BOOKS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Tolkien's Christianity: J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth, by Bradley J. Birzer
, April 19, 2003
Tolkien's Christianity: J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth
by Bradley J. Birzer
Rec. Price: $49.95Professor Birzer's book, subtitled "Understanding Middle-earth", is an attempt to delve into the deeper meaning of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, one of the great works of the imagination of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time.The Lord of the Rings
describes a world with which we are only dimly familiar: it has something of the content of a fairy tale, with elves, wizards, goblins, men and rings with magical powers, yet describes a great struggle between good and evil in terms never before attempted in the enchanted world.
Yet the beings it describes, their virtues and their evils, and the moral dilemmas they face, resonate forcefully with human experience. They undoubtedly have human, rather than animal, characteristics.Allegory
The book was written during the 1940s, leading some early commentators to describe it as an allegory of the struggle between the democracies and totalitarianism, particularly Nazism, in the Second World War. Some aspects of the story readily lend themselves to this interpretation.
But Tolkien himself rejected this characterisation explicitly in the foreword to more recent editions of The Fellowship of the Ring
, the first work of the trilogy which comprises The Lord of the Rings
, although it clearly borrowed some themes from the life-and-death struggle of the 1930s and 1940s (as Tolkien readily acknowledged).
Others have described it as a work of the imagination, shaped by the fact that Tolkien was an academic who specialised in ancient Anglo-Saxon languages, at Oxford University. Undoubtedly, many of the beings found in his work were drawn from English mythology and early English literature, but the theme of The Lord of the Rings
is entirely original.
These ideas are developed extensively in this book, which also examines other interpretations of Tolkien's extraordinary work.
More recently, some writers, among them Joseph Pierce (author of Tolkien: Man and Myth
and Tolkien - a Celebration
) have seen in the book deep reservoirs of Christian morality.
This interpretation is supported by the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was a very committed Catholic, and part of a circle of English Christian writers, including C.S. Lewis, who were deeply conscious of the impact of Christianity on English history and culture, and wished to preserve it.
Professor Birzer takes up this theme, arguing that while the book is not an explicitly a Christian allegory, many of its most important themes are based upon Christian, and specifically, Catholic concepts of redemption, atonement for sin, personal responsibility for evil, resurrection, and even the sacraments.
One difficulty which confronts this interpretation is that, near the end of his life, Tolkien denied that it was a Christian allegory.
Professor Birzer sidesteps this by characterising The Lord of the Rings
as Christian mythology, rather than Christian allegory.
It is a tribute to Tolkien's genius that The Lord of the Rings
it can be read and enjoyed at different levels of understanding. This book provides an important addition to our understanding of this book, and its celebrated author.