Though I’ve never had the good fortune to meet Richard Purtill, I assume he must be a deeply fascinating man. In the 1950s, he traveled to England and met Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, perhaps two of the most important figures in the twentieth-century Roman Catholic intellectual renaissance. These two did much to promote the works of some of the most important thinkers of the twentieth-century: Christopher Dawson, E.I. Watkin, Jacques Maritain, C.C. Martindale, and C.S. Lewis. Of his encounter with the Sheeds, Purtill wrote
The chief characteristics of Sheed and Ward Catholicism were a deep love of the church, which did not preclude a keen awareness of the church’s failings, a keen intellectual interest in the teachings of the church, and a great ability to enjoy the life of faith and the life of reason. Some of the best discussions I have had and some of the most uproariously good times were with the members of the Catholic Evidence Guild, which was in many ways an extension of the Sheed and Ward apostolate. (Purtill, “Chesterton, the Wards, the Sheeds, and the Catholic Revival,” in THE RIDDLE OF JOY, 23).
One gets jealous of the man’s experiences and encounters just reading this brief passage. It seems an experience almost equal to Clyde Kilby’s summer of 1966 working with Tolkien, or Father C.J. McNaspy’s few years in the late 1940s studying with Christopher Dawson, or Father Peter Milward having met all of the Oxford greats in the 1950s.
A professional logician, Purtill has written a number of academic works on philosophy, ethics, and theology as well as serious science fiction and fantasy novels based on ancient Greek mythology. He has also written a number of books on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and he was one of the first to emphasize the centrality of Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism to his Middle-earth mythology. Considering his achievements and his interests, one might be tempted to label him an “American Inkling.”
Ignatius has recently done a great service to our understanding of twentieth-century Christian Humanism by republishing Purtill’s 1984 work, J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion, with a new introduction by Joseph Pearce. In it, Purtill brilliantly tackles a number of issues, including the meaning and significance of myth, the important social and philosophical criticism offered by good science fiction, an insightful analysis of the various races in Middle-earth, the significance (or insignificance as the case may be) of evil, the virtues surrounding heroism, the theological differences between magic and miracle, and the efficacy of free will. Purtill concludes the book, appropriately, with a discussion of Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, the sudden, unexpected, and undeserved joy, or an inspired, artistic, and mystical insight into what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.”
Purtill offers three chapters on the meaning of myth, the theme of which becomes the central issue of the book. Three types of myth exist, he writes, the 1) original myth, which deals with the supernatural, morals, and ritual (liturgy), and is often regarded by religious followers as absolutely true; 2) literary myth, which can—but does not have to—parallel the morals of original myth, but is entirely imaginary in plot and character; and, closely connected 3) philosophical myth, which again explains the truth of a moral or virtue, but in a manner that is allegorical. Tolkien, according to Purtrill, created a literary myth that got as close to original myth as possible. In other words, Tolkien’s myth is morally, ethically, theologically, and philosophically true, and in terms of reality and plot, not entirely untrue. Certainly, for Tolkien, it would be impossible to write an original myth, as the original myth, completely true, has been recorded in the Old and New Testaments. To change it would be blasphemy and heresy. However, using his moral imagination, that is, taking old truths and putting them in a new form, Tolkien created a literary myth that glorified the original myth. As Purtill describes it in one important example, Tolkien’s
Elves are not embodied spirits in quite the same way humans are: they are immortal so long as the physical universe lasts, and if they are killed in Middle-earth their spirits go to the Halls of Mandos and eventually return to Middle-earth re-embodied. Thus the relation of body and spirit in Elves is in some ways more like the relation of the Valar and of Maiar to their temporary embodiments than it is like the human body-soul relation. Thus it is less surprising that Elves might have extra powers of affecting matter directly by an action of their mind or spirit. That there could exist beings like Tolkien’s Elves seems compatible with Catholic theology (p. 151).
For Tolkien, the realm of faerie was only a minor and more earthly—but still vitally important—form of myth. While the whole book is excellent, it is with these three chapters that J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion really shines and makes its greatest intellectual contribution.
My only complaint—and it is so minor, that I hesitate to state it, except to clear the record—is against Purtill’s rather dated argument that Tolkien probably never “had a woman friend he regarded as fully his equal” (p. 190). Tolkien not only worked with one of his women students, S.R.T.O. d’Ardenne, as an equal, publishing several jointly produced articles with her, but women students in socially-conscious Oxford adored Tolkien primarily because he did treat them as equals. Additionally, it is impossible not to look at Elbereth, Luthien, Galadriel, Arwen, Eowyn, or Goldberry as wonderfully fascinating and appealing female characters in Tolkien’s mythology. This is but a minor quibble with a great book.
At times Purtill’s book is deeply analytical. At other times, it is deeply personal. But, it is always filled with wit and wisdom. With this republication, Ignatius has revived a forgotten classic, and Purtill deserves to stand with the best of Tolkien scholars: Pearce, Shippey, Chance, Caldecott, and Kilby. Let this review conclude with Purtill’s own words regarding the mercy of Frodo: “Frodo rejects the seemingly good advice of Sam and others and forgives and trusts Gollum. And in the last analysis, their self-sacrificing love rises to such heights as to be comparable to the greatest love the world has known” (p. 77).
Richard Purtill’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion and other books on or by J.R.R. Tolkien may be found at the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This originally appeared in the St. Austin Review.