Tolkien’s “Recovery” of St. Thomas

Metaphysics of Faerie, Conclusion (part 2)

The previous post ended with the statement that what we find in Tolkien is less an uncritical adoption of Thomistic ideas, but as one would expect of someone of Tolkien’s genius and originality, a creative appropriation and adaptation of Thomas’s thought for his own literary purposes. I want to suggest, however, that even here there would seem to be something remotely Thomistic in Tolkien’s creative departures from St. Thomas, for the latter’s own thought was nothing if not a profoundly creative appropriation and application of the metaphysics of his forbears. It was the infallible insight afforded by Christian revelation, after all, that arguably allowed St. Thomas to discern and exploit hitherto unrealized potentialities in the thought of his predecessors, as when he used Aristotle’s act-potency distinction, for example, to transcend Aristotle by means of his own essence-existence distinction; or when he utilized Aristotelian arguments to prove the arguably un-Aristotelian conclusion that the soul is both a form and a subsistent being capable of existing independently of the body of which it is the form; or when, in a clever application of the Neoplatonic logic of emanation, he argued the distinctly anti-Neoplatonic conclusion that the Creator alone can create. These are just a few examples of Thomas’s own metaphysical innovation and the kind of thing Chesterton may have had in mind when he said that St. Thomas had “the imagination without the imagery.”[1]

In Tolkien, by contrast, I submit that we meet with a metaphysician who had both the imagination and the imagery, which brings us to the point I wish to end with here. The primary objective of my work on Tolkien and Aquinas has been to enlist the metaphysical thought of St. Thomas in an effort to better understand an important yet hitherto largely unexamined dimension of Tolkien’s literary project. In short, it has been occupied with the question, “What does St. Thomas Aquinas have to offer our understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien?” But Tolkien’s own project was the self-conscious one of “recovery,” that is, the “regaining of a clear view” of the world, the same world that St. Thomas labored assiduously to explain, and yet whose explanation has become largely lost and to a large extent even unintelligible to the modern world. If so, to the extent to which Tolkien’s own project of “recovery” has been successful, and to the extent that his project has been informed and guided by the metaphysical sensibility of St. Thomas, an appropriate question to ask would seem to be this: “What, if anything, does J.R.R. Tolkien have to offer St. Thomas Aquinas?” Might Tolkien, in other words, help us also recover the kind of metaphysical insight possessed by St. Thomas?

(to be continued….)


[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox, 152-3.

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