J. R. R. Tolkien is well-known for his incredibly detailed landscapes, characters, and languages. It begs the question, though: why did he go to so much trouble to describe the physical world of The Lord of the Rings? Did he simply get carried away? Was he perhaps being excessive? Craig Bernthal explains the reasons behind this and more in his new book, Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth. Bernthal, a long-time English professor at California State University, Fresno recently sat down with the Angelico Press Blog to discuss Tolkien’s sacramental outlook on life and how it’s affected his own.
To begin, Bernthal argues that it’s necessary, especially for the Catholic author, to go to such detail in describing the physical world because it is in the natural that the supernatural resides. He writes:
The obligation to portray the natural vividly is greater for a Catholic novelist, as O’Connor says, because it is through the
natural that the action of grace—divine aid—is discerned; and it is in nature that the supernatural comfortably resides. Tolkien is scrupulous in his portrayal of nature; he makes the reader feel
that the soil of the Shire and the trees of Lothlórien are full of grace. This understanding that the supernatural and natural are bound-up and in harmony with each other grounds the Catholic
understanding that the world is sacramental—a fount of grace (p.23).
Angelico Press Blog: What inspired you to take up this subject?
Craig Bernthal: Well, of course, I love The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other writings. I had taught The Lord of the Rings several times, the last time in a very fired-up senior seminar, here at Fresno State. Teaching is wonderful, because it forces you to articulate your thoughts about books all the time, and my students, who began the class as avid Tolkien readers, had many insights to share.
I left that course thinking about how Tolkien examines story-telling as a way of getting at truths which no other form allows. Tolkien says that myth allows the articulation of truths that could be understood in no other form, and we see his characters thinking in these terms. At the Council of Elrond, all the participants are engaged in constructing one grand story, which in final form will tell them, as a group, what must be done with the Ring. Late in the book, Sam ponders how he and Frodo are just part of a much bigger story, and the realization fills him with wonder. Story, you might say, has the weight we normally give to argument.
Around this time I was also studying Acts, and I saw that Peter and John, in addressing the Sanhedrin, obviously believed that if they told the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it would carry conviction simply through its own Spirit-enabled power. The assumption seemed to be that the truth would just become apparent through the story. This got me thinking, in all sorts of ways, about the relation of The Lord of the Rings to the Word. One day I was driving to San Francisco, listening to Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio Journal interviewing David Schindler on his book, Ordering Love, and I thought, this is how Tolkien saw the world—as permeated by the Logos. The book fell into place from there.
A. P. B.: Has Tolkien’s sacramental vision changed how you view your own life? Has it affected your work as a Catholic author?
C. B.: Like many people—perhaps even most people—I can think of times in my life in which the glory of God seemed powerfully present in the world. Most of these experiences come in early childhood, as Wordsworth recognizes in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Reading Tolkien is like revisiting ourselves in these moments. Tolkien’s landscape descriptions especially recall this power of God to make his presence felt through nature. Tolkien’s work makes me more conscious of God’s immanence in the world, and what a great gift that is! One cannot help but be more grateful, and I hope this affects my life in a lot of ways.
A. P. B.: What do you hope that readers will take away from your book?
C. B.: I hope they will understand that, but for the Catholic Church, Tolkien could never have written The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien saw the world as a sacrament and so could only write about it as a sacrament. People want the beauty and sublimity of Christianity without Christianity itself—or they think they do. Tolkien, like Flannery O’Connor, is right to present his story not as an apologetic but as a world lit up, numinously, from within. Still, I want people to see that the Spirit is there. I don’t believe literary critics can think seriously about Tolkien without recognizing the depth and profundity of the religious dimension in his writing. And they have no excuse for not recognizing it, given how often he talks of its importance in letters, lectures, essays, and poetry.
A. P. B.: Do you have any current or future projects that you would like to share?
Right now, my usual teaching load at Fresno State is keeping me busy, but I am interested in two possible book projects. I’m facilitating a Little Rock Scripture study at my church and we are reading Galatians and Romans. At bottom, to me the seven undisputed epistles of Paul seem to be all about love and how it works. I think I’d like to write a short book about that, even though I’m no bible scholar, just so I can understand for myself what Paul is saying.
I also am interested in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Woolf is also a very visionary writer, maybe even a mystic, and yet she rejects Christianity, is immensely hostile to it, and has perfectly awful things to say about T. S. Eliot when he becomes a Christian. Her explicit attempt to conserve mystical experience while eliminating God seems to be an essential if incoherent part of modernism. Perhaps one must go back to Matthew Arnold, who said that Christianity’s day was done, but that poetry, as an alternative religion of feeling, could fill the breach. It can’t, of course, but the failed experiment of poetry as religion (institutionalized in that modernist congregation, the English department) would be a fascinating thing to investigate.
“The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth.”-Flannery O’Connor (23)