Tolkien: “Re-Mythologizing” Aquinas

Metaphysics of Faerie, Conclusion (finale)

The question I’ve posed is, “What, if anything, does J.R.R. Tolkien have to offer St. Thomas Aquinas?” Might Tolkien help us also recover the kind of metaphysical insight possessed by St. Thomas?

John Houghton, in his article on Augustine and Tolkien, has made the point that there are in fact “two moments in the task of theology.” On the one hand, the theologian must “de-mythologize,” and so render intelligible to his audience, the meaning of divine revelation or sacred scripture by explaining it in terms of what they already know.[1] It is this first task of theology with which St. Thomas was primarily involved, translating, as I’ve suggested before, the mythos of biblical revelation into the logos of Aristotle and the veritable vernacular of late medieval scholasticism. “On the other hand,” Houghton continues, “the theologian faces the task of recovery, of restoring the power of images and stories that have grown weak from cultural change or from mere familiarity. In this sense the theologian’s task is not demythologizing but mythopoesis as… ‘re-mythologizing’…”[2] As we have seen, it is this second task of the theologian to which Tolkien devoted himself and his work. What I am suggesting here is that the world Tolkien “re-mythologizes” is not simply the world of bare, ordinary experience, now become mundane or trite through our constant exposure to and consequent familiarity with it, but includes the specifically religious, theological, and philosophical world he had inherited from his own Catholic intellectual tradition, and yet which had also become truly quaint—when not outright despised—in the eyes of his modern audience. In short, where St. Thomas translated the biblical mythos into the logos of Aristotle, what Tolkien represents in part is an effort to retransplant the Thomistic logos back into its original, mythic soil from which it first took root. As Tolkien himself writes, “[n]aturally the stories come first.” St. Thomas himself, in the opening question of his Summa, points out the important role that the poetic structure of metaphor (the stuff of myth), for example, plays in the science of sacred theology: since it belongs to the nature of human knowledge to begin in the senses, it is “befitting” that spiritual truths should be communicated through sensible images such as metaphor, and this not for the benefit of the simple-minded only, inasmuch as the “very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds” as well (ST 1.1.9 corpus and ad 2).[3] Rational science, in other words, takes as its starting point, and thus is in a dependent relationship upon, the senses and therefore upon metaphor, much as Thomas’s own metaphysics had its roots in biblical mythology. As Louis Dupré has aptly generalized upon the relationship between religion, mythology, and poetry on the one hand and philosophy and metaphysics on the other,

Religious believers deepen their faith through metaphysics, while at the same time keeping the metaphysical flame alive…. Metaphysics has risen from mythology and religion. Without a religious sense of wonder the philosopher is rarely inclined to raise the question of Being in its totality, against the horizon of emptiness…. Today it is among poets, rather than philosophers, that we most commonly find the sense of wonder from which metaphysics springs.[4]

Dupré’s image of the religious and mythic sensibility as keeping the “flame” of metaphysical rationality alive is a felicitous one, for it is of course the same image of a kindling fire that Tolkien in the Ainulindalë uses to describe that unique and all-important event of the Creator, who is Being itself, giving the gift of being to his creatures, and from which this research project has accordingly taken its title. It is precisely the opacity—or rather, the super-luminosity—of such images that, in retaining the mythic and numinous character of reality, helps enliven the mind in the first place to that rational enterprise we call metaphysics, to inspire the mind, that is, to investigate the world insofar as it can be known. It takes a fascinating world, and an equally fascinating mind, to foment the kind of system of thought created by St. Thomas. But it must also be said that it takes an equally imaginative and ingenious mind to render that system of thought of enduring interest, accessibility, and relevance, especially to the modern mind which has grown impatient with such lofty and seemingly impractical matters. This is why, for example, introductions to St. Thomas such as Chesterton’s biography have proven so important for the study of St. Thomas, and why, finally, I would like to suggest Tolkien too could prove to be important for St. Thomas as well. Thomistic philosophy gives us a rational account of the biblical creation narrative, translating, as I have said, the biblical mythos into the language of philosophical logos. Tolkien offers an implicit validation of Thomas’s project by translating the creation metaphysics of Christian philosophy back into the mythic mode. By comparing Thomas and Tolkien, I hope to have shown indirectly that, through his concrete and mythic imagery, what Tolkien gives us is not one more dialectical treatise arguing that faith and philosophy have met and mythos and logos have kissed, but a radically fresh vision of the world in which we might see and experience how these things are so. In this manner, my hope in the end is to be able to commend not only the philosophical insights of St. Thomas, whether discovered or simply preserved by him, as a profoundly helpful guide in plumbing the depths of Tolkien’s metaphysical thought, but conversely to be able to commend Tolkien’s literary achievement, given its extraordinary popularity and influence, as an important and altogether unique landmark in the history of Thomism, offering us a creative and powerful contemporary interpretation and application of Thomistic metaphysics for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the myths and metaphors of Tolkien, in sum, we have the hidden truths of St. Thomas “useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”

THE END


[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmology,” 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As Owen Barfield, whose views on the interrelationship between language and reality were influential on Tolkien, comments on Aquinas, he “and others after him, emphasized the importance of using the humblest and most banal images, as symbols for purely spiritual truths or beings. For only in this way could a representation be safely polarized into symbol and symbolized, into literal and metaphorical.” Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, 74.

[4] Louis Dupré, “Belief and Metaphysics,” 10.

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