Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography by Holly Ordway. Elk Grove Village. Word on Fire Academic, 2023. Paperback. 480pp. $34.95.
A great many biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien have already been written, and several of them are even important. Humphrey Carpenter provides the authorized version. John Garth focuses on Tolkien’s experience in the Great War. Diana Glyer and Carol and Philip Zaleski highlight Tolkien among the Inklings. What new ground, therefore, could Holly Ordway possibly hope to cover?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Ordway’s biography is a spiritual one, meaning that she foregrounds Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism rather than treating it as mere flavor. This spiritual reading includes a large degree of contextualization for the English Catholicism of Tolkien’s time–from the all-out persecutions shortly before his birth to the controversies of Vatican II at his death. She assumes no background knowledge of Roman Catholic theology, liturgy, or culture in her readers, and acts as a guide through all of these elements (pun retroactively intended).
Ordway has undertaken extensive original archival research in Oxford, Birmingham, and among the many parishes the Tolkiens attended. She combines this with exhaustive knowledge of the primary published sources. This includes not only obvious resources like The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but individual letters penned by Tolkien but not included in this volume. These show up for sale at auction houses like Sotheby’s from time to time, for instance. Ordway’s access to Inklings research institutions like the Wade Center means that she is in touch with most of the relevant secondary literature as well. My own volume on Tolkien’s theology is present in the voluminous bibliography but not referenced in the text.
As was evident in her previous publication, Tolkien’s Modern Reading, Ordway excels at detail-oriented detective work. Many things, other than changing feast dates and missal texts, might escape the notice of other fans, but Ordway combines attention to facts and chronology with the keen psychological insight born of a background in poetry and fiction. Two examples may suffice here.
In chapter seven, “Death in a Cottage,” she explores not merely the fact that Tolkien’s mother Mabel died of diabetes when Tolkien was twelve, but also the medical understanding and prognosis for diabetes in Edwardian England. Mabel died in 1904, and the insulin treatment was not discovered until the 1920s. This meant a slow and painful death sentence for Mabel, and Ordway clearly explains the Catholic process of preparing for death, which includes the sacrament of Extreme Unction. Ordway notes that the guides for this ritual include the assistance of at least one server alongside the priest. Since Tolkien and his brother Hilary regularly served at Mass, their guardian, Father Francis Morgan, would likely have called upon them to participate in this service for their mother. Ordway pairs this supposition with the psychological observation drawn from a comparison to C.S. Lewis’s childhood loss of his own mother: it was by no means assured that Tolkien would remain Catholic or even Christian after such an experience (Lewis, indeed, became an atheist for many years). Here she also draws our attention to the huge difference in Tolkien’s experience of the death of his mother and the death of his father. Arthur Tolkien died when his son was only 3, and Ronald never even saw his father’s grave. Mabel’s death, by contrast, was saturated with existential, emotional, and religious import.
Another example: in chapter twelve, “Second Wind,” Ordway charts Tolkien’s return from a slump in religious observance caused by the freedom of his arrival in Oxford and the disarrayed state of the newly permitted Catholic chaplaincy there. One piece of evidence lies in a postcard mailed to his future wife Edith on February 1, 1913, noting that he has attended Holy Communion. Stating this on a postcard means that Tolkien found it important; postcard space is limited. Furthermore, February 1 was a Saturday, which shows us that Tolkien was trying to return to his habit of near-daily Mass attendance rather than merely showing up on a Sunday. Even more than this, February 1 was the first Saturday of the month, so it is possible Tolkien was choosing to participate in a ‘First Saturday’ devotion to the Virgin Mary, which was a relatively new practice at that time. And even more than all of this, the fact that he attended Holy Communion and not just Mass meant that he had gone to confession as well, and had kept the Eucharistic fast which at that time was not the single hour currently mandated but an absolute avoidance of all food and drink from the midnight before. Ordway prompts us to imagine Tolkien consciously refusing to partake in the “late-night socializing” he held so dear. All of this information Ordway establishes from the date on one postcard.
One bit of detective work is notably absent. Ordway does not comment on Tolkien’s eldest son John coming to stay with them after being removed from his position as parish priest for alleged child abuse (for more information on this, see pgs. 430-31 in Tolkien Dogmatics). The book is not a biography of Father John Tolkien, of course, but Ordway gives multiple vignette biographies of other family members, friends, and brothers of the Birmingham Oratory. Another well-drawn meditation on the stress such a situation would have caused Tolkien and Edith, how Tolkien could use his faith to navigate it, how he could theologically respond to this brokenness, would have been very welcome.
Edith’s difficulties and eventual compromises with Tolkien’s Catholicism are well-known, and Ordway does discuss them. But this aspect of Tolkien’s life, which seems to have caused him great distress, does not receive extensive treatment. She does not paint a vivid picture of Tolkien taking his children to Mass and leaving Edith at home. Robert Murray (a Jesuit and close friend of the Tolkien family) apparently once told Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Kallistos Ware that Tolkien feared hell for himself because Edith refused to fully integrate into the Roman Catholic Church. Addressing whether, as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien could properly fear damnation for such a situation, seems a missed apologetic opportunity.
This is an extensive and well-researched book that lays out its argument compellingly and clearly. It is supported by several appendices (in good Tolkienian tradition) and a shockingly large full-color photo gallery. It does indeed break new ground in what seemed a very well-trodden field, and is all the more important because it highlights the central aspect of Tolkien’s life so often left to the side by other scholars.
Full disclosure: Holly Ordway is a visiting professor in the apologetics department which I chair at Houston Christian University.
Austin M. Freeman (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is a lecturer at Houston Christian University and a classical school teacher. He is the author of Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology Through Mythology in Middle-Earth (Lexham Press, 2022).