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  • “Legend and History Have Met and Fused”: The Interlocution of Anthropology, Historiography, and Incarnation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”
  • Philip Irving Mitchell (bio)

Spiritual alienation of its own greatest minds is the price that every civilization has to pay when it loses its religious foundations, and is contented with a purely material success.

—Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion

In a 1939 draft of his “On Fairy-stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien, the fantasy writer and philologist, noted with interest the words, “ocean of supernatural energy” (OFS 182), a phrase from Catholic historian Christopher Dawson’s widely praised 1929 study Progress and Religion. In later drafts composed around 1943, Tolkien jotted down even more words and phrases with this same import, many as well from Progress and Religion: “Power/Beauty/Zauberfluidum/Sanctus sanctus dominus deus saboath” and later still, “Zauberfluidum Brahman R.t.a. Wakan Orenda” (263). As conceptual sequences, these are quite striking. They include the ideas of magical potency; the ultimate reality of the universe; the order and equity of the universe; the divine power in every object, and the divine power diffused in nature, as well as the traditional Latin Sanctus. Dawson had mustered these as examples of a common intuition of the transcendent in all past and present cultures. It is strange and yet fitting that Tolkien in struggling with a language to describe the power of Faerie and fantasy would do so while pondering theories of history.1 While history and historical theory are present in “On Fairy-stories,” they have typically not been judged as integral to the essay’s meaning, yet Tolkien’s important essay was in conversation not only with Dawson’s, but also with Owen Barfield and G.K. Chesterton’s historical theories.2 The fantasist was addressing in a number of ways the desacralization implied by twentieth-century views of history, anthropology, and culture. Despite their important differences, Tolkien shared with his interlocutors an important pattern that relocated spiritual power at the center of culture; that questioned the impact of current understandings (and perhaps misunderstandings) of Darwinism on human meaning; that rejected the dehumanizing impact of scientification; and that placed the Christian doctrines of incarnation and eschatological hope at the center of the meaning of myth, religion, and history. By highlighting this pattern, I believe we can better see why he chose these writers to buttress his own [End Page 1] defense of fantasy, for despite their differences, each of them appealed to common patterns of theological resistance in the face of evolutionary doctrines.

Accommodating Evolution

It is important to keep in mind that Barfield, Chesterton, Tolkien, and even Dawson to some extent, were writing within a context that had not yet absorbed the 1920s-to-30s synthesis of neo-Darwinism with Gregor Mendel’s work on population genetics. Between 1890 and 1920, the mechanism of natural selection itself had fallen on hard times, yet the belief in the directional transmutation of species, including that of humanity, was wide-spread. Most of these non-Darwinian views were “purpose-driven” models—neo-Lamarckianism, recapitulationism, theistic evolution, emergent evolution, orthogenesis, Henri Bergson’s elan vital, Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy. All of them denied a purely random state, some finding an emergent meaning without a divine intent, others seeing a divine plan in evolutionary history. Despite the new arising synthesis in the scientific mainstream, these earlier views continued into the 1930s in various popular forms, including forms received in the Christian churches. Because they seemed to offer evidence of meaning and value in the evolutionary process, many marriages of quasi-teleology with evolution were accepted and promoted by theists, especially within liberal Protestantism and modernist Roman Catholicism (Bowler Evolution, chapter 8–9; Reconciling, chapter 4).

More broadly speaking, evolutionary thinking in both pre-and post-Darwinian forms had had great influence on all those fields concerned with accounts of the supernatural: folklore studies, philology, anthropology, comparative religion, and comparative mythology, and as a result, the question of origins became paramount for each discipline. The chief questions were essentially the same across fields: why and under what conditions did elements of human culture evolve, and could current “primitive” cultures...


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