Lord of the Rings & Philosophy

Ross Barlow

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Review of *The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All*. 2003. edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson. Open Court Publishing.

Reviewed by Ross Barlow.

This is Volume #5 in a very interesting series from Open Court called “Popular Culture and Philosophy.” Series editor is William Irwin. (I posted earlier about this overall series under a different topic title. If you are curious about the nature of this Open Court series then this will be a good in-depth example.)

The book is dedicated: “To the entwives, wherever they may roam.” If this resonates with you, you may well love this book.

If you are familiar with and enjoy J.R.R. Tolkien’s *The Lord of the Rings* and if you either have some small experience in reading philosophy or want to plunge into a widely diverse selection of philosophical writings for the first time, this book is a delight. There are 17 contributing authors, all of whom are professional philosophers and/or theologians who love Tolkien’s works and know them intimately. Each essay is about 10 pages.

Because of the variety of philosophical viewpoints here, you will not agree with every essay. Indeed, I do not agree with even Tolkien on many points. You will find existentialists, theologians, greens, Aristotelians, and representatives from many other viewpoints. But every essay is interesting and thoughtful. I have always considered it to be fruitful to read philosophers and philosophies that I am in disagreement with. I consider this in many cases to be an exercise in “mind-stretching,” although in some cases it does seem more like being stretched upon the torture rack. Good for the mind, at any rate. (“That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche.)

I am very much a fan of Tolkien. Before reading this book for the first time, I had read Tolkien’s *The Hobbit* and *The Lord of the Rings* (TLOTR) a number of times. I watched the excellent Peter Jackson films of TLOTR more times than I can count, along with the extra “Appendices” special feature interviews and commentaries in the Special Extended DVD Editions. Also, I have had the benefit throughout the years of many conversations with family members who are longtime diehard Tolkien fans.

This volume of *TLOTR and Philosophy* was very understandable with my basic background of Tolkien reading (along with my undergraduate major studies in philosophy). But the authors also mention some of Tolkien’s other writings, *The Silmarillion* in particular, as well as material from his letters and essays. So, after I read this volume of *TLOTR and Philosophy*, I went on to read *The Silmarillion*, which is a much different reading experience, as it is rather unfinished and more like an epic than the adult fairy tale that TLOTR is. But it did give me a richer background on Tolkien’s fictional history of the elves and early Middle Earth, and I enjoyed it tremendously. After reading this, I then re-read the volume of essays reviewed here. The second reading was substantially more interesting and enlightening.

My review follows.

Part I: The Ring.

Chapter 1: The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality. By Eric Katz.

(I will state from the start that I think it is inexcusable that there is no mention in this entire volume about Lord Acton’s maxim on power: “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In a story about the One Ring to Rule Them All with all of its seductive and corrosive power, I was very disappointed not to come across what I thought was an important and obvious point. Perhaps my life-long libertarian background made me assume that everyone knew this maxim. Perhaps also the editors did not want contention over politics to darken the mood of the book.)

In this first essay, Eric Katz reminds us of Plato’s tale of Gyges’ Ring (in *The Republic*), which makes its wearer invisible. Gyges finds the ring and uses its cloak of invisibility to seduce the queen and kill the king. Katz writes: “Plato’s question to us is whether or not one should be a moral person even if one has the power to be immoral with impunity. Does immense power destroy the need to be a moral person?” (p.6) He gives a brief outline of Plato’s story and the arguments surrounding it.

Then Katz discusses how various characters in TLOTR deal with the seductive power of The One Ring, the Ring of Power. Tom Bombadil is not affected at all by the Ring, and he alone can still see Frodo when Frodo is wearing the Ring and is invisible to everyone else. Galadriel refuses to take the Ring. Gandalf will not take it. (But these characters are not mortals.) Among mortals, Gollum is destroyed by it and obsessed with it. Sam will not keep it. Boromir is seduced by it, thinking that he is strong enough to wield it for good purposes. Aragorn will not take it. (One might also note that, in the book version, Faramir will not take it either; also, Bilbo gives it up, although reluctantly.) And poor Frodo…. The personal choices of all these characters are examined very well.

Chapter 2: The Cracks of Doom: The Threat of Emerging Technologies and Tolkien’s Rings of Power. By Theodore Schick.

The title gives you a good idea of the subject matter, and I will not say much more about it.

Chapter 3: “My Precious”: Tolkien’s Fetishized Ring. By Alison Milbank.

Milbank provides a very interesting discussion of TLOTR in light of Freud’s theories on fetishism, in light of feminist theories, and even in light of Marxist alienation theory. She has interesting thoughts on “rings” and “things” in Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythologies, with a great analysis of Northern language (which was Professor Tolkien’s domain). She explores the “wonder” of natural things and our connections to them.

Part II: The Quest for Happiness. [i liked all of this Part very much.]

Chapter 4: Tolkien’s Six Keys to Happiness. By Gregory Bassham.

This is a great chapter. Bassham reminds us that Hobbiton, Rivendell, and Lothlorien (a.k.a. Lorien) are happy places, so he asks us to consider what their inhabitants might teach us about “the secrets of true happiness and fulfillment.” (p.49) He finds six important lessons.

1. Delight in Simple Things. He notes that hobbits “have no real government.” (I remember reading or hearing somewhere that Tolkien considered himself to be a “Christian anarchist,” if I am not mistaken.) Elves love to sing and to gaze at the stars. Bassham brings in insights from psychological theories and studies. He talks of the simple pleasures recommended by Epicurus. We are also reminded of Thoreau – “the great American apostle of simplicity” – who told his readers to “simplify, simplify.” (p.51)

2. Make Light of your Troubles. Bassham tells us that this is one of “The Quaker Dozen” rules to live by, and that hobbits have this virtue, as did Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher.

3. Get Personal. High praise is given to Aristotle’s *Nicomachean Ethics* in relation to his discussion of friendship and its role in the fulfilled life. Recent psychological studies are cited to reinforce the point. Bassham writes: “No doubt if some hobbit-Aristotle had written his or her *Nicomachean Ethics*, the goods of friendship and connectedness would have featured at least as prominently s they do in Aristotle’s version.” (p.55)

4. Cultivate Good Character. In a letter, Tolkien wrote that one aim of writing TLOTR was “the encouragement of good morals.” (p.55; from Tolkien’s *Letters*) (One might add here that this kind of cultivation of good character is also an important theme in Aristotle’s ethics.)

5. Cherish and Create Beauty. The elves in Tolkien’s books are tall, graceful, wise, and beings of incredible beauty. (For equivalents in Ayn Rand’s works, I think of Ragnar and Kay.) In Tolkien, creativity is also essential to the happy life. (Again, I am reminded of similarities in Rand, who considered productivity to be among the greatest of virtues.)

6. Rediscover Wonder. Tom Bombadil is in a continual state of rapturous wonder, and it is inexhaustible for him since he is ancient beyond all the memory of others. Bassham says that the elves have “an almost endless appetite for poetry, song, gazing at the stars, and walking in sunlit forests.” (p.58) They see things with “ever-fresh wonder and delight.” (In this description of the elves, I get a sense of zen.) Bassham quotes Tolkien, from an important separate essay of his entitled “On Fairy-Stories,” where Tolkien talks of “recovery,” a regaining of a sense of freshness, of a “clear view,” “so that things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity.” It is a “return and renewal of health.” (p.59) For Tolkien, fairy tales like TLOTR can be healing.

Chapter 5: The Quests of Sam and Gollum for a Happy Life. By Jorge J.E. Gracia.

I like this essay even though I only agree partially with the author on a few things. What I do like is his frequent references to Aristotle, e.g., the point that true happiness depends on one’s nature, on the kind of being one is. Gollum has “no resources, no friends.” He has no friends because “he has no love for himself,” and Aristotle is quoted to support this idea. Gracia says, “Gollum lacks this self-love.” (p.70)

Chapter 6: Farewell to Lorien: The Bounded Joy of Existentialists and Elves. By Eric Bronson.

I love this essay. (Note: The two philosophers of whom I have read most of their works – and have also read those works with the most care and intensity -- are Rand and Nietzsche; my picture of Nietzsche is close to that given by Bronson here.)

Grace, beauty, serenity and wisdom are the striking attributes of elves. Elvin songs are joyful, and all the creations of their artistry are of incredible beauty. Galadriel is the Lady of Lorien (a.k.a. Lothlorien). She is more powerful, wiser, older and more experienced than all the other elves of Middle Earth.

The elves are virtually immortal. They live on for thousands of years. They can die in battle or by a similar mortal injury, but there is some kind of reincarnation involved where they still keep all their memories. Elves can also die of a “world-weariness” that makes life unbearable.

Galadriel has a hint of sadness, for she remembers the rebellion long, long ago in the paradise across the sea to the far West of Middle Earth. She remembers a great Golden Age when elves lived in the West among the god-like Valar, a time when there were no blemishes at all on their happiness and innocence. There was a Fall involved in this earlier elf history, and Galadriel remembers it. It was an act of hubris, disobedience and rebellion that took place when her elf-clan decided to leave the Western paradise and travel to Middle Earth in order to fight evil. (This story you will find in *The Silmarillion*.) Galadriel did not take the treasonous oath that her kinsmen took, but she came with them in exile to Middle Earth, thus she shares somewhat in their rebellion. The memory of this episode taints the joy of elves in Middle Earth with just a hint of sadness. They have an echo of yearning for the West. (p.75)

Bronson describes how “Galadriel presides over Lorien with songs of joy…. But it is a happiness born of sorrow and dispossession, and that is why Tolkien can be placed in a wider tradition of European philosophers who still affirm life, while bearing witness to the passing shadows.” (p.76)

Bronson continues: “Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jaspers, and Hannah Arendt agree that life carries with it a certain despair, but alongside the suffering stands a spontaneous affirmation of life as it is, though danger lurks behind every tree.” (p.77)

Nietzsche has hope in dark times; he sees a powerful artist as being the one to give hope. This artist, in Nietzsche’s words, “should see nothing as it is, but fuller, simpler, stronger: to that end, their lives must contain a kind of youth and spring, a kind of habitual intoxication.” (p.77) (Cf. Rand’s neo-Aristotelian conception of art depicting “life as it might be and ought to be.”)

Nietzsche also says that world-weariness will set in if we do not learn how to forget certain things. Galadriel, as the elf in Middle Earth who carries the heaviest burden of memory, finds some measure of forgetfulness in that moment when she refuses to possess the One Ring. She remembers who she is, she will “remain Galadriel,” but since she passed this incredible test of will she is unburdened of a heavy weight.

(When I think of Galadriel, of her grace, dignity, benevolence, and wisdom born of struggle, I think of Barbara Branden.)

Part III: Good and Evil in Middle Earth.

Chapter 7: Uber-hobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power. By Douglas K. Blount.

This was a painful chapter for me to read and to re-read because Blount and I have very different interpretations of Nietzsche. Blount is a theologian, so he cannot be expected to sympathize with Nietzsche to the extent that I do. Blount seems to be of that school that sees Nietzsche responsible for spawning Hitler, Sauron, and all other manner of evil. I think that Eric Bronson’s interpretation in Chapter 6 is a better one. Blount seems to me to be missing the point of the Will to Power, e.g., Nietzsche would see scholars and artists (possibly including Tolkien) as exemplars of a Will to Power.

One of my problems here is that my studies of Nietzsche were 30 years ago, so it is hard to put my finger on exactly where I think Blount is off-base here. Also, Nietzsche was not so much a systematic thinker as he was a poet. He expressed himself in aphorisms and short enthusiastic exclamations, and thus contradictions abound in his writings. (It just occurred to me that both Nietzsche and Tolkien were philologists, immersed in their linguistic specialties and in the wide traditions of wisdom in their respective fields of focus: Tolkien in that of Northern cultures and Nietzsche in those of the Classical world. Contradictions can be found in both.)

Blount sees in Tolkien’s works a religious conflict, citing supporting evidence from his letters. Nietzsche can always be used to fill in as a great villain, and he often has been so used.

Chapter 8: Tolkien and the Nature of Evil. By Scott A. Davison.

Davison asks if Evil is an independent force. Is the world Manichean, where Good and Evil are two equally powerful opposing forces locked in eternal war? Some Tolkien scholars think so according to Davison, but he disagrees.

He says that evil depends on goodness, taking the “Augustinian” view and citing Tolkien to show convincingly that Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, agreed. Augustine, Davison, and Tolkien see evil as a negation or a destruction of the good. In a letter, Tolkien wrote: “In my story I do not deal with Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero.” (p.102) (Ayn Rand also wrote of evil as being ultimately impotent, a negation, and as evil often showing itself as a “hatred of the good for being the good.” Strange bedfellows here, indeed.)

One of the interesting things about the evil character Sauron in TLOTR is that he thinks everyone will want to possess the Ring and thus its power. He cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone would have the motive of instead renouncing great power and completely *destroying* the Ring. In this aspect, he shows a tremendous *absence*, a great lack of understanding, wisdom and vision.

Chapter 9: Virtue and Vice in The Lord Of The Rings. By Aeon J. Skoble.

(Apparently Skoble is a libertarian, but this is the first I have heard of him. His bio paragraph says that he is editor of *Reason Papers*.)

This is my favorite essay and in itself worth the price of the book. Skoble gives us a robust presentation and defense of Aristotelian “virtue ethics,” arguing for its superiority to either Kantian duty ethics or utilitarian ethics by using TLOTR characters as examples.

I think that this would be a very good intro to Aristotelian ethics for one who was totally new to it. It is a great 10-page intro to important aspects of it. (Many Randians do not seem to realize how close Aristotle’s ethics are to Ayn Rand’s in many ways.)

Skoble writes that Aristotle has a *developmental* focus on ethics: “what we need to do is *become* virtuous.” Certain “habits of thought and action tend to move our characters … towards states Aristotle calls virtues….” Of course, other habits of thought or action tend to move us towards vices. In his section titled “Developing Good Character,” Skoble writes: “For Aristotle, moral virtues are states of character one develops which, as they become more integral to one’s being, help one to lead a happier, more fulfilled life.” (p.111)

How do we decide, in a particular situation, how we should act? Part of a virtue-ethics is the idea that a person who has “cultivated good character” will have developed a kind of “moral wisdom” – what Aristotle called “practical reason.” (p.111) Practical reason must make judgments in “reference to a predominant goal.” … “On the Aristotelian view, there is such an overall predominant value: life, or more specifically, a flourishing or good life.” (p.112) (Those familiar with Rand’s ethics will see a distinct resemblance here.)

Aristotle stresses that one must learn to acquire a virtuous character by performing virtuous acts. (p.112) It must be developed and be made habitual. A helpful part of this process of self-development is finding and emulating the right role models. (p.113) (This is very close to The Buddha’s advice to choose to hang around “Noble Companions” and to avoid ignoble ones.) Skoble then looks at several characters in TLOTR to illustrate both virtuous and vicious character traits in light of virtue ethics. Aragorn and Boromir are compared; Skoble points out that Boromir, although basically decent, has a flaw of intellectual stubbornness that Aristotle had criticized by quoting Hesiod: “He who grasps everything himself is best of all; he is noble also who listens to one who has spoken well; but he who neither grasps it himself nor takes to heart what he hears from another is a useless man” (Hesiod, *Works and Days*, quoted in Aristotle, *Nicomachean Ethics*, 1095b10). Skoble’s whole discussion of Boromir as a tragic figure is very interesting. (p.116)

In the section “Virtue Ethics in Perspective,” Skoble makes some final comparisons between virtue ethics and both Kantian and utilitarian ethics. (pp.117-119)

(If you have not read it yet, I highly recommend Aristotle’s *Nicomachean Ethics*. Buy a small paperback copy and carry it around for those times when you can browse it. Browsing is easy because most versions have a Topical Table of Contents, allowing you to look up subjects according to what interests you might have at the moment. After some time of familiarization, read it straight through. Absolutely a Classic.)

Part IV: Time and Mortality.

Chapter 10: Choosing to Die: The Gift of Mortality in Middle Earth. By Bill Davis.

I found this to be a very interesting essay, even though I do not agree completely with Davis in the end. He may be much closer to Tolkien’s view than I am.

Davis describes many of the most common ideas about death in TLOTR very well. Elves are immortal, for as long as the world endures. In the viewpoint of the elves, the death of a human means that human’s complete annihilation, and the elves actually call this “the gift” given to men. If an elf dies in battle, he is reincarnated into a similar body with memory intact. Elves never really die, and men consider this to be a “gift” given to the elves. Each envy the other.

Davis Discusses “Death in Middle Earth” (pp.124-7) and then gives us a good treatment of “Death on Planet Earth.” In this last section, he discusses Socrates’ view of death as well as those of the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius in his *On the Nature of Things*. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are also mentioned. (pp.127-9)

In the section “Immortality in Middle Earth,” Davis covers Tolkien’s references to elvin reincarnation, and he also suggests that elves find immortality to be *boring*. (pp.129-130) In connection with this last thought, the section “Immortality on Planet Earth” brings up ideas about immortality from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies. The eternal punishment-task outlined in Camus’ *Myth of Sisyphus* is mentioned, along with Wowbanger the Infinitely Prolonged in *Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy*. Wowbanger is immortal and is so horribly bored by this condition that he institutes the personal project of insulting every singe person in the universe, one at a time, in alphabetical order; when he shows up, he ascertains that you are the right person on his list, then he rudely insults you, checks off your name on his vast list, and then sets off to find the next name. (pp.130-133)

The most relevant case in the actual TLOTR story is Arwen’s love for Aragorn, who is a mortal man. Arwen is a rare case of being half-elvin, from one elf parent and one human parent, and she must ultimately choose either to be immortal as an elf and forever leave Middle Earth, going over the sea to the ancestral elvin realm in the West, or she can give up her immortality so she can live one mortal life in Middle Earth with Aragorn. This is high romance. In *The Silmarillion* there is the similar story of the love between Beren and Luthien.

Chapter 11: Tolkien, Modernism, and the Importance of Tradition. By Joe Kraus.

Kraus writes that “the heroes of TLOTR often rescue themselves because they remember something important that their enemies have forgotten.” … “They have studied history, lore, tactics, languages, and geography, and they know as much as they can about whatever it is that they are attempting. They have their trusty swords and their quick wits with them all of the time, but they have also done their homework. Thus, Tolkien seems to tell us, knowledge is a crucial part of what it takes to be a hero.” (p.137-8)

Kraus argues that one part of Tolkien’s vision in writing TLOTR was “to imagine a world where scholarship and respect for tradition provide real and tangible power.” Tolkien, as a professor, studied and taught ancient Northern European languages and “was committed to the values of the humanities.” (p.138) To Tolkien, “being heroic ties into being scholarly.”

Kraus writes that Tolkien saw immense despair in a modern world that has rejected tradition. This despair is shown in TLOTR by Denethor and Saruman, who both were great scholars but have now disregarded their learned wisdom, followed false new hopes or visions, and have succumbed to despair. (pp.141-3)

(Is Kraus arguing for conservativism? Or is he arguing for perennialism? A perennialist is one who values certain particular traditions chiefly because he sees true perennial value in them rather than just valuing them because they are old and traditional. I prefer “perennialist,” because I see value being timeless as value, whether it be old or brand new.)

Chapter 12: Tolkien’s Green Time: Environmental Themes in TLOTR. By Andrew Light.

By “green time,” Light means a perspective on the natural world that involves a tremendously long view of time, an evolutionary time-scale or longer. The ents and Tom Bombadil represent this perspective in the story. Light talks about the niches that the various free peoples of Middle Earth love the most: elves love the forests, dwarves love the mountains and the underground places, and hobbits love The Shire.

Elves are immortal, thus they have the long view. Even such an ancient one as Treebeard says that “The Elves cured us [the ents] of dumbness.” Davis suggests that this may mean the elves nurtured “a capacity of reason and eventually of speech” in the ents. (p.154) In a letter, Tolkien wrote: “The elves represent … the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane Nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men.” (p.155)

Part V: Ends and Endings.

Chapter 13: Providence and the Dramatic Unity of TLOTR. By Thomas Hibbs.

Hibbs argues, with good textual evidence, that in his stories “Tolkien manages to suggest the working of a higher, benevolent power, a providential orchestration of events.” (p.167) Hibbs launches into a discussion of the traditional philosophical problems with the idea of providence. Then he proceeds to argue that “Tolkien offers a dramatic demonstration of the reality of human freedom and action and of the way patience and compassion is used to overcome evil.” (p.168) The role of Gollum is considered as an instrument of providence. Also, the case of Boromir and his changes at his end are examined.

Hibbs writes that “Gandalf explains that while we can’t always control life’s storms, we can control how we react to the inclement weather.” (p.172) (Said like an ancient Greek Stoic.)

Kant’s (Enlightenment) view of nature being “disenchanted” is contrasted with Tolkien’s fictional view, where “the entirety of nature is not just enchanted but is permeated with reason and moral sense.” (pp.172-3) Hibbs then dismisses any reading of a Manichean vision in Tolkien, instead going with Augustine: evil has no real existence because it is merely an absence, a privation of the good. (p.174)

Chapter 14: Talking Trees and Walking Mountains: Buddhist and Taoist Themes in TLOTR. By Jennifer L. McMahon and B. Steve Csaki.

I had higher hopes for this essay, but it is still okay. The authors seek to “address the themes of sentience in non-human entities, man’s relationship with nature, the importance of the master and student relationship, and the balance between good and evil.” (p.179) (None of these themes have had much relevance to me in my four decades of interest and study of Eastern philosophies and religions.)

The ents obviously cover the sentience part. As for sentience in non-human things in Eastern thought, the authors remind us: “This is particularly true of Japanese Buddhist sects which have incorporated some of the animistic elements of Shinto.” (p.181) (The Shinto belief that certain beautiful locales in nature – e.g., a rocky place, a streambed, a hilltop, a tree or a shoreline – may have their own spirit, or “kami,” has always had an aesthetic resonance with me in my enjoyment of nature, but I never interpret this as a possession of “sentience” on the part of the place or things.)

As for master and student, and the mentoring process, they point out that sometimes the right master may seem to be unlikely. E.g., Zen master Dogen left Japan to find instruction in China, and he learned profound lessons from a Ch’an monastery’s cook whom he ran into on the docks. In TLOTR, Sam is sometimes the wise master that Frodo needs. Also, Gandalf, Elrond and Aragorn share their vast wisdom with the hobbits. (pp.185-188)

As for a balance between good and evil, the Taoist yin/yang balance is discussed.

Chapter 15: Sam and Frodo’s Excellent Adventure: Tolkien’s Journey Motif. By J. Lenore Wright.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” (p.195) A quote from Bilbo Baggins, one of my favorite characters in Tolkien.

Wright talks about journey motifs: the journey out of the Cave into the light in Plato’s *Republic*; Augustine’s *Confessions*, depicting his spiritual journey from pagan Rome to Manichaeism to Academic Skepticism and finally to St. Ambrose. (pp.194-5)

Descartes’ scientific journeys of discovery led him to turn inward, in his words, “to undertake studies within my self too and to use all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths I should follow.” Frodo and his fellow hobbits transform themselves throughout their journey, and they realize Nietzsche’s advice to “become who you are.” (pp.196-7)

In their personal transformations, Gandalf, Aragorn and Sam all have some kind of name changes, which is an important journey motif, as in the great Chinese tale, *Journey to the West*, where “Monkey” eventually becomes known as a “Buddha Victorious in Strife.” (p.198)

Sam and Frodo are Nietzschean “Yea-sayers,” who welcome life despite its burdens. But Smeagol and Saruman are “Nay-sayers,” becoming “inauthentic” in Heidegger’s terms. (p.199) Sam and Frodo are also pilgrims on a “Quest,” and they need guides such as Gandalf and Aragorn. Frodo, much like Dante moving with the guidance of Virgil through Hell, stumbles, faints and struggles against the spiritual weight of the Ring. (p.201)

Chapter 16: Happy Endings and Religious Hope: TLOTR as an Epic Fairy Tale. By John J. Davenport. [Final essay in this collection, and one of my favorites.]

This is a great essay, the kind that opens new avenues of thought. The title sums it up pretty well. It took me about three readings of this essay before I could really integrate it. Although I have a lot of major religious/philosophical differences with Tolkien (and Davenport), I think Davenport’s essay is a very important one when thinking about Tolkien’s works.

Davenport starts by saying that some readers see TLOTR as an entertaining adventure, while others see it as a Christian allegory. He says: “I will argue instead that Tolkien conceived his masterpiece as an epic fairy tale with a kind of religious significance.” … “I will look at Tolkien’s theory of the fairy tale and his Arthurian romance model for the happy ending in TLOTR.” (p.204) I found what follows to be very interesting.

Noting the long-standing critical debate about whether or not TLOTR is a fundamentally religious work, Davenport points out that Tolkien’s work is closer to Northern European mythology in many ways.

In a footnote, Davenport writes: “…I would argue that Tolkien’s work is also deeply inspired by the Arthurian legends and the larger cycle of British national mythology. The very first story Tolkien wrote about his fictional world, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, has clear links to the Fall of King Arthur.” (p.205)

Davenport draws heavily upon Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (which was also cited earlier in this volume in Ch. 3 by Milbank and in Ch. 4 by Bassham) and claims it is an essential essay for understanding Tolkien. Rather than being stories for children, in Davenport’s words, genuine fairy-stories for Tolkien are a form of “serious literary art in which nature appears as a ‘Perilous Realm’, the world of ‘Faerie’.” (p.207-8)

Tolkien always insisted in his letters on the importance of his theory of fairy stories to his work. Davenport mentions other good examples of this type of fairy story: the original *Perseus and the Gorgon* and *Sir Gawain and the Green Knight*. (p.208)

Tolkien coins a term, “eucatastrophe,” for the kind of happy ending in a fairy story that appears right in the middle of apparent catastrophe, a kind of joyous “turn” in the story. Davenport writes: “[Tolkien] conceives tragedy as the true form and highest function of drama, and eucatastrophe as the true form and highest function of fairy-tale.” (p.210)

Talking about the New Testament stories of the Resurrection, Tolkien says, “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” (p.211) Davenport says that the Gospels have a eucatastrophe – i.e., the Resurrection -- that holds out more direct hope than the more indirect ones of most fairy-stories.

Davenport very convincingly argues that the medieval tale of *Sir Gawain and the Green Knight* is one that “…Tolkien studied closely and used in creating Frodo.” (p.211) Later Davenport writes that “…Gawain is Tolkien’s primary model for Frodo.” (p.212)

The Green Knight is a variant of the “green man” nature spirit in ancient Celtic myth. (p.211) He is immensely powerful, and it looks certain that Gawain will die by his blade. But a eucatastrophe occurs, a “turn” in the story that saves Gawain from death, although Gawain receives a scar from the contest that he will carry for the rest of his life. (p.212)

Frodo, too, will receive a scar, the loss of a finger, during the eucatastrophe that occurs at a climactic moment in his story, saving him from near certain doom. (p.212) In Tolkien’s *The Silmarillion*, Beren’s quest for a Silmaril results in a similar scarring, the loss of a hand. (p.214) [Robert Bly’s book, *Iron John*, investigates fairy tales and emphasizes both the fictional and existential importance of wounds and scars in the journey to true manhood. –R.B.]

Davenport writes: “Tolkien’s primary goal in TLOTR was to create a fantasy for our time with the same eucatastrophic power that Gawain’s fantastic tale had for fifteenth-century Britons, and this is what gives his trilogy its encompassing religious mood.” (p.213)

Davenport writes that, while the unfinished *The Silmarillion* was designed to be an epic, “…TLOTR is meant to *combine* the epic quest narrative with the eucatastrophic (or indirectly eschatological) significance of the true faerie tale.” (p.215) This combination had never been done before in British or Germanic mythology.

Davenport then catalogs many of the eucatastrophes within TLOTR, ending with Aragorn’s act of “turning”: turning around to find the sapling of Nimloth, the White Tree of Numenor, that itself has a pedigree going all the way back to the earliest of days. (p.218)

[End of my reviews of this volume’s essays.]

After-notes by reviewer:

I had been wondering for many decades and never really understood why it was that Tolkien could be so beloved by many I knew who are Christians. It seemed exceedingly odd and inappropriate to me, because in my experience Tolkien was a terrific hit mainly among neo-pagans I knew or knew of, many of whom are certain that Tolkien was one of the major influences in the 20th century revival of Paganism in the West. But I think many of the essays in this volume help explain the situation to me in some degree. TLOTR is a pre-Christian tale modeled on the very ancient pagan North, but some of Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism still does come through (including the Aristotelianism that Aquinas had synthesized into the Catholic tradition).

One of my main disappointments with TLOTR has always been the episode where I felt that Frodo “dropped the ball” at a critical moment, thus he fell a notch or two in his heroic stature in my mind. The tiny hobbit, who heroically declared “I will take the Ring” on the Quest, later fell somewhat short of my expectations of a true hero. But Davenport’s discussion of Tolkien’s eucatastrophic vision of the fairy tale explains this all very well regarding the aesthetic purpose of the entire story. Tolkien – although being a 20th century writer -- is not really in the Romantic traditions of heroism that I so love and prefer, as were developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet I love *The Hobbit*, *TLOTR* and *The Silmarillion.* I think I like them so much because of their sense of a history, as well as the poetry in them, and the nature-aesthetic that Tolkien makes so real. There are also heroes aplenty, in the roles of Sam, Strider, and many, many more. It really is an epic fairy tale.

-Ross Barlow.

Edited by Ross Barlow
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Review of *The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All*. 2003. edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson. Open Court Publishing.

Reviewed by Ross Barlow.

............snipped to conserve bandwidth ..................

-Ross Barlow.

A lovely essay! Well done. I have read LOTR at least as often as AS. It is a very different reading, feeling and thinking experience. If you read the Silmarillion which is the back-story for LOTR you will see that Tolkien regards pride, arrogance and undisciplined egotism as the source of Evil. It were these vices that lead the greatest of the Valar, Melkor, into Evil and ultimately lead him to be thrust through the Doors of Night into a kind of Nothingness to be banned from Ea. Even Eru-Iluvatar, Melkor's creator could not kill Melkor, but He could put Melkor in a place were he could no longer be active. However even Eru, the One (God) could not stop the Evil modalities in Ea (the world) that Melkor started, for Eru had endowed his creatures with Free Will. Melkor's fall is very cognate with that of Adam. Adam fell because he wanted to know Good and Evil before he was ready and he transgressed God's commandment concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Eve was beguiled by the Serpent. The Serpent is very much cognate to Melkor and Sauron, his latter day acolyte.

There is a great emphasis on Free Will in Tolkien's work. No wonder. Tolkien was a thorough Augustian Cathloic right down to his bone marrow. There is much in Tolkien's thinking that will annoy and even offend an Objectivist. But an Objectivist must see that Tolkien comes to his positions -thoughtfully-. There is no rote or meek imitation in Tolkien. He forthrightly and positively is what he is. Tolkien might even seem admirable to an Objectivist insofar as he (Tolkien) has a great deal of integrity. Tolkien is honest, forthright and strong in his views.

Personally, I disagree most with Tolkien in his attitude toward Industry. He is no lover of great factories. He perfers the simple green England (that is his model for the Hobbit portion of Middle Earth). The same "green and pleasant land" of Blake's poem -Jerusalem-. By the way it was Blake who coined the phrase "dark, satanic mills", not Charles Dickens. I agree with Tolkien concerning runaway pride and arrogance. They can only lead to trouble. Look at the character, Robert Stadler, in AS, for example. His "sin" is almost identical to that of Melkor, except that Stadler is a man, not a demigod.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Thank you, Bob. It is good to run into another hardcore Tolkien fan. Yes, Tolkien is a very different aesthetic experience. You are right about Tolkien coming to his positions “thoughtfully” and with “integrity.” One need not agree with him on all points in order to love and respect his works.

Like you, I also have always had trouble with Tolkien’s anti-industrialism, although that was my own heritage growing up as a farm-boy in a beautiful and peaceful rural community. Rand pointed out to me the beauty and greatness of industrial works, which I learned to love. Yet, when I get a chance, I like to retreat to the peace of mountainous wilderness solitude. I am still searching for Rivendell – haven’t found it yet. I will let you know if I do.

-Ross Barlow.

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  • 12 years later...
  • 1 year later...

Just imagine!

From ABC News. The Tahoe area has seen 210 inches of snow since the beginning of the month, the lab, based in Soda Springs, California, reported Wednesday. That makes this month the third snowiest on record and the snowiest December ever, per tracking from the lab that started in 1970. end quote

I have a shed with a “cat door.” One year we had nearly a foot of snow, but usually we only get about six inches as a max. I had to shovel around the door to get the four starving cats out. *All spayed or neutered.* They were astonished as they tried to make it through the snow and drifts to get to the food I had put out. It was canned “Friskeys” chicken and fish. 

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  • 4 weeks later...
On 12/30/2021 at 12:45 AM, Peter said:

From ABC News. The Tahoe area has seen 210 inches of snow since the beginning of the month,

Our next winter storm starting tonight is named Jasper. Unfortunately, on top of the snow we now have on the ground, we are expecting another few inches to much more down on coastal Virginia. Jasper? Was that a Tolkien character? It is 25 degrees Fahrenheit at 1:15pm today Friday. That forecast sounds like Minnesota’s.

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