Review: DicKerson & Strauss
Posted by gandalf30598
Note: This review was originally published in Tolkien Journal, 10 (2013): 248-50.
Matthew Dickerson. A Hobbit’s Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012. Xii + 260 pp., pbk.; n.p. ISBN 978-1-58743-300-9. Ed Strauss. A Hobbit Devotional: Bilbo Baggins and the Bible. Uhrichsville, Oh.: Barbour, 2012. 319 pp., pbk., $9.99. ISBN 978-1-61626-743-8.
Here are two new books about Tolkien in which the author of the first could be (but probably isn’t) talking about the second. Matthew Dickerson warns of the danger of trying to “reduce” Tolkien’s writings to “any one particular lesson, or to a disguised (or ill-disguised) tract on some political, religious, of philosophical topic—or to an allegory.” The problem with this approach is not so much that the politics or religion or philosophy might be falsely imposed on the text, which does in fact have “applicability” to such things, as that the writer might “miss the story as story” (12). And it is in the story as story that any applicability (Tolkien’s own word) is to be found.
Dickerson’s virtue is not that he avoids political, philosophical, and religious lessons. He highlights quite a few. But he finds them by paying close attention to the details of plot, character, diction, and texture in Tolkien’s writing. Strauss, on the other hand, does not. His book is really mistitled. It is not so much material for devotionals that he finds in The Hobbit as Sunday-School lessons. His sixty short chapters follow a pattern: note something that happens in The Hobbit, find something similar that happened to someone in the Bible, and draw a practical application to life. Example: Hobbits love comfort and do not meddle with the outside world; the Israelites at certain periods of their history were similarly insular; Bilbo learns better from his Adventure; therefore, we should care about the people around us and not ignore them. Most of the other lessons are equally innocuous. One can hardly imagine that Tolkien (or anyone else) would have objected to caring about the people around us, or even found this an illegitimate “application” of The Hobbit. The real question is why anyone needs to have such things pointed out, and the real problem is the potential to trivialize the story (and the Bible!) by reducing them to such platitudes. Such a book is of interest to Tolkien scholars only because they want to know how readers of all kinds react to the legendarium. A few minutes with Strauss will tell them all they need to know about a certain kind of pietist.
Dickerson gives us a book we can sink out teeth into. It is a revision and expansion of his earlier work Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003). The earlier title was much more accurate. The new one would lead us to expect a very different book: from epic battles and moral victory to discovering enchantment? But almost the entirety of the original study has been retained. The new material—about maybe 15-20 % of the whole—is worthwhile. It updates the argument, deals with studies published in the last decade, and rounds the discussion out in useful ways. But A Hobbit’s Journey is still mainly about the ethics of war in Middle Earth, not about “finding enchantment” there as such. Chalk one up to the marketing department.
Dickerson’s main thrust, then and now, is wrestling with one of the common criticisms we hear from Tolkien’s detractors: that LOTR glorifies war and violence. So he carefully looks at the battles, at how they are described, and at how the heroes respond to them, participate in them, think and talk about them, and feel about it afterward.
In the process of his careful reading of these passages, Dickerson not only shatters the criticism but notices a significant pattern. Gandalf, Frodo, Elrond, Aragorn, Faramir, and Galadriel all chose what looks like certain military defeat rather than submit to various moral defeats that appear to be the path to victory. They do this even when the military defeat they are apparently accepting would be total and devastating. Saruman, Boromir, and Denethor enact the opposite choices. The grand irony, indeed the eucatastrophe, is that this very preference of military defeat to moral defeat, no matter what the cost, turns out to be the key to ultimate military victory. Yet the people making these choices do not know in advance that it will be so; that is not the reason for their choice. All they have at best is what Gandalf ruefully admits to be “a fool’s hope.” Why do they make these choices? How does one make such choices? How are they rooted in Tolkien’s biblical world view? Such are the questions to which this study is naturally led.
In the revised edition Dickerson adds one completely new chapter, on the ethics of torture and the treatment of prisoners in Middle Earth. This topic is in keeping with the original emphasis on the ethics of war, and reflects the interest in that topic that has been renewed for us since the first edition by controversies over our own response to global terrorism. The treatment is timely but not platitudinous. Sauron’s servants use torture as a matter of course; the Free Peoples avoid it as a matter of principle, erring by preference on the side of kindness (as with the elves who allow Gollum to escape), but finding themselves sometimes driven to the brink of the line if not over it by extreme need (as when Gandalf puts the fear of fire on Gollum). Like us, the heroes of Middle Earth find their principles challenged by the difficult circumstances of life; like some of us, they do not find such challenges reason to give those principles up. A subheading captures the tone well: “The Complexities of Narratives, and of Life.” Dickerson expands the old material by taking account of newer scholarship (e.g., a discussion of Tom Shippey’s wonderful 2005 paper “’A Fund of Wise Sayings’: Proverbiality in Tolkien” makes a delightful addition to the chapter on wisdom) and by some reorganization.
I quibble only over a couple of points. Does Gandalf really cross the line and use torture when he only threatens Gollum with fire, rather than actually employing it? I’m not so sure. There is a very good and balanced discussion of whether and to what extent Tolkien’s tale should be read as a “Christian myth.” But I wonder if one of the reasons given against that conclusion is not overplayed: that there is no incarnation in Middle Earth (236). For Christian theology, incarnation is not a metaphysical principle so much as an earth-shaking event, the pivot of history. It happened when Caesar Augustus was emperor and Quirinius was governor of Syria. If Tolkien’s tales take place in the prehistory of our own world, to have inserted incarnation into the story would have been eschatologically anachronistic. Hence its absence may not be evidence of anything.
Wrestling with significant questions as they are raised and answered by details of plot and texture of passage, Dickerson shows a profound understanding of what literature is and therefore of how it should be studied. The story as story is always in the foreground, and it is what provides the answers. One comes away not only with valuable insights on the “applications” of Tolkien’s story to life and ethics, but also with a renewed appreciation for the story itself, in the way this discussion highlights the nature and the audacity of the risks Gandalf and others take in order to preserve their moral vision. What could be better than that?
Reviewed by Donald T. Williams
Toccoa Falls College
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