Tolkien Among the Postmodernists

A brief note on a few studies of Tolkien’s thought and writing that have been informed by a more postmodern focus. On the side of philosophy of language we might include here Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, which uses the linguistic theory of marginal Inkling-member Owen Barfield to elucidate Tolkien’s views on the integral and co-constitutional relationship between words and reality. Flieger, however, betrays a certain hesitance in suggesting that the beauty of Tolkien’s created universe necessarily tells us anything ultimately true about the beauty of the real universe (“Whether there really is such a universe is less important than the undeniable truth that we need one badly…”[1]). Peter Candler, however, I think comes much closer to capturing—in his study (“Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism”) juxtaposing Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in their competition for the title of the ideal human form—Tolkien’s confidence in the real-world, metaphysical implications of his aesthetics. According to Candler, there is indeed an “inescapably linguistic character of all revelation and truth,” and yet Tolkien’s own contribution to the postmodern “linguistic turn” is best understood against the backdrop of the medieval belief in the absolute convertibility of the transcendental properties of truth and beauty: “The Christian appeal is, with a certain element of charm (if not ‘glamour’), to a story that is in some way more attractive because more beautiful, and beautiful because true.”[2] The contrast between Tolkien’s humble hobbits and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian philosophy of the will to power is also the subject of Douglas Blount’s essay, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power.” Tolkien’s hostility towards modernity in general and its manifestation in the technological mastery of nature in particular has invited comparison with another eminent German philosopher of the last century, Martin Heidegger.[3] Also addressing the theme of power in Tolkien’s writings is Jane Chance’s “The Lord of the Rings”: The Mythology of Power, which examines Tolkien’s magnum opus in light of Michel Foucault’s important work on the nature of power structures and relationships. In an essay by Robert Eaglestone, Emanuel Levinas is the post-modern French philosopher of choice, as Eagleston analyzes the invisibility-inducing effects of Sauron’s Ring in light of Levinas’s logic of the “other.”[4] Hayden Head, finally, has found in Tolkien’s fiction a worthwhile application of the theory of imitative desire propounded by the contemporary French philosopher René Girard.[5]


[1] Flieger, Splintered Light, xii.

[2] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche,” 6 (emphasis added).

[3] Malpas, “Home.”

[4] Eagleston, “Invisibility.”

[5] Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective.”

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3 thoughts on “Tolkien Among the Postmodernists

  1. Ha! I need to check out the article by Head. I found a passage in the Silmarillion account of the third age that has Girard written all over it in neon ink:

    “Too long had Saruman studied the ways of Sauron in hope to defeat him and now he envied him as a rival rather than hated his works.”

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