Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic?

I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

—J.R.R Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, wrote the above in a letter to a lady in which he discussed Frodo’s attitude towards the weapons and war.  He was expressing his own skepticism about how much was possible to accomplish for the good of man through the force of arms.  In so doing he quoted a remark of Galadriel about Gandalf and how for many ages they had together “fought the long defeat.”

History often appears to be a long defeat and under its burden we may break, or we may just live for the day and damn the consequences, or we may fight like hell in spite of it all.  In any case, the “long defeat” itself may contain “the glimpse of victory” in spite of the fact that no such victory seems to be written into the historical circumstances we experience.

The Land of Shadow

Whether or not Tolkien was right about the “long defeat” in the real world, Galadriel seems to have been right about it in Middle Earth.  And the sense of loss experienced by the elves was certainly something Tolkien himself experienced, and so at least to him history seemed to be a losing proposition, apart from an unanticipated but hoped for “fairytale” ending.  Part of that experience, though it began after the publication of the trilogy, was the postconciliar crisis.  In 1967 he wrote to his son the following:

Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time. ‘Back to normal’ – political and Christian predicaments – as a Catholic professor once said to me when I bemoaned the collapse of all my world that began just after I achieved 21. I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyally hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord’s followers in His earthly life-time?) I think there is nothing to do but pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty, which indeed only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.

Like Pippin in Minas Tirith just before the storm was unleashed from Minas Morgal, Tolkien could have asked Gandalf:  “Is there any hope?”  And Gandalf would have answered:  “There never was much hope . . . Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told.”  Yet both the Hobbit and Tolkien held onto the fool’s hope.  For the one it paid off, for the other we presume it did and continue to pray for him.  Requiescat in pace.

Tolkien “nakedly confronted the will of God,” with all his rightful condemnation of “primitivism,” his suspicion of “aggiornamento,” and his identification of the confused “ecumenicalness” in the Church of his day.  But it was loyalty and charity directed toward Christian unity—one might say, the heroism of the Halfling—that kept him from capitulating to the long defeat.  In the end, he showed himself to be the faithful Catholic by declaring that loyalty is only proved to be true when exercised “under pressure to desert it.”

Gnostic Traditionalist?

It is thus somewhat incongruous that I, an avid supporter of Vatican II and an outspoken critic of traditionalism, should be defending the traditionalist Tolkien, who showed open disdain for the New Mass, from a traditionalist condemnation of his work.  Truth is stranger than fiction.  Last week, Rorate Caeli published a post on The Lord of the Rings, “The Fantasy of Tolkien was Catholic! . . . Well not so fast . . .”.  The contribution is from an anonymous “traditional priest” whose conference was audiotaped and uploaded to YouTube by Video Sancto, and transcribed for Rorate Caeli.

I say it is a “traditionalist condemnation,” not simply because it appears on Rorate Caeli (heck, if Tolkien were alive today, he could well be a supporter of Rorate Caeli), but because it is presented there as a traditionalist argument against another error of modern times.  In the critique the author sets it side-by-side many other clear aberrations against the faith and suggests that Tolkien is part of the modern problem.  Indeed, Farther X (we shall call him, not knowing his true identity) actually apologizes that no one “at more authoritative levels” has had the courage to condemn Tolkien’s work earlier, and claims it his duty “as a priest of the Roman Church,” “confirmed by a special grace,” to root out Tolkien’s Gnosticism in the name of Tradition and all that is truly Catholic.

Father X thus assumes the responsibility of satisfying a rather heavy burden of proof.  He is not just critiquing Tolkien’s work, or pointing out possible flaws.  He is saying that it ought to be condemned by the authorities for propagating the heresy of Gnosticism.   In my opinion, he never comes even close to meeting the burden of proof necessary to prove his case.

There certainly are some Tolkien lovers who in their misplaced zeal believe that there is only one legitimate opinion about the Catholicity of Tolkien’s writing, just as there are Potterites who believe the Christian credentials of J.K. Rowling are unassailable.  But Father X has gone to the other extreme trying to prove that the only legitimate position of a good Catholic is to swear off Tolkien’s mythology entirely.

One would think then that his reasoning would be thoroughly backed up by thorough evidence, but it is not.  I have to commend him on actually having a working knowledge of the books his criticizes, which is not always the case among those who warn us of books they allege to be dangerous.  But he fails to make use of sources that he must know are available to him, such as Tolkien’s letters (except in one case brief case that itself seems to be gleaned from a third party), his lectures, including his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” and the many volumes of versions, fragments and redactions of his mythology published posthumously by his son Christopher.  This is an important point, because Tolkien was aware of the objections to his mythology and the misunderstandings of what he was trying to do and why.  And he was very forthcoming in his responses.  There are long letters to his publishers, as well as handwritten responses to questioners on many of the topics addressed by Father X.  And the “On Fairy Stories” essay offers precise information on what Tolkien does and does not mean by myth, and why to create it is man’s God given right.

Father X rightly points to the rules laid down by St. Ignatius of Loyola for “thinking with the Church,” (sentire cum ecclesia), which includes, though Father does not mention it, the principle

that we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.

Yet it is the traditionalists who are always reminding us how unyielding obedience to the living magisterium is “papalotry,” if it is not tempered with a critical spirit that plays the postconciliar magisterium off earlier teaching.  In any case, the sacred magisterium, neither before nor after the Council, has had anything to say about the Catholicity of Tolkien’s work, so an argument from authority based on supernatural revelation goes nowhere.  Father X needs to prove his case based on an accurate assessment of the facts, rendering the only thing available to him, a contingent non-authoritative theological opinion.  And even at that I do not believe he has done a very good job.

Use and Abuse

One of the arguments Father X uses against Tolkien is similar to the one adopted most often and effectively by traditionalists against the New Mass, namely, that these are dangerous times in which good people can be lead astray easily, and in fact, there are indeed some very strange things indeed associated with this new fangled thing.  But the same argument can be used against anything that has proven itself the subject of abuse.

If some weed smoking, acid dropping, Dead Head latches onto the allure of the fantastic found in some work of art or literature, it must be poison, or so we are told.  If that were true, then The Apocalypse should not have been included in the canon of sacred scripture, as some of the early ecclesiastical writers argued, and rather placed on the index of forbidden books.  Gnostics have always loved The Apocalypse and have exploited its fantastic imagery, ecstatic language and seemingly esoteric meaning for their own purposes.  And they, as well as other enthusiastic new religionists, continue to do so.  From the extremes of evangelical Christianity with The Late Great Planet Earth, and the Left Behind series to the head banging heavy metal of Iron Maiden, to films like Terminator and TV shows like Sleepy Hollow, to the tragedy associated with Marshall Applewhite Jr. and his sect Heaven’s Gate (mentioned by Father X), as well as that of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, The Apcocalypse has been used and abused continually by those who have little or no regard for orthodox Christian revelation.

Of course there is an immense difference between The Apocalypse and The Lord of the Rings.  The one has been canonized in an infallible way by the sacred magisterium and the other will probably never be the object of so much as an opinion from a magisterial office of any kind.  The point here is that the argument from abuse is just not a very good argument at all.  Tolkien put it this way in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum [abuse does not vitiate the use]. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

I would suggest that just about anything can be turned into a false god, even religious practices.  Tolkien’s reasoning here is completely compatible with the Catholic faith he loved and professed.


Father X goes to work on Tolkien’s theory of myth beginning his well-known dislike for allegory.  This is a good place for Father X to start as Tolkien’s position has always been a matter of debate and on the face of it not wholly consistent, so long as he insists on using the term “allegory” for describing what he dislikes.  For how can Tolkien himself be acquitted of committing allegory in LoTR without excluding the basic definitions of allegory from consideration?  Be that as it may, in his foreword to the trilogy in the same place where he says that he “cordially dislikes allegory in all its manifestations” (quoted by Father X with added emphasis on “all”), Tolkien distinguishes “applicability” from allegory, saying that “the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”  In fact, in the foreword, Tolkien is responding to those who claimed he had some set purpose in mind in regard to motive and meaning, saying

[t]he prime motive was the desire of a taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.

Smuggling the Gospel?

Tolkien was simply saying that he had no intention of deliberately allegorizing because he did not like allegory insofar as it can be used as a method of selling a “philosophy” under the guise of a good story—what Lewis called “smuggling the gospel.”  (This seems to be one of the reasons why Tolkien did not like Lewis’ Narnia series, but not the only one.)  Nevertheless, in one of his letters Tolkien says that LoTR is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letter 142).  And this brings us directly to his theory of myth, distinct from what he called “allegory” because myth has all the depth and symbolism of allegory in its applicability without the intention or at least appearance of manipulation by the author.  It simply is written to be a good story, but the reader is able to perceive more—something transcendently more.

Father X’s response to this is telling:

Why did he have to consciously revise it to be Catholic…? This is a most strange way of approaching the truths of God. It is a statement that he did not set out to make his work Catholic at the start.

Father X misses simply misses the point.  Tolkien did not revise his story to make it Catholic.  He realized he had written a Catholic story without ever intending to and then consciously made revisions in that light of that revelation.  And this is why there is no one-to-one correspondence between characters such as Gandalf and Frodo with Christ, or why at one point Gandalf’s staff may allude to the staff of Moses and at another not (a problem for Father X). There are allusions and typological correspondences, but they are glimpses, like those provided in poetry.  And they are by definition imperfect glimpses.  The moment they become more or less perfect, the story ceases to be a myth or even an allegory and becomes what Lewis called a “supposal.”  Suppose Christ appeared in the form of a Lion.  That’s Narnia.  Alsan is not an allegory for Christ.  Alsan is Christ under the form of a lion.  This being the case, one is confronted with more serious theological problems in Lewis’s mythology.

The moment one tries to analyze the glimpses in the Tolkien myth and organize the pieces one has pulled apart into categories the effect is gone, because the effect is integrally related to the story and it power to delight and move without the appearance of the author trying to convey some transcendent message.  Father X calls this “relativism,” but that is simply because he insists that if a story has anything important to say beneath the obvious, it will only happen if the author is trying to manipulate his readers.  Much of what Father X has to say about Tolkien’s work is based on this error.  He simply does not understand what Tolkien was trying to accomplish.

Scriptural Typology

I would also submit that this explanation of myth is also the reason why, in spite of his protestations to the contrary (i.e., “dislike for allegory in all its manifestations”), Tolkien did not object to its use in sacred scripture, contrary to the attestation of Father X. For example, the allegorical sense of sacred scripture involves typology, usually some person, place or thing in the Old Testament that foreshadows a fulfillment in the New Testament.  But the correspondence between type and antitype, for example, the Paschal Lamb and Christ, is not a matter of human calculation but of divine providence and inspiration.  God is not manipulating the reader.  In some wholly supernatural and mysterious manner, one which does not violate the free will of man, God uses the imperfect objects of true history to foreshadow their fulfillment in the future.

This is not the same as fictional allegory.  It is myth in its perfect form.  Not the “mythology” referred to by modernist scripture scholars, as Father X claims Tolkien is suggesting, but a story that points to something mysterious beyond itself without appearing to have done so by some contrived arrangement.  In the case of sacred scripture, the myth happens to be true.  Tolkien says that in the gospels myth and history coalesce (“On Fairy Stories”).  In sacred scripture, there is no manipulation by an author, human or divine.  This can be said about all the historical books of the bible.

The problem is that Tolkien says he dislikes allegory in “all” its forms, but I suggest what he means its all its uses in fictional literature.  After all, he is a fiction writer talking about creative writing.  I think that on the face of things, it is rash to suggest that he was criticizing the sacred canon.

Imagination or Imaginary?

One final but fundamental point on myth as Tolkien understood it:  his ideas come in part from G.K. Chesterton’s teaching on myth and imagination.  A particularly important source for this is Chesterton’s opus magnum, The Everlasting Man, a book refuting the idea that Christianity is really “comparative” to other religions.  Chesterton gives both the pre-Christian mythological religions, like that of Greece and the philosophical religions such as that of Confucius, credit where credit is due.  This is so because they were honest natural attempts at discerning the truth about the universe, the one through the imagination, the other through the intellect.  Both served an important part in the search for truth, but neither arrived at fullness.  Both were limited by a lack of supernatural revelation, both were guilty of serious error, and neither could be complete without the other, that is, the myth without the philosophy or the philosophy without the myth.  Only in Christianity is there both myth (not a lie, but a story pointing to something beyond the obvious content) and philosophy, the intellectual comprehension of divine truth.  And only in Christianity are both the myth and the philosophy absolutely true (corresponding to the truth, and/or historically factual) and, being found together, complete.

It is only in this sense that a story expresses something that a doctrine does not, a point concerning which Father X takes much exception.  But what would our holy religion be like if we had only the catechetical teaching and not the gospels as story?  We cannot even conceive of it.  Something real and unique, as story, is conveyed by the weeping of Jesus over the death of Lazarus, and His weakness and suffering in the garden of Gethsemane juxtaposed with His majestic and deliberate choice to allow Himself to be arrested.  We would be entirely impoverished if we could not, like Mary, ponder in our hearts, the events that She witnessed, not only the doctrine within, but the events themselves played out in the real drama of the cosmic conflict of salvation history.

Tolkien is not suggesting that myth as fiction has a necessary function in salvation, but one that is connatural to a true religious sense.  Tolkien refuted various ideas of his day regarding the function of “fairy stories” in ancient cultures, and concluded from his studies, in particular way from his study of Beowulf, that language and myth are coeval.  We have been telling stories, that is, making them up, since the beginning.  Languages and the mythologies associated with them have developed simultaneously.  Even ancient myths like Beowulf, according to Tolkien, were written as literature for the same reason he wrote LoTR, to amuse, delight, excite and hopefully deeply move the hearer.  In Tolkien’s mind, the reason for this is that we have been created in the image and likeness of a Maker whose word executes the drama of history.  Man connaturally imitates His creator by “sub-creation,” not by creation from nothing, but by ennobling what God has given us through art.  At the most fundamental level this occurs in language with the power God has given man to tell a story.

This means that the Christian imagination must be taken seriously, a point that Tolkien defended when he refuted in the “Fairy Story” essay the idea that such stories were meant primarily for children.  He makes a cogent point when he says that is not more surprising to find adults who like fairy stories than it is to find them just as interested in the latest gadget as children.  Though not all children and adults have the same infatuation with the latest IPhone, no one is surprised to find both adults and children walking heedlessly across the street with their eyes glued to the touchscreen.  The transcendent character of imagination is something very serious.  In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton puts it this way:

Imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. In other words, the natural mystic does not know that there is something there; something behind the clouds or within the trees; but he believes that the pursuit of beauty is the way to find it; that imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.

Tolkien was not a “natural mystic” but a believer in the one true faith, and he therefore knew exactly where the pursuit of beauty would lead.

Art vs. Life

In my opinion, Father X brings up some perfectly valid questions, without ever producing the evidence necessary to arrive at a condemnation of Tolkien’s work, or even at the categorization of it as “dangerous.”  It is entirely reasonable to question Tolkien, as well as Chesterton, on his view of imagination and myth, and ask just how far one can take the idea that art and imagination convey something that reasoned truth does not, and to ask what exactly is that something.  Yet it hard to imagine that a faithful Catholic could believe that the Church would be anything but grossly handicapped without art.

In fact, in the East the visual tradition of icon prototypes is considered canon, that is, part of Apostolic Tradition.  Liturgical art remains a fundamental aspect of the manner in which the faith is handed on.  Though it is hard to imagine the world without them, the Church could survive without the works of Giotto, Bl. Angelico, Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.  It could survive without the Pietá, and certainly without the Mona Lisa and even without The Lord of the Rings.  But it could not survive without the imagination.  And Tolkien is right at least about two things: we are created in the image and likeness of a Maker, and it is our birthright to tell stories, which hopefully, without really trying to, point beyond themselves to the One who records the whole of history in The Book of Life.

It is also perfectly reasonable to ask how something like The Lord of the Rings compares with the autobiography of St. Teresa of Jesus in aiding to bring about the conversion of sinners, as Father X does.  I would surmise that good Catholic fantasy literature, even that which has the mythic character at which Tolkien aimed, does less than many enthusiasts would like to think.   But Tolkien never set out to convert anyone by his fiction.  I suspect that for Father X, that fact is damnable enough.  But if one is reading or recommending fiction for primarily apologetical or catechetical reasons, then perhaps they really would be better advised to look at another genre.  I think the real power of fantasy like Tolkien’s operates very much the way he wrote it.  It is not going to change anyone because it has been designed or promoted to do so, but it might if one is willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the work as it was intended: as a great epic tail of heroism and perseverance in the face hate and the will to dominate and enslave.  That is an intangible that must be left to the reader and the book.

The Gnostic No-No

Father X’s major contention is that the alleged defects in Tolkien’s mythology are manifestations of the heresy of Gnosticism.  I won’t begrudge him this discussion.  It is well worth having.  After all the Gnostics have always used myth in the form of mysterious sacred texts as one of the principle means of conveying their doctrine and their secrets.  This is a question that is valid for the examination of fantasy literature in general and in particular with respect to the Inkling tradition as it extends all the way out, like it or not, to J.K. Rowling.  In fact, I believe Tolkien’s dislike of Lewis’ Narnia, was more out of concern for doctrine than it was for Lewis’ use of allegory, though I would not accuse Lewis of being a Gnostic.  And Tolkien was veritably creeped-out by what he considered the rather dark and bizarre ideas and literature of Charles Williams.  And Tolkien had serious reservations about the thought and literature of of Charles Williams that seem to have been related to the latter’s sympathy for the occult [see clarification].  But we ought not to play guilt by association here.  If anything, Tolkien as a Roman Catholic shows himself to be careful about his faith and orthodoxy, and distances himself from such accusations, both by his theory of myth and the rather wonky way in which he wrote his fantasy.

Heresy in Middle Earth?

Father X, however, thinks otherwise, and I believe this is largely because, as mentioned above, he altogether misses the point of Tolkien’s idea of myth.  He believes that either Tolkien must have set out to write a Catholic story, or otherwise he must have had unworthy intentions, even if in good faith.  In the light of this, according to Father X, any inconsistency within the perceived typology of the story as it might relate to religious truth constitutes doctrinal error, and is evidence that Tolkien’s philosophy is not Catholic.  Likewise, any perceived similarity with historical heresies in the secondary world is in fact in instance of this heresy in the primary world.  But this is to critique Tolkien’s secondary world as though is was intended to be or actually is the primary world, which it is not.  Again, I am not going to touch upon every problem that Father X perceives in the mythology.  Just keep this point in mind and I think you will see that he is tilting at windmills.

Father X, with the best of intentions, is heresy hunting in Middle Earth.  I don’t know how he managed to time travel that far back into millennia virtually beyond remembering, were it not for Tolkien’s imagination and the Hobbits’ chronicling, translating and compiling.  But, for the life of me, he has.  Even so while there he is playing by rules that no longer apply.  He is no longer is here and now, but then and there.  Unfortunately, he is not aware of this.

The Gnostics of the primary world can and do lay claim just as easily to The Apocalypse as they can and do to The Lord of the Rings.   However, while The Apocalypse is vindicated by the Church, LoTR enjoys no such protection.  Instead, Tolkien’s care for the faith is fortified by the wall of time and imagination that separates the secondary world with its own rules from the primary world and its rules.  This separation for example, does not exist in the Harry Potter series, where the primary and secondary worlds overlap and interpenetrate each other, and where the rules of the secondary world coalesce with those of the primary world, particularly because of the presence of historical figures associated with Gnosticism, like Nicholas Flamel, Cornelius Aggripa, Zou Yan, and real world gnostic practices such as alchemy, the attempted production of a homunculus with the Mandrake root, the practice of scrying and astrology.  I don’t intend to take on the whole question of Harry Potter here.  I just note the difference, without denying the similarities either.  There is, for instance, a scrying pool in LoTR, namely, the Mirror of Galadriel, but I would submit it is not so much the similarities but the differences that are operative here, and the fact that the reader can easily become clear what the rules are in the secondary world of Tolkien, and not so much in that of Rowling.  Clearly, Tolkien does not intend the historical references, while it is not at all clear what Rowling intends.  Indeed, it seems to me that she intends to be ambiguous.

Gnostic Dualism?

Hence, yes, Tolkien’s creation account, Ainulindalë, reads like scripture, precisely because it is already an ancient narration of the beginning of Arda when it is translated from the Elvish and included in The Red Book of Westmarch by Bilbo.  But the idea that it is thus intended by Tolkien to be an alternative account to Genesis in the primary world, as Father X suggests, is ludicrous.  And yes the Ainur, the secondary world approximation of angels, might look like primary world Gnostic demiurges to the primary world heresy hunter prowling around Middle Earth.  But this is only because there is subjective confusion in the mind of the heresy hunter, who might be best served to visit Hobbiton and have a long chat with the master of Bag End before he tries to rope himself any more heretics.

In fact, there is one thing that separates the creation account of Arda, as well as the rest of the history of Middle earth, from the mind-numbing Gnostic intellectual static of the primary world, and that is the absolute separation of good and evil.  There might be instrumental creation in Tolkien’s sub-creation, but good and evil are never codependent. In Middle Earth evil is never necessary and is always the misuse of free will.  It is ever a fall and a tragedy.  But Father X thinks contrariwise.  He counts the escape of Bilbo from under the Misty Mountains by his following of Gollum (The Hobbit), Gandalf’s escape from the pit in Moria by following the Balrog, as well as the ultimate destruction of the Ring through the misadventure of Gollum, and not by Frodo’s agency, as Tolkien’s way of sneakily allowing good to triumph through evil means.  But has he looked to find out what Tolkien himself says about this?  Apparently not.  And Tolkien does have something to say about it (cf. Letter 246).

Frodo and the Gnostics

Tolkien himself does not begrudge those who have a problem with Frodo’s failure at the Mount Doom.  But he makes it clear that he had no intention from the beginning of contriving Frodo’s failure, but saw it a consistent with the logic of the story as it proceeded forward, and felt that Frodo’s inability to destroy the Ring was “central the whole ‘theory’ of true nobility and heroism that is presented.”  Yes, Frodo failed to reach the ideal, something that he himself was profoundly aware of and which left him broken and prevented him from fully enjoying the fruits of victory in Middle Earth.  But Tolkien says that those who judge Frodo harshly manifest two weaknesses: 1) they fail to recognize the complexities of the situation “in which the absolute ideal is enmeshed”; 2) they fail to consider the requirements of “Pity or Mercy” which demand us to pursue the absolute ideal ourselves and manifest the good will of Mercy to others when they fall short.

What Father X fails to consider is that according the rules of Tolkien’s secondary world the Ring could neither be hidden from the enemy forever, nor used to destroy him.  The only possible deliverance from Sauron involved someone attempting to take the Ring back to the fire from whence it was forged in order to destroy it forever.  Such an attempt would be futile if entrusted to the mighty, as the Ring’s power to control and corrupt was proportionate to the power of the one who wielded it.  And yet entrusted to the weak and humble, which seemed the only alternative, the task also involved the seemingly overwhelming risk of failure, both because Ring Bearer would be ill equipped for the task and because the longer he bore the Ring the more inevitable it was that he would be overcome by its power.  (See my post “Frodo and the Machine.”)

For this reason, Tolkien does not see Frodo’s failure as involving moral culpability.  Frodo was starved and exhausted by the time he reached Mount Doom and, by the rules of the secondary world, had never had a choice but to continue bearing the Ring for months, unless he had been willing to allow Middle Earth to fall.  Tolkien writes:

Frodo had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed (Letter 246).

And this brings us to the question of Gollum’s role in the affair.  Is this really an instance of Gnostic dualism? Or of good succeeding through evil means?  No.  Gollum is a tragic figure, who has enmeshed himself in a life of sin and gradually but surely has become a twisted and perverse image of what he once was before he fell.  Early on in The Fellowship of the Ring, during a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf, Frodo expresses his regret that Gollum is not dead:  “. . . What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”  Gandalf replies:

Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.

And then Frodo:

I am sorry. But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum. . . . he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.

Gandalf then gives us the comprehension we are looking for:

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not the least.

Gollum’s fate is not tied up with Gnostic dualism or utilitarianism.  It is bound to mercy and the overarching providence of God.  We see this above all in the primary world in the very matter of salvation when it matters most.  God never wills the evil of the sinner, but in His providence even man’s sins contribute in a paradoxical way to the final victory.  Man will either glorify the mercy of God in heaven or His justice in hell.  This paradox is operative also in the sins of Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate and even those of Judas on the very day of our salvation.  Satan believes that everything is falling into place and soon the trap will be sprung.  All the while he is never cognizant that even his closest allies are in fact unwittingly closing the noose around his neck.  Providence in Middle Earth, just as in the primary world, sees to it that even the works of the wicked contribute to the ultimate victory.  I submit that the other events Father X mentions in which allegedly good is brought about through evil means should be understood in the same way.

Out of the Depths

Father X does not touch directly upon the question of depth in Tolkien’s writing, but I think it is pertinent to the topic of hidden meaning relative to the accusation of Gnosticism.  This is because depth, especially when it is combined with the fantastic, can give the impression of esotericism and might seem to give Father X’s objections a ring of truth.  There has been much discussion by scholars about how Tolkien creates depth within his world, which gives it the appearance and a real measure of internal consistency as well as the impression of a mysterious past.  Such depth, for example, is given through the various, sometimes oblique and mysterious references to characters, stemming from “earlier” oral and written “traditions” of the legendarium, such as those concerning Túrin, Beren and Lúthien.  But the depth that renders mystery and wonder is not the same thing as hidden esoteric meaning.

Tolkien’s world has the “inner consistency of reality,” which is paradoxical, because he manages to give that which is least likely to be believed, namely, the fantastic, the appearance of true history, by bestowing upon his secondary world the complexities and mysteries that are typically present in the primary world.  And it is this combination of unlikeness and likeness of the secondary world with the primary that produces the particular kind of joy and consolation associated with the history of Middle Earth.  Tolkien writes in “On Fairy Stories”:

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” [the unexpected, “turn” or happy ending producing consolation] we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.

This takes us right back to Tolkien’s whole theory of myth and its quality as distinct from that of what he calls “allegory.”   The secondary world is not to be confused the primary world, and there is no direct intention of the part of the author to allegorize.  However, there is a relation of the sub-creator, made in the image and likeness of a Maker, to the Supreme Story Teller in whose Word myth (not a lie, but a story that points to the transcendent) enters history and becomes our salvation.  The happy ending of a fictional story is something we all crave because we are looking for one in real history.  When a story is told as well as Tolkien’s, that happy ending produces a particular kind of joy and consolation that is related to the one we experience in salvation history.

Tolkien’s love for language and myth and his desire to supply for the lack of a mythological tradition in England was somewhat of a nerdy preoccupation to say the least.  He would be more than happy to talk one’s ear off about those things that lay beyond the horizon, some of which he had not yet completely worked out for himself.  But none of this has to do with some hidden doctrine accessible only those to who are expert in the Tolkien canon or who can speak Elvish, or who can wink at each other every time they recognize something clever in the text that others do not.  It is just a very well made story.

Because Tolkien has told his story so well and has given the fantastic the “inner consistency of truth,” we not only achieve a certain kind of consolation, we also “want” the story to be true in the primary world.  Some people appear to “want” that more than others.  But those who can speak Elvish or who can read the Dwarvish runes are not Gnostics.  They are nerds.  They may have no social life, but that does not make them heretics.

Again, many of the problems Father X has with Tolkien’s work would be resolved if he was just a bit more familiar with the background, both of the secondary world that Tolkien created, and the primary world circumstances in which he wrote.  But that just may require of the majority of us more time than is reasonable to devote to fantasy literature, which is probably part of Father X’s problem.

Not everything that is lawful is convenient.  And not everything convenient for one person is necessarily so for someone else.  Fantasy is not for everyone, as Tolkien himself admitted.  And it very well may be true that this or that person spends too much time reading Tolkien, or begins to blur the line between fantasy and reality.  It might even be true that they begin believing things that are contrary to the faith because they simply do not understand what they are reading.  But these are peculiarities related more to the reader than to the author or the book—and they are not even necessarily faults.  They are just things to consider before one decides what to read and what to leave on the shelf.


In my opinion the problem with Father X’s argument is that it stems from a prejudicial reading of Tolkien.  The specific prejudice is his concern about the times in which we live that becomes for him, in my opinion, excessive anxiety.  He fails to provide even a good critique, let alone does he justify an outright condemnation because he does not use his sources well, either because he misunderstands them or because he ignores them altogether.  Thus:

  1. His argument from abuse is a scare tactic more than anything else.  He fails to show why the ancient and Catholic principle abusus non tollit ususm does not apply here, nor does he show why the condemnation of Tolkien should not extend to other things that are abused which we know are objectively harmless.
  2. His condemnation of Tolkien’s work is largely based on a misunderstanding of basic concepts in Tolkien’s theory of myth, such as “myth” itself as well as “allegory” and “imagination.”  He confuses Tolkien’s work with the “mythologization” of the bible.  He condemns the work on the basis of what he thinks Tolkien is saying, without actually finding out what Tolkien meant.
  3. He raises valid questions about the relationship of art with life and faith, and about the relative power of “Catholic fantasy” to change peoples hearts, but he does not investigate these questions at any length but only suggests that because Tolkien might be taken too far he should not be taken at all.
  4. He also raises a valid question about the possible relationship of fantasy literature with Gnosticism, but he confuses primary world heresy with secondary world imagination, again, largely, because he has not taken the time to understand Tolkien’s theory of myth.  Furthermore, what he provides as evidence of Gnosticism is shown by Tolkien himself to be nothing of the kind.  Tolkien’s work has internal consistency, whereas Father X’s presentation of “evidence” does not.
  5. Tolkien’s rendering of the fantastic with the internal consistency of reality brings a great deal and depth and complexity to his myth, but this is not Gnosticism.  It simply makes Tolkien’s fantasy particularly capable of enkindling joy and consolation in the reader.  Nevertheless, it may not be for everyone, and like other things in life should be used with discernment.

The Glimpse of Victory

I don’t know whether the majority of traditionalists or even the majority of RC’s readership would agree with Father X or not, but while I fully respect Father X’s right to argue as he does and completely believe in his sincerity, I think his position is symptomatic of problems found often among those with a traditionalist mindset.

Somehow, Father X has made the lack of vigilance against the alleged Gnosticism of Tolkien a dereliction of duty on the part of postconciliar Church and the namby-pamby, feel-good, all-is-well, head-in-the-sand attitude that prevails among so many Catholics today.  Hypothetically, that is a possibility.  But it is also possible that Father X is a bit alarmist, and that his misreading of Tolkien is based, however sincerely, on his bias, for the reason that the culture of many traditionalist Catholics is mired in an unhealthy climate of fear and a sectarian “we are the last remnant” mentality.

I make no pretensions of speaking with any particular authority about Tolkien and I acknowledge a wide range of perfectly lawful opinions on the matter, including those of Father X.  But I really hope at some point influential traditionalists begin to recognize that they are a small minority of the small minority of Catholics that actually believe in anything, and that the only thing in the end that this kind of argument will do is serve to keep the circle of believing Catholics the weird subculture that it so often is.  I hope that we do not guarantee that the long defeat becomes even longer.

As a good Catholic, Tolkien believed in the power of divine providence, present throughout history, stemming from the “unexpected” turn of the Resurrection.  And so while many times history seems to be a long defeat we know the story that really matters and is woven into the fabric of our existence “begins and ends with joy,” that is, with Christmas and Easter.  Myth has truly entered history and has transformed it.  It is beyond our wildest imagination and hope, and yet it has “the inner consistency of reality.”  Tolkien writes:

There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

So even when we feel trapped, or are convinced quite justly that the world around is a “dangerous place” we have reason to know that loyalty is more determinative, and that there is a “glimpse of victory” couched even in the “fool’s hope.”  Joy will have the last word.  That is our hope against hope (Rom 4:18), and the lesson of Tolkien’s work.

Update: Please see Rorate Caeli’s update, and mine.


48 thoughts on “Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic?

  1. Pingback: Is Tolkien’s Fantasy Gnostic? |

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  3. A very good analysis, Father. I have always considered that Tolkien is a bit over-rated as a writer, but his novels are no danger to the Catholic faith. He has picked up some unsavory fans here and there, but that’s not his fault.

  4. Pingback: Another Take Down of that Dumb Hatchet Piece on Tolkien

  5. @ Rorate Caeli (@RorateCaeli) on February 10, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    I would be more than happy to provide a link to your update if you provide one to the body of my post. You can do so either in your original post or in your update. I am not picky.

    You will get a trackback in the comments and I will post an update with a link.

    God bless.

  6. That is not what I meant: this post of yours is being mentioned by people who despise and hate us and purposefully lie about us as a response to “our claim”. When in our follow-up we make sure to say it isn’t OUR claim, we merely reproduced a priest’s opinion.

    We have NO intent of posting ANYTHING EVER AGAIN on this matter, which is why we will create no link to your piece – but any link to the original post that does not mention the follow-up gives only a partial view of our take on the matter. And our take is that we have no take, since Tolkien or 20th-century entertainment literature is not something in which we are in any way interested. We merely posted a transcript of a video/audio posted elsewhere sent by a priest who is a friend of ours, as we would post anything sent by any priest who is a true friend of ours.

    Anyway, best regards, we will not bother you again. We are sad you are once again being used – on purpose or not – by people who hate us and insult us and lie about us and say the most grievous things about us for no reason whatsoever.

    Have a good life.

  7. “Have a good life” Excuse me?

    My rebuttal of Father X’s piece has no relation to anything happening on the Internet elsewhere.

    I did not read anything other than the post you published. I have not followed your twitter feed or read anyone else’s commentary.

    I do not know what to say to you. My piece was as respectful to you as possible.

    But I will now respond with a link and some comments, which I will try to keep as respectful as possible, even though I am sure you won’t like what I have to say.

    I am flabbergasted that you actually ask me for a link and deny me one. What are you so afraid of? I completely at a loss.

    Is this for real?

    I will get to this in the morning.

    Good night.

  8. Just look at your pingbacks. You know who are the people who always use your posts to lie about us. They say it is all about OUR “silly charge” on Tolkien, and we have NO opinion on Tolkien.

    We are not ASKING for a link. We are saying that your link is incomplete since we had TWO posts on the subject, the one you link to and a follow-up, put up days before this post of yours was up. We are not asking in the sense that you need you to link to us, just to make this complete: since you are not willing to link to it, allow me to post it here. Just this:


  9. Pingback: On Tolkien’s approach to fiction – A Catholic View of the World

  10. Dear Reverend Father

    I suspect the two of us would disagree on many things were we sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the Death of Kings; but on this are in complete agreement. I (as Father X used to) make a habit of reading Tolkien on a regular basis and I concur with your assessment. Whilst I would not class myself as someone who would consider himself as Devotee (Latin & Russian are hard enough let alone Elvish) of the nerdish variety I love the fact that each time I re-read the text of LOTR I spot something new in the Master’s work,

    After having listened to the first talk and 20 minuites of these talks I would say that it is full of fallacies that would make a Thomist blush and that I would advise any Traditionalist to avoid it like the plague.

  11. You’ve put a lot of work into this! I was arguing a lot of these points on a Catholic forum and making heavy weather of it..

  12. Pingback: Behind the Looking Glass, and It Ain’t Pretty | Mary Victrix

  13. Not surprising, Rorate Caeli is whoring itself for new readers, much like they accuse the neo-conservatives of doing. Back when I became a traditionalist 25 years ago, one of the big things that separated us from the conservatives – most of whom where coming in from Protestant Fundamentalism or were highly influenced by converts from Protestant Fundamentalism – was the fact we Traditional Catholics had a deeper appreciation not only for liturgy, but for literature, architecture, history, fine arts and other things of beauty. Our advocacy for Tradition and the Mass codified by St Pius V was part of a broader incarnational mindset.

    Sadly, with blogs like Rorate C, it seems today that roles have flipped. In fact, I consider Rorate Caeli worse than the fundamentalism we traditionalists opposed as traditionalists back in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. With their condemnation of Tolkien’s literature they have become caricatures of Protestant fundamentalists. Much like their confreres pushing geocentrism.

    It is times like this that I am sorely tempted toward sedevacantism, given that Fr. Cekada and Bishops Dolan and Sanborn have done a relatively good job keeping sedevacantism focused upon Catholic tradition while steering clear of stupid controversies.

  14. P.S. Anyone else see the irony in Rorate Caeli’s drive-by-tweet quoting Michael Voris’ condemnation against professional Catholics? Um, how does Michael make his living? That is, when he is not promoting “Lenten Holiday Retreat” Caribbean cruises…

    Like really? This is what passes for traditional Catholic resistance to Catholic neo-conservatism today?

    I am relieved that Fr. Barielle is not alive today to see how approving neo-traditionalist bloggers like Rorate Caeli have squandered his legacy of dedication and hard work preserving and promoting the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius on behalf of the Archbishop.

  15. In the most recent issue of Latin Mass Magazine, Msgr Ignacio Barreiro-Carambula has this to say about novels : “A well ordered imagination that can narrate possible alternative adventures for the life of man can be of service to the Church and to Society, a narrative that can either speak to us about personal experiences or be a vast epic such as the Tolkien narrative.”

    From my own little slice of the world, it seems that Tolkien is a part of catholic sub culture, along with GK Chesterton, and Mozart.

    For someone who does not speak with much authority on Tolkien this is a very thorough and solid defense of him.

    Cheers Father!

  16. Nice work, Noah.

    I’ve never read the trilogy, but have seen the movie. For me it depicts good versus evil. Man’s struggles, perseverence, comraderi, weaknesses, reward.
    A well formed mind will see the good in such books. Thanks.

  17. Pingback: War in the Bubble | Mary Victrix

  18. Dear Father,

    I enjoyed your article very much. I listened to Fr. X’s talks. I think he is reading into things far too much. One might also accuse him of a type of Gnosticism as somehow only he and his trad friends have figured out the truth.

    I think your response is both well written and reasoned. Thank you.

    Rorate Caeli is not traditional. For example, they treat priests with whom they disagree with disrespect ( I can’t believe they called you a Judas). Traditional Catholicism teaches that a priest is an alter Christus and must always be respected even when you disagree with him (especially over a fictional book). Rorate Caeli does not do this.

    I also find Rorate Caeli to be cowardly as they hide behind annonimity. That also is not how traditional Catholics should act. Be men and put a name beside your tweets and postings.

    No one has to like Tolkiem and if you have spiritual reservations about him that is fine also, but we don’t need to create up conspiracy theories about Tolkien’s works.

    Keep up the good fight Father!

  19. Pingback: Who in Arda is called Illúvatar | Ironical Coincidings

  20. Thank you, Father, for such a wonderful, thoughtful analysis. I thought it also pretty timely that Cardinal Burke also wrote a wonderful Lenten preparation article that advised picking up Tolkien as a way to grow closer to our Lord.

  21. Dear Father Angelo,

    I have not heard, or read the transcription of, Fr X, nor (for example) followed up your 13 March 2008 linked Narnia article. But what you write about Tolkien’s thought and work seems basically accurate and just (as far as I can see).

    Two tangential questions did strike me. First, on what basis do you write of Nicholas Flamel as among “historical figures associated with Gnosticism”? From what little I have read of him, he seems an orthodox and charitable Catholic.

    Second, on what basis do you conclude, “And Tolkien was veritably creeped-out by what he considered the rather dark and bizarre ideas and literature of Charles Williams”?

    “Rather dark and bizarre ideas and literature” seems too sweeping a generalization, though there are certainly very dark and bizarre things in Williams’s life, work, and thought. As far as I have been able to discover, however, it is not clear that any of the other ‘Inklings’ were aware of the darker and more bizarre things in his life and private correspondence and so of their possible connections with his “literature”. What leads you to conclude that Tolkien “considered the […] ideas and literature” to be “rather dark and bizarre” or to the even more strongly-worded conclusion that he was “veritably creeped-out by” them?

    Writing his widow on the day of Williams’s death, Tolkien said, “since I first met him I had grown to admire and love your husband deeply” (Letter 99).

    And he first published the “much expanded version of an essay on Fairy Stories, originally delivered as a lecture at St Andrews, in a memorial volume to the late Charles Williams” (Letter 105).

    And, while he told a reader in 1955 that “I think we both found the other’s mind (or rather mode of expression, and climate) as impenetrable when cast into ‘literature’, as we found the other’s presence and conversation delightful” (Letter 159, but cf.Letter 93), as late as 1963, he was referring in a letter to his son, Michael, to “the wise words of Charles Williams” in an unusual exegesis of the history of Cain and Abel found in his book, He Came Down from Heaven (Letter 250).

  22. Thank you, David for pointing out my sloppiness concerning Tolkien’s opinion of Charles Williams. My larger point, of course, was that a discussion about Gnosticism or other problematic doctrinal issues is perfectly legitimate. Even Tolkien seemed to have similar concerns. That being said, I wrote from memory without checking sources, so I overstated the case. I am revising the text and linking to this comment.

    Humphrey Carpenter dedicates a full chapter of The Inklings to the relationship of Williams and Tolkien (Part Three, Chapter 2, pages 120-126 in the hardback edition I am using), and quotes Tolkien:

    I was and remain wholly unsympathetic to William’s mind. . . . I had read a good deal of his work, but found it wholly alien, and sometimes distasteful, occasionally ridiculous.

    Then Carpenter speculates:

    Tolkien did not specify what it was in William’s work that he found distasteful, but once in his old age he referred to Williams as “a witch doctor.” Certainly he was aware—perhaps more than Lewis was—of the importance of black magic and devilry in some of Williams’s books. Tolkien himself had a profound belief in the devil and all his works, and he did not think that such things should be bandied about in popular novels.

    Furthermore, Tolkien’s dislike for the third installment of Lewis’ space trilogy is well known. Also from Letter 276:

    But his own mythology [i.e. Lewis’s] (incipient and never fully realized) was quite different. It was at any rate broken to bits before it became coherent by contact with C. S. Williams and his ‘Arthurian’ stuff – which happened between Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. A pity, I think. But then I was and remain wholly unsympathetic to Williams’ mind.

    I suggest that Carpenter’s speculation is sound. Lewis admitted in Surprised by Joy that he had experienced an ongoing “desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult.” He referred to it as a “disease” and “spiritual lust.” I believe he tangles with this issue in the way he works out the agreement between Ransom and Merlin (Williams’s Arthurian stuff) on the use of magic in That Hideous Strength.

    In any case I don’t think it is a stretch to conclude that Tolkien saw in Williams what was actually there, even though he does not state it as clearly as we might like.

    This does not take away from the fact that Tolkien and Williams were friends, though it also is apparent that Tolkien was a bit jealous of the friendship between Lewis and Williams.

    Regarding Nicholas Flamel:

    First of all, I dispute the contention of many that is possible to draw a hard line between alchemy and the occult. Alchemists and their defenders have always tried to do this, but, in my view the arguments are unconvincing.

    Admittedly, part of the problem is the historical development of science and its separation from magic. Occult philosophers tried to distinguish “natural magic” from daemon magic, knowing that “occult properties” of matter, or at least some of them, had natural, and not preternatural explanations.

    However, basic principles of the occult tradition as it developed in the West, whether from neoplatonism, hermeticism or whatever, all were posited on the need for the practitioner to have special and hidden knowledge, refined and cultivated, which allowed him to align his psyche with the various elements and their planetary intelligences (call them what you want). Alchemy required this as much as any other occult science.

    Alchemists and Mages never quite extricated themselves from the problem that the psychic energies they were trying to harness and manipulate were rooted in the intelligences which they invoked. For example, as hard as he tried to get around the problem, Cornelius Agrippa admitted as much.

    I should also say here that references to the “alchemy” of St. Albert the Great are not probative. There is no solid historical proof that he was a practitioner. He discussed it as part of his encyclopedic work, true. And his disciple St. Thomas Aquinas discussed it as well. The possibility of the transmutation of metals was a legitimate topic of physics and metaphysics.

    But historically alchemy’s practice involved the same principles as the rest of the occult, all of which is Gnostic in character: hidden knowledge; sacred cryptic texts and mythology; the necessity of inner enlightenment. In particular, foundational to much alchemy is hermeticism, which, though it was not know to be such in the Middle Ages, was later proven to be the work of Christian era Gnostics.

    Not a great deal of historical information is available concerning Nicholas Flamel except that he was a real person—a Catholic—and that he practiced alchemy. The rest has been supplied to us by the occultists, for example, the Hermeticists, Rosicrucians and Freemasons. Part of the historical/ledendary (?) information that comes down to us, originating 200 years after his death, is that Flamel learned about alchemy from a “sacred” cabalistic text he obtained in Spain, namely, The Book of Abremelin. The book is an instruction in ritualistic magic that remains a classic text of Western esotericism. It figures importantly, for example in the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and in the mystical system of Thelema, created by Aleister Crowley.

    According the oldest tradition that we have concerning the method used by Flamel to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, the procedure taught to him in The Book of Abremelin was the use of a spirit guide in order to learn how to bind a “demonic captive,” and subsequently to use this captive to manipulate other “familiar spirits.” In fact, one of the chapters of The Book of Abremelin is dedicated specifically the task of causing “the Spirits to perform with facility and promptitude all necessary chemical labours and operations, as regardeth metals.”

    So, I believe that saying, as I did above, that Flamel is a “historical figure associated with Gnosticism,” is accurate, though not thorough and not as damning as it could be. To be fair, however, I should reiterate that it is hard to know where history ends and legend begins, and reason would suggest that he might not have been as bad as all this.

  23. Dear Father Angelo,

    Thank you for responding so promptly, so clearly, and in such detail, and for revising the sentence!

    I thoroughly agree with your larger point, “that a discussion about Gnosticism or other problematic doctrinal issues is perfectly legitimate.”

    And equally with your point that “we ought not to play guilt by association here”, or incautiously fail to distnguish what Inklings seem to share and not to share, and where they concur, and where, differ.

    It his been too long since I last reread the chapter by the late Humphrey Carpenter (my erstwhile academic supervisor!) to which you refer.

    Most of his quotations from Tolkien, there, can be read in context in The Letters, but how fascinating it would be to see all of Tolkien’s marginal notes in his copy of Essays Presented to Charles Williams, and how tantalizing that all we have from Paul Drayton’s recollections from a 1967 conversation with Tolkien (” Sources of Quotations”, p. 272) is the phrase “a witch doctor”!

    Humphrey Carpenter goes on to comment on the first passage from which you quote (p. 122), “Tolkien’s emphatic declarations that he and Williams had nothing in common intellectually […] were made long after the event. […] There is in fact much to suggest that at the time the two men got on extremely well, and did have something to say to each other ‘at deeper (or higher) levels’ .”

    And it is impressive how finely and fairly Tolkien distinguishes things in such later letters. So, he follows the end of your first quotation, “This is perfectly true as a general statement, but is not intended as a criticism of Williams; rather it is an exhibitiion of my own limits of sympathy. And of course in so large a range of work I found lines, passages, scenes, and thoughts that I found striking.” (Perhaps the reference I noted in the 1963 letter to Michael is one of these!)

    The well-known Letter 252 (to Michael as well, not long after the other) also provides an example of this: if he thinks that, due to Williams’s influence, That Hideous Strength ” spoiled” Lewis’s ” trilogy”, Tolkien also judges the novel ” good in itself”.

    Fascinating in this respect is the bantering, teasing, sometimes sharply critical poem to Williams (apparently written near the end of November 1943) which Humphrey Carpenter publishes, there (pp. 123-26), in which Tolkien ” came to praise our Charles” (not to ‘ bury him’?!) – and does, too, among his many criticisms:

    The art
    of minor fiends and major he reveals –
    when Charles is on his trail the devil squeals,
    for cloven feet have vulnerable heels.

    Yet it may indeed be as you suggest, “that Tolkien saw in Williams what was actually there”, or was justly more deeply disquieted by things he saw there.

    As to Lewis himself, my impression is that his earlier “lust” for “the Occult”, followed by experiences he had, including (ch. 13) that of “close contact with a man who was going mad” which he connected (at that time) with this dear friend’s having flirted with such things as Theosophy and Spiritualism, generally helped put him on his guard. But I do want to brood over Merlin in That Hideous Strength, some more!

    Thank you, further, for your remarks on Nicholas Flamel, alchemy, magic, and Gnosticism. Though D.P. Walker seems no lover of the Church or Christian teaching, I think his historical study, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, is very good on the radical dubiousness of any attempt at magic which thinks to avoid the dangers of demonic involvement.

    Almost all I have read about Flamel is E.L. Holmyard’s very vivid presentation in Alchemy (Penguin, 1957). Unfortunately, he does not document his sources, and it is impossible to tell if he has been cautious enough in trying to separate “the story of his life” from “later embellishments.” He saysthat his “numerous acts of charity” included, ” in Paris, the foundation and endowment of fourteen hospitals, the building of three chapels, rich gifts to seven churches, and the repair of church buildings”, with “similar benefactions arBoulogne”. He does not mention any involvement with spirits, other than an angel in a dream offering a book. The eventual book Flamel gets, he call ‘ Asch Mezareph’. (I have just found a 1926 article by Gershom Scholem making the case that this is a Renaissance forgery,,,) One fact, at least, is the survival of Flamel’s tombstone, which includes the inscription, “Domine deus in tua misericordia speravi”.

    My apologies for going on at such length!

  24. Dear David,

    No need to apologize.

    Thanks again for your precisions and the time you have taken. It is very helpful. I am very humbled by your interest here.

    I think we are in substantial agreement. In both cases I had a larger point to make.

    As I say, I did not want to disparage anyone, least of all, Lewis. In the case of Flamel, I merely wanted to point out that alchemy is not as innocent as it is often portrayed. More particularly, Rowling uses characters, whose place in history, mythologized or not, is significant primarily for their use of the occult sciences. Tolkien’s work was not touched by this problem.

    I would be interested to know what you think about the exchange of Ransom and Merlin on magic.

  25. Dear Father Angelo,

    Thank you!

    I have tended to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the light of Holmyard’s account of Flamel, but obviously others may not come to it from such a perspective (possibly including J.K. Rowling herself!). Checking the index of Williams’s Witchcraft (first published in March 1941), I did not find Flamel, but did find Cornelius Agrippa – in chapter 10, “The Philosophical and Literary Movement”, amidst some pretty hair-raising stuff about alchemists! So, I would agree that your general point about alchemy is well made. And I am also grateful for your observations about the peculiariities of Rowling’s work in “the Inkling tradition” and the distinct problems which may be connected with them.

    I’m not sure I have reread That Hideous Strength since I acted as one of Arend Smilde’s ‘resource men’ a decade ago for his annotated Dutch translation (published in 2008: see his site, Lewisiana,.nl, for an updated English version of his very useful notes). But I am enjoying making a start on it, and hope I may have something to say about the exchange you mention before too long! So far, I have started by rereading the last section of chapter nine. It is very interesting in all sorts of ways – including its attention to the interrelations of “soul and matter” juxtaposed to your Narnia post, which I have now read (though I have not yet read the article you respond to, there)!

    In Witchcraft (ch. 10), Williams shows how the seventeenth-century Anglican rector and alchemist, Thomas Vaughan (brother of the more famous poet, Henry) thought in terms of the “high art” of “Magic” having “always been in the world, and that it was this of which wise men in all generations had been aware.” Chapter nine of That Hideous Strength seems to present a sharp contrast to Vaughan, in the way Dr. Dimble and Ransom distinguish between “what the Renaissance called Magic” and “Merlin’s art” which they think “the last survival of something older and different”. Yet they are “doubtful” that it had differed “from Renaissance Magic” by being “less guilty”. And Ransom even expects Merlin “would inevitably cast his lot with the new planners” and the demonic “dark powers who were their real organisers.” An exciting background to the exchange to come!

  26. David,

    Thanks again for taking the time. I have been working on a critique of Rowling for some time but had to shelf it because of other commitments. I do have problems with her version of Inkling fantasy, but not for exactly the same reasons usually given. I think you might already have a sense of that. Hermeticism is really not all that innocent. One can argue that it is only fantasy, but it seems to me there is more to it than that. Anyway, it is a large subject.

    Thank you for the link to Arend Smild’s site. Those notes are a treasure trove.

    Yes, Lewis’s Platonism/Neo-Platonism shines through at various points in his fantasy. I think also of The Discarded Image, and I believe this also factors into his views on magic. The daemons of the air according the medieval model could be either good or bad. Lewis loves the model, but realizes it is problematic, so he remains a bit clingy to the ideal of higher spheres and intelligences and toys with the idea of being to manipulate them. I think Ransom might be speculating on the possibility of a naïve and innocent relationship between the pre-medievals and the intelligences, but realizes, as Louis does, that this is unlikely. The Renaissance Mages attempted to work their way around the problem, but to me their arguments have the distinct flavor of rationalization, which is pretty much the character of any argument for “white” witchcraft.

    In Letter 155 Tokien has some interesting comments on high and low magic, goeteia and magia, respectively, though I really believe his interest is not in historical possibilities. If you have time, see “Frodo and the Machine.” In LoTR both are available to the good and the enemy, but their uses are clearly distinguished. Tolkien continually refers to magic and the Ring in terms of “the machine.” That is the risk of art and sub-creation and it leads to domination, especially when speed and efficiency become the highest priorities. I think the Catholic sensibilities of Tolkien kept him clear of toying with historical possibilities, even if only for literary purposes.

  27. Dear Father Angelo,

    Thank you, once more!

    I have now also read your “Frodo and the Machine” post, for writing which, many thanks! We seem to have our ‘ parallels’. I read a paper at the International Symposium in Aachen on the occasion of Tolkien’ s Centenary entitled, “Magic in the Myths of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams”, and published in the tenth volume of the Inklings Jahrbuch (1992). A couple months later, I read another conference paper which is in some ways a companion to it, “Technology and Sub-creation: Tolkien’s Alternative to the Dominant Worldview”, published in Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon, Turku May 1992, Anglicana Turkuensia No. 12, 1993. It is not impossible that an interested reader might find copies in university libraries, libraries where special attention is paid to Tolkien or the Inklings, or even simply large libraries. (I think both volumes are also still available via the Inklings-Gesellschaft and the University of Turku respectively.)

    I agree about Letter 155: it is well worth reading. In my Inklings paper, I venture to disagree with the gloss to the Letter which Humphrey Carpenter offers in his notes to it. I think that the distinction Tolkien has in mind is the same as that Lewis makes (in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 8) between the magic of “mere illusion” or apparent change, and a magic which really can ” change Nature”, and that Tolkien is here using goeteia to designate illusion and magia to designate the magic of actual effect.

    There are so many interesting and tantalizing questions about the last section of chapter nine of That Hideous Strength and the novel generally in relation to Tolkien’s mythology and ‘the age of Arthur’. How much did Lewis know, and remember, and from what stages of writing and revision, about both Numenor and magic in Tolkien’s mythology and imagined history? I think you are largely right about “the wall of time and imagination that separates the secondary world with its own rules from the primary world and its rules.” Yet at different stages Tolkien imagines, for example, connections between Earendil and the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, or the time-travel of his unfinished counterpart to Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, The Lost Road. (I have not yet read The Fall of Arthur with what I hear are its possible parallels or connections.) So, Lewis could have some real ‘Tolkienian’ content in his imagination of a continuity from Numenor down to Merlin in the time of Arthur. But whatever that time is, exactly (more rereading called for!), the world of Arthur is not unconnected with Christendom. So, there may be the idea of a possible (half-)elven (and non-demonic) ‘magic’ known by Merlin in the Christian Era. The millennium-and-a-half or so since Arthur is also a “wall of time” of sorts, and, while not so extensive a one, and already within the Christian Era, the shock of Merlin emerging into post-war Britain brings with it such matters of the overlapping and interpenetration of the primary and secondary worlds which you aptly note in the case of Harry Potter. Again, interestingly, if you compare Merlin’s place in this novel with that of the Holy Graal and the Stone from the Crown of King Solomon in two of Williams’s novels, and that of the One Ring, Dimble and Ransom are expecting Merlin to be more like the evil Ring than the abused Graal and Stone.

    But I’d better get back to my rereading…

    • David,

      Thanks again. Hopefully, I will be able to procure you work. Here in Rome, that may or may not be possible.

      I have struggled with discerning the meaning of the passage in letter 155. You have shed some light. My understanding is that the accepted definition of magia wisdom/incantational magic (the Renaissance claim), and goeteia demonic/invocational magic (overtly black magic; goeteia means sorcery). This seems to the sense that Tolkien gives them when he says:

      But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia. [here is where Carpenter places the note.] Galadriel speaks of the ‘deceits of the Enemy’. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Both sides use both, but with different motives.

      If one applies the accepted definitions to the two types of magic, then both sides do in fact use goeteia, since, for example, Frodo calls upon Elbereth Gilthoniel when he uses Galadriel’s phial against Shelob.

      But then Tolkien says:

      The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills. The Enemy’s operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but ‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and ‘life’

      This passage suggests that you are correct, but I am still not satisfied, for your interpretation does not explain why one might think magia is good and goeteia evil. Is it simply because goeteia is a lie? In any case, it seems to me that Tolkien is using terminology in a confused way. Perhaps magia and goeteia are not the best choice of terms here.

      On the other hand perhaps goeteia in the elves, that is, in the order of creation, is precisely cooperation in the creative power of Eru as art and sub-creation, and in the enemy, that is, in the order of “perversion,” it is cooperation with the Melkor, who turns what has been created into a lie, for example, in the breeding of the orcs. But I am still unsure why these would not be real effects.

      Still another possibility: Is he understanding magia as “natural magic,” that is, pure science and technology according to the rules of the secondary world, and goeteia as having a quasi-religious significance in terms of receiving personal enlightenment and strength?

      You are right. Tolkien’s wall of time is very thick, but not impenetrable. The length of time puts Middle earth beyond the reach of our race as we know it, save for The Redbook and the other glimpses of faerie we find in our traditions. I believe somewhere Tolkien says that the few elves who remained in Middle Earth continued to fade until their bodies became incorporeal. This is why they are sometimes still “seen,” but rarely and then only faintly.

  28. Dear Father, I came upon your blog quite by accident and have stayed up too late reading it. I have been ordained for 41 years and am just an aging pastor with two country parishes and no energy left to enter into some of the debates. I did not even know there was a difference between conservatives and traditionalists. For forty years I have just tried to love God, the Blessed Mother and proclaim The Lord Jesus. I just want to be a grace filled Christian in obedience to God’s Church. I think every Pope in the twentieth and twenty-first century should be canonized. But I digress and ramble.

    To the subject: It has been years since I read the trilogy but one little detail has always stuck with me. At the end the Shire is safe and happy. All is well. But the elves are leaving Middle Earth and so is Frodo. Frodo is a sorrowing and broken little fellow. He is in need of great healing. Though the ring is destroyed Frodo knows the ring defeated him but for the gollum. He is repentant and no doubt forgiven. However, he is not going all the way with the elves. He is going to an Island along the way where he will be healed and restored and made whole. Do I dare suggest this might be a Middle a Earth variant of purgatory? May I further suggest that grace has found its way into the story? And where there is grace there is no room for Gnosticism.

    Father, I do not usually follow blogs but yours is going on the home page of ipad. Thanks be to God for your wit and intelligence.

    In Christ, Father Bob Bulbrook, pp

  29. Dear Father Angelo,

    Thank you for going into such thoughtful detail about Letter 155. I think that when Tolkien says “magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad”, he is probably referring to some (perhaps Renaissance?) uses of the terms. When he begins the next sentence, “Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se)” he is beginning to supply his own specific definition for the purposes of discussing the matter in The Lord of the Rings (and more widely in the “mythical history” of Middle-earth). “Goetic effects”, in his sense, can be “entirely artistic and not intended to deceive” comparable to “fiction, painting, and sculpture” – or, I would suggest, to the ‘effects’ of the ‘stage magician’ or ‘illusionist’ or ‘prestidigitator’ (or honest ‘mentalist’). This is the character of Elven ‘goeteia’. But goetic effects can also be “goetic deceits” used “to terrify and subjugate”. I wonder if one example of this might be Sauron’s use of the palantir to manipulate Denethor, when Denethor thought he was the one skillfully using the palantir for special discoveries and insights. Perhaps the voice of Saruman is another example, about which Tolkien says (Letter 210), “Saruman’s voice was not hypnotic but persuasive. Those who listened to him were not in danger of falling into a trance, but of agreeing with his arguments, while fully awake.”

    Having done a little exploring with the help of Greek dictionaries, I think Tolkien might be going into the matter of historical uses of ‘goeteia’ for his sense, here. To quote translations available online, Socrates, in Plato’s Republic (584a), refers to “illusions” which “are a kind of jugglery.” Polybius, in his Histories (Book 4, section 20, 5) says, “we must not suppose […] that music was introduced by man for the purpose of deception and delusion”. And Diodorus Siculus, in his Library of History (I, 76, 1), referring to Egyptian advocates in the context of court cases, speaks of “the seeming witchery of their delivery.” The words “jugglery”, delusion”, and “witchery”, here, all translate ‘goeteia’. All have a negative connotation, but I think one can imagine a ‘neutral’ sense along the lines of things like ‘optical illusion’ and ‘sleight of hand’.

    ‘Magia’, in what I take to be Tolkien’s specially distinguished sense, here, means (as he says) ” ‘magic’ that produces real effects in the physical world”, for good or ill. He refers to the beneficent possibility of “fire in a wet faggot”; and perhaps we could imagine the snow storm on Caradhras (I, 3) really might have been magically produced to impede and endanger the Fellowship by Saruman working on the elements, whether it was or not.

    Interestingly, Tolkien specifies that “a difference in the use of ‘magic’ in this story is that it is not to be come by by ‘lore’ or spells; but it is an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such.” He then addresses “Aragorn’s ‘healing’ ” as an apparent exception, noting that he “is not a pure ‘Man’, but at long remove one of the ‘children of Luthien’ ” – which is to say, he has not only Elven, but also Maiar, ancestry, in addition to human.

    Does Lewis go beyond this, when, in chapter nine, he has Ransom think there was “an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know”? Were those “general relations” imagined subject to “an inherent power” that, at that time – after the fall of Numenor, and even, in at least one case, as late as the age of Arthur in Christianized Britain – was possessed or attainable by Men as such? Or is Merlin, like Aragorn, of more than unmixed human descent? On to chapter thirteen!

    (I will just add, I think Frodo calling upon Elbereth Gilthoniel is more like a fictional analogue to “Sancte Michael Archangele” than to an attempt at invocational angel magic.)

  30. David,
    Thanks once again. Letter 155 has always baffled me. Your explanation seems to make sense of it all.
    If you have time, perhaps you could relate this to the conversation of Galadriel with Sam at the Mirror about “elf magic” and the “deceits of the enemy.” Galadriel is herself a bit baffled by the word magic. I take her meaning to goeteic. In fact, I suppose the Mirror would be goetic magic.

  31. Dear Father Angelo,

    Thank you! I am glad to (try to) be of service! I will leave Merlin waiting at the threshold a little longer and think out loud about the Mirror of Galadriel. (I expect it has been given interesting detailed treatment by people who know Tolkien’s work much better than I do, but I have not gone looking for any. Let this be an ‘essay’ which will provide matter for comparison about the subject.)

    In Letter 131, Tolkien says, “I have not used ‘magic’ consistently, and indeed […] Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices of and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter […]. But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art […]. And its object is Art not Power”. He later adds, “Their Fall is into possessiveness and (to a less degree) into perversion of their art to power.” A little earlier he glosses a use of “devices” with “apparatus”, in a sentence that also discusses the use of “inherent inner powers or talents” with “the corrupted motive of dominating”.

    I think there is an implication of legitimate Elven “apparatus” and their use in connection with proper exercise or development of peculiarly Elven “inherent inner powers”. And I think this is what is going on with the Mirror.

    We are given no detailed history of the “basin of silver” and its use with ewer, fountain water, and breath, but it has parallels with the palantiri, which were made by the Noldor, and Galadriel is herself one of “the Noldor or Loremasters”, who “were always on the side of ‘science and technology’ ” (Letter 153). Like a palantir, it can also be used by the non-Elven, and can facilitate distant seeing and mental communication. So, I think you are right to put it in the category of ‘Elven goetic’. Without it, Galadriel can communicate mentally with Hobbits, Men, and Dwarves. (Sam says, “She seemed to be looking inside me and asking me”.) In showing “things that are”, it seems very like any real-world apparatus that could show things going on somewhere else in ‘real time’. I wonder whether in showing “things that were” there is any connection with the long lives of elves and what Galadriel has seen in the past.

    Tolkien says, in Letter 210, “Neither genuine hypnosis, nor scientificticious variants, occur in my tale.” But perhaps some of the function of the Mirror, by which, Galadriel says, “to some I can show what they desire to see”, resembles “genuine hypnosis” (however that works: but, for example, the Wikipedia article on the mentalist, Kreskin, quotes him as saying, “”Using suggestion, I could never make someone do something he didn’t want to do”).

    In also “showing things unbidden”, perhaps the Mirror goes beyond the palantiri. In a draft of the scene, Galadriel says it shows “that which is called the future, in so far as it can be seen by any in Middle-earth” (in The History of Middle-earth, vol. 7, ch. 13). With respect to the future, however, it seems to have no certain ‘deterministic’ aspect, never showing ‘what must happen’, but “things that yet may be”, and some “never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them.” Galadriel also says, “You may learn something, and […] that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous.” It does not provide a ‘key’ to anything, it is unnecessary, you can react improperly to what you see and be worse off or make matters worse by doing so. It is clearly subordinate to moral duty and any properly understood true ‘calling’.

    As far as I can see, if there were something like it in the real world, it would probably not be out of keeping with the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2115-16. (Please correct me if you think me wrong, here!) It is interesting that, speaking generally of the Noldor of Eregion (in Letter 153), Tolkien says, “I should regard them as no more wicked or foolish (but in much the same peril) as Catholics engaged in certain kinds of physical research”.

    By the way, in looking up all the indexed references to Galadriel in The Letters, I read something relevant to Father Bob’s suggestion. In Letter 297, Tolkien writes that Galadriel “concludes her lament with a wish or prayer that Frodo may as a special grace be granted a purgatorial (but not penal) sojourn in Eressea, the Solitary Isle in sight of Aman [that is, “the Blessed Realm of the Valar”]”.

  32. Dear Father Angelo,

    I look forward to it! Together with the realization that I do not know enough about palantiri, or mixed Maiar-Elven-Human descent, a couple further thoughts occurred to me.

    Having to fill the Mirror, and apparently also requiring the breath of Galadriel, seem to act as extra safeguards, whereas anyone can look into a palantir, and they were sometimes entrusted to Men by the Elves.

    There seems an interesting three-way parallel between the uses of palantiri by Saruman (not only Maia, but one of the Istari, and greatest of them) and Denethor (Man: any non-human ancestry? – I am not sure!), and the use of the Mirror by Galadriel. Sauron manages to manipulate not only Denethor but even Saruman by way of the palantiri, whereas Galadriel says, “I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed” – this, presumably with the help of the Mirror (and, I further suppose, of one of the Three Rings not controlled by the evil One Ring).

    Galadriel says to Sam, but implicitly to Frodo as well, “The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds.” Frodo’s first deed, after his experience of looking in the Mirror, is to offer her the Ring: “I will give you the One Ring if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.” As far as I can see, this is no desire to escape either a ‘calling’ or moral responsibility, but is said in all humility. She, however, who is constantly avoiding all perils of using Mirror or Adamant Ring, experiences this as a temptation – and resists.

    In Letter 320, Tolkien writes, “I think it is true I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself.”

  33. David,

    I just added a post, and I am not sure I will get to this tonight. Please be patient. You have given me lots to think about. Perhaps I will make my reply a separate post.


  34. Dear Father Angelo,


    This discussion – for which, again, thanks! – is giving me a lot to think about, too, and delightful and instructive it is!

    I’ve just finished rereading chapter 13 of That Hideous Strength, and want to let it sink in, and mull it around, before even thinking out loud about it.

  35. Dear Father Angelo,

    Merlin in That Hideous Strength seems a very rich and daunting subject.

    I will start of with a reference Arend Smilde does not discuss in his notes at Dr. Dimble’s saying (ch. 13, 4), “Even in St. Paul one gets glimpses of a population that won’t exactly fit into our two columns of angels and devils.” I take it this alludes especially to the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, to “serving under the elements of the world” (v. 3), “the weak and needy elements, which you desire to serve again” (v. 9), which seem to be referred to as “them, who, by nature, are not gods” (v. 8), but are not explicitly described as evil spirits, and seem likened to “tutors and governors until the time appointed by the father” (v. 2). I do not know the history of Patristic and Scholastic commentary on these verses (and other referring to ‘stoicheia’ or ‘elements’). They are certainly the subject of much discussion in our times. I do not think Lewis intends an answer, or an irreverent use of these verses, but compares the matter in working toward a ‘supposal’ which need not be a speculation about reality. Dr. Dimble has already touched upon one thing, and immediately precedes to others that were matters of discussion and assertion. He has referred to planetary “Intelligences”. St. Augustine concludes chapter 58 of his Enchiridion, “I am not even certain upon this point: whether the sun, and the moon, and all the stars, do not form part of this same society [of “angels”], though many consider them merely luminous bodies, without either sensation or intelligence.” Dimble goes on to say, “And if you go back further … all the gods, elves, dwarves, water-people, fate, longaevi.” He comments, “Not all rational things perhaps. Some would be mere wills inherent in matter, hardly conscious. More like animals. Others – but I don’t really know,” All this recalls Ransom’s experience and thoughts in chapter eight of Perelandra, when he sees “veritable mermen or mermaids” , but with a “total absence of human expression”, “faces in which humanity slept while some other life, neither bestial nor diabolic, but merely elvish, out of our orbit, was irrelevantly awake.” He wonders, “Had there in truth been a time when satyrs danced in the Italian woods?”

    We might compare The City of God (XVI, 8), where St. Augustine writes, “What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men? But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one first-created human being.”He concludes “this question cautiously and guardedly, either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human races; or if they are human, they are descended from Adam.” We might also recall what St. Jerome relates in chapters seven and eight of his Life of St. Paul the Hermit about St. Anthony’s amazing experiences with a Hippocentaur which may have been the devil taking “this shape to terrify him” or a real creature, and with the very real creature who says, “I am a mortal being and one of those inhabitants of the desert whom the Gentiles deluded by various forms of error worship under the names of Fauns, Satyrs, and Incubi. I am sent to represent my tribe. We pray you in our behalf to entreat the favour of your Lord and ours, who, we have learned, came once to save the world, and ‘whose sound has gone forth into all the earth’.”

    For the purposes of his fiction, Lewis has Dimble answer his wife’s question. “You think there are things like that?”, “I think there were” – while being about as cautious as St. Augustine was in real life.

    Some of Andrew Louth’s remarks in chapter eight of The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (1981), make me think there may be a further real-life element in the background of Lewis’s treatment of Merlin. Plotinus noted that “the hierarchy of existence is simple at both ends, top and bottom” – “The One and Pure Matter – both simple – are respectively above and below Being, Life, and Intelligence. This observation provides the rational justification for theurgy – magic – which was important for Iamblicus and his successors […]. Since lower beings are simpler than intelligent beings, and therefore participate in higher hypostases, it might be argued that magical practices, using palnts and potions, for example, are more likely to influence higher beings than the merely rational exercises of humans.”

    Lewis may be imagining Merlin involved, not in such theurgy, but in something involving ‘openness’ and interaction with plants, animals, and “neutrals”, non-human creatures which are not animals but also not angels either finally fallen or finally perfected in bliss.

    Lewis also decisively imagines this possibility of interaction as being at least largely in the past, And Ransom tells Merlin (13, 5), “If it were possible, it would be unlawful. Whatever of spirit may still linger in the earth has withdrawn fifteen hundred years further away from us since your time. […] It is in this age utterly unlawful.”

    I will consider this in comparison – and possible connection – with Tolkien in a following comment.

  36. Pingback: Enchantment vs. Magic in Tolkien’s Myth | Mary Victrix

  37. Dear Father Angelo,

    I got to work on my following comment before visiting your blog today, and will go ahead and leave what I wrote, before reading your new post – which will at least give you more food for thought about Lewis and Merlin.

    So, to resume: in the fifth and last section of chapter one, Dr. Dimble sketches “a picture of Britain as it must have been on the eve of the invasion” – surely, the ‘Anglo-Saxon invasion’ – in relation to details of later Arthurian legend. The Venerable Bede writes of the coming of Hengist and Horsa in A.D. 449. St. Jerome died in 420, St. Augustine in 430, the magically-minded pagan Neoplatonist, Proclus, was a younger contemporary (412-85). (The edition, with translation and commentary, of his Elements of Theology – full of his praise for ‘theurgia’ as he understood it – by E.R. Dodds (no relation that I know of!) was first published in 1933 and so would have been available to Lewis before writing That Hideous Strength.)

    Lewis’s imagined fifth-century Merlin would have been the contemporary of real-life magicians. Lewis imagines (without asserting their reality) a possible range of ‘animate’ creatures and creaturely ‘virtues’ (as of medicinal herbs) with which he could, and did, interact. Dimble talks of at least “one section of society” which was “fully Christian”, but thinks Merlin “not evil; yet he’s a magician” and “obviously a druid”.

    The expectation of Ransom and Dimble that the “old druid would inevitably cast his lot with the new planners – what would prevent him doing so?” (9,5) – is, in a striking development of the story (perhaps comparable to that concerning Strider at Bree in The Lord of the Rings) – completely wrong. And what prevents him, is his sincere Christianity.

    Implicit in the critique of “Renaissance Magic” (9,5) is, I take it, a critique of supposedly ‘Christian’ defences of it, such as in Pico’s well-known “Oration”, or those quoted by Williams in Witchcraft.

    Dimble says, “There were possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours” (13,4), or, Ransom contends, even for a fifth-century man in ours. This is a distancing effect comparable to that you note with reference to the departure and fading of the Elves in Tolkien. But, having imagined (not posited in real life) a distanced practical possibility, Lewis goes on to address more. Dimble says (13, 4), “though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t so it safely” in the fifth century. And Ransom says to Merlin, “It never was very lawful , even in your day” (13, 5: with “very” italicized). Dimble concludes the paragraph I just quoted with a real-life comparison: “Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling even he lost something by it.” This is one crux: ought one make a ‘supposal’ not only of the effective possibility of such non-demonic and not power-mad human “use” but also of its comparative innocence and lawfulness?

    Ransom concludes the paragraph from which I last quoted, “one of the purposes of your reawakening was that your own soul should be saved.” This might be interestingly compared and contrasted with Galadriel’s experience in using the Mirror and Adamant Ring and resisting the One Ring. But Merlin must not only resist the temptation to try once again to use “the old magia […], which worked in with the spiritual qualities of Nature” – which he does, submitting humbly to Ransom’s order not to – he must also submit, precisely as “a Christian man and a penitent”, to allowing the planetary Intelligences to work through him as “a man whose mind is opened to be so invaded”. Here is another crux: ought one ‘suppose’ such unfallen Intelligences not only existing and working, variously, upon and through the material creation, but also lawfully working in and through such a willing Christian penitent?

    Whether intended by Lewis as such or not, there are interesting points of comparison with Tolkien. When Ransom thinks of the merfolk as exhibiting “elvish” life in Perelandra, this does not have anything to do with Tolkien’s Elves. Perhaps that is so as well where the first three of Dimble’s list, “gods, elves, dwarfs” are concerned. But not only are Elves and Dwarves characteristic of Tolkien, but in “The Lay of Leithian” which Lewis read late in 1929 and later wrote a commentary upon (both of which are included in The History of Middle-earth, vol. 3, 1985), “the Valar” are also referred to as “the Gods” (and Melian, “divine”, grouped with them). And when Mrs. Dimble refers to “eldila – angels”, Dimble replies , “Well the word angel rather begs the question. Even the Oyéresu aren’t exactly angels in the same sense as our guardian angels are. Technically they are Intelligences.” And he goes on to say it “was much less true in Merlin’s time” to “describe every eldil either as an angel or a devil” than it will be at the end of the world. With this we might compare what Tolkien drafts in Letter 156 to Robert Murray, S.J., that “in this ‘mythology’ all the ‘angelic’ powers concerned with this world were capable of many degrees of error and failing between the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron, and the fainéance of some of the other higher powers or ‘gods’. “ That, for example, Maiar, such as Melian and the Istari, including Gandalf and Saruman, “were embodied in physical bodies”, as Tolkien says in the same letter, is not the same as working through someone else’s body or full humanity. But how comparable, or not, is it?

    Dir ine last example, when Ransom speaks of himself as “known to the Oyéresu” not “by magic from Numinor, but naturally”, we might compare Galadriel letting Sam and Frodo look in the Mirror, or even more closely, the palantiri, with “magic of Numinor” – seen as something Elven lawfully made available to Men.

  38. How did I achieve “Dir ine”? It should read “For one”.

    I also mistakenly spelt Dimble’s “dwarfs” the Tolkien way, as “dwarves” the first time I quoted it.

    For both, – my apologies!

  39. One point to which I had not yet returned, is that Merlin is not like Aragorn in having any non-human ancestry. If Dimble, in a literary, legendary context, cites Layamon, who “goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all. You remember, ‘There dwell in the sky many kinds of wights. Some of them are good, and some work evil'” (1, 5), Merlin himself insists, “I am but a man. I am not the son of one of the Airish Men. That was a lying story” (13, 5).

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