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J R R Tolkiens Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth Hardcover – November 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
The past year has brought a bumper crop of spirituality-of-Tolkien books, no doubt fueled by the heightened interest generated by the new film series. Birzer's book differs somewhat from recent volumes on the Christian themes to be found in The Lord of the Rings, including Mark Eddy Smith's Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware's Finding God in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's spirituality, says Birzer, was not generically Christian but specifically Roman Catholic: the lembas that sustains the company represents the Eucharist; Galadriel and Elbereth exemplify traits of the Virgin Mary; and the company looks to the restoration of a kingdom similar to the Holy Roman Empire. The best chapter of Birzer's study explores how Tolkien's "sanctifying myth" was informed by such Roman Catholic beliefs; Tolkien told a Jesuit friend, for example, that the trilogy was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Other chapters place Tolkien more generally within the usual canon of 20th-century Christian humanists, including his on-again, off-again friend, C. S. Lewis. Birzer is a fine writer who does a wonderful job of integrating primary sources such as letters, reminiscences and journals into his text; he also includes glimpses of unpublished materials, such as a scuttled LOTR chapter about Sam, as well as Tolkien's little-known attack on Lewis, "The Ulsterior Motive." This is, overall, a fine tribute to the man who, Birzer suggests, "resuscitated the notion that the fantastic may tell us more about reality than do scientific facts."
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic book, but commentators have shied away from writing about its Catholicism. After all, he also said it wasn't an allegory, so you don't need to know the Catholicism to understand it--right? Perhaps, but Tolkien hoped the book would prove a stealth evangelizer, arguing a Catholic worldview in its setting, characterizations, and plot. Birzer reveals The Lord's Catholicism in five riveting chapters. Middle-Earth is a subcreation, he says, resembling real Creation so that a salvific myth of heroic virtue triumphing over dire evil may be played out in it. The sapient beings (hobbits, elves, etc.) in it form a hierarchy surmounted by God, and evil in it is, as in classical Christianity, the result of willful separation from God. When evil is finally vanquished, Middle-Earth will be paradisaical, but as God's handiwork, it is already profoundly good, and its pastoralism rebukes the secularism, centralization, industrialism, and mechanization (only the evil build machines in Middle-Earth) that Tolkien despised. Essential reading for all Tolkien enthusiasts. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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For those seeking a quick read grounded in good scholarship, an explanation of some of the sources behind the Middle Earth world, and a good deal of biographical material on Tolkien (including on his relationship with CS Lewis), I would highly recommend this book.
For those seeking a more meaty, scholarly approach, the standard is Shippey's "Tolkien: Author of the Century." I think if I were teaching a 3-hour course on Tolkien alone, the Shippey would be the best choice (though it completely ignores Tolkien's religious position, a serious flaw, I think). But for an elective course, for a broad yet somewhat educated audience, the Birzer is excellent. A great place to begin your Tolkien studies.
When I first approached this title, I was afraid it might be like "The Parables of Peanuts," the well-known work that grafted more symbolism than Charles M. Schulz probably ever intended onto his classic tales of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Or, even worse, that book (the name of which escaped me years ago) which tried to interpret "Star Wars" as a Christian allegory: Luke Skywalker = Protestant Christians; Han Solo = Catholic Christians; and so on.
Imagine my relief to discover that Dr. Birzer's work is richly grounded in Tolkien himself ... both his published works and his unpublished notes, manuscripts, and private letters. Much more than Birzer's own interpretations, what we get here are *Tolkien's* own meanings, interpretations, and intentions. That makes reading this a richly rewarding experience.
In my experience, the best books are the ones that I complete having compiled a new list of other titles I need to read too. "Sanctifying Myth" definitely fits into that category. It's a pointed reminder of all the other Christian Humanists I need to read, not to mention the (*ahem*) parts of the Tolkien bibliography itself I haven't yet read. And Dr. Birzer himself being a fine stylist as well as scholar, his name is on my list too.
Whether you're a Tolkien fan looking for new windows into a beloved world ... a Christian wondering whether hobbits and Elves are compatible with a Biblical worldview ... a literary critic seeking new insights ... a skeptic wondering what all the fuss is about ... or any combination of the above, I predict you'll find this a satisfying, even eye-opening read. I sure did.