ChantWorks presents Fear Not. Host Linda Hoffman speaks with Joseph Pearce, author, editor, columnist, speaker, EWTN host, Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute.
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Transcript: Fear Not interview. Linda Hoffman with Joseph Pearce. Joseph Pearce is an English-born American writer who converted to Catholicism during his second prison term in 1985. As a Catholic author, Pearce has focused mainly on the life and work of English Catholic writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Pearce has held positions as the director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida. This show was recorded Tuesday, August 16, 2022.
Linda Hoffman: Some time ago, two fast friends again found themselves in a pub lamenting the decay of the culture. On many things they disagreed, as men of deep thought often do. On this one thing, however, they were aligned like fish and chips. In that age as in any, even as people were no longer tormented by the teachings of philosophy, theology, and free of unwieldy objective thought… these friends knew that the soul was created to prefer the light of truth and beauty. An undeniable point of reference and an immutable connection to the creator himself.
And as such, Jack and Tollers agreed that the only way to capture their market, to convey an eternal message to a secular, unchurched populous was through beauty. The means by which they would undertake such a clandestine conversion of the culture back to its true state would be some of the earth’s greatest works of literature. Today we know those two plotters as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. High level strategists, most assuredly. Evangelists whose brilliant works have captured hearts and souls without even as much as an amen.
Theirs is a case study of God’s powerful workaround to men’s unwitting tinkering with the Master’s machinery. But how did Tolkien know? How was he able to speak so directly to so many hearts from a time and place far removed from this?
Joseph Pearce is fond of saying that to truly understand a book, you must know the author. Today we hope to do just that. Joseph Pearce is a prolific biographer beginning with Tolkien, and working in high speed reverse to Shakespeare. Dozens of books, each more brilliant than the last. Joseph, first welcome, it’s great to have you on the show.
Joseph Pearce: And it’s very wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me.
Linda Hoffman: Today we’re going to explore Tolkien, but before we jump in… help us understand the context of his biographer. What do we need to know about your time and place and how does it inform your writing?
Joseph Pearce: Well, I’m a convert to the Catholic faith and it was largely due to the influence of these writers that we’re talking about; Tolkien and Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, who was a major influence on both Tolkien and Lewis. So I’m very aware of the power of these writers to bring people to goodness, truth and beauty and of course to the person who is goodness, truth and beauty—Jesus Christ.
And so being aware of that power I’ve made it, like, my mission to make that power known to other people. So I’ve written a biography of Chesterton, I’ve written three books on Tolkien, and two books on CS Lewis.
Linda Hoffman: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are everywhere: books, movies, Dungeons and Dragons, Medieval-themed fantasy novels, chat boards, even college courses. The market can’t get enough. The latest evidence: On September 2, Amazon Prime will premier its version of The Lord of the Rings. In 1997, respondents to a nationwide poll in the UK chose it as the greatest novel of the 20th century, sending the official literary establishment into a tailspin. Why is Tolkien’s work so compelling?
Joseph Pearce: Well, it has a great deal of depth in terms of, well, the depth of the man himself. The depth of his Catholic faith and Tolkien says, and I’m quoting him word-for-word here, “The Lord of the Rings is, of course, a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, consciously in the revision.” But on top of that he was a linguist, he was a philologist at Oxford University and the work has linguistic depth, as well. He actually began, not with the story, but with the language. He invented the Elvish languages, and then he wanted to have people speak it. So how do you have people speak the languages you invented, well you create stories for them. And that was how the middle earth was born, and the stories of middle Earth were born.
So, it has linguistic depth. It has theological depth. It has historical depth. Tolkien says a man is deeply rooted in medieval times and classical times. He knows his history. He knows his great books. He knows his languages and he knows his faith. Put all that together, you got a winning combination.
Linda Hoffman: In The Lord of the Rings, the one ring tempts the wearer to become addicted to power, and thus destroyed physically and spiritually. Characters differ in how susceptible they are to the ring’s “glamour of evil.” What makes different characters resist the lure of the one ring and why do certain characters succumb?
Joseph Pearce: Why, it’s all to do with virtue. It’s all ultimately to do with humidity or its absence. Of course the definition of pride is the absence of humility and that’s because the ring is actually symbolizing sin, itself. The ring is synonymous with sin so to very, very briefly explain that, Tolkien chooses to have the ring destroyed on March the 25. Now March the 25, of course is the day of the Annunciation, the date in which the Word becomes flesh. The date in which God becomes man. It’s also important to the early church and the medieval church and as I’ve just said, Tolkien was rooted, so he knows these histories—that the early church believed that the historical date of the crucifixion was also March the 25th.
So, this is probably the most significant single day on the calendar because life begins, of course, at conception and not at birth, so that God becomes man on March the 25th. He also dies a man on March the 25th. What is destroyed on March the 25th, taken together with the resurrection, is sin… the power of sin. What is original sin? It’s the one sin to hold them all in the darkness, bind them. What is the ring? The one ring to hold them all and in the darkness bind them. The one ring and the one sin—or one thing—which is sin, itself.
So, the answer to the question is, if the more somebody has humility, the more they have resistance through grace to the ring’s power. The more they allow themselves to succumb to the absence of humility—to pride—the more they fall under the ring’s power.
Linda Hoffman: The Lord of the Rings, it might be said, seems more like a myth than a 19th or 20th century novel. Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis said, “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance, which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” How does Tolkien lift the veil of familiarity for us?
Joseph Pearce: Well, you’re completely correct, of course. C.S. Lewis is completely correct in his discussion of the power of myth, in general and the power of Tolkien’s myth in particular. The myth, we need to understand, you know, the modern understanding of the word, myth, because we live in a philosophically, materialistic and atheist age, is that myth is a lie. You know, something which is just not factually true. But there’s an actual fact, deeper, stronger, more penetrative understanding of the meaning of the word myth is maybe the power of story itself. And our own lives are like story. History is a story. In fact, ultimately, providentially history is his story. So other stories reflect aspects of this story, like reality, in which we find ourselves.
So, Tolkien, True Myth, as G.K. Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, the true myth doesn’t show us the way things are, it shows us the way they should be. And desirability for something which is true is something which transcends the falsity which we see, and the lies which we see in reality. We have to be aware of the lies, and the power of the lies, and the power of the lie. But we can’t defeat the power of the lie without the power of truth, and truth is a transcendental, which transcends mere fact, which is why myth is a good means of conveying it.
Linda Hoffman: Well said. Tolkien’s work takes us right up to the edge of Christian symbolism, but it’s never obvious. This may be somewhat lost on those reading for the excitement. What symbolism is most resonant for you and do you believe it breaks through cultural ignorance?
Joseph Pearce: Yes. To answer the latter part of your question first. The thing about The Lord of the Rings is it gets past those watchful dragons. Part of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ strategy was that the modern world is so hostile to religious faith, in general and Christianity in particular, that if they sniff any element of Christ in a story they will refuse to read it and will blackball it—will attempt to obstruct it. So, you have to get past those watchful dragons and that’s what Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings. There’s no overt mention of Christ or of the church. But as I’ve said and he said, it’s fundamentally religious and Catholic, but in a subsumed sense… in its philosophy, in its subsumed, immersed theology, and in its morality and its ethics. And the key thing is that everybody that reads The Lord of the Rings will be moved in the right direction. In other words, they’ll be moved Christ-wards.
Now if you’re an atheist who’s a long way from conversion, it’s very unlikely that upon reading The Lord of the Rings will mean an instantaneous conversion experience. But you’ll be moved closer to Christ and the things of Christ, and from that closer position, you’ll be more likely to read things you wouldn’t have read before you reached that position. So, in other words, he’s moving everybody in the right direction. And that’s the real power of it. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings, nobody reads The Lord of the Rings without being moved towards Christ.
We have to understand, I mean, the most famous question, or one of the most famous questions ever asked is, “quid est veritas?” You know, Pontius Pilate’s question, what is truth? And the key thing… there’s two ways of answer… it’s not a question of answering… the answer to the question I’m going to give in a moment—but the first thing, in order to be able to answer it, is the way that we ask it. And most people in the modern world say, quid est veritas, what is truth, as if it’s something that either doesn’t exist or I make it up or it’s unknowable. If you ask the question that way, quid est veritas, then you’re never going to get the answer.
So, you have to asked the question, quid… est… veritas… What is truth? And that answer’s been given to us by Jesus Christ himself in the gospel. Not in direct answer to Pilot’s question to him, but elsewhere to his disciples. He says, I am the way, the truth, and the life. So, the point is that the way and the truth and the life, that we find in The Lord of the Rings, as it is a fundamental, religious, and Catholic work, is the way, the truth and the life of Jesus Christ. And Christ can be like, is speaking surreptitiously because, you know, you know very well, if a Jehovah’s Witness knocks at your door and you don’t want to have anything to do with that religion, you just close the door on them, politely, I hope with charity. But you don’t have the conversation.
So that’s true of the modern secular world. It doesn’t want the conversation, so somehow or other you have to introduce the conversation in a manner that’s going to allow them to listen with ears open and eyes open, while their ears are shut and their eyes are shut. And The Lord of the Rings in subsuming the way and the truth and the life of Christ within the very fabric of the story enables that to happen.
Linda Hoffman: Christianity is a quest. We’re pilgrims on a journey of faith. How do the struggles of the four main characters in The Lord of the Rings convey the Christian journey?
Joseph Pearce: The first thing, of course, is the whole structure of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a journey. Tolkien, again, is Christian and as a medievalist understands three classic understandings of who we are. Not modern enlightenment understandings such as homo sapiens, you know, the wise man. Anyone that knows anything about human history knows that wisdom is not a defining characteristic so that’s not a very… that’s a dumb label.
An even more recent one is homo economicus, that we’re basically only here as cogs in the economy. Our only purpose it to produce wealth and consume it. We have no other purpose except to be servants of the economy. That’s also not what we are. The ultimate understanding is the Greek word, anthropos, he who turns up in wonder. Homo viator, proving man or man on a quest. And homo superbus, proud man, the man who refuses the quest because he wants to do his own thing. What we see in The Lord of the Rings is those three aspects of who we are, fighting out for supremacy.
So, Alexander Solzhenitsyn says, very famously, the battle between good and evil takes place in each individual heart. That battle between good and evil is a battle between the homo viator, what we’re called to be, and the homo superbus, what we’re tempted to be. That struggle takes place in each one of us, therefore, it takes place on a macro level in human society.
So, we see in The Lord of the Rings that the counts are called to take the quest, to shoulder the burden, to take the ring, to be part of the fellowship, to face the dragons, to defeat the dragons, to face the enemies, to go on the journey. So, that’s homo viator. But there’s also the temptation to… why, I don’t know, this is dangerous, it’s tiring, it’s not allowing me to do what I want to do, so there’s also this other aspect of resistance to the call of the quest and then… anthropos, he looks up in wonder.
There are several examples of this in the story, but one of my favorites is Samwise Gamgee in one of the darkest moments of the story when it looked as if evil has triumphed. He looks up and all through the murkiness of Murdor, he sees a still of glimmer of the light of the sun, and he says, above all shadows rides the sun. And of course, in order to see that, in order to know that, we have to look up. And I sometimes say that anthropos is the difference between up—what anthropos, and the rest of the creatures who aren’t—is that the animal grazes, but man gazes. We’re meant to look up and to wonder at the goodness, truth and beauty of the cosmos. When we do that, we see that there’s a light, and a goodness and a truth and a beauty that transcends all darkness and all evil.
Linda Hoffman: Joseph Pearce, what a great pleasure. I hope we can have you back again, although we could spend a year talking and never cover your full body of work and thought.
Joseph Pierce: Well, it’s been a joy and a pleasure. Thanks for having me and I’ll be very open to coming back if you want me to.
Linda Hoffman: Thank you. We’re not alone. The ebb and flow of culture has vexed generations for millions of years. Even still, the primacy of truth and beauty continues to breathe life into our weary souls.
“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate as he washed his hands. We may live in a secular, power-hungry world bound by un-catholic principles… but we remain creatures of body and soul… and those souls will forever be drawn toward the light and power of beauty.
I’m Linda Hoffman. We’re glad you joined us today. Look for our next episode of FEAR NOT.
This has been a chant works production please visit us online at chantworks.com
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A ChankWorks Production
Host: Linda Hoffman
Executive Producer: Andrew Nicks
Guest selection and coordination: Linda Graber and Diana Silva
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