Tolkien, Newman and The Dream of Gerontius

Geoffrey G. Attard

Cardinal Newman had a profound influence on the life and work of the author J.R.R. Tolkien, writes Geoffrey G. Attard, a priest of the Diocese of Gozo.

tolkeinJohn Henry Newman is one of the most towering figures of the twentieth century. His life spanned from 1801 to 1890 and it therefore coincided with most of the Victorian era, considering the fact that Queen Victoria sat on the throne from 1837 until her death in January 1901. Newman was a writer, an eminent theologian, a brilliant mind as well as an apologist of the Catholic faith, keeping in mind that he began his life as an Anglican, even becoming an Anglican priest before eventually converting to Catholicism after a long and arduous inner spiritual journey that cost him his health as well as the loss of many friends. Today, historians take it as a fact that hundreds, if not thousands of Anglicans, embraced the Catholic faith after having read some of his works.

Among those who were definitely influenced by Blessed Cardinal Newman's theological writings, one can mention English author John Ronald Raoul Tolkien, known among one and all for his famous Lord of the Rings, which also inspired the world of cinematography and is now considered as one of the most widely read books in the English speaking world; there are even those who argue that it is the third most popular work in literature, after the Bible and Shakespeare. Tolkien was no Catholic convert; it was his mother Mabel, née Suffield who converted to the faith, alienating most of her family, the members of which never spoke to her again. The late nineteenth century was definitely not the best time for an Anglican in England to embrace Catholicism; this was considered as treason and there are many stories testifying the hostility shown to newly converted Catholics who left the Anglican Communion never to be accepted again as full members of English society due to their switching of faiths. One has to keep in mind this historical milieu in order to understand Tolkien and his background. American actor and writer Stephen Colbert said in an interview that 'Upon their return to her hometown of Birmingham (from South Africa), Mabel decided to become a Roman Catholic, a move that was met with enormous opposition on the part of her family, who essentially disowned her and left her in destitution'.1

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