Cover image for J.R.R. Tolkien's sanctifying myth : understanding Middle-earth
J.R.R. Tolkien's sanctifying myth : understanding Middle-earth
Birzer, Bradley J., 1967-
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Publication Information:
Wilmington, Del. : ISI Books, 2002.

Physical Description:
xviii, 219 pages ; 22 cm
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PR6039.O32 Z39 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PR6039.O32 Z39 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Having lost and regained his own Christian faith between his first (childhood) and second (post-college) reading of , Birzer (history, Hillsdale College) found Tolkien to belong to a body of 20th-century Christian humanist and antimodernist writers and thinkers. He explains faerie, or Middle Earth, as a sacramental and liturgical understanding of creation. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Author Notes

Bradley J. Birzer is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. A Senior Fellow with the Center for the American Idea in Houston, he has written extensively on Tolkien, James Fenimore Cooper, the American frontier and American Indians, and Christopher Dawson
Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence at Ave Maria College

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic book, but commentators have shied away from writing about its Catholicism. After all, he also said it wasn't an allegory, so you don't need to know the Catholicism to understand it--right? Perhaps, but Tolkien hoped the book would prove a stealth evangelizer, arguing a Catholic worldview in its setting, characterizations, and plot. Birzer reveals The Lord's Catholicism in five riveting chapters. Middle-Earth is a subcreation, he says, resembling real Creation so that a salvific myth of heroic virtue triumphing over dire evil may be played out in it. The sapient beings (hobbits, elves, etc.) in it form a hierarchy surmounted by God, and evil in it is, as in classical Christianity, the result of willful separation from God. When evil is finally vanquished, Middle-Earth will be paradisaical, but as God's handiwork, it is already profoundly good, and its pastoralism rebukes the secularism, centralization, industrialism, and mechanization (only the evil build machines in Middle-Earth) that Tolkien despised. Essential reading for all Tolkien enthusiasts. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

The past year has brought a bumper crop of spirituality-of-Tolkien books, no doubt fueled by the heightened interest generated by the new film series. Birzer's book differs somewhat from recent volumes on the Christian themes to be found in The Lord of the Rings, including Mark Eddy Smith's Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues and Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware's Finding God in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's spirituality, says Birzer, was not generically Christian but specifically Roman Catholic: the lembas that sustains the company represents the Eucharist; Galadriel and Elbereth exemplify traits of the Virgin Mary; and the company looks to the restoration of a kingdom similar to the Holy Roman Empire. The best chapter of Birzer's study explores how Tolkien's "sanctifying myth" was informed by such Roman Catholic beliefs; Tolkien told a Jesuit friend, for example, that the trilogy was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Other chapters place Tolkien more generally within the usual canon of 20th-century Christian humanists, including his on-again, off-again friend, C. S. Lewis. Birzer is a fine writer who does a wonderful job of integrating primary sources such as letters, reminiscences and journals into his text; he also includes glimpses of unpublished materials, such as a scuttled LOTR chapter about Sam, as well as Tolkien's little-known attack on Lewis, "The Ulsterior Motive." This is, overall, a fine tribute to the man who, Birzer suggests, "resuscitated the notion that the fantastic may tell us more about reality than do scientific facts." (Nov.) Forecast: It doesn't take Legolas's keen vision to see that the renaissance of interest in Tolkien, alongside the continuing American fascination with spirituality, bodes well for all of the spirituality-of-Tolkien titles. Pass the lembas. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In August 1948, Alger Hiss, a former State Department bureaucrat, was accused of being a Soviet spy (he was tried and ultimately found guilty). The case quickly became a cause clbre, the center of the bitter battle between conservatives (long out of power but smelling blood) and liberals over the history of the previous 20 years and the direction in which the country should proceed. This is a collection of 23 essays from such heavyweights as Diana and Lionel Trilling, William F. Buckley Jr., Rebecca West, Hugh Kenner, Sam Tanenhaus, Murray Kempton, and others. They not only comment on various aspects of the case but also shed light on the broader controversies that engulfed the country, such as the defensiveness of liberals with regard to their past support of the USSR, the abusive investigative tactics of McCarthy, Nixon, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the pervasive climate of fear. The publication dates range from 1950 to 2001, so the later writings were done after the opening of Soviet archives, showing that Hiss was almost certainly a spy. Contributors' notes identify the writers and offer brief background characterizing their position on the case. Although it helps to be well versed in the intellectual history of the period, this book is recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Birzer (history, Hillsdale College) offers an intelligent, well-documented religious reading of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), The Silmarillion (1977), and "Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth" (in Morgoth's Ring, 1993). The foreword by Joseph Pearce (author of Tolkien: Man and Myth, 1998, and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, 1999) offers very much a Roman Catholic view, but Birzer is not as flatly denominational. Sometimes, as when he says Tolkien is not interested in the details of evil (e.g., Sauron), one wishes he had considered the characterization of Sauron (developed from the details Tolkien gives) by Paul H. Kocher in Master of Middle-earth: The Achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien (CH, Feb'73), a book Birzer includes in his extensive bibliography. Birzer's book is one a number of religious discussions of Tolkien's works (Joseph Pearce's among them). Most such books are not intended for academia--e.g., Mark Eddy Smith's Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings (2002). Whereas Birzer's study does not supplant such basic studies as Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (CH, Jul'02), it is a good treatment of one approach. ^BSumming Up: Optional. Lower-diversion graduates through graduate students; general readers. J. R. Christopher emeritus, Tarleton State University

Table of Contents

Joseph Pearce
Forewordp. ix
Prefacep. xv
Introductionp. xix
Chapter 1 The Life and Work of J. R. R. Tolkienp. 1
Chapter 2 Myth and Sub-creationp. 23
Chapter 3 The Created Orderp. 45
Chapter 4 Heroismp. 67
Chapter 5 The Nature of Evilp. 89
Chapter 6 Middle-earth and Modernityp. 109
Conclusion: The Nature of Grace Proclaimedp. 127
Notesp. 139
Bibliographyp. 177
Indexp. 205