Tolkien and the Common Good

Author_Century_paperback Tom Shippey’s book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author Century is largely an apologetic work; it is a defense of Tolkien against literary critics who despise him as a romantic escapist whose mock archaic epics are unworthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the psychological explorations of “modernist” fiction. Shippey argues that is is in fact the “modern” which out of touch with reality and the “archaic” which is real. One argument that he brings for this has to do with the contrast between the private and the public:

Nevertheless, although [Tolkien’s concern] is not with the private and the personal (the themes of the ‘modernist’ novel), but with the public and the political, it should be obvious that to all but the sheltered classes of this century, the most important events in private lives (and even more, in deaths) have often been public and political. It is those who turn away from that thought, prefer to remain in what Graves called the ‘drawing room’ areas of literary tradition, who are in ‘flight from reality’. (p.xxxi)

Shippey should go farther though. That the “public” does touch what is most important in human lives is not just a consequence of its habit of ending them, but more importantly it follows from the primacy of the common good: the most important human goods are not private goods. Tolkien himself saw this quite clearly. In a lecture some years ago my father made this point:

We meet Frodo immersed in the ordinary life of a Hobbit. Step by step he discovers the significance of the ring he inherited from Bilbo. The ring is not a local matter. It touches the lives of all in Middle-earth. The quest on which this discovery sends him brings him into contact with concerns that are much larger than those that had moved him in the Shire. His quest is not a merely personal quest. It cannot be understood in terms of pop-psychology as a quest of finding himself. What he finds is much larger than himself and he understands himself more and more as a part of that larger whole. […] Frodo’s quest is therefore defined by a great and noble common good, a political good. This transition of Frodo from a private individual with a small radius of life to one who loves the common good of the kingdom established in Middle-earth is one of the most beautiful events in The Lord of the Rings. It corresponds to the rhythm of increase found at the beginning of the Silmarillion, at the very root of Middle-earth. A small story is suddenly enlarged into a story that has greatness, splendor and glory.

And there is another piece of evidence that the primacy of the common good is pretty much the hermeneutic key to the universe, as anyone who has read Charles De Koninck’s sapiential book on that principle will agree.

(Of course, not every author who is interested in the ‘public’ in Shippey’s sense uses an ‘archaic’ style. David Foster Wallace’s work, for example, turned a lot on the contrast between private and common good, but uses the most ‘advanced’ technique, and that presents him with certain difficulties…)

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