Taking to Tolkien
It is an exciting time to be an admirer of J. R. R. Tolkien. Whereas the reputation of many of Tolkien’s literary contemporaries appears to be on the wane, his own formidable reputation continues to increase.
The Tolkienian renaissance began in 1997 with the emergence of The Lord of the Rings as “the greatest book of the century” in several opinion polls. Then, in 2001, the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s three film adaptations of Tolkien’s masterpiece introduced the wonders of Middle Earth to millions of new admirers around the world. Now, half a century after the book’s initial publication, it is selling in greater numbers than ever. Such is Tolkien’s towering presence that even the phrase “literary phenomenon” appears something of an understatement which fails to do him justice.
It is gratifying to know that the growth in Tolkien’s popularity has been reflected by a similar growth in the quantity and, for the most part, in the quality of Tolkien scholarship. Recently Bradley J. Birzer’s J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (ISI Books) and Richard L. Purtill’s Myth, Morality and Religion in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Ignatius Press) have added considerably to the breadth and depth of the critical approach to Tolkien studies. And these two volumes are only la crème de la crème of the plethora of new titles in the field. A Hidden Presence: The Catholic Imagination of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Father Ian Boyd and Stratford Caldecott is another. Since this is the case, one might be forgiven for asking whether there is any need for more of the same. The answer to such a question might be that there is always room for more as long as they are not the same. More, yes; but more of the same, no.
Boyd and Caldecott are perhaps best known as scholars of G. K. Chesterton, and the book itself is published by the recently launched publishing division of the Chesterton Institute of which Boyd and Caldecott are luminaries. This, however, is not to detract from their position as scholars of Tolkien. On the contrary, both are well qualified and Caldecott, in particular, is a Tolkien scholar of rare insight. Take, for instance, his succinct definition of mythopoeia in his Introduction to A Hidden Presence:
Mythopoeia is the faculty of making, of creativity, and it is an essential part of our humanity. Escapism in a sense it may be, but in this case we are talking (as Tolkien puts it in his essay on Fairy Stories) of an escape into reality. It is the world of the everyday—boring, banal, dull, meaningless—that is the prison from which this kind of fantasy seeks to liberate us, not by distracting us from the real but by showing us the deeper patterns and meanings that lie concealed within it.
Again, from the same Introduction, this is what Caldecott has to say about the paradoxical realism at the typological heart of mythology: “Tolkien’s imagined beings and characters are neither caricatures nor stereotypes. If anything, they are archetypes. Their larger-than-life quality is necessary, for ‘they have their insides on the outside: they are visible souls.’ That is all part of the realism of myth.”
Apart from writing the introduction, Caldecott is the author of the first of the dozen or more essays that grace this volume. He is also the first of several writers in A Hidden Presence to refer to the significance of the date on which the Ring is destroyed: March 25th. The significance of this date will not escape the attention of Catholics, though it is certainly overlooked all too often by Tolkien’s non-Christian admirers. Tom Shippey, an Anglo-Saxon scholar and Tolkien expert, states in his book, The Road to Middle Earth, that in ‘Anglo-Saxon belief, and in European popular tradition both before and after that, 25 March is the date of the Crucifixion’. It is also, of course, the Feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of the Absolute Centre of all History as the moment when God Himself became Incarnate as Man. As a Catholic, Tolkien was well aware of the significance of ‘the twenty-fifth of March’. It signified the way in which God had ‘unmade’ Original Sin, the Fall, which, like the Ring, had brought humanity under the sway of the Shadow. On the twenty-fifth of March the One Sin, like the One Ring, had been ‘unmade’, destroying the power of the Dark Lord.
The theme of the Catholic novel is taken up by Owen Dudley Edwards in an essay entitled “Gollum, Frodo and the Catholic Novel.” At times, Edwards’ efforts to forge critical connections between The Lord of the Rings and the novels of other Catholic writers, such as Mauriac, Bernanos, Greene, and Waugh, are too carelessly, or at least too briefly, argued. The result is that his conclusions appear a trifle tenuous. Similarly, his discussion of the analogous relationship between The Lord of the Rings and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is frustratingly incomplete. He is also at pains to point out the inspiration that Tolkien indubitably gained from the Greek classical tradition without balancing his analysis with an acceptance that Norse and Celtic mythology were at least as important as catalysts to Tolkien’s imagination. Thus, for instance, he reminds us, in relation to Bilbo’s riddle competition with Gollum in The Hobbit, that “the story of Oedipus involves a riddle-contest with the Sphinx” whilst at the same time failing to allude to the rich riddle-tradition of the Anglo-Saxons. For the most part, however, Edwards’ essay offers valuable illumination of the literary landscape within which The Lord of the Rings was written. Perplexingly, many of his most poignant points are relegated to the footnotes at the end of his essay as, for instance, his berating of Edwin Muir for “snobbishly” abusing Tolkien, adding, quite correctly, that a poet of Muir’s caliber and sensibility “should have known better.”
Verlyn Flieger’s essay is the low-point of the volume. On occasion, her efforts at sociological reductionism reduce her analysis to the level of the inane. Furthermore it is clear that she has no sympathy with, and no comprehension or conception of, the theological depths from which Tolkien drew the inspiration for his myth-making. Her claim that Tolkien’s history in Middle-Earth “begins in imperfection” is quite simply wrong, according to any critical criteria. It begins with God! Similarly her claim that God in Middle-Earth “is a curiously remote and for the most part inactive figure, uninvolved, with the exception of one cataclysmic moment, in the world he has conceived” is not only erroneous but is plainly contradicted on numerous occasions by the analyses of the other contributors to the volume. Her essay protrudes like an awkward-looking sore thumb from the rest of the book, to such an extent that one has to question the wisdom of its inclusion in the first place.
Perhaps the finest essay in the whole collection is that by Leonie Caldecott. It is not merely what she says which is so delightful but the wonderful way in which she says it. I wish, in fact, that space permitted citation at length, particularly of the concluding three paragraphs of her essay. Entitled “At Dawn, Look to the East,” the prose is as bright and as fresh as the dawn itself.
There is much else besides. There are “Perspectives” by those who knew Tolkien personally, including George Sayer and Robert Murray S.J., and an essay by the exceptionally gifted wordsmith, Peter Kreeft, which was originally published in the Saint Austin Review, a cultural journal of which the present reviewer is honored to be co-editor. Two essays on Fairy-Tales by Chesterton serve as an appropriate appendix to the volume, reiterating the deep-rooted creative affinity between G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien. Taken as a whole, and flaws notwithstanding, A Hidden Presence deserves a place of honor in any discerning Tolkien-lover’s library.
Joseph Pearce is Writer in Residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria College, Naples, Florida. He is the author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, both published by Ignatius Press.
Posted: January 31, 2006