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The Catechism according to Tolkien

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

The year was 2001, and like every other kid in primary school no occasion was more momentous, no event more unbearably anticipated than a trip to the movies. Stepping in to the darkened cinema hall and letting the plush seats engulf you was a well-nigh mystical experience, and at school, the conversation would invariably turn to the cinematic event of the year. (I’d wager that for the past few years the creations of Messrs. Stan Lee and Marvel Studios have monopolised the minds and recess conversations of many a pre-pubescent kid.) Each young seeker of truth would in turn ask those deep questions seeking to uncover the meaning of life: “Have you watched it?” “What did you think of it?” “Who did you like best?” In that hubbub of intellectual inquiry, that public square of civil life, that hothouse of ideas which was the five minute changeover between Maths and English class, the conversation that year centered on a mysterious film that has by now defined the epic fantasy genre: The Lord of the Rings.

I remember the giddy days where The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King were released year on year, from 2001-2003. We savoured the world the trilogy created in our young minds and tried to recreate the majesty of Middle Earth on, well, this earth. Every girl in my class gushed over Orlando Bloom’s Legolas (gosh, that takes me back years). The more linguistic-minded of us delved into the intricacies of Quenya and Sindarin, the fictive languages Tolkien invented for the Elves of Middle Earth—I recall one of my classmates in all earnestness reciting to me the lines spoken by Legolas in perfect Elvish (one wonders if she studied for her Chinese exams with as much earnestness). I myself went on the Internet (then a new an uncharted territory, a place bursting with promise and possibility) and printed out the Quenya and Sindarin alphabet, which I proceeded to carefully cut out and paste in my notebook. It survives to this day.

Growing up in the millennium, and not the 60s or 70s when the book The Lord of the Rings was first published, no one, certainly not me, knew then whose legacy, whose incredible world we inhabited and took delight in. How could we have known that Middle Earth was not merely the figment of Peter Jackson’s imagination but the devoted brilliance of a quiet, odd Oxford professor of philology? Thank God for the practical wisdom of my parents, who weren’t about to waste a good opportunity of getting their children to read more, and so in 2001 bought me a handsome seven-volume paperback boxed-set reprint of J.R.R Tolkien’s magnum opus to read.

Over the course of my upper primary and teen years I didn’t so much as read and re-read it as devour it. It was to me the most appealing of all myths, the more so because I inhabited a hyper-rational, grimly materialistic culture that had starved them out of existence. In modern Singapore where the span of our emotional experience ranged from fear at failing exams and triumph at excelling in them, I was starved of chivalry, self-denial, sacrifice. In a country where the tallest peak is only a puny 178m high, I was captivated by the forbidding and awesome Misty Mountains that promised adventure, conquest, and spoke to an inner fire. I would shiver in delight at the melodious sound of Elven music, haunting and melancholy, as they made their pilgrimage to the havens to pass away from Middle Earth. A delicious thrill would run through me at the sound of hoofs like distant thunder in the hills as the proud and fierce horsemen of Rohan rode to battle at the blowing of trumpets. My heart would quail within me at the shrieking cry of the Nazgul, winged on fell beasts of the air, but would rise in triumph again when Gandalf, clad in white upon Shadowfax, king of horses, rode forth to dispel the darkness with light. I would read of deeds of tremendous daring, of courage beyond mortal measure, of beauty beyond the breadth of words to tell. These things rang in my ears as the thunder of distant drums in the mountains, beckoning me to deeper, more ancient things, and I would feel a great longing in my heart, oh, if only it were true!

I carried this longing in my heart as I shuffled through uninspiring catechism classes, mumbled through my rosaries, clapped limply along to whatever bland contemporary music they played in church and perfunctorily (or surreptitiously if in public) signed myself with the Cross before meals, wondering if there was something more to it all. Years and years of familiarity to the startling Truth of the faith had collected like detritus, robbing it of its immediacy and its glory. But Tolkien’s myth woke a slumbering fire in me. I desperately wanted something in my life to ring as true as Tolkien’s world had, as clear as the drawing of bright steel.

And one day, something did. In a chance encounter I heard Gregorian chant sung at a High Mass for the first time in my life and I knew, here was deep calling on deep, here was the vision I had glimpsed in Tolkien’s world, and it was all true! True not in the superficially literal sense, but bedrock true, true in the very sinews of reality. There is a Dark Lord who had corrupted our wills, and there is a battle ongoing for the fate of the earth, but there also is goodness, and hope, and beauty, and triumph over evil, and the most marvellous wonder of all, that I, fool and weak and helpless, am also part of that great story and have a reason to shoulder my cross! Thank God!

That day, instead of being repelled as many others were by the incomprehensibility of plainchant I was enthralled, recognising in it the same haunting and otherworldly melodies of the Elves. And I see now that beholding in wonder the seven-tiered tower of Minas Tirith prepared my imagination for the magnificent cathedrals and basilicas of Europe, and their modest if still beautiful replicas in Singapore today. The faithfulness of Gandalf, who alone of all his order remained faithful to his task of defeating the Dark Lord, taught me to recognise and love my priests, priests for ever, of Melchizedek of old.[1] In accompanying Frodo and Sam across the desolate wastes of Mordor I was viscerally imprinted with the sufferings of Our Lord, bearing his cross each last, heavy step to Calvary. And here at last I was changed from citizen to subject, to bend my knee and offer fealty and love to Christ, my true liege-lord and King.

Tolkien knew the potency of story as a vehicle of truth, offering us a “brief vision”, a “far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world”, a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” of how our world is made. [2] And as Tolkien himself was a lifelong Catholic and daily communicant, how else could The Lord of the Rings but be, by Tolkien’s own admission, a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work”?[3] Tolkien himself knew the only truth worth enfleshing in myth was that of the Truth, of the Word Incarnate. And yet he was only the latest in that great and long tradition which Our Lord hallowed, of teaching in parables that “they may see and see again, but not perceive; may hear and hear again, but not understand; otherwise they might be converted, and be forgiven.”[4] The storyteller knows only stories can pierce through our wall of unbelief through the sheer thrill and excitement of hearing the words, ‘once upon a time’. Through stories, the Truth enters not our minds but our hearts, and takes His place upon his rightful throne.

A better catechism I had never received than Tolkien’s in my years of being catechised from the cradle (excepting, of course, my parents). For he “wrapped the starkness of Mystery in the exquisite fabrics of Myth, in gold-wrought watered silks that proclaimed its preciousness”.[5] He helped me not just to know the Truth, but to love the Truth. And what was that Truth? That Our Lord is not just a prophet or a wise man or even a “nice” man, but the Second Person of the Trinity and King of the Universe. That we are not baptised into what C.S. Lewis calls “Christianity-and-water”, a diluted faith that never demands more of us than just being “nice”, but a faith hard as nails, salted by fire, nourished by a personal encounter with a loving God that gave His life to save us.[6] That our mission in the world was not just to proclaim niceness and good education, but to fight an all-out battle royale to save every last soul. And that we here on this earth are fighting, fighting not just against flesh and blood, “but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”[7]

But, you ask with quavering voice, will it really come to that? Tolkien lifts the scales from our eyes to look around, and instead of seeing harmless parishioners in pews we see a church under attack, persecuted on all sides, and bleeding members. But as we reach for our rosary we realise it’s a sword against the oncoming evil, and we go up to communion and see Our Lord beckoning us into the fray. Out of the myth of Middle Earth rises a call to stir our wills to take up our own crosses and follow Our Lord into battle, and quite possibly to death. But then we look again, and also see the impossible wonder that God who Died Lives again and walks among us, and ours is that tender amazement on that first Easter morning when we unknowingly cling to Him in the garden, or a burning in our hearts as He meets us on the road and turns our sorrow to joy. So if your own joy has been buried under years and years of familiarity, read The Lord of the Rings, and return to the true mystery of salvation with fresh eyes, in order that joy, “beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief”[8], may be yours.

© 2019 Christ Centered Convo/Jessica Goh

[1] Ps 110:4, Heb 7:17

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, essay written for presentation at the Andrew Lang lecture series by the University of St Andrews, Scotland, 8 March 1939.

[3] “142: Letter from Tolkien to Robert Murray, SJ.” , The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, HarperCollins, 2006.

[4] Mk 4: 12

[5] John Zmirak, “The Generosity of Tolkien”, CRISIS Magazine, 27 January 2010.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperCollins, 1993, p.42-43.

[7] Eph 6:12

[8] Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, 1939.

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