JRR Tolkien’s Message for the Modern World

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J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings,” calls us to be heroic and to sacrifice for one another, according to the author of a new book on Tolkien’s “Sanctifying Myth.”

“I’m very glad when I look at the numbers of how many books of Tolkien’s still sell and that almost anything that is publishable has been published by Tolkien,” Bradley Birzer, a history professor and the Russell Amos Kirk chair in American studies at Hillsdale College, tells The Daily Signal.

Birzer, who recently published a second edition of his book “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth,” calls Tolkien’s enduring popularity “a healthy sign in society.”

“I don’t think society is healthy right now, but I think that’s one of the healthier signs of society,” he explains. “I think Tolkien teaches us to be ourselves in the best way, to be our authentic selves, to be made in the image of God, to do what we’re meant to do. I think he calls upon our uniqueness, each of us made individually in the image of God, and I think he calls us to be heroic.”

“I think he calls us to sacrifice for one another, and that was as true in Tolkien’s life as it was in his writing,” the Hillsdale professor says. “I think one of the great things about Tolkien is, when we praise him, we can praise him as a person. There aren’t real serious personal failings. He didn’t own slaves. He didn’t have all these other things that we can dismiss Thomas Jefferson for.”

Birzer addresses the “literary archaeology” of Tolkien and explains why he thinks “The Lord of the Rings” is “our great story of the modern world.”

“I think that when we study Western civilization, we often do it in terms of the great stories,” the professor adds. “We think about Homer and ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ We think about Virgil and ‘The Aeneid,’ but also ‘The Georgics’ and ‘The Eclogues.’ We think about Dante and ‘The Divine Comedy.’ We think about [John] Milton and ‘Paradise Lost.’”

“I think our equivalent of those great stories of the past is really ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” Birzer says. “I think that it will be read 500 years from now in the way that we read Dante. Scholars will one day read Tolkien to try and understand our era and figure out what we’re doing here.”

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The history professor also addresses his personal dislike for the Peter Jackson films, why Tolkien initially distrusted the very modern technology that led his books to become one of the most popular movie trilogies in existence, and how Tolkien addressed the world of Middle-earth.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Tyler O’Neil: This is Tyler O’Neil, I’m managing editor at The Daily Signal and I’m honored to be joined by Brad Birzer. He’s the history professor and the Russell Amos Kirk chair in American studies at Hillsdale College, former professor of mine, the author of numerous books, and co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative.

It’s a real pleasure to have you on.

Bradley Birzer: Tyler, it’s great to see you. It’s been too many years since you were in my classroom, but I still have very fond memories, very fond. We had a lot of great discussions, so thank you. Thanks for doing this, too.

O’Neil: Yeah, no, my pleasure. I particularly enjoyed your book. I have to admit I haven’t finished every part of it.

Birzer: Oh, yeah. It’s OK.

O’Neil: But his new book is “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth.” This is the second edition.

Birzer: Right.

O’Neil: Kind of odd to call it new when the first edition came out in 2002. I’d like you to really address this. But it was interesting, you had two corrections after 21 years. Do you want to just go over briefly what those are?

Birzer: Oh, sure. Yeah. So, this was actually, it was my first book and I was 34 when that came out. So, yeah, there was almost a different career in some ways.

But I loved it. I had a great time writing it and researching it, but I think I did mess up on two things. One, there’s this kind of—I’ve seen it as a meme, unfortunately, it’s the only time I’ve inspired a meme and it’s not true.

O’Neil: No.

Birzer: There was a story of Tolkien, and the way I presented it in the book was that Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis had dressed like bears at a party. That did happen, but it wasn’t C.S. Lewis, it was another friend of Tolkien’s who actually did that, and I messed up on that. So that was one thing.

The other thing was a little more serious and more of a matter of interpretation than me just getting my facts wrong. But in the original book, I had basically just quoted Tolkien himself and taken him at face value that he was a poor soldier in World War I.

I had the great opportunity, not to go into too much detail about this, but I had the great opportunity to meet Sir Martin Gilbert, who was the famous, he’s passed away now, but was the famous [Winston] Churchill biographer and a great, great man.

He actually read my book, amazingly enough, and wanted to talk about it. We went out to lunch, his wife and Sir Martin, so Lady Esther and Sir Martin and me. We went out to lunch and he told me that he really liked my book, which was great, but that I got one thing very wrong, and that was the comment that Tolkien was a poor soldier.

What Sir Martin told me was that every soldier who survived World War I, they all had survivor’s guilt and that every one of them thought they were a poor soldier because they had not died in the war, and that changes a lot.

I’m sorry that in my original book I had that wrong, but I’m very glad to be corrected on it.

O’Neil: Well, to have only those two things, you were wrong—

Birzer: Well, there may be others, but those were the two I caught.

O’Neil: … to stand up for 21 years, I think—yeah, no. And reading this book is clearly a testament to your love of the subject material. I sensed a deep resonance from the way that you led your class when I was in it, gosh, 10 years ago, but yeah, so weird to think.

Then just the way you delve into his Catholicism, the deep roots, I was reminded a lot of Western heritage growing up at Hillsdale and studying that.

When I’m reading the book and your discussion of myth, let’s get into this notion of sanctifying myth, this view. A lot of moderns look at myth as something to be derided or dismissed. But I think you really resurrect, and not that it needs to be resurrected, obviously, Tolkien’s works stand on their own, but you present the view of myth in a cogent and intellectually strong and really Christian-rooted way here.

Birzer: Yeah, thanks, Tyler. That was something that I really enjoyed doing, and a lot of that did come from my own experiences at Hillsdale and having, as you know, at Hillsdale, theological discussions with a variety of different people, getting into the idea of what exactly is myth versus story, what is story versus theology, all of those things.

Tolkien himself—anything that I got right in that book I owe to Tolkien because I was really trying to draw as closely as I could on Tolkien and Lewis’ own understanding of mythology.

Then another figure who was one of their friends, a guy by the name of Owen Barfield, one of the inklings, who’s, unfortunately, I think been forgotten in a lot of ways. Charles Williams as well, they all dealt with mythology. All of the inklings did and were trying to figure it out.

There’s a moment in the late 19th century where there were figures like Andrew Lang, someone we’ve almost entirely forgotten, that we still remembered in Scotland to a certain degree, but had started writing about what is the relationship of myth and language? How do we understand Genesis? How do we understand St. John’s gospel, especially if we’re thinking about myth and mythos.

But myth, Tyler, really, and again, I’m so indebted to my own Hillsdale experience of both teaching and learning this as I’m teaching, but myth really goes back to Plato.

A myth, and you can still find this in the Oxford English Dictionary, but a myth is simply a story that has a god or gods in it. It has something supernatural that can’t be explained away by mere logic or by mere rationality.

So there’s nothing insidious about a myth in and of itself. A myth is just a story with the supernatural in it. That’s its original definition.

So by that definition, which I think is a very good definition, we can then talk about Genesis or we can talk about St. John, not as those things aren’t literally true, but that they’re also mythically true in some way.

So Tolkien, in his very famous Andrew Lang lecture, named after the guy I just mentioned a bit ago, that he gave in the late 1930s in Scotland, he gives this lecture called “On Fairy-Stories.”

At the end of this, we don’t know if he actually did this in front of the audience or he only did this later when he was writing it up as a speech—and then it’s now available as a book with Verlyn Flieger. One of the great Tolkien scholars has edited and done a very nice job with it.

But he says at the end that the gospels are perfect myth, that they tell us something that we want to be true and it is, in fact, true, not just in the story, but in the primary world, that is in our primary world, our world itself.

So there’s this just gloriousness to it. He coins a term, he calls it a eucatastrophe, the opposite of a catastrophe—the good, joyous ending rather than the dour ending or the dour conclusion. And that’s what Christianity is. It is the story of our happy ending.

Even though we live in the long defeat, we know that Christ has already won, the victory is there, but it still has to go through the process of history before we actually get to it.

O’Neil: Yeah. How would you say Tolkien sanctified the notion of myth? You go through mentioning many times Beowulf, which he had a deep love for and these—

Birzer: Right. Memorized much of it.

O’Neil: … yeah, these Nordic, these Scandinavian myths.

Birzer: Right.

O’Neil: I love the way he describes himself as a secondary creator, more of a discoverer of Middle-earth, which he thinks was created by God. He thinks God is the main character throughout the entire story, but never explicitly named.

Birzer: Right, right. There’s a form here, Tyler—and this is not my expression, this is from other Tolkien scholars—but there’s a form of literary archeology that’s going on with Tolkien, that is, he’s—

O’Neil: So cool.

Birzer: … discovering these things that have always been there.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that there was always a Frodo, but there is the story of Frodo, and the story is timeless; the story of sacrifice, of leaving one’s hearth and home, going out into danger, overcoming that danger through great personal sacrifice.

So “The Lord of the Rings” is, and the “The Silmarillion” as well, but “The Lord of the Rings” especially is our great story of the modern world.

It doesn’t have anything to do with Stalin or Hitler, and yet, because of Stalin or Hitler, it has great resonance with us, even though it’s a myth and much bigger than anything we could imagine coming out of Soviet Russia or out of Nazi Germany or out of the Kaiser’s Germany of World War I—which, of course, Tolkien, again, as we’ve talked about, was a soldier in that war.

So I think that when we—and I’ll just throw down the gauntlet for a moment—I think that when we study Western civilization, we often do it in terms of the great stories.

We think about Homer and “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” We think about Virgil and “The Aeneid,” but also “The Georgics” and “The Eclogues.” We think about Dante and “The Divine Comedy.” We think about [John] Milton and “Paradise Lost.”

But if we jump to the modern world, I think our equivalent of those great stories of the past is really “The Lord of the Rings.” I think that it will be read 500 years from now in the way that we read Dante. Scholars will one day read Tolkien to try and understand our era and figure out what we’re doing here.

So obviously, when we study the Middle Ages, we don’t take literally that Dante traveled through hell and through purgatory and heaven—

O’Neil: He didn’t?

Birzer: … but we take it. Yeah, he did not. No, as far as we know. But clearly, there’s a mythic element to that. I think the same thing is true with Tolkien, with that story, with “The Lord of the Rings” in particular, and that’s how it’ll be seen.

Even today, Tyler, I got to teach, it’s always a great privilege, but I taught two Western heritage courses and we started Herodotus.

What a difference between Herodotus, who wants to tell us all about patriotism and mythology and the gods and everything supernatural, versus Thucydides, who’s so straight-laced. Thucydides doesn’t want anything supernatural at all tainting his narrative. I love them both.

But if you said, “Brad, you have five days to read one of these books, and it’s for pure entertainment,” I would always pick up Herodotus over Thucydides just because I love the writing and I love the way that he approaches his story.

O’Neil: What makes me think of Charles Taylor and this notion of the buffered self where we are individuals atomized, not impacted by the things around us, and this very modern notion that conflicts with the view of the enchanted world that he talks about, that we’ve moved beyond. I almost think that Tolkien is a master at bringing back that enchanted world.

Birzer: Yeah, yeah. I agree. In the 20th century, I can’t imagine anyone better. I think Lewis gets really close, especially in his “Space Trilogy,” but it’s still not at the level of Tolkien.

You can just feel—of course, Tolkien started his mythology, his larger mythology, he started it around 1913 … .

And I didn’t know if this is why you wanted to talk about this, Tyler, today, but we’re just a couple of days away from the 50th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, here on Sept. 3 will be the 50th anniversary of his death.

So you can imagine, here’s a man who from 1913 until 1973 was creating the story. Then after he passes away, his son, Christopher, takes over. And his son Christopher just died a couple of years ago. He lived into his mid-90s. So here’s a man who takes over the mythology in his 40s and basically gives it five decades.

At this point, in 2023, probably, as far as I know, about 95% to 98% of Tolkien’s mythology has been published. But there’s still a few things that are out there that are still to see the light.

So it’s taken two men in their adult careers to make this mythology. So when Lewis, who’s a genius, when Lewis sits down and writes a science fiction novel in a couple of months, there’s just no way it’s going to quite reach what Tolkien and his son were doing with that larger mythology.

Again, nothing against Lewis. I love Lewis. But they have very different styles in the way that they approach their own mythologies.

O’Neil: Yeah, no. You talk about Tolkien and Lewis, and a large part of your book, naturally, is mentioning them. But something that really stood out to me was the whole Ulster Protestant dislike and the way that Tolkien seems to have thought of Lewis.

He was very proud that Tolkien played a role in allowing Lewis to come back to the faith, but then might’ve not been very happy that Lewis embraced a view of Christianity that Tolkien thought was holding back the maturity of the faith.

Birzer: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I think, in a lot of ways, I think it requires a lot of nuance to figure out what their relationship is. They’re best friends at one level, but they’re also rivals at a different level.

Tolkien was never really happy that Lewis became the popular theologian that he became. Tolkien thought it was untoward, that it was something that Lewis was doing that he really didn’t have the right to do.

I’ll mention another book that it came out, I think it came out yesterday—if not, it’s coming out today, but I think yesterday—is Holly Ordway’s book called “Tolkien’s Spiritual Journey.” I can’t remember exactly what the title is. I had a chance to read—

O’Neil: “Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography.”

Birzer: Thank you. Yes.

O’Neil: Yeah.

Birzer: I had a chance to read it this summer. Tyler, if you can get her on, I would highly recommend it. I actually think it’s the best book I’ve read on Tolkien, and—

O’Neil: Wow.

Birzer: … I’ve tried to keep up with all the scholarship. But I think Holly has done—and I’ve only met her once. So, she came to Hillsdale last year. I got to meet her, really liked her as a person, but I wouldn’t say we’re friends or anything, we just know each other, we’re allies. But I think her book, this new book is fantastic, and I would highly encourage your listeners to get it.

The reason I bring it up now is she actually thinks that the falling out between Tolkien and Lewis has been really exaggerated, that we have just a couple of quotes from Tolkien.

We know that Tolkien could be very grumpy at times and just say absurd things. When he basically says he doesn’t like Dante—we know that’s not true because he was a part of the Dante Literary Society and clearly, within the Western tradition, would’ve known Dante and respected him.

But he’d make these statements every once in a while, they’re just kind of nutty.

I think that there were a couple of lines where Tolkien said some things about Lewis, sometimes to another student or another faculty member, other times in his letters. But it would often be countered then by other things in which he would say that he had this deep understanding of Lewis, respected Lewis as a great man.

So this one thing you bring up, and it’s one of the pieces of Tolkien’s writings that has not been published, and that makes me wonder about it in large part because I think the Tolkien estate doesn’t want it really to be out there. But in 1964, Tolkien wrote either a long article or a short book about Lewis called “The Ulsterior Motive.”

O’Neil: Yes.

Birzer: It’s a great title.

O’Neil: Brilliant.

Birzer: The Protestant from Ulster. It’s a great title, and only two quotes of it have ever been published or have seen the light of day.

Basically, what they say is that once Lewis became Protestant—and I think there was a bit of a class issue here as well. Remember, Lewis grew up in an extremely wealthy upper-middle-class family. I think that’s something we often forget about him because we remember his loss of his mother, and we think about him growing up in tragedy, but he grew up in very wealthy circumstances.

Whereas, Tolkien grew up in absolute poverty, and especially after his father died and his mother converted to Catholicism.

So for Tolkien, his Catholicism is always really tied to two things. It’s tied to his mother’s sacrifice because the family wouldn’t help her out when she got tuberculosis because they made her, and she didn’t do it, but they wanted her to renounce her Catholicism. But it’s also then tied into Tolkien’s poverty as a child as well.

So I think when Lewis became Protestant, it wasn’t just that there was a difference in their way of understanding the world in terms of theology, I think that there was a difference in understanding their socioeconomic place as well.

It was a class statement as much as it was a religious statement, I think, on Tolkien’s part for Lewis not to have become Roman Catholic.

O’Neil: Yeah. Yeah, that’s very helpful. I got some of that from those passages. But that class, the oppression system, it’s very easy for us modern Americans to forget how embedded the hatred was there.

Birzer: Yeah.

O’Neil: Yeah.

Birzer: Well, and even, I don’t know if it’s gone completely, it’s just been changed into symbolic form. Imagine, there’s still Bonfire Day on Nov. 5, right? Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, it’s as big as Halloween is here. Of course, it’s a celebration of the failure of Catholics to reclaim England. You grow up with that, that dislike of the Pope and that dislike of everything Catholic.

Even if people don’t say that anymore, of course, we don’t hate Catholics anymore, there’s still every Nov. 5 you’re celebrating a holiday that at least was rooted in that.

So it’s a part of the culture, I think, for the British themselves not to like the Pope at all, even though Catholicism is actually relatively strong in Great Britain.

O’Neil: You had a very interesting chapter about Tolkien’s relationship to modernity that I want to touch on briefly—

Birzer: Sure.

O’Neil: … because it strikes me—I grew up watching “The Lord of the Rings” films, the Peter Jackson movies.

Birzer: Right.

O’Neil: Which I will say are a fantastic adaptation. But that said, obviously, Tolkien did not want his books adapted. You have this passage that really struck me where he was complaining about the idea of even having his voice recorded reading “The Lord of the Rings” because that is a machine.

I’m just like, I’m sitting in awe because I watch those movies, and I love those movies to death, and I think they capture so much of the heart of “The Lord of the Rings.”

Then you see “The Hobbit” movies, which, if Tolkien saw those, he would be just as angry, probably far angrier than most of the fans. Then, of course, the Amazon series, which just threw the legendarium out the window it seems.

But I guess, how do you think, as a Tolkien scholar, as someone who studied these things, written about them—

Birzer: Right.

O’Neil: … would he see a difference between the Peter Jackson, the original trilogy, as it were—

Birzer: Right.

O’Neil: … and then these almost bastardizations, we’d say, or would he just say that it’s all bad?

Birzer: Yeah, that’s a great question, Tyler. Again, I think that it probably deserves a pretty nuanced answer.

Within Tolkien scholarship, there’s a real divide over those who think, again, that Tolkien was just being cranky about certain things versus having a really holistic philosophy against modernity.

I tend to come down on the side that he fits in with a number of Christian humanists in the 20th century, like Romano Guardini or Russell Kirk, that he was deeply skeptical of the modern world and the modern project.

But again, I brought up Holly Ordway a little bit ago, her previous book, which was also excellent, it was called “Tolkien’s Modern Reading.” And she makes the argument that no, Tolkien really wasn’t anti-modern. In fact, he embraced modernity at this level and this level and was not anti that at all. She makes a very persuasive case.

In my own scholarship, I took it in a slightly different direction because I am more interested in the context of this Christian humanism.

But it’s amazing to me that when we look at these figures—or Christopher Dawson is another one, Hans Urs von Balthasar, … T.S. Eliot—there are a number of these great figures, Willa Cather, who were really arguing about the nature of modernity and their confusion with modernity.

So the way I describe it in thinking about Lewis and Tolkien is that they generally thought, and this is both very Catholic and very Anglican at the same time, they generally thought that nature groaned with the fall, but that nature itself wasn’t fallen in and of itself like man has fallen. Man has definitely fallen, but nature has been misdirected in some way. So they, in their writings, Lewis and Tolkien both really praise agricultural life.

You get up with the sun, you go to bed with the sun, you do certain things in summer that you don’t do in the fall that you don’t do in the winter or the spring, and you live with the liturgy of the seasons.

They were pretty taken with that idea, whereas, they saw machinery as a counterfeit. Machinery doesn’t work with nature, it tries to dominate nature. And so, we have that great story.

You just mentioned it, Tyler, a story that comes from George Sayer, who was a student of both Tolkien and Lewis, and ends up being a headmaster at a school. He’s the first to come to Tolkien’s house in about 1952, and he comes with a huge tape recorder, big reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Tolkien at that time was very frustrated because he couldn’t find a publisher for “The Lord of the Rings.” Part of that was Tolkien’s own fault, but it was also, Tolkien was being pigheaded about what could be published and what couldn’t. Thank God he was because we get Tolkien’s vision, ultimately, but he was being very pigheaded with his publishers.

So George Sayer says, “Well, why don’t you read some of this into the tape recorder?” Tolkien was deeply skeptical. As you know this story, he says the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic to make sure that this machine is not possessed. He doesn’t do Latin because, obviously, the devil would know Latin, but he may not know Gothic old German.

So it’s so characteristic of Tolkien to do something like that, something both brilliant and nutty all at once.

Once he did that, then he actually read, and he was an excellent reader, excellent reader, and we still have those. You can still get from Amazon, or probably on iTunes, you can download Tolkien reading.

O’Neil: Wow.

Birzer: He reads Chapter 5 from “The Hobbit,” which is the riddle game. He reads excerpts from various things like Beren and Luthien from “The Lord of the Rings,” and it’s beautiful.

O’Neil: Wow.

Birzer: There are moments even where Tolkien cracks himself up. He’ll say his poetry, and he says it right at the end of it, and it’s still in the recording. That hasn’t been edited out, so it’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

But yeah, it took him a bit. He had to pray over the machine before he did it and that’s pretty wacky.

O’Neil: So maybe he’d pray over the DVD player before we—

Birzer: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry. So, to get to the movies—in “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien actually makes an argument that fantasy can never be transferred to the theater or the stage, or to the film, to the silver screen, because in its most intimate moments, fairy or myth has to be dark.

The only way he says that you could really show that in a visual presentation would be to be unremittingly dark or violent. He was very skeptical about that, that becoming an actual visual.

But remember too, Tyler, as much as Tolkien complained about what might happen, he did sell the movie rights.

O’Neil: Right.

Birzer: So he is responsible, at least for New Line Cinema and these other—he made the money off of that. So he is at some level responsible for those films.

But I’ve not watched the Amazon one. I tried. And it’s not philosophical on my part. I don’t watch a ton of TV. There’s certain things like I’ll watch—”Stranger Things,” or I’ll get into a series here or there. We just watched the new Star Trek series, “Strange New Worlds.” I enjoyed it very much.

But I have not immersed myself in that Amazon series. I watched the first episode and I thought it was goofy. I did not like what they did with Galadriel, and so I just didn’t watch anymore. But frankly, that’s irresponsible on my part, especially as a Tolkien scholar, I think I really have a duty to go back and watch it at some point, so at some point I will.

O’Neil: How dare you not watch the show that minimizes the character that echoes the Virgin Mary and makes her—

Birzer: Yeah, I’m a huge Galadriel fan. Absolutely huge. So I’ll be curious to see where it goes, but yeah, it just didn’t grab me at all.

O’Neil: Yeah, no.

Birzer: … I’ll have to try it again.

O’Neil: I actually, I have a … stress ball or something if you ever really watch it.

Birzer: So my book originally came out like a week or two weeks before “The Two Towers” came out in theaters. So I had seen “Fellowship of the Ring,” I had not seen “The Two Towers” or “The Return of the King” when I wrote the book. I don’t know if I would change much now.

Tyler, I don’t love the movies. I like the soundtrack a lot, and I think there’s certain things that the movies did extremely well. I think Eowyn, they get her absolutely right. I think they get Aragorn right. Overall, I wasn’t as happy with the Frodo-Sam relationship, especially as it developed in “The Return of the King,” because I don’t feel like Sam or Frodo would ever betray one another at all.

There’s that moment where they separate. I realized for a movie, you need that dramatic moment. I can see why from Peter Jackson’s standpoint he did that, but I didn’t like it.

So my oldest, Tyler, is 24, and my youngest is 12. My kids love the movies, love them, and my students love the movies. So it’s really, for me as a 55-year-old to say, “Oh, I don’t know if I like the movies or not,” that’s just me being cranky because I grew up with the books, and I didn’t come to the movies until I was in my 30s. So my imagination was formed by the books rather than by the movies themselves. So I’m not really the best critic overall.

O’Neil: Well, I can imagine when my now 4-year-old daughter eventually sees these old movies that she might not—

Birzer: She’ll be old by the time she’s ready.

O’Neil: … think of them as relevant. I’m just like, “Oh, what’s she going to think?” I’m sorry to keep going on and on, if you need to go, let me know.

Birzer: Oh, no, this is great.

O’Neil: But are there lessons for today for either our political moment or our—I think we have this bizarre pseudoreligion on the Left that’s competing with Christianity, and not just Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but even weird offshoots like Mormonism and even Islam. You get a lot of conservative people who are revolting against this very leftist ideology that we see from transgenderism to [critical race theory] to a bunch of other things.

Birzer: Sure.

O’Neil: Would you say there is wisdom that Tolkien has for this moment, either for conservatives or for the culture at large?

Birzer: Yeah. Again, Tyler, excellent question. So, I am not even sure how many times I’ve read “Lord of the Rings” now. In my adult life, I’ve tried to read it once a year. I haven’t always succeeded in doing that, but I find every time I read it, there’s new wisdom there.

So I started reading it right before I was a teenager, and I’ve been reading it now for 40 some years. It has just always meant something to me. I think part of it is the story is just timeless.

Yeah, it’s a story about, again, leaving hearth and home, going into danger, overcoming that danger through great personal sacrifice. As much sacrifice as you can possibly imagine without it being Jesus on the cross, incredible sacrifice.

So yeah, and I think it’s a very good sign that Tolkien’s popularity has remained. Whatever I think about the movies, I’m very, very glad that they did as well as they did.

I’m very glad when I look at the numbers of how many books of Tolkien’s still sell and that almost anything that is publishable has been published by Tolkien—there’s so many books out there on Tolkien by Tolkien, and I think that’s a healthy sign in society. I don’t think society is healthy right now, but I think that’s one of the healthier signs of society.

I think Tolkien teaches us to be ourselves in the best way, to be our authentic selves, to be made in the image of God, to do what we’re meant to do. I think he calls upon our uniqueness, each of us made individually in the image of God, and I think he calls us to be heroic. I think he calls us to sacrifice for one another. And that was as true in Tolkien’s life as it was in his writing.

I think one of the great things about Tolkien is when we praise him, we can praise him as a person. There aren’t real serious personal failings. He didn’t own slaves. He didn’t have all these other things that we can dismiss Thomas Jefferson for.

O’Neil: Right.

Birzer: We can’t do that with Tolkien. In fact, Tolkien was anti-antisemitic. He was pro-black. Anything that you can imagine that we may now think of as a sensitive issue, Tolkien was on the right side of that. Quietly, but he was on the right side of that. Yet he’s a daily Mass Catholic conservative. So I think he always spoke to our humanity. He spoke to the best of what we are and what we can be.

O’Neil: Well, that’s amazing. Is there anything else you’d like to add from the book for our audience?

Birzer: Well, it’s so meaningful to me to see you, Tyler, and to talk to you. This is great, so thanks. Especially, as I mentioned, I had two classes this morning and then office hours, so two hours of office hours, and now I get to talk to my old student. So it’s a good day. The weather, I assume the same in D.C., the weather is perfect today. It’s 67 and no humidity, it’s just, yeah. So it’s a good day.

O’Neil: Yeah, three hours of office hours.

Birzer: Yeah. Right, right, right. Well, yeah, but I had good office hours, so yeah. Perfect.

O’Neil: Yeah. No, I really miss it out there. Yeah, I wish I could go back, hopefully at some point.

Birzer: It’d be great to have you back, really great, love to have you in the classroom again. You can tell me if I’ve changed much since you were here—

O’Neil: Well, thanks again so much.

Birzer: … besides just getting grayer and wrinklier, right?

O’Neil: More curmudgeonly, I don’t know. I don’t think—

Birzer: Oh, I don’t know.

O’Neil: … I’ve ever seen that curmudgeonly.

Birzer: Cranky like Tolkien every once in a while, but maybe I’m not old enough yet to be—now, Paul Marino is curmudgeonly, but I don’t think I’m there yet. But maybe soon, maybe when I get into my 60s I’ll be curmudgeonly.

O’Neil: Well, here’s hoping not. You always have that bright approach to things. Well, thank you so much again, Dr. Birzer.

Birzer: Oh, it’s great talking, Tyler. Thank you.

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