For Advent and Lent I return to my favorites for reading. Advent: Lord of the Rings. Lent: Divine Comedy.

For those who are interested, here beginneth a little series of reflections on the tale.

Starting with Fellowship of the Ring, I am struck once again with the simple radiance and goodness of the text. Where does the beauty, truth and goodness come from? There is little to give by way of example, or there is too much to give by way of example. Perhaps it is the homely goodness of the hobbits, maybe it is the mysterious presence of Gandalf–full of wisdom and truth. Is it the touches of humor–like Samwise wiping his mouth at the departure from Bag End because he had been ‘saying farewell to the beer barrel.’? Is it the hobbits’ first encounter with the elves which trembles with such restrained beauty? Is it their hymn to Elbereth on a starry night?

All of these contribute, but as soon as you try to pin down this quality within the writing it escapes you. Another writer may just as well have included such details, and it would not radiate the beauty and simple goodness in the same way. To my mind, the only explanation for such a quality is the quality of the life of the author. The last time I re-read the trilogy I remember crying out aloud from the bathtub (where I was reading) “This could only have been written by a daily Mass Catholic!”

There are many debates about the validity of judging a work by the life of the author. I have always been suspicious of those critics who wish for the work to stand alone, and wish us to judge the work objectively and separately from the life and beliefs of the author. How dull is that? A work of art is not a machine which may be taken apart and put back together again with spare parts. A work of art cannot be described with a user’s manual. A work of art must flow from the life of the artist. This is part of the incarnational mystery of art. What I produce reveals me to the world. This is the risk and the beauty and the danger of art.

The beauty, truth and goodness in Tolkien’s work comes from the beauty, truth and goodness of his beliefs and his own life. He produced a masterpiece full of grace and truth because, by the touch of divinity, he himself was a miniature masterpiece full of grace and truth–reflecting the One who was Grace and Truth Incarnate.