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A Review of Tolkien Dogmatics by Austen M. Freeman
"It is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-Earth."
“I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,” said Strider, 'in brief — for it is a long tale of which the end is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-Earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.'
He was silent for some time, and then he began
Aragorn - The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring
Sadness and Joy
I recently listened to Andy Serkis’ new rendition of the Fellowship of the Rings, and have since begun the Two Towers, both are excellent and convey the magic of Tolkien’s writings, from the simplicity of the Hobbits, to the immortality of the Elves. During a conversation with Frodo, Aragorn says, “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-Earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”
I was struck by how true this was of my own life—a sad tale made uplifting only by what God has done through it—and reflected on the regularity with which the trilogy has been quoted, drawn from, and even to an extent exegeted in Christian articles, sermons, and books since it was first published. In fact, I’ve even jested over at the GCD Weekly Newsletter that as a Christian publication we’re “legally obligated to quote Tolkien at least once a year, and Lewis twice,” which though intended to be satirical, only resonates because of how close to the truth it really is.
With that said, I was delighted a few months ago when I first saw Freeman’s book Tolkien Dogmatics advertised, and I was baffled as to how anyone could render something of a systematic theology from a man who was primarily a writer of fiction. Once I began to read his work, however, I found myself asking the opposite question, “how have so many people removed God entirely from their journey’s through Middle-Earth?”
While this book is not intended to be used as a replacement for another systematic theology, I do think it has a place in your library, either as a reference, or an encouragement.
A Pastor’s Aid
This book should not be taken as a reference to what one believes about any given theological subject, but if you’ve made it this far and you’re a Pastor, there’s a good chance that you’ve already used Tolkien or Peter Jackson’s trilogy to illustrate a point in a discipleship setting or a sermon, and I think this book can only aid in that endeavour.
When you’re looking for something to grip people’s imagination, whether it’s a quote from Spurgeon, Calvin, or Tolkien, you want to be able to defend the use of that hook beyond the cinematic power it might evoke. Whether through writing or preaching, our use of fiction should—where possible—stand up to the same scrutiny we expect of our non-fiction quotes, and this book could help you to do that. I stand by fiction as a powerhouse God often uses to sanctify his beloved, when I left “A Quiet Place” I called my wife in a state because I’d been so convicted about what it meant to be a husband and to care and provide for her, Van Helsing in Dracula taught me about the importance of prayer, and Pride and Prejudice can provide a safe environment to learn about the power of those sins, to experience them, and then repent of those sins—even against fictional characters.
You might, for instance, be speaking about grace, and think about the journey from the base of Mount Doom to the casting of the ring into the fire. Freeman says:
“Frodo receives grace to take up the quest, to resist temptation, and to endure fear and suffering to a heightened degree. The entire final trek into Mordor seems accomplished only by continuous infusions of grace and the will of providence.”
Austin M. Freeman, Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-Earth, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), 288.
While a retelling of the struggle brings depth of emotion, this quote could help to bring depth of truth.
In addition to helping us to understand Tolkien’s work more intimately, there is a whole world of fiction out there which you have yet to mine, which leads me to my next point.
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Wandering, but Not Lost
This book isn’t only a roadmap to understanding the divine in Tolkien’s life and works, but also a template for helping us as reader to find God in the stories we read. Austen, Dostoyevsky, Lewis, Tolkien, and Peterson are all examples of Christians who have laced biblical truth into the fabric of their worlds. Through trials, sorrows, and rejoicing, their characters either see that stitching and respond to it, or they run from it like so many do. Freeman has done years of research to get to this point, so that we can benefit from his labour. The greatest outcome would be for hundreds of minds to be inspired to do the same in the pages of their notebooks and in the margins of well-read pages, and for the church to be blessed by a richer understanding of worlds and stories which were born from imagination.
One of Tolkien’s most famous sayings is taken from a poem about Aragorn, the whole verse reads:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
I find it hard not to be moved by this verse, because I know what it means to have roots which are so deep that even whilst everything else in my life has been blistered by the cold, they cannot be touched, not because they reach up to me, but because they reach down into a foundation upon the rock of Christ. I also know that whether intentionally or not, many writers have written against God, in spite of him, out of love for him, in reverence of him, to praise his name, and to curse it. Earlier today Glen Scrivener tweeted, “Ruling out ‘the supernatural’ from the outset is itself a dogmatic approach. Faith positions are inevitable.”1 This rings true of fiction, as it reflects the world we live in. Finding God in that, or people's position with regards to God can provide pathways for us to navigate conversations, our own thought patterns, and even disagreements in a way which helps us to understand ourselves, those around us, our fellow Christians, and the world outside.
Why not use this book like a diving board, jumping off and into a pool full of fiction.
A Dogmatic Approach
It’s hard to know exactly how to encourage readers to tackle this book in some ways, because the nature of a dogmatic book—whether Bavinck or Freeman—is that people will open up the book and skip to the section which interests them most. This book covers everything from the necessary inclusions—God, Humanity, the Fall—to deeper focusses like Angels and Demons, the Sacraments, and Ethics. In addition, each section is fleshed out with beautifully specific sub-headings, my favourite of which has to be, “Theories of Atonement in Tolkien’s Legendarium.”
With that all said, I hope that whatever angle you tackle this book from, I hope that as a reference book or as a tome to snuggle up with by a fire—with a bag of Longbottom Leaf, of course—this article has provided both an incentive to read this book, and some goals to help you to do well.
Freeman has written a book which was always going to sell—a theological book about Tolkien must be as tempting as the ring of power to the church—but he did so leaving no stone unturned, and no potential footnote unwritten. Freeman has done his research, read Tolkien’s letter, his books, his retellings of myths and legends, to get to the heart of a man rooted in Christ and whose branches still bear fruit today.
With Rings of Power having begun, with many seasons ahead, it’s high time for us to make our claim on Middle-Earth again with Freeman leading the charge.
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