Saturday, March 5, 2016

Tolkien: A Catholic View

From Charles A. Coulombe:
In the ages of faith, while both Church and State were dedicated to roughly the same ends, they often differed as to how to go about achieving them. Then too, human nature and greed often sowed discord. Sometimes the life-and-death struggle with Islam was hindered by these quarrels. In The Lord of the Rings, we see these struggles reflected in the tension between Gandalf and Denethor II. Gandalf, indeed, partakes of much of the nature of the Papacy. He belongs to no one nation, and in a very real sense he is leader of all the free and faithful. This is so because his power is magical rather than temporal, just as the Pope's is sacramental. Denethor's interest is wholly national. To his statement "...there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor," Gandalf replies, "the rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care...For I also am a steward." Thus might Boniface VIII have spoken to Philip the fair, or Gregory VII to Henry IV, or Innocent III to King John. Gandalf also reminds one of the Fisher-King in the Grail legends, who himself is a symbol of Peter-in-the-Boat.

On the other hand, the Catholic imagination was also haunted by the image of the great Kings, like Arthur, St. Ferdinand III, and St. Louis IX. These were held to have been the ideal prototypes for rulers: pious, brave, wonderful in a manner unapproachable for those of later times. In three characters in particular, Elendil, Gil-Galad, and Durin, do we find the yearning for the great King in terms with which Western Catholics of yesteryear and Third World Catholics of today would be familiar: 

Gil-Galad was an Elven-King.
Of him the harpers sadly sing!
The last whose realm was fair and free
Between the Mountains and the Sea.

And again:

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the moon was seen.
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.
The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder days before the fall
Of mighty kings in Narthgarond
and Gondolin' who now beyond
Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin's day. 

So might have a Medieval minstrel mourned the Nine Worthies; so might a modern one mourn the Negus, or the Mwami, or the Kabaka. The forms change, but for a Catholic, the subject rarely does.
The upheavals earlier referred to destroyed Catholic unity, splintered society, and destroyed much that was beautiful. The enclosures and various other economic measures ended Western Society's communal nature. The great present-day expressions of these forces of modernity are Capitalism and Communism, with all they represent. JRRT's feelings about such things are clear. In The Hobbit, we are told of Goblins that "they invented some of the machines that have since troubled our world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions have always delighted them..." Of course, the descriptions given in The Scouring of the Shire are particularly apropos. 

In the struggle between Tradition and Modernity, three famous monarchs lost their lives: Charles I, Louis XVI, and Nicholas II. While the first and last were not officially Catholics, they were at least culturally so. Traditional forces in England, France, and Russia were solemnly canonised by the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches; Louis XVI is still regarded as a martyr by thousands of French Royalists. Each owed their deaths to two items: a desire to uphold the Traditional constitution of Church and State in their respective realms, and a personal weakness or flaw which reduced their effectiveness in so doing. They also shared heroic deaths which, to great degree, redeemed their mistakes in the eyes of many of their subjects. All of this applies to Isildur as well. (Read more.)

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