Angelico Press, 2017, 306 pp.
Review by Jane Clark Scharl
“The study of myths belongs to metaphysics, not psychology.”—Nicolas Gomez Davila
It is not uncommon to find a scholarly work that offers a reading of a piece of literature in terms of a particular philosophy. These works set out to find evidence of that philosophy within art, and often, they succeed ably. They approach the fictive landscape as an archeological challenge, staking out the ground and burrowing in search of previously undiscovered traces of some long-lost influence.
It is less common, however, to find a scholarly analysis of a literary work that views the work not merely as representative of a certain philosophical tradition, but as a contribution to that tradition in its own right. Jonathan McIntosh’s magisterial study, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie, is one of those analyses. Far from simply trying to understand how the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas influenced Tolkien’s mythology of Middle Earth, McIntosh argues that Tolkien’s work, specifically his idea of sub-creation, is a unique and vital contribution to the tradition of Thomism, ably clarifying some vagueness that remains in Thomistic metaphysics. He focuses on the Ainulindalë, the creation myth at the beginning of The Silmarillion, but draws heavily on the rest of the legendarium as well as Tolkien’s essays and letters to support his argument.
The mythology of Middle Earth has been subjected to its fair share of psychological evaluations from critics, ranging from those who view it primarily as one man’s effort to cope with the traumas of the Great War to those who see it first and foremost as an attempt to give fresh life to ancient symbols. Though these readings may be more or less valid, McIntosh argues that they cannot fully explain the profound influence the mythology has had on so many imaginations. That influence, he says, can only come from the robust metaphysical structure of Middle Earth. This structure supports a world that is simultaneously recognizable and fantastical and therefore has a unique power to inform our understanding of our own world.
Studies of the metaphysics of Tolkien’s work are thin on the ground. This is not helped by Tolkien’s own insistence that he was not a philosopher, but a philologist. McIntosh acknowledges up front that there is little explicit evidence of St. Thomas’ influence on Tolkien—no heavily annotated copies of the Summa, no secret journals exploring Thomistic thought. But he proposes that despite a lack of overt documentation, there is plenty of evidence of Thomistic influence on Tolkien’s work.
The two writers share, he says, “theological and philosophical affinities,” leading Tolkien to weave Thomism organically into the metaphysics of Middle Earth simply because he himself was so immersed in Thomistic thought. If this seems far-fetched, keep in mind that for most of his life Tolkien attended the pre-Vatican II Rite of the Mass, in which St. Thomas’ writings play a regular part. For example, on the Feast of Corpus Christi in this Rite, the choir chants a long, philosophically sophisticated poem by St. Thomas about the Eucharist. Thomistic ideas and language would have been a regular part of Tolkien’s life. Thomism was in the very air Tolkien breathed, and McIntosh says we should not be surprised that it is in the atmosphere of the world he created.
But the thrust of The Flame Imperishable is not merely that Tolkien was influenced by St. Thomas. The truly intriguing part of the argument is that through the mythology of Middle Earth, Tolkien is able to contribute to and clarify certain aspects of Thomistic thought that remained ambiguous.
One of his primary contributions, according to McIntosh, is the idea of sub-creation, a term Tolkien coined in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He uses the term on two levels: first, to describe his own creative labor in making Middle Earth; and second, to describe the role of humans (and possibly other intelligent beings, as we will mention later) in enriching the creation established and sustained by God. The fascination with creation indicates another affinity with St. Thomas, who is sometimes called the ‘doctor of creation’ due to his intense interest in the relationship between Being and God. Despite Tolkien’s avowals that he was not a philosopher, sub-creation is a metaphysical concept, as metaphysics is the study of Being and how things come into and remain in existence.
McIntosh examines the Ainulindalë to see the principle of sub-creation at work in Tolkien’s mythology, then cross-references to Tolkien’s letters and essays to establish a connection between the metaphysics of Middle Earth and those of our own world. In the idea of sub-creation, McIntosh argues, Tolkien is able to expand on St. Thomas’ idea of God as the font of Being to which all things owe their existence, not merely initially but at each and every moment actively sustaining everything that has being. Tolkien’s idea of sub-creation says that if we, as humans, participate in God’s own Being through our existence, and part of that Being involves the work of creating, then surely we as humans can—indeed, must—participate in the work of creating in order to be fully what we were meant to be. Creation, artistic and otherwise, becomes a essential element of humanness.
This is only one of the areas in which Tolkien’s mythology gives breadth and depth to elements of Thomism. For readers who are unfamiliar with St. Thomas or with Tolkien’s work beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, McIntosh’s study will present a challenge, though by no means an insurmountable one. The clarity of the writing makes the book far more accessible than the depth of its argument would suggest; for the reader with the necessary interest and a good encyclopedia of philosophy on hand, there is nothing here to intimidate. Anyone who is attracted to the title of the book will likely be enthralled by the content, even if it presents a steep learning curve.
The book avoids becoming hyper-specialized, insofar as a book about scholastic metaphysics can; indeed, it succeeds as far more than simply a close reading of a particular text against the background of a particular philosopher. For example, in the essay on “The Metaphysics of the Ainur,” McIntosh gives a refreshingly straightforward summary of William of Ockham’s disagreement with St. Thomas on the metaphysical category called the divine ideas. A reader looking for a primer on high scholastic metaphysics will not be disappointed by the analysis McIntosh offers, and framing these highly abstract philosophical discussions against the background of Tolkien’s creation myth makes them more accessible to a wider audience.
McIntosh’s book is an invaluable contribution to the scholarly literature surrounding Tolkien’s mythology. Particularly in the wake of the popular films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there is a good deal of awareness about the plot and characters of Tolkien’s world, but a great deal of confusion about the metaphysical framework of that world. For all Peter Jackson’s evident love of the subject matter, his films and the surrounding literature do not avoid the temptation to ‘modernize’ and ‘psychologize’ characters (particularly and tragically the character of Aragorn). McIntosh’s valiant labors will push readers to reengage with Middle Earth on a much deeper level, and his book will doubtless become canon in Tolkien studies.
More than that, however, The Flame Imperishable is a tribute to the lasting imaginative power of Tolkien’s legendarium and to its apologetic dimension, which Tolkien himself took very seriously. Even as he deliberately excluded Christian language and symbols from his world, Tolkien hoped that by infusing Middle Earth with metaphysical truth, his stories would prompt readers to look for that truth in this world. If McIntosh is correct, this is exactly what has happened. In a twist of history, the myths of Middle Earth have eclipsed the writings of St. Thomas for popularity today. There are probably millions of people who are passionately familiar with The Lord of the Rings but have never read a word of St. Thomas. But Middle Earth has itself gotten into the air we breathe, and if McIntosh is right, it has brought with it the purifying scent of Thomism and the personal, creative, and perpetually active God St. Thomas loved—a situation in which Tolkien would delight.