Seeking the Lord of Middle Earth

Theological Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien

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Jeffrey L. Morrow
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , June
     2017.
     188 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532600043.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic Christian, or that his religious worldview undergirds much of his writing. The triumph of goodness over evil, of simple, heroic virtue over corruption, and of a world charged with the grandeur of a deep spiritual reality are all themes readily apparent in his Lord of the Ringstrilogy. Within the modern Catholic Church there has been a push to bring an awareness to younger generations of their religious heritage through cultural media. Thinkers and popularizers such as Bishop Robert Barron (active on social media and YouTube) and Joseph Pearce (who has published numerous books on Catholic authors) have spoken at length on Tolkien’s epic and Christianity. At the same time, there has lately seemed to be a growing interest in the academic community on the intersection of literature and religion (which discipline is an interesting hybrid of “old-school” humanities and the contemporary interest in “material religion”). Jeffrey Morrow’s Seeking the Lord of Middle Earth: Theological Essays on J.R.R. Tolkienis a solid collection of essays on the crossroads of this scholarly fascination and popular focus.

The nexus of popular and academic is represented in the very structure of the volume. The first half is entitled “The Influence of Christian Theology on Tolkien” and is as concerned with questions of popular cultural influence as it is on Tolkien’s own history and intellectual-spiritual development. The second half, entitled “Tolkien’s Contribution to Theology,” is primarily interested in placing Tolkien’s thought within the spectrum of scholarly thinkers (including, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Max Müller) on religion and theology. 

Operating on this intersection as he does, Morrow seeks to ground his subject by arguing for categorizing Tolkien’s work as “Christian literature.” This labeling is rather fraught, however, as Morrow occasionally acknowledges. If a Christian writes a piece of fiction, is it “Christian literature?” On one level, this would seem to be the situation with Tolkien, who famously disliked allegory and who acknowledged in his letters (from which Morrow draws his own insights) that the Christian imagery, abundantly present in the Lord of the Rings, was initially unconscious. On the other hand, if a writer of any religious persuasion writes a work of fiction which draws on themes common to Christianity, can that work be said to be “Christian literature?” If a Christian author composes something which draws heavily on common Christian themes, can that work be read as anything otherthan “Christian literature?” This volume circles around these questions without ever offering a firm answer—which, to be fair, is not really its purpose. Morrow demonstrates well enough that however else Tolkien couldbe read, understanding the role of Catholic Christianity in Lord of the Ringsbecomes necessary for fully appreciating the imagery, narrative, and symbolism used. 

The strongest essays in Seeking the Lord of Middle Earthare those in which Morrow draws primarily from Tolkien’s own writings, both novels and letters. “Fairest of Women: Marian Imagery in Tolkien,” which points out the importance with which Tolkien regarded the Virgin Mary and how characters in Lord of the Ringsas well as the less-well known Silmarillionevoke Marian imagery, is one of Morrow’s most creative essays in the volume. “The Monsters and the Bible Critics: Insights in Catholic Biblical Interpretation from Tolkien’s Work on Beowulf,” which departs from Tolkien’s fictions on Middle Earth and focuses on his work as a scholar of languages and as a theorist on the role of critical analysis in approaching texts, is also worth reading for anyone interested in questions of interpretation or literary criticism. Many of the other entries in this volume, however, draw perhaps too heavily from secondary sources (especially from the work of Joseph Pearce). Still, as a whole, Seeking the Lord of Middle Earth, is broad and accessible enough to be of benefit to anyone interested in Tolkien, fantasy literature, and/or the intersection of religious thought and cultural expression.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent S. Gordon is an Independent Scholar in Palm Beach, Florida.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey L. Morrow is associate professor of theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University and is a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

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