Tolkien’s grandson remembers JRR’s reaction to Mass in English

I saw this due to the diligence of His Hermeneuticalness, Fr. Finigan.

Over at The Lion and the Cardinal we find this about an author who exerted an important influence on my young life: J.R.R. Tolkien.  This is a recollection from the author’s grandson.

Simon Tolkien:

I vividly remember going to church with him [J.R.R.] in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right. He inherited his religion from his mother, who was ostracised by her family following her conversion and then died in poverty when my grandfather was just 12. I know that he played a big part in the decision to send me to Downside, a Roman Catholic school in Somerset.

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  1. Childermass says:

    Indeed, Tolkien was horrified by the changes so abruptly and chaotically taking place (as was Evelyn Waugh—you can read his letters on the topic in the book A BITTER TRIAL).

    Tolkien’s own letter to his son in 1967 relates this. It’s dynamite stuff:

    ‘Trends’ in the Church are…serious, especially to those accustomed to find in it a solace and a ‘pax’ in times of temporal trouble, and not just another arena of strife and change. But imagine the experience of those born (as I) between the Golden and Diamond Jubilee of Victoria. Both senses of imaginations of security have been stripped away from us. Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time. ‘Back to normal’ – political and Christian predicaments – as a Catholic professor once said to me when I bemoaned the collapse of all my world that began just after I achieved 21. I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyalty hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord’s followers in His earthly life-time?) I think there is nothing to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.

    There are, of course, various elements in the present situation, which are confused, though in fact distinct…The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directedness-which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian ‘liturgical’ behavior from the beginning as now. (St. Paul’s strictures on eucharistic behavior are sufficient to show this!) Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history – the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up., for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, get rid of parasites, and so forth (with trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!). But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unaffected by evils.

    The other motive (now so confused with the primitivist one, even in the mind of any one of the reformers)” aggiornamento: bringing up to date: that has its own grave dangers, as has been apparent throughout history. With this ‘ecumenicalness’ has also become confused. I find myself in sympathy with those elements that are strictly ‘ecumenical,’ that is concerned with other groups or churches that call themselves (and often truly are) ‘Christian.’ We have prayed endlessly for Christian reunion, but it is difficult to see, if one reflects, how that could possibly begin to come about except as it has, with all its inevitable minor absurdities. An increase in ‘charity’ is an enormous gain.

  2. RichR says:

    I’ve never read this before. Thank you Fr.Z. and Childermass for sharing.

  3. relee54 says:

    Evelyn Waugh’s response to the liturgical changes from Vatican II is detailed in another book called “A gentle Jesuit: Phillip Caraman, SJ, 1911-1998” by June Rockett. The changes in the church after Vatican II were purportedly one of the causes of Waugh becoming very depressed at that point in his life. Waugh reportedly said of the new mass: “I now cling to the faith doggedly and without pure joy… Church going is a duty parade”. How prophetic this great Catholic author was, and how sad he did not live to see the current pope’s efforts to make the Tridentine Mass more available for the faithful.

    It was ironic that Waugh died on Easter Sunday 1966, shortly after attending a Latin Mass that he arranged for a Jesuit priest, who was not beholden to any local bishop, to celebrate for him. Father Caraman was the priest who said that last mass for Waugh, anointed him after he collapsed at home,and then gave Waugh’s funeral eulogy.

  4. Walker says:

    Tolkien advises his son:
    The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion… I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”

  5. Thomas S says:


    Are you trying to pit the one letter against the other? If so, show us where in the second letter he talks about the liturgical texts and rubrics themselves. Surely you wouldn’t stretch Tolkien’s words to include going to a sacreligious Mass full of abuses. To do so would be to rip them out of context.

    But if you’re just providing another Tolkien quote, thank you and disregard the above.

  6. Prudentius says:

    Personally I cringe everytime I hear people trying to rally the likes of Tolkien and Waugh to the “cause” of Traditionalism. These posh, public school boys have no merit as examples of “good” catholics and it this type of cultural association which should be avoided as it puts more people off than anything else. The last thing we should do is promote the idea that a preference for Traditionalism comes with this type of upper class elitist baggage.

    So Tolkien liked Latin Mass! So what? Well, he wrote the Hobbit and that’s good so he must be right! What kind of logic is that? Come on everyone, grow up?

    For me this represents another example of a worrying trend one sees when looking at the types of people attaching themselves to the cause of the Latin Mass. A quick scan of TLM discussion blogs on the web generally shows people speaking in ways which are Un-charitable, negative, over-critical and disrespectful towards Novus Ordo (which should still be treated with respect by the way)

    More and more I read comments from people more interested in displaying how much they know about the Liturgy as if it was somekind of fanatical Star Trek Club. In doing so they run the risk of turning the whole thing into a private members club which excludes those people who’s knowledge of Church history and the old liturgy don’t meet a certain level. I am sick of reading just how clever some people think they are and how dumb everyone else is for just going along to N.O. each week. How is this going to help restore the Latin Mass if people feel even moe excluded, this was the problem in the first place?

    Whatever happened to the virues of meekness, gentleness, compassion and kindness. I have no agenda or axe to grind but I can sincerely find none of these qualities within what I would call the Traditionalst “Blog Scene”? [Or… in this comment?] This distatsteful trait is almost like a sign that the movement is not authentic. Especially, for young men like me still swithering on the restoration of the TLM being a good thing or not?

    I have heard the Latin Mass a few times now in the last year, it is truly deeply moving and I would gladly have this as a regular fixture in my Parish and pray that this will be the case soon. But frankly, the amount of pro-war, militaristic, nationalists ect… [?!?] Attaching themselves to the TLM is really off putting. Say what you like about the people you like to stereotype has catholic justice and peace hippies but at least there is a culture gentleness among them?

  7. TJM says:

    Prudentius, obviously you don’t read the comments to articles at the National Catholic Reporter or the Tablet. These comments are from “liberals” directed at conservatives and members of the heirarchy including the Pope and are among the most vicious, mean-spirited and slanderous I’ve ever read. You sound pretty judgmental. I’d tone it down. Tom

  8. mhittle says:

    First, Prudentius, I think you meant “private school boys,” not “public school boys.” [In England, “public” schools are the “private” schools.]

    Second, the “TLM” (extraordinary form is a better term) is not being “restored.” In fact, it was NEVER abrogated. Since it was not ended, it can not logically be “restored” in the context you use the term. Its use has been widened, yes, but it was never officially abrogated.

    Third, nobody says “Well, he wrote the Hobbit and that’s good so he must be right!” You’re creating a huge straw man. Rather, the argument is “Tolkien was a very smart man. There must’ve been a reason for it, so let’s find out what that reason is, and investigate it.”

    Fourth, you argue that people who prefer the extraordinary form risk forming some sort of cabal in which all who don’t have a knowledge of liturgy are excluded. At last I checked, a general knowledge of the liturgy is to be PREFERRED, and a lack of knowledge is not to be EXCUSED. You are excusing improper catechesis by labeling those of us who actually know what we’re talking about as people who are trying to form “somekind [sic] of fanatical Star Trek Club.”

    Finally, you’ve said some pretty horrible things about supporters of the extraordinary form, yet you offer no substantive proof. I could say “wow, it’s really disconcerting that so many left-handed people subscribe to liturgical dance,” yet until I offer proof of that, my claim is worthless. You’re also labeling all people who enjoy the extraordinary form based upon a small sampling of those people. That’s a logical fallacy in itself, and an egregious one at that. Of course, some people who prefer the extraordinary form may be “bad people,” but also are people who prefer the ordinary form, and chocolate cake, and vanilla cake, and marble cake, and rock music, and classical music, and daytime TV. So your argument seems to be “well I’ve encountered some people who support X who seem to be not nice, so therefore X

    Finally, finally, your leap from Tolkien to we smarmy Catholics who prefer the extraordinary form is a total non sequitur. It seems to me like you’ve just got an axe to grind.

  9. mhittle says:

    In my comment above, I meant to say “There must’ve been a reason for his preference for the extraordinary form, so let’s find out…”

  10. mhittle says:

    Ahh! I should’ve proofread better.

    I didn’t finish a sentence and need to also rework it. It should say:

    “So your argument seems to be “well I’ve encountered a tiny percentage of people who support X who seem to be not nice, so therefore I am unsure about my support of X.”

  11. Jonathan says:

    Now that’s weird. I was thinking about this (without any outside influence, I read it a long time ago) today when I got up and I was going to post something about it to my site, but I didn’t yet.

  12. Jordanes says:

    mhittle said: First, Prudentius, I think you meant “private school boys,” not “public school boys.”

    No, he meant “public school boys.” In Britain, a “public school” is a school owned and operated by the people rather than by the government. That is, in Britain a “public school” is what Americans call a “private school.”

    That said, I couldn’t disagree more with Prudentius’ comment, which exudes class envy and anti-intellectualism, and I sense also carries a whiff of the political about it. He’s clearly not familiar with the fact that self-identified traditionalist Catholics have tended to, for example, regard the Iraq War as unjust.

  13. It’s not wrong to acknowledge the most traumatic events in the life of the Church, or to examine their effects on individuals. Tolkien, Waugh, Guinness, and many others possessed the gift to articulate this trauma with more skill than most of our parents and grandparents. Without occasionally stopping to remember these events, the people of today will not be able to understand them, reach catharsis and let go of anger and grief, or build the reform of the reform as it should be.

    Besides, it is always interesting to read about any historical period from contemporary sources. Don’t you find it so?

    Btw, don’t be surprised if you hear multiple angsty stories from your friends and neighbors as the new translation gets closer. No matter how good the catechesis, it can’t help breaking open old wounds. People will be angry that things are changing and angry that they changed in the first place. So prepare yourselves mentally, and remember your own various feelings and thoughts on these topics at various times of life, so that you can have empathy with those at different points on the emotional and mental roller coaster.

  14. hzab says:

    This is extremely useful to know! I know a few ‘modernist’ Catholics who might soften their attitude towards traditional matters upon reading these things. Though it is strange to think that the words of a famous author would carry more weight to a Catholic than the Pope’s…

    And while I would agree that Prudentius’s statement has a harsh tone, using “but the liberals are worse!” isn’t really a good counterargument. I’ve seen mean-spirited remarks coming from both sides (calling the N.O. invalid, insults towards non-traditional priests). The best course of action is leading by example, so that people simply never get that impression in the first place. The thought shouldn’t be “at least it’s better than the ‘liberals'”. Some people really do give traditionalists a bad name, and that hurts us just as much as the extremists on the liberal side are helping us. Mean spirits do not win a theological debate…

  15. Childermass says:


    Where do you go about accusing people who prefer the EF of tending to be “pro-war, militaristic, nationalists”? I must say that among conservative Catholics, I’ve noticed that EF devotees tend to be no more supportive of the Bush administration than OF devotees (in fact, I think they tend to be less supportive, in my experience). Traditionalists tend to be more supportive of traditional Catholic social and economic teaching (subsidiarity, distributism, skepticism of capitalism and strong central states).

    As for your crack against Tolkien being a blue-blood and not the model of a “good Catholic” because of this, you are way off. His family origins were very ordinary, and his mother financially struggled after her husband died and the family disowned her when she converted to Catholicism while Tolkien was small. She later died while he was still a boy, and the orphaned Tolkien was taken under the wing of a kindly priest from Birmingham Oratory. He received his fine education from scholarships.

  16. TJM says:

    Prudentius, (What an ironic nom de plume) is engaged in projection and is likely a site troll from The National Catholic Reporter or Tablet. In my experience that’s where the nasties are from. Tom

    ps: I guess OF lovers are devotees of the Obama aka Abortion King (if one wants to engage in character assassination)

  17. Folks: I would just let the comments of Prudentius languish with a bit less attention.

  18. For what it’s worth, Sam Gamgee is the greatest Catholic in all literature. He’d have loved the TLM and distained the NO as something imposed on the Shire by Sharkey and his sallow-faced Southron ruffians. He would call Summorum Pontificum the beginnings of a good scouring – and the Gaffer would say so too.

  19. 4mercy says:

    I appreciate the comments of Tolkien and Waugh. I do not think it is elitist to quote brilliant men who had an ear for beauty when recalling the virtues of TLM. These are men who excelled in the written word, so to speak. I think a person manifests a sort of pride who would disregard their opinions on the (written) liturgy. They were catholics in good standing, as many of our newer “theologians” and “liturgists” are not. I know that Tolkien suffered a great deal for his faith. Thank you “Childermass” for your posting!

  20. Eric says:

    My grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English.

    My kinda guy.

  21. TJM says:


    On the occassions that I attend a vernacular Mass I generally say the responses and prayers in Latin, although I don’t shout them. Once the new translations come in I will probably say them in the vernacular because at least then they’re accurate.


  22. Mitchell NY says:

    While occasionally attending NO Mass, when the Priest says “The Lord be with You” I always answer in Latin “Et Cum Spititu Tuo”..It was my non-confrontational objection to the removal of all Latin and the mis translations.

  23. Prudentius says:

    Re the last two comments…Good for you, well done you must feel jolly pleased with your cleverness. How about this for an idea…I pop along to a TLM and give the responses in English? Like I say, a culture of disrespect and disobedience.

    So I must be imagining or making up all the rudeness and arrogance I have seen on these blogs? You can call me a names like a Troll if you like but you simply cannot deny the reality of the genuine concerns I have pointed out.

    The fact is, Tolkien’s first love was Language, he was known for his mastery of Mythology and it is this link to the TLM which is entirely negative. It gives the impression that the tradional liturgy is a form of Romanticism as if it was some kind of Battle re-enactment society. I urge you again to consider the point that certain medievalists, monarchist and those with a general interest old european social structures and culture are being drawn to the Latin Mass for entirely the wrong reasons. It would be prudent to address this would it not? Without calling me a troll, communist or a liberal can you concede that what I am saying is fair?

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