Goodreads: The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings
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.