Published September 19, 2022
The following is the abstract of Nathanael’s contribution to Critics of Enlightenment Rationalism, Volume II.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with the lighter Hobbit prequel, are among the most beloved books of the last century. They have sold hundreds of millions of copies and defined the fantasy genre for decades, with a literary quality far superior to their many imitators. The Lord of the Rings has become a cultural icon with broad appeal, whose fans range from hippies to conservative Catholics, but this does not arise from the books being mere escapism. Tolkien’s work provided a compelling, if subtle, counternarrative to the claims of scientism and rationalism that dominated much of the twentieth century.
This goes deeper than Tolkien’s fondness for forests and distaste for mechanization. The great evils in his stories are defined by their desire to dominate and control, subjugating the weak to their ends. Thus, the chief moral struggle in his work is not the physical war against the unabashed evil of the Dark Lord and his monsters. Rather it is in the hearts of those who are tempted to join with that evil, or to adopt its methods and mindset of domination. Tolkien’s work is not a warning against power as such, but against domination. And rationalism (as distinct from reason) is a means and excuse for this unjust dominion. It is an attempt by the intellect to grasp the whole of reality, and thereby bring it under control. Temptation to this may begin from a desire to do good, but this is perverted by the arrogant assumption of control.
Tolkien did not lay this out with heavy-handed allegory or didacticism; he wanted to tell stories, not put crude speeches into the mouths of his characters. But his moral and philosophical outlook did inform his work, which in turn has shaped the imaginative vision of many readers. In the world of literature, Tolkien’s tales have been a citadel standing against rationalist domination.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.