known, it seems a rather good method for transmitting ideas (although in this case, false ones – but no one believes in Zeus anymore anyway). Perhaps given the prevalent use of myth in the ancient world, God deliberately chose not to use it so revelation does not appear as so much “white noise”. Who knows. I doubt God counts a particular literary device as a deadly sin, although some english professors might.

So, I would think that a myth that transmits truly Catholic ideas should not be objectionable – the literary device of myth itself should not be the problem, but the content of what it transmits. Perhaps he gets into specific content later.

tantamergo - February 3, 2014

Yeah, try to wait until you’ve listed to at least a whole one before commenting, or there might be 40 comments.

7. c matt - February 3, 2014

Seriously – he blames Tolkien for the widespread apostasy and not the disastrous self-inflicted wounds by the hierarchy in the wake of “Spirit of V II?” I may have a hard time taking him seriously from now on.

8. servo - February 3, 2014

I don’t have the patience to wait through the whole thing, but how far will this go? Star Wars? Silver Age Comic books? Arthurian legends? The Greek classics?

Maybe it’s dealt with there; but I don’t know. If anything, it’s the ‘Traditional Catholicism is a list of things you can’t do’ thing that drives me nuts and hurts my faith more than fantasy or silly tales of magic or exotic religions. I’m sure some people can take it too seriously and dabble in the occult, but not if they have a brain.

I’m not accusing the priest of saying that, and I know he’s a great priest, but I have gotten that impression from people in the movement at times.

tantamergo - February 3, 2014

I knew it would be explosive. I noted in the post my diffidence, and the fact that I think there can be a tendency to being a bit too ready to be scandalized.

Then again, local priests say they don’t care what we read so long as the author is a Saint.

skeinster - February 4, 2014

One of those locals also said “great books”, so I took that to mean I could still read Dante, Homer and Chaucer, etc.

9. St. Benedict's Thistle - February 3, 2014

I will listen to these this evening when the day’s work is done. However, as someone who came to a deeper understanding of Christianity through Tolkien and his friend, C. S. Lewis, I very much doubt I will be able to agree with the sermon.

10. Don - February 3, 2014

I think the author of this blog should read ‘The Lord of The Rings’ (‘LOTR’) trilogy (the movies are only a veneer in comparison, though in places well done). Or are we to be like Moslems and discard every book but one? I find that many do not rightfully comprehend the ‘LOTR’, that is hardly a reason to see them as problematic. Should we discard ‘Beowulf’ too? Or the Arthurian legends? Etc., etc. Sounds very Islamic to me.

tantamergo - February 3, 2014

Jeez guys, lighten up. I didn’t even say I particularly accepted the priest’s claims, at least not real strongly. I also said I don’t read fiction. I find it uninteresting. I have perused Tolkien in recent years since my kids are fans but it just doesn’t do much for me.

You might try reading the whole post before commenting. I made something of the same point you are.

But I’ll say this: this reaction is revealing as much or more than anything the priest said.

servo - February 4, 2014

?

servo - February 4, 2014

I mean, I’m certainly not screaming or freaking out. Not sure if anyone is particularly.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

Exactly. I am not sure I understand the reaction. This, along with a couple above appear to me an over reaction, though perhaps a mild one. It almost, just almost, makes my point concerning unhappiness in certain individuals.

11. Steve Fowler - February 4, 2014

He certainly had a lot of words, but he was very slow in presenting points. I encountered only 2:

1. Tolkien’s books don’t clearly explain Christian theology: did we expect that they would? His initial quote from St. Paul seemed to me obvious: people will reject sound DOCTRINE in favor of fantasy DOCTRINE.

2. He doesn’t know of any who were converted to Catholicism by reading Tolkien, but he knows many who were converted by reading a life of a saint. We have testimony above that Tolkien has helped people spiritually (as he has me), but are ALL books supposed to be either clear statements of doctrine nor conversion material?

I found his points too weak, and his presentation to rambling, to continue.

12. St. Benedict's Thistle - February 4, 2014

It is unfortunate that others put Tolkien in a position he would not have claimed for himself – that of Catholic pastor and teacher of theology. Yes, he desired to impart “high level truths about God” in his works, and I think many God-loving authors seek to do that without making their works a religious treatise. With Tolkien and Lewis we are certainly talking about fiction, right?

That an author was in love with the genre of myth is not a reason to condemn his works. His works do contain elements of Catholicism, just as Jewish authors or Protestant authors impart elements of their religious beliefs into their works, both fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure there is evidence to show that Tolkien was trying to teach in a magisterial way. In fact, much of his reason for his Middle Earth saga was to provide the British peoples with their own sagas, much like the Nordic sagas. A culture’s myths serve to unify a society, to knit it together through a common literary (including mythic) and historical foundation.

The priest decries Tolkien’s love of myth versus allegory as un-Catholic, indeed he judges him because, as an individual, he preferred myth as a literary device to impart certain truths. He uses bad people who happened to like Tolkien’s works as evidence that the works are bad, and this in a time when the whole world was convulsed with cultural breakdown.

The priest sets up a straw man argument by pitting the writings of the saints against the writings of Tolkien and then shooting down the fictional works because they apparently did not convert enough people to the Catholic faith. How could he possibly know the numbers of people who have converted to Christianity or Catholicism as a result of reading Tolkien and Lewis and Macdonald, as opposed to the saints, whose writings are specifically geared to that end?

The priest next attacks Tolkien by associating his love of myth as a literary form to Freemasonry’s reliance on the myths of Solomon’s Temple! Guilt by association, eh? Then, he attacks Tolkien’s fiction because, unlike the Bible which contains no myths, LOTR is myth. He is comparing apples to oranges.

He then quotes Pope Pius XII. A very pertinent quote that addresses the modernists and their tendency to dismiss some Scriptures as myth. He differentiates between the “extravagant imagination” of myth writers and that of Holy Scripture. No problem there, except the homilist then lumps Tolkien in with the modernists who were and still do decry the truth of Scripture. I was not aware that Tolkien felt the Scriptures were myth.

I could go on and on with this critique but it would no doubt exceed the combox’s ability to publish it and everyone else’s ability to stay interested in my opinion.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 5, 2014

Great stuff. Much appreciated, your response is.

13. TerryE - February 4, 2014

It’s sad that a 2-hour conference that is well-organized is being critiqued for the most part with the patience and mental stamina necessary to listen to a 10-minute “The Vortex”.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

Replace ‘2-hour conference’ with ‘three volume work’ (about 1,140 pages), four if you count the biblical-like The Silmarillion. Further remove ’10-minute “The Vortex” and replace with ‘2-hour conference’ and the sentence resembles an interesting irony. Just sayin’.

TerryE - February 4, 2014

Once again, a quick dismissal from drive-by criticism. Comparing 1,140 pages to a 2-hour conference is unfair to the priest that gave the conference. Father explained that he has read and re-read Tolkien many times and was a huge fan. He also explained that he listened to an 8-hour version of Joseph Pierce’s works on Tolkien. The conference was given with humility and charity. In summary, this priest spent hours crafting his conference with study, prayer, and discernment. It deserves more than a flippant dismissal based on a 10-minute hearing from anyone. It doesn’t matter if it turns out to be less than 100% bullet-proof.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

Quick dismissal of a quick dismissal? Gee,nicely done.

It has been pretty well critiqued here without my having to add any more to the discussion, though I well could!

14. Rebecca Joan - February 4, 2014

this is why more people aren’t trad. it’s stuff like this that turns people away and for no good reason. I don’t even like the hobbit and I only like the movie versions of LOTR with the exception of fellowship of the ring which I found pretty good when I read it tho overall I find Tolkien’s writing dry and boring. But why a priest feels the need to warn people against harmless books is just beyond me. He should spend his time talking about something worthwhile imo.

15. Tancred (@sedgladium) - February 4, 2014

He weighs too heavily on what various scandalous individuals have done with Tolkien’s work, even complaining about the immoral lives of the actors.

Yes, and his notion of mythos is limited as well. He seems to forget that Dante’s inferno is full of mythological beings and refers to these figures as if they were historical.

I couldn’t get past the 40:00 mark.

skeinster - February 4, 2014

If we followed that line of thinking, re: the immoral lives of actors, then given the spectacular fall of Mel Gibson, we cannot watch “The Passion of the Christ”.

Have to agree with those above- there’s more to myth than “not factually true”.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

Amen.

16. DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

Two suggestions: Actually read The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. Yes, it is long and Tolkien does love description. Its length can frighten some, I understand. Take it in doses. He wrote for a time when the microwave was not even an idea in most people’s minds and most folks probably still only owned one car, if that. Slow down and just enjoy it, if you can. Read it with Catholic eyes and a whole new world, I would hazard to guess, will be opened wide to you. If you can read Dante, this will be nothing for you by comparison.

Next, read Dr. Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. By comparison, it is a lighter read but well worth the time and effort even so. Through this, one might understand why this book or set of books has been instrumental for many to draw them closer to the Lord.

Finally, as bonus credit, pick up Joseph Pierce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life. Learn in detail how this man lived his Catholic life. Recall, he only ever knew the traditional Latin Mass in his early years before it was ever known as ‘traditional’ and certainly during the time in which he wrote his magnum opus. One might say that the traditional Latin Mass had a heavy hand in the formation of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Curious, I have heard some call the Traditional Latin Mass boring and pretentious as well…not me, of course, for I can see the beauty and the truth in this expression of worship, this wondrous art!

17. Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington - February 4, 2014

An alternative view, from a hillbilly Thomist in Tennessee:

http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0127.html

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

I have just finished reading this essay and I am left without words to describe my satisfaction with his work save for this, that was absolutely fantastic. I will also add that this essay can be summed up by the words of Tolkien himself, “The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a religious and Catholic work. The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism,”.

Catholics, tolle lege!

18. Branch - February 4, 2014

I think Chesterton is pretentious.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

Really? I just find him boring. 😉

I would recommend that you read his The Everlasting Man. This, along with The Lord of the Rings, belongs on every Catholic’s bookshelf.

Branch - February 4, 2014

I have, and it was helpful to me. But I still think he was always trying to be clever.

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 4, 2014

The man hardly had to try. 😉

skeinster - February 4, 2014

This! I read his essays, but always with the feeling that another “quotable” is lurking just around the corner.
Really a minor quibble, though, given the quality of his work.

19. c matt - February 4, 2014

Well, having listened through to the bitter end, it seems his main thesis is that LOTR is a gnostic work, not a Catholic one. It certainly can have some gnostic appearing elements, but then, gnosticism itself as he admits also borrowed from Christianity and therefore even has Christian elements. If his point is that this can be dangerous for the non-discerning, well, ok. The Bible is also dangerous for the non-discerning as Martin Luther attests. It is fine that he points out certain resemblances to gnostic or otherwise possible objectionable things, but at the same time I think he fails to take his own advice – he says it is wrong to take things only part way- that we often take the good and ignore the bad (true enough). But then he takes the bad and ignores the good. At the same time, I think he misunderstands the purpose of the work, expecting it to do something it was not intended to do – it is not Denzinger, so to speak. It is a secular work with Catholic flavor. That means it will have some other nonCatholic items thrown in. Some of his points are a bit of stretch – saying that Gollum leads Frodo out of the mountain and therefore is “evil doing good.” If Gollum intended to lead Frodo out – intentionally help him, then maybe. But Gollum does it unwittingly. Same with destroying the ring – Gollum did not say “Fro, I see you struggling with your decision, bro. Here, let me get rid of it for you.” Often, it seems to me, God does bring good out of evil with evil’s own unwitting compliace. Contrary to his point, the Crucifixion is precisely Satan’s and the Sandherin’s unwitting complicity in God’s plan of redemption. Again, you seem to get out of LOTR what you bring in with you. If you bring a bunch of gnostic new age baggage, then yes, you can fit it to your mindset. It is good that he points those elements out. If you look for Catholic themes, you wll find those too.

And what is all this hating on the Big Bang? “Let there be light” and Big Bang don’t sound contradictory to me (in fact, just the opposite).

DiscipleoftheDumbOx - February 5, 2014

I applaud your stamina, my man. Great observations and good response!


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