on 17 December 2008
This is a good read by a good author. More to the point, the book appealed to me on several levels. First, Dr. Kreeft provides a summary of the classic world view that rests behind Tolkein's great work. Kreeft ties the themes of LOTR with Philosophy as it used to be understood and taught. Secondly, the book serves as an outline of philosophy 101; this should be of value to many who despite a university education, still do not know their Ontology from their Ethics. Finally, as always when reading the works of Peter Kreeft, his Christian world view comes through loud and clear with the force of reason and faith. And, as iceing on the cake, Kreeft ties in the works and words of C. S. Lewis on each major point. Tolkein, Lewis and Kreeft, a bargain at any price and well worth the readers time.
on 15 September 2011
Please do not buy this book. I have no idea what has got into the other reviewers or how on God's green earth they could have rated this five stars. It gets one star from me only because Amazon require at least one. I will give you two good reasons not to buy; (i) if you love Tolkien and are looking for genuine insights into his work you will be very, very disappointed, and (ii) although it also presents itself as "an engaging introduction to philosophy" and is, apparently, by a philosopher, it is so philosophically off the wall as to be utterly bizarre and misleading, at best, and is sometimes just plain dumb (I write, for what it is worth, as someone who has taught philosophy at an established university for more than twenty years).
With respect to the first, the book borrows heavily from C. S. Lewis; so heavily, in fact, as to make you think you've bought a book about Lewis's philosophical viewpoint. There is often not much Tolkien in it. My advice, if you like the sort of discussions which interested Lewis, is to go and buy Lewis - it's a lot more interesting and readable than this. Often, when Tolkien does appear, Kreeft just gets him wrong. I often wondered whether he had bothered to read Tolkien, the errors are so basic (e.g. Eowyn is 'saved' from the Nazgul by Pippin). The 'insights' are often, well, bonkers. For example; "Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are quite possibly the Valar Aule and Yavanna". The entries he cites in support of this possibility simply suggest no such thing. And how about this: the great Tolkien puzzle, according to Kreeft, is how and why Tolkien "has produced the most convincing, desirable, beautiful, believable and awesome Elves. And the answer is," Kreeft suggests, "that he must have been an Elf. Or at least he had Elf blood somewhere in his ancestry." For genuine insights into Tolkien, you are better off reading Tom Shippey, Patrick Curry, Paul Kocher, Brian Rosebury, Jane Chance or any number of other decent commentators on his work.
Perhaps more worrying is the philosophy, especially if the unwary or inexperienced take this to be a guide to the ideas and issues that motivate philosophers, or (worse) as an object lesson in philosophical argument. It is hard to know where to start, or finish, a critique of the book in terms of its philosophical content, so I will give just one example. Chapter 6 concerns itself with epistemology, or the study and theory of knowledge. One of the questions he addresses is 'What sources of knowledge can we trust?' and considers whether the heart and feelings are such a source. "Does the heart know as well as feel and desire?" In order to answer this, he then turns to the episode in the Prancing Pony where Frodo first meets Aragorn. Kreeft asks, "how did Frodo know 'Strider' was trustworthy when he first met him at Bree? He 'feels fair and seems foul'-is this the 'feeling' the eye of the heart and the 'seeming' the eye of the head?" Hmm... (The actual phrases from Tolkien are "seem fairer and feel fouler" or "look foul and feel fair"; but let's leave that aside.) More importantly, this doesn't look like a passage that will support the idea that Tolkien thought the heart yields knowledge. Frodo doesn't claim that he 'knew' Strider was 'fair'; Tolkien writes that "Frodo spoke with hesitation. 'I believed that you were a friend ... or at least wished to." As any philosophy student is aware, a belief - even a true belief - doesn't amount to knowledge, and Frodo certainly seems as if he is merely expressing a belief here, and even appears uncertain that he really believed it. In an attempt at further support, Kreeft goes on to quote the passage where Gandalf says of Gollum, "My heart tells me he has some role to play yet, for good or ill, before the end" and then asks "How did Gandalf know this?" The simple answer is that he didn't and no plausible account of knowledge given by philosophers over the course of philosophy's history (none of which Kreeft discusses) would support the view that he did. But note also that Gandalf doesn't even claim to know this (just as Frodo doesn't make a claim to knowledge), nor does Tolkien ever suggest that Gandalf does knows it (something that would, anyway, run counter to the whole spirit of Tolkien's work). And even if Gandalf had claimed to know it, that by itself wouldn't mean that he did know it (the difference between claiming to know and knowing being another distinction familiar to any student of philosophy). So, to try and recruit Tolkien in the service of Kreeft's own, frankly, unsound and superficially argued epistemological view is, to say the least, extremely unfair to Tolkien.
If you look at his publications (he's certainly prolific), you will see that Kreeft is, essentially, a religious writer and one, seemingly, not too comfortable with a modern worldview. He is really in the business of proselytising his beliefs and, on his website, describes this book as "The Lordship of Christ in Lord of the Rings". By noting this, I don't intend this as a criticism in itself; but readers should be aware that this is the case and that this colours his choice of philosophical topics and the stance he takes towards them. The choice is often peculiar (in both senses of that word): questions such as "Do we have guardian angels?" or "Can we relate to God by 'religion'?" are not questions that trouble many philosophers. If they interest you, fair enough, but don't expect to get a detailed or balanced treatment of them here. This and, not least, the often fallacious or superficial reasoning evident throughout, makes this book completely unsuitable as an introduction to philosophy. (There are plenty of those available that do a much better job.) Nor does the book work as an exploration of philosophical ideas in Tolkien (the collection of essays constituting the volume The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, edited by Bassham and Bronson, though not great, is better); but that, actually, is not what this book is about. Rather, it is, apparently, an account of Tolkien's philosophical worldview. This strikes me as arrogant and impertinent. Perhaps these questions interested Tolkien, I don't know; but I can't help feeling that it is rather presumptuous of Kreeft to assume that just because Tolkien was himself religious and also a Catholic (and, in many ways, a critic of modern attitudes and trends) he would endorse the detail of Kreeft's own set of idiosyncratic views. Sure, Tolkien does occasionally express a strong view on a relevant topic, especially in his letters; but not often enough for us to attribute a detailed and worked-out worldview to him. We have to be aware of our own epistemic limitations in this respect and show some courtesy to a dead author who can no longer speak for himself.
In sum: an irritating and very, very bad book. Save your money.