Thursday, 13 February 2014

Is Tolkien dangerous? Part I...

Rorate Caeli has stooped to a new low. The blogger Adfero posted the transcript of a conference on fantasy fiction and mythology the other day, in which the literary works of J.R.R Tolkien were subjected to heavy, fanatical criticism (usually through the medium of the writer Joseph Pearce) and disparaged as bethought it of Gnosticism, paganism, animism, modernism; any "ism" you like, and that they are quite simply not in keeping with Catholic tradition; the result being that millions of faithful Roman Catholics have been, and continue to be, "led astray" by them. I sometimes wonder whether the writers of that blog just enjoy upsetting people. It's bad enough that they have countenanced this veritable latrocinium in the first place, but to postulate its findings as worthy of consideration? Most people who read (and indeed write for!) Rorate Caeli are prejudiced, deluded morons but I gather that, for once, the response to this transcript by most readers was, more or less, in accord with my own; namely that the nonsensical conclusions drawn by the chair of this conference (a papist priest) are quite ridiculous, at which men do well to laugh, and a profound dishonour to an educated, faithful man of considerable greatness.

As someone who has devoted his life to J.R.R Tolkien I think I speak with some authority on this matter. I am not going to address each and every point raised by the conference (to which I shall hereafter refer as a latrocinium); some, like the constant references to Pearce (has the anonymous priest read anybody other than Pearce? There are better scholars out there, by far), and the moral lives of actors who played a part in the Peter Jackson trilogy, are not worth mentioning. Others, such as Tolkien's propriety as a Catholic author and whether his works are considered suitable reading material, are serious and warrant some rebuttal. As it has grown in the telling, I think there are going to be two (perhaps three) posts in a series.

You will look in vain to Tolkien's letters and the great corpus of the legendarium for some list of concepts, names, locations in Middle-earth (or even a confession) which, in Tolkien's unique spidery script, indicate which ones can be applied to whatever corresponding sacramental or moral concept in Roman Catholic theology. You cannot reduce Tolkien to a set of influences; if you do, you clearly don't think much of the fecundity of his imagination. The fact is that Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings as a means to win converts to Christianity. He was not in the business of evangelism or apologetics (he considered that to be the province of priests and religious) and, unlike C.S Lewis, thought better of littering his works with mythical beings and concepts drawn from a spectrum of classical mythology and philosophy, Norse myths, Christianity and the Finnish Kalevala. Catholic literature can legitimately serve other purposes than evangelism! Neither is The Lord of the Rings to be read in terms of the political climate in which it was written. Mordor is not Stalinist Russia, the Ring is not the atomic bomb, etc, etc. These are the fundamental premises on which genuine criticism and appreciation of Tolkien's works are built and if you simply bypass them, as this latrocinium has, then you might as well close the books and take them back to the shop - your integrity as a critic and a reader is thrown out. Moreover if you go about reading books written by prominent literary Christians with an eye solely for how in keeping with Catholic tradition they can be proved to be (you might even have at hand a copy of the Oath against Modernism), why not just save yourself the effort and stop reading altogether? Your discernment and literary taste are ostensibly wanting and one wonders whether you're entirely innocent of John 8:32:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

In other words, if you are so confident in the truth of your faith why have you not put away your fear? Surely if the Church fortifies you in faith, you can read anything? I suspect, however, that the opposite is the case and that for most people of this sort fearful ignorance is a desirable state. We all know that from ignorance and fear comes prejudice, and from prejudice a host of attitudes that have long troubled the world; and this is, I'm sorry to say, the quintessential Roman Catholic traditionalist and, I suspect, the sum of the anonymous priest's character too. They have a siege mentality and, as such, they have surrounded their abodes with fire. This, in turn, comes of a misguided exegesis of evangelical innocence as expounded of the Lord in Matthew 18, wherein Christ summoned a child unto the disciples amidmost and said he unto them:

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Annie Wilkes, the Trad reader?

The fundamental difference between evangelical innocence and plain ignorance is moral, not intellectual. Personally, I have always admired the principle implicit in the Humanism of Desiderius Erasmus; that there is an interpenetration betwixt intellectual and moral purity, and that therefore learning (of which reading is the chief part) is a moral activity. In other words to be wise with the wisdom of this world, to be well-read, is to be a better Christian. If The Lord of the Rings is dangerous, as this latrocinium claims, then surely reading it is a means of confirming your faith? In which case, the findings of this latrocinium are negligible from the word "go!"

But I have digressed. The anonymous priest who chaired this latrocinium raises a number of concerns about Tolkien's work which range from The Music of the Ainur (Tolkien's cosmogonical myth) to Gandalf's staff and ring (understood as channels of power). The Music of the Ainur, in both the narratives of the Lost Tales tradition and The Silmarillion, is a wonderful piece of literature comparable with elements in Plato and Boethius (cf. De institutione musica). Tolkien introduces Eru first, the almighty Godhead who is alone, the Alpha and Omega, who made first the Ainur, which are angelic spirits, reverend but not worshipful as the gods of heathen mythology. The angelic host sing of a godly theme propounded to them by Eru who, by his command, gives being to this theme (which is the world). Then begin the primeval battles of the Ainur with Melkor (Tolkien's Lucifer figure) for mastery of the world and the labours of sub-creation. What's so objectionable about this? The basic components of Christian theology are in place: God, the angels and the Diabolos. Well, the objection of the latrocinium is that The Music of the Ainur is not a verbatim re-telling of the Genesis Creation stories! It is "dangerous to our faith" because the Ainur are seen to participate in the work of creation, which, according to the latrocinium, is the work of creeping Gnosticism in Tolkien's work. Do I envision mass book-burnings here and the heaping of oprobrium upon centuries of Humanism? I mean, if these philistines are so ready to demonise Tolkien, why not cast off Homer and Vergil too? Homer and Vergil symbolise a legitimate basis for theology as much as the Bible, according to tradition! In the words of Dr Johnson:

All that sets us above savages comes from the shores of the Mediterranean.

Detail of the choirs of angels from the Cappella dei Magi in Florence.

I daresay. But the participation of the Ainur in the work of creation is an important theological point here. What the latrocinium fails to understand is that this creative power is derivative. Tolkien was emphatic about the metaphysical difference between creation as an act of divine will, and making, devising or sub-creating done with divine sanction and subject to certain commands and prohibitions. And so the creative power of the One, symbolised by the Flame Imperishable (or Secret Fire), is ostensibly different to the operations of the Ainur within the periphery of this world. Not one of the Ainur, not even Melkor the mightiest, uttered the word (Tolkien's equivalent of the Genesis "let there be," or the λόγος, if you will) in the deeps of time and thereby created the physical world and all things therein where before there was nothing. Aulë the Smith famously attempted to go beyond the themes of the Great Music, beyond the lawful bounds established by Eru, when, in secret, he fashioned the Dwarves in a cavern in Middle-earth; but he was swiftly rebuked by Eru who adopted the Dwarves into the themes of the Great Music only after Aulë abased himself and, weeping, offered to break the work of his presumption. But the way of the Dwarves to Aulë's heart was anticipation of Elves and Men and the love of creation. Contrast that with Melkor's lustful, impetuous search for the Flame Imperishable which came of his desire to be called "master" and to have subjects, to be thus thwarted in his naughty search and his subsequent resolve to have nothing, to ruin and destroy the work of creation because he can have no part in it. One of the most Christian principles inherent to the legendarium, from The Music of the Ainur even to The Lord of the Rings, is the profound and everlasting impotence of evil in creation - an indication of Tolkien's Boethian understanding of the nature of evil and established in Christian tradition.

Ted Nasmith's sketch of The Music of the Ainur.

The basic structure of The Music of the Ainur can be found in St Augustine's De Genesi ad litteram, his third commentary on Genesis. In both works God creates first the angelic host, shews to them the unfolding of creation; the knowledge of the angels reflects ideas in the divine mind and God reserves to himself the unfolding of themes in creation unlooked for in the initial design. In Tolkien, creation is conceived of as a chorus of divine praise, with an almost liturgical quality, a theme redolent of many works of art and iconography in Christendom. Musick is ever present in the legendarium and is oftentimes seen to be a manifestation of power. You find this in Yavanna's song which stimulated the growth of the Two Trees (so powerful that it commanded universal silence) or latterly in Meduseld when Gandalf sang of Dwimordene to stay Gimli's wrath; and there are many other examples besides. When their musick was complete Eru shewed to the Ainur a vision of their minstrelsy and they beheld the unfolding of creation as a light amidst the darkness. Even so, where Tolkien differs from Augustine is the manner in which the primeval chaos was formed into a world of trees, mountains and rivers. The Ainur are said to realise the vision of Eru by forming the world over a primeval period out of chaos, growing trees, carving out sea basins and raising mountains. The latrocinium claims this is Gnosticism. I would say that this is rather, in ethos, the synthesis of Tolkien's Augustinian understanding of Creation with elements drawn from the antient "harmony of the spheres" tradition. But that isn't quite enough. I put it to the latrocinium that if they find the participation of finite beings in creation so objectionable, why do they allow for the participation of a human being in the work of redemption?

To be continued...


  1. I've been eagerly anticipating your rebuttal of the Rorate article, and am delighted to see that it is to be presented in several detailed parts. One might be fooled, at first glance, into seeing the priest's didactic as coming from a position of strength, of attack. Yet the more I think on it, the more I come to perceive his entire disposition as one of intense, irrational fear - the poor wretch is sore afraid. I don't have the strength of will to comb through all that rot again, but I recall the man actually lists (among other things) "copernicanism"(!) as dangerous to the Faith. It's almost amusing to see a grown man rave against "myths" while arguing that the clearly mystical and largely symbolic language of the early Pentateuch should be taken as a reflection of the literal, physical reality of Creation. This spittle-flecked yank's faith in the Most High Lord is so fragile, so weak, he cannot or will not look beyond a simpleton child's interpretation of Biblical narrative and quails at the heliocentric understanding of Creation accepted by all serious ecclesial denominations for several centuries. Priceless.

    1. Thank you. You're absolutely right about the man's fear, which is a point I address in this post. The point is: Tolkien's work is not a tool for evangelism. He can't possibly have ever enjoyed reading (or listening, it seems) to Tolkien's stuff if he'd spend his whole life trying to work out how well it all tallies up with the Syllabus of Errors.

      One thing I didn't mention in this part was that the conference makes a mountain out of perceived elements of evolution in Tolkien but nothing at all of Tolkien's mythic "flat earth" cosmogony. So I am wondering whether this man adheres to a flat earth theory himself!

  2. I think it's very brave of you to make a well-reasoned rebuttal like this because I tried reading that article and I couldn't get past the nonsensical phrases and suggestions (God uses allegory! Therefore Tolkien must or he's not a Catholic!). Destroying one's copies of a book goes much too far in my opinion. There's nothing to be gained or learned from fear.

  3. There are no words available (in a public forum anyway) to express the utter confusion of thought found in this critique of Tolkien's writings. One wonders whether the author concerned has actually read any of them at all. But underlying everything seems to be an aversion to fiction itself - perhaps that explains his problem ...

  4. Well-done. Ken Craven, an American Catholic scholar has also written brilliantly on Tolkien, in an essay called 'Catholic Poem in Time of War: The Lord of the Rings' (I attempted to post the URL but the net nannies would not allow it. You can find it using a search engine or at catholiceducation dot org).