By Rebecca Price
“Jackson’s become Smaug; he suffers from the dragon sickness,” renowned biographer Joseph Pearce quipped regarding the filmmaker’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit.” Pearce said he didn’t even go see the second installment of the movie because his feelings toward the first one were “unadulteratedly negative.”
On Feb. 27, Pearce visited Asbury for a few short hours to finish filming a documentary with Dr. Brown and Professor Bandy on the life of Christian poet Francis Thompson, the author of “The Hound of Heaven.” According to Brown, the film does not have a title yet.
As an authority on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien and arguably the most famous living Catholic biographer, Pearce has written over 30 books of biography and criticism on a variety of authors ranging from Oscar Wilde and Solzhenitsyn to Shakespeare.
Pearce has also just been commissioned to write a book on Pope Benedict the 16th, and he is presently working on “Frodo’s Journey,” a sequel to his book, “Bilbo’s Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning in The Hobbit.” Currently, he is a Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College, a small Catholic school in New Hampshire.
However, while the figure who sat in Brown’s office chair wore a sharp suit with a silver crucifix on the lapel, Pearce wasn’t always so Catholic or clean-cut. From the ages of 15 to 25, he was an active member of the white supremacy movement in Northern Ireland as well as the Ulster Volunteer Force, the counter-movement to the Catholic IRA.
During the time that Pearce spent as a young political activist, he was also an avid reader. “The author I’m most indebted to under grace is G.K. Chesterton because it’s his influence that led me to conversion,” Pearce said. He explained that “The Outline of Sanity” and “The Well of the Shallows” by Chesterton caused him to start thinking about God.
After this first encounter with Chesterton, Pearce served a year-long sentence in jail, which he spent at Stanford Hill Prison in solitary confinement. In his autobiography, “Race with the Devil,”
Pearce recalled that “most prisoners are scared of solitary confinement because they do not know … the comfort and company to be found in the authors of books…. It is due to this delightful company of the dead that I look back with a good deal of fondness to the time that I spent in solitary confinement.”
While Pearce was in prison, he read extensively and encountered “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy for the first time. This series remains one of his favorite works of literature to this day. He also read Chesterton a second time, which led Pearce to his decision to walk away from his political life and follow Christ. And so he did and has ever since.
Pearce described that Tolkien has a depth of Christianity in his work that is seldom found elsewhere in religious literature. “It’s in such a subtle way – it’s not evangelizing in an overt, preachy, didactic way,” he explained. “It just subsumes itself within the very fabric of the work.”
Of all of the characters Pearce has come across in his extensive reading of “The Lord of the Rings,” his favorite is Treebeard, a tree-like creature called an Ent who Merry and Pippin meet in “The Two Towers.” “I’m an eccentric,” he admitted. Pearce sees the Ent as a complex metaphor for the church. “What you see in Treebeard is tradition incarnate,” he said. “Tradition in terms of culture and history and ecclesiology and entomology…. Basically the continuum – the tree of culture, the tree of life.”
However, Pearce acknowledged that people often point out the dissimilarities between the Catholic and Protestant church. That being said, he explained that “what we find in the great works of Christian literature is that 95 percent overlaps.”
He went on to explain that, although Tolkien was Roman Catholic, Protestants aren’t going to read “The Lord of the Rings” and have a problem with it theologically. “It’s what we have in common that unites Christian literature across the divide and transcends the differences,” he emphasized.
In a sense, Pearce sees himself as a tree, too, which explains why he relates to Treebeard so much. And, like a tree, he said, “I am a composite of my experience – of my memory.”
For that reason, Pearce pointed out that he regrets the way he behaved before he was a believer, “especially those aspects of my past where I caused suffering to others.”
However, he also said that his past led him to the cross, which he will always be thankful for. “I may regret things I did on the path, but the path itself brought me to Christ,” Pearce explained, “and insofar as the path brought me to Christ, I have to be grateful for the path.”