Francis Phillips, The Catholic Herald, London

January 14, 2022

In this thoughtful and eloquently argued book subtitled “The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit”, Stratford Caldecott, a life-long lover of Tolkien’s sub-creation, has revised and expanded his earlier book, Secret Fire.

His starting point is Tolkien’s own well-known remark, that his trilogy “is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”. Interweaving Tolkien’s experiences as a soldier and Oxford academic, together with his religious and philosophical ideas, Caldecott examines and elucidates the underlying Christian aspect of Tolkien’s symbolism within his fantastical universe.

His book draws heavily upon the posthumously published Simarillion. Though Middle Earth’s creation does not directly correlate with our own, Caldecott identifies biblical parallels: the original harmony of creation before it is jeopardized by Melkor (devil and forger of the ring), a second stage corresponding to the Garden of Eden period, and a third of Men and Elves. As for the ring itself, Caldecott places it partly within the context of a post-World War II world. Besides its spiritual significance as a tool of temptation and corruption, he suggests the ring is also linked to the 20th century’s abuse of technology.

But this is not only a clash of good and evil played on a world stage. The true victory, as Caldecott suggests, is with Frodo, and the moral support of his companions, in his assertion that “the only true power is spiritual and exercised primarily over oneself”. In Frodo’s final refusal to destroy the ring there is a dramatic echo of Tolkien’s belief in Christian freedom of conscience, of “right behavior” hinging “on what we have the power to do”. Providence also plays its part: Frodo’s Christ-like quest “to save the Shire” is only achieved through the unintentional help of Gollum.

Caldecott is also open to less obviously spiritual readings of Tolkien. Appendices address thinkers from Jung to Plato, alongside Catherine Madsen’s view that The Lord of the Rings is “curiously compatible with a secular cosmology”.

Caldecott addresses this, showing how, in both The Hobbit and its epic sequel, “Tolkien refrained from taking the Lord’s name in vain; invisible, it illuminates the whole”.

In just over 200 pages Caldecott enlarges and deepens our understanding of what is probably the most popular work of the 20th century. A thoughtful reader with no religious background will learn much about the complexity of Tolkien’s fictitious universe from reading it. The trilogy is much more than a whimsical fairyland; behind it lies a profound knowledge of ancient mythopoeic tradition, baptized by a Catholic imagination. Above all, as this author shows, Tolkien’s writing “is a great blow struck against the tendency to imagine the world as flat, meaningless and spiritless, and human beings as mere animals governed by chance and instinct”.

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