The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft

Tolkien 2012

The Philosophy of TolkienInformation

Goodreads: The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings
Series: None
Source: Borrowed
Published: 2005


Peter Kreeft explores the worldview behind Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by asking 50 philosophical questions and then explaining Tolkien’s answer in a three-part format: a quote from Tolkien’s works on Middle-earth demonstrating the answer, a quote from Tolkien’s other works expanding upon and clarifying his answer, and a quote from C. S. Lewis’s work explaining the answer more directly.  Kreeft encourages readers to use the book not only as a guide to Middle-earth but also as an introduction to philosophy; he suggests asking the same questions of other works of literature, especially those with philosophies greatly different from Tolkien’s.


In The Philosophy of Tolkien, Peter Kreeft proposes to explain the enormous and continuing popularity of Tolkien’s books.  His claim is daring because it makes much the same point that Tolkien made decades ago when he wrote that fairy tales and fantasy should not be dismissed as mere “escapism.”  He argues that readers find themselves drawn to Middle-earth not because they want to escape their own reality, but because they find there a deeper reality.  Kreeft’s book serves as a guide to that deeper reality, answering questions about how Tolkien viewed and  portrayed the nature of truth, beauty, love, virtue, and God.

Having someone explain to you why you love your favorite author may seem, if not condescending, at least invasive.  Tolkien especially touches chords that seem intensely private; the beauty and sorrow that permeate his work are of a depth and quality that many people don’t find easy to share.  Kreeft, however, establishes himself immediately as a worthy and trustworthy companion on this new journey through Tolkien’s works.  His love for all things Middle-earth is evident from the first page, marking him as a kindred spirit, one of those people who understands. He can speak of the longings stirred by the high beauty of the Elves or of the nostalgia awoken by the sense of Middle-earth’s deep past as one who has experienced it and is not ashamed.  He lets his readers know that they are not alone in feeling a deep desire for something in Middle-earth, even if they cannot yet give that desire a name.

Unfortunately, though the spirit of the book is in the right place, the structure could use some more work.  At times Kreeft seems to lean too heavily on Lewis to explain Tolkien, taking it as a matter of course that the latter would have agreed with his friend’s statements completely, without establishing a basis for this assumption.  Because Lewis speaks so directly on points on faith and philosophy while Tolkien often prefers to let his story speak for itself, Kreeft seems to be pushing his conclusions on Tolkien’s philosophy too far.  Other times, Kreeft raises a question but fails to answer it fully. He seems conflicted as to whether he was writing an introduction to philosophy in general or a book on Tolkien’s philosophy.

Despite his structural problems, however, Kreeft ultimately writes a sound guide to Tolkien’s philosophy.  He demonstrates clearly and simply how Tolkien’s understanding of the world influenced his vision of Middle-earth, even if most of the philosophy remains under the surface of the narrative.  His conclusions make another journey into Middle-earth an even richer and more fulfilling experience.

6 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft

  1. Urania says:

    You hit on all the things I’d want to know about a book like this before picking it up.

    As for a book a little bit in the same vein, have you heard of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia? It’s a very well-written, insightful, and above all, very interesting study of how Lewis incorporated the seven planets of Medieval cosmology into the themes of his Narnia series. I’m convinced. But I particularly liked it because, reading it, I learned more about both Lewis’s medieval scholarship and his attitudes towards literature. I highly recommend it.


    • Krysta says:

      Thanks! I tried! 😀

      I’ve read Planet Narnia, actually, and I’m completely convinced, as well! The only part I didn’t really like was the introduction when Ward tried to argue Lewis could have hidden themes in his works because he “lied”–as in, misdirected a fox hunt. I didn’t see the correlation and I don’t think an author has to be “dishonest” or “sneaky” to have underlying themes. The other thing was that the book relied heavily on examples from That Hideous Strength, which I haven’t read yet. Otherwise, however, I found Ward’s argument extremely compelling.


      • Urania says:

        I don’t think that Ward’s argument that Lewis would misdirect his readers was meant to be a claim that Lewis was “dishonest” as an author. Instead, I think Ward was (rightfully) trying to give us good reason to believe that Lewis, who was in many ways really open about his works, would actually have this very grand scheme behind the Narnia books and never have breathed a word to anybody about it. Perhaps Ward overstates the case, but if you’re going to believe Ward’s book, you do first have to agree to the premise that Lewis might have kept a few literary secrets to himself. Additionally, Ward offers good reasons for why, if Lewis was trying to do something he felt was really important, Lewis would have left those very things hidden in plain sight. Anyway, yeah, I agree that chapter was a little odd, but on reflection, I think this is what Ward was trying to accomplish with it.


      • Krysta says:

        I understand that Ward wanted to demonstrate that Lewis could keep a secret, but I think some of his examples were irrelevant, Furthermore, I don’t think dishonesty is synonymous with secrecy, as Ward seemed to suggest. To me, misdirecting a fox hunt shows concern for animals; it doesn’t necessarily translate to the ability to keep a life-long secret about literary themes. Ward also brings up as evidence for this hidden theme that Lewis lied in his childhood. Many children do, if it will keep them out of trouble. What Lewis did decades before Narnia doesn’t have to have any bearing on his novels. I think Ward did, as you mentioned, simply overstate his case. Mainly I bring up the matter because all this occurred within the first ten pages or so and it made me initially uncertain about the book and where it was going. Once I got past the Introduction, however, I found the book extremely well-researched and thought-out, so I’m glad I didn’t let the first few pages deter me!


  2. David says:

    I agree with Urania — you’ve done a great job of quickly explaining Kreeft’s approach to the book in a way that tells me what I’d like to know about it. I’m glad you included a little criticism, too; it’s always tricky to try to explain in detail someone else’s philosophy 1) after they are dead, and 2) when they purposely tried to not be explicit about certain things. I’m always a little skeptical of such books. Another reason is because I always fear the book is just going to state the obvious, as I felt with the book Finding God in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. But from what you say, it sounds like Kreeft has a good idea in formulating a question-and-answer approach that might be applied to any work of literature.


    • Krysta says:

      I know what you mean about books that state the obvious. I read one that seemed determined to do nothing but cite every quote in LotR that supported the idea of a divine power behind all the events. I couldn’t believe anyone would need a book to point this out. Elrond himself states that he think Frodo was meant to have the Ring–and not by Sauron. Could Tolkien have made his point any more clearly without actually writing, “Hey! There’s divine providence behind everything! Keep that in mind as you read! Thanks!”? Then I remembered, however, that some people interpret LotR as a New Age book, so I tried not to judge the “obvious” interpretation too harshly.

      I suspect that Kreeft, being a Catholic apologist of sorts, recognizes so clearly the Christian thought behind Tolkien’s work that he doesn’t always make as strong a case as he should for Tolkien’s believing a certain thing. I don’t recall Kreeft saying anything I thought was wrong, but not every reader is going to pick up what he did so easily–especially if they’re not already familiar with Christian thought and philosophy. However, he may simply have wanted readers to explore the questions more deeply without his guiding them all the way to certain conclusions. I liked that he explained the questions before he answered them, so that the book really is an introduction to philosophy of sorts and not only about Tolkien.

      I wouldn’t say Kreeft’s book is obvious, but I’ve read enough criticism on Tolkien by this point that I didn’t find anything particularly surprising. I liked reading it more as a reminder of why Tolkien is so awesome. It was sort of like chatting with a good friend about your favorite author and realizing you both agree on certain key aspects of a work of literature. It’s just a nice way to spend an afternoon.


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