18 March 2017

Review: The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth

The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth by Ralph C. Wood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

No one could seriously deny that Tolkien’s Middle-earth resonates with the message and values of Christianity. Not only was Tolkien himself a devout Roman Catholic, but he was steeped in Old and Middle English literature, one of the oldest works of which, Crist, contains the lines that became the first inspiration for the world he, to use his own term, sub-created:
éala Éarendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
Sent over middle-earth to men.
These words embedded within a poem about Christ were, for Tolkien, a powerful evocation of an earlier pagan story, now lost, ‘something very remote and strange and beautiful…if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English’ (Carpenter, Tolkien, 64). Far more than the legendary ‘In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit’, with which so many are familiar, the words ‘éala Éarendel’ sparked the invention of a vast body of tales that have become in a very real sense a mythology many would wish to call their own, a mythology in which pagan and Christian resonate with each other. (Perhaps there’s a larger lesson to be learned there.) For, as Tolkien saw it and wrote it, all myths contain truth because they echo the Evangelium, the myth that was true.
The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.’ (On Fairy-stories, ¶ 103)
On this showing we should expect to find that the ‘pagan’ or ‘non-Christian’ world of Middle-earth exists in harmonious counterpoint with the world of Christianity, with its perspectives and its values. This is especially so since Middle-earth is our world. The events of the legendarium took place in a ‘historical period [that] is imaginary’ (Letters, no. 183), a time so long ago that only snatches of the memory of those days, like the Éarendel of Crist, remain.

Professor Wood does a good job of detailing for us the ways in which we may find those perspectives and values woven into fabric of Tolkien’s tales. His is a worthy endeavor that provides the reader with much to think on, and it is important to bear in mind that he has ‘undertake[n] not a scholarly study so much as a theological meditation on The Lord of the Rings.’ For there are moments where Professor Wood seems to push the limits of applicability much too far, as when he says that in describing the relationship of Saruman and Wormtongue Tolkien is stating ‘one of the deepest of Christian truths: all love that is not ordered to the love of God turns to hatred.’ Now their relationship certainly ended in hatred, but I see no evidence that love of any kind ever existed between the two. Wood also at times mars the credibility of his own arguments by getting his facts wrong. He claims, for example, that Frodo sees ‘Sauron himself’ when he sees the Eye in Galadriel’s mirror. Not so, except perhaps in a metaphysical sense. The giant flaming eyeballs of filmdom aside, ‘Sauron himself’ has a physical form. Gollum says he has only ‘four fingers on the Black Hand, but they are enough’, and Pippin’s description of what he saw in the palantír points towards a human appearance. Wood also confuses the Witch-king with the Mouth of Sauron, and gets the ages of the four hobbits wrong while making a point precisely about their ages.

Where Professor Wood’s understanding of the facts of Middle-earth most fails the needs of his meditation is in his mistaken belief that Middle-earth and our world are not the same. In his final chapter he discusses The Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth, or, The Debate of Finrod and Andreth, which, among other things, raises the possibility that one day Ilúvatar himself will become incarnate within Arda in order to heal the harm that evil has done. Because of his misunderstanding, Wood does not see that Tolkien is talking about The Incarnation, not just an incarnation. But Middle-earth is not a parallel world like Narnia, with a unique incarnation of its own. The incarnation Finrod and Andreth anticipate is the evangelium itself.