Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (ISI Books, 2003)
Mark Eddy Smith, Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings (InterVarsity Press, 2002)

It goes without saying that The Lord of the Rings is a religious work. J.R.R. Tolkien repeatedly, throughout his lifetime, made statements to the effect that his magnum opus was profoundly religious. The most famous of those statements is from letter 172 (so numbered in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), in which he states that The Lord of the Rings is 'a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.' Such statements, however, immediately beg the question, 'How so?' In The Lord of the Rings religion hardly plays any role whatsoever; the closest to a prayer is the invocation of Elbereth and Githoniel before battle, plus an odd prayer or two before eating.

And yet we have Tolkien stating that The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally religious. This rings odd to many readers who are used to the more overt religion expressed in, for example, Stephen Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle or C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. But since there is no overt religious sentiment in The Lord of the Rings, the close reader must look instead for covert religious themes. That is, the moral structure of the book must be analyzed and compared to the moral structure of Christianity. This is a tricky game to play, however, because unless the reading carefully distinguishes between uniquely Christian morality and other moral systems, all that is really proven is that The Lord of the Rings is a moral work — which is sort of like proving the sky is blue or grass is green.

Two recent books prove this point wonderfully. On the one hand is Bradley J. Birzer's J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth which carefully explores the various themes and structures in The Lord of the Rings to show how Tolkien's faith informed and acted as the skeleton of his writing. On the other hand is Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings by Mark Eddy Smith, which is more like a devotional, using The Lord of the Rings as the holy text from which quaint little homilies are drawn.

Birzer's volume is an excellent extended study on how the Christian faith served as the foundation and basis for Tolkien's writings. After the obligatory chapter giving an overview of Tolkien's life and how the annals of Middle-earth came from the pen of an Oxford don, Birzer systematically looks at the various elements of what is now known as fantasy world-building and how Tolkien's faith acted as the catalyst for Middle-earth, in chapters titled 'Myth and Sub-creation', 'The Created Order', 'Heroism', and 'The Nature of Evil'. He concludes with a chapter on 'Middle-earth and Modernity', setting the creation of Middle-earth within the context of the twentieth century (much like what Tom Shippey did recently in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century). In a brief conclusion, Birzer sums up Tolkien's legacy thus: 'We, as human persons, are to sanctify our own gifts by putting them to the service of the betterment of our selves, our community, our society, the Church, and, ultimately, the world.' These words may be homiletic, but they have 130 pages of scholarship behind them, bolstering them up.

Indeed, it is Birzer's scholarly analysis of Tolkien's work and faith that distinguish this book from the recent slew of books on Tolkien and his faith. Birzer does not attempt to hide his own Catholic faith, but as a Catholic he brings sensitivity and understanding to the positions Tolkien most likely held. This is most apparent in the chapter on the nature of evil, a question that has plagued Christian thought since even before Thomas Aquinas, whose formulation of evil as the lack or perversion of goodness Tolkien used as a basis for the evil of Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman. In his analysis, Birzer states that "Tolkien believed that a virtuous person should understand that evil exists, but should acknowledge or act on little more than that."

In comparison to Birzer's accomplished analysis is Mark Eddy Smith's Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues, which reads like a homiletic devotional with thirty chapters over the course of 130 pages, each looking at a particular virtue as expressed in Tolkien's writing, and how an individual can learn from each of them. That is, we have thirty 'moral of this story' lessons captured between the covers. Even though the book is published by an overtly Christian publishing house (InterVarsity Press is the publishing arm of InterVarsity Fellowship, a college-campus ministry), there is very little in this book that distinguishes the virtues of Middle-earth from the virtues of many another book. The chapters include suffering, humility, courage, wisdom, hope, imagination — none of which is explicitly Christian, nor does Smith explicitly connect the dots to show how Tolkien's faith informed these virtues. Even the two chapters (of thirty!) that look at explicitly Christian themes (atonement and resurrection) do not draw out how the idea of resurrection in The Lord of the Rings is explicitly Christian, or even of what value such a virtue may be (if 'resurrection' can be considered a virtue). Instead, we are treated to a statement of fact — Gandalf experiences a resurrection — and then a couple pages of thin watery gruel with statements like 'Every morning ... is a resurrection of sorts.'

Perhaps we can see the difference between these two books if we look at their subtitles. Birzer's book is subtitled 'Understanding Middle-earth', a conscious attempt to submit to the text and learn from it, whereas Smith's subtitle is 'Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings,' which conveys a much more haughty attitude of superiority over the text. Indeed, Birzer provides us with the means to chew and savor the flavor of one of the greatest fantasy works of the twentieth century. Smith, on the other hand, gives us a pre-digested serving, reducing The Lord of the Rings to so much pap.

[Matthew Scott Winslow]