Tolkien, Man and Myth: A Literary Life by Joseph Pearce | Reviewed by Jill Kriegel
This biography of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a study to lure the devout Tolkien novice, as well as one to satiate the veteran Tolkien lover. At the same time, it provides the sound scholarship necessary to attract the more religiously skeptical Tolkien fans. In his "attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding this most misunderstood of men", Joseph Pearce indeed sheds light on Tolkien's work as a subcreator who, via divine grace, manifests to us the one Light through his mythic world. Despite any contentions to the contrary, as Pearce deftly illustrates, Tolkien's Catholicism was the energy behind his ability to illuminate. And his profound love for his family and friends reflected his love of God and is, in turn, reflected in his literary masterpiece.
As a seasoned Catholic literary biographer, Pearce balances investigation of Tolkien's devout faith with thorough research into Tolkien's most profound influences and careful study of the connection between all of these and his life's work. To do so, he quotes often from Tolkien's own letters and essays, and he recounts interviews with close acquaintances of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, such as Walter Hooper and Owen Barfield.
Comprised of ten chapters which span a life, both physical and metaphysical, Tolkien, Man and Myth offers readers an in-depth understanding of the passions (God and family), concerns (modern "progress"), and drives (Truth through myth) of an author at once so criticized and so loved. Representative of Pearce's unabashed honesty is his discussion of Humphrey Carpenter's seminal biography. Of course, like any true Tolkien scholar, Pearce cites heavily from the worthy volume, yet he must also challenge it. Knowing that Tolkien believed an author's biography to be "'an entirely vain and false approach to his works'", Pearce grounds Tolkien's belief "in a distrust of Freudian speculation and subjectivism". This assertion aptly elucidates the problem with Carpenter's insistence on Tolkien's "'profound despair'", supposedly resulting from his mother's martyr-like death, which, Carpenter says, "'made him into a pessimist'". With complete focus on Tolkien's Catholic faith, Pearce argues against any morbid despair and, throughout this biography, proves Tolkien's "accept[ance] [of] the sorrows of life with forbearance and . . . sincere hope in the grace of God".
After tactfully highlighting Carpenter's "specious speculations" and giving due credit to his focus on Mabel Tolkien's death for its role in Tolkien's Catholicism, Pearce persistently wades through the morass of postmoderns who seek to bury Tolkien in their theoretical sludge. For example, twice debunking feminist critic Brenda Partridge, he dispels any notion of Tolkien's alleged homosexuality with C. S. Lewis or of his supposed sexual imagery in The Lord of the Rings, which, his opponent claims, appears only "'at first sight to be more overtly religious'".
Allowing a passage from Lewis's The Four Loves to silence Partridge's absurd claim of homosexuality, Pearce devotes deserved time to the integral role of the Inklings--most especially Lewis--in the development of Tolkien's philosophy and theology. Lewis's "'sheer encouragement'" as Tolkien shared The Silmarillion boosted Tolkien's confidence, while Tolkien's myth theory rebooted Lewis's Christianity. It was listening to Tolkien and fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson's philosophy that "the story of Christ is simply a true myth" that Lewis regained his faith and won Tolkien's affection as "'a scholar, a poet, and a philosopher--and a lover, at least after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord'".
Keeping with Pearce's thematic consistency, chapter seven, "Orthodoxy in Middle Earth: The Truth Behind the Myth," fortifies all-the-more his assertion that Tolkien's theological beliefs are "central . . . to his whole conception of Middle Earth and the struggles within it". Perhaps paradoxically, Pearce defends Tolkienian truth, refuting critic Patrick Curry, author of Defending Middle Earth, who claims the necessity of a "'non-theistic reading'" of The Lord of the Rings. Despite the prevalence of such critical thought, Pearce clearly explains Tolkien's literary and philosophical purposes and proves the undeniable religious element breathing life into Tolkien's divinely-inspired subcreation.
To emphasize "Tolkien as Hobbit" in chapter nine, Pearce clarifies the "anti-imperialism [that] found expression in Middle Earth". Thus, much of this chapter links Tolkien's thoughts to those of G. K. Chesterton. Like Chesterton, Tolkien yearned for the former, pre-industrial Merrie England, as evidenced in his portrayal of the Shire. This depiction, Pearce demonstrates, links Tolkien's idealized world to Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc's Distributist ideal, which promoted ownership of private property and freedom from state control. Beyond this overt Chestertonian influence, Pearce notes also an "indirect influence" and offers Tom Bombadil as an example of the "wisdom of wonder", quite reminiscent of the child's view in "The Ethics of Elfland" chapter of Chesterton's Orthodoxy.
As Pearce comes to his conclusion, he details the estrangement of Tolkien and Lewis after Lewis's surprising marriage to a divorcée, ever manifesting respect for both men and the importance of their friendship. He tempers the popular opinions of coldness on Tolkien's part with examples of Tolkien's professed regret and with justifiable reasons for their separation, given the setting and religious climate of their literary community. This final chapter also reiterates Tolkien's lifelong love for his family brought forth in his writing, both in his letters to his children and in his fiction. With the example of the inscriptions of Lúthien and Beren on the tombstones of Tolkien and his wife, Pearce poignantly illustrates Tolkien's primary philosophy that "truth and myth were intertwined and made 'one body' just as he and Edith had in some mystical and mythical sense become 'one body' in Christian marriage".
Indeed, Joseph Pearce's Tolkien, Man and Myth is a luminous addition to Tolkien studies, reminding readers--in a just salute to Tolkien--"of the greater truth from which they spring".
Related IgnatiusInsight.com pages:
The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings | Peter J. Kreeft
The Ladies of the Ring | Sandra Miesel
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Measure of Literary Giants | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The Temptation of the Earthly City: Tolkien's Augustinian Vision | Dr. Jose Yulo
C.S. Lewis and the Inklings: Books, Interviews, and Other Resources | IgnatiusInsight.com
Jill Kriegel taught English in Broward County, Florida, for fourteen years. She recently received her MA in English Literature from Florida Atlantic University. In the fall of 2006 she began work on a PhD in Comparative Studies, also at FAU. Her scholarly work is focused on ancient philosophy and its influence on recent Catholic authors, especially G.K. Chesterton and J R.R. Tolkien.
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