By Michael Austin
It’s been 40 years since J. R. R. Tolkien scholar Mike Witt received the letter. Today the single page enjoys a place in one of the world’s largest collections of Tolkien materials, at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and late last year it appeared in Volume 16 of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review published by West Virginia University Press.
The letter is an official historical document now, but in July of 1980,when Witt was an English teacher at Creighton Prep and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska Omaha, it was just a valued piece of personal correspondence.
When it arrived, Witt was finishing his master’s thesis on the influence of Catholicism in Tolkien’s writing, specifically The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. More than two months earlier, Witt had sent a chapter of his thesis to both Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter and Fr. Robert Murray, SJ, a personal friend of Tolkien’s and pre-publication reader of The Lord of The Rings.
Carpenter responded soon, assuring Witt that everything looked fine. But Fr. Murray’s constructive criticism appeared in a letter dated July 14, 1980, meaning Witt would have less than two weeks to make changes. Despite the time crunch, exacerbated by Witt’s other demands as a student, teacher, and father of two young children, he met his deadline.
“I do not recall being stressed,” says Witt, who will begin his 50th year as a teacher this fall, 44 of these years at Creighton Prep. “I do recall being disappointed that I had not made my argument entirely clear to a person very close to Tolkien. This disappointment re-energized me to follow Fr. Murray’s advice—to condense and rewrite parts of the last chapter.”
When Witt submitted his thesis on July 28, 1980, it could have been the end of the story. But as providence plays a part in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (a point raised in Witt’s thesis to support the influence of Catholicism on the work), so did it play a role in Witt’s life. Or did it?
The year was 2004, and Witt had driven from Omaha to Milwaukee to visit his son at Marquette—and to attend a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings. Witt’s interaction with two fellow scholars there led him to think that perhaps his thesis and the letters he had received from Fr. Murray, Carpenter, and Tolkien’s son, Fr. John Tolkien, belonged in the Tolkien collection at Marquette. Five years later, Witt made the donation.
Witt also met Tolkien scholar Richard West at the Marquette conference. West, a presenter that year, would reach out to Witt 15 years later, in 2019, for permission to publish the Fr. Murray letter in Volume 16 of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review.
“I would have attended the conference, no doubt, whether my son Jonathan was there or not,” Witt says. “But, as Tom Bombadil tells Frodo Baggins and his companions in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, ‘Just chance brought me then, if chance you call it.’”
Witt began researching his thesis in 1978, less than five years after Tolkien’s death. As West recognizes in the scholarly volume Tolkien Studies, Witt was one of the first people anywhere to recognize the Catholic influences on the English writer’s work.
“I think Tolkien would agree with St. Ignatius’s injunction to find God in all things, and one of these things is the genre of fantasy,” Witt says. “One should not dismiss Tolkien’s work because it is classified as fantasy. One can find truth in fantasy, and one can catch a glimpse of God. As Tolkien told C.S. Lewis, paraphrased in Carpenter’s Tolkien biography, ‘We have come from God...and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.’”