Recovery and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker: The Spiritual Dimension in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien

A Book Review


by Franco Manni-(TV)

Copyright: February 1, 2007


(Translated from Italian by Jimmy Bishop)


Chris Garbowski is of Polish origins; after spending the first part of his life in Canada he returned to Poland, where he teaches history at the University of Lublin. He is thus bilingual, though with a fuller command of English than Polish. In 2003 he participated as a speaker in the second Brescia convention “Tolkien and Middle-earth”. I met him again in 2005 in Birmingham at the 50th anniversary celebrations for Lord of the Rings. We maintain correspondence via email and he gave me critical advice whilst I was writing the paper on Tolkien and the Second World War which I presented in Birmingham. I know him as a calm and composed person and appreciated his courtesy both in Brescia and in Birmingham, where on several occasions he bought me drinks in a pub during lengthy conversations about Tolkien, history and other topics and demonstrated notable patience with my rather limited knowledge of the English language.

I have always appreciated his works of Tolkienian criticism (first brought to my notice by my friend Alqua, alias Alberto Quagliaroli, who first found Chris on the web and put me in contact with him in autumn 2002) and referred to them in my own writings on Tolkien (e.g. in the introduction to the Italian edition of Tom Shippey’s book, Tolkien, Author of the Century); I also published the text of his Brescian paper in the volume Mitopoiesi. Fantasia e Storia in Tolkien (Grafo Editore, Brescia, 2005) which I edited. I have still a debt with Chris though, which is to review his book; I have promised this review a number of times, but always put it off because of other obligations. But now, with great pleasure, I want to release myself from this debt.

In the initial acknowledgements, the author expresses special thanks to Brian Rosebury, acclaimed as having inspired the book and assisted, in the role of consultant. This reference to a scholar of Rosebury’s calibre indicates to the careful reader what may be expected of the work: it will be a study learned with regard to theory and factually well-informed, interested in history and literary aspects, up-to-date concerning criticism and little inclined to flights of fancy.

The book’s structure is made clear by the General Index: 1. Introduction; 2. Tolkien the Soldier, Scholar and Storyteller: the Man and his Middle-earth; 3. The Mythopoeic Process: the Elder Days and the Problem of Myth; 4. Art and Axiology of Middle-earth; 5. Authority and Revelation: Aspects of the Religious Artist; 6. Cosmic Eucatastrophe and the Gift of Ilùvatar; 7. The “Good Life” and the Journey; 8. Epilogue: a Little Faerian Drama.

In the Introduction, the first citation quotes Luthien and her choice of mortality and the consequent abandonment of this terrestrial dimension and the author comments (quoting a famous theologian of secularisation, the American Peter Berger) that, although man has always searched for a meaning to life in transcendence, in contemporary western society the idea of transcendence is often not expressed in the easily recognisable forms of the past, i.e. metaphysics and religion. And Garbowski immediately says that in the 20th century, Tolkien used his “myth” to speak to us of the transcendental aspects of life without using metaphysics or religion, as another man of the 20th century, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, has also done. Frankl was anti-positivist and therefore anti-reductionist: he did not think that if one-hundred men were taken and observed under extreme conditions, such as the extreme hunger experienced in Nazi concentration camps, all would behave in the same fashion, that material “need and instinct” would annihilate the differences in spirit between individuals; Frankl himself was able to observe (whilst detained in a Nazi concentration camp) that what happens is in fact the opposite: individual differences are exaggerated, the beast is unmasked, but also the saint. Frankl thought and theorized that the strongest force which determines human behaviour is not need or instinct, but the search for a meaning in life. Instincts also act, but they are only instruments of the search for meaning. The quest for power is also a force which acts in men, but only after the search for meaning has failed.

According to Frankl, the search for meaning is based in the capacity to “transcend ourselves”. What is self-transcendence? It is the fact that man is a responsible creature and must concretise the meaning of his life, a meaning which is initially only potential. Consequentially, the individual experiences a creative tension between the “I am” situation and the “I should be” situation, the expression of this potential that all of us – each in a different and unique manner – carries within.

What, then, is the meaning of “spiritual”? In contrast to the “New Age” cliché, the Spiritual is not something which refers to the self and its structure, but rather to the world and the people around us to which our Self is drawn. It is the outreaching to the world, metaphorically expressed so well in the literary creations of the episodes of the Journey (of life) which expands the limits which previously confined us. Frankl wrote that: “The self should be like an eye, an organ which is aware of itself only when it suffers from some physical defect. The more an eye sees itself, the less the world and other objects are visible to it”.

In the first chapter, the author analyses how certain events in Tolkien’s own life, his experience as a soldier in the trenches during the Great War (after he was prematurely orphaned), gave a tone of “pagan pessimism” to his first mythological writings (of Silmarillion tendency). An interesting problem is to explain how Tolkien passed from that pessimism to the “subtle optimism” of Lord of the Rings. One instrument which led to this passage was the activity of study: the love of knowledge for its own sake (apart from being a means for developing one’s own personality) was cultivated by Tolkien during and thanks to the decades he spent as professor of medieval philology. It was centred on his membership of the group known as the Inklings. His linguistic work and profound knowledge of real medieval sources vaccinated Tolkien against the danger of idealizing the medieval period (in contrast to traditionalists, both nineteenth-century romantics and twentieth-century neo-romantics). According to Garbowski, Tolkien never saw poetic intuition as being in contrast with reason, but rather to be taken in conjunction with it, and never expressed exaggerated nostalgia for the past (although often he felt it). He was a Christian, and for Christians “every generation is equidistant from Eternity” (a quote from the historian Leopold Von Ranke), no period is superior to others (such as to inspire nostalgia); Tolkien did not fall into this error of “chronocentrism”. The non-idealization of things medieval allowed Tolkien to create Bilbo, who in The Hobbit plays the part of “spokesman” of modern reactions against old values, of modern sensibilities and opinions.

Then the author follows the long and tormented process by which Tolkien constructed Middle-earth and, following Rosebury, shows how “flat” the epic Silmarillion is compared to the romance of LotR, which in fact takes its three-dimensionality from the references made by Gandalf, Aragorn or Elrond to the events of Silmarillion. Here I must comment that in this part of the book the reader is not given a linear and conclusive explanation. On this question of the relations between Silmarillion, The Hobbit and LotR, The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien by Alex Lewis and Elisabeth Currie is rather more clear and perceptive. It is true that Garbowski is not particularly interested in this evolution, but rather in several issues such as that of “recovery”. Tolkien wanted to show how goodness possesses its own beauty, but it was not an easy task, with the risk of falling into the cloying happy ending of popular literature. The Tolkienian “eucatastrophe” served to create a rebirth of optimism from the pessimism present throughout almost all of LotR, and without making the operation seem rhetorical and artificial. The “recovery” is not so much a faithful description of reality as an exercise in “seeing things the way we should see them”: a demonstration of human beings’ positive potential (without having in any way forgotten their negative capacities).

Speaking of Middle-earth’s moral qualities, the author stresses that the Ring represents a different evil to that, say, of a dragon: the latter constitutes an external evil, whereas the former is, above all, internal. In addition, we are told that evil is “monologic”, whilst good is “dialogic”, and the Ring embodies the monologic tendency of the ego.

Tolkien did not aim his writing to receive approval from intellectuals, those who worked in similar fields (a fairly easy goal achieve, if pursued intentionally), but rather to speak to the heart of the common man (a more difficult aim). He spoke to the heart, but also instructed the mind; the union of the search for entertainment with the search for profundity is typical of LotR. An example of a profound idea is the notion that life does not have to achieve any clear purpose (Frodo does not have to find a magical object, but already has it and must destroy it), but instead herself calls us, saying “Do not despair!”, beseeching us to accept the actual facts of history and resist the desperation which they could provoke.

Garbowski next discusses the relationship with Christianity and shows how Middle-earth speaks to us of “virtuous pagans” who lived before any premonition of the Christian revelation, and thus creates a scenario suitable for appreciation by non-believing modern readers, offering a space for dialogue and thus anticipating the Gaudium et Spes of the 2nd Vatican Council, the proclamation which considers relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. If Tolkien had not already conceived the ideas of the Council and instead had explicitly inserted Christianity in his fiction (apologetically or even in the form of instruction), the LotR would now appear “hopelessly dated for many thinking religious readers of today, and certainly unpalatable for the secular one”. The author then acutely observes that Tolkien implicitly refers to the problem of Protestant reform when, in the Silmarillion, he writes of the flight of the Noldor from Valinor to Middle-earth: they leave the Valar “of the same race as Melkor” – in the words of – just as in the reformers left the Church of Rome, accomplice of the Antichrist. This rebellion (or “protest”) gave rise to many tragedies, but also to many benefits, much as the Reformation, as well as causing reciprocal hatred and religious wars, produced fruit such as secular education, political liberalism, free scientific research and tolerance. The Valar took the Elves to Valinor because of their over-protectiveness, and their decision was not “infallible” because they did not consult Iluvatar. Tolkien wants to tell us that religious authority at times does not have divine sanction, because its actions may derive from human frailty.

The various moral failings of the peoples invented by Tolkien, and recounted in both the Silmarillion and the LotR, are, the author maintains, inspired by the Old Testament (Adam and Eve, the Flood, Babel etc.). The destructive presence of Melkor resembles biblical Satan, not a divinity of evil in a Manichaean dualism, but an involuntary executor of the plans of Ilùvatar.

Nature is often described in emotional and aesthetically motivated terms, but at the level of moral values Tolkien does not subscribe to the romantic idea of “man who has isolated himself from Nature and thus condemned himself to unhappiness”. Instead, Tolkien shows how man has ruined his natural environment (e.g. by destroying trees) and also that nature herself is cruel: the Ice of Forochel, the eruptions of Mount Doom, the Carahdras storm, the crow spies, the Willow Man of the Old Forest. Cruelty – in a world corrupted by sin – is present both in extra-human nature and human civilization.

The theme of the “eucatastrophe” rests on a philosophical theory concerning happiness: for example, Kant’s theory separates morality and happiness and would be more suited to a narrative of “tragic” rather than “mythic” type. But Tolkien is a “eudaemonist”; he prefers an ethical theory which does not separate morality from happiness, and therefore he constructs a (problematic) happy ending. And here the author once more makes a comparison with Frankl’s ideas: “human behaviour cannot be fully understood if one subscribes to the theory that man seeks pleasure and happiness independently of the possibility to experience them”. According to Thomas Aquinas, every rational act has as its purpose a good consequence, and these intermediate “goods” guide us towards (although they do not lead to) the Highest Good, which is God. In LotR – the author observes – the more rational the characters are, the more they incline towards good actions: figures such as Saruman believe themselves to be rational, but in fact this is self-delusion and they drive themselves mad.

Garbowski, following Frankl, is convinced that each human life has a special “mission”, each person has a concrete task which must be carried out, and thus no life can be replaced or repeated. For example, three leading characters of LotR - Aragorn, Sam, and Frodo - follow different paths. Aragorn is the incarnation of the “purposeful action”: he is the “real gold” of Bilbo’s song, as opposed to the “counterfeit gold” of the Ring, and his goal is to become the true king, the Lord of the Ring, not by means of the Ring, but by rejecting it.

Sam embodies “service” rendered to other people – in his case, especially Frodo – driven by a personal love which leads to strong loyalty, but which is free and uncommitted by any vow (for Tolkien, vows are connected with power, as he explains concerning Feanor and his sons, and Gollum with respect to Frodo, but – speaking through Elrond – excluded from the Fellowship of the Ring).

Frodo represents the path of “suffering”: he must continue to carry the burden of the Ring, accepting the episodes that befall him without yielding to desperation. Frodo experiences three types of suffering: from Weathertop to Rauros he suffers from illness; from Rauros to MountDoom his suffering resembles the Way of the Cross; after Mount Doom, back in the County, his suffering is more intimate and less apparent and includes the “failure” of Mount Doom.

In this third phase, not even Gandalf can help him, and Frodo must find on his own the redeeming sense of his suffering: I had to sacrifice myself so that others might be happy. When Frodo becomes aware of this, the author says, he reaches “transcendence”. Thus with this realization, the transitory nature of the journey (of life) achieves a clear significance: once we realize the meaning inherent in a concrete situation, and intuit and fulfill the actions which it suggests to us, we have “converted that possibility into a reality, and we have done so once and forever!”, writes the author, using Frankl’s words.

The deepest meaning of life may be sought, but not “seen”, because it is a gift which comes from an Other (Tolkien implies this through the richness, diversity and unpredictability of Middle-earth), and a task which we have yet to accomplish. According to Garbowski, both Tolkien and Frankl agree that self-transcendence is found in awareness of the Other rather than in awareness of oneself; he therefore denies that LotR may be understood mystically (in the sense of oriental Orthodox Christian theology).

At the conclusion of his work, the author reminds us that in his essay, On Fairy Stories, Tolkien wrote that literature is not the most powerful medium for fantasy, but that there exists another more potent art-form which he called “Faerian Drama”. Garbowski comments: here in Middle-earth, the form of art which most closely resembles Tolkien’s “Faerian Drama” is cinema, which, like the Second Music of the Ainur, is created by many people (script and screenplay writers, director, actors, musicians etc.). Twentieth-century cinema, in contrast to twentieth-century literature, has often that happy ending which is also found in LotR. The best example the author can think of is Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life. This film especially resembles “Faerian Drama” in the Pottersville episode, when Clarence the second class angel shows the protagonist – George Bailey – what would have happened if he had never been born. This experience is similar to dreaming (and at times confused with it), but different. A critic has said that Bailey’s real enemy is not the cynical speculator Potter, but his own indecision about what he really wants from life: to be successful or to do good.

For Tolkien, eternity is not as it is commonly imagined, a chronological moment which comes at the end of all preceding time, but rather as Augustine of Hippo saw it: eternity is always present, here and now, available to those who yearn for it. Tolkien’s “recovery” is the awareness of the closeness of the transcendental to everyday existence. The realization that, if the “horizontal” dimension of transcendence did not exist, the “vertical” dimension would become ephemeral. “Horizontal transcendence” guides each person towards a concrete relation with the “Other” in Middle-earth.

The author closes with the observation that Tolkien suffered in the trenches during the First World War and Viktor Frankl in Second World War concentration camps; both have tried to show how it is possible to search for a meaning to life even in extremely painful experiences, and that it is possible to not be overcome by desperation. Garbowski writes :

In the fantasy of one and the psychology of the other simple truths are wrested from the cataclysms of the twentieth century.It would be a pity if these truths were lost on those of us less profoundly tried.

* * *

After this – admittedly incomplete – account of Chris Garbowski’s book, I will add a few brief comments.

This study certainly demonstrates the author’s extensive and open-minded general culture; it is enough to glance rapidly at the list of names referred to: Adler, Adorno, Althusser, Aristotle, Mikhail Bakhtin, Marc Bloch, Herbert Butterfield, Cassirer, Cervantes, Chesterton, Dante Alighieri, Dumezil, Dostoevsky, Descartes, Freud, Goethe, Illich, Joyce, Jung, Kafka, Kant, Keats, Leonardo da Vinci, Colin Manlove, Nietzsche, George Orwell, Perrault, Leopold von Ranke, Ricoeur, Sartre, Socrates, Tolstoy, Simone Weil, H. G. Wells, Wim Wenders (and many others). The author’s references range from literary theory to philosophy, sociology, psychiatry and cinema.

Of prime importance is Garbowski’s knowledge of religion and theology: detailed reference is made to the Bible, Augustine of Hippo, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, theologians such as T. de Chardin, Peter Berger, David Tracy, Zachary Hayes, Waclaw Hryniewicz, Andrew Louth, Thomas Merton, Gabriel Moran, Clark Pinnock, J. R. Porter, John Rogerson, Jeffrey B. Russell, Nbahum Sarna, Ronald Simkins and Avivah G. Zomberg ( a pity, though, that he had not also read Henri De Lubac!). Discussion of the relationship between Christianity and paganism, between Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy, of the 2nd Vatican Council, the difference between “dialectical theology” and “analogical theology”, eschatology and eudaemonism: these all demonstrate that the author’s cultural interests and competence are deeply-rooted and were not pursued merely for the purpose of this work.

On the other hand, the book shows an unusually profound knowledge of Tolkien: the informed reader will notice that Garbowski has read and meditated upon all of Tolkien’s available writings: e.g. all the volumes of History of Middle-earth, Unfinished Tales, poems (such as Mythopoeia and The Sea Bell), academic essays, short works such as The Smith of Wootton Major, and in particular read with great attention and perception the Letters. He also commands a most extensive and up-to-date knowledge of critical writing on Tolkien: Shippey, Flieger, Curry, Helms, Rosebury, Joseph Pearce, Auden, Lewis and Carpenter, papers edited by Isaacs, Zimbardo and Paul Kocher. Not to forget: Hammond & Scull, Charles Coulombe, John Flood, Karen Fonstad, Willis Glover, Charles Huttar, Maria Kuteeva, Jakub Lichanski, Jared Lobdell, Sean McGrath, Timothy O’Neill, Tadeusz Olsanski, Richard Purtill, Mary Sirridge, Gunnar Urang, J. R. Watson, Richard West and Andrzej Zgorzelski.

Apart from the author’s culture, I appreciated other things amongst which a lack of academic snobbery: references are not made to exhibit erudition, but only in order to sustain or illustrate arguments at the appropriate juncture; the language used tends as much as possible to be accessible, and when Garbowski is obliged to introduce technical terms (for example “chronocentrism” or “self-transcendence”), he is at pains to give a full explanation; quotations are taken from the widest range of sources: not just Aristotle and Goethe, but also Frank Capra, George Lucas and Van Morrison.

Another aspect which I appreciated is the work’s moral and instructive intent. The author, especially by means of his references to Viktor Frankl, wants to give the reader not just a critical reading of a novelist who wrote of the “Good Life”, but also to give suggestions and advice towards the reader’s attainment of a “Good Life”.

I also appreciated the author’s moderation. Through my reading of his work, our email correspondence and private conversations, I have formed the opinion that Chris Garbowski is, politically and culturally speaking, a conservative: he does not celebrate secular culture or social justice, criticize nationalism, or praise non-reactionary liberation movements (political, sexual or economic). He condemns communism, the consumer society, technology and liberalism, but does not feel the urgency to express criticism of fascism, peasant culture or the patriarchal family. And yet in his book, though one can see the conservative, one does not see a reactionary: fascism, theocracy, patriarchal values or the class structure of society are never propounded. He feels sympathy for the 2nd Vatican Council. He appreciates theological research (and therefore innovation). He is sceptical of the idyllic nature of “local communities” (called “heimat”). He shows no signs of xenophobia, racism or chauvinism. He feels no nostalgia for the medieval period. His virtue of moderation, in other words, keeps him well away from extremism.

Since this essay is a review and not an elegy, I must also explain certain matters in which I disagree with the author.

I disagree with Garbowski’s treatment of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis: he has not read Freud’s works carefully and lacks knowledge of great Freudians, such as (to name but a few) Karl Abraham, Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Roger Money-Kyrle, Hanna Segal or Donald Meltzer. His portrait of Freudianism is thus largely a caricature: it is presented as a reductionist theory, positivist, materialist and anti-humanist. There certainly existed – above all in North American society and culture from the nineteen-fifties to the eighties – a degraded Freudianism of this type that is treated with irony in the films of Woody Allen, for example. But Freud’s heritage is far from being reduced to these distortions and misunderstandings: it would be like attacking Charles Darwin because his theory was misunderstood and manipulated by Spencer, Haeckel, Rosemberg and Hitler. Garbowski rightly argues against “cosmetic” and consolatory introspectionism and comments that a healthy psychotherapy must remember the outside world and other people. But Freud and his important followers have always done exactly this! For them the positivist apparatus of “drives and needs” was never of primary importance and eventually, with the passage of psychoanalytical generations, it was eliminated. In the forefront of Freudian theory there has always been the external world with its traumas and healing resources, the principle of reality, the so-called Object, interpersonal relations (the Oedipal triangle, transfer, identification models), a great faith in the continuous and unpredictable growth of knowledge (“Acheronta movebo”) according to an unending analysis of reality.

Another criticism I wish to make is more specifically philosophical: when the author (and Viktor Frankl) speak of “self-transcendence” and the “search for meaning”, there is a certain lack of rigour. They either describe these things as the accomplishment of an individual’s internal potentialities (which already exist within him), thus referring to an Aristotelian-naturalistic vision of the relation between potentiality and act, or alternatively as the entrance of the Other, an unpredictable external novelty, with reference to a religious-supernatural and historical-extranatural vision. I hope that Garbowski will find an occasion to develop this aspect in greater depth and more precision, and to explicitly address this theoretical question with a description of how much and in what circumstances the “meaning of life” and “transcendence” are connected through the concepts outlined above: innate qualities, individuality, potentiality, accomplishment, the interior, the exterior, nature and history.

I was also unsatisfied for the reason that this book – as often happens in Tolkien studies, even with masterly writers like Shippey – treats Tolkien with too much respect. Acute and penetrating as he is in finding Tolkien’s positive qualities, Garbowski never makes criticisms, never finds weak aspects in his characters, his ideas or his works. It is undeniable that many literary critics have treated Tolkien unjustly and with disdain. But it is also true that one can feel respect and affection for a person or a work and at the same time make criticisms. Respect and intellectual honesty require that nothing and no-one should be criticized without being read, studied and researched!

* * *

I will conclude this review with a passage from the book that I particularly liked, because it contradicts a widespread prejudice which is hostile towards Tolkien and fantasy literature in general. After having argued against the superficiality with which Tolkien’s spirituality is confused with the very different model available in the “New Age supermarket”, Garbowski writes:

In the title song “Enlightenment” from an album of the early nineties Van Morrison, one of the more perceptive of popular artists, exposes a key juncture where the two types of spirituality certainly part ways. “Enlightenment”, sings the artist, “says the world is nothing but a dream”.

Conversely Tolkien uses the somewhat dream-like art of fantasy to imaginatively recover as much of the real world as possible for our spiritual advancement, a world that he believes is anything but a dream.

The End


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