November 20, 2001
J.R.R. Tolkien's Take
on the Truth
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
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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