Tolkien, Augustine, Boethius, and Evil

In the handful of studies that have approached Tolkien first and foremost as a Christian Neoplatonist, St. Augustine and Boethius have naturally had feature-roles. John Houghton, for example, has drawn out a number of illuminating parallels between Tolkien’s creation-myth and Augustine’s literal commentary on the Book of Genesis.[1] Matthew Fisher has written an article placing Tolkien at the “crossroads” of Augustinian theology and anthropology on the one hand and, on the other, the Northern, Beowulfian theme of courage in the face of impossible opposition,[2] while Kathleen Dubs has traced the important themes of providence, fate, and chance in The Lord of the Rings to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.[3]

Augustine and Boethius have also made prominent appearances in a debate that has been waged over Tolkien’s philosophy of evil. While readers have long recognized a certain Neoplatonism to Tolkien’s representation of evil as a corruption or privation of the otherwise inherent goodness of being, Tolkien expert Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s fiction in fact embodies a syncretistic, even contradictory union of the historically opposed views of Neoplatonic monism on the one hand and, on the other, a Manichean dualism according to which evil is a subsistent reality in its own right, coequal and equipotent with the good.[4] While Shippey’s argument has gained a significant following, Scott Davison and the late British theologian Colin Gunton have each written pieces attempting to defend the consistent Augustinianism of Tolkien’s theology of evil, and John Houghton and Neal Keesee have together argued that the tensions in Tolkien’s presentation of evil noted by Shippey are in fact tensions already present in Boethius’s treatment of evil.[5] I hope to take up this question of evil in future posts in an effort to show how an understanding of Tolkien’s Thomistic metaphysics of creation may give us a clearer view of both the coherence and the scholastic subtlety of Tolkien’s representation of evil in his fiction.

[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmology.”

[2] Fisher, “Working at the Crossroads: Tolkien, St. Augustine, and the Beowulf-poet.”

[3] Dubs, “Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings.”

[4] Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 112-160.

[5] Gunton, “A Far-Off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”; Davison, “Tolkien and the Nature of Evil”; and Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord Of The Rings.”


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