July 14th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY By-elections a trial run for next federal election

SOCIAL MEDIA Facebook bans reflect a lack of impartiality

CANBERRA OBSERVED The gloves are on for by-election proxy bouts

FEDERAL POLITICS Federal ALP platform reads like a radical on a soapbox

ENVIRONMENT 'Climate change' news is fake news

BRITISH HISTORY Abolition of the Corn Laws paved the way for cheap food

LIFE ISSUES A world of competing sorrows: Ireland's abortion referendum

CULTURE The wee folk and their cousins, up and down the scale

WESTERN CIVILISATION Three great anniversaries of the West

FICTION Autumn Alexei's Story

MUSIC ABBA; Unstoppable, ubiquitous

CINEMA Jurassic World: Fallen kingdom

BOOK REVIEW Vision for the future, if we want to claim it

BOOK REVIEW Taking to task failed privilege

BOOK REVIEW Where Tolkien and St Thomas agree

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Beijing goes 'boo', Qantas gets in a flap

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Opposition mounts to legalisation of cannabis

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BOOK REVIEW
Where Tolkien and St Thomas agree




News Weekly, July 14, 2018

THE FLAME IMPERISHABLE: Tolkien, St Thomas and the Metaphysics of Faërie

by Jonathan S. McIntosh

Angelico Press, Kettering, Ohio
Paperback: 289 pages
Price: AUD$39.75

Reviewed by Peter Kelleher

Two books are under consideration here: the book that is promised; and the book that is delivered.

The book that is promised is simply nowhere to be found. The book that is written is a fascinating tour through J.R.R. Tolkien’s fabulous creation myth, Ainulindalë, in the volume, The Silmarillion, touching base with many of his other works, which the author illuminates through the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, in particular, and of such earlier thinkers in the Western tradition as Plato and St Augustine.

But, first, the book that is promised. The author presented the contents of the book as his dissertation for a PhD in philosophy at the University of Dallas, Texas, the thesis being that Tolkien’s works are suffused with the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas; the supposition being that Tolkien wrote in a thoroughly Thomist temper on account of his close reading of St Thomas.

However, this reader feels that that thesis is not made; indeed, at certain points in the development of the argument, the impression is gained that the author also is at least half-aware of that fact. I will explain myself presently, but first I need to emphasise that this fact, while devastating in one sense, does not serve to discredit the book. Reading the book in knowledge if the thesis’ failure merely allows the reader to leave that assertion by the wayside and to read the book as an impressive investigation of Tolkien’s legendarium, and an explication and defence of many aspects of Tolkien’s work in philosophical and critical terms. This is the book that is delivered; and it is impressive for scholarship and solid argument.

This reader measured the book very much in terms of how much it made him respond with several resounding “yeses” as well as a few stern “noes”.

While not wishing to harp on the failure of the thesis, I think it necessary to put on record how I came to my conclusion.

In the Introduction, McIntosh admits the paucity of real evidence that St Thomas was a direct inspiration to Tolkien when he reveals that the only material link between the two, a set of the Summa Theologiae in Tolkien’s possession, betrays only modest evidence of having been consulted by Tolkien. Immediately after, he writes: “Beyond this point, we are left to more or less informed conjecture as to the avenues by which Thomas’ influence might have been mediated to Tolkien.” (pp20-21)

Every dissertation has three parts: first, you say what you’re going to say; second, you say it; third, you say what you have just said. Here, the entire thesis is thus introduced and retracted within the span of fewer than 70 words. The thesis now is to be “Thomas mediated” to Tolkien.

Now, in a fashion, I too must retract somewhat of what I have said; now, however, with St Thomas’ three precepts of dispute in mind: whenever possible, agree; seldom deny; and always distinguish. For I must say that McIntosh makes a great case for a Thomistic reading of Tolkien’s creation myth, and along the way says much else that is stimulating of reflection.

However, distinguo: I distinguish. St Thomas: no. Thomism: yes, everywhere.

One source of mediation that the author fails to mention is the Catholic Church; for after all, if there was a Thomist revival in the beginning of the 20th century it was in large part if not entirely due to Pope Leo XIII and the encyclical Aeterni Patris of 1879 that impressed upon those in charge of seminaries and higher education the essential part that a study of the Angelic Doctor should play in a complete philosophic and theological formation. Without this call for renewal, St Thomas might not have reached the classrooms of the early 20th century where Tolkien was to study. So, it is scarcely surprising that an intellect as sharp and voracious as Tolkien’s, a man to whom his faith was central to life, should have imbibed the philosophy then so prevalent, not to mention friendly, to the faith.

I will record here a few of the reflections that a reading of this book inspired in this reviewer.

McIntosh does a fine job of exonerating Tolkien of the charge of Manichaeism, the condemned heresy from the early years of Christianity that divided creation into good (spirit) and bad (matter); and that invoked a series of demiurges (lesser gods, as it were) in a hierarchy of creators between the spiritual realm of God (good) and material creation itself (bad). McIntosh distinguishes between this philosophical/religious position and the orthodox position on creation, explicated so well by St Thomas, that God alone is the creator and that the cosmos is good, because he gave it “being”, and all “being” is good.

A corollary of the tussle among Tolkienists over this question is that it is scarcely surprising that Manichaeism should rear its head as a possible cosmology in Tolkien’s universe, because in fact it does so in the actual universe, offering itself repeatedly through history as an intellectual temptation. Orthodoxy offers a viable exit from the Manichaean maze, so it is unsurprising that Tolkien took it.

A second reflection. Middle-earth is scarcely myth at all. Mythic, legend, epic, yes. But not myth in the sense of fairytale. Its place is earth, a long time ago. And its marvels are a lot like those of the Old Testament.

Speaking of which, lots of books are mentioned in the Old Testament, and books of lore and the like feature in The Lord of the Rings. There it is revealed that Bilbo is the author of a history: part of which we know as The Hobbit. You would think there would be enough “intertextuality” suggested in that observation to satisfy even the most Greerish of postmodernist party poopers. (I am thinking of Germaine Greer’s exasperation at the result of a popular poll conducted at the turn of the millennium by WHSmith bookshops in the UK that voted The Lord of the Rings the “Book of the Century”.)

Moreover, Tolkien exemplifies in his books his characterisation of mankind’s role in the cosmos as a sub-creator under God. Which means mankind stands somewhat in the role of demiurge to, for example, Bilbo; who himself fulfills the role of sub-creator in the Tolkien universe in his authorship of the Red Book of Westmarch (the book that contains The Hobbit: or There and Back Again; wherein he writes everything that the creator (Tolkien) wished him to write, and no more!)

McIntosh’s book is tough going but, despite the single caveat mentioned above, it is worth the journey there (and back again).


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