With the words “Juvenile Trash” written boldface on the chalkboard behind her, Paige Hochschild, the chair of the Mount St. Mary’s University Department of Theology, began her lecture on “The Lord of the Rings” and its connection to Catholicism.
Though Hochschild said she would not use these words to describe J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy novels herself — that was how they were reviewed by Tolkien’s contemporary, Edmund Wilson. Instead, in her talk, titled “Hobbits and Humility,” Hochschild set out to prove that Tolkien’s books were in fact commentaries on Catholicism. The talk was hosted by the Thomistic Institute at Yale — an undergraduate group on campus that “exists to promote Catholic truth,” according to its website.
Citing Tolkien’s letters, Hochschild explained why Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings” and what his vision for the text was. According to Hochschild, when writing the trilogy, Tolkien sought to remind his audience of the Catholic virtues, and he believed the only way to convey that was through storytelling.
Tolkien, Hochschild claimed, placed a lot of emphasis on realism in his stories, which may come as a surprise to those familiar with the magical world of Middle-earth. She said that Tolkien was committed to what she called “moral realism.” According to Hochschild, Tolkien’s characters were believable. They fit within the Catholic vision of human life — that all humans have vice that can only be reconciled by the grace of God.
Hochschild said that this realism tied into Tolkien’s general idea of human nature. According to her, Tolkien believed that all humans inevitably go through similar cycles of behavior, giving into temptation and sin. The only way to break out of this pattern, according to Tolkien, is to admit humility and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Hochschild said that this was the message Tolkien tried to relay to his readers — they should understand this pattern, recognize their own place in it and use that knowledge to redeem themselves.
According to Hochschild, Tolkien showed that through his characters. As an example, she talked about Samwise Gamgee — one of the main characters of the trilogy. According to Hochschild, Tolkien prominently displays Gamgee’s virtue of charity and vice of judgement, showing that the hero can only overcome the temptation of the Ring through his own humility — a key teaching in Catholicism.
Listeners were generally very receptive to Hochschild’s talk. Her audience consisted of members of the Thomistic Institute, other undergraduates, professors and graduate students.
Armin Thomas ’21 said he found Hochschild’s comments on the inevitability of sin especially insightful, although he expressed doubt that all Tolkien’s characters fit into the Catholic worldview.
President of the Thomistic Institute Joe Brownsberger ’21 thought that Hochschild’s talk was a great way to share the Catholic message with students in an accessible way. He added that he found her comment on the necessity for resisting temptation especially salient, since “there is a lot of temptation on campus.”
The book series “The Lord of the Rings” was first published from 1954–55.
David McCowin | firstname.lastname@example.org .