Book Review: The Philosophy of Tolkien

“The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft

This book has been on my reading “wish list” since it came out a few years ago. I finally made time to read it, and I’m so glad I did!

As Kreeft — a Roman Catholic theologian and a professor of philosophy at Boston University — points out in the introduction, The Lord of the Rings is widely considered the greatest book of the twentieth century, though not all literary critics agree. Of course, I would certainly have to join the ranks of those showering accolades upon Tolkien’s masterpiece!

This book is exactly what you might expect from its title: a study of the philosophical themes and underlying worldview behind the story of LOTR. Many authors have attempted similar books seeking to cash in on the story’s popularity, but few have done it well. Thankfully, Kreeft has given us an outstanding work that is both educational and enjoyable; academically substantial yet easily accessible. At times, his wit and humor even had me laughing out loud!

The format of the book is simple: Fifty philosophical questions are separated into 13 categories. Kreeft explains the meaning and importance of each question, and then shows how the question is answered using quotes from LOTR, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien’s thoughts on the matter are further explored, making use of his other writings — most notably letters he had written, as well as an essay entitled On Fairy-Stories. Each question’s section ends with a quote from the writings of C.S. Lewis — Tolkien’s closest friend and fellow Oxford professor — which directly states the same philosophy. The two had great influence on one another, and throughout this book we see how closely they paralleled one another due to what Kreeft calls their “common familiarity with and respect for the same sources in the great tradition, that is, pre-modern Western literature, philosophy, and religion.”

As someone not particularly well-versed in the academic field of philosophy, I enjoyed very much this foray into the method of investigating philosophical issues. Indeed, “an introduction to philosophy” is one of the four uses of this book suggested by its author, though that is not the reason I initially chose to read it. Still, while some of the questions asked in this book are particular to LOTR, most are broad in scope, and could be applied to any religion, cultural artifact, or work of literature. At many points in the book, Tolkien’s views are compared and contrasted with those of history’s great philosophers, from Plato to Sartre to Nietzsche.

Kreeft’s logic is impeccable, and the systematic progression of thought in this book presents a very strong case for his conclusions. Though I do not wish to spoil for you the joy of discovering these conclusions for yourself as you read through this book, I feel it won’t be giving too much away to say that Kreeft concludes that Tolkien’s philosophy is unabashedly Christian, and specifically Catholic — something Tolkien himself has claimed in so many words. While Christ (or religion itself, for that matter) is nowhere explicit in the text of LOTR, Christianity is implicit throughout the story in the philosophical worldview which undergirds it.

I nearly wore out the pen I was using to underline memorable and thought-provoking lines from the book. Time does not allow me to share all of the truly great insights Kreeft provides (another reason why you should buy and read it yourself!), but there was one thing that especially caught my interest. This was where Kreeft pointed out Tolkien’s portrayal of the Old Testament pre-figuring of the Messiah as prophet, priest, and king, represented by Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively. Not allegorically, of course, but in the sense that each of those characters was something of a “Christ figure” (down to the fact that all three had apparent deaths and resurrections in LOTR), exemplifying lives of self-sacrifice and virtue, albeit in very different manners.

If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you will greatly enjoy and benefit from this book. It will give you a brand new understanding of what may well be your favorite story… not to mention an itch to read the trilogy again! Now where did I put my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring?

Buy “The Philosophy of Tolkien” here

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