Interview with Catholic World Report – Special Tolkien Issue

Interview with Catholic World Report, special Tolkien issue, December, 2001


Tolkien’s world view, as expressed in The Lord of the Rings, presents to the reader of the books—and to the viewer of the film, I hope—a view of a hierarchical universe: one which is guided by moral law, and suffused with wonder. This universe is at war; powers of evil are at war against a divine order. Many ranks of creatures are involved in this struggle, on both sides.

Contrast this with the Harry Potter world, as expressed in the four volumes that have been published to date. It, too, is at war, but it is not a hierarchical universe. Rowling presents a world in which supernatural powers are an inherent property of human nature. In other words, these powers are not bestowed from above (as they are in The Lord of the Rings); they are the natural birthright of magical people: ordinary human beings with extraordinary powers.

Such gifts are only given to the higher ranks of creatures who appear in Tolkien’s fantasy: creatures that are above man’s nature in the order of creation, such as the Istari, who are sometimes called wizards, and the elves, and the Valar, the angelic beings even higher than the elves. These creatures do have powers more extensive than man’s powers. But it is always revealed, throughout the plot and in the legends behind the story, that these are a gift from God to higher creatures; they do not rightly belong to man.

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, whenever these powers come into the hands of human characters, they have a corrupting effect on those characters. This is one of the central themes of the story: that such powers are corrupting.

By contrast, the entire Harry Potter series presents these powers either as morally neutral or as goods which must be seized by the human characters. They must be obtained through the pursuit of secret knowledge. Then, in their hands, depending on whether the character is a “nice” person or a “not nice” person, they will serve good or evil.

Tolkien says that these powers are inherently destructive in the hands of man.

There seems to be an extraordinary interest these days in fantasy—any kind of fantasy. Now we see the simultaneous release of two movies, both of which are expected to be blockbusters, and both fall into that general category. Why is fantasy so popular?

O’Brien: I think this is symptomatic of a generation—really a whole era—in which, as man loses his sense of the sacred and the transcendent, he senses a void opening up within himself. He is searching beyond his own limited world— the material world—for hints of, or avenues to, a higher meaning. The supernatural, and especially the occult, offers him access into what is supposedly a much bigger universe. (In fact, occultism is a doorway into an eternal prison, if one does not repent of it.)

The extraordinary rise of fascination with, and devotion to, fantasy in Western culture is really the innate hunger in man’s nature for transcendence—for something more than just basic material existence on earth.

Tolkien made the point that events in his stories followed the laws proper to his imaginary universe: laws that formed an alternative world. When one speaks of an “alternative world,” one is not far from the phrase “virtual reality.” Does the interest in fantasy today have anything to do with the development of technologies that have encouraged people to explore the notion of virtual reality?

O’Brien: There is certainly a connection. But it should be noted that fantasy literature, in the forms of fairy tales and myths and legends, has always been with us, since the dawn of civilization.

That’s certainly true. But until recently we haven’t had the technical ability to make films in which we have a vivid on-screen representation of the fantasies that were previously accessible only through the written word. Today, with the use of special effects and computer-enhanced imagery, we have films in which characters can be transmogrified into other sorts of creatures, people can appear to fly, heroes can “morph” into different forms, and so forth.

O’Brien: Yes, as in The Matrix, for example.


O’Brien: Our present era allows us to enter into the imagination, practically without limits. Perhaps, even in the near future, further developments in virtual-reality technology will allow all of our senses to be engaged in fantasies. This presents many grave problems, many serious questions which are not being discussed as much as they should be.

The first and foremost question is: Who are the producers of this fantasy culture? Why do we entrust the inner workings of our minds and of our emotions—perhaps, as a result, our whole lives—to such people? Are they accountable?

This may be among the dark logical consequences of a form of capitalism without conscience. I’m not against capitalism, but I’m saying that a materialistic capitalism without conscience, in which profit is the only criterion for the success of a work, or the significance of a work, has put us in serious trouble as a people. We have become very vulnerable to whomever manages to have the most money, to produce the most startling bits of fantasy, to grab our imagination and re-define us to ourselves.

This is a tremendous power, and it’s in the hands of people who are ultimately accountable to no one but themselves and their bankers. I don’t see that as a healthy thing.

In most cultures in history, the culture itself has sprung—rightly or wrongly, truthfully or erroneously—from a search for what is real and what is true, from spiritual sources in the lives of the people. That is not the case in our time, which is unprecedented in its ability to produce (both in quantity and in kind) an artificial culture.

There are exceptions, of course. The production of The Lord of the Rings is actually quite a positive sign. It means that the new media culture has the potential for serving the good. It remains to be seen if the film is faithful to the book, not only literally but in spirit. We’ll know that within a month.

It is always very difficult to make a classic novel into a good movie. And the sheer size of The Lord of the Rings trilogy makes it still more difficult to carry out the whole work faithfully. It would be literally impossible to film the entire story, and be faithful to the text in a literal sense. Are you confident that the film will be faithful to the author’s spirit?

O’Brien: I simply don’t know. What I have read, however, is that originally there were some serious alterations to the meaning of the work. (What those details are, I don’t know.) But there was such an outcry from Tolkien devotees throughout the world when the word leaked out, that the producers of the film apparently returned to a more faithful version. This encourages me to take hope.

As a general question, why is it that so frequently the movies that are made on the basis of good books are so disappointing? Or would you agree with that general proposition.

O’Brien: I do agree with that. (I agree quite strongly, being a writer of books.)

Of course, I realize that when you move from the literary genre to the film genre, there has to be adaptation. That’s a given; that is not the problem.

But I would say that the majority of translations from the literary genre to film go through so many hands—script writers, directors, editors, marketers—that all kinds of pressures are brought to bear on the original work. Eventually the work mutates into something that serves the largest common denominator, something that is palatable to the majority of the group we might call “culture-consumers.”

In other words, money is the bottom line. Unless you have a very serious filmmaker, who has a real respect for the original work, you are going to have distortions.

Also, I would say that there are few people involved in the entertainment business who do not see themselves as creatively superior to those who supply their ungainly raw material.

So it will be an extraordinary victory if the producers of The Lord of the Rings, in the film version, are able to retain the essence of Tolkien’s great epic, and impart it to the coming generation.

Before we move on to another subject, can I ask whether there are particular movies that you see as exceptions to the rule—movies that have provided a faithful interpretation of a significant literary work?

O’Brien: Yes. I would say Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. It’s an 8-hour film, which almost disproves my point.

My own first example would be the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, which is a 12-hour version. So I don’t think either one of us is giving much support to the overall thesis that a good book can become a good movie.

O’Brien: I think we have to admit that these successful adaptations are a distinct minority in contemporary film culture.

But it can be done. What it presupposes is a respect for the viewer and a respect for the original artist. It’s a very healthy thing when that happens, because it offers an alternative to the runaway stagecoach of modern culture, which has us all galloping, observing reality in small bites, fragmenting our consciousness to a dangerous degree.

We now consume big gulps and little gulps of culture. I think Neil Postman’s critique of Western culture, and of television especially, is apropos to the medium of film. Filmmakers are forever trying to pare things down to two hours. Why?

A really good film experience can take four hours, and you don’t even notice the time, because you are living in the timelessness of true art. It’s the same as love. When you’re deeply in love, time disappears. When you’re deeply praying, sometimes time disappears. When you’re involved with a powerful, true work of art, time disappears.

So it’s an indictment of the vast majority of “cultural products” of our era that the producers of those products are insulting us at every turn. They are telling us, in effect: “You’re so stupid, you’re so busy, and you’re so selfish that you’re incapable of investing time in the real thing; so we’re going to package this really efficiently, pump you full of our stimuli, and you’ll go away happy. Trust us, you’ll love it!”

We’ve grown used to a diet of this stuff, and this diet is slowly changing how we perceive the world itself. It’s not just dumbing us down; it’s deadening us. The pummeling of our senses and sensibilities by visceral stimuli is the token reward for depriving us of profoundly meaningful experience.

It will be interesting to see if The Lord of the Rings film has embraced the tricks and pacing of modern films. I hope not. I expect Harry Potter will; I think it’s of a piece with the writing.

Do you think the Harry Potter film will be faithful to that text?

O’Brien: That’s hard to say. I don’t know.

My guess is that it will be faithful, because it is not so serious a work; it should be easier to adapt.

O’Brien: Yes, and it’s crammed full of visceral stimuli, which makes it ideal for a film.

This is a point I made in my article on the Potter series for Catholic World Report. That style of fiction is actually derivative of visual culture. So I expect it to be readily adaptable to the modern dumbing-down process.

Let me ask a few questions about the relationship between fantasy and Christian faith. My question is sharpened by the fact that these two films are obviously being marketed for release during the Christmas season. The Christian world is celebrating the Incarnation: the glorious event that applies only to our reality. Is there a sense in which it is inappropriate for Christians to be occupied with an “alternative” reality—something different from the creation which God has made for us?

O’Brien: For me, The Lord of the Rings is irradiated by the unspoken, unseen presence of Christ. It tells of a pre-Christian mythological era. The sense of the coming incarnation is very prevalent in the trilogy. You have to read it a few times to begin to see it.

It’s all there. Many explicitly Christian symbols and allegories are there. They are keystones of the work. Also, there is the “wisdom” element, and the overt good-and-evil element. But implicitly, the whole work is about the holiness and wonder of creation, a world that is miraculous yet damaged, in need of redemption.

Potter-world seems to be irradiated with darkness and narrowness. As such, it offers the child-reader (and now the child-viewer) an escape-hatch, to which he has access through seizing power. This is the diametric opposite message to that of The Lord of the Rings. On some level, Potter-world expresses the spirit of Antichrist. Or perhaps I should say a spirit of Antichrist—the gnosticism which in essence says that man saves himself by acquiring esoteric knowledge and powers. As such, it represents an anti-incarnational vision. Tolkien’s is a truly Catholic, incarnational vision, which implies Christ.

Is Tolkien’s work a sort of pre-evangelization?

O’Brien: Exactly.

Do you think that the release of the film, and the attendant publicity for Tolkien’s work, will prompt a greater interest in the faith? There will certainly be a fair number of people who go to the movie not aware of the spiritual message. In fact there are quite a few people who have read the books, and are very fond of the books, who have not yet grasped that connection.

O’Brien: I first read Tolkien when I was in my late teen years, when I was not a believer, when I was a happy little brainwashed atheist (no, an unhappy little brainwashed atheist.) I can remember making no connection at all. I just enjoyed the drama, the complexity, and the richness of detail. It didn’t move me deeply; I was fascinated, but it didn’t strike me to the core.

I read it again, maybe three or four years later—shortly after my conversion—and it was as if a thick veil had been torn off reality, and suddenly the majesty of what Tolkien had done, and its incredible depth, was visible, where before it hadn’t been.

How much a role the first reading played in my eventual conversion, I don’t know. But I have heard from other people I’ve known over the years that Tolkien really made them think. When they found out that he was an orthodox Catholic, they began to investigate the faith. Some of them were not thinkers, they were just intrigued that there was a reality here they were not seeing in the world around them. They wondered where it had gone, why it had been lost. The books were helping them open their eyes, helping them to see more of creation than they had so far guessed was there. That, I think, led them toward asking the right questions.

There are a number of people who cite Tolkien as having an influence on their conversion. C. S. Lewis is one of them. (That was mainly through their friendship and their dialogue.) I think we are going to see many more people affected in this way by Tolkien’s writings.

This raises the question of the role of culture in evangelization. Faith and culture cannot be separated from each other. Tolkien alone will not convert vast numbers of people. But the appearance of The Lord of the Rings in the last century, followed by the film in this century—in conjunction with other positive developments—will, I believe, have the cumulative effect of bringing men to moments of consciousness that they might not otherwise have had. With that consciousness will come moments of choice—perhaps even a crying out to God; perhaps even seeing the war between good and evil in a clear light. That is a very powerful achievement.

There are obvious reasons for thinking about the war between good and evil today-for anyone who reads the newspaper headlines. So this is a propitious time for that sort of reflection.

O’Brien: Yes. And I think, too, that Tolkien is very good in that he is careful not to portray a world in which the war is a little stage battle between cardboard characters, black and white characters. He shows that it can be multi-dimensional. He presents quite a range of characters going through different kinds of moral struggle, with different temptations, different levels of idealism or cynicism. Every creature from Gollum all the way up to Saruman, the head of the White Council, the head of the Wise, is tempted to use the Ring. You have Gandalf, who recoils in horror from that power. You have Saruman, who pursues it for a good end. You have Gollum, who simply wants the Ring for his self-indulgence. You have Frodo, with his simple childlike heart, who is fascinated by the Ring—who does use it, and gets stung, and as its hold on him grows, begins to wake up. There is a lot of variety there. This is a complex moral world.

Gollum, for example, is a very sad character. His story illustrates the Thomistic argument that evil is a deprivation; he has cut off all of his own real freedom.

O’Brien: Yes, he traded freedom for power and knowledge. And he is left with nothing—not even himself. Even so, Tolkien shows in the end that even this most pathetic character has his role in the mystery of divine providence.

The Tolkien trilogy is consistently listed as one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century—if not the greatest work of the century—by everyone who is polled, except the so-called experts. Why is this work acknowledged by everyone except the cultural critics and literary professionals?

O’Brien: I read last year that British librarians and booksellers voted it as the greatest book of the 20th century. Many “serious” literary critics were immediately up in arms about that. What does this tell us?

Well, if you read The Hobbit, for instance, you’ll find that it’s uneven, stylistically speaking. There is some poor writing in it. But in The Lord of the Rings, the writing has greatly improved. Tolkien has come to grips with the themes, one might say the spiritual vision and mission of his master-epic. He was a philologist, and in the Ring trilogy he brings all his skill and wisdom to bear on this project.

Is he a perfect stylist? No. Is he a great, universal story-teller? Yes.

People vote with their feet. They go to the story-teller because he moves them, because he enlarges their world and throws light on the meaning of their own lives. They don’t go to critics to be told that their judgment is wrong. In the case of Tolkien, people voted with their feet and ignored his negative critics. I have read that, in the English language, The Lord of the Rings is second only to the Bible as the best seller of all time. (Harry Potter may now be moving up close behind.)

When I was in Moscow last summer, I visited a small Orthodox parish church, and was delighted to find lying on the pastor’s desk a copy of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, printed in Russian in Cyrillic font. In my travels I’ve stumbled across copies of Tolkien’s books in other languages as well.

What does this say? It tells us there is a hunger in human nature for the power of Story to move our hearts and open our eyes to a much bigger universe. When a critic comes along and tells us that the man who has given us this gift is not a very great story-teller, and says, look at all these writing flaws and, after all, the poor author lacks my (the critic’s) judgment, I think we should be ever so slightly cautious about the critic. There’s an innate danger of arrogance in the calling of a critic—the self-blinding effect that comes with any form of pride. If a critic speaks from a foundation of humility, respecting a work of art as a good in itself, he can help us to understand the real significance of the work, even when he examines its flaws. Any other motivation in a critic (self-advancement, for example, or the promotion of sociopolitical agendas) will blind him to the actual meaning and value of the work. I would say that the best thing to do is simply ignore such critics. Read stories, and see which ones move you.

Tolkien’s work represents, in an odd way, a very modern literary project, throwing out the conventions—although I don’t think that was his intention at all. He jettisons the conventions of modern literature, in which it is “just not done” to attempt a serious work of fantasy literature.

O’Brien: True. Yet he was not a deconstructionist. He was a classical story-teller. But he broke the petty tyrannies of modernist literary conventions, and maybe that is why literary critics are not entirely happy with him.

He did not set out to be a literary modernist, by any means. He just told a story.

O’Brien: He told a story. And I believe his orthodox Catholicism gave him the sense that we must trust in the fundamental gift that God has written, so to speak, into human nature—not just in the virtues, but in the creative powers—which he called “sub-creation.” At the same time, he knew that the creative powers are only fully engaged when they are functioning within the divine order.

Tolkien was a daily communicant; he had a profound sense of the fundamental order of creation. That order is divinely ordained; it is not a thing that imprisons us, but a thing that liberates us. This is the direct opposite of what so many modern literary people believe!

What is that mysterious quality of The Lord of the Rings that has gripped the imagination of the Western world—in a way that perhaps no other work since the Bible has gripped it?

O’Brien: I would say that Tolkien has, at every turn throughout the book, breathed a sense of wonder back into life. He has called us to the dignity and the beauty of the human person and the human struggle.

(Contrast that to Potter, where the image of God in man is degraded at every turn, by both the good and the bad characters, and wonder has been replaced by a lot of cheap thrills.)

Tolkien shows us that life itself is the greatest adventure of all—charged with mystery and beauty, all of which has meaning. He shows us that no one’s life is too small to change the world. That is one of the central themes of the books. Frodo is just a “little guy,” and Frodo really changes the world. How does he do it? He does it through weakness, and courage, and love, and self-sacrifice—not through acquiring extraordinary powers, but by living in the heart of the basic human virtues.

What Tolkien has done is make goodness credible again to modern man. That’s quite something: to make goodness credible, and make it magnificent. If he has achieved nothing else than that for modern man—so jaded, so sated with entertainments, bread and circuses—he has more than earned his place as one of the major figures of our time.

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