Tolkien's disgust with the modern world began in his childhood. From the age of 4 to 8 (1896 to 1900), Tolkien lived with his widowed mother in the hamlet of Sarehole, a mile south of Birmingham, England. This rural English village had a rustic life unlike the industrialized life of Birmingham. Later in life, Tolkien said that he remembered those four years as his time living in the Shire, when he became a young Hobbit.
His mother converted to Catholicism, despite the fierce opposition of her family, who ostracized her. He then became a child convert at 8, and for his whole life he was a devout traditionalist Catholic, with a love for the Middle Ages and a scorn for the modern world shaped by the Protestant Reformation, which had turned away from the only True Church.
His mother was forced to move to central Birmingham in a small house overlooking a busy, noisy street with ugly buildings and a view in the distance of smoking factory chimneys. He later said that his life in Birmingham, dominated by modern mechanization and industrialism, was "dreadful." The contrast between Sarehole and Birmingham is echoed in the contrast between the Shire and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings and most of Tolkien's other writing can be read as a criticism of the technological, materialistic, and capitalistic civilization of the modern world, and as expressing a longing for the rustic simplicity and communal life of premodern English villages. John Clute has described The Lord of the Rings as "a comprehensive counter-myth to the story of the twentieth century," because "what had happened to life in the twentieth century was profoundly inhuman." Tolkien's counter-myth, Clute claimed, was "a description of a universe that feels right--another reality that the soul requires in this waste-land century."
But is this really true--that life in the twentieth century was profoundly inhuman? And that a more truly human life would have required a return to the village life of medieval England?
It is easy to understand how the first half of the twentieth century--particularly, the brutality and violence of the two world wars--created a scorn for modernity in people like Tolkien. But the triumph of modern liberalism in the second half of the century--with growing freedom and prosperity around the world--makes it easier to see moral progress in modern life. (I have written a series of posts on human progress in November and December of 2016.)
After all, doesn't Tolkien's own life show the moral and intellectual benefits of living in modern liberal societies?
Tolkien became a professor at Oxford University who was a member of a community of Christian scholars and writers--the Inklings--that included C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. They met at least twice a week as philosophic friends for conversations about the philosophic, theological, and literary topics that concerned them.
Every time that I am in Oxford, I go to the Eagle and the Child pub where the Inklings met for beer and conversation every Thursday. They called it "The Bird and the Baby."
Tolkien helped to convert Lewis to Christianity, but Tolkien was deeply disappointed that Lewis joined the Anglican Church and refused to convert to Catholicism. Lewis had grown up in the world of Ulster Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Tolkien thought that Lewis never abandoned the anti-Catholic prejudices of the Ulster Protestants. But since they lived in early twentieth century England, when the modern liberal culture of religious toleration and freedom was beginning to flourish, Tolkien and Lewis could be good friends. Tolkien said that without Lewis's help and encouragement, he might never have finished writing The Lord of the Rings. This would not have been possible in a premodern village dominated by the authority of the Catholic Church.
And if the twentieth century was such an inhuman wasteland, how does one explain the popularity of Tolkien's books and the movies based on the books? His books have had tens of millions of readers, and the movies have had even larger audiences.
The Lord of the Rings movies have become one of the highest-grossing film series in the history of cinema--almost $6 billion. The average per film is exceeded only by the Harry Potter movies. So it seems that modern capitalist profit-seeking can support high literary and cinematic art. Moreover, cinema is an artistic invention of the twentieth century arising from modern technology.
As I suggested in my previous post, the artistry of The Lord of the Rings movies is particularly evident in the music for the movies composed, orchestrated, conducted, and produced by Howard Shore. One can see this by reading the Wikipedia article on Shore's music for the films, which is based mostly on the magnificent book by Doug Adams, The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (2010).
I believe that a good case can be made that the movies actually improve on Tolkien's books, mostly because of the music, which comes from Shore's careful study of the books and the scripts and his Wagnerian artistry in turning the books into an opera.
One of many examples of this musical deepening of Tolkien's writing is the song that is sung at the end of The Return of the King during the closing credits--"Into the West," which was composed by Annie Lennox and Shore and sung by Lennox. It won the Academy Award for best song in 2003.
Here are the lyrics:
Into the West
Your sweet and weary head
The night is falling
You have come to journey's end
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home
To silver glass
A light on the water
All Souls pass
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again
And you'll be here in my arms
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West
The imagery and some of the phrases here are taken from the last chapter ("The Grey Havens") of Tolkien's Return of the King. People have debated whether The Lord of the Rings conveys Catholic Christian themes, as Tolkien said it did. Part of that debate is whether there is any suggestion in the book of immortality in an afterlife. The last chapter is ambiguous about this. Frodo is sailing away on a white ship, leaving Sam, Merry, and Pippin behind in the Shire. One can see some intimation of immortality, but it's unclear, and some readers can infer that the only human life is the mortal life of the people in the Shire. The song has this same ambiguity, and it conveys it in a way that is deeply moving. (I have written a series of posts on immortality, in October and November of 2013, and on Heaven and Hell, in April and May of 2010.)
Sunday night, this will conclude the Ravinia Festival's showing of the three movies with live music. Many of the people in the pavilion and on the lawn will be moved to tears.
The modern world of the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first century, can't be as morally, intellectually, and spiritually impoverished as Tolkien thought it was if we can be moved in such a way by Tolkien's myth of Middle-earth.
Of course, for Augustinian Christians like Tolkien, no matter how good life on Earth might become, living in the "City of Man" must always be unsatisfying, as the soul longs for that fullness of joy--for that ultimate Happy Ending--that can only be found in the "City of God" in Heaven.