A Truly Unique Addition to the Corpus of Books on Tolkien
A Review of
Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth
Paperback: Lexham Press, 2022
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I give equal credit to two books for sparking my lifelong love of fantasy and speculative fiction somewhere around the impressionable age of eight: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I genuinely do not remember which I read first, but I consider myself an earnest devotee of both L’Engle and Tolkien to this day. When pressed, I identify The Lord of the Rings as my favorite work of fiction, though I consider The Silmarillion the high point of Tolkien’s writing, and I have gained much from the voluminous secondary material on Tolkien, especially the work of Bradley Birzer and Corey Olsen. I get emotional every time I read or reflect on quotes like “I do not love the sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend” (Faramir, The Two Towers). Or most especially, which literally brings tears to my eyes every time I read it, “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach” (Sam, The Return of the King).
I write all this to establish the level of seriousness with which I treat Tolkien, only to make the point that I now feel like an utter Tolkien-poseur after reading Austin Freeman’s astoundingly well-researched volume Tolkien Dogmatics.
To mimic an overused aphorism; on the writing of books about Tolkien there is no end. Seemingly unending ink has been spilled on subjects like Tolkien’s biography or the mythology he created in Middle-Earth (see Tom Shippey’s work for what is considered the gold standard on the latter). Yet, somehow, Freeman managed to find a niche within this wide area of publication that has not been exhaustively detailed: reconstructing Tolkien’s personal, specific, theological beliefs. Freeman pored over Tolkien’s body of work, most especially his published letters and personal writings, to construct and present a systematized account of Tolkien’s doctrinal convictions concerning God, creation, humanity, revelation, and eschatology, among others. The result is a book that truly does provide something new in the vast sea of books concerning the creator of Middle-Earth.
While Dogmatics is not a biography, per se, and it certainly does not aim to give a full account of Tolkien’s life, the book is at its most interesting when it presents biographical insights, such as Tolkien’s shifting views on the nature of revelation and whether or not his own work of sub-creation could be an example of divine revelation itself. Or how Tolkien’s own engagement in “sub-creation” as a writer of fiction reflected his own deep beliefs about the way God initiated the created order and called humans into that same work. Or how Tolkien endeavored to make Middle-Earth a possible historical mythology for our world in a way that would not conflict with the biblical genealogies of humanity and eventual incarnation of Christ.
Structured like a typical systematic theology text, Dogmatics begins with chapters on God and Creation, and proceeds in a way that will be familiar to anyone who attended seminary (or, I suppose, reads systematic theology for fun?), but this is not to say the book is wholly unsurprising. One of the most unexpected chapters, devoted to Angelology, turned out to be one of my favorites. According to Freeman, and I think he is persuasive here, Tolkien held to a deep and thoughtful cosmology, which included defined roles of angelic beings, and these ideas indelibly shaped the ways that he treated spiritual, angelic beings in Middle-Earth. Freeman’s exploration of the Istari, for example, as possible incarnate angels, and how they may have viewed their vocation in aiding humanity towards Eru’s purposes and how this points to Tolkien’s own beliefs about the roles of spiritual forces in our experiences today, and also lends an exciting interpretive lens for the fan of Tolkien to revisit The Lord of the Rings with new interpretive lenses. As a devotee of this fiction, these pages sparkled with insights I had not previously considered, but it simultaneously occurred to me that the casual, or perhaps more so the non-Christian, fan of Tolkien would likely be bewildered, which leads me to my major takeaway from reading Tolkien Dogmatics.
Freeman’s work here is reverent, carefully argued, extraordinarily well-researched (multiple individual chapters have upwards of 200 footnotes), generally persuasive, but also highly technical, specific and occasionally repetitive and dry. The reader of Dogmatics does truly gain a new grasp on the contours of Tolkien’s Catholic faith, and especially how thoughtful and reflective he was as a devout member of the Catholic church, and how this formation shaped his output as a writer. It’s equally important to note that I do not think these insights can be found in any other writing on Tolkien, which itself is a remarkable achievement. At the same time, I struggle a bit to know who I could hand this book to, as it requires a significantly above-average interest in both Tolkien’s writing and highly-technical theology to appreciate what is accomplished here. I consider myself a reader who shares precisely both interests to a high degree, and even I struggled at times to pore through the occasionally dense and technical writing and copious footnotes.
In other words, someone who just watched Rings of Power and wants to know more should start somewhere else.
That all said, I genuinely applaud Austin Freeman for the astounding command he has of Tolkien’s corpus, and for engaging the task of constructing Tolkien’s doctrinal paradigm with such care and respect. He truly has produced something unique, which deserves a space alongside the most thoughtful books on Tolkien that already exist.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com