Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tolkien Playing Hermes While Númenor Sinks

Hermes Trismegistus bestows his blessing upon thee!

It seems that the rather hysterical condemnation of Tolkien's fantasy world as implicitly, if not explicitly, Gnostic by a certain Fr. Ioannes Petrus is making the rounds again. (For His Traddiness's thoughts on the matter, see here and here.) The inimitable Mr. Joseph Pearce has stumbled across these talks and written some unnecessarily long essays in response at The Imaginative Conservative website (here and here). I do not know why he questions the consecration of Fr. Petrus, but I suppose Mr. Pearce is intent on discrediting the man before discrediting the man's argument.

Now, Mr. Grump is open to the argument that there is something in fantasy world-building that is at least formally Gnostic, but not that it is doctrinally so. There is nothing to suggest any hint of heresy in the works published by Tolkien. There might—might—be a hint of Manicheeism in his fantasized creation story (never published in his lifetime), where the dissonant music of the angelic Melkor is blended in with the holy harmony to make the physical world we know today. But no one can accuse Tolkien of any real dualism.

The photo above shows J.R.R. playing the part of Hermes in a school production of Aristophanes' The Peace. I wonder sometimes if he was simply so saddened by the state of the world and of the Church that he retreated into classical times, and then into a fictional history of his own making. The history invented in The Silmarillion is almost as dark and bleak as the history of the war-torn twentieth century, though, so I don't know how effective it could have been.

His thoughts on escapism:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? (from On Fairy-Stories)
Modern esotericism, supposedly founded in ancient times by Hermes Trismegistus, is a form of escapism. It ruins the valid practice of finding symbolic meaning in words, colors, beasts, cosmic phenomena, and stations of life, by squeezing false doctrines out of them. On the surface the esotericist will affirm the commonly accepted doctrines, then suggest that there's more going on beneath the surface, and finally admit that he's pushing the tired old heresies of dualism and reincarnation. Ho hum, the perennial heresy strikes again.

John Tolkien was no heretic, but he was a deeply unhappy trad by the end of his days. I do not fault him much for his fantasy-world obsession, even though I would quickly get bored doing the same thing, myself. The real world is more interesting than any world I could subcreate, and probably less depressing than Middle-Earth.

I wonder if he would have served the Catholic world better by spending his last years writing against the disintegration of the Church, rather than polishing The Silmarillion and passive aggressively saying all the Mass responses in Latin when the vernacular was becoming the norm. It is rumored that Tolkien spoke at a few early English traditionalist meetings, but I have yet to see any tangible evidence. Imagine a series of essays against the Novus Ordo by the author of The Lord of the Rings. What a great boon that could have been to our generation, and how much harder it would have been for secular schlockmeisters like Peter Jackson to scrape the religious barnacles from his work!


  1. Tollers, love him though I do, played his own role in bringing down Numenor.

    You're aware, aren't you, RT, that he was an editor of the Jerusalem Bible, and the sole translator of the Book of Jonah that appears therein?


    1. I was aware of it. It was also my impression he distanced himself from the work when the results were... less than he had hoped for.

    2. I do not have the Jerusalem Bible. Is there something wrong with this Bible translation, and with the Book of Jonah in particular?

    3. It controversially favors readability over literal translation, although not as badly as say the NAB. Most oddly, it fully translates the Tetragrammaton rather than rendering "Lord," which some think disrespectful.

      I *believe* Tolkein disavowed his involvement with the project after the fact.

    4. Actually, there is the interesting point that the Book of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible is not Tolkien's original submission, but "a collaborative effort, heavily edited by a style editor who had been employed to standardize the grammar and vocabulary of the various translators who had contributed to the Jerusalem Bible."

      Here's the article link: http://file770.com/?p=19397

  2. PS - I'm not Wm Marshall, but for some reason Google thinks I am.

  3. The Vigiliante wonders if this whole episode is just one spat of attention-getting behavior by a priest who is - truth be told - an awful and condescending sermonist. I'm willing to bet the flak he received for his earlier Tolkein nonsense gained him a following of clericalists rushing to defend "their priest" from the blogosphere of "Tolkeinites". Nothing strengthens someone's hold on people like doing something that will draw attacks.

    I say leave Fr. Petrus alone on his little soapbox with his fringe following. He is unlikely to have a great impact. He is good at making noise, nothing else.

  4. I never understood traditionalists' obsession or at least fascination with Tolkien. Some of you/them can quote him like Sacred Scripture.

    1. I see where you're coming from. I was huge on Tolkien when I was in my early teens, reading LOTR and the Hobbit several times while continually picking up The Silmarillion. Part of it may have to do with the fact that Tolkien single-handedly changed fantasy literature and - unfortunately - the potential was not realized (hacks like Robert Jordan didn't help).

      Also, Tolkien could write good stories. Many writers after him tried to ape him by creating ultra-complex worlds, but inhabited those worlds with flat characters and predictable trite.

    2. You do not have to be a trad to be fascinated with Tolkien and his works. You only need to be human.

  5. This is dope tho:

  6. There are a number of very good sermons over at AudioSancto, and I have derived good benefit from listening to them; but I have always been more than a little irritated by the insistence on the anonymity of the priests in question.

    I've read the defense offered, and the longer explanations by those connected with the site; I understand the fear that cults may form around the clerical authors. While I don't want to discount the concerns, I still find them unconvincing. The sermons ought to go out with names on them. If there's a genuine concern about unwelcome attention by certain laity, then it is better not to make them available online at all. The priests are not in danger of death or persecution, after all.

    And as for Tolkien himself:

    I wonder if he would have served the Catholic world better by spending his last years writing against the disintegration of the Church, rather than polishing The Silmarillion and passive aggressively saying all the Mass responses in Latin when the vernacular was becoming the norm.

    I do not know whether Tolkien even entertained the idea, but by that point in his life (1965-73) his energy was ebbing rapidly, especially after the death of his wife Edith; and even in his prime, he was a hopeless perfectionist and procrastinator (which I can well sympathize with). Trying to finish his most treasured work was all he seemed to have energy for (and even that ended up as an unfulfilled aspiration); and more to the point, for Tolkien I expect that even the tragic tales of Túrin Turambar and Númenor were not as depressing as the iconoclastic demolition unfolding in the Church Tolkien so loved, and which he could not escape.