The Venerable Bede translates the Gospel of John on his deathbed (James Doyle Penrose, “The Last Chapter”, 1902)
Picture the scene. An expectant audience, which includes the great Catholic writer, J. R. R. Tolkien, awaits the arrival of another great Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc, the latter of whom has been invited by the University chaplain, Monsignor Ronald Knox, to give a talk to the Catholic chaplaincy at Oxford University. Seated just behind Tolkien as Belloc gives his talk is the celebrated Jesuit, Fr. Martin D’Arcy, who records what subsequently transpired in his memoirs:
In his talk Belloc came out with one of his pet themes: that the Anglo-Saxons were utterly unimportant in the history of England. Now, there was present on this occasion a man who was probably the greatest authority in the world on Anglo-Saxon subjects and was the professor of Anglo-Saxon history [sic] at the time. He is presently professor of English Literature at Oxford. The man’s name is Tolkien, and he was a very good Catholic ….
Well, Tolkien disagreed profoundly with Belloc on the question of the Anglo-Saxons. He was sitting just in front of me, and I saw him writhing as Belloc came out with some of his more extreme remarks. So during the interval, I said to him, “Oh, Tolkien, now you’ve got your chance. You’d better tackle him.” He looked at me and said, “Gracious me! Do you think I would tackle Belloc unless I had my whole case very carefully prepared?” He knew Belloc would always pull some fact out of his sleeve which would disconcert you!
Now, that was a tremendous tribute from probably the greatest authority in the world at the time on that particular subject.
Although Belloc and Tolkien had much in common, not least of which was their shared and impassioned Catholicism, it is intriguing that they should differ so profoundly on the importance of the Anglo-Saxons.
Belloc’s view of history, for the most part astute and penetrative, was always skewed by a less-than-balanced Francophilia and an almost shrill Germanophobia. This was evident in his dismissive disregard of the contribution to Christian culture of the Germanic tribes of England prior to the Norman Conquest and his lauding of the Conquest itself as having brought England into the fullness of Christendom which was always, for Belloc, synonymous with the influence of France.
In contrast, Tolkien considered Anglo-Saxon England to have been idyllically Christian. Had he had his “whole case very carefully prepared” to counter Belloc’s attack on the Anglo-Saxons, he might have shown that Anglo-Saxon England was profoundly Catholic, to such a degree that the saintly Englishman, Boniface, had helped to evangelize Pagan Europe, while his contemporary, the truly venerable Bede, had exhibited the high culture that Saxon England enjoyed in abundance.
Whilst the former converted the Germans to Christ, the latter excelled in Latin and Greek, and classical and patristic literature, as well as Hebrew, medicine and astronomy. Bede also wrote homilies, lives of saints, hymns, epigrams, works on chronology and grammar, commentaries on the Old and New Testament, and, most famously, his seminal Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum which was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred the Great. At the time of his death in 735 Bede had just finished translating the Gospel of St. John into Anglo-Saxon. Almost six hundred years later, Dante expressed his own admiration for Bede’s achievement by placing him in the Paradiso of his Divina Commedia.
In addition, had Tolkien decided to accept the gauntlet that Belloc had thrown down, he might have added a host of other Anglo-Saxon saints, from St. Edmund to St. Edward the Confessor, the latter of whom was eulogized by Shakespeare in Macbeth.
And, of course, Tolkien could have pointed to the literary legacy of Anglo-Saxon England, of which he was possibly the world’s leading authority. From the epic sweep of Beowulf and the didactic piety of “The Dream of the Rood” to the somber contemplation of mortality and mutability in “The Ruin,” “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer,” Tolkien could have waxed lyrical as Belloc’s argument waned.
There’s no doubt that the historical question of whether the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 can be considered a good or a bad thing for England in particular or for Christendom in general is a question worth asking, perhaps even answering. What is not in question is the Christian character of Anglo-Saxon England, in terms of the saints and the literature she produced. Pace Belloc, Tolkien could have shown that England, prior to the Conquest, was a beacon of Christian enlightenment which was not in need of the baptism of blood which the Normans unleashed at the battle of Hastings.