Tolkien: A Philosophy of Incarnation


The Laughing Philosopher

This is what JRR Tolkien’s children had written on the back of a photograph of their father taken in August 1952 in Garden House Hotel from Cambridge. A reference to democritusnickname “the laughing” ? Maybe maybe not. The mention raises questions on at least two points. If he were associated with an ancient thinker, Tolkien – whose work is dogged by evil, death and inevitable defeat – wouldn’t he be standing next to him?Heraclitussaid “Crying” ?

“I’m afraid I’ll be targeted by philosophers”
JRR Tolkienin From the fairy tale

Above all, Tolkien would probably never have called himself a philosopher. References to the great thinkers of the tradition are indeed almost absent in his work. And when he talks about philosophy, it is mainly to distinguish himself from it. To the character of Ramer, his alter ego from his abandoned novel The Notion Club Papershe says: “I am not a philosopher, but an experimenter, a man guided by desires – not very carnal, yet very embodied.” In his letters again: “I am not a metaphysician. » In From the fairy talefinally, Tolkien dreads “finding a target for the philosophers”.

practical wisdom

Confronted with philosophers, Tolkien thus shows distrust. Moreover, it is difficult to know exactly how he understands the word ‘philosophy’ itself. The gloss of the word Quenya (or High Elvish, a language coined by Tolkien)”Ingolë in the book The Peoples of Middle-earth passes the term “Science/Philosophy as a whole”, “simple wisdom”unlike “the wisdom of the specialist, the wisdom that gives knowledge, reflection in a field”. Philosophy, in the Tolkien sense, is therefore not characterized by a specific field, but by a way of totalizing – and articulating – knowledge? It is certainly this tendentiously systematic – or at least theoretical – positioning that fuels Tolkien’s reticence – the same applies to Albert Camuswho says in an interview with the newspaper To serve in 1945: “I don’t believe enough in reason to believe in a system. What interests me is knowing how to behave. »

“In this fallen world our only guides are prudence, wisdom […], a pure heart and willful will”
JRR Tolkien

For Tolkien, this is especially true in the field of ethics. canya era cato alwara, “Being wise after that is useless,” says an Elvish proverb. We can read between the lines a critique of the excessive ambitions of the great moral systems, which ultimately help nothing in a situation. To decide, it is better to humbly rely on a few values: In this fallen world our only guides are prudence, wisdom […], a pure heart and faithful will.” Kind of“virtue ethics” – innovative movement of moral philosophy that developed at the same time, mainly supported by Iris Murdochalso a reader of Lord of the Rings. Or some form of practical wisdom, that of Samwise, Samsagace, Gamegie, the “real hero” from Lord of the Rings. And even then man cannot escape errors of judgment (hamartia, to say it with the vocabulary ofAristotle), to the unsolvable choices imposed on him by existence in a fallen world – such as this one “men locked in the shackles of circumstances or their own character, torn between equally sacred duties, dying with their backs against the wall” that inhabit pagan legends.

Logos and words

But it is perhaps even more, from the point of view of language, meaning and words that Tolkien, philologist before he became a writer, denounces the theoretical approach of the philosophers. Philosophy works on concepts that are always a bit too abstract; some of its representatives would dream of a perfectly clear universal language, devoid of all singularity, of every root in a particular linguistic situation. Tolkien, on the other hand, is a philologist: he works on words, ideas embodied in healthy flesh. And if he recognizes, in a note of a letter, that… ” the logos is ultimately independent of verbatim »it denies man here below access to this word of absolute truth that the logosreserved for God. Is this not precisely the too proud dream of the philosophers?


Not all, however, and Tolkien knows it all too well. During a television interview, we heard him quote… a passage from: Simone de Beauvoirwhich recognizes it as a key to reading the Lord of the Rings : “There is no natural death: nothing that happens to man is ever natural, as his presence casts doubt on the world. All men are mortal: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows and consents to it, unnecessary violence. (A very sweet death).

“The real theme of lord of the rings, for me is linked to something much more timeless and difficult than the question of power: death and immortality”
JRR Tolkien

Tolkien appreciates philosophy when it sheds its abstraction and sinks into the depths of this drama of existence, of finiteness, of mortality which is at the heart of Lord of the Rings. “The real theme for me is something much more timeless and more difficult [que la question du pouvoir] : Death and Immortality, Tolkien writes in his correspondence. He already found the same tragic sensibility in the great Norse myths, the vision of which can be summed up in a few words: “All men and all their works must die”, but this despair is mixed with a pietas »of a “belief in the value of doomed resistance”.

“Each of us is an allegory, embodied in a particular story, clothed in the garb of time and place, universal truth and eternal life”
JRR Tolkien

A truth hidden in the flesh

If it is necessary to speak of a philosophy of Tolkien, it is a philosophy of incarnation: meaning in the words, soul in the body, and still the most burning pain and the deepest joy. “Each of us is an allegory, embodied in a particular story, clothed in the garb of time and place, universal truth and eternal life. » But this truth is hidden in the flesh. Not that everything would be reduced to her. When Tolkien calls himself“experimenter” through Ramer, who seems to come under the protection of empiricism, as a Christian he believes deeply in the existence of the soul. It actually disqualifies the “atheistic philosophy” who looks no further than matter (Parma Eldalamberon, 20). And gives his approval to the “idealistic philosophy” : not on the theoretical speculations of the metaphysicians, but on the belief in the existence of another level of reality. “Nothing that happens to man is ever natural, as his presence casts doubt on the world”Beauvoir said. For man is not of this world, Tolkien adds: he adheres to it like an intruder, a stranger. As for his fate beyond the “circles of the world”he is struck with the seal of the mystery, where faith is rooted.

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