Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth
© 2002 Brad Birzer
How better to kick off Read of England than by visiting the world of Tolkien, who has enraptured readers for decade after decade now? Tolkien is not merely an English writer; his Middle Earth was composed of English stuff, its languages inspired by ancient British tongues, its heroes English yeoman with furry feet. In Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, Brad Birzer uses extensive reading of the Tolkien corpus, in addition to letters and interviews, to understand the influences and imagination which created the world of Middle Earth. The themes that Birzer shares in chapters on topics like heroism and evil, are knit together in an argument that Tolkien’s intention was to reinvigorate the west with the memories of what was best in it — to remind it, via a new mythology, of ancient truths.
Birzer begins with a biographical sketch of Tolkien, who came of age in the trenches of the Great War – witnessing first hand Europe’s virtually successful attempt to destroy itself – and who spent much of his adulthood in the mire of the 20th century, observing both its progress and its regress with dismay. Tolkien admired the arrival of automobiles (and the city spaces destroyed to make room for parking lots) about as much as he admired the German bombers that would destroy city blocks later on. They were Nazguls and Orcs to him – noisy, inhuman, unfeeling, and malignant. Tolkien was a man of Old England, a man of the Shire about which he wrote so lovingly – an gentle and agrarian England composed of farmers and small shopkeepers, who minded their business and got together in crowds only for a good neighborly feast.
Tolkien’s great dismay with the west was not its embrace of new modes of transportation, however, but with what it left behind. Man once knew his place in the Cosmos; he was part of a celestial story, and if he played his part well, there could be found meaning and joy. Such was not to be found in the modern story of man, one of an atomized individual seeking only his own pleasure, liberated from all that had once sought to direct individual energy towards bigger things, even a thing so small but so whole as the family. That ordered Cosmos is present in the world of Middle Earth, for there – -through the Silmarillion – we find an ordered creation disrupted by a rebellious angel (Morgoth), whose servants work to destroy the good Earth and replace it with their machines and towers of domination. The entire lore of Middle Earth contains many stories of imperiled fellowships enduring pain and deprivation to resist the schemes of Morgoth; Frodo’s company is only one episode in a long drama that will only end when Illuvatar, the All-Father, decides to finish the symphony of creation with a flourish. Tolkien, as a Catholic, believed that humans on Earth were fighting the same ‘long defeat’ that would eventually end, but until then would demand perseverance.
In explaining the core of Tolkien’s mythos — the distinction he made between Creation and subcreation, the nature of evil and grace, the role of heroism in resisting evil and giving grace tools with which to work — Birzer throws light on the bounty of Tolkien’s imagination. A reader can only stand in awe of Tolkien’s imaginative work; his genius with language, deep appreciation of history, and integration of pagan and Christian, characters of fancy and fact. Although Tolkien’s larger world is rooted in a monotheistic order, much of England’s pagan past is hailed and ‘sanctified’, rather like the epic of Beowulf was by whatever Christian monk preserved it for the ages. Tolkien believed, like Chesterton and Lewis, that the myths of the Greeks and Norse, among others, reflected parts of the Truth without being True in themselves. In the Tolkien legendarium, the Good of earlier traditions is united with the Good of the Christian West. For the Tolkien fan, this sort of book should be enormously appealing, even if one is not comfortable with Tolkien’s worldview. (His anti-modernity, for instance, which is what makes him most delightful to me, personally…) Here are celebrated and made greater, characters of the LOTR lore. We see Aragorn as an Arthur, Gandalf as a wandering Odin figure, Galadriel as a Marian type. We see the Shire, Rivendell, and Morder serving as reflections on different relationships between man and nature — and appreciate Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and Aragorn as differing types of heroism, from the self-sacrificial to the prophetic and martial. Considering the actual book is only a little over 150 pages, there’s an amazing amount of content here. For good reason was this a favorite last year, and no less fascinating when I re-read it this year.