One lecture to rule them all

By | February 07, 2013 | Arts & Entertainment (3)

Fresno State English professor Craig Bernthal lectures on how author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs enriched the stories “The Lord of the Rings.” He explains how Tolkien’s collection of Middle-earth stories in “The Silmarillion” was influenced by the Gospel of St. John.
Khlarissa Agee / The Collegian

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien know about elves and, depending on how fanatic they are, may even be able to speak some of the language, but there was more to what influenced the creation of Middle-earth than the desire to create an interesting world.

The blockbuster trilogy of “The Lord of the Rings” captured the attention of millions of people worldwide and converted many to Tolkien fandom.  With the recent release of the first film in the prequel series to “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey,” the work of the English writer has once more returned to prominence in popular culture.

Craig Bernthal is an English professor at Fresno State on sabbatical while he writes a book on a subject that most don’t associate with Tolkien—that the stories of Middle-earth were spiritually infused novels written by a Catholic.

“Tolkien was a novelist first,” Bernthal said in a lecture Wednesday afternoon in the Henry Madden Library. “His first goal was to tell a really good story. Tolkien was not writing a Catholic apologetic. He was looking through a Catholic lens.”

Tolkien wrote in personal letters that his faith subconsciously influenced the first drafts of his Middle-earth stories.  Bernthal and the English majors in the audience felt that it made sense that Tolkien’s faith would help shape even a fantasy tale about hobbits.

“It’s impossible that it wouldn’t affect his work,” said Manny Jacquez, an English major and graduating senior.

Bernthal said that Tolkien didn’t want to create any religions in Middle-earth to obstruct the underlying vision of how he saw the world.  In Bernthal’s opinion, he wanted to share his devotion to St. John.

Bernthal said that there are connections to be made between Tolkien’s creation myth in the book “The Silmarillion,” which is a collection of stories Tolkien wrote to establish the history of Middle-earth, and the prologue of the Gospel of St. John.

Bernthal also explained that the Gospel of St. John could be the most sacramental gospel, and he argued there are a number of examples in Tolkien’s work, which used a lot of imagery of the sacraments.

In “The Fellowship of the Ring” book, and unlike in the film, Frodo and the other hobbits were being engulfed and buried by the Old Man Willow tree before being saved by Tom Bombadil, who heard Frodo’s cries for help.  Bernthal likened it to a rebirth as the group prepared to enter a new world on its adventure.

Later in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” Bernthal said an example of a confession is when Boromir is dying in Aragorn’s arms, and tells him that he tried to take the ring of power from Frodo.

The list of examples went on and caused some in attendance to rethink how they watched the movies and read the books.

Junior Christina Tea, an English major, has only seen the movies and is looking forward to reading the original material with a different context.

“I wanted to learn about the St. John connection,” Tea, a junior, said.  “It was enlightening and expanded the story for me. I think I’ll notice the connections more, and I don’t think I would have noticed them before this lecture.”

Tolkien fans like Jacquez, who are already familiar with the books as well as the movies, may also view things differently the next time they visit Middle-earth.

“I never really thought about it too deeply,” Jacquez said. “It completely changes how I view it and read it.”

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