English 321: Tolkien & Oxford Christianity

Professor W.C. Dowling
Department of English

Rutgers University, USA

Thanks to the kind offices of Tolkienian Mark Zipkin, a recorded selection from Lecture 7 is now available online. Click here on "The Temptation of Galadriel". So many people have asked me my opinion of the Tolkien movie that I've included an excerpt from my Tolkien Review interview where I talk about the movie.

The World of Middle Earth

The course will take as its center J.R.R. Tolkien's great trilogy of Middle Earth in the Third Age, the epic quest-narrative in which the free peoples of the West -- men, hobbits, dwarves, elves -- combine in a Fellowship given the hopeless task of destroying the One Ring by casting it into the fiery fissures of Mount Doom, in the very heart of the land of Mordor, Sauron's bleak and wasted realm of pure evil.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien sweeps up the themes of Northern epic and the chivalric quest of the Middle Ages, shadowing forth a world in which Sauron and his orcs, Treebeard and his fellow Ents, the elves of Galadriel and the Hobbits of the Shire, are as real as the Men who are our own nearest relatives in the story.

Suddenly the foremost Rider spurred his horse forward. It checked at the water and reared up. With a great effort, Frodo sat upright and brandished his sword.

"Go back!" he cried. "Go back to the Land of Mordor, and follow me no more."

"The Ring! The Ring!" they cried with deadly voices; and immediately their leader urged his horse forward into the water, followed closely by two others. (The Lord of the Rings, Bk. I. Click on picture for larger image.)

Our reading of the trilogy will focus on a single important paradox: though The Lord of Rings is in some obvious sense a religious work -- "Good and evil are not one thing among elves and another among Men," says Aragorn-- it contains no trace of religious belief, ritual, or theology. The question: how is a narrative demanding that readers conceive of the world within "religious" categories able to do so without any overt mention of religion?

In addition to The Lord of the Rings, we will read other works by Tolkien: The Hobbit, the children's story in which the landscape and peoples of Middle Earth first took shape, Smith of Wooten Major, a fable that sheds important light on Tolkien's conception of the literary imagination, and Farmer Giles of Ham, a comic story that takes us very close to Tolkien's beloved northern world of dragons and knights and the heroism of ordinary people.

A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil. And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed. Down, down it came, and then, folding its fingered webs, it gave a croaking cry, and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck. (The Lord of the Rings, Bk. II.)

In the sections of the course devoted to The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works, we will try to make sense of the paradox of a narrative that, written in a age of materialism and religious skepticism, implies that the moral categories usually associated with "religion" underlie our conception of the human world at the deepest level -- that "good" and "evil" are not mere human inventions but categories built into the relation between consciousness and external reality.

The Heroic Age

Tolkien's inspiration for The Lord of the Rings was, as he pointed out many times, linguistic. He made up the languages of Middle Earth, and only then the peoples who spoke them, and then, last of all, the story into which they were all drawn on a single quest to defeat the power of Sauron.

The notions of the magical and supernatural on which Tolkien draws through the trilogy came from his deep love of Northern myth, and especially the Old Norse sagas and Anglo Saxon poetry of the heroic age.  The elves and the dwarves of The Lord of the Rings are creatures out of northern mythology. The dragon in The Hobbit and Farmer Giles of Ham is the same dragon against which the aging Beowulf fights a last doomed battle in the great Old English epic Beowulf.


Roaring he swept back over the town. A hail of dark arrows leaped up and snapped and rattled on his scales and jewels, and their shafts fell back into the night. At the twanging of the bows and the shrilling of the trumpets the dragon's wrath blazed to its height, till he was blind and mad with it. (The Hobbit. Click on picture for larger image.)

The sense of exile and despair experienced by Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor is drawn directly from such moving Anglo-Saxon elegies as The Wanderer and The Seafarer, in which lonely outcasts mourn the days in which they sat in the firelit mead-hall at the feet of their king, the "ring-giver" of Germanic heroic legend. Theoden and the riders of Rohan live in the manner of Hrothgar and his people in the opening sequence of Beowulf, and the language they speak is one that Tolkien renders in the trilogy as Anglo Saxon.

Tolkien was a great scholar of Anglo Saxon and Old Norse, and brought about a revolution at Oxford by insisting that such works as Beowulf were not mere samples of a language no longer spoken -- they had been treated by the "philological school" of English studies as occasions for illustrating Grimm's Law -- but living works of the literary imagination. To read Beowulf, on Tolkien's account, was to enter into a world where dragons and monsters were as real as Lorena Bobbitt or O.J. Simpson are in ours, and to do that was to enter a world of myth and story -- the bloody world of strife and heroism and honor and loyalty -- that had dominated the Northern imagination for many long centuries before the coming of Christianity to the peoples of northern Europe. To read Beowulf in Anglo Saxon was, Tolkien thought, to return to the mythic roots of English language and culture, the lost inheritance of everyone who would learn to think and speak in English in coming centuries.

I will lecture on Tolkien's work as an Anglo Saxon scholar -- especially his great essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics" -- as well as Anglo Saxon history and literature, and the class will read Beowulf in R.M. Liuzza's recent translation. Members of the class will also be asked to learn and recite a short section -- about 40 lines -- of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon. Don't let this assignment dismay you, even if you are not particularly good at learning languages. The point is simply to allow students to experience that sense of "linguistic otherness" -- the change of consciousness that occurs when your mind is actually dwelling inside another language than the one you normally speak -- as it seems to me indispensable to grasping the narrative magic of The Lord of the Rings. If you'd like get a head start on learning the section of Beowulf I'll assign, click here on Grendel's page.

Literature after the Death of God

I will sketch in the background of modern rationalism against which Tolkien and the Oxford Christians developed their theories and wrote their works. The story of philosophical materialism as it develops in the 18th century in works like La Mettrie's L'Homme machine and in the writings of authors like Holbach and Helvetius, the displacement of religious myth by Darwinian evolution in science and Marx's dialectical materialism in political theory during the 19th century, the "death of God" as proclaimed by Friedrich Nietzsche and a host of lesser philosophers, all provide a context without which one cannot grasp the conviction of Tolkien and Lewis that religion -- and, specifically, a "truth" that in an age of rational scepticism remains available only through mythology and imaginative literature -- is something that simply cannot be conjured away in the name of scientific rationalism. The course in this sense might be said to begin from a concession made by Nietzsche himself, who at the time he wrote the following was signing himself in letters as "the Anti-Christ":

Science probes the processes of nature, but it . . . knows nothing of taste, love, pleasure, displeasure, exaltation, or exhaustion. Man must in some way interpret, and thereby evaluate, what he lives through and experiences. Religions gain their power by being standards of value. An event appears in a different light when looked at from the point of view of myth.


In this section of the course I will spend some time as well on World War I as the plunge into despair and meaninglessness from which literary Modernism would emerge as the dominant movement in 20th century writing. My first lecture will deal with the Battle of the Somme -- that senseless slaughter in which tens of thousands of young men on both sides died, and in which both Tolkien and Lewis took part -- and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land as the image of the bleak moral landscape that Modernism saw stretching away in every direction. A quick summary of the course might be to say that we will try to see exactly how Eliot's Wasteland is re-enclosed within the landscape of The Lord of the Rings -- it is Tolkien's Land of Mordor, especially as we experience it in Book III -- and redeemed in the name of an indomitability of moral consciousness that cannot, so long as there are human beings, be absorbed into the dead universe of atoms and molecules and inexorable physical laws.

Oxford Christianity: Tolkien and the Inklings

Finally, as a way of trying to solve the puzzle of Tolkien's work as "religious narrative without religion," the class will spend a good deal of time on his relation to the group informally known as the Inklings -- Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others -- and called by some modern scholars the "Oxford Christians."

The central figure in this group is Lewis, who spent most of his earlier years as a religious skeptic, and who, as most people know, was brought to a belief in religious truth through his talks with Tolkien. (The long conversation in Addison's Walk, on the grounds of Lewis's own Magdalen College, is a famous event in the history of Oxford Christianity. His partners in conversation were Tolkien and Hugo Dyson.)

C.S. Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen College

In the foreground of this part of the course will be the Inklings themselves -- about whom I will lecture at some length -- and the "religious" works written by Lewis after his acceptance of the Christian faith. We will read Lewis's moral comedy The Screwtape Letters and one of his explicitly theological works, The Problem of Pain. In addition, I will try to give some idea of the breadth and importance of Lewis's work as a literary scholar, in such works as The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image, especially as this implies a "religious" theory of literary creation wholly opposed to what Lewis himself regarded as the shallow and narcissistic cult of "individual genius":

An author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom. . . . A Christian theory of literary imagination would therefore have affinities with the primitive or Homeric theory in which the poet is the mere pensioner of the Muse. It would have affinities with the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent Form partly imitable on earth; and remoter affinities with the Aristotelian doctrine of mimesis and the Augustan doctrine about the imitation of Nature and the Ancients. It would be opposed to the theory of genius as now generally understood. Above all it would be opposed to the idea that literature is self-expression.

--C.S. Lewis, "Christianity and Literature"

Meanwhile, in the background of this part of the course will be Oxford itself, first as the living embodiment of a institution of higher learning founded during the Christian Middle Ages, then as the scene of the Oxford Movement of the 19th century -- I will lecture on John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and the Tractarian Movement as a response to the doubt and despair of an age increasingly dominated by materialism and scientific rationalism -- and, finally, as the separate world of dreaming spires and immemorial customs in which Tolkien and his friends pursued their teaching and writing: the Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings met to talk about literature and ideas, Lewis's rooms in Magdalen where the Inklings read to one another from their recent work, St. Aloysius Church where Tolkien went to Sunday Mass, the Schools where he gave his famous lectures on Beowulf and Anglo Saxon poetry and myth, and Tolkien's own study at Merton College where he passed his last years as a member of the Senior Common Room.

The Last Shore

We will end the course with the final volume of The Lord of the Rings, the Scouring of the Shire, the homecoming of Sam Gamgee, and the departure of Frodo Baggins to the land of the Uttermost West. The last words we hear will be Tolkien's great description of Frodo's glimpse of a land beyond the seas of Middle Earth --


Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (The Lord of the Rings, Bk III.Click on picture for larger image.)

-- and with them sounding in our ears we shall walk out of the lecture hall and back into the world of our own 21st-century America.