A few avenues for Thomas’s influence on Tolkien

If St. Thomas represented a significant influence on the writing of Tolkien, what were some of the concrete means by which this influence might have been mediated? We do know that Tolkien was in possession of, and at some point in his life spent some time consulting, his own copy of a four-volume, 1787 Latin edition of Thomas’s magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae.[1] Beyond this direct connection, we are more or less left to informed speculation. Like Brad Birzer, Peter Candler notes the profound influence that Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, with its call for Catholic intellectuals to return to the thought of St. Thomas, had on the education and consciousness of Catholics of Tolkien’s generation.[2] In particular, Candler conjectures that the Birmingham Oratory where Tolkien went to school as a boy—established by Cardinal John Henry Newman in 1849 and the place where Tolkien’s guardian and godfather, Fr. Francis Morgan, ministered—was just the sort of place where the ripples of this burgeoning interest in Thomas would have been felt.[3] Alison Milbank has made the further point, no less worth repeating for its obviousness, that Tolkien sat through sermons every week by those trained in the thought of Aquinas.[4]


[1] According to Alison Milbank, who has examined the text, Tolkien’s Summa has marginal notes which she believes to be those of Tolkien’s godfather, Fr. Francs Morgan, and from whom Tolkien apparently inherited the set, but that it also has “marks on sections that might easily be by Tolkien—book marks are made of Anglo-Saxon booklists! They also mark sections on marriage and obedience, which fit with Tolkien’s early marriage against Fr. Morgan’s advice.” Tolkien Library, “Interview with Dr. Alison Milbank author of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.” According to my friend and colleague Ben Merkle, who has also examined Tolkien’s Summa, the volumes are mostly unmarked except for a few spots in the more ethical matters of the secunda pars where there has been some underlining and an occasional scribbled word.

[2] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche,” 8.

[3] Paul E. Sigmund similarly concurs that it was through institutions such as the Birmingham Oratory that the social and political teaching of the First Vatican Council was widely promulgated: “In the nineteenth century the Catholic church drew on Aquinas’ political thought to respond to the challenges of industrialism, liberalism, and socialism… The Catholic political parties and trade unions that had emerged in many European countries used the encyclicals and Thomist categories of thought to develop a ‘communitarian’ or ‘personalist’ alternative both to socialism and to free-enterprise capitalism that claimed to provide for both the individual and social aspects of private property. In these organizations, as well as in seminaries, universities, and secondary schools run by the church, Thomism provided the structure through which political and ethical questions were articulated and analyzed.” Sigmund, “Introduction” in St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, ed. Sigmund, xxiv. On the other hand, it should be noted that, while the influence of the Birmingham Oratory on the formation of the young Tolkien’s mind was certainly not limited to the time of Tolkien’s formal education there, his own studies at the Oratory lasted only a few months before he resumed his education at King Edward’s Academy. Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography, 26-7.

[4] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 15.

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6 thoughts on “A few avenues for Thomas’s influence on Tolkien

  1. I have a question. In note three you write “The Catholic political parties and trade unions that had emerged in many European countries used the encyclicals and Thomist categories of thought to develop a ‘communitarian’ or ‘personalist’ alternative both to socialism and to free-enterprise capitalism that claimed to provide for both the individual and social aspects of private property.” I was wondering what time period this would have been, and if what is described has anything to do with the Catholic Back-to-the-Land Movement or Distributism as expounded by Chesterton and Belloc?

  2. Hi Molly,
    That was a quote from Paul Sigmund, and I assume he is talking about the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth–i.e., the period immediately following the First Vatican Council. And as I understand the relationship (and my understanding admittedly doesn’t go very far), I would guess that the movements you mention would be included in the developments Sigmund refers to. Incidentally, if you are interested in possible connections between Distributism and Tolkien, you might check out Stratford Caldecott’s “The Power of the Ring” (I have a copy you can borrow), and also this link: http://www.staustinreview.com/uploads/issues/Jan_Feb_2010_Akers.pdf
    blessings,
    JSM

  3. Hello. I’m writing a diploma thesis on Tolkien basing my analysis on Thomas Aquinas’ ideas. You write here that we do know that Tolkien owned a copy of his Summa. Could you, please, provide me with some evidence for this? I would be very thankful, as I couldn’t find any so far.

    • Alison Milbank notified me of the existence of Tolkien’s copy of the Summa, and I believe she mentions it in her book “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians.” One of my colleagues at New Saint Andrews College also visited the St. Philip’s Bookshop in Oxford where Tolkien’s Summa was for sale at the time (ca. 2009) and was able to physically inspect it himself.

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