Who Was J.R.R. Tolkien? – Fr. John Folmer

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Father John Folmer, of the Sacramento Catholic diocese, gave a fascinating lecture this evening on John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (pictured left), author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These are my notes from the evening.

Fr. Folmer became acquainted with Prof. Tolkien in the mid 60s, when he was a theology student in Europe, through Tolkien’s son John, a Catholic priest. Fr. Folmer described an interaction in which he had told Prof. Tolkien that everyone he met in Germany kept on trying to get him to pronounce his name in a more German way. Tolkien then recounted a story of when he was in the first World War. After a battle he came across an injured German officer and in German, asked him if he would like some water. The officer replied that he would. And after Tolkien brought him some water, the officer proceeded to lecture Tolkien regarding his German pronunciation.

Tolkien was born in South Africa and returned to England with his mother and younger brother when he was three. His father died in South Africa before he could rejoin them. His mother received help from both sides of the family to raise her family, until she converted to Catholicism, which alienated both sides of the family from her. She died of diabetes when Tolkien was still quite young and JRR (Ronald as he was known) and his younger brother were taken care of by a Catholic priest from the Birmingham Oratory, founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Tolkien didn’t like to take tests. He failed his entrance exam into King Edwards School and had to wait a year to take it again. He was clearly a gifted scholar, he just preferred to study only that which interested him. Half-way through Oxford he changed his concentration from the Classics – Latin and Greek – to Anglo-Saxon, or old English. He was gifted with language. He loved words. He loved the way they felt in his mouth when he spoke them. He eventually became fluent or capable in 19 languages, not counting the 8 languages he created for his fiction.

He was a second lieutenant communications officer in the first World War. He served at the Battle of Somme (Flander’s Field) and survived three trench assaults on the Germans. Most of his friends did not survive this battle, or the war. When Fr. Forner reads the descriptions of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), he can’t help but think of burnt out battlefields from Somme. LOTR is contains many intense battle scenes. Tolkien had lived through the trenches and the intensity of these scenes in the book reflects that experience.

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, usually attending daily mass in the morning before breakfast. Fr. Folmer recounted his impressions upon visiting a Catholic church in Northern England where his family was originally from in that it didn’t have a bell tower, or even a cross. In fact, it didn’t look like a church at all. Talking to a priest in the rectory shed some light on this. His family had been Catholic in England since before the time of Henry XIII. To keep your faith as a family through so many generations, through so much oppression and discrimination, took tremendous strength. The Catholic church didn’t look like a church because when the Catholics were finally allowed to worship as a community, their churches weren’t allowed to look like churches. Those laws no longer exist, but those who are Catholic in that area don’t want to forget what the went through to stay Catholic. They don’t want their non-Catholic neighbors to forget either. Tolkien was one of the first Catholics allowed to be a professor at Oxford. He thought that although his colleagues tolerated the fact that he was Catholic, they wished he wasn’t so strongly Catholic.

Folmer was a Dorothy Sayers fan and had asked Tolkien about her work. He had read everything and had some strong opinions about many of the books. Tolkien had graduated from Oxford the same year as Dorothy Sayers, and she had been one of the first women graduates. Tolkien hated allegory in fiction. He endured readings by C.S. Lewis of the Chronicles of Narnia, as C.S. Lewis had endured Tolkien’s readings of LOTR. They were very good friends. But he disliked allegory. It was as if the author was pulling the reader by the nose into an interpretation. Tolkien preferred it if the reader found his or her own meaning from these stories.

Regarding LOTR, Folmer notes the appendix that lists the chronological dates of the different events. The 9 arrive in Lothlorian for the first council of the fellowship on a day in October that is the Saints day for St. Alfred(?) This Saint’s name in old English means “council of elves” (or something like that). The 9 set out on their quest to destroy the ring on December 25, a significant date. The ring is thrown into the fires of Mordor on March 25th, also a significant date (Easter, and several others). This is one place where Tolkien put into play some of his interest in theology and history.

Fr. Folmer sees Christ in several LOTR characters – Aragorn, a king with healing powers who lives to serve; Frodo – who carries the burden of the ring and who endures great suffering, the wound that will never fully heal, for the salvation of Middle Earth; and Sam, who as a gardener restores the ruined Shire.

That’s all I can remember for now. If I think of more notes, I’ll add them later.

4 thoughts on “Who Was J.R.R. Tolkien? – Fr. John Folmer

  1. Elise,

    As a huge LOTR fan myself (read it 8x cover to cover), I see the many ties to Christ and his life. Matthews 10:39 says “he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Frodo was fully prepared to lose his life for others’ sake by losing the ring, and in so doing he saved not only his own life but all of Middle Earth.

    Thanks for sharing what must have been a fantastic evening!
    Sridhar

  2. Thank you for sharing your (copious!) notes on this captivating lecture. I’m sending my kids to read this straight away. They are fans not only of his writings, but of Tolkien the man… a fascinating and inspiring human being.

  3. 2005 is the fiftieth anniversary of the complete publication of The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. The first two volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers) were published in 1954, while the third, The Return of the King, was published on October 20th 1955.

    To celebrate this anniversary the Tolkien Society is holding a conference and convention in August 2005. It is taking place at Aston University, Birmingham, England from 11 to 15 August 2005. The date was chosen so that people who have travelled from far parts of the world to attend Worldcon in 2005 (in Glasgow from 4 – 8 August) can go on to attend Tolkien 2005.

  4. Elise,

    THis is an amazing thing for me, I’m pretty much obsessed with LOTR (43x cover to cover), own all the movies (saw them all in theater), so this was a really cool thing for me to read!

    Thanks so much for posting it for all us LOTR fans!

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