Friday 18 October 2013

Was JRR Tolkien a pessimist? No, not really


It is a standard critical conviction that JRR Tolkien was a pessimist: one who believed that thing were bad and getting worse and would turn out bad in the end.

This perspective comes from most of the major and best Tolkien scholars: from Paul Kocher, Humphrey Carpenter (in his Biography) and Tom Shippey; but it is not strictly true - or rather it is true only in a restricted sense.

Tolkien was a pessimist about this world; he thought it had long been getting worse, and there was little prospect of it getting better.

And this is reflected in the bittersweet sense of loss at the end of Lord of the Rings, and the utter bleakness of the end of the Silmarillion and the poignant end of contact with Faery in Smith of Wootton Major and poems such as The Sea-Bell and The Last Ship.

Plenty of evidence of this-worldly pessimism!


But, as a devout Christian, Tolkien was a super-optimist - not about this world, but about the next and ultimate.

The Men and Hobbits of LotR did not know that after they died, and their souls left the circles of this world, they would have a possibility of eternal bliss in Heaven - but Tolkien believed this as reality.

The 1977 published Silmarillion had a bleak ending, but the full ending is gloriously hopeful and happy:

And Smith of Wootton Major may be sad at the end, as he cannot return to faery - but Leaf by Niggle and On Fairy Stories are radiantly hopeful in their Christian affirmations.


Most of Tolkien's greatest critics have not been Christian, and it is therefore natural that they discount the next-worldly perspective of a real Christian.

But in doing so they give one-sided weight to Tolkien's this-worldly pessimism, his Eeyore-like grumpiness and despairing remarks about change and decay.

By failing to take seriously the transformative effect of being Christian, they critics honestly but falsely misrepresent Tolkien's primary nature; which was fundamentally, profoundly, hopeful.


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