12 March 2017

Tolkien Cosmology Update

I recently updated The Cosmology of Tolkien on The Pilgrim Path/Proto-Protestantism website. The link is here if anyone is interested, followed by the additions I made.

Reeves might pursue a different line and delve into the Angelology of the Deutero-canonical books recognised by Rome as well as additional apocryphal works such as that of 1 Enoch. This would be a worthwhile endeavour but I doubt Reeves would want to explore it. The wider implications in terms of theology, hermeneutics and indeed one's understanding of Genesis would certainly generate discomfort and potentially destroy one's credibility within denominational and academic settings.
Regardless, even if this avenue is pursued, the Sub-Creation doctrine advocated by Tolkien is not a product of the Angel-Watcher stories mentioned in these works. Nor does the New Testament reflect such a teaching in its citation and appropriation of these works and the cosmology they represent. In other words, the New Testament recognises certain aspects of the Angelology posited by Enoch and yet one will scarcely find these interactions with regard to angels and men to be positive. Not only does it result in a profoundly condemned episode it also leads (according to Enoch) to cultural exchanges that are also portrayed as wicked and transgressive. There's no concept of angelic-hierarchical sub-creation, nor is it passed on to mankind.

We could explore 'principalities and powers' and the question of the Divine Council as expressed in the Psalms and the imagery of Eden and Har Magedon. We could discuss the multifaceted meaning of Elohim and other terms referencing 'gods' within Scripture but once again I'm sure Reeves would not wish to pursue such a discussion and I'm willing to be corrected, but I doubt Tolkien was the immersed in Scriptural study to come up with that on his own. Rather, unless someone can show me otherwise I would have to still contend that Tolkien's influences in terms of his cosmology are reflections of Neo-Platonic influenced Roman Catholicism and hierarchical polytheism as reflected in the Pagan Western tradition. Rome in its focus on Catholicity has been able to synthesise these various tendencies in a way no one else can. This is not meant as a compliment or something praiseworthy. It's simply a statement of what Rome represents. For Tolkien, Rome stands for Divine Truth and signifies the Spirit's Presence on Earth. 


  1. What was the occasion to update this article? Was it something you read or have been thinking about?

  2. It was something I was thinking about at the time, didn't include it and then meant to within a few days of publication. I finally got around to it. There's a Christian/Biblical argument to be made for hierarchies but like I said I don't think Reeves or most Evangelicals for that matter want to go there. And it's not reflected in Tolkien's view anyway.

  3. I wonder if Tolkien's cosmological problems are evidence of theological problems in a doctrine of God. Part of the reason why the Latin/Roman Church developed elaborated cosmologies was, in part, a reflection of Feudalistic notions of relation and covenant. But it might also reflect problems of how God relates to the world He made. With demiurgic angels and watchers, Tolkien avoids this problem. But of course, theologically, it's inexplicable how the Creator-God can be said to love His creation (according to Thomas, he can't really) or how we might even speak of a Trinity. Tolkien relies on Platonistic cosmology to square the circle.

    But then, again, this depends on whether Tolkien was actually trying to make an adequate cosmology. This is why I prefer Tolkien infinitely to Lewis. With the latter, there's an expressed intention to make an allegory. With Tolkien, it's not so simple. Hence, you can have multiple Christ characters (Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo), none of which are sufficient in themselves, nor are they added together for something else. So, what Reeves is trying to do is an exercise in missing the point. It's why Tolkien's work is neither Christian nor Pagan, but Fantasy, a play of figures that reveals truth in an abstracted, playful, manner. Lewis, on the other hand, is more akin to propaganda, and is woefully defective for numerous reasons.

  4. What do you mean by Fuedalistic notions of relation and covenant. Do you mean hierarchical?

    I would be mighty curious to know how Tolkien and Lewis developed some of their ideas concerning hierarchies etc... Again, there's the apocryphal and Enochian tradition and there's Neo-Platonism. Sometimes I almost wonder if they probed into some Mesopotamian stuff.

    That's the rub between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien is less explicitly Christian and so you can just say, it's fantasy. Lewis' writings are more overtly Christian and so therefore you have to scrutinise them more carefully.

    I think Aragorn, Gandalf and Bilbo were Tolkien's visions of himself or what he desired to be in different contexts. Of course Gandalf is basically an angel on a messianic mission.

    Lewis' theology is defective and it comes out at times in his writings, but on the other hand he seemed to possess a fairly profound knowledge of the faith. He of course doesn't qualify as an Evangelical... how strange that they are so drawn to him... and yet in another sense he runs circles around them.

    I would assume you've read the Narnia books. Did you ever read his Space Trilogy?

  5. I mean hierarchical, but in a certain way. The idea of a Heavenly hierarchy was not unknown (and not necessarily unbiblical), but it took on certain forms in the feudal context of Europe. There were patron/client relations, covenant became structured in the honor based foedus, where noblesse oblige became a paradigm of social structures. This gets projected up. I think of how Luther cried out to St. Anne because Mary had become inaccessible (as the story goes) and Anselm's substitutionary atonement consisting in contracted honor.

    I assumed, since Tolkien was so drenched in Norse and Anglo-Germanic language and culture, a lot of this seeped into his world. I mean, Elves and Dwarves are Norse creatures. There was probably neo-Platonic stuff, but it was filtered through the Germans who became heirs to Latin philosophy viz. theologians like Augustine. This was the kind of Catholic Tolkien was, not uncritical, but certainly infatuated with a Medieval past, one he certainly would scoff at being some kind of Dark Ages.

    I wrote about this, partly as an elaboration on your own piece, but I think because Tolkien is fantasy, I can engage with it more powerfully. It's a play of types and figures, virtues personified. It's why, in some ways, the characters can be relatively flat, it's because they're not intended to reflect real personages. They're constellation characters. It's not that we must model ourselves after one or another.

    The problem is if you take these characters too literally. If we do that, we see an author who has childlike simplicity and lives in a world of stark contrasts. Maybe part of that is true, but if you have any familiarity with Tolkien's letters to his son Christopher, or his own role in Lewis' conversion, he's certainly not child. LOTR is, in a way, to unmask the deeper cultural struggles without crude parallels.

    Lewis, however, did something else, in my opinion. This is why Tolkien was so critical about Narnia. I don't want to read into Tolkien's criticisms, but my own opinion of Lewis is that Narnia is trashy propaganda. It's an abuse of the Gospel and the Scripture. I know it's a hard indictment, but its embrace by American Evangelicalism is almost sufficient evidence of its value. This isn't judging Lewis' faith, or the faith revealed in Narnia, but rather the genre itself the book is written in. I put Narnia in the category of Veggie Tales and puppet-shows, I think it harms the faith in the long run than helps.

    I only read Out of the Silent Planet. I liked it a lot. I thought Lewis did a better job with it. However, I never continued on because, after reading summaries and reviews of That Hideous Strength, I realized the series spins out of control. I really didn't want to read a flat conservative critique of the 20th century, I already was pretty familiar with that. As a cultural critic, I think Lewis was not terribly insightful.

    At the end of the day, I think Tolkien has more interesting things to say. Lewis was far too comfortable with the King & Country Toryism that made up the Empire. Tolkien, on the otherhand, was scarred forever by the First World War and his own Roman Catholicism made him uneasy with British nationalism.

    1. I see, you are relating foedus to feudal. Sacred binding authoritative pacts is one way to look at it. The analogy is warranted even if it would not have the same meaning in our context. Although that alone is illustrative isn't it? We will tend to read these issues in light of our own sitz im leben.
      Chelcicky absolutely rips on the Feudal order. He was opposed to be it being reckoned 'Christian' in any sense. His critiques seem dated today and yet if you understand the foundational issues they are fully applicable today even if feudalism (in that form) is long gone.
      I'm familiar with Tolkien's part in Lewis' conversion but I am unfamiliar with his letters to Christopher. I recall hearing about their correspondence during the war (if I'm not mistaken) and how Tolkien would send him drafts of LOTR, with explanatory notes... if I have all that right. But I'm not familiar with their content.
      Narnia as propaganda. Okay, I can accept that. Propaganda doesn't always carry a negative connotation.
      Veggie Tales? Ouch. That's too much. That's like comparing finger-painting with Bob Ross. The latter is good, but not great but he's still a lot better than pre-school fun time.
      Harms the faith? I can see your point and I've wrestled with it myself. I had no problem with my kids reading Narnia... but you can be sure we were going to talk about it... and still do. The illustrations are handy and yet they're often used negatively. Here's where Lewis was right...and wrong. Things on that order.
      The Space Trilogy is tedious and not the most enjoyable read. But, he's wrestling with some very interesting issues. His dystopian vision is today something of a caricature but it wasn't back then. Some of his work is definitely dated.
      They were both complex men. I was surprised recently to read about Tolkien's response to Francoist Spain. He disliked Nazism but he was quite amenable to Francoism. He detested Protestantism and what it had done to the world. I understand his point but his Medieval 'solution' is to me just as problematic.

    2. I believe there's a book that has the letters edited and formatted. It's there you can see, over the years, Tolkien's interesting side. I only know bits and pieces, and haven't had the time to dig deeper, but the little I know makes me appreciate him. This includes the Francoist bit. I didn't know that particularly, but Tolkien was a critic of British parliamentarianism and the supposed benefits of a liberal order. Even if I don't agree with him, he's thinking about these things in a more radical way, gets at deeper issues. He certainly wasn't an apologist for his own country.

      I am being pretty brutal with Narnia. In part, I'm just sick of Lewis, especially the way he is wheeled about as a Norman Rockwell kind of figure. I call it propaganda because of the medium of the literature. It is has strict parallels to existing phenomena in a way that fantasy is usually more playful and abstract with. Aslan is clearly an allegory (or, in some ways, just a transposition) of Christ. Frodo? It's not quite clear. It's more of an idea, namely the Suffering Servant or something of the like. I don't want to feel like I am paralleling two stories and have to play compare and contrast. Narnia constantly blurs boundaries, I'm bound to be locked in its bizarre dialectical space between real life and fiction. Specifically, I'm thinking about the scene where Aslan tells the children to find "him" in their own world. What world is that? Fictional England or what? That's why I put it in the category (though of a much stronger calibur) as Veggie Tales. The book has a purpose, in a way that LOTR, or other high fantasy, doesn't. That's what makes it propaganda and, I think, it cheapens the faith. I feel like its a type of sales pitch, tricking people (particularly peoples' children) into Biblical stories without them knowing it. Is that what being evangelistic or missional is about?

      I know people laud Lewis, and I remember good amount of his works helping me over my own walk. But I find myself, time and again, realizing that some of what Lewis said sounded better than it was, and it was cleverness that carried an argument rather than anything substantial. But, ever since I found out he worked, ever so briefly, for MI6 in an academically dubious manner, it has ruffled my feathers ever since. His work is interesting and is not worthless, but he certainly does not deserve the canonical theologian status he has been vaunted into.

      That Hideous Strength, like the Narnia books, just straddled the line too much. Is this fantasy or real life? We have conversion to Christianity, but we have pagan gods as angels and Merlin as god-like entity running around. Is this describing reality or something else? I grew up with Narnia and liked them as a child, I would rather story books be a world of play where ideas, figures, types, and abstractions roam freely, rather than a parallel universe where the line between fiction and fact is a constantly blurred zone.

      I know I am, and might for a long time be, a minority with my anti-Lewis approach. It's more methodological than content based.