Back to Essay series: Tolkien at Oxford
Living within History
The part of the chapel of Exeter College that's visible above the college's surrounding wall (with slight special effects applied).
Living within History
At the top of the previous page, I said I had "at least one full essay's worth of things I want to say about the experience." The following is that essay, although I'm writing it over a year later. I'd actually decided not to write it at all, as (on this part of the site, at least), I usually try to avoid anything that might cause people to take sides. I'm not completely sure why I changed my mind, but I think it had to do with realizing that most Americans - even most American Tolkien readers - aren't very familiar with the topic. I'd thought I knew all about it before I visited Oxford, but the experience of being there showed me otherwise.
Most lifelong residents of the part of the United Kingdom that's called England probably don't give it a second thought. But when I dropped in from the United States, I was struck by the day-to-day effects of having a state religion. Very possibly more noticeable in a place as history-filled as Oxford, but if we're trying to understand J.R.R. Tolkien, that's one place we have to look. Being there, even for just five days, increased my understanding of some things I already "knew" intellectually. For example, I expected to find that all the chapels in Oxford colleges would be Anglican, but I wasn't prepared for that to be such an everyday assumption that it was never mentioned. Given that Exeter, founded in 1314, is one of the newer colleges, all of the chapels would have been originally Catholic - but since the only real difference between the Church of England and the Catholic Church is political rather than doctrinal, nothing in them had to be changed. (This fact also makes it easier to look at the pure history behind the whole thing. Unlike in, say, Lutheran countries, at the time of the split in England there weren't any quarrels about doctrine muddying the waters - except to the extent that they were introduced as ammunition during the struggles for political power. England might very well be primarily Catholic today if Henry VIII had been granted the annulment he wanted, or if Catherine of Aragon had given birth to a son, given that there's never really been a Protestant Reformation there.)
I'd heard - and thought I understood - the point that Bloody Mary killed the Protestants, while Good Queen Bess killed the Catholics. But having a tour guide who actually used that terminology, seemingly without thinking about it, certainly made it more real - especially since he was such a nice chap. This is the tour guide I talked about earlier, who seemed more in tune with Lewis readers than with Tolkienites, and to whom I was referring when I said:
Whether it was cause or effect I'm not sure, but our guided tour of C.S.-Lewis's-Oxford-along-with-mentions-of-Tolkien-whenever-they-happened-to-fit-in pretty handily eliminated anything specifically, well, you know, Catholic.
He brought up Bloody Mary while showing us the monument dedicated to Oxford's (Protestant) martyrs. Although the "other side" isn't being executed these days, we didn't see a monument dedicated to those who were.
England's certainly not the only place where government's involved in religion. While I was writing this essay there was a news report that the Spanish government might decrease (not eliminate) the amount of monetary support it was giving to the Catholic Church. Maybe the U.S. is more unusual than I imagined in not having a state religion, but I think it's a better arrangement for both the winners and the losers. The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect the rights of groups that find themselves in the minority: such a good idea in a democracy that some states refused to ratify the Constitution if it wasn't added. This means the majority can't rule everything. We have a lot of experience with "The winners write the history books," though; Ken Burns's marvelous historical series that ran on PBS wasn't called The War Between the States.
We also know how history doesn't behave itself and stay in the past where it belongs. If it did, we wouldn't need affirmative action and Native Americans wouldn't be living on reservations. As Tolkien incorporated so well into his own cosmos, you can't disconnect the present from the past without disconnecting from much of the truth. On the specific topic of this essay, I was reading a current British magazine recently and was surprised to see an exchange in the "Letters to the Editor" concerning the property seized from the Catholic Church during the Reformation and never returned. Not that I was surprised it hadn't been returned, but I was surprised to see letters still talking about it this many centuries later. (as I recall, one letter writer complained about how poor the upkeep was on some historical places, and another writer replied, basically, "Well, if you'd let us keep them...")
The element of Catholic life in Oxford that seemed the strangest to me deals with the property that was reclaimed. It's still something I can't quite get my mind - or my emotions - around. When we toured Blackfriars, it was a vibrant center for Dominican teachers and students. When the Church of England came into existence, of course, the Dominicans had been forced out of it and some of their members executed (can I say martyred?). St. Aloysius, Tolkien's parish church while he lived in that part of Oxford, is now staffed by the Oratorians but until not too long ago - historically speaking - was a Jesuit church. If anyone bore the brunt of the English Reformation, it was the Jesuits, primarily because they didn't allow themselves to be run out of the country but continued carrying out their duties as they saw them, which meant they were often arrested and executed. If you gave me the choice between being burned at the stake (the punishment for being a heretic when Catholics held political power) or being hung, drawn, and quartered (the punishment for being a Catholic priest when the other side was in power), I'd choose the former, thank you. And, yet, both the Dominicans and the Jesuits function today seemingly as if none of that had happened - even sometimes living in the same buildings they'd been forced out of. I literally can't imagine what it would be like living within that history. Yes, it was a long time ago, but in Oxford "long ago" is all around you and never really goes away. The Martyrs' Memorial in the center of the City Centre of Oxford is a constant reminder of how things were and, in some ways, of how things are.
The history of England's religious battles is very present in Oxford. This is partly because Oxford is, simply and in general, historic. In addition, because it was a city that held supporters of both sides, it was caught more in the middle than many others and saw some of the battles. So the Martyrs' Memorial standing in the center of one of Oxford's main intersections perhaps seems more like a declaration of victory there than it would in a different city - a constant reminder of which side won. And, because of its placement, it's a reminder that would have been very much a part of JRRT's daily life.
One of the things that "everyone knows" about Tolkien (you know, like his being a distant father) is that he was overly sensitive when it came to relationships with his friends. And I'm not going to say that's an entirely false picture: he does seem to have taken friendship very seriously and could be hurt when that wasn't reciprocated. Or perhaps even when it wasn't reciprocated in a way that he was attuned to - try to imagine C.S. Lewis creating a relationship between two males anything like the one between Frodo and Sam, and then realize that, for Tolkien, that's how friendship should be. Christopher has talked about his father's "pain and shyness" when Hugo Dyson tried to veto any more reading of LotR to the Inklings. But when it comes to statements that Tolkien was overly sensitive to anti-Catholic sentiments in his friends, I have to say that I think his level of sensitivity was rational; the same thing would be true, I imagine, for a Spanish Protestant.
One sign of rationality is that Tolkien was anything but insular himself. He and Hilary spent a lot of time at the Oratory after their mother died (they lived with an aunt, although Father Morgan was their legal guardian), but Father Morgan was more concerned with providing the best education possible than he was with sending the boys to a Catholic school, so they continued at King Edward's. (In letter #306, JRRT calls this "...being treated, surprisingly for the time, in a more rational way [by Fr. Morgan]... I certainly took no 'harm', and was better equipped ultimately to make my way in a non-Catholic professional society.") The close friendships Tolkien developed there came about because of a shared vision, but weren't based on what religion the friends practiced; his son Christopher was named after a Methodist friend from King Edward's (Christopher Wiseman, the other TCBSian who survived WWI).
I also consider it telling that Tolkien was an avowed monarchist in a country where someone of his faith is legally barred from being the monarch. If he were overly sensitive about his religion, I think that might have been less likely. His friendship with Lewis became less close as years passed, but not because of Lewis's private (and apparently unthinking) anti-Catholic remarks, although those remarks could be personally painful to Tolkien. The membership of the Inklings covered a wide range of Christian beliefs (with a question of whether Owen Barfield's could even rightly be called Christian), but they were not only Tolkien's "writers' group," but his chosen social circle as well.
In the second edition of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the index listing "Catholic Church, anti-Catholic feelings" gives a few examples of situations that affected him. But I don't think being affected by them was overly sensitive at all.
From letter #394:
...but I have not yet met a 'protestant' who shows or expresses any realization of the reasons in this country for our attitude: ancient or modern: from torture and expropriation down to 'Robinson' and all that. Has it ever been mentioned that R[oman] C[atholics]s still suffer from disabilities not even applicable to Jews? As a man whose childhood was darkened by persecution, I find this hard. But charity must cover a multitude of sins!
The background on this page is made from one of the roses at the Tolkien gravesite.
The dividers used on this page are from GRSites.