Chesterton’s Thomism, model for Tolkien’s

Whether or not Tolkien read Chesterton’s biography on Thomas, Chesterton’s general influence on Tolkien’s imagination, combined with his own, somewhat curious relationship to St. Thomas, provides an instructive analogy for how the nature of Tolkien’s own Thomism is perhaps best understood. One of the remarkable aspects of Chesterton’s little book on Thomas, after all, is that despite its having been lauded by such eminent twentieth-century Thomists as Maritain, Gilson, Anton Pegis, James Weisheipl, and even the Master-General of the Dominican Order, Père Gillet,[1] Chesterton’s profound insight into the thought of St. Thomas could hardly be described as the product of careful research. In his biography of Chesterton, Joseph Pearce comments on the “carefree approach to the writing of the book,” and how Chesterton had “dictated half the biography without consulting any books whatsoever,” and that even when he did finally acquire a list of classic and more recent books on St. Thomas, according to his secretary Dorothy Collins, Chesterton “‘flipped them rapidly through’ and then proceeded to dictate to her the rest of his own book without consulting any of them again.”[2] As Pearce is quick to qualify, however, Chesterton “loved St. Thomas with both his heart and mind, and he understood St. Thomas’s teaching with both his heart and mind. This, he hoped, would be sufficient.”[3] If so, R.V. Young summarizes well Chesterton’s text on Thomas when he describes it as “the result not of diligent scholarly labor, but of intuition and intellectual sympathy… In other words, the brilliance of Chesterton’s study of the Common Doctor of the Church comes from a flash of insight ignited by an innate philosophical affinity.”[4] It is in similar terms, finally, that I would suggest that Tolkien’s own Thomism is to be understood, for regardless of what might be conjectured about Tolkien’s direct or indirect exposure to the writings of Thomas or other Thomists, in the end the thing calling for analysis and comment is the undeniable fact of just such an “innate philosophical affinity” and “intellectual sympathy” between Tolkien and St. Thomas, whatever the historical causes might have been in producing it. The genius of Tolkien by itself, moreover, is enough to suggest that what we ultimately can expect to find in his fiction is not an uncritical cipher of Thomistic ideas so much as an altogether creative, mythological interpretation of them.


[1] Pearce, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, 431-434.

[2] Ibid., 423-4.

[3] Ibid., 424.

[4] Young, “Chesterton’s Paradoxes and Thomist Ontology,” 67. 

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