Saturday, January 12, 2013

Joseph Pearce's "Tolkien: A Celebration": The Platypus Reads Part CCVI

Some time ago I voiced my concern that Tom Shippey's personal convictions may cause him to over-emphasize the more Pagan (in an historical sense) and despairing strands in Tolkien's work at the expense of the dominant Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, elements.  I then had to admit that, not being a Catholic, there are places at the core of Tolkien's work from which I am also excluded.  That set me to thinking: how might I be warping Tolkien to fit my own beliefs and how can I correct that?  The answer seemed obvious: find works by Catholic writers on Tolkien.  At the top of that list then came Stratford Caldecott's Secret Fire (recently re-released as The Power of the Ring), Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth, and Tolkien: A CelebrationTolkien: A Celebration being the first to find its way into the used bookstore, I began with it.

Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: A Celebration, is a series of essays unearthed by the author in the process of writing his other work Tolkien: Man and Myth (Pearce does contribute one excellent essay to the collection).  Many, but not all, of the authors are Roman Catholics.  Those that are do a wonderful job of helping to situate Tolkien in terms of Catholic doctrine, Catholic culture, and modern Catholic literature.  Providing an interesting counter-point is vanilla-flavored-American-Evangelical writer Stephen R. Lawhead.  The only disappointment in the collection (and it's slight) are the essays by Walter Hooper who's always a bit too interested in C.S. Lewis to be as helpful as he could be.  Nonetheless, even these produce a few worthy gems.

Tolkien, responding to the literary-criticism fad that was popular in his day, warned against the idea that to know an author's biography was to know his work.  He did admit, however, that his own work flowed out of his unique background, professional specialty, and faith.  While The Lord of the Rings could not be reduced to Tolkien's individual history and beliefs, he did view those things as the "leaf-mold" from which it grew and by which it was nourished.  Thus, finding that certain things were prominent in the "leaf-mold" helps us understand better why the tree has grown to be way it is.  A differently nourished tree would have a different shape -or might even have withered.  Still, a heated argument with the gardener over the merits of peat, sunshine, and tap-water doesn't mean that we can't still enjoy the way the light plays on the leaves.   

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