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Letter 250

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 250
RecipientMichael Tolkien
Date1 November 1963
Subject(s)Michael's depression, Tolkien's faith, health, his grandson, taxes

Letter 250 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien remarked that Michael apparently had not inherited a dislike of letter-writing, but the inability to write briefly. Inevitably it meant that they both would seldom write about family matters but more in the way of "business".

Michael had been depressed and Tolkien was sorry for it, hoping that it was partly due to Michael's ailment. But it was also a nearly universal malady at his age, and Tolkien recalled the same point for him, in 1935. Ten years before he had been disgusted by the cynicism of the warning that Oxford was not a place of learning but a factory for making fees. By 1935 he knew it was true and a key to dons' behavior. It was not the whole truth, the greater part of which is beyond cynicism's reach. Tolkien had been stonewalled and hindered (while on reduced salary) for the good of his subject and its reform, by vested interests. Yet he had always been able to teach what he loved (except for a brief, awful time while changing his chair).

Devotion to "learning" was a high and even spiritual vocation. Being high it was inevitably lowered by false or tired brethren, or by the desire or need of money, or by pride. While degraded and smirched, the devotion still existed in universities. Tolkien said that the far higher devotion to religion suffered the same process. A tradition of learning or true science required schools and universities, which meant schoolmasters and dons. Religion required a church and ministers, which meant priests, bishops, and monks. The precious wine must have a bottle. Tolkien said that over time he had become less cynical, remembering his sins and follies, and realizing that men's hearts are often better than their acts, and seldom as bad as their words.

It was quite another matter to hear of Michael's "sagging faith". Tolkien said that at the last resort faith is an act of will inspired by love. If you once had faith not all the shortcomings, follies, or even sins of Church and ministers would make you break away, especially for one with historical knowledge. Scandals were just occasions of temptation. But the act of will of faith was not of a single moment: it was a permanently repeated act. The temptation to unbelief was always within us, longing for an excuse outside of us. Tolkien said that he was as sensitive as Michael (or any Christian) to the scandals of clergy and laity. Although he had suffered from bad priests he knew himself well enough to not leave the Church – it would be calling Our Lord a fraud to His face.

If God is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent then what we have are the garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac. The Church, meaning its clergy, would be but a spectacle of a gigantic fraud. But if God and the Gospels were not fraudulent there would still be the spectacle.

Tolkien stated that it takes a fantastic will to unbelief to doubt that Jesus "happened" or that his sayings had been uttered. No one could have invented such sayings at that time. We must therefore believe in Him and what he said and take the consequences.

The cure for sagging faith was Communion, said Tolkien. While Itself was perfect, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate just once, completely, for any. It must be continuously exercised. Tolkien said frequency was of the highest effect and that sever times a week was nourishing. He recommended taking communion in circumstances that affronted Michael's taste. A bad situation was as good as or better than a perfectly done service.

Tolkien proclaimed his allegiance to that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head, because it had always defended the Blessed Sacrament. It was against this, he said, that the Western European revolt (or Reformation) was launched – "the blasphemous fable of the Mass". The greatest reform of our time was that of St. Pius X[notes 1] which would surpass anything the Council[notes 2] will achieve.

At this point Tolkien recognized that he had written an alarming and rambling disquisition and said it was not meant to be a sermon! He called himself an ignorant and lonely man. He lived in anxiety about his children, believing they must suffer more assaults than he. But he had come up out of Egypt, having witnessed the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of his mother. She had brought him into the Church and he had received astonishing charity from Francis Morgan. Tolkien said he fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning and had never fallen out again. Yet he had almost ceased to practice his religion for a time. He regretted those days bitterly, most of all because he had failed as a father. He prayed that for all of his children the Healer would heal his defects and that all of them would continue to take Communion.

Turning to his health, Tolkien felt as well as his old bones would allow. He was getting as unbendable as an Ent. His doctor recommended no drugs or assistants except when occasionally prescribed.

Tolkien was interested to hear what Michael George made of Anglo-Saxon. He himself could not understand why Anglo-Saxon should seem difficult. It was not harder than German, vastly simpler than modern French, and as for Latin or Greek! It seemed that Anglo-Saxon distinguished the genuine linguists (students and lovers of Language) from utilitarians (he hoped Michael George was in the former).

Tolkien warned that speaking of "Income Tax" to him would make him boil over. They had all of his literary earnings until he retired. He was being taxed to the extent that it crippled his desire to distribute real largesse to each of his children. However, he said he would do something.

[edit] Notes

  1. He recommended daily communion and children's communion.
  2. The Second Vatican Council (1962-6)