Joseph Pearce, Ignatius, 1999, 242 pages, $24.95
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Few writers and few books have inspired such extremes of opinion as J. R. R. Tolkien and the work that has become synonymous with his name, the fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings. Critics of the literary establishment certainly spared no insulting words when the first of the three-volume series arrived on the scene in 1954: “Escapist” was the most popular word hurled at it; “juvenile trash” Edmund Wilson called it; and, most devastatingly, one critic dubbed it “irrelevant.” Tolkien’s defenders, too, were not without their passion. Most notably, Tolkien’s friend, fellow Inkling, and colleague at Oxford, C. S. Lewis, admired the works and encouraged him more than any other individual. And hardly a month after the second volume was published in 1955, the poet W. H. Auden—exasperated by the especially vitriolic attacks—remarked, “If someone dislikes it I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again.”
Some four decades later, the fuss over Tolkien and his “hobbits” has abated somewhat, but the critical disdain and popular success still smoulder. In fact, the feelings have intensified. Just two years ago, The Lord of the Rings was overwhelmingly selected as the “greatest book of the century” by customers of Waterstone’s in a poll of 25,000 of the bookstore’s customers throughout England. On that occasion, the literati smugly remarked to the effect that it was “another black day for British culture.” One critic in particular wrote that the results “just show . . . the folly of teaching people to read,” while others speculated that Tolkien fans must have stuffed the ballot boxes. Those accusations were dismantled when two additional, independent polls, one of which was taken only by members of England’s Folio Society, overwhelmingly confirmed the results.
With no way out, popular literary critics began to take the poll’s results, and the author, more seriously. “The idea of a parallel world . . . ,” one critic mused, “I wonder whether it’s something to do with trying to make sense of the world around us.”
That, as Joseph Pearce would have it in Tolkien: Man and Myth, is precisely the point. Pearce looks at the whole of Tolkien’s work and at key events in his life as a guide to unveiling how Tolkien made sense of the world around us. He gives us the understanding of myth that lies at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the elaborate, subcreated reality that is the home of The Lord of the Ring’s elves, dwarves, hobbits, and men. Fans of Pearce’s recent biography of G. K. Chesterton, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton, should be warned that Pearce conceived this most recent work as more of a literary life, rather than a biography in the strictest sense.
Though the tale of Tolkien’s public reception is by no means the focus of the work, Pearce does devote a fair amount of attention to weaving the fascinating tale of both the approbation and opprobium surrounding the critical and public debate over The Lord of the Rings. He finds that the contention has often generated as much heat as light. But more importantly, Pearce gives us—straight from Tolkien’s pen—the two things that Tolkien’s fans take delight in and that so many of his critics have been missing all along:
There are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in “the Shire” in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic.
To be sure, Middle Earth gives no explicit mention of Christianity, thus seeming to contradict Tolkien’s claim in the above quote that his Christianity “can be deduced from [his] stories.” Pearce shows that, nonetheless, an orthodox Christian understanding of the cosmos is the cornerstone of Tolkien’s subcreated reality: Man (or elf or dwarf or hobbit) was created by God (the people of Middle Earth call him “Iluvatar”—the All-Father), and through the rebellion of Morgoth (a.k.a. Satan) and his temptation of the intelligent races, sin and death entered into the world.
Tolkien himself would only come consciously to realize this fact about his work in the long process of revising his first manuscripts. As Tolkien’s world and the myths that shaped it began to take form, he recognized that the fundamental truths that molded that world were, and had to be, the same as our own. So what started out as the hobby of an Oxford philologist and Old English scholar—the creation of a system of myths to account for an artificial “elven” language—gradually became a conscious, mythical representation of the truth about God and man.
One need only look to the story of Middle Earth’s creation to witness the beauty Tolkien invests in a simple, orthodox understanding of the world. The Silmarillion contains a collection of stories of the elves and their understanding of the world, its origin, and its end. Pearce remarks about it:
The Eden “myth” was at the very heart of Tolkien’s creation of The Silmarillion, as well as being at the very heart of the Creation myth contained within it. Tolkien’s longing for this lost Eden and his mystical glimpses of it, inspired and motivated by his sense of “exile” from the fullness of truth, was the source of his creativity. At the core of The Silmarillion, indeed at the core of all his work, was a hunger for the truth that transcends mere facts: the infinite and eternal Reality which was beyond the finite and temporal perceptions of humanity.
As stated before, the work is not particularly strong as biography. Rather, it focuses on a few of the most significant events in Tolkien’s life that buttress Pearce’s argument for Tolkien’s understanding of myth, but this is hardly blameworthy.
The most dramatic of the events Pearce examines occurred when Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and a friend were discussing the nature of myth while on a walk in 1931. Incidentally, it was an occurrence that played no small part in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. Lewis explained to the other two his belief that though they have a certain power, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
“No,” said Tolkien. “They are not lies.”
At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was “a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.” We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.
And this is how Tolkien understood his own Middle Earth, as “a splintered fragment of the true light.” And the light that shines through his stories, however dimly, he realized, was the light of Christ, the author of life and the principal player in a myth that really happened.
This review originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Crisis Magazine.