J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality & Religion by Richard Purtill (31.07.06)

For years Dr. Richard Purtill lived two lives: by day, professor of philosophy; by night, he wrote fantasy and science fiction books. Weekdays he lectured in classrooms; weekends he attended fantasy conventions. When he retired from his day job, he found more time to write, eventually publishing over twenty books. The professor is probably best known for his two bestsellers published by Ignatius Press: J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality & Religion and C.S. Lewis’ Case for the Christian Faith.

Here I will review J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality & Religion, for which he received the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award (Inklings Studies) in 1987.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality & Religion
By Richard L. Purtill

Product Details:
ISBN: 0-89870-948-2
Format: Softcover, 223pp
Publication Date: March 2003
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Language: English

Price: £ 11.95
Orders: www.ignatius.com

It was one of the first important critical works on Tolkien and was originally published in 1984. After being out of print for a long time, this book was recently published again in 2003. So far as I can tell, the only change is a new preface by Joseph Pierce. This Writer in Residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria College, Naples is the author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, both also published by Ignatius Press.

The republication is due in part to the surge of interest in Middle Earth occasioned by the Peter Jackson movies, and in part due to the interest the publisher, Ignatius Press, has in the book's subject matter. What Tolkien, Purtill, and Ignatius Press all have in common is their Roman Catholicism, and of particular relevance to this book, a common sense of morality stemming from it.

Between the Purtill the critic and Tolkien the author are additional commonalities as well: Purtill, like Tolkien, is an academic who is also an author of fantasy. His conversion to Catholicism in high school came largely through reading C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. During a stint in the Army, he was stationed in England, where he met the Wards and the Sheeds, famous Catholic writers and publishers. In that heady atmosphere he found his calling as a writer and philosopher. After receiving his doctorate from the University of Chicago, he pursued his love of writing and teaching as Professor of Philosophy at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington.

Given the commonalities between Purtill and Tolkien, it is therefore not surprising that the critic is entirely sympathetic to the author. In explaining, Purtill also defends. For the most part the defense is implicit, inherent in the explanations he gives. The strength of his book lies in his description of Tolkien's moral views, as well as how myth is used as a means to convey them. When Purtill works directly with Tolkien's published writings and with comments he made about them in his letters, Purtill is at his most interesting and his book most worth the time spent with it. For Tolkien fans it is nice to have many quotes from his works and letters and from works and letters by his close friends, like C.S. Lewis, woven inside the text. Instead of making conclusions, Purtill helps us to create our own ideas about the subjects he writes about.

The main works of Tolkien taken up by Purtill are "Leaf by Niggle", "On Fairy Stories", "The Hobbit", "Lord of the Rings", and "The Silmarillion". The attention paid by Purtill to the first of these, "Leaf by Niggle" will surprise some readers, but it is I think a very logic choice because of the many parallels between the character Niggle and Tolkien; to understand how Tolkien saw Niggle is to a considerable extent to understand how Tolkien saw himself. "On Fairy Stories" is similarly self-referential in that Tolkien is writing about a genre in which he himself works. If "Leaf by Niggle" is about the relationship between Tolkien and his writing, "On Fairy Stories" is about the relationship between Tolkien's writing and the world. Together, these works give the reader a sense of how Tolkien saw his writing and it is through these works that Purtill approaches the others. 

Tolkien’s best known works, "The Hobbit", "Lord of the Rings", and "The Silmarillion" share a common world, and are treated by Purtill in an overlapping fashion. Purtill's main goal is to separate and discuss the works' moral themes. In his discussion of how morality is presented in the three works, Purtill applies the approach developed in his discussion of the previous two: the use of a particular world and a particular story to illuminate the universal and unchanging. What is the nature of good? What is the nature of evil? How do good and evil operate in man? It is simply by explaining what Tolkien has to say about these themes that Purtill's literary defense of Tolkien succeeds; it is when he is least concerned with defending him and most concerned with simply explaining him that Purtill defends Tolkien best. The rest of the book explores various topics in Tolkienana, such as the real heroes in Lord of the Rings (this heroism is greatly attractive in the movies), and a topic he often discusses at fantasy conventions: myth, fantasy and science-fiction in Lord of the Rings.

Purtill's book benefits its reader in two ways. First, in his explanation of particular moral points that Tolkien makes that many readers may not have caught, but which enrich the experience once understood. Second, and more importantly, Purtill explains how to read Tolkien - Purtill has by no means exhausted the moral complexities of Tolkien's work; he opens the door but ultimately leaves each reader with the pleasure of crossing through and exploring it for himself.

It is not a book to be read for entertainment, and Tolkien fans in search of another fix may find the weighty discussions of the first four chapters taxing, but as a philosopher, Purtill is engaging with serious questions in a serious academic tradition. The book is accessible to the non-academic, however, and those who love Tolkien will enjoy the discussion of his handling of such issues as heroism, virtue, death, free will and creation with reference both to Tolkien's books and his private letters.

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