by Marie-Noelle Biemer
In June this year, the paperback edition of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work, edited by Paul E. Kerry and Sandra Miesel was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and Rowman & Littlefield. The collection of essays is an accompanying volume to The Ring and the Cross, also edited by Kerry and issued as a paperback in May by the same publisher.
Kerry’s preface and acknowledgements at the beginning of the book immediately set me into a positive mood for what was coming. First, he does not claim that a religious interpretation of Tolkien’s texts is the only ‘right’ way to access the ethics that lie beneath – a reassuring opener for all the sceptics and unbelievers out there. Then he mentions the German Tolkien Society:
“I have also been assisted by members of The Tolkien Society in the United Kingdom and the Deutsche Tolkien Gesellschaft. Although the former is well-established, the German Tolkien Society is relatively new but is producing increasingly impressive Tolkien research in the pages of its journal Hither Shore. Tolkien scholars ignore it at their own academic peril.” (p. x)
We need to introduce blurbs to our next edition!
In the introduction, co-editor Miesel writes about exploring Tolkien’s universe, mentioning such topics as secondary creation, immortality, destiny, the Fall, worship. It is refreshing to see a mention of the Islam for a change – and how its predestination differs from the Music of the Ainur (cf. p. 3) – but none of the articles in the book takes up that particular religion for further research. The work instead concentrates on how Tolkien combined Christian and non-Christian material, on patterns, structures, topoi and influences.
In the first essay, Matthew Dickerson explores water, ecology and spirituality. He keenly observes that water is often seen negatively, especially in The Hobbit and by the hobbits, even though it holds such importance in Middle-earth’s creation. Dickerson links our world’s ecological issues with troubles caused by Melkor, Sauron and Saruman, and points out that ‘evil nature’ in Tolkien’s work has been affected by the evil dwellers in the region, much like the Christian belief that the evil of sin affects creation (cf. p. 22).
In “Divine Contagion”, Roger Ladd finds that the power of the Valar seems to be passed down to elves and men through contact – a Focaultian vision of power and thus a very modern one. He sees that power represented by light, which dims as it is passed down further. With the light, the shadow also weakens, so that less and less powerful foes are encountered through the ages. Anne C. Petty looks at Christian iconography in Tolkien’s myth-making, focusing on winged emissaries, sacred fire, light, shadow and fallen angels. The pagan-Christian amalgam is not seen as a contradiction here.
Glen Robert Gill analyses Biblical archetypes in The Lord of Rings, linking Smeagol to Cain, for example. Some of the examples are easier to follow than others. I especially have difficulty with Éowyn as Mary Magdalene (cf. p. 72f). Pastor Manuel Kronast’s insights into the Shieldmaiden’s parallels to the Canaanite Woman (cf. Der Flammifer von Westernis 47, 3/2012) certainly make a lot more sense.
Jared Lobdell explores the possible conflict between Tolkien’s Englishness and Roman Catholic beliefs. He sees a form of worship in The Lord of the Rings, albeit not an explicit one, with its focus on working for the common good. Middle-earth’s theology has been seen as heretical in a sense, especially concerning the gift of death to Men, but he sides with Tolkien’s assessment that what is bad theology in the primary world may bring out truth through legend in the secondary (cf. p. 93f). An interesting aspect mentioned is Lobdell’s suggestion that the implicit theology of The Lord of the Rings is that of the days of theological ferment before Nicaea (325 AD) or the Council of Trent (1545-63), presenting a link to doctrinal church history.
“I am the Song” by DTG Board Member Julian Eilmann moves from one single instant of enchantment through music (Frodo in Rivendell) on to magic and the creation of Arda, from a small detail to the larger concept underlying Tolkien’s work, in which music is the essence of creation and each poet becomes a (sub-)creator. Amongst other things, he explores parallels to Romanticism. John Warwick Montgomery poses the question if Tolkien was a New Ager and speaks against occult readings of the text. The essay is very short and reads like an answer written to ideas posted on some online discussion board rather than an article. While all his refutations have merit, and he realises that The Lord of the Rings – which he incorrectly refers to as a trilogy – is complex enough to enable different readings, he himself cannot see beyond a Christian interpretation of the text: “In a real sense, The Lord of the Rings functions as a literary John the Baptist – it is not the Christ but it points inexorably to him, thereby leading others to the Cross, Resurrection, and a New Heaven and a New Earth.” (p. 123)
Robert Lazu gives a fascinating insight into Jesuit spiritual exercises, in which the imagination is called upon for religious practices and meditation. He links this with Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” and sees the author’s works in a similar tradition, as a myth carrying old truths, imparting Christian values to the reader. Miesel writes about “Life-Giving Ladies”, linking Middle-earth’s women and the Valier to Catholic notions of marriage, helpmate and family, but also showing deviations from traditional role models. Colin Duriez charts well- and lesser-known Inklings, described by C.S. Lewis as an “informal club […]: the qualifications are a tendency to write and Christianity” (p. 155), and their impact on Tolkien. The article offers some great insights into Tolkien’s environs but is at times a bit too preoccupied with the distinction between major and lesser Inklings and pub vs. literary meetings.
Russell W. Dalton explores Manichaesim and Boethianism by means of an abandoned concept of overthrowing evil (Aragorn battling Sauron) in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Return of the King. It is refreshing to see someone actually point out the differences between film and book as a medium and their different conventions, instead of just bashing the film, or previous scripts, for their deviations from the original. Finally, Christopher Garbowski takes a look at spiritual values that have ‘survived’ into the films, concluding that the message comes through, with the focus remaining on fellowship and community rather than putting forth the all-American hero on his individual quest. On a side note: Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” is surely not a subversion of Star Wars. The film is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?, written in 1968 The success of Star Wars may have paved the way for production of this SciFi movie, but Harrison Ford’s role is certainly no “jaded caricature of his Han Solo persona,” (p. 191) but a totally distinct character.
Overall, Light Beyond All Shadow offers a range of insights into how Tolkien used and transformed Christian material in his work and how the ‘message’ reaches the reader – and even the viewer of Peter Jackson’s adaptations. While the articles all have scholarly depth, they are understandable to the general reading public, so that the book can be recommended to both academics as well as those who wish to explore the subject area for the first time.
Review copy: Kerry, Paul E., Sandra Miesel. Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work. Lanham: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press / Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
Marie-Noëlle Biemer studied English, Russian and Business at the Justus-Liebig-Universität in Gießen and Business Studies at the University of Bradford, UK. She now works as a news editor for an English-language publication in Frankfurt. She has published two articles on her favourite topic of William Morris and his influence on J.R.R. Tolkien. As press officer of the German Tolkien Society she takes care of the society’s public relations. She is also an editor of the society’s webpage.