Saturday 12 May 2012

Tolkien, philology and theology


Tolkien was a philologist - probably, in terms of ability, the best of his generation.

Philology was a specific technical discipline that focused on language, especially words, especially names – but this was only a tool being put to use in a search for understanding Man’s place in the world.


In Roots and Branches Tom Shippey summarises philology as a quest; firstly for a lost unity behind modern diversity in language and culture, both national and regional – including myths; and secondly as the reconciliation of this unity with ‘ideology’.

The ‘ideology might be German nationalist – as in the case of Grimm, or Danish nationalist (in opposition to pan-Germanism) as in the case of NFS Grundtvig, or Finnish nationalist in the case of Tolkien’s most direct influence Elias Lonnrot - who compiled/ created the Kalevala.


For Tolkien the aimed-at reconciliation was:

1. The West Midlands

2. England

3. Christianity


As is now well known, thanks to Shippey, Tolkien set out to do something for England that was closely analogous to the great 19th century philologists: that is, he set out to use philological methods to infer from fragmentary evidence a lost unity (if not the lost unity) behind English language, culture, ideology, mythology and - ultimately – theology.

(However, while Lonnrot synthesised national myths then presented them as if historical fact, Tolkien chose to present his lost unity in term of fiction, romance, feigned history; as an explicit act of sub-creation.)


Tolkien worked intermittently but very seriously to retain a general compatibility between his Legendarium and Christianity.

This can be seen quite explicitly in the material printed in relation to Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth in Morgoth's Ring which is Volume 10 of The History of Middle Earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien) .

(See )


Tolkien was trying to steer a middle course.

On the one hand, Tolkien had to avoid too close an identification of his Legendarium with Christianity, because then his work would become merely a re-telling or, at most, an allegory.

On the other hand, Tolkien certainly did not want his Legendarium to work-against Christianity in any way.

His hope and intention was, therefore, that the Legendarium should be complementary to Christianity.

His hope was fulfilled, his intention succeeded.



Troels said...

I think that Tolkien's concern with his legendarium being in concert with Roman Catholic thought was something that, like so many other aspects of his sub-creational work, evolved over time.

In The Book of Lost Tales there is very little hint of such concerns, but we can follow them grow as the mythology evolved. There's a little nodding towards the end of The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings we have his own word that he only became conscious of this in the revision.

After he had finished The Lord of the Rings this consciousness appears to have stayed with him, and we see some of his deepest reflections on the matter in some of the works in Morgoth's Ring including the Athrabeth and Myths Transformed.

These texts, representing, as Christopher Tolkien put it in the foreword to The Silmarillion, ‘the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections,’ and they are highly illuminating of Tolkien's deeply held beliefs, though we should also recall Christopher Tolkien's continuation: ‘In his later writing mythology and poetry sank down behind his theological and philosophical preoccupations: from which arose incompatibilities of tone.’

I think that a work such as Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth is highly interesting — in many ways a more profound work that most of the earlier (pre-LotR) mythology, but also a text that works less well as mythology because of this — in the Athrabeth Tolkien addresses questions philosophically rather than mythologically, and I am not sure that these two approaches mix at all, and I certainly do not think that they mix well in this case.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - There is also Tree and Leaf, which is concerned with this matter. Perhaps it was only after The Hobbit was published and successful that he became actively concerned about the possible effect of his writings in relation to Christianity?