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Saturday, January 22, 2011

J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality & Religion

I recently read the book with the name given in the title. There is at least one review available. Purtill, the author, who has written a considerable body of fantastic literature himself (I've not read any of it) has a Wikipedia article, and a web page. (See here for the main Wikipedia article on Tolkien.)

J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality & Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003) is a fine analysis of Tolkien's writing. The author makes extensive use of The Hobbit, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Leaf by Niggle, "On Fairy-Stories" and Tolkien's letters. It was originally published in 1984, and the new release is said to be identical to the previous one, except for a Foreword. That being the case, it doesn't deal with the several volumes of Tolkien's work edited and published by Christopher Tolkien after his father's death. I don't take that as a major problem.

Purtill deals carefully with the topics of the title. He also deals with the question of whether or not Tolkien's work is Christian. On the one had, there is little or no worship in the books. On the other, Tolkien has re-told the creation story, which has put some Christians off. He concludes that the books are Christian, and spells out what that means.

The author writes as much as anyone I have seen on the difference between science fiction and fantasy, and what he says strikes me as correct. He also considers mortality, which Tolkien said was the theme of the books.

Perhaps the most valuable part of Purtill's book is his discussion of reactions to Tolkien by Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps the most important writer of fantastic literature now alive, and by Tolkien's friend, C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote fantastic literature himself, and wrote some books and essays on literary criticism. Le Guin has also written excellent works on critical analysis. She states that she is a Taoist, not a Christian. Purtill analyses her criticism of Tolkien, and also compares some of Le Guin's treatment of immortality with Tolkien's. He also compares the fantasy of Tolkien and Lewis, and discusses their assessment of each other's work.

A fine book! Thanks for reading.

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