Middle-earth and Narnia in a post-Christian world
Great works can survive cultural revolution
There is a poignant scene in Dominion, Tom Holland’s history of western Christendom, set during the dark days of the Second World War. ‘On the evening of 17 January 1944,’ he wrote: ‘the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon reported to the Area Headquarters in the north of the city. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had been serving as an air-raid warden since 1941. His duties were not particularly onerous.’
That night, he sat up late chatting with a fellow warden. Cecil Roth, like Tolkien, was a don at the university, a Jewish historian who had written – among many other books – a biography of Menasseh Ben Israel. The men got on well, and only after midnight did they finally retire to their quarters. Roth, knowing that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and observing that he had no watch, insisted on lending him his own, so that his companion would not miss early-morning mass.
Then, just before seven, he knocked on Tolkien’s door, to check that he was up. Tolkien, already awake, had been lying in bed, wondering whether he had time to get to church. “But the incursion of this gentle Jew, and his sombre glance at my rosary by my bed, settled it.” As a light in a dark place, when all other lights had gone out, Roth’s kindness struck Tolkien. So moved was he that he discerned in it something of Eden. “It seemed,” he wrote that same day, “like a fleeting glimpse of an unfallen world.”
It’s poignant for being a small touch of humanity in a world overcome with violence and hatred; the faith a shining light in the void.
‘Tolkien did not mean this as a figure of speech,’ Holland writes: ‘Every story, he believed, was ultimately about the fall. No less than Augustine had done, he interpreted all of history as the record of human iniquity. The world, which in the Anglo-Saxon writings he so loved had been named “Middle-earth”, was still what had it ever been: the great battlefield between good and evil.’
The Lord of the Rings came together in the late 1930s and the story opens with a growing sense of menace and fear, the figure of Frodo faced with a terrifying ordeal of endurance to defeat a force of overwhelming power. It is hard to read the opening chapters of the Fellowship of the Ring, where frightened travellers talk of evil arising in the east, without sensing that outside events must have influenced the author’s feeling of dread.
But the world it harks back to is altogether different and, for someone living in modernity’s darkest hour, more comforting. As Holland wrote, ‘The Lord of the Rings was deeply embedded in the culture to which he had devoted an entire lifetime of scholarship: that of early medieval Christendom.’ And it is his Christianity that perhaps makes the story so archaic today, or at least prone to reinterpretation. In that sense it rather echoes the great epic work which influenced it.
In the decade before his Middle-earth saga first emerged in print, Tolkien had translated the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. In many ways it is the archetypal story of a man overcoming a monster, but it is also a sort of lament for a disappearing past.