JRR Tolkein: Myth, Morality and Religion - Richard Purtill

 LONDON - 9 June 2003 - 963 words

JRR Tolkein: Myth, Morality and Religion - Richard Purtill

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2003

In 1997, The Lord of the Rings won JRR Tolkien the accolade of 'Greatest Writer of the Twentieth Century' in a survey run by the British Press. At the same time, critics of his major work have called it fascist, racist, sexist and puerile, a work of 'stupefying boredom' that can only send the intelligent reader into fits of giggling. At a time when interest in Tolkien has been re-ignited by the Lord of the Rings films, Ignatius Press present a new edition of a work published in 1984 by the emeritus professor of philosophy at Western Washington University. This is certainly not in the genre of glossy picture book-to-accompany-the-films, but asks serious questions about Tolkien as the Catholic author of a body of fantasy fiction that embodies but never alludes directly to profound theological questions.

It is not a book to be read for entertainment, and Tolkien fans in search of another fix may find the weighty discussions of the first four chapters taxing, but as a philosopher, Purtill is engaging with serious questions in a serious academic tradition. The book is accessible to the non-academic, however, and those who love Tolkien will enjoy the discussion of his handling of such issues as heroism, virtue, death, free will and creation with reference both to Tolkien's books and his private letters.

Some fans have fallen in love with Tolkien's oeuvre because of the meticulous complexity of background material, born of his erudition as an academic philologist. But Tolkien himself insisted that his being a Catholic was more influential on his books than his being a linguist, and that the religious dimension was the most significant factor underpinning the moral vision of Middle Earth.

Taking a myth to be a story of heroes with a religious or moral purpose, Tolkien set out to write a literary myth that encompassed moral and religious truth or error, but in a way that was not explicit. The abiding popularity of his fantasies suggests that this has found deep echoes in the hearts of his readers, many of whom would not be open to explicit confessional truth. He himself described Lord of the Rings as 'a fundamentally religious and Catholic work' in which religion was 'absorbed into the story and symbolism'. But whether or not what he wrote is actually Christian in any sense at all is one of the main questions Purtill poses.

Tolkien said that the real centre of the book was death and immortality, or the desire for deathlessness, and the discussion of this, particularly with reference to the Elves, and to Tolkien's darker, more fragmented work The Simarillion is one of the most interesting sections of the book. Most topical in our present day is Tolkien's treatment of the question of fighting evil with evil. His perception that the moral dilemmas at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell mirrored some of those during World War II would find echoes in the aftermath of September 11th and the War in Iraq.

Purtill counters accusations that fantasy literature as a genre offers only one-dimensional, simplistic characters in his assessment of the moral complexity of the Elves and characters like Gollum and Frodo. The egomania of Denethor and Saruman is contrasted with repentant sinners like Boromir or hero 'saints' like Sam and Frodo, whose via crucis leads them to participation in the final saving act through redemptive suffering.

Purtill gives particular weight to the subtlety of Tolkien's treatment of moral decisions, a repeated pattern in the book, where strong and weak, heroic and villainous characters alike are faced with choices that will determine their fate and that of the world in a collective sense. Tolkien fans are notoriously exacting, as film director Peter Jackson has found to his cost, and it is curious that Ignatius Press did not pick up niggling errors like misspelling of names or incorrect attribution of relationship between characters. Feminist readers have criticized Tolkien for his meagre and stereotypical treatment of women in his books. Purtill acknowledges this and tries manfully to restore some balance, though whether his own descriptions of 'typical' male and female virtues rectifies Tolkien or simply falls into the same trap is questionable. But his discussion of the character couplets who embody both sides of a choice: Frodo/Gollum, Gandalf/Saruman, Galadriel/Fëanor is fascinating from both the literary and theological perspectives, and are enough to satisfy the philosophical enquirer as well as Tolkien obsessives.

Is Tolkien's work indeed the 'expression of God's truth in new form'? Some critics of his work have found it profoundly pessimistic and depressing, offering not, as Tolkien suggested, a 'denial of universal, final defeat' and a 'fleeting glimpse of joy' but a vision of ultimate salvation so dismally conditional that no one could truly desire it. His decision to make no explicit reference to religion may have allowed discussions of serious moral and theological problems to take place in the minds of many who are otherwise closed to such considerations. But it also lays him open to the question of whether a good society can exist without reference to God. In Gondor, Rivendell and the Shire they might well have thought so, but St. Augustine would not have thought he had found the city of God in Minas Tirith.

Purtill makes the odd suggestion, for a professional philosopher, that 'those who love Tolkien tend to be nicer people than those who hate him'. However this assertion could possibly be tested, and whether or not it could stand the test, those interested in what lies behind the continuing popularity of his books will find this discussion of myth, morality and religion in Tolkien a good place to start.

Gemma Simmonds

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