Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tolkien: Man and Myth, a review

One cannot afford to ignore Tolkien’s philosophical and theological beliefs, central as they are to his whole conception of Middle Earth and the struggles within it, but on the other hand one can enjoy Tolkien’s epic without sharing the beliefs which gave it birth.

—Joseph Pearce,
Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life

I love critical studies on J.R.R. Tolkien for many reasons. First and foremost I find them intensely interesting: They help illuminate the great depths of Tolkien’s works and enrich my subsequent readings of the source material, as all good works of criticism do. Secondarily, they serve as a bulwark against the absurd claims of the handful of critics who continue to label Tolkien’s works as childish, non-literary, or otherwise unworthy of study (perhaps petty of me, but there you have it).

Joseph Pearce’s critical study Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Literary Life (1998, Ignatius Press) may as well be titled Tolkien: Man and Myth, A Religious Life, as the author places most of his emphasis on and offers his greatest insights into the deep, abiding Catholicism of the author of The Lord of the Rings. It's an engaging, readable, and lively introduction to Tolkien, providing a nice summation of his life, letters, and existing critical works about the author, while managing to break some new ground in a fairly saturated field.

Having previously read Tom Shippey’s two exhaustive and highly recommended studies of Tolkien (The Road to Middle Earth and Author of the Century), along with a handful of other critical works, some of Pearce's book was familiar and seemed to retread old ground. For example, Tolkien: Man and Myth provides biographical details on Tolkien’s life that are readily available and more fleshed out in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography. It provides a summation and commentary on the mixed and often harsh critical reaction to The Lord of the Rings, both when it was first published in the mid-1950’s and again when it was voted as the book of the century in the late 1990’s. Again, Shippey covers the same material in Author of the Century (though to be fair, Pearce beat Shippey to the punch, as the latter was published three years after Pearce’s book).

Where Pearce’s book distinguishes itself from Shippey is providing additional illumination on two facets of Tolkien’s character: His deep and abiding religious faith, and his love for his family. Both aspects inform and inspire Tolkien’s works, yet are often deemphasized.

Most of the critical works I’ve read have identified the following as the primary inspirations for Middle Earth: Tolkien’s love of languages and Anglo-Saxon literature, his wartime years, and his desire to make a foundational myth to replace England’s early heritage, which was largely lost during the Norman conquest. Tolkien: Man and Myth reminds us that Tolkien’s simple love of stories, first expressed in his detailed “Father Christmas” letters to his sons John, Michael, and Christopher, and his daughter Priscilla, started him down the path to The Hobbit and his later tales. Writes Pearce:

When Tolkien scrawled ‘in a hole in the ground there lived hobbit’, the opening sentence of The Hobbit in around 1930, he was writing for the amusement of his children as well as for the amusement of himself. Indeed, it is fair to assume that if Tolkien had remained a bachelor and had not been blessed with children he would never have written either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps he would have written The Silmarillion, but in all probability it would never have been published.

In addition to the influence of his family, Tolkien’s friendships also spurred him to write. Chapters 4 and 5 of Pearce’s book (“True Myth: Tolkien and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis” and “A Ring of Fellowship: Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings”) explore Tolkien’s fecund friendship with C.S. Lewis, which provided Tolkien with an invaluable sounding board. Lewis was a constant friendly ear, listening to Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings aloud, chapter by chapter. When Tolkien faltered, Lewis urged him on.

Lewis was an agnostic when he first met Tolkien. But by convincing him of the “true myth” of the Gospels, Tolkien played a critical role in his conversion to Christianity. Tolkien explained that myths are not falsehoods, but are a means of conveying otherwise inexpressible truths. For example, although Middle Earth is fictional, it reveals truths about the human condition and our relation to God, and thus is a form of "truth."

Chapters 6 and 7 (“The Creation of Middle Earth”, “Orthodoxy in Middle Earth”) are the highlights of Tolkien: Man and Myth. Here Pearce contends that Middle Earth, though a fantastic world and bereft of any overt references to religion or god(s), fits neatly into the Christian conception of creation and the Christian universe. Though acknowledging Tolkien’s disdain for allegory, Pearce notes that the Christian doctrine of the Fall is given allegorical treatment in The Silmarillion (e.g., Melkor is Middle Earth’s equivalent of Lucifer, Manwe is the archangel Michael, etc.). The Silmarillion is “the myth behind the man, moulding [Tolkien’s] creative vision.” Writes Pearce:

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.

Pearce expands upon this theistic reading of The Lord of the Rings in “Orthodoxy in Middle Earth,” in which he compares Frodo’s carrying of the One Ring to Christ’s burden of the Cross, and Sam’s unassuming heroism to Christian exaltation of the humble. Likewise, the examples of Sam, Boromir, and Gandalf embody the Christian value of self-sacrifice.

Death in Middle Earth also mirrors its Christian conception, notes Pearce. While elves are immortal, their deathlessness is as much as a curse as a boon. Death is a gift given to men by Iluvatar, the creator. But because it is shrouded in mystery (“a grey rain-curtain”) and corrupted by Melkor, man fears it as he fears the unknown. “To both writers [Lewis and Tolkien] this world was but a land of shadows, a veil of tears as well as a vale of tears, which shielded mortal men from the fullness of the light of God,” Pearce writes.

There is more to recommend in Tolkien: Man and Myth, including a touching look at Tolkien’s final years (“Approaching Mount Doom”), but again this is material I’ve seen covered elsewhere. It is the examination of Tolkien’s spirituality which makes Tolkien: Man and Myth a commendable work, and highly recommended.


David J. West said...

"For example, although Middle Earth is fictional, it reveals truths about the human condition and our relation to God, and thus is a form of "truth."

Excellent! This is exactly why Tolkien and REH are not just escapism (in the snobbish literary sense) to me but have dramatic lessons contained-whether freedom and individuality or even the triumph over incredible adversity, all told in the most entertaining way possible.

Brian Murphy said...

Agreed, David. It's hard to label an author whose works grappled with the human condition--albeit in a mythical world--as being an "escapist."

James Maliszewski said...

A small correction: Tolkien was instrumental in Lewis's conversion to Christianity, but Lewis never became a Catholic. Indeed, he retained an atavistic prejudice against Catholicism, despite his friendship with Tolkien.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi James, you're right, that was me substituting Catholicism for Christianity unconsciously. Pearce's book has that correct.

I'll make the change.