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Between Cross and Resurrection

Between Cross and Resurrection: The Harrowing of Hell,
according to J.R.R. Tolkien

Stefan Kaminski
Andúril, The Sword of Aragorn - render by Morvos, published under CC Attribution-NonCommercial licence - https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/the-sword-of-aragorn-anduril-high-poly-1bfbdb13c6cb4d29988ceae4a1965589

Easter time seems to get me reflecting on Tolkien’s Catholic imagination. I have previously written about how the dynamic of grace was portrayed in the experiences of the hobbit-protagonists of Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas.

A key facilitator to this dynamic is, of course, the wizard Gandalf and the various ways in which he plays a Christ-like role, or otherwise serves to at least indicate the Divine action in some way. Gandalf offers spiritual and moral guidance to the hobbits and often speaks for, or of, what we might call Divine Providence. In fact, the word that most aptly captures Gandalf’s role is that of prophet. He speaks the truth: about the individual, about the worldly situation and about the cosmic order.

However, if one bears in mind Tolkien’s aversion to obvious analogy – and which is why too many people miss the foundational role of Catholicism in his writings, or try to undermine it – it is also unsurprising to find that one cannot pin-point a completely Christ-like figure either on Gandalf or any other single character in the Middle-Earth saga. Such a refraction of the roles that Christ fulfils into different characters within the saga is a rather more elegant solution, and decidedly more theologically-eloquent, than mere analogy.

Similarly, the events of Holy Saturday, tied up as they are with the nature of Christ’s kingship, find reflection in The Return of the King, the third book of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Paths of the Dead, by Darrell Sweet. This work is copyrighted and owned by Darrell Sweet's estate. It is believed that the use of this image on our website qualifies as fair use under copyright law in the United States of America

Whilst Frodo is approaching Mordor and the final stage of his quest to Mount Doom, Aragorn – the mysterious ranger – is to be found on what is considered by everyone else to be a suicidal mission. He decides to brave the Paths of the Dead, a subterranean mountain path, and home to a lost army of men, now dead, yet trapped by a curse that resulted from their own disobedience long ago. This army, if it can be made to obey, is crucial to countering the extra weight of Mordor’s allies, who are about to throw themselves against the human citadel of Minas Tirith, the seat of the Kingdom of Gondor.

The nub of the question, of course, is that of authority over this terrifying army. No living man could pass through and survive: the dead do not obey the living. Only one exception exists; and this takes us back to the origin of these men’s story. The curse that this army brought upon themselves was a result of their breaking oath to aid the Kingdom of Gondor against the forces of evil. That oath was made to the King of Gondor, and as such, the only person with the authority to command its bond and release from the curse is the self-same King – or, of course, a legitimate descendant who can wield that authority on his behalf.

By this point, Aragorn, is of course known to the avid reader to be the heir to Elendil, the first King of Gondor. And so, the trepidation with which we accompany him along the Paths of the Dead, as the dreadful and invisible army gathers around him, is offset by the hopeful expectation of something dramatic. And we are not disappointed. The dead king cynically strikes out at Aragorn with his sword, only to find it halted in its path by Aragorn’s own blade: something that no mortal would be able to effect, other than one who bears that original authority.

Recognition of the King who stands before them rustles through the horde; their assistance is secured; and when they finally fulfil their oath in the present conflict, they disappear with a whispering sigh of relief, finally free to rest.

It would be hard to find a more dramatic visual aid to explaining Jesus’s harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, especially for an audience of teenagers or young adults. For those puzzling over the words in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell”, Tolkien provides a vivid point of reference. The imagery poignantly evokes and gives life to St Paul’s reference to Christ as the “Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). In turn, the logic of Christ’s command over the dead is helpfully drawn out by Tolkien’s narrative.

Photo: Christ’s Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1470.

As with our army, the key to Holy Saturday is in the origins, and can be summed up in the words: paradise lost, paradise regained. Our first parents suffered the loss of Eden, ‘paradise on earth’, through breaking the primal covenant that governed their relationship with the Creator. Having said that, this consequence can be – indeed should be and is – considered in view of the greater blessing that results: namely the promise of a renewed and glorified life at the end of this time. Thus, the Exsultet, the Easter proclamation that is sung before the newly-lit Easter candle at the Vigil, pronounces the words, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

The loss of Eden resulted in the entry of death into the world (cf. Romans 5:12), with the ensuing mortality of the human race. Again, whilst we might naturally consider this a curse, in the schema of God’s providence it rather turns into a blessing if we consider that God did not wish for fallen humanity to continue an immortal existence alongside the effects of evil. Thus, the necessary end of our fallen mortal nature with our bodily death results in a state of waiting, a state of the soul’s existence apart from its body.

The greatness of the mystery of God’s love, which we saw executed in the bloodiest manner in yesterday’s Solemnity, is of course that it goes beyond that disobedience and rupture instigated by our progenitors and continued throughout history. It wishes to encompass every person, in harmony with their own volition. However, until the price of that disobedience was paid, those who had already died remained ‘trapped’, awaiting their liberation. Their souls, whilst free of their mortal body, remained – according to justice – outside the presence of God. The dead were bound by the original curse, awaiting the fulfilment of the bond of justice.

Unlike Aragorn’s army, who have to fulfil their original oath and fight, the price of humanity’s ‘oath-breaking’ is paid freely, “not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Thus, Christ’s death effected two things: firstly, a universally- and eternally-valid sacrifice for any and all human sin, including those who had come before him; secondly, his ‘entry’ into the realm of the dead via his mortal body, yet wielding the divine authority of the king to whom those souls were originally bound.

Only the Son of God, He through whom “all things were made… and without [whom] was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3), could enter the realm of the dead and command its bond. Only the rightful King could wield authority over every soul, whether in the province of the dead or the living. Only the Cross of the incarnate God could break the brass gates and shatter the iron bars of hell asunder, as is recounted by two of the men risen from the dead in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.

No surprise, then, the prophetic words of Hosea, “O Death, I will be thy plague; O Sheol, I will be your destruction”.

Or the words of St John Chrysostom on Easter night: “Hades is angered… because it has been mocked… destroyed… it is now captive.”

Or the ancient hymn for Easter Matins: “Today Hades tearfully sighs: ‘Would that I had not received Him who was born of Mary, for He came to me and destroyed my power.’”

Before his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ grants salvation to souls by the Harrowing of Hell. Fresco, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430s

The harrowing of hell – and what a harrowing! – is unsurprisingly an intrinsic part of the logic of the Easter mystery. Viewed inseparably from the death and resurrection of the Lord, it is witnessed to by the Apostles themselves, and traced from the very earliest Christian traditions.

It is appropriate that Holy Saturday should retain a sense of stillness and quiet preparation in the earthly life of the Church: momentous events are taking place in the spiritual realm, before the glory of the Lord bursts forth from the realms of the dead, with the saving banner of the victorious Lamb leading the mighty hosts of heaven.

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A Theology of the Family

22nd December 2022

A Theology of the Family: The Strange Case of the Bare Feet

Stefan Kaminski
Perugino - Adoration of he Magi
Perugino's Adoration of the Magi, in Citta' delle Pieve, Italy

Perugino’s Adoration of the Magi in Citta’ delle Pieve, Italy (as opposed to the one in Perugia) contains a curious detail which is easily overlooked at first glance. In the dim light of the small Oratory that houses this painting, the vibrant colours of the principal figures in the foreground pop out and create an almost 3D effect. The observer’s gaze is drawn across the breadth of the painting by the various garments of the ten or so persons that flank the child Jesus in the centre. One is conscious of the depth and activity that stretches away behind this first row of figures, but the colours readily draw the eye back to the primary scene. It is not easy for the eye to then drop down to the protagonists’ feet, which are very much where you expect them to be. By virtue of their sensibly-coloured footwear, they do not demand any particular attention: that is, until one notices that the feet of some of these important people are bare.

The feet that have most obviously exposed themselves to the elements are those of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps a nod to their humble state, in view of the bare-footed shepherds that hover in the background, and in contrast to the calced extremities of their noble visitors? The homogeneity of the garments across this front row of figures would suggest not. Closer examination reveals that one more of these principal figures is also bare-footed: the bearded gentlemen at the far right. Why should he not have worn some sandals on this visit?

If, by some astute observation (or perhaps at the prompt of a helpful guide), one compares this man with the discalced Holy Family, and then particularly with the figure of Joseph, one starts to notice some strange similarities: a perfect parallel in bodily posture, from the angle of the head down to the distribution of weight and position of the feet; an identical facial profile and features; a reflection of each other’s expression. The only distinguishing feature, other than the colour of the garments, is that the man’s beard is much fuller and longer, and is distinctly double-stranded.

The only clue that can be claimed with certainty is that this particular beard is clearly used by Perugino in other of his paintings on the figure of God the Father. If we are to suppose, then, that Perugino did indeed intend this figure as the Heavenly Father, one can also note the gold girdle around his waist – typically depicting sovereignty or royalty – and the celestial blue of his undergarment – a classical indicator of a spiritual being.

This striking relation between the figures of Joseph and God the Father immediately calls to mind St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15). The painting appears to express precisely this: Jesus’ foster-faster, Joseph, is shadowed by the real Father, who manifests His presence discreetly in the background and at the same time somehow lends authority to the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s persona thus takes on a fuller sense when one realises that his fatherhood, though temporal, is exercised in the name of the Father.

Joseph, who plays such a strong, yet silent role before and through the infancy of Jesus, quietly disappears from the Gospels as the Christ emerges into the maturity of His humanity and the fullness of His divine mission. Yet his presence is a reminder that God the Son was not born into some extraordinary situation, even if His Incarnation was an extraordinary event. The Divine Saviour was inserted into the ordinary and regular pattern of the nuclear family – father and mother – surrounded by their extended family and relations.

Given the non-biological nature of Joseph’s fatherhood, one might ask whether there is any deeper meaning to his role than simply that of fostering the child and providing stability and support to the mother. Perugino, if we have interpreted his painting correctly, seems to very much think there is. And indeed, more authoritative support comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their long genealogies trace Jesus’ ancestry through each generation from Adam through to Joseph, passing through the lineage of Abraham and his Israelite descendants, encompassing kings and prostitutes alike.

Fans of Tolkien will be all-too-familiar with those long pages in The Lord of the Rings that are preoccupied with tracing the lineage of Frodo Baggins, Aragorn or one of the Dwarves. Indeed, ancestry is an absolutely critical part of all Tolkien’s writings that tell the story of his fantasy world, beginning with its creation, as told in the Silmarillion, through several epochs until the ‘redemption’ of Middle-Earth with the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring of Power.

In his mythical vision of reality, Tolkien merely reflects what is divinely and humanly true; namely, that the human person is not an isolated ego, a self-defined construct, or a morally-autonomous being. The human person has an origin and a destiny, is given their existence and context, and is called to act for the concrete good of his neighbours.

Thus, at a legal and social level, Joseph’s importance is in providing Jesus with a crucial part of His human ‘identity’, through which He is inserted into a chain of parents and progeny. This is deliberately traced right back to its very origins, pointing us back to the Father, after whom every family is named. It similarly evokes future progeny, the generation of which is the primary purpose of the family. In the case of Christ, that progeny is potentially every person throughout human history, who through faith in Him, are all called as adopted children of the same Father.

The Church’s vision of the human family is thus grounded in the nuclear family for a good reason: the family is the context and means intended by God for the flourishing of humanity. God Himself assumed humanity in this context, and whilst He ‘only’ adopted an earthly father, the figure of Joseph speaks powerfully of the more important and fundamental reality that is true of every family. This is the same truth that St Paul is at pains to point out in his letter to the Ephesians, and has been recognised since the early Church Fathers: Fatherhood, properly speaking, is a reality that only belongs to God. God is Father of all because He is creator of all. In the same way that the very existence of every being depends on the supreme Existence, the fatherhood (as expressed in the complementary, generative power of both sexes) of the human person only and ever has any meaning as a reflection of and cooperation with the Divine Fatherhood.

Inserted into the specific strand of Joseph’s ancestry, the Holy Family raises the stakes for all human families. No longer is the family simply the font of earthly life, but it is now joined to the Divine project of Redemption. The human family not only remains a co-operator in the mystery of creation (to paraphrase St John Paul II), participating with God in the creation of human persons: it is now an embodiment of the mystical marriage between Christ and His Church, and its primary task is now to generate children for the Kingdom of God. As Perugino depicts so beautifully, human fatherhood is a task that is given by God, and answerable for to Him alone.

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The Tolkien Trail – Exploring the Ribble Valley

30th April 2021

The Tolkien Trail - Exploring the Ribble Valley

After a year of restrictions, isolation and lockdowns it’s been wonderful to see so many people returning to the local area and experiencing the beauty of the countryside surrounding the Stonyhurst Estate.

The gorgeous landscapes of the Ribble Valley have inspired many visitors, including J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, some of the world’s most loved and bestselling books. Tolkien was a regular visitor to the area – while his son John trained for the priesthood during the Second World War, and later when his son Michael was teaching at Stonyhurst.

Tolkien’s books are known to have been heavily influenced by his own life and experiences, so his familiarity with the Stonyhurst Estate and its surroundings are likely to have inspired some of the landscapes in his stories. Tolkien was writing the second volume of The Lord of the Rings trilogy when he first spent time at Stonyhurst in the 1940s.

The Tolkien Trail is a walk which was prepared by the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, in conjunction with Ribble Valley Borough Council. It’s a stunning way to explore the local area. The trail exposes walkers to some of the area which Tolkien would have been familiar with and may have used as inspiration in some of his stories. Some local places (such as Shire Lane in Hurst Green, and River Shirebourn) are even similar to the names of places in the books.

Cromwell Bridge - River Hodder
Cromwell's Bridge over the River Hodder
Walking route for the Tolkien Trail
After you have completed the five and a half mile walk, why not stay the night with us at Theodore House, a Grade II listed building previously known as the Old Mill dating to the 1840s?
 

The building was rebuilt and restored with funds raised from trusts and private donors by the Christian Heritage Centre. We offer B&B accommodation, with 25 single and twin rooms (all with ensuites) in a clean, comfortable and modern environment.

With plenty of excellent pubs nearby, Whalley Abbey and Clitheroe to explore, as well as Pendle Hill and other more challenging walks, the Ribble Valley is an excellent and beautiful spot for a few days’ break!

We are offering a 10% discount for all our visitors this June and July, so send us an email now at bookings@christianheritagecentre.com

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Tolkien’s Cosmology

The Logos & Literature: Elaborating the Divine
#1 Tolkien's Cosmology: Understanding our World

***The talks are made available freely with the request for a donation to support our costs.***

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JRR Tolkien’s mythical world captured the hearts and minds of millions. His world is one that speaks to us because it is anchored in a profound truth: that of a cosmos brought into being and continually guided, whilst simultaneously respecting the free choices of its creatures. Rev. Dr Halsall will explore the beauty of Tolkien’s vision as a reflection of the Catholic understanding of the cosmos, as defined in its relationship to the Creator.

About the speaker:

Fr Halsall is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and teaches Philosophy at Allen Hall Seminary in London. Fr Halsall’s recent book – Creation and Beauty in Tolkien’s Catholic Vision – explores the philosophical themes in Tolkien’s crafted creation narratives, alongside those of the Christian tradition, influenced as they are by varieties of Christian Neoplatonism.

Other videos in the series:

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Easter notes: How his Catholic faith fired Tolkien’s imagination​

Friday 3rd May 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Easter notes: How his Catholic faith fired Tolkien’s imagination

Stefan Kaminski

Stonyhurst College and its surroundings have a long connection with J.R.R. Tolkien. As a father of four, Tolkien often visited two of his sons at Stonyhurst. Whilst John was based at St Mary’s House as a student for the priesthood during the Second World War, his father spent many an afternoon in the College working on the script of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien would later return to the school in the ‘60s and ‘70s to visit Michael, who taught classics. The Tolkien Trail, with the Stonyhurst estate at its heart, capitalises on this likely source of real-life inspiration for Middle-Earth and directs the mildly-intrepid explorer from the Shireburn Arms, along Shire Lane, past a now disused ferry crossing and on through other evocative locations.

 Whether or not Tolkien had precisely these locations in mind when he penned his saga, the attentive reader cannot fail to see echoes of Middle-Earth in this landscape. From the homely habitations of the Ribble Valley to the brooding presence of Pendle Hill behind thick forest, one can easily find oneself accompanying Bilbo or Frodo along the earlier stages of their journeys in one’s imagination. And with springtime in the air, the unusually marvellous weather is making the Ribble Valley positively sing with the busyness of its fauna and the blossoming of its flora. New life emerges everywhere in its innocence and vibrancy.

The springtime beauty of God’s creation, so eloquently described by Tolkien and so fundamental a theme in the history of Middle-Earth, is of particular poignancy to the Christian at Easter time. The visible signs of life and growth should be a reflection of those occurring in the depths of our souls, after our Lenten preparation. The highlight of the liturgical year – the triumph of life over death and the conquering of sin – constitutes a rallying cry for each individual to new life in Jesus Christ. Easter is the springtime of our souls.

The fact that the Resurrection does indeed involve a personal dimension and not just a cosmic one, is beautifully reflected in Tolkien’s work. Although the LotR saga is undoubtedly attractive for its themes and for the sheer scale of the work, the minds and hearts of readers are drawn into this epic through a very ordinary protagonist with very ordinary worries and struggles. Frodo the hobbit is caught up in matters far greater than himself, yet within the drama of the cosmic struggle is woven his personal contribution with its own strife

J.R.R. Tolkien in WWI uniform

Although Tolkien was clear that The Lord of the Rings was a profoundly religious work, one that built on and explored his Catholic faith, he did not wish for it to be explicitly Christian. The tale is therefore pre-Christian in the sense that it does not directly encapsulate the concept of God’s final revelation and redemption in His Son. Nonetheless, one can find allusions to the Christ throughout the narrative.  One of the clearest such references is the figure of Gandalf the Grey. His duel with the Balrog at the gates of Moria sees him fall “beyond light and knowledge… far under the living earth, where time is not counted.” There, he battles until this fearful enemy is defeated, after which Gandalf returns to the hobbit and co. as a new-and-yet-not-new Gandalf, the White.

Through the figure of Gandalf, we are taught some important lessons about the Paschal mystery. It is Gandalf who is the catalyst for both Bilbo and Frodo setting out on their respective journeys: his is the ‘voice’ that summons them to adventure and to great deeds. For those not familiar with the habits of hobbits, it should be remembered that these are a very homely and comfortable race, that do not like to stray far from their next meal or cup of tea. In this sense, Bilbo and Frodo’s journeys involve a certain detachment and stepping outside of their comfort zones. This is the process by which they are transformed, a hint of the “new creation” which the grace of Christ enables (2 Cor 5:17). “My dear Bilbo!” exclaims Gandalf, “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.” This is what the process of purification, including the age-long discipline of fasting, is for: to exorcise our worldly attachments in order to free the soul for a renewed growth.

The scenic River Hodder meanders through the Lancashire countryside near Stonyhurst. This tranquil spot was an inspiration for the leafy lanes of Tolkien’s Shire

Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully of all, the final victory over the power of darkness reveals the operation of a certain Providence in and through the freely willed actions of individuals. It is not a providence that overrides minds and hearts; indeed, despite Frodo’s magnificent efforts, he fails at the very end of his mission insofar as he tries to claim the Ring for himself rather than destroy it. Yet the mission is brought to completion by the continued greed of Gollum, who in a final grasp for the Ring sends both it and himself to their fiery doom. In this way, Tolkien expresses a firm sense of the Divine Omniscience who works in and through each of His beloved creatures, allowing us to respond (or otherwise) to His grace; and regardless, always bringing about a greater good from every situation. So Gandalf tells Bilbo: “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”

Easter is a time not just to celebrate, but to consider our own response to God’s grace. Confidence in His mercy should all the more encourage our own striving for that which might otherwise seem too much of an ‘ask’. And if we are short of a good read, Tolkien provides both inspiration and much to ponder with a solidly Christian flavour.

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of The Christian Heritage Centre

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‘The road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began …

Friday 7th April 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

‘The road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began ... ’

David Alton
Stonyhurst College now forms the start of the Tolkien Trail

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, in Lancashire’s beautiful Ribble Valley, is a treasure trove of artefacts and memorabilia associated with so many chapters of Britain’s rich Christian story. It is home to over 60,000 objects and 50,000 books, including a Shakespeare folio and manuscripts of the Bard’s relative, the Jesuit poet, St Robert Southwell.

Mark Thompson – a former Director General of the BBC, now editor of the New York Times – who has contributed to the creation of the Christian Heritage Centre, says that the restored historic libraries were a major source of inspiration for his desire to go into journalism: “You read something like Inversnaid and it really brings the texture of that landscape to life. “You’re really lucky to live in that part of the world. You have a feeling that this is a special, unspoilt place. It’s amazing.”

 

J.R.R. Tolkien

In the Victorian era another young man, Arthur Conan Doyle, honed his writing skills in this same environment while today the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst is promoting a special connection with two of the Catholic world’s most influential writers – the author J.R.R.Tolkien and the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. To help visitors get closer to these two men and to understand their Catholic faith, the CHC is making available two wonderful walking trails – guaranteed to inspire.

The author of Lord of the Rings – one of the world’s top ten best-selling books – was a regular visitor to this beautiful part of Lancashire, the sacred county, when one of his sons, Michael, was a teacher at the college, and another, John, trained there for the priesthood (while the English College in Rome was closed during the Second World War). Tolkien’s name appears in the college visitors’ book many times, along with that of his wife, daughter and sons. Since 1954, 150 million copies of Lord of the Rings have influenced vast numbers of readers. Less well known was the contribution he made in 1966 to the Jerusalem Bible – translating the little Book of Jonah. With his friend, C.S.Lewis, and the other ‘Inklings’ Tollkien used his amazing skills as a storyteller to open our eyes to the only story that really matters.

Tolkien was the son of a widowed Catholic convert – Mabel – whose family rejected her when she became a Catholic. On Mabel’s death in 1904, at the age of 34, a death “hastened by the persecution of her faith”, as Tolkien remarked in 1941, he was shunted between relatives until a lodging was found for him by an Oratorian priest, Fr Francis Morgan, who became his legal guardian.

In 1963 Tolkien wrote about the effect that these experiences and formative years had on him: ‘I witnessed (half comprehending) the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Church.’ His great closeness and devotion to Mary, the Mother of God – began with the premature death of his own mother. He said that Mary ‘refined so much of our gross manly natures and emotions as well as warming and colouring our hard, bitter, religion.’

Of Fr Francis he wrote: ‘I first learnt charity and forgiveness from him’ and he said that he taught him the story of his Faith ‘piercing even the ‘liberal’ darkness  of which I came, knowing more about ‘Bloody Mary’ than the Mother of Jesus – who was never mentioned except as an object of wicked worship by the Romanists.

In a letter to Fr. Robert Murray SJ, Tolkien said of the Virgin Mary ‘Our Lady, upon which all my own small perceptions of beauty, both in majesty and simplicity is founded’. Elsewhere he had said: “I attribute whatever there is of beauty and goodness in my work to the Holy Mother of God.” Tolkien saw Mary as the closest of all beings to Christ, as literally “full of grace” describing her as “unstained” and that “she had committed no evil deeds”. He saw her as the Christ bearer who paves the way for the Incarnation: about which he says “the Incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write.”

He would have particularly loved the Lady Statue, erected in 1882, that commands the entry to the Avenue and which leads the walker from the village of Hurst Green into the college grounds. Tolkien attended Mass in the now beautifully restored church of St.Peter – and cultivated his great love of the Blessed Sacrament and nurtured his belief in regularly receiving Holy Communion: “I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again.”

He told his son, Michael, that: “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion….frequency is of the highest effect.”

He described the Holy Eucharist as “the one great thing to love on earth” and that in “the Blessed Sacrament you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that….eternal endurance which every man’s heart desires.”

The Blessed Sacrament appears in Lord of the Rings as the lembas, the mystical bread – the bread of angels – which both nourishes and heals. Lembas, we are told, “had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone, and did not mingle it with other goods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure.”

That Tolkien’s faith was based on personal encounter with God and a deep spirituality is revealed in an exchange that he had with a stranger (whom he identified with his wizard, Gandalf) and who said to him: “Of course, you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?” Tolkien replied “Pure Gandalf!…I think I said, ‘No, I don’t suppose so any longer.’

I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff up anyone who
considers the imperfections of ‘chosen instruments’, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.”

Tolkien tells us that: “Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”. Elsewhere he states: “I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic”. In 1958 he wrote that the Lord of the Rings is ‘a tale, which is built on or out of certain ‘religious’ ideas, but is not an allegory of them.’

In 1956 in a letter to Amy Ronald he wrote: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Map of the Tolkien Trail

And the Lord of the Rings is full of those glimpses and riddled with wisdom and common sense about everything from the constant battle against evil and the overcoming of seemingly impossible odds, to the nature of friendship to the place of courage: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.”

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

“It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.”

“Courage is found in unlikely places.” 

But central must be an understanding of power and evil represented by the Ring itself: “The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at least, the great battle of our time.” Principal among those who would face the great battle were Tolkien’s Hobbits – the people of the Shire – and the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst’s walking trail enables walkers to experience some of the stunning local landscape that, during Tolkien’s visits, would have inspired him.

Appropriately enough, the village of Hurst Green boasts its own Shire Lane while Ribblesdale and Rivensdale seem, at times, interchangeable. The verdant countryside is dominated by the dark shape of Pendle Hill, famous for its association with witches, sorcery and black magic in the 16th century. Inspiration here for Mordor, the Middle Earth’s Misty Mountains and The Lonely Mountain?

And on completion of the ‘Tolkien Trail’ where better to quench your thirst than at the Shireburn, named for the Catholic family who built Stonyhurst:

‘Ho! Ho! Ho! To the bottle I go To heal my heart and drown my woe Rain may fall, and wind may blow And many miles be still to go But under a tall tree will I lie And let the clouds go sailing by’