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Reviewed by:
  • Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in “The Lord of the Rings,”
  • Joe R. Christopher
Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in “The Lord of the Rings,”, by Matthew T. Dickerson . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press [a division of Baker Book House], 2003. 234 pp. $14.99 (trade paperback) ISBN 1587430851.

I have mixed feelings about the content of Dickerson's book, and I believe most of its scholarly readers will. Let me begin with what is truly excellent: the first three chapters are dedicated to a discussion of Tolkien's views of war as presented in The Lord of the Rings. Dickerson says that Tolkien has been dismissed as one who glorifies war (called a "phantom criticism," presumably meaning it has been made orally but not in written criticism, on page 17; attributed, as an example, to a colleague of Dickerson on page 20). Dickerson also shows how the Peter Jackson films emphasize war—which may influence some people's view of Tolkien's work (19-21). [End Page 253]

Having set up this critique, Dickerson sets out to answer it. Whether or not this criticism of Tolkien's work has been widespread, the answer is nicely done. Dickerson studies several of the battles, including that of the five armies in The Hobbit, finding Tolkien did not, except for a special purpose, describe the details of the fighting, that he usually focused on a minor character in the war, and that his adjectives do not glorify the warfare. In the battle on the Pelennor Fields, specifically in Éowyn and Merry against the Lord of the Nazgûl, Dickerson finds a dismissal of the Anglo-Saxon glorification of the warrior.

In the second chapter, Dickerson lists those upon Middle-earth considered wise (as suggested by the narrator's words): Gandalf, Aragorn, Faramir, Elrond, Galadriel, and Frodo. Dickerson asks what Gandalf, Faramir, and Frodo say about war, again finding no glorification of it. (Elrond and Galadriel are used in the chapter's conclusion in a contrast to Peter Jackson's films.) In the third chapter, Dickerson supports the thesis that, in Tolkien's fiction, moral victories are more important than military victories.

These chapters are well developed and say something (so far as I am aware) that is new. But Dickerson has seven chapters to go. He still writes well; he still uses good support from the text (and sometimes from Tolkien's letters); he still has, sometimes, some fresh points to make. But he goes on to consider the moral and religious themes of The Lord of the Rings, and in doing so sounds to me to be largely repetitious of what other critics have said before. This brings up the matter of his citation of earlier critics: his main references are to Carpenter's biography, Clyde Kilby's Tolkien and "The Silmarillion" (1976), Richard Purtill's J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion (1984), and T. A. Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000). I am not at all discounting these, for various purposes, but they certainly are not all the works on the moral and religious themes. Paul H. Kocher, in his Master of Middle-earth (1972), had his third chapter titled "Cosmic Order"; Randel Helms, in Tolkien's World (1974), listed five "internal laws of Middle-earth" (79), of which the first was "The cosmos is providentially controlled." I deliberately cite books published before the collection of Tolkien's letters and before The Silmarillion to suggest how wide spread is the acknowledgement of Tolkien's religious worldview in his fiction. Judith A. Johnson, in J. R. R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism (1986), listed "The Christian themes in Tolkien's works" as one of twelve representative issues "hotly debated" by his critics (234)—and that was nearly twenty years ago.

I do not say that Dickerson needed to write a scholarly book of the sort that cites a forerunner for each statement he makes, but it would have been very appropriate to have a footnote at the end of some chapters or sections of chapters, mentioning the others who have written on [End Page 254] the topics in...