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J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth

by Bradley J. Birzer

Other authors: Joseph Pearce (Foreword)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
224599,163 (3.94)5
Since the appearance of The Lord of the Rings in 1954, J. R. R. Tolkien's works have always sold briskly, appealing to a wide and diverse audience of intellectuals, religious believers, fantasy enthusiasts, and science fiction aficionados. Now, Peter Jackson's film version of Tolkien's trilogy--with its accompanying Rings-related paraphernalia and publicity--is playing a unique role in the dissemination of Tolkien's imaginative creation to the masses. Yet, for most readers and viewers, the underlying meaning of Middle-earth has remained obscure. Bradley Birzer has remedied that with this fresh study. In J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, Birzer explains the surprisingly specific religious symbolism that permeates Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium. He also explores the social and political views that motivated the Oxford don, ultimately situating Tolkien within the Christian humanist tradition represented by Thomas More and T. S. Eliot, Dante and C. S. Lewis. Birzer argues that through the genre of myth Tolkien created a world that is essentially truer than the one we think we see around us every day, a world that transcends the colorless disenchantment of our postmodern age. "A small knowledge of history," Tolkien once wrote, "depresses one with the sense of the everlasting weight of human iniquity." As Birzer demonstrates, Tolkien's recognition of evil became mythologically manifest in the guise of Ringwraiths, Orcs, Sauron, and other dark beings. But Tolkien was ultimately optimistic: even weak, bumbling hobbits and humans, as long as they cling to the Good, can finally prevail. Bradley Birzer has performed a great service in elucidating Tolkien's powerful moral vision.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
Birzer, Bradley J. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth. Foreword by Joseph Pearce. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003.
Bradley Birzer argues that the mythology in Tolkien’s fiction is an elaborate, consistent expression of a conservative Catholic theology. He makes his case, but his analysis seems reductively polemic. He says little about the influences of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, Nordic, and Teutonic mythology in Tolkien’s work. Of more interest than the religious allegory is Birzer’s discussion of Tolkien’s competitive friendship with C. S. Lewis, applauding Lewis’s conversion to Christianity but deploring his Protestant theology. Tolkien was traumatized by his experiences in World War I, and he developed an antipathy to mechanization on any scale, avoiding everything from automobiles to tape recorders. Birzer details the difficulty that Tolkien had finishing Silmarillion, a work finally cobbled together and published after his death by his son. Birzer suggests that Silmarillion is the most complete expression of Tolkien’s mythology. Maybe so. I haven’t had the strength to read it, nor have I dug into the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth his son constructed from his father’s notes. Tolkien seems to have been an erudite, kindly professor who was popular with his students, even though he mumbled. He was not a good fit for his times, and though it may not be what Birzer wants me to conclude, Tolkien reminds me of William Blake, a man who retreated from the “Satanic mills” of his age into a mythology all his own. 3.5 stars. ( )
  Tom-e | May 15, 2022 |
Bradley Birzer has remedied that with this fresh study. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, Birzer explains the surprisingly specific religious symbolism that permeates Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium.
  StFrancisofAssisi | May 21, 2019 |
The aim of the author is to help a reader understand the philosophical underpinnings of the world(s) Tolkien created. He does this by using a tremendous amount of sources (a quarter of the books is the appendix in the back listing all of them) and is clearly very familiar with more of Tolkien's writing than just the the popular Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the Simarillion.

The author delves into Tolkien's past and faith and genuflects in depth on the way these inform the philosophy of the Lord of the Rings world. His explanation of the difference between true myth and allegory in the writings of Tolkien is one of the clearest I have run across. If you recall Tolkien was very specific that his work was in no way allegory. Yet, it reflected his faith very deeply and at times very clearly. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and his world has many reflections of the religious way Tolkien saw our world. I was very interested in the different biblical arch types represented by the characters Tolkien wrote and how Tolkien described how he came up with characters.

This books also deals (lightly) with some of the different movements that have adopted Tolkien's writing, the hippies, environmentalists, and even an effort by Italian fascists to use his works to support their aims. How Tolkien felt or would be likely to feel about these sorts of attempted usage is briefly discussed.

While this volume contains a biography of sorts of Tolkien this was not written to tell the story of his life but as the title tells you, to help readers understand the philosophy of Middle Earth. Probably not for the causal reader or someone who is looking for Tolkien's story. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
A must read for anyone who has been moved by Tolkien's works and wants to know why. But perhaps even more important, a must read for those who don't understand or who misunderstand what Tolkien has created. Far more than escapist literature for hippies and geeks, The Lord of the Rings is a sanctifying myth that illustrates some of the foundational truths of life to a world that has forgotten them. Bradley Birzer truly understands the significance of Tolkien and his work and explains it in a clearly written, organized, well-researched and thoroughly documented way. Superb in every respect. Highly, highly recommended. ( )
  nsenger | May 23, 2014 |
[W]hat I find personally frustrating is that a coherent discussion of Tolkien's ideas about myth in general is...how shall I put this?...missing.

(Rest of my review at http://knowledgeum.blogspot.com/2006/01/fellowship-of-return-of-crappy-little.ht...) ( )
  drbubbles | May 29, 2007 |
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Pearce, JosephForewordsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Since the appearance of The Lord of the Rings in 1954, J. R. R. Tolkien's works have always sold briskly, appealing to a wide and diverse audience of intellectuals, religious believers, fantasy enthusiasts, and science fiction aficionados. Now, Peter Jackson's film version of Tolkien's trilogy--with its accompanying Rings-related paraphernalia and publicity--is playing a unique role in the dissemination of Tolkien's imaginative creation to the masses. Yet, for most readers and viewers, the underlying meaning of Middle-earth has remained obscure. Bradley Birzer has remedied that with this fresh study. In J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth, Birzer explains the surprisingly specific religious symbolism that permeates Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium. He also explores the social and political views that motivated the Oxford don, ultimately situating Tolkien within the Christian humanist tradition represented by Thomas More and T. S. Eliot, Dante and C. S. Lewis. Birzer argues that through the genre of myth Tolkien created a world that is essentially truer than the one we think we see around us every day, a world that transcends the colorless disenchantment of our postmodern age. "A small knowledge of history," Tolkien once wrote, "depresses one with the sense of the everlasting weight of human iniquity." As Birzer demonstrates, Tolkien's recognition of evil became mythologically manifest in the guise of Ringwraiths, Orcs, Sauron, and other dark beings. But Tolkien was ultimately optimistic: even weak, bumbling hobbits and humans, as long as they cling to the Good, can finally prevail. Bradley Birzer has performed a great service in elucidating Tolkien's powerful moral vision.

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