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Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings Paperback – December 21, 2001
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With insight, humor, and a good deal of personal passion for his subject, Mark Eddy Smith offers glimpses into the deeper spiritual meaning of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings by looking at 30 virtues exemplified by its characters throughout the tales. He then invites readers to embrace these virtues for themselves. Using a persuasive, conversational style, Smith offers reflective commentary, sometimes with a direct call to action: "Are there not enough heroes left in the world? Become one yourself." Tolkien aficionados will appreciate such attention to detail as Smith's note that he uses the Ballantine paperback edition, 95th printing, for references. The author writes that he has found in Middle-earth "a training ground, a place where I can apprentice to those whose gifts of charity, wisdom, kindness, mercy, love and faithfulness far surpass my own." Readers who love the Tolkien tales will be challenged to make changes to their own lives through Smith's gentle, thoughtful prose. --Cindy Crosby --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Smith, a graphic designer at InterVarsity Press, is clearly an avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic tale The Lord of the Rings. His emotional attachment to the book is unfortunately not coupled with the skill needed for the kind of thematic analysis he undertakes. Each chapter explores a different virtue, such as friendship, sacrifice or humility. However, several of the topics, such as resurrection or providence, cannot be appropriately categorized as "virtues." Within each chapter, Smith's thoughts meander and sometimes even contradict. "Wise generals lead from the rear," he notes, but he counsels on the very same page that "the proper position of leadership is in front, partaking fully in the dangers of the lowliest of soldiers." Smith's chapter about the virtue of justice is actually entirely about mercy. Many Tolkien fans will disagree with much of Smith's interpretation, particularly the assertion that Gandalf clearly dies and is resurrected, or that Gollum and Sam are very similar characters. Christian readers will also be disappointed at the paucity of theological thought; Scripture references are rare and often appear to be tacked on as afterthoughts. Also puzzling are the indications that Smith believes the story to reflect some actual past time somehow "revealed" to Tolkien. Although it contains some original ideas, especially in the chapter on community, this book lacks depth and clarity of expression.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Smith does recognize that Tolkien was a devout Catholic -- but fails to bring this perspective into the book's development. In addition, the two most important virtues (according to Tolkien's own letters) found in the book, Pity and Mercy, were not dealt with in nearly enough depth -- and this is a loss.
From a literary basis, Mr. Smith does make some basic errors in fact. (For example, the length of time between Bilbo's departure and Frodo's departure was 17 years, not 12 as was stated twice.) From my perspective, he seriously misunderstands the character of Aragorn (and to a lesser extent, Merry and Pippin).
Why then the (almost) four stars? Because the passion in Smith's writing does come through, as does his humanness and his love for the subject. Mr. Smith has taken an enormous risk in revealing the deep parts of his soul to be shot at by callous reviewers! I respect this -- and I respect that Mr. Smith has made the attempt to bridge the gap between merely an enjoyable read and a spiritual read. I hope that he continues to make the attempt and that his future attempts are more successful.
What both these essentially Protestant books mostly leave out of their discussion of Tolkien's Catholic work is consideration of the roles of worship, iconography and symbolism, and holy awe in =LotR=. But though selective, they do not distort. Unlike someone's aborted attempt to teach the business secrets of Tolkien's characters, at least these lessons fit. For Tolkien studies, these books' main value is their demonstration that his characters =are= ethical, and that ethics were thus basic to the author. Sermons like these could not easily be written on many other fantasy novels.