Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Power of the Ring, by Stratford Caldecott

Stratford Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, 2012 Crossroad

I read Stratford Caldecott's book The Radiance of Being just over a year ago. It was an interesting book that explored a number of issues from a Christian Platonic perspective. This book was much more readable and easier to understand compared to The Radiance of Being. In Power of the Ring, this Catholic theologian explores the nature of J.R. Tolkien's Christian vision as found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

As might be expected from a Catholic writer, Caldecott brings up the subtle Mariological theme in Tolkien's writing, as seen in the two Marian characters, Galadriel and Varda. He points out that as the 'Mediatrix of Grace,' the Blessed Virgin is implicitly present throughout creation, which connects well with the association of both Galadriel and Varda with starlight. He also goes on to talk about Sophia, or Divine Wisdom. He relates this concept to the notion in Tolkien of the Secret Fire, which is the creative energy of Iluvatar, the creator God in the Silmarillion. I would have liked Caldecott to have written a little bit more about the Sophia theme, as he had a lot to say about that in The Radiance of Being and to have made reference to the writings of Vladimir Soloviev and Sergius Bulgakov.

The book features a number of interesting appendices. One of these is, perhaps not so interesting, as it offers a Jungian perspective on Tolkien. I have absolutely no idea why educated people today, especially Christians take the ideas of Jung seriously. I know the Myers-Briggs personality test is very good fun (I'm INTJ), but there is almost no evidential or scientific basis to Jung's theories, leaving them in the realm of pseudo-science. Much more interesting is Caldecott's appendix on Arthurian legend and its relation to Tolkien. In the fifth appendix, he offers some advice on how homeschoolers can make use of Tolkien's works as an educational resource. In Appendix Six, he examines the views of Catherine Madsen, who downplays the Christian element in Tolkien, viewing his writings as more pagan in orientation. Caldecott expresses sympathy with this viewpoint, despite his commitment to a Christian and Catholic heart to Tolkien's writing. The most interesting of his appendices takes a look at the LOTR movies and offers both positive and negative thoughts on them. While he feels Cate Blanchet's unsettling performance as Galadriel was mischaracterised, he feels that in general the elves in the movies seem too human and a little too smug and pompous. He also thinks that the Hobbits of the Shire in the movies are too comical and thus fail to convey Tolkien's affectionate portrayal of rural English communities. He is particularly scathing about the long, drawn out ending of Return of the King. Caldecott is impressed with Mortenson's Aragorn, even while admitting he is a little different from the Aragorn of the books.

Our author raises the interesting question of what great power the Ring actually bestows, other than invisibility. He points out that the Ring does not prevent Sam or Sauron having a finger bitten off. He suggests that the power of the Ring might actually be a delusion.

Caldecott stresses the importance in Tolkien's works of the nostalgia for 'Old England.' This is a concept that I struggle with a lot. A combination of the eschatological orientation of my Evangelical background and the cynicism of my liberal influences has made me very resistant to nostalgia. The English people were not always a nation of lovable Hobbits. English people have often been violent, ignorant and racist. The descendants of Tolkien's rural English folk can be just as obnoxious. Nostalgia is always a selective memory. Furthermore, nostalgia for 'Old England' tends to be a nostalgia for a whiter England and can easily go hand in hand with a prejudice towards black people and immigrants. Where do people of colour fit into that kind of view of England?

I think this is a good book. It certainly is a lot better than Peter Kreeft's Tolkien hagiography, The Philosophy of Tolkien. However, like that book, I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of a critical perspective offered on Tolkien or at least engaged with. Is there really nothing in Tolkien's thought or writings we can find fault with? In particular, there is no acknowledgement in this book that Tolkien's political philosophy was hopelessly idealistic, impractical and irrelevant to the real world. It is doubtful that Tolkien's anarcho-monarchism would have worked in the Shire, let alone in modern England. Caldecott makes reference to the economic illiteracy called Distributism, but offers no critical comment on it. The great fallacy of Distributism is the notion that lots and lots of small businesses is a good thing; ignoring the fact that 1) small businesses struggle to make ends meet and their owners are often poor, 2)small businesses do not offer the same benefits as provided by large companies and can exploit their employees just as much and 3) Small businesses often do not give the same benefit to the consumer of lower prices than large companies.

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