Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review: THE POWER OF THE RING: THE SPIRITUAL VISION BEHIND THE LORD OF THE RINGS AND THE HOBBIT by Stratford Caldecott



The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
by Stratford Caldecott

Published/Edition: 2012, Crossroad Publishing Company

Genre: Non-Fiction / Religion / Literature / Fantasy / Secondary Source

(For the short version of my review, see the bottom.)

I consider The Power of the Ring a great secondary source to commentary and analysis on Tolkien's works from a strongly Catholic perspective, but the biggest issue I have with this book is the misleading phrase in the title: "The Spiritual Vision." Now, this was probably not the fault of Caldecott but more likely an attempt by the publisher to sell the book to a wider audience. 

The word "spiritual" is often tacked onto Christian literature, but the word also applies to other elements (from Buddhism to Cherokee philosophy), and so I came into the pages expecting to get a good coverage of the spiritual backgrounds and origins that went into Tolkien's work, including both the Christian and the pagan. 

What I received instead was an extensive (and well done) coverage of Tolkien's Catholic influences with a few nods here and there to other mythological systems like Greek, Roman, and Nordic that Tolkien borrowed from. A deeper look into the pagan perspective is only covered in a short essay in the back (Appendix Six, 177) in which Caldecott acknowledges the pagan perspective of another scholar, Catherine Madsen, mostly in contrast against the Catholic perspective.

It is commonly known that Tolkien incorporated pagan elements like the early Christian church did: appropriated into his mythos so that they would not clash with his Catholic beliefs. While Caldecott briefly mentions these influences, his main goal is clearly to draw the attention back to the relationships between the works of Tolkien and Biblical concepts. 

As he asserts: "In this book I have taken the line that Tolkien's Catholicism is a 'hidden presence' throughout The Lord of the Rings and the rest of the legendarium, and that the books contain an implicit theology and spirituality that is, in Christian terms, orthodox" (177). 

At first, I was taken aback by the boldness in which Caldecott drew his religious connections, but many of his points are backed up by the letters that J.R.R. Tolkien had written (see Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien), lending them credibility. 

For example, when Caldecott mentions the type of hero that Bilbo is - "no warrior...a thief, in other words" (41) - he lists off the folkloric influences of "tricksters and thieves, from Ali Baba, Loki, and Jack the Giant-Killer to Jason, stealer of the Golden Fleece from another dragon. In most of these stories, the thievery is part of a larger story of restoration, the recovery of what had been lost, or what rightfully belonged elsewhere" (41). With Frodo, on the other hand, who is also a humble hero, Caldecott goes into a deep analysis of Frodo as "a very 'Christian' type of hero" (52) and how his journey "resembles" that of Christ towards the end of His life, drawing connections to the cross and the Book of Revelation (52). 

Despite not covering the pagan and non-Christian sources, Caldecott does make connections between Middle Earth and Christian concepts in a way that I find enlightening. His analysis of the often-occurring "light" in the eyes and brows of characters and its association with consciousness and how "all awareness comes from God...'Let there be Light'" (42-43) touched upon some of the questions that had occurred as I read The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and the LOTR trilogy. Other interesting topics he covers are the relationship between nostalgia for the past and our fear of death (112) and the evolution of Middle Earth in relation to England as Tolkien worked on it (142). The Appendix, among other short essays, includes a film review for the LOTR trilogy. It points out a few of the most interesting changes between the books and the film, and also commented on how well the actors fit the characters as he had envisioned them (he was weirded out by Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Galadriel). Since the book was published at the end of 2012, there wasn't really a chance to include a Hobbit movie review. Too bad. 

Overall, I enjoyed Caldecott's Catholic analysis of Tolkien's Middle Earth elements. His style of writing is engaging and immersive - I don't find it stuffy at all. It feels like an insightful, in-depth conversation about the Christian vision behind Tolkien's work. He tends to give Christianity too much credit for certain elements of Tolkien's sub-creation - you can usually tell that he's stretching things with questionable parallels when he uses phrases like "resembles" and "recalls" to link a Tolkien element with a Christian source. I'm really glad I got to read his take on the story, though. Some of his arguments convinced me to look at Tolkien's work in a different way.

If you're curious about the Catholic elements in Tolkien's writing, then The Power of the Ring would be a good place to start. Otherwise, I'd go with a different secondary source. 

My rating: 

In short: Amazing introduction to a Catholic perspective of the Christian influences of Tolkien and Middle Earth, despite the misleading title and lack of adequate coverage of pagan perspectives. Impressive, in-depth analysis, but some connections may be a little far-fetched. Just a little. 

The Appendix of short essays is awesome, although the way they are pushed to the end instead of being incorporated into the first (and main) part of the book makes the Appendix feel more like an afterthought.

THE POWER OF THE RING: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit 
by Stratford Caldecott

No comments:

Post a Comment