|In recent weeks, long lines streamed into the Morgan Library to see a display of J.R.R. Tolkien’s memorabilia and his art, mostly drawings and watercolors. Other authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor sketched as an avocation, but these pictures were very much an integral part of Tolkien’s symbolic world in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.
Here on display was an example of the words inscribed as John Henry Newman’s epitaph: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem” – “Into the truth through shadows and images.” When Tolkien’s widowed mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, she was disinherited by her Baptist family. She died at the age of 34, before the invention of insulin, when Tolkien was twelve and his brother ten. He would write that his mother “killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.” The devout Oratorian priest to whom Mabel entrusted her boys, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, had been a schoolboy under the tutelage of Newman, soon to be canonized.
To his dying day, Tolkien was a daily communicant and venerated the memory of Father Morgan (no relation to J.P.), whom he had served as an altar boy, leading many others to the Faith, and he married only after persuading his future wife to convert. His grandson Simon has recalled that during the liturgical changes following Vatican II, his grandfather “didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.”
A new “biopic” about Tolkien’s early years features Father Morgan at the start, near the middle, and at the end, but practically omits any other mention of the Catholicism that was at the heart of the author’s life as an Oxford don and writer. The film originally had a scene showing Tolkien receiving Communion in the trenches during the First World War, but it was cut because “people felt it was boring.”
Last year’s film of the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, produced with Disney Corporation money (like Tolkien, which was made through the Disney-owned Fox Searchlight), eliminated the Christian imagery of its author, Madeleine L’Engle. Perhaps if it had been faithful to the text, it would not have lost nearly one hundred million dollars.
Madeleine was a good friend, and I knew to a lesser degree Tolkien’s eldest son John, who was a priest. Both would have found the film producers’ airbrushing of religion utterly incomprehensible. Tolkien wrote to the daughter of his publisher: “. . . the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.”
For further reading – “A light from the shadows: The Catholic vocation of J.R.R. Tolkien”