Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, finale

[Faith and Reason in Middle-earth, part 1part 2, and part 3, and part 4]

Yet if at one level Tolkien’s literary theory involves him in a kind of scholastic collaboration and synthesis of faith and reason in their respective roles, at another level his goal was to go beyond, or rather to get behind or beneath, such distinctions or dualisms. Tolkien, after all, viewed his mythology as literally a mytho-logy, a unity, that is, of the sub-creative and mythic imagination (mythos) on the one hand and a philosophical rationality and rigor (logos) on the other. As Philipp Rosemann has suggested, in an important respect the whole scholastic preoccupation with the relation of faith and reason represented a Christian continuation and recapitulation of the ancient dialectic of mythos and logos which French scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant has argued to constitute the heart of classical Greek culture.[1] If so, what Tolkien was interested in achieving was not yet another scholastic truce between the biblical mythos and Greek logos, as he was in recovering a now-lost vision of these perspectives in their putatively original, mythic unity. This unity Tolkien went so far as to symbolize in one of The Silmarillion’s central images: “The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good—as beautiful” (L 148n). Here Tolkien seems to have in mind the epistemological dimension to the “ancient semantic unity” that English philologist, mythologist, philosopher, and sometimes Inkling Owen Barfield argues in his Poetic Diction to have once existed within human language and perception. As Verlyn Flieger summarizes Barfield’s position in her study of the latter’s influence on Tolkien, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World,

Language in its beginnings made no distinction between the literal and the metaphoric meaning of a word, as it does today. Indeed, the very concept of metaphor, or one thing described in the terms of another, was nonexistent. All diction was literal, giving direct voice to the perception of phenomena and humanity’s intuitive mythic participation in them… Humankind in its beginnings had a sense of the cosmos as a whole and of itself as a part of that whole, a sense that has long since been left behind. We now perceive the cosmos as particularized, fragmented, and entirely separate from ourselves. Our consciousness and the language with which we express that consciousness have changed and splintered. In that earlier, primal worldview every word would have had its own unity of meaning embodying what we now can understand only as a multiplicity of separate concepts, concepts for which we (no longer able to participate in the original worldview) must use many different words.[2]

For Tolkien, accordingly, part of the contemporary task of fairy-stories or myths is to help reinvest language with its ancient literality, and in doing so to help heal the breach between philosophic and mythic perception, all by tracing these two now-splintered lights back to an imaginatively reconstructed moment of primordial confluence.

That this involved for Tolkien something more than the merely nostalgic, romantic desire for a tragically lost past, but also a specifically Christian hope for an as yet future fulfillment, is glimpsed in a letter he wrote to his son Christopher. Describing his own, semi-mystical experience of direct, intellectual illumination when he first came to realize that “Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story,” namely, the Christian Gospel, Tolkien writes:

I was riding along on a bicycle one day, not so long ago, past the Radcliffe Infirmary, when I had one of those sudden clarities which sometimes come in dreams (even anaesthetic-produced ones). I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: “But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work.” But I could not reproduce any argument that had led to this, though the sensation was the same as having been convinced by reason (if without reasoning). And I have since thought that one of the reasons why one can’t recapture the wonderful argument or secret when one wakes up is simply because there was not one: but there was (often maybe) a direct appreciation by the mind (sc. reason) but without the chain of argument we know in our time-serial life. (L 100-1)

Not unlike St. Thomas, then—for whom there is a sort of planned obsolescence or provisionality to the distinction between faith and reason, one that is to diminish asymptotically until the day it dissolves altogether in the completely unified and unifying vision of God (and vision of all things else) in his essence—Tolkien looks both backward and forward to what is for him a simultaneously ancient and eschatological vision of things in their created glory. Tolkien naturally took it as some measure of his success, accordingly, when, toward the end of his life one reader, a self-described “unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling,” wrote telling him how he had “create[d] a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (L 413). Tolkien reported these words to another correspondent who had made a similar observation, and to whom Tolkien replied, “[of] his own san[ct]ity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also” (413).


[1] Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 50-4.

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light, 38. Similar views to Barfield’s on the interrelationship between myth, language, and reality were developed about the same time in the 1920s in Germany by Ernst Cassirer and later in France by Vernant. For a discussion of Tolkien and Cassirer on the relationship between language and magic, see Zimmer, “Creation and Re-creating Worlds with Words.”

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