Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Platypus and Even More on Secondary Sources: The Platypus Reads Part CXLIII

There's something I've noticed while reading Tom Shippey's Road to Middle Earth.  Shippey really wants Tolkien to be an atheist.  It may not be a conscious desire, but it's a decided bent in both his books (The Road to Middle Earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Twentieth Century).  I have immense respect for Dr. Shippey's work, so this isn't an attack.  I notice this sort of warping even more with Verlyn Flieger who seems to have a dire need to turn Tolkien into a Barfieldian acolyte.  I also notice it in Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings where he seems to need Tolkien to have a very privatized faith to set off against what he seems to see as Lewis' overly militant faith.

I don't just see this warping tendency in Tolkien criticism either.  There are Catholic commentators who need Shaekspeare or Lewis to be crypto-Catholics in order to enjoy them.  There are Protestant scholars who need Dante to be a proto-Protestant before they can enjoy him.  All of this seems to be a natural human tendency: we want people we like to agree with us; we want the things we enjoy to validate our core beliefs.  The problem comes when this causes us to put aside our commitment to Truth and the genuine love of neighbor that comes with it.

I remember hearing Lewis' stepson, Douglas Gresham, speak.  One of the things he said about the Inklings that struck me was that they profoundly disagreed with each other on almost everything and yet could still be friends.  He went on to say that we've lost that ability in recent years; more and more now, to disagree with someone seems to mean that we have to hate them.  If what Gresham said is true, then we should expect to see the kind of warping I described above become more and more prevalent.  If we find ourselves liking something, we will need bend it as much our own way as possible in order to feel justified in continuing to like it.

In light of these things, then, I feel the need to say that Tolkien spoke truely when he said that The Lord of the Rings was a deeply Catholic work.  I am not a Roman Catholic.  There are places Tolkien goes where I can't follow, but I will say this: Middle Earth could not be what it is were it not for Tolkien's conservative, Tridentine, Roman Catholicism.  If I would honor Tolkien and love my neighbor as myself, then I have to honor that fundamental truth about Middle Earth and not fudge it.  The same goes for other authors I love but disagree with: Robert Heinlein, Homer, Frank Herbet, Aeschylus, Ursula K. Le Guin.  If they're living authors, then I may hope for them to be won over to my point of view; that's fair game.  The point is, that they must come as real people of their own free will, not as bits of wish-fulfillment in my own musings.  Looking back at my own bits of literary criticism, that's really hard to do.


Historyscientist said...

I totally disagree. Can we still be friends?

Only joking.

Actually I think there is a case to be made that Tolkien is not quite as straight forwardly Catholic as first meets the eye. But you are dead right that we shouldn't let our own inclinations colour what we see in people we admire's work.

James said...

Of couse we can still be friends!

The joke is appreciated.

I'd love to hear your argument for this. Could you summarize it as a comment or could you point me in the dirrection of the relevent sources? Are you thinking of something along the lines of his Newmanite background or more towards his desire to rehabilitate the "virtuous pagans" of the Ancient North?

Historyscientist said...

I have written a blog post on it as it happens.

Executive summary - Tolkien was a neoplatonic syncretist whose catholicism was just one reflection among many of the truth. He kept quiet about it because people with rather similar ideas had been dropping bombs on Oxford while he was writing LOTR.

James said...

Thanks for posting the link and the summary!

It's an interesting thesis (I read your post), but do you have any sources to ground it? I have friends who have worked for and talked to, even been mentored by, men who knew Lewis and Tolkien (Doug Gresham, Walter Hooper, Sheldon Vanauken), and I don't remember them being inclined to think either man was less than devout. Neo-Platonism is also pretty heavily worked into the Christian tradition(s) going all the way back to Origen at least (you could argue it goes all the way back to the Johannian writings). I know Christian Platonists, and they're pretty mainstream in terms of the way they relate to other Christians and to the Christian tradition. They're also all exclusivist in terms of salvation (Christ as the only way to salvation). Now there is a long tradition of speculative theology in the Christian tradition (or traditions if you prefer), and I think the writings you're thinking about from Lewis and Tolkien might fit a bit better there. As for Lewis' flirtations with Universalism in "The Last Battle," I would say that they are most likely inspired by his love for Universalist (though not Unitarian) George MacDonald.

That's my initial feedback. See what you think, and thanks again!

Historyscientist said...

You obviously know a lot more about it than I do. I don't have any references other than reading the books themselves. The only thing I can say to add to what I've already written is that I grew up in the sixties in England and fairy stories and folklore were definitely not in the same place as Christianity back then. So when I read the Hobbit and the Narnia stories they seemed to me to be implicitly anti-Christian for that reason. It was a real jolt to find out that they weren't 'on my side' after all.

James said...

Thanks again for being willing to dialog about this. I enjoyed reading your article (I never thought about the link between Orwell and the Inklings; that's something I'm going to need to ponder) and I think there's something going on there with Lewis and Tolkien's desire to not be linked with Nazism; especially since they were both into the same "Nordic" material that the Nazi's were claiming.

I do believe both Lewis' and Tolkien's works to be heavily neo-Platonic, and I do think that they were a little more nervous about the link between their works and their faith than contemporary Christians (in the U.S. at least) realize (I'm thinking of the letter where Tolkien tries to defend his books to his Jesuit friend as "Catholic" works). I think what you said about Fantasy being seen as at odds with Christianity during the sixties was true in the U.S. as well. As a side note, I think the palava over Harry Potter in the U.S. had much to do with that same impression.