Friday, October 10, 2008

J. R. R. Tolkein: Augustinian Conservative

I've been reading an interesting book by Joseph Pearce called Tolkien: Man and Myth: A Literary Life (HarperCollins, 1998). He does an excellent job of discussing Tolkien's Christian faith and how it is reflected in his fiction and his essays. He shows in detail and convincingly how the myth Tolkien created is not incompatible with the Christian myth.

However, Pearce never actually comes out and says, perhaps because he does not see, that that Tolkien actually created a myth for England comparable to the Norse myths for Northern Europe. The reason the Silmarillion and LOTR are compatible with the Bible is the same reason that the overall myth is compatible with English history and, indeed, participates in many of the same mythic archetypes as are found in English literature and history. The hobbits, Pearce shows, are explicitly intended by Tolkien to be Englishmen prior to the industrial revolution.

This book inspired me to take down my copy of Tolkien's Letters from the shelf and begin to go through them. Some of the most interesting quotes in Pearce's book are from the letters. Two in particular demonstrate a unique combination of elements of a world view that are unmistakeably Augustinian.

First, in a letter written in 1956 Tolkien writes: "Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend my contain more clearly and movingly) some samples of glimpses of final victory." (Letter 195, p. 255 of the Carpenter edition, quoted by Pearce on p. 148). A while back, I read The Children of Hurin after it had come out as a separate work and I was nearly overwhelmed by the sadness of the story and the lack of what might be called "resolution" or "final happiness," though hope was not entirely absent. This quote seemed to me to express the sentiment of this story both concisely and precisely.

Second, in a delightful chapter entitled "Tolkien as Hobbit: The Englishman Behind the Myth" Pearce leads off with a quote from another letter: "I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands: I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats, I am fond of mushrooms (our of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much." (Letter 213, pp. 288-289 of the Carpenter edition, quoted by Pearce on p. 153, although his footnote mistakenly says this letter is found on pp 213-14 of the Carpenter volume.)

Now if there is one thing it would be impossible to imagine, it would be a depressed hobbit. How could Tolkien view history as "one long defeat" and also be cheerful, fond of creature comforts and in love with nature? By being an Augustinian, of course.

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