Interview on the Catholic Culture Podcast

For those interested, I was recently interviewed by Thomas Mirus on the Catholic Culture Podcast. We talked about my book The Flame Imperishable, but also spent some time reading through the Ainulindalë and highlighting different aspects of Tolkien’s text. You can check it out here:

Economics is a Wisdom

I’m teaching a philosophical theology elective this fall, with Aquinas (surprise, surprise) serving as the backbone of the course (though with a good measure of Anselm and Tolkien thrown in as well). One of the central themes of the class, moreover, is what I refer to as Aquinas’s “grammar and logic of divine action”: the way in which he draws from the fundamental principles of human action–including such concepts as ends, goods, intellect, will, choice, power, etc.–in order to articulate what we can know (albeit analogically and negatively) about God’s own being and action; but also the way in which, in doing so, Aquinas effectively establishes God as the first, ideal or paradigmatic actor against which all human action, including specifically economic action, is ultimately to be compared and understood. For Aquinas, in sum, our theology of divine action is both informed by and informative of the grammar and logic of human action.

The Aquinas readings in the course begin where Aquinas himself commences his two great works of theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. In the opening passages of these works I identify at least four distinct levels or respects in which I think economics might be seen to be not only relevant but integral to Aquinas’s overall theological and philosophical project. The first (I’ll address the other three in subsequent posts) has to do with the fact that, as Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles 1.1 (see passage below), the most universal and encompassing mode of all human inquiry and knowledge is philosophy, or “wisdom,” which he characterizes as the knowledge of things in their ordering towards their end. Thus, a particular branch of philosophy or wisdom, such as architecture, he says, consists in the knowledge of particular things as they are ordered to a particular end, while a more universal wisdom, such as theology, is that which understands a more universal order of things as they are ordered to a more universal end. But if so, then economics, which I define, in a certain Thomistic revision of Lionel Robbin’s well-known and influential definition, as the science of action in its use of scarce means as they are ordered to a desired end, is to be properly classified as a branch or sub-discipline within philosophy or wisdom. Economics, in short, is a wisdom. 

SCG 1.1: “The Office of the Wise Man”

The usage of the multitude, which according to the Philosopher is to be followed in giving names to things, has commonly held that they are to be called wise who order things rightly and govern them well. Hence, among other things that men have conceived about the wise man, the Philosopher includes the notion that “it belongs to the wise man to order.” Now, the rule of government and order for all things directed to an end must be taken from the end. For, since the end of each thing is its good, a thing is then best disposed when it is fittingly ordered to its end. And so we see among the arts that one functions as the governor and the ruler of another because it controls its end. Thus, the art of medicine rules and orders the art of the chemist because health, with which medicine is concerned, is the end of all the medications prepared by the art of the chemist. A similar situation obtains in the art of ship navigation in relation to shipbuilding, and in the military art with respect to the equestrian art and the equipment of war. The arts that rule other arts are called architectonic, as being the ruling arts. That is why the artisans devoted to these arts, who are called master artisans, appropriate to themselves the name of wise men. But, since these artisans are concerned, in each case, with the ends of certain particular things, they do not reach to the universal end of all things. They are therefore said to be wise with respect to this or that thing; in which sense it is said that “as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.

Did Adam Dream?

According to Aquinas, yes.

In his Disputed Questions on Truth 18.6, Aquinas raises the question, “Could Adam in the state of innocence be mistaken or deceived?” (See his parallel article in ST I.94.4). One of the objections he raises concerns Adam’s ability to dream:

Obj. 14. In the state of innocence man would have slept, and likewise would have dreamed, as Boethius says. But every man is deceived in dreams, since to some extent he considers the likenesses of things as if they were the things themselves. Therefore, in the state of innocence Adam could be deceived.

Aquinas answers:

Reply 14. Some say that in the state of innocence Adam did not dream. But this is not necessary, for the vision of dreams is not in the intellective, but in the sensitive, part. Hence, the deception would not have been in the understanding, which does not have free exercise in sleep, but in the sensitive part.

Adam could not be deceived in his intellect, but this is not to say that things could not appear otherwise than they are in the senses. And this is where the “deceptions” of dreams take place.

Defining theodependence

Today’s neologism:
theodependence: (n) the inherent, necessary, total, and unremaindered dependence of all reality upon God for its being, its possibility of being, and the possibility of its possibility of being.

Eve on the (Non-)Possibility of Talking Serpents

Another project has me working on Aquinas’s “economics of Eden” at the moment, and I thought Aquinas’s brief discussion of what Eve must have thought about a talking serpent would be of interest here. In Summa Theologiae I.94.4, Aquinas raises the question of “Whether Man in His First State Could Be Deceived,” with his answer being in the negative. The second objection he raises against his position, however, comes from no less than Peter Lombard:

Obj. 2: Further, the Master says (Sent. ii, D, xxi) that, “the woman was not frightened at the serpent speaking, because she thought that he had received the faculty of speech from God.” But this was untrue. Therefore before sin the woman was deceived.

And Aquinas’s reply:

Reply Obj. 2: The woman thought that the serpent had received this faculty, not as acting in accordance with nature, but by virtue of some supernatural operation. We need not, however, follow the Master of the Sentences in this point.

In the previous article, ST I.94.3, Aquinas had argued that Adam would have had perfect natural knowledge of all things, and in the sed contra in particular he makes the point that “Man named the animals (Gen. 2:20). But names should be adapted to the nature of things. Therefore Adam knew the animals’ natures; and in like manner he was possessed of the knowledge of all other things.” Adam, therefore, knowing all creaturely natures by a direct act of divine illumination, would have known that serpents can’t talk. Whether Eve also possessed such comprehensive knowledge or not Aquinas doesn’t say–his unfortunate view of woman’s imperfection in comparison to man would suggest not. What he implies here, at least, is that she also would have known that serpents can’t talk by their natural power, and so would have surmised that the serpent was only able to speak “by virtue of some supernatural operation.” By “supernatural power,” it’s unclear whether Aquinas means any power above the serpent’s own, natural power–in which case Eve’s supposition would have been technically correct, on the supposition that the serpent was speaking by angelic power, and Lombard would have been mistaken–or whether he means, with Lombard, God’s own power–in which case Eve would have been mistaken, if not exactly deceived, but then it’s not clear what Aquinas’s disagreement with Lombard is. Either way, even if Eve had been born yesterday, for Aquinas, she seems to have known an impossibility when she saw one.

Manwë’s Thomism After All?

I posted last week on the un-Thomism of Manwë’s statement that, because of the great beauty in song that will result from the Noldor’s rebellion, “evil [will] yet be good to have been.” After revisiting another passage from Aquinas today, however, I’m prepared to acknowledge that Manwë’s statement may have been more Thomistic than I realized, and that, if so, this fact might reflect well on neither Manwë’s Thomism nor St. Thomas’s.

To review, I had juxtaposed the above statement by Manwë with Aquinas’s argument, in Summa Theologiae I.19.9 ad 1, that, whatever the good that may come of evil, it is nevertheless “not correct” to say that “it is good that evil should be or be done.” Aquinas gives as an example the good of the patience of the martyrs brought about through the persecution of tyrants: because “it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions,” he argues, “It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.” For Aquinas, in other words, even if good is brought out of evil, even good that otherwise would not have existed were it not occasioned by the evil, one cannot rightly say of any given instance of evil that it was “good” for it to happen, since there is no essential, but only at best an accidental relationship between the evil that occurred and the good that was brought about as a result or in response. The Noldor’s rebellion may have brought about beauty that otherwise would not have existed (which is not to say that there would have been any less beauty–but only a different beauty–had they not rebelled), but it does not follow that it was therefore “good” that they rebelled.

Only a few questions later, however, in Summa Theologiae I.22.2 ad 2, Aquinas would seem to reverse his above argument in a way that sounds, well, awfully Manwë-ish. First is the following objection that Aquinas raises to his thesis that “everything is subject to the providence of God,” which reads:

a wise provider excludes any defect or evil, as far as he can, from those over whom he has a care. But we see many evils existing. Either, then, God cannot hinder these, and thus is not omnipotent; or else He does not have care for everything. (ST I.22.2 obj. 2)

In his reply, Aquinas counters that, on the contrary,

It is otherwise with one who has care of a particular thing, and one whose providence is universal, because a particular provider excludes all defects from what is subject to his care as far as he can; whereas, one who provides universally allows some little defect to remain, lest the good of the whole should be hindered. Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution. Thus Augustine says (Enchiridion 2): “Almighty God would in no wise permit evil to exist in His works, unless He were so almighty and so good as to produce good even from evil.” It would appear that it was on account of these two arguments to which we have just replied, that some were persuaded to consider corruptible things—e.g. casual and evil things—as removed from the care of divine providence.

What is interesting is that Aquinas uses the exact same illustration of the tyrant and the martyr, only this time to argue the almost opposite conclusion. Here Aquinas’s point is that there are some goods proper to the created order which are not possible except in the event of real (moral) evil. As Aquinas clearly implies here, there is a kind of good that would be “hindered” if God were not to allow its corresponding, occasioning evil, such that (we might presume) the total level of good in the universe would be less, and what is more, the good of creation would go unrealized, if God were not to allow for it. This, I submit, is not only a different claim, but an even contrary one to what he had argued in question 19, cited above. Based on this version of Aquinas, in other words, Manwë could indeed claim that it was “good for evil to have been.” But I still maintain that in saying this, neither Manwë nor Aquinas are being properly Thomistic.

Review of “The Flame Imperishable” in The Journal of Tolkien Research

The Journal of Tolkien Research has published John W. Houghton’s review of my book, The Flame Imperishable, which you can find here. (A review, I’ve been told, will also appear in a forthcoming issue of Tolkien Studies.)

The Good of Evil: Manwë’s Un-Thomism

When, in the Silmarillion, the herald of Manwë reports to him the bold and brazen words of Fëanor, we are told that

Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’ (“Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor”)

St. Thomas, however, would seem to prefer not put things in quite this way. In his article on “whether God wills evils” (ST I.19.9), the first objection he entertains reads as follows:

It seems that God wills evils. For every good that exists, God wills. But it is a good that evil should exist. For Augustine says (Enchiridion 95): “Although evil in so far as it is evil is not a good, yet it is good that not only good things should exist, but also evil things.” Therefore God wills evil things.

To this objection Aquinas replies thus:

Some have said that although God does not will evil, yet He wills that evil should be or be done, because, although evil is not a good, yet it is good that evil should be or be done. This they said because things evil in themselves are ordered to some good end; and this order they thought was expressed in the words “that evil should be or be done.” This, however, is not correct; since evil is not of itself ordered to good, but accidentally. For it is beside the intention of the sinner, that any good should follow from his sin; as it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions. It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.

As Aquinas would see it, accordingly, while it is true that not only good, but a unique form of good that otherwise would not have been possible, is brought about as a consequence of Fëanor’s rebellion, it does not follow from this, as Manwë implies, that it was therefore good for Fëanor’s “evil to have been” (indeed, for Aquinas, as for Tolkien generally, since evil has no being of itself but is a privation of being, it makes no sense to speak, literally, of evil “having been”). Manwë’s error, in other words, might be seen to involve the fallacy of division, of assuming, that is, that what is true of the whole (in this case, the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil-leading-to-good) must therefore also be true of its parts (the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil).

Enchanting the Elves: Tolkien’s Gospel Inversion of Faërie

(The following is an essay I wrote for Roman Roads’ Digressio Magazine a couple of years ago, and which can be found here.)

In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien defines fairy stories as being not about fairies so much as they are about the land of Faërie, that is, the “perilous realm” (which may or may not be inhabited by actual fairies) into which men will sometimes wander and where they find danger, adventure, and above all enchantment. In his epilogue to his essay, however, Tolkien turns the tables somewhat to imply that, if the role of Faërie and of fairy stories is to enchant and in that sense “redeem” those who venture into them, there is another sense in which both Faërie and fairy stories are themselves in need of being saved. Thus, he explains how in the Gospel tales of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, God has not only turned human history and reality into a fairy story, but just as interestingly, he has also made our fairy stories in particular and our sub-creations in general to be something entirely and eminently real. Apart from such fulfillment, Tolkien leads us to believe, our fairy stories, however beautiful and enchanting they may be in their own right, would ultimately differ little from mere “Dreams,” stories, that is, in which (like fairy stories) “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” but which in the end “cheat deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” In the Christian evangelium, accordingly, the realm of Faërie itself gets treated to its own enchanting eucatastrophe, a fact that better enables it to enchant us in our turn.

In this essay, I want to look at three examples of how this theme of the “Gospel inversion” of fairy stories—the way, that is, the Gospel turns the tables and subjects Faërie to its own kind of fairy story—shows up within Tolkien’s own master fairy story, The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, I will show how in what might be distinguished as the three “mini-fairy stories” within The Fellowship of the Ring—Frodo’s encounter with Gildor and his Elves in the Shire, Frodo’s experience at Rivendell, and finally Frodo’s experience at Lothlórien—in each case Tolkien begins by presenting us with a classic case of Faërie enchantment, only to then “invert” the stock formula by using hobbits (in some ways a personification of Gospel weakness and lowliness) to “enchant” their elvish enchanters.

Before seeing how these three episodes meet Tolkien’s qualifications for a true fairy story (and how they then go on to invert them), we need to first delineate what some of these distinctive elements are. In his essay Tolkien describes “the realm of fairy-story” as “wide and deep and high” and a place about which “it is dangerous for [man] to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” As for the inhabitants of this land, the fairies or “elves,” he describes them as “put[ting] on a pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves,” and their magic as that of a “power to play on the desires of [man’s] body and his heart.” Part of our desire for Faërie and for fairies, ironically, stems from their indifference towards us: “elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.” As Tolkien characterizes Faërie, in sum, it is a land where the fairies or elves—proud, noble, and beautiful—are entirely at home, and we are the tolerated strangers, guests and beneficiaries of their hospitality, however long it should last.

To turn, then, to The Lord of the Rings, perhaps the most complete and self-contained fairy story in the whole book is chapter three of The Fellowship of the Ring, titled “Three’s Company” (the chapter could almost be read on its own as a stand-alone fairy story). The chapter opens with Frodo needing to take a “journey” but to an as-yet unknown destination. When Gandalf tells him to head towards Rivendell, Frodo’s “heart was moved suddenly with a desire to see the house of Elrond Halfelven, and breathe the air of that deep valley where many of the Fair Folk still dwelt in peace.” Frodo’s home of Bag End, by comparison, is described as “seem[ing] sad and gloomy and dishevelled. Frodo wandered round the familiar rooms, and saw the light of the sunset fade on the walls, and shadows creep out of the corners.” Frodo, in short, is in need of enchantment, and that’s exactly what he gets when the travelers encounter Elves in the Shire forest. When the hobbits are about to be discovered by a Black Rider, an eucatastrophe occurs when the Elves arrive and scare the latter off with their singing. From their song, which is about their own, longed-for but irretrievable past, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” and the “fairest folk,” few of whom still remain in Middle-earth, making their meeting here a “strange chance.” The starlight glimmers on their hair and in their eyes, and though they “bore no lights,” they seemed to radiant their own light like the moon. When the Elves at last notice the hobbits, however, they “laugh,” address Frodo by name and indicate a familiarity with his traveling habits. When Frodo asks if they might travel together, the Elves inform him that they have “no need of other company,” that besides the hobbits don’t even know where the Elves are going, and jest with him that, what is more, “hobbits are so dull.” Nevertheless, Gildor, their leader, tells Frodo that although “it is not our custom,” nevertheless “for this time we will take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.” As the hobbits travel with the Elves, Sam wandered “as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy.” After arriving at their destination, the village of Woodhall, the Elves at first “seemed to take no further notice of the hobbits,” but then prove quite hospitable, delighting the hobbits with food and festivity. When Frodo refers to their surroundings as “our Shire,” Gildor instructs him that “it is not your own Shire,” for “[o]thers dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The following day, the hobbits awake to find themselves deserted by the Elves, yet fed and fortified to continue their journey to Rivendell.

As the above summary is meant to illustrate, the chapter “Three is Company” represents a rather precise illustration of many of the features of the ideal fairy story that Tolkien discusses in his essay and which I highlighted earlier. But now comes the Gospel twist, which is that while the chapter gives us an excellent, even stock example of “men” stumbling into and being enchanted within the realm of Faërie, Tolkien also turns the tables to some extent to have the high and mighty Elves also receive a form of “enchantment” by the simple and lowly hobbits. Although the first example of Elvish laughter is at the hobbits’ expense, the second time the Elves laugh is now at their own expense, when Frodo addresses them formally but politely in their own language: “‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company!’” Later, Frodo makes Gildor laugh once more when Frodo playfully and proverbially “defamiliarizes” for Gildor the Elves’ own habit of giving overly-qualified counsel: “‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’ ‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor.” And toward the end of their conversation, when Gildor repeats the commonplace that “Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance of purpose,” he indicates that his puzzling encounter with Frodo has nevertheless altered his perspective at least as much if not more than he has altered Frodo’s: “In this meeting there may be more than chance; but the purpose is not clear to me, and I fear to say too much.” As Gildor dimly senses but does not yet fully realize, it is the small and seemingly helpless and hapless Frodo and his fellow hobbits that, in their quest to destroy the Ring, will turn out to be the eucatastrophic deliverance of the very realm of Faërie itself. In his last words to Frodo, finally, Gildor gives expression to the reverse enchantment that has taken place when he returns Frodo’s earlier benediction: “I name you Elf-friend; and may the stars shine upon the end of your road! Seldom have we had such delight in strangers, and it is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” They’ve gone from being “dull hobbits” who don’t know where the Elves are even heading to those who actually “delight” the Elves and treat them to a fresh “recovery” of the beauty of their own tongue.

Space forbids us from making a comparable study of The Fellowship of the Ring’s two other fairy-stories-in-miniature, yet a brief word needs to be said about them here. At Rivendell, in the chapter “Many Meetings,” Frodo is once more treated to a fairy story enchantment by the Elves, yet in the following chapter, “The Council of Elrond,” it is the hobbit, Tolkien’s personification of the Pauline principle of God using seemingly “foolish” and “weak” things to confound the “strength of “wisdom” of men, who emerges as the key to unlocking all. Here it is Elrond who expresses the principle of Gospel inversion when, in a reversal of Thucydides’s famous dictum of pagan wisdom that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must,” he declares instead in much more Christian fashion that the quest of the Ring “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” And in Lothlórien, finally, while the Fellowship receives rest and enchantment in the halls of the fairy-queen herself, the Lady Galadriel, these roles also find themselves reversed when it is Galadriel who becomes the beneficiary of the “courtesy” of the hobbit Frodo (and later, even by the dwarf Gimli).

In conclusion, what each of these cases represents, as has been suggested, is a display of Tolkien’s own mastery of the fairy tale genre as he analyses it in his essay, namely as stories of a sublime land of not merely physical but also emotional and even aesthetic peril, a place where man is a guest and may find his own love for the natural world rekindled by a people at once mysterious, proud, noble, and beautiful. At the same time, and has also been said, in each of these episodes we witness another dimension to Tolkien, a uniquely Christian dimension, in which he makes his own fairy stories undergo their own kind of eucatastrophe, by giving the high and noble Elves themselves an opportunity for enchantment, only now by the mundane and familiar hobbits. In doing so, I submit, Tolkien captures something of his own, peculiar and paradoxical view, expressed in the epilogue to his essay, that in the Gospel fairy stories themselves are re-enchanted through the simultaneous nobility and humility of that consummate Elf-hobbit, the God-man Jesus Christ.


Aquinas on the “Buffoons and Comedians” of the Red Carpet (literally)

The Academy Awards are tomorrow, making it an opportune moment to reflect, not so much on what Aquinas might have said about the event, so much as what he actually did say about it. In his commentary on Aristotle’s discussion of the excess and vice of frivolous ostentation, Aquinas writes:

He says that the man who is immoderate in grand outlays—called banausos because he consumes his goods as in a furnace—exceeds the munificent person not in the absolute amount spent but in spending in a way contrary to what he should. The reason is that he uses much money in superfluous expenses, and wants to make lavish expenditures contrary to harmony, i.e., against the right proportion—which is said by way of metaphor—for instance, he entertains buffoons and comedians with nuptial banquets, contributes much to actors, even rolling out the red carpet for their entry, as the Megarians (certain Greek citizens) are in the habit of doing. He does all these and similar things not for some good but for making a show of his riches, thinking that he will be admired for this reason. However, he does not always spend lavishly but sometimes he falls short. Where he ought to spend much, he spends little; but where little, much. The reason is that he does not keep his eye on the good but on vanity. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, bk, 4, ch. 1, Litzinger trans.)

Aragorn on Leadership

Aragorn to Gandalf after the later asks who will follow him into Moria:

‘I will,’ said Aragorn heavily. ‘You followed my lead almost to disaster in the snow, and have said no word of blame. I will follow your lead now–if this last warning does not move you. It is not of the Ring, nor of us others that I am thinking now, but of you, Gandalf. And I say to you: if you pass the doors of Moria, beware!’

“For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow'”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 2

for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow.’ Here we have an example of what labeling consists of. There’s no real mystery, just an identification of something someone already knew. There’s been no process of defamiliarization, of “making strange,” followed by “Recovery.” In epistemological terms, you might call this a mere “correspondence” theory of truth. Things are already a certain way, and our statements come along and merely affirm that instead of entering into dialogue with things and changing them as a result.

you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace /one of the many minor globes of Space. Here we see a scientific diminishment of earth, in contrast with the mythopoeic representation Tolkien will give later when he refers to the earth as “mother.” Earth, in other words, is what myth tells us what it is, whereas here, in the scientific conception, earth is merely one globe amongst many, and not a particularly remarkable one at that.

“You look at trees and label them just so”

An exposition of “Mythopoeia,” part 1

In an elective I taught recently on Anselm and Tolkien, the class spent a couple of sessions expositing together the meaning of Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia.” This series is the fruit of that exercise.

You look at trees and label them just so. Later in the poem Tolkien uses the word name, setting up a contrast between labeling and naming. Labeling is what the modern scientist does; naming is what Adam and subcreators do. So what is the differenence? Labeling is comparatively passive, a mere reflection of what is already there, slaping a label on it without contributing anything to it. There is no “value added.” In modal theistic terms, we might say that labelling is “possibilistic”: it takes for granted the existing reality and seeks merely to represent it as it is; the possibility of what it may be labeled is predetermined. Naming, by conrast, is “actualistic”: what its name is cannot be determined apart from the act of naming itself.

Return of the Kings at the Prancing Pony

I posted a few days ago on the hints Tolkien gives us along the way of the existence of the hobbit “Conspiracy” long before it is “unmasked” in ch. 5 of book 1 of the Fellowship. In a similar fashion, before the reader even meets Strider at the Prancing Pony, Tolkien has already given some clues as to his identity. When Frodo first notices Strider, what he sees is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, [who] was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk…. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face.” It’s not clear whether we are supposed to suspect, or at least wonder, whether this man is himself a Black Rider, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to rule it out as a possibility, except that Frodo is able to see the “gleam of his eyes.” Perhaps Tolkien wants us to wonder whether he is a Black Rider while simultaneously giving us the evidence–whether we recognize it as such or not–for why he can’t be. At the very least, it would be reasonable for the (attentive) reader to wonder if this mysterious figure is at all connected with the “dark figure” who, when the hobbits turn their backs from speaking to the Bree gatekeeper, “climbed quickly in over the gated and melted into the shadows of the village street.” For as it turns out, this figure, whom we are led to wonder if it is a Black Rider, is in fact Strider.

When Frodo asks Butterbur who the man is, however, he tells him that he “don’t rightly know,” but that “He is one of the wandering folk–Rangers we call them.” Butterbur goes on to say describe Strider in the following words:

He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry.

What Butterbur says here of Strider, however, is merely a particular instance and illustration of the reader has already learned about Rangers at the beginning of the chapter. As Tolkien writes there:

In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the languages of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards, and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen. When they appeared they brought news from afar, and told strange forgotten tales which were eagerly listened to; but the Bree-folk did not make friends of them.

Strider, then, is simply one of these “Rangers,” a “mysterious,” dwindling and wandering folk who are “taller and darker” than other men, had “strange powers of sight and hearing and are able to commune with animals. What is important to note, however, is that the Rangers are only introduced after–immediately after, mind you–a discussion of the ancient kings of Númenor. The Men of Bree, we are told, counted themselves the “descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoils of the Elder Days: but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.” What this passage says is that the Men of Bree who were there when Númenórean kings first returned from over the sea are still there now, whereas the memory of the kings themselves has become forgotten. What the passage carefully does not say is that the Númenórean kings themselves were no longer there, for of course, the reality is that, while they may be forgotten, they are not gone.

As I say, it is immediately on the heels of this discussion that the narration turns to the Rangers. “In those days no other Men has settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin.” The reason the Bree-folk knew nothing of their origins, it turns, is one that we have already been told: these are the descendants of the Númenóreans from over the sea whose memory has now “faded into the grass.” And this is who Strider is.

Thus, long before the reader gets to the third part of The Lord of the Rings and its theme of the “return of the king,” he is introduced to those ancients kings who long ago “returned” to Middle-earth over the Great Sea to find men living in Bree, kings whose identity has since become forgotten, but not, as it turns out, because they are no longer present. And it is the descendent and heir to these kings who has made yet another “return” to Bree and whom we meet with Frodo “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”


Immigration Policy in Bree-Land

I’ve written before on the relative libertarianism of the Bree-landers. In another passage in the chapter “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony,” we get a sense of their ambivalent views on the prospect of a large number of immigrants to their area:

The Men and Dwarves were mostly talking of distant events and telling news of a kind that was becoming only too familiar. There was trouble away in the South, and it seemed that the Men who had come up the Greenway were on the move, looking for lands where they could find some peace. The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. ‘If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk,’ he said loudly. The local inhabitants did not look pleased at the prospect.

Addendum: the pro-immigration squint-eyed fellow is, it should be noted, is Bill Ferny’s companion whom Strider suspects as a spy and whom Butterbur suspects of being a horse-thief.


The Hobbits’ not-very-Thomistic view of treasure-finding

I happen to be teaching classes on both The Lord of the Rings and Aquinas’s economic theory at the moment, so you’ll understand why this stuff is on my mind.

In my recent post on the hobbits’ not-so-positive attitude towards possessions, I noted the passage in which Frodo had a “tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

Contrary to Tolkien’s narrator, however, it’s not quite true that “every one knows” that legendary gold is free for the finding and taking. According to Aquinas, for example,

With regard to treasure-trove a distinction must be made. For some there are that were never in anyone’s possession, for instance precious stones and jewels, found on the seashore, and such the finder is allowed to keep [*Dig. I, viii, De divis. rerum: Inst. II, i, De rerum divis.]. The same applies to treasure hidden underground long since and belonging to no man, except that according to civil law the finder is bound to give half to the owner of the land, if the treasure trove be in the land of another person [*Inst. II, i, 39: Cod. X, xv, De Thesauris]. Hence in the parable of the Gospel (Matt. 13:44) it is said of the finder of the treasure hidden in a field that he bought the field, as though he purposed thus to acquire the right of possessing the whole treasure. On the other Land the treasure-trove may be nearly in someone’s possession: and then if anyone take it with the intention, not of keeping it but of returning it to the owner who does not look upon such things as unappropriated, he is not guilty of theft. In like manner if the thing found appears to be unappropriated, and if the finder believes it to be so, although he keep it, he does not commit a theft [*Inst. II, i, 47]. In any other case the sin of theft is committed [*Dig. XLI, i, De acquirend. rerum dominio, 9: Inst. II, i, 48]: wherefore Augustine says in a homily (Serm. clxxviii; De Verb. Apost.): “If thou hast found a thing and not returned it, thou hast stolen it” (Dig. xiv, 5, can. Si quid invenisti). (ST II-II.66.5, ad 2)

So there you go: even if young Sancho had found some treasure hidden in Frodo’s larger pantry, according to Aquinas, it would not have been his “for the finding,” but theft (but then you already knew that, didn’t you?).

The Conspiracy All Along

While it is only in the chapter bearing the title that the “conspiracy” of Merry, Pippin, and Sam is at last “unmasked,” Tolkien gives his readers a number of clues as to the conspiracy’s existence along the way.

Frodo went tramping over the Shire with them; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done. (“The Shadow of the Past,” p. 51-2)

While at the time this may only have seemed an innocent conjecture on Merry and Pippin’s part as to whom Frodo has been visiting with in his “trampings” over the Shire, in light of the fear they later express that Frodo might “give them the slip,” we realize in hindsight that this speculation over Frodo’s encounters must have eventually had a deeper significance.

Another passage:

He [Frodo] looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders. He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself; and Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously. Often he was seen waking and talking with the strange wayfarers that began at this time to appear in the Shire. (“The Shadow of the Past,” 52)

Here we see Merry is more than merely curious as to whom Frodo is visiting with, but is actually “anxious” over what Frodo might be up to in his travels.

Later, at the Prancing Pony, we see an unusually and cryptically pensive Sam:

Sam sat silent and said no more. He had a good deal to think about. For one thing, there was a lot to do up in the Bag End garden, and he would have a busy day tomorrow, if the weather cleared. The grass was growing fast. But Sam had more on his mind than gardening. After a while he sighed, and got up and went out. (“The Shadow of the Past,” p. 54)

And when he goes out, we’re told:

He walked home under the early stars through Hobbiton and up the Hill, whistling softly and thoughtfully. (“The Shadow of the Past,” p. 55)


The next day, we’re given a hint at what he might have been thinking about when he is caught “eavesdropping” on Gandalf’s and Frodo’s conversation:

‘I don’t,’ said Gandalf grimly. It is some time since I last heard the sound of your shears. How long have you been eavesdropping?’

‘Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact.’

‘Don’t be a fool! What have you heard, and why did you listen?’ Gandalf’s eyes flashed and his brows stuck out like bristles. (“The Shadow of the Past,” 72-3)

When Frodo, Pippin, and Sam at last set out from Hobbiton and stay with the Elves at Woodhall, we read:

After a while Pippin fell fast asleep, and was lifted up and borne away to a bower under the trees; there he was laid upon a soft bed and slept the rest of the night away. Sam refused to leave his master. When Pippin had gone, he came and sat curled up at Frodo’s feet, where at last he nodded and closed his eyes. Frodo remained long awake, talking with Gildor. (“Three is Company,” 92)

We’re told that Pippin fell asleep, but only that Sam “nodded and closed his eyes.” Why? Turns out, of course, that Sam was not asleep. But he gets more deceptive still:

‘It is,’ said Frodo; ‘but I thought my going was a secret known only to Gandalf and my faithful Sam.’ He looked down at Sam, who was snoring gently. (“Three is Company,” 92)

Again, we’re told that Sam is snoring, but we’re not told that he is actually sleeping.

In the next chapter, we get the following internal monologue by Frodo, with a Sam who seems to be reading his mind:

‘No! I could not!’ he [Frodo] said to himself. ‘It is one thing to take my young friends walking over the Shire with me, until we are hungry and weary, and food and bed are sweet. To take them into exile, where hunger and weariness may have no cure, is quite another – even if they are willing to come. The inheritance is mine alone. I don’t think I ought even to take Sam.’ He looked at Sam Gamgee, and discovered that Sam was watching him. (“A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” p. 95)

When Frodo asks him what he thinks of the Elves now that he has seen them, Sam reveals a far greater understanding of the significance of their journey than Frodo allows himself to let on.

‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’

Frodo’s response would seem to be deliberately evasive in its pretended ignorance:

‘I don’t altogether. But I understand that Gandalf chose me a good companion. I am content. We will go together.’ (“A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” p. 96-7)

Finally, at Crickhollow, when Frodo at last decides to reveal his plans to his friends, but before he has a chance to do so, we get a rather curious and unusual exchange between two characters in which Tolkien not only indicates what they have known all along, but in doing so, indicates a conspiracy that he has been faintly hinting at to us all along:

“It’s coming out in a minute,” whispered Pippin to Merry. Merry nodded. (“A Conspiracy Unmasked,” p. 113)

Recovery at Crickhollow

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien identifies the second of the four primary functions of the fairy story genre as that of “Recovery.” He writes:

we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses— and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

Immediately following this, Tolkien gives the example of Chestertonian Fantasy in particular, or “Mooreeffoc.” Mooreeffoc itself, he says, is a “fantastic word,” for it is one that

could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

One of the ways, accordingly that this act of Recovery is principally achieved is through what Tolkien identifies as the first function of fairy stories, namely “Fantasy,” or “that quality of strangeness and wonder” by which the reader is able to be surprised and even startled by old things cast in new and unfamiliar lights.

To come now to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in the scene of his arrival at his home in Crickhollow for the first time, Frodo is treated to his own moment of “Recovery” when he is allowed to see his possessions in an entirely new environment.

‘Well, what do you think of it?’ asked Merry coming up the passage. ‘We have done our best in a short time to make it look like home. After all Fatty and I only got here with the last cart-load yesterday.’

Frodo looked round. It did look like home. Many of his own favourite things – or Bilbo’s things (they reminded him sharply of him in their new selling) – were arranged as nearly as possible as they had been at Bag End. It was a pleasant, comfortable, welcoming place; and he found himself wishing that he was really coming here to settle down in quiet retirement. It seemed unfair to have put his friends to all this trouble; and he wondered again how he was going to break the news to them that he must leave them so soon, indeed at once. Yet that would have to be done that very night, before they all went to bed.

‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’


Farmer Maggot’s Naming

One of the remarkable features of Tolkien’s sub-created world is its incredible diversity, a diversity that works in large part on account of the equally profound sense of a pervading unity behind the surface diversity. Tolkien doesn’t just give us things that are different, but things that feel like they somehow belong to each other in their difference.

This certainly isn’t the best or most representative example of this sort of thing, only the most recent illustration of it. Reading through “A Short Cut to Mushrooms,” I found myself wondering about Farmer Maggot’s choice of names for his dogs: Grip, Fang, and Wolf. Why these names? Who knows, but there is at least a possible relation between them. Grip, of course, is an action; fang is the instrument by which a certain kind of actor or agent, a wolf, performs the action of gripping. So, Grip, Fang, and Wolf–action, instrument, and agent. Just one example of Tolkien’s sub-creative achievement of unity amidst diversity.

Sam Gamgee on the “Elvish Effect”

Following their encounter with the Elves in the woods of the Shire, Sam Gamgee is the one who gives one of The Lord of the Ring’s more precise statements of the moral and prudential influence of the Elves–the “Elvish effect”–on those who come into contact with Faërie. When Frodo asks Sam whether he “like[s] them still, now you have had a closer view,” Sam answers:

‘They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,’ answered Sam slowly. ‘It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected – so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.’

Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him. It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew. But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.

‘Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now – now that your wish to see them has come true already?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.’

As I’m fond of pointing out, for Tolkien, the effect that the Elves have on men (or hobbits, the manikins) within a fairy story is a dramatized form of the effect that fairy stories themselves are to have on the men who read them. If so, then when Sam is describing the effect the Elves have had on him, Tolkien may be seen to give us some indication of the proper effect The Lord of the Rings is to have, or at least is intended to have, on its readers. When we read it, do we “feel differently,” and “see ahead, in a kind of way,” being reminded that we are “tak[ing] a very long road,” sometimes “into darkness,” but that we “can’t turn back.” Do we see that we “have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead,” not behind, and that we must “see it through,… if you understand me”?