Some recent research on Tolkien’s medievalism, Thomism

Of late there has been a surge of interest in Tolkien’s medievalism on the one hand and in the general philosophical import of and sources behind his work on the other. A few recent books addressing Tolkien’s medieval antecedents are Tolkien the Medievalist and Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, both edited by Jane Chance, and The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien by Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova. Interested as these works primarily are in the literary influences on Tolkien, the thirteenth-century intellectual giant Aquinas receives nary a mention, nor is Tolkien’s philosophy or theology (with a couple of exceptions noted below) given much serious attention. In the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout, Thomas fares slightly better, receiving his own article by Brad Birzer, who rightly observes that it is an “implicit rather than explicit Thomism” one finds in Tolkien’s work.[1] Birzer makes the further point as to how it would have been impossible for a Roman Catholic of Tolkien’s generation (and traditionalist bent, one might add) to have escaped the influence of Thomism, not to mention one who received his education during the decades immediately following the first Vatican Council’s revitalization of Thomas studies. Somewhat curiously, however, Birzer locates “the first and most significant Thomistic element” of Tolkien’s oeuvre in Aragorn’s Christ-like kingship, leaving the convergence between Thomas and Tolkien in matters of philosophical theology, that area where Thomas’s own legacy has arguably been the most lasting and influential, completely unconsidered.

There have been a couple of essays, however, which have ventured further into the relation between Thomas and Tolkien. Andrew Nimmo’s article, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature,” takes up the five states of nature distinguished by Aquinas, namely the “hypothetical” states of (1) pure nature and (2) integral nature, and the “historical” states of (3) innocence or original justice, (4) fallen nature, and (5) restored or repaired nature, and correlates these (albeit in a rather underdeveloped fashion) with the different species of rational beings and their respective states found in Tolkien’s mythology.[2] One of if not the most extensive treatment of Tolkien in conjunction with Thomas to appear in print to date is a study by Peter Candler, which suggestively situates Tolkien at the “intersection” of Aquinas and Nietzsche.[3] Candler’s argument concerning the theoretical or conceptual relationship between the philosophies of Thomas and Tolkien revolves chiefly around Tolkien’s premise that the activity of human sub-creation is grounded in the divine activity of creation proper.[4] Candler’s main purpose, however, being the comparison and contrast of Tolkien with Nietzsche, his otherwise helpful discussion of Thomas is concluded after only a few pages.

At least two other noted Thomists have been published on Tolkien—Thomas Hibbs in his article on “Providence and the Dramatic Unity of The Lord of the Rings” in The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, and Peter Kreeft in The Philosophy of Tolkien—though curiously neither has said anything in regards to Tolkien’s Thomism (Plato and C.S. Lewis are Kreeft’s philosophical interlocutors of choice). John Milbank, founder of the contemporary intellectual movement known as “Radical Orthodoxy” and coauthor of Truth in Aquinas, in an essay-review of Rowan William’s book on Thomist Jacques Maritain’s aesthetics, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, briefly credits Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton with having developed “a Catholic and even a Thomistic aesthetic.”[5] These comments anticipated the publication of his wife Alison Milbank’s book, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, which draws attention to the metaphysical realism and the consequent belief in the freedom or independence of the created order that Chesterton and Tolkien both inherited from St. Thomas.[6] Theologian and literary critic Ralph Wood, finally, has noted a certain affinity between Tolkien and St. Thomas in their understanding of divine providence, concurrence, and miracles.[7]

[1] Birzer, “Aquinas, Thomas,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R.T. Encyclopedia, 22. St. Thomas receives a second brief mention in the Encyclopedia in Matthew Dickerson’s article, “Theological and Moral Approaches in Tolkien’s Works,” which makes the claim that “Tolkien’s Aristotelian and Thomist outlook can be seen in his emphasis on the orderliness of creation and the view of all creation having its source and purpose in the mind of God; the Ainur were the offspring of Ilúvatar’s thought, and Eä, the creation, arose from the music or Theme of Ilúvatar.” Ibid., 644.

[2] Nimmo, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature.”

[3] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”

[4] “Whatever the case, Tolkien, while not straightforwardly ‘Thomist’, is quite clearly, like Flannery O’Connor, at least ‘a Thomist thrice-removed’. This is evident in the way in which the human activity of poiesis is explicitly bound up with creation, particularly in the sense that all human making reflects the gratuity of the creation itself, and forms not a discrete set of activities of an agency of purely human propriety, but rather participates in the divine creation itself.” Ibid., 8.

[5] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism, and Modernity,” 663.

[6] A condensed version of Alison Milbank’s discussion may also be found in her article “Tolkien, Chesterton, and Thomism.” A further, more incidental parallel between Aquinas and Tolkien pointed out by Milbank is that between, on the one hand, Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc’s social theory of “distributism,” which had its origins in Thomas’s teaching on social issues such as property-ownership, and on the other hand the kind of communitarianism idealized by Tolkien in his depiction of the Shire. Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 13. For more on Tolkien’s social philosophy, see Caldecott, The Ring of Power, 119-121. For a brief discussion of St. Thomas’s own ruralist ambivalence towards the emergent urbanism and commercialism of the thirteenth century, see Courtenay, “The King and the Leaden Coin: The Economic Background of ‘Sine Qua Non’ Causality,” 206.

[7] “There is, in fact, an implicit Thomism at work in Tolkien’s understanding of miracles. As Brian Davies observes, Aquinas ‘thinks that miracles come about by virtue of the creative activity of God and nothing else. The whole point about them is that nothing subject to God’s providence, i.e. no cause other than God (no secondary cause), is at work in their occurrence.’ This is not to say that God does violence to the created order, or that he ‘intervenes’ to disrupt its natural processes. On the contrary, St. Thomas insists that God is totally present to every existing thing, so that all events are always the effect of God’s will. Yet miracles are not worked through secondary causes, not even through their divine compression, as Lewis argues: they are brought about by God alone… Aquinas described miracles, therefore, as those events which, because their divine source is hidden from us, excite admiration—the wonder which existentially and etymologically lies at the root of the word miracle.” Wood, “Conflict and Convergence on Fundamental Matters in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien,” 325 (emphasis original).


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