- The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview behind “The Lord of the Rings”
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and well-known Catholic apologist, has written a book that focuses on "Tolkien's worldview, Tolkien's philosophy" (10). To do this, he has structured the book around what he sees as fifty of the greatest questions in philosophy. These include such questions as "is the supernatural real?", "does God exist?", "are we both fated and free?", "are angels real?", "is knowledge always good?", "why is music so powerful?", "how does evil work?", and "are promises sacred?" As even this brief list makes clear, the questions that Kreeft focuses on are as much theological as philosophical.
Kreeft's approach to addressing each question is the same. He provides an explanation of the question—what it means and why it is important to address. He includes what he views as a key quotation from The Lord of the Rings to illustrate Tolkien's "answer" to the question, as well as at least one quotation from another writing by Tolkien that he sees as [End Page 288] relevant. Finally, Kreeft includes a quotation from C. S. Lewis, which he views as "showing the same philosophy directly stated" (11). The inclusion of quotes from Lewis is not completely surprising, as Kreeft identifies on his faculty web page at Boston College the writings of Lewis as a professional research interest.
But the inclusion of the quotations of Lewis turns out to be a major weakness in the book. Kreeft's approach implies that the two men were of extraordinarily similar minds; in fact he writes in the Introduction that "G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were so close in personal friendship, in philosophical and religious belief, and in the common vocation of fighting a common jihad against the modern world that they were called the 'Chesterbelloc monster'. We could with equal reason speak of 'the Tolkielewis monster.'" (12) But such an approach ignores Tolkien's own words; he wrote in a 1964 letter to David Kolb, S.J., that "It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S.L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his. Also, I personally found Letters to Malcolm a distressing and in parts horrifying work" (Letters 352). Yet several of the Lewis quotes that Kreeft uses to show "the same philosophy directly stated" come from several of the Narnia books as well as Letters to Malcolm. From my perspective, such a contradiction serves only to undermine the validity of Kreeft's analysis.
That undermining is a shame, since Kreeft makes some interesting points. The early sections that focus on metaphysics and what is referred to as "angelology" are weak and do not provide much insight into Tolkien's worldview. But in later sections Kreeft looks at anthropology, epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of language, political philosophy, and ethics; it is in these sections that I found myself intrigued by some of his comments. But that led to me realize a second major weakness in the book. What Kreeft writes in response to any single question is rarely more than five or six pages. Sections that address questions such as "is knowledge always good?", "what is truth?", "is the past (tradition) a prison or a lighthouse?", "can words have real power?", are only two to three pages in length. And the total length of each section includes the use of quotations from The Lord of the Rings, other writings by Tolkien (often from his letters or the essay "On Fairy-stories"), and quotations from Lewis. The result is that an interesting point by Kreeft is barely mentioned before the section ends and he moves on to another question.
A third weakness of this book is that Kreeft makes almost no reference to the Northern traditions—particularly the theory of courage—that so strongly influenced Tolkien. That influence has been examined at great length...