- Tolkien's Cosmology: Divine Beings and Middle-earth by Sam McBride
When faced with yet another book of Tolkien scholarship, it is difficult to strike the right tone of cautious enthusiasm. On the one hand, Tolkien's Arda has been critically poked and prodded more than any other fantasy world. On the other, scholars keep revealing new and intriguing findings about what is undoubtedly the most influential literary creation in the history of the fantasy genre. In Tolkien's Cosmology: Divine Beings and Middle-earth, Sam McBride skillfully and meticulously pokes and prods at Tolkien's world to yield a number of insights into the hidden presence and covert activities of divinity in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by drawing on the cosmology presented in The Silmarillion and using the various texts and drafts of The History of Middle-earth for support. He combines his own conclusions and readings with those of a wide range of other critics, offering the reader an interesting view of Tolkien's major works.
McBride's investigation takes as its point of departure the criticism leveled against The Lord of the Rings by early reviewers who argued that the book contained no religion. Through seven broad chapters, he explores a range of perspectives on how religion and divinity are expressed in Tolkien's works, focusing on the "canonical" books—The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion—but drawing greatly on the plethora of posthumously published drafts, stories, and letters to support or qualify his arguments. Grounding his discussion in a detailed analysis of the creation story of the "Ainulindalë" in his first chapter, the author then launches into a careful reading of the work and presence of the Valar and Maiar spirits (and the possible influence of Tolkien's creator god, Eru Ilúvatar) in Middle-earth over three chapters. Chapter 5 then deals with the thorny issue of evil in the world and, although it is not referred to in those terms, the Tolkienian version of the theodicy: what role does evil play in a world conceived and controlled by Ilúvatar? In chapter 6, McBride addresses the complications of death, of humans and elves ("the Children of Ilúvatar") as well as of the immortal Valar and Maiar and additional races, such as orcs and dwarves. The seventh and final chapter combines Tolkien's notion of the eucatastrophe (a sudden, joyful turn of events) with the notion of hope and the eschatological writings about the end of Arda.
As tight as the focus of Tolkien's Cosmology might seem, it is a book that offers a wide variety of perspectives on Tolkien's world. Given the amount of Tolkien scholarship that is already out there (and I will admit that I have not read all of it) and given the author's generous citing of other scholars' [End Page 251] findings, much in the book will be familiar to a Tolkien scholar, but there are also some quite striking points made. I was particularly intrigued by the thorough analysis of Gandalf and the various forms in which the wizard appears in the three canonical books. Although it is clear that Tolkien re-thought the bearded wizard that shows up at the door of Bilbo's comfortable Hobbit hole several times over the course of the books, McBride offers a way to see Gandalf's development within, and consistent with, the fictional world and its cosmology. Likewise, his reading of luck as evidence of divine interference in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings shifted some of my own perspective of those books, opening up the world for the pervasive presence of a providence in disguise.
One facet of McBride's writing that surprised me in its effectiveness was his use of elven words for part of his terminology. It is a tribute to Tolkien's careful and systematic world-building and linguistic acumen that certain concepts require their own words. Rather than approximating with primary-world, English words, McBride uses world-internal...