Five Insights on Death and Dying from J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, entered the Church as a small boy when his widowed mother converted, and lost her when he was twelve to diabetes. He and his brother were cared for by Fr. Francis Morgan, a priest of the Oratory in Birmingham. After graduating from Oxford, he served in the army in World War I, fighting on the Somme. He returned to begin a distinguished academic career at Leeds and then at Oxford. He became friends with C. S. Lewis and with him formed the discussion group called The Inklings, where among things they both read the major books they were writing. Born on 3 January 1892, he died on 2 September 1973. The quotes are taken from The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, published in 1981.


Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the same taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

— From a letter to his son Michael, who was a cadet at the Royal Military College (1941)

Tolkien describes the feeling the story of a boy’s miraculous healing at Lourdes gave him, and then says that for this unique feeling he coined the word “eucatastrophe.” He explains that the word means the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears. . . . And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest “eucatastrophe” possible in the greatest Fairy Story — and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorry because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

— From a letter to his son Christopher, who was serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa (1944)

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days — quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil . . . . [But] no man can estimate what is really happening in the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success — in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.

— From a letter to Christopher (1944)

On the death of C. S. Lewis: So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man my age — like an old tree losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.

— From a letter to his daughter Priscilla, written four days after Lewis’s death (1963)

After the death of his wife Edith three years earlier, he ascribed his feeling of physical insecurity mainly to the maiming effect of the bereavement we have suffered. I do not feel quite “real” or whole, and in a sense there is no one to talk to. . . . Since I came of age, and our 3 years separation was ended, we had shared all joys and griefs, and all opinions (in agreement or otherwise), so that I will often find myself thinking “I must tell E. about this” — and then suddenly I feel like a castaway left on a barren island under a heedless sky after the loss of a great ship. I remember trying to tell Marjorie Incledon [his first cousin] this feeling, when I was not yet thirteen after the death of my mother (Nov. 9, 1904), and vainly waving a hand at the sky saying “it is so empty and cold.” And again I remember after the death of Fr Francis my “second father” (at 77 in 1934), saying to C. S. Lewis: “I feel like a lost survivor into a new alien world after the real world has passed away.” But of course these griefs however poignant (especially the first) came in youth with life and work still unfolding.

— From a letter to his son Michael (1972)


The picture of the bust of Tolkien at Merton College, Oxford, is taken by Julian Nyča (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Written By
More from The Editors

Five Insights on Death and Dying From Fr. Thomas Merton

One of four “great Americans” Pope Francis mentioned when he spoke to...
Read More