Book Review: Tolkien as theologian and philosopher
Book Review: Tolkien as theologian and philosopher
The Flame Imperishable - Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faerie by Jonathan S. McIntosh, Angelico Press, 306pp, £15.50
reviewed by Robert Asch
Unlike many studies of Tolkien and his world, The Flame Imperishable is notanimated by enthusiasm, nor does its tone reflect any concessions to a popular readership. It is a difficult book about a complex and serious subject: the substantial accord between Tolkien’s sub-creation and the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Although the subject is demanding, the style is admirably clear and in no way restricted to students of philosophy. Any intelligent reader with a serious interest in Tolkien or St. Thomas is bound to find McIntosh’s study fascinating and even engrossing.
The author soon establishes the inadequate earlier identifications of Tolkien’s worldview with Platonism and the surprising neglect of Aquinas, even among Catholic scholars – the more so considering the very prominent revival of Thomism in the period following Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris promoting the restoration of Thomism, and its prestige over the next half century. McIntosh is at pains to insist on the probably unconscious assimilation and instinctive understanding of Thomism informing Tolkien’s legendarium, one the author likens to Chesterton’s: ‘[His] profound insight into the thought of St. Thomas does not seem to have been the product of his own careful research’ but rather (quoting R.V. Young) of a ‘flash of insight ignited by an innate philosophical affinity.’
Next, McIntosh identifies which ‘version’ of Thomas he is drawing comparisons with: it is not the Thomism of the Neo-Scholastic tradition but – following Rudi te Velde inter alia – one with nuanced distinctions between grace versus nature and faith versus reason. In a passage which is a key to the whole book, McIntosh asserts
'the divine revelation of faith for Aquinas consists in something far more than a mere positivist, factual claim that ‘escapes any verification by reason,’ but constitutes instead an entire body of truth invested with its own intrinsic, intelligible meaning….[F]or Thomas, Christian truth represents a comprehensive, coherent, and integrated worldview comprised of … both a way of faith and a (perfected) way of reason, which are and must be taken together and whose intelligibility must be appreciated … ‘from the inside’… [I]n this arrangement we have an instructive parallel for understanding the apologetic dimension to Tolkien’s own work.' (pp. 33-34)
Specifically, the author argues that the richness of Creation implicit in Tolkien’s world is best served by such a Thomist account of the world.
After making a convincing case for the assumptions of his analysis, McIntosh divides his study into the following chapters:
1.‘The Metaphysics of Eru’ or God [Being]
2.‘The Metaphysics of the Ainur’ [God, the Angels, and Creation]
3.‘The Metaphysics of the Music and Vision’
4.‘The Metaphysics of the Valar’ [the Angels and Sub-Creation]
5.‘The Metaphysics of Melkor’ [Satan and the problem of Evil]
It can be seen from this breakdown that McIntosh’s primary philosophical concern is with metaphysics, ontology, and religion, and his secondary concerns include epistemology and the Arts.
What becomes increasingly clear as we make our way steadily through the book is how convincing McIntosh’s thesis appears to be, and, by extension, how astonishingly consistent in overarching unity and teeming detail Tolkien’s vision is. Hitherto, it has been a commonplace to acknowledge the scope of Tolkien’s achievement in the consistency and richness of his linguistic and cultural-sociological vision, but we are now obliged to recognise that there is also an unsuspected unity of philosophical undergirding which is arresting and will surely prove deeply satisfying to the many admirers of the master of Middle Earth who have long been convinced of the high seriousness of his achievement: Tolkien may be a classic of Fantasy (sadly considered a rather frivolous genre in English letters), but he is now clearly established as a profoundly philosophical writer.
I found two of these concerns to have very wide-ranging implications: Sub- Creation and the Arts – linking Middle Earth to Lewis’s Narnia and the Creation through music, and to Dorothy L. Sayers’s work in The Mind of the Maker; and the problem of Evil, dealing with the integrity of Being and Augustine’s Privation Theory. The latter chapter also investigates in some detail the question of the extent to which Tolkien does (or doesn’t) depart somewhat from Thomist thought – in the course of which Thomas is as much an object of creative analysis as Tolkien.
The Flame Imperishable is also noteworthy for the incidental light it sheds on Tolkien’s relationship to the English Catholic (and Anglo-Catholic) Revival in its wide-ranging references to such figures as Leo XIII, Chesterton, David Jones, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gilson and Maritain; but also more recent authors such as René Girard, the Radical Orthodoxy group, Stratford Caldecott, Brian Davies, and David Bentley Hart, as well as such anti-Christian authors important to Modernity as Nietzsche and Umberto Eco.
The sources drawn on include The Lord of the Rings, ‘On Fairy Stories,’ The Silmarillion (particularly ‘Ainulindalë’), and the Letters. Not The Hobbit, however. There is a substantial body of writings within Tolkien’s oeuvre – The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – whose primary function, so to speak, appears to be delight, andwhich does not lend itself to metaphysical exegesis; which perhaps tells us something about why certain admirers of The Hobbit have never taken to The Lord of the Rings. In conclusion, The Flame Imperishable is a judicious and important book which is certain to become a classic of Tolkien studies but also makes a signal contribution to the history of the English Catholic Revival and the study of the relationship of literature to philosophy and theology.
Robert Asch is a literary critic and co-editor and co-founder of the Saint Austin Review. He is author of The Romantic Poets (Ignatius Press) and the forthcoming Lionel Johnson: Poetry and Prose (Saint Austin Press). He lives in Preston with his wife and five children.