Soon after J. R. R. Tolkien was voted Writer of the Century I had the good fortune (with two colleagues) to be commissioned to write a book about his relationship with the English language. Already a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast, I have written a number of papers on the same theme in the decade since that book was written and have come to appreciate his achievement even more.
For me, Tolkien is also the Christian Writer of the Century. His personal faith, the foundation of his writing, was deep and intense, tested in youth by the death of his mother from sickness and poverty. He himself described The Lord of the Rings as a Christian book: and yet there is not one word of religion in it!
Added to this was the sense of a call that arose among his group of four close friends who, as they grew up just before the First World War, felt that they must do something to remedy the state of society. Two of these young men died on the Western Front, explicitly handing on the torch to Tolkien, who was saved by illness from a similar fate.
Next in his growth as a writer we should consider Language and Myth. Tolkien was a lover of both from an early age and devoted his professional life to studying and teaching them. But this was not just expertise: imaginatively he inhabited those Northern landscapes, those medieval realms of Faerie. And, as C. S. Lewis aptly said, ‘he had been inside language’.
The spark that ignited his writing was the War. The desolated landscapes, the violent engines of destruction, the death and pain, entered in and set fire to the waiting materials. But Tolkien did not rush off a Dulce et Decorum est or a Goodbye to All That, in anger or revulsion. Instead he went home and became a university teacher and family man. It was a controlled inner smouldering that produced his most powerful work. Perhaps it was fanned back to white heat by a second world conflict but that was not its cause.
What he produced instead was a many-sided, unclassifiable masterpiece. To attend to it one must enter through a low and narrow gateway. It celebrates the ability of the humble, ordinary person to influence a cruel world. It exposes the facile, banal mockery of evil. It opens magic casements on to faerie lands. It is an elegy for a beautiful, passing world. It is a song of hope raised by people who have not yet heard of the resurrection.
Tolkiens are born, not made. Can we learn anything from him? Yes. We can wake up from the sleep of worldly compromise and let our faith permeate our whole moral outlook. We can listen for a call to change the world. Our imaginations can come to dwell in the worlds we want to write about. And we can write from our sufferings, not in bitterness but constructively.