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Tolkien's Faith | An Interview with Paul E. Kerry, editor of The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and The Lord of the Rings | by Sean McGuire | Ignatius Insight | May 23, 2011

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Dr. Paul E. Kerry is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, research associate at Corpus Christi College and visiting fellow at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge. He specializes in German, Jewish and intellectual history. J.R.R. Tolkien is the latest of several scholarly subjects into which he has plunged. Past works include Thomas Carlyle Resartus: Reappraising Carlyle's Contribution to the Philosophy of History, Political Theory, and Cultural Criticism and Friedrich Schiller: Playwright, Poet, Philosopher, Historian.

He is the editor of the recently published collection, The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and The Lord of the Rings (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010), which includes essays by Joseph Pearce, Bradley J. Birzer, John Holmes, and several other Tolkien experts. Dr. Kerry is also co-editor, with Sandra Miesel, of the book, Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in the Work of J. R. R. Tolkien (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, August 2011). He recently spoke with Sean McGuire (who blogs at The Room of Shattered Glass) about The Ring and the Cross, Tolkien's faith, and the great popularity of The Lord of the Rings.

McGuire: In your Introduction, you mention a lot of questions scholars have covered in the "Is-Tolkien-A-Christian" debate. How did you frame this debate and why?

Kerry: Well, I would first point out that the question is not "Is Tolkien a Christian" – the overwhelming majority of scholars understand that Tolkien was a devout Catholic who believed in the truth, beauty, majesty, and salvific power of the Roman Catholic Church. The question is to what extend did Catholicism inform his fictional writings, particularly The Lord of the Rings, his masterpiece.

As a student at Oxford I was a member of the C.S. Lewis Society that drew many Christians of varying denominations together, as well as those who simply enjoyed his writings. The thought was a glimmer at the time, but I wondered about Tolkien's writings and their relation to Christianity. In the case of Lewis it is more obvious and thus less contested. Sometimes that leads to complacency and Lewis's fiction is relegated to Christian allegory, and we do not see his formidable mind and skills as a writer as clearly as we should.

My long-time colleague Dr Michael Ward, an Anglican clergyman, wrote Planet Narnia (Oxford, 2008) that has been justly praised as an interpretative breakthrough in Lewis scholarship on precisely this point. Michael, in fact, was president of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society when I was a member and we remained in touch when I was a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge when he was a chaplain at St. Peter's College. In fact, I helped him set up a speaking engagement at Princeton University and I recall when we conversed thinking that I would like The Ring and Cross and Light Beyond All Shadow to reflect the same judicious scholarship that he had employed in Planet Narnia.

I wanted to provide a forum where scholars interested in the subject could articulate their ideas and present them with civility. I think that the exchange in the book between Professors Hutton and Agy illustrates precisely this.

McGuire: Is it the case that most Americans are too religiously illiterate to understand Tolkien?

Kerry: Certainly I have had colleagues at the University of Cambridge tell me that for subjects such as medieval Art History or Chaucer it is increasingly difficult to find students who understand Christian motifs or allusions or who can catch biblical references. On the other hand, this is why they and others find it refreshing to work with bright students who are Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish, et cetera, who know the Bible and have been taught that proposition that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.

Another angle on your question might lead to a different way to look at Tolkien and readers who are receptive to him. It may be precisely a religious sensibility that makes Tolkien so compelling for so many, including Americans. In speaking with my colleagues at Villanova University—a university engaged in Augustinian renewal—they note that many times Catholic students are unaware that Tolkien was in fact Catholic, but that once they realize this new, deeper ways of understanding his and other major Catholic contributors to what Goethe called "world culture" become apparent.

Yet, readers of other faiths or those who profess none have read and enjoyed Tolkien. But isn't that a part of what Catholicism is able to do, that it is be universal? Certainly the translations into which Tolkien has been translated attest that there is an enormous intercultural appeal.

McGuire: What do you admire the most about J.R.R. Tolkien's work?

Kerry: Scholars want to communicate their ideas and Professor Tolkien found a way to build his scholarship in incredibly creative and imaginative ways into his fiction and found a way to communicate that about which he cared so much to so many. Some historians who are now taking a more literary approach to writing history are, I think, finding a way to do something similar.

I have also been struck by how Tolkien's writing exercises an interdisciplinary appeal on scholars, not only those in English departments, but (also) those in history and political science, philosophy and theology, and others are taking Tolkien's contributions more seriously.

McGuire: What's one question you would like to ask Tolkien if he was still alive today?

Kerry: As a professor who teaches university students for a living, I would want to ask about his views on how to go about that today. What would he consider the aims of a university education to be, and how might one achieve those aims?

McGuire: Who is one of your favorite moment in The Lord of the Rings? And why?

Kerry: In Book I, in the chapter "A Knife in the Dark", Frodo is seriously wounded by one of the Black Riders. After his time in the House of Elrond his grievous injury seems to be healed. Yet, much later, after (the) defeat of Sauron and when Frodo appears to be settled into some kind of domestic tranquility, he tells Sam, twice, that he is "wounded" and that this is the kind of wound that would never heal. Soon thereafter, of course, he leaves for the Grey Havens, stating a truth that Tolkien would have known all too well after experiencing the two World Wars.

Those who sacrifice to save us and preserve our lives and ways of life, whether they be soldiers, sailors, submariners, or airmen, or those our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and so forth, often cannot fully enjoy that which they (give) so much to preserve. It may come as a surprise to those readers, perhaps readers whose experience in life thus far has taught them that everything is recoverable, all can be made anew, that we can spring back in perfect health from any setback, that there are wounds from which we on our own cannot fully recover.

I think that here one has the chance to see Tolkien's European experience, as well as Catholic vision, shine through.

McGuire: What element of Tolkien's work do you think most misleads people into false assumptions?

Kerry: Tolkien was a philologist and sometimes his use of a word is specific, rooted in the history of a word, and may differ from the popular usage of a word. For example, there is a brief discussion of "wizardy" in the chapter "On the Road to Isengard" in The Lord of the Rings that seems to play on this distinction.

Sometimes this might entail a difference in popular perception between a European and American readership. Recall that The Hobbit was published in 1937, the same year as the Walt Disney animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was screened. Although both were aimed at children's audiences (recall not only the origins of The Hobbit, but that it was nominated for a Carnegie Medal), see the vastly different conception of dwarves.

McGuire: Any memorable moments while working on the Tolkien essays?

Kerry: I certainly did have some learning moments. This was my first time to work on a scholarly project with professional writers. I learned much more about that world and the challenges that they face. Although scholars face publisher pressure, they are paid for their university teaching and this pays the bills and puts food on the table.

Writers live by every stroke of the keyboard and if their writing does not sell, they do not eat or they have second or third jobs. I appreciate very much the contributions from the professional writers in this volume because academic presses are not for-profit endeavors, and so this means that they essentially donated their time and effort to the volume and for that I am profoundly grateful.

I have not had the pleasure of meeting all of the contributors to The Ring and the Cross but when I have had the occasion it has been illuminating. For example, I recall taking Professor John Holmes, from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, on a tour of Cambridge Colleges and learning so much from him about Tolkien from a medieval perspective. We also reflected on how Tolkien might have felt as a Roman Catholic as he worked at Oxford, an institution like Cambridge where many of the ancient colleges and chapels would have been begun as Catholic foundations.

One of the most memorable experiences I had whilst working on this project was a discussion I had with Princeton University students at Mercer House and Wiggins House, Opus Dei-affiliated foundations. The students were lively, bright, engaged, and not shy to ask hard questions about the project.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles:

The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings Peter J. Kreeft
Tolkien, Man and Myth: A Literary Life by Joseph Pearce | Reviewed by Jill Kriegel
The Ladies of the Ring | Sandra Miesel
Looking For An Inklings Adventure | An Interview with Dr. David C. Downing
Why Fantasy? | Richard Purtill
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Powers of Fantastic Fiction | An Interview with Tim Powers

Sean McGuire is a freelance writer, and a student at Benedictine College. He blogs at The Room of Shattered Glass.

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