“Who invented the Stories anyway?”
A Reformed perspective on J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of fantasy
While J.R.R. Tolkien has become somewhat of an cultural and literary icon, some aspects of his work remain under-explored.
In this dissertation, I defend the thesis that J. R. R. Tolkien’s theory of fantasy has to be understood as much in his theological context as in his academic context. We assert that Tolkien’s theory is specifically Thomist in its theological nature. To support this assertion, my first goal is to show that J.R.R. Tolkien’s overall theory of fantasy is based on his Roman Catholic faith. The second goal is to offer a Reformed evaluation of Tolkien’s theory of fantasy to provide the basis for the subsequent development of a Reformed and covenantal theory of fantasy.
Beginning with a brief presentation of Tolkien’s life, we then examine his historical background more closely, paying particular attention to the influence of John Henry Newman in the context of nineteenth-century English Roman Catholicism. Newman’s influence is particularly crucial to the development of Tolkien’s faith, and so to his theory of fantasy.
The second and third chapters explores Tolkien’s theory in the context of contemporary academic debates. Tolkien scholars, while paying close attention to major themes in Tolkien’s theory of fantasy, have at times underestimated the importance of ongoing academic debates in which Tolkien participated. In these two chapters, we consider successively language and mythology to reach a better understanding of Tolkien’s own view regarding these topics. I conclude that, while Tolkien follows contemporary theories regarding language and mythology, his own convictions in these matters is strongly informed by his Roman Catholic faith.
The fourth chapter unites the conclusions of the preceding chapters in order to present Tolkien’s theory of fantasy. In particular, I examine Tolkien’s notions of man as subcreator, the nature of imagination, and his definition of “Faërie.” The influence of Romanticism, especially of S.T. Coleridge, through Owen Barfield, is especially important. In this chapter, the dissertation also explores Tolkien’s underlying theological convictions. In this respect, I present the core of the thesis regarding the theological nature of Tolkien’s theory of fantasy. Relying heavily on the works of Thomas Aquinas and G.K. Chesterton, I conclude that the Thomistic notion of analogy between God and man is particularly important to Tolkien’s understanding of the nature of imagination and fantasy.
Finally, chapter five presents a Reformed critique of Tolkien’s theory of fantasy. Since Tolkien’s fantasy relies on a Roman Catholic starting-point, our evaluation is mostly based on Cornelius Van Til’s criticism of Roman Catholic. We apply Van Til’s criticism against the notion of “autonomous reason” to Tolkien’s use of a somehow equivalent concept of “autonomous imagination.” I conclude that instead of defining fantasy along the lines of an analogical relationship between God and man, it is better to consider that fantasy is intrinsically ethical, rather than ontological.
Ph.D. Dissertation, under the direction of Dr. William Edgar III, presented at Westminster Theological Seminary, 2010 (pdf ‘Who made the stories anyway’ Tolkien’s theory of faerie)