November 20, 2001

J.R.R. Tolkien's Take on the Truth
Staff Reporter

NEW YORK, NOV. 15, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Catholic convert Joseph Pearce is author of two popular books on J.R.R. Tolkien, "Tolkien: Man and Myth" and "Tolkien: A Celebration" (both Ignatius Press).

With the film release of "Lord of the Rings" scheduled for next month, Pearce mused about Tolkien (1892-1973) and his work in this interview with ZENIT.

Q: There have been criticisms of some fantasy stories because of their allegedly pagan orientation. Do you see Tolkienīs works as being part of this genre or is it different?

Pearce: Tolkien spoke of myths and fairy stories, rather than "fantasy." He was a lifelong practicing, and very devout, Catholic who believed that mythology was a means of conveying certain transcendent truths which are almost inexpressible within the factual confines of a "realistic" novel.

In order to understand Tolkienīs "philosophy of myth" it is useful to commence with a maxim of G.K. Chesterton: "not facts first, truth first." Tolkien and Chesterton were both intent on differentiating between facts, which are purely physical, and truth, which is metaphysical.

Thus a myth or a fairy story can convey love and hate, selfishness and self-sacrifice, loyalty and betrayal, good and evil -- all of which are metaphysical realities, that is, true, even if conveyed in a mythological or fairyland setting.

There is no need for Christians to worry about the role of "story" as a conveyer of truth. After all, Christ was the greatest storyteller of all. His parables might not be factual but they are always truthful.

Take, for instance, the parable of the prodigal son. Probably, Christ was not referring to one particular son, nor one particular forgiving father, nor one particular envious brother. The power of the story does not reside in its being factual but in its being truthful.

It doesnīt matter that the prodigal son might never have existed as an actual person; he exists in each of us. We are all, at one time or another, a prodigal son, a forgiving father or an envious brother. It is "applicable" to all of us. It is the storyīs truth, not its facts, that matter.

This was Tolkienīs point. Furthermore, there is more truth in "The Lord of the Rings" than in many examples of fictional realism.

Q: In recent years, magic in diverse forms such as games, TV shows, etc., has been very popular among young people. Given the way magical powers are presented in the "Lord of the Rings," do you think that there could be any dangers for youngsters?

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