Faith Magazine

January 14, 2022

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular novels of the 20th century. It has sold over 150 million copies, been translated into dozens of languages and reached an even wider audience with the film trilogy. It generates great loyalty among its readers, many of whom discover the book in adolescence and are inspired by the nobility, heroism and beauty with which, unusually in modern literature, the book is charged. Tolkien’s popularity is at once a blessing and a curse for critics. The line between scholar and fan, always somewhat tricky to navigate in literary criticism, is well and truly blurred, and the problem is exacerbated by a desire on the part of his admirers to defend him from the snobbery of some in the academic world who, distracted by his popularity (and influenced perhaps by some of his less impressive successors in the fantasy genre), still echo the opinion of Edmund Wilson, one of Tolkien’s early critics, who thought the books were no more than “juvenile trash”.

Tolkien’s unfinished, sprawling corpus of work is so vast, so rich in detail, so full of wide-ranging moral and philosophical issues, drawing on so many different sources, that the possibilities for discussion are endless. The temptation for any lover of Middle Earth is to write a book which becomes “Everything I Ever Wanted to Say about Tolkien”. These two books by Matthew Dickerson and Stratford Caldecott demonstrate respectively how to fall into, and how to avoid, this trap.

Both books are revised editions of originals. Dickerson is reworking his previous book, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Caldecott is updating and expanding his earlier edition entitled Secret Fire. The difference in approach and style between the two writers is apparent from the very beginning.

In A Hobbit Journey, the reader has to plough through 17 pages of a rather diffuse introduction before Dickerson explicitly states the purpose of his book, and even then it is somewhat vague: it will explore the question “What can we learn from hobbits and from their vision of the Good Life, and how does that apply to our own present situation?” . This is not a critical question but one which treats LOTR as moral teaching material. In contrast, Caldecott states in the first line of his preface: “The book is about Tolkien’s spirituality, by which I mean his religious awareness and experience, the things he believed about life and death and ultimate truth”. He makes it clear that his book is part of the wider body of scholarly criticism: “Secondary works, like this one, are written to help others to understand the writer and his background”.

Judging by the title of Dickerson’s previous edition, his older book was more focused, with an emphasis on the role of war in the trilogy. The first four chapters of the new edition retain this focus, and it is these that are the most original and interesting. Questions such as whether torture is permissible in Tolkien’s world view, whether war is glorified (with a side-debate about how the films differ from the books in this respect), and how victory and defeat are characterised, are worth considering and will encourage readers to think more deeply about LOTR and appreciate how nuanced Tolkien’s treatment of these issues is.

The book becomes increasingly generalised as it goes on, with later chapters having such titles as “Human Freedom and Creativity” and “Moral Responsibility and Stewardship”. There is much good content, but the author is trying to cover too much under headings which are too broad, and the book loses focus. The writing throughout is very accessible, and any Tolkien fan will enjoy reading it, but I suspect it would not persuade a sceptic to take LOTR seriously, nor do I think the author is saying anything particularly unique.

In the final chapter, the author quotes a line from one of Tolkien’s letters: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Dickerson does not go into specifics about how Tolkien’s Catholicism affected his writing, referencing Caldecott’s book as a deeper exploration.

Caldecott, as a Catholic philosopher, is perfectly placed to understand Tolkien’s faith and how it is expressed in his work. However, anyone, particularly a partisan Catholic, will be disappointed if they open this book expecting a nice easy list of how characters, events and objects in LOTR correspond to items of Catholic dogma. This is not how Caldecott thinks, and certainly not how Tolkien wrote: he made his distaste for this kind of obvious allegory very clear.

Instead Caldecott, in a lyrical, elevated tone reminiscent of Tolkien’s own writing style, goes deep into Tolkien’s spiritual vision, showing how this led him to create a work that is illuminated throughout by a faith at once fully orthodox and profoundly personal. This journey is not for the faint-hearted: the reader’s full attention is required as Caldecott takes us beyond LOTR to explore Tolkien’s entire fictional corpus, as well as many of his critical writings and a number of personal letters and biographical details.

Caldecott draws on a range of Catholic writing from Hildegard of Bingen to Newman to Flannery O’Connor to the Catechism itself, showing the rich tradition in which LOTR should be located, and demonstrating the influence of what Tolkien himself called “a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know”. On the way he uncovers some treasures which have been underused in criticism, such as Tolkien’s description of a mystical experience he had while attending a Forty Hours devotion, an experience that fed into his vision of angels and subsequent characterisation of the Elvish in LOTR.

Another fascinating moment is Caldecott’s identification of the date on which the ring is destroyed with the feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, and his analysis of the implications of this for the book as a whole. It’s this kind of detail which shows how profitable it is to have an informed Catholic perspective when approaching Tolkien. Caldecott manages to achieve a difficult feat in this book: covering a vast range of sources and going into detailed textual analysis while still maintaining a specific angle.

About the last third of the book consists of an appendix of short essays, each of which focuses on a single issue in LOTR, and it these that constitute the main difference between this book and the previous edition. This is an excellent way to cover a wide range of different approaches to Tolkien in a single book without losing overall focus. Different readers will enjoy different essays depending on their personal interest: I particularly enjoyed the essay on the influence of the King Arthur legendarium on Tolkien’s writing, and also Caldecott’s analysis of the films.

The sheer amount of criticism that exists about Tolkien is overwhelming, and for a critic to stand out as worth reading he or she has to do something unique. I believe that Stratford Caldecott has achieved this, and I thoroughly recommend his book to anyone who is committed to deepening their understanding of LOTR, and to all lovers of Tolkien who return again and again to the book to experience, in Caldecott’s words: “the glimpse of high Elvish beauty that inspires heroism, whether in the Third Age or this, the Seventh Age of the Sun”.

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