Do you love the Lord of the Rings? Doesn’t everyone?
Do you love Systematic Theology? Of course!
Then today’s book is perfect for you.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth” by Austin M. Freeman. 432 pages, published by Lexham Press in November 2022. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 and Logos for USD23.99.
I don’t know much about Austin M. Freeman other than what is in Amazon. He is a lecturer at Houston Baptist University and a classical school teacher. He has a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which explains a lot. Because a certain Professor Kevin Vanhoozer is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School as well. But we will come to that in all good time.
Tolkien the Public Theologian
Today we are talking about Tolkien, a man who really needs no introduction. He launched the fantasy genre! Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Game of Thrones and many more fantasy novel could be blamed or traced to J.R.R. Tolkien.
He is the author of The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of books that Peter Jackson directed into a trilogy of movies. That worldwide success soon led to the filming of another Tolkien book, the Hobbit, a single book which Jackson stretched into a trilogy of movies. And last year, Amazon launched Rings of Power, a TV series of this fantasy adventure.
Why has the Lord of the Rings, a book series that began in the 1930s, so capture the imagination of readers and viewers around the world across generations. This could be your great-grandfather’s favourite book. Is it the plot, the characters, the world-building? Tonnes of ink has been spilled over decades analysing the film from all angles.
But maybe, just maybe, the reason why Tolkien’s world is so lasting is because it has so much resonance: there is something in that mythical world that perks up the realities of this present world. Maybe the reason Middle-earth pulls us in is because we are, by virtue of how God made us, attracted to Truth. Truth with a capital T.
Today I am not reviewing Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, I am reviewing Tolkien Dogmatics by Austin Freeman. This is how the book’s description begins:
J. R. R. Tolkien was many things: English Catholic, father and husband, survivor of two world wars, Oxford professor, and author. But he was also a theologian. Tolkien’s writings exhibit a coherent theology of God and his works, but Tolkien did not present his views with systematic arguments. Rather, he expressed theology through story.
And that is the premise of this book. Tolkien was a public theologian conveying theology through story. Freeman has scoured the literature, his gaze pierces books, letters, talks and journals, to reconstruct Tolkien’s theology into a systematic form. And when I say systematic, I mean systematic in the technical, theological, seminary textbook sense.
The book begins with a chapter titled Prolegomena that presents the background, scope, use and methodology. Then we have:
- Chapter 1: God
- Chapter 2: Revelation
- Chapter 3: Creation
- Chapter 4: Humanity
- Chapter 5: Angels
- Chapter 6: The Fall
- Chapter 7: Evil and Sin
- Chapter 8: Satan and Demons
- Chapter 9: Christ and Salvation
- Chapter 10: The Church
- Chapter 11: The Christian Life
- Chapter 12: Last Things
These chapter headings are what you would expect from a Systematic Theology textbook, so when I first saw this I eagerly anticipated how Freeman would fit the Lord of the Rings as well as Tolkien’s other writings, into these categories.
The book ends with a couple of resources.
We have a glossary of names and terms from Tolkien’s fiction, just in case you don’t know who are the Valar, they are the angelic rulers of the world. Or the Maiar, they are the lesser angelic spirits. Everyone knows, that Saruman, Gandalf, and the Balrog he fought in the Mines of Moria, they are all Maiar. (I’m joking, I didn’t know that before I read this book.)
We have a Bibliography which is divided into two sections Tolkien Sources (nearly 60 sources from Tolkien’s own words, sometimes edited by his son Christopher Tolkien) and Secondary Sources (more than 200 sources from scholars, mostly on Tolkien, sometimes on theology apart from Tolkien).
And no self-respecting textbook on systematic theology would be without indices. We have a name index, subject index and Scripture index.
Theology From Mythology
Now that we understand how the book is laid out, I want to spend some time challenging the entire premise of the book.
Systematic Theology textbooks exist because we want to know what does the Bible say about specific categories or headings of God, Creation, Sin, Man, Jesus, Salvation, Holy Spirit, End Times. So I would read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology or Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics to better understand, let’s say, Jesus Christ. I will know Bavinck’s conviction because he tells me directly what he believes in his book Reformed Dogmatics.
This is not so straightforward with Freeman’s book. I read this book to know Tolkien’s conviction, not through Tolkien’s direct thoughts on these topics, but mostly through Freeman’s compilation, selection and stringing together of Tolkien’s writings.
This is an audacious task.
Perhaps this is an everyday task for the literature critic to reconstruct the man or woman behind the book, but I would be very careful to reconstruct J.K. Rowling’s faith from the Harry Potter series or draw a line from the religious zealots in Battlestar Galactica to the personal faith of the creators of the show.
So how far can we take Freeman’s premise? First, that we can know Tolkien’s belief from his stories. Second, that doing this, we can know God, for knowing God is the ultimate purpose of systematic theologies.
Freeman takes the challenge to the premise seriously. In the Prolegomena, there is a section titled “Scope and Use of This Book” and “Methodology”.
The critical difference between J.K Rowling and Battlestar Galatica versus J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s faith truly undergirds his world. Tolkien believes that God is the Creator and that Men are created in the image of God, therefore we are sub-creators.
Tolkien’s faith is real, it is true, it corresponds to reality. That is why his underlying faith has resonance with readers and viewers in the real world. His elves and orcs makes our present reality more real.
Let me quote Freeman:
Many critics have tried to account for the effect a good story has on us with terms like “literary belief” or “willing suspension of disbelief.” But Tolkien demurs. We instead become successful sub-creators, making a secondary world that other minds can enter into. There are then things which are true within that world — that is, which accord with its laws. That is why we believe it when we are inside it.
As I read the book, I continually asked myself whether we could apply the methods Freeman uses here to Greek or Norse myths or Fantasy or Science Fiction stories.
If you want to go in depth into the methodology, Freeman states upfront he does not have the space to explain but he invites readers to read Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s book “Is There Meaning in this Text?” I have reviewed a different Vanhoozer book, “Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends” which you can check out in Episode 50.
Special (Author’s Only) Revelation
Now, assuming you can for the moment accept the premise and purpose of the book, let’s go to a rather revealing chapter, chapter 2.
Let me read the second paragraph of this chapter:
This chapter will be broken down into two major sections based on these divisions. We will first deal with general revelation — here, with how much Tolkien believes pagans might know of the true God apart from Scripture. We will next address Tolkien’s views on special revelation in Scripture and his attitudes toward the Bible, then specific extraordinary revelations such as dreams and visions, and finally his views on the (perhaps) supernatural provenance of his own work.
We have general revelation, special revelation, and supernatural provenance or origin of Tolkien’s own work. This entire chapter is good but I will skip to the last part which is the sensation one.
I’ll quote the section at length:
This section explores Tolkien’s views on one aspect of an extracanonical special revelation addressed to the world: his own writing. While grading student exams one day, Tolkien wrote down ten fateful words without any clear meaning behind them: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Whence did this sudden impulse come? Tolkien seems to have explicitly admitted he believed his work to have been inspired in some sense.
In a letter from 1971, two years before his death, he recounts a strange visit. A man had come to see him with some old pictures which seemed to have been made to illustrate The Lord of the Rings ages before it was written. The man wanted to know whether Tolkien had drawn inspiration from such images. When Tolkien revealed he had never seen them before, the meeting took a strange turn. His visitor asked him whether he believed he had really written the whole work on his own. No, Tolkien had answered, not anymore. Tolkien then tells his correspondent that he has never since been able to believe that The Lord of the Rings was purely his own invention. Recognizing that this is a somewhat alarming and possibly arrogant conclusion, he reasons that God after all uses quite imperfect instruments all the time.
We must make clear from the outset what Tolkien did and did not believe here. He did not believe his fiction was true in the primary world, though he did believe it was not entirely false. He did not believe he was writing Scripture, or some special basis for a new religion or teaching. He did not believe his work ought to be considered “inspired” in the same sense as the Bible or the church’s teaching. But he did seem to eventually believe that he received large portions of it from God by the ministry of angels operating on relatively normal authorial processes — that is, not by means of an Islamic angelic delivery, but in a more subtle and synergistic manner.
Authors often describe the creative writing process in this way: “The characters have a life of their own. The story wrote itself.” It’s said so often it’s become cliche.
But this matches with Tolkien’s experience:
He [Tolkien] says he no longer “invents,” but instead waits until he seems to know what really happened. This sort of independent development is a large impetus for his conclusion that parts of the story seem revealed through him rather than by him. He deliberately chose to work with archetypal motifs, and sometimes characters intrude out of narrative necessity. But he describes the full characterization of Aragorn in tones of awe as a revelation.
I am still fascinated by the idea of theology through mythology. I can’t let go. If we take Tolkien’s impressions of divine revelation seriously, then we are compelled to ask, “Do we listen to him as a ‘prophet’?”. Yet both Tolkien and Freeman strenuously deny writing Scripture.
Is it proper to credit God as the writer’s muse?
Bavinck never suggests that the hand of God was on him while he was writing Reformed Dogmatics. On the other hand, many are convinced that the hand of God was indeed on Handel when he composed Messiah.
Let us, just for a moment, accept that God intended Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings for God’s Divine Purpose. While saying that ‘God intended for this to happen’ is true for any author, Christian or not, for any piece of literature, fiction or not, let us assume God intended something special for Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, hence why Tolkien felt the story was revealed through him rather than by him.
Let us explore, for a minute!, the divine purpose, for a divine purpose is worth teasing out, worth speculating on.
I take my cue from what one Tolkien scholar, Claudio Testi, wrote:
Tolkien’s characters live in a world that is chronologically pre-Christian but metaphysically Christian. That is, he has sub-created a fictional world in which Jesus Christ will one day become incarnate.
Where do myths come from? From a Christian point of view, all myths are man-made, in the sense, they are fictional, they are stories, they are not materially real. We will not dig up the bones of a Medusa, or a Pegasus, or a Fairy. Men as sub-creators, created these myths.
Christians recognise many or all(?) of these myths as pagan, non-Christian, because they convey a belief antithetical to the faith. If we wanted to be harsh, we could say they are lies inspired by the father of lies.
On the other hand, if, big if, God positively wills Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings, then we have a sense that myths can be good, even if they are not real. They convey Truth even though the people never existed and the events never happened.
Just like the Parables! The Parables in the Gospels are not materially real, we will not dig up the remains of the Prodigal Son or the Samaritan Man or the Sower, but the Parables powerfully convey Truth.
Where does that leave us. Is God speaking Truth through Tolkien to us?
I found the solution to this question in Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism.
First I want to say that Freeman is very even-handed on Tolkien’s Roman Catholic beliefs even as Freeman is a Protestant. Freeman doesn’t shy away from them, it is a necessarily important part of Tolkien’s conviction, and we can see that in his devotion to the Catholic faith in marriage, in parenting and his letters. Although Tolkien never speaks publicly as a theologian, Professor Tolkien of Oxford University has thought deeply of his faith and is not shy on expounding on them on specific occasions.
Tolkien rejects the worship of Mary but insists she was sinless and ascended to Heaven. He believes the Roman Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, which is the bread transforms into the body of Christ and the wine transforms into the blood of Christ. And while Tolkien remains friends with C.S. Lewis the Anglican and other Protestants, he truly believes that the Roman Catholic church is the one true church of Christ, if only his friends would come to their senses.
So I commend Freeman the Protestant for not feeling the need to educate the reader on the errors of the Roman Catholic church. He trusts readers would know enough of the difference and their positions. This makes this book a comfortable read for both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Unless you are a Roman Catholic who wished Freeman wrote more positively, or a Protestant who wished he wrote more negatively, you will probably be disappointed that Freeman doesn’t go far enough.
The good news is that once Freeman presents these Roman Catholic doctrines, then it’s easy for us to think about how to receive this book of derived systematic theology and also Tolkien’s musings that the stories were revealed through him rather than by him.
Myth: Christian vs Pagan
It’s obvious when I say it and it is a repetition of what has been said, but this is the way to read this book: We should not read Tolkien or Tolkien’s Dogmatics to establish our faith. We can learn from Tolkien because he writes as a Christian. His faith informs his fiction. He has bluntly said so in interviews.
What this books shows us is how some men are gifted sub-creators. The Egyptians, Greeks, Indians and Chinese have their own Creation origin stories. These stories came about to fill the gaps on what they didn’t know of the One God and His Creation. Even within the Christian Church, people have created sub-Christian beliefs, contrary to the Truth. Making things up to make things better.
Contrary to Tolkien. Freeman quotes Priscilla, Tolkien’s daughter who describes her father’s belief:
without our lives being seen as a journey to God, our artistic or other talents will come to nothing.
In medieval Middle-earth, we have a modern day myth. Tolkien’s myth informs by revelation. In knowing God, God the Father, who will send the God-Man in the future, Tolkien creates a world that co-exists with that revelation.
And it is fascinating how the story, the people and the events in Middle-earth can shed light on that revelation.
Have you ever read any Systematic Theology which considers Humanity in light of Elves, Men, Hobbits, Dwarves and Orcs?
Have you read anywhere a chapter on Angels which compares Gandalf and Sauron?
Have you studied temptation from the perspective of Frodo, Galadriel, Boromir, Gollum? How they failed and triumphed when tempted by the one ring?
One ring to rule them all,
one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all,
and in the darkness bind them.
And a curious side-effect of writing fiction is because it is fiction, Tolkien is free to speculate on angels and demons, heaven and hell, without having to run the theological gauntlet.
Who Is This Book For?
And that leads me to the question who is this book for. If you don’t feel a thrill in your heart when I mention Hobbits, Gandalf, Gollum and the one ring, then this might not be the book for you.
Some of you might look at the cover of this book and think, “Hmm… I know a guy who loves Lord of the Rings. He is not a Christian. Maybe after reading this book. He will be more willing to consider the faith.”
Nope, that’s not going to work. The idea is good, but not with this book. Not a Systematic Theology. You might want to try with another book, “Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through the Lord of the Rings” by Sarah Arthur. I never knew this book existed until Freeman cited it here. In fact, I never knew there was so much research from all angles on all things Tolkien until I picked up Freeman’s book.
Now, on the flip side, some of you may think, “Hmm… I know a girl who loves theology, Systematic Theology, she just goes on and on about Augustine, Bavinck, and Calvin, but I would like her to have a bit of love for Aragorn, Bilbo and Saruman. Maybe this is the book for her.”
Nope, that’s also not going to work. Freeman freely assumes you know the main story, the people, the significance of the Ring and spoils the ending every few chapters.
You see, you will not fall in love with Tolkien’s stories by reading Tolkien’s Dogmatics. You fall in love with Tolkien’s stories by reading his stories or you could try watching the Peter Jackson movies with your friend. If the movies can’t pull him or her, then I can’t see how this book could. Unless your friend is someone like John Piper or some really serious theological geek. That goes wild-eyed at the prospect of reading another Theology book.
Ideally, this book is for those who love theology and Tolkien. The one who needs to be validated in their love for both; to read what Freeman writes here and give thanks, “I knew there was something really deep and spiritual here but I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.”
Let me end with this quote from the book.
Tolkien also offers a picture of the new heavens and the new earth in his own poetry and prose. He is in fact at his most eschatological (and biblical) when he writes of an Eagle that sings a hymn over the rescued city of Minas Tirith. It is here quoted in full, with biblical allusions footnoted:
And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters of Anduin shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for the joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell. And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying: Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor, for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever, and the Dark Tower is thrown down. Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard, for your watch hath not been in vain, and the Black Gate is broken, and your King hath passed through, and he is victorious. Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West, for your King shall come again, and he shall dwell among you all the days of your life. And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed, and he shall plant it in the high places, and the City shall be blessed. Sing all ye people!
Freeman’s footnote traces the eagle’s hymn to multiple Scripture references such as Revelation 22:5, where it says, “And night will be no more. They will need no light or lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.”
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West, for your King shall come again, and he shall dwell among you all the days of your life.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth” by Austin M. Freeman. 432 pages, published by Lexham Press in November 2022. It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD19.99 and Logos for USD23.99.
The next book I will review is by Dr. Stephen Nichols, “For Us and Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church”. It’s a Free Book from Faithlife. Only free available for January. So you can read along with me or you can listen to my review first. Until then, bye bye!