Tolkien Dogmatics: Keene Review

Tolkien Dogmatics

Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-Earth

Austin Freeman

Lexham, 2022 (ISBN: 9781683596677, 476pp, £19.99)


The author of the book under review admits that ‘of the making of books on Tolkien there is no end’, but argues that his is a distinctive contribution to what has become a whole field of ‘Tolkien studies’ (a field as yet, thankfully, without its own undergraduate degree course!). Professor Tolkien’s many writings were deeply influenced by his Christian faith. Freeman synthesises these writings to deduce Tolkien’s theology and presents his findings in the format of a systemic body of dogmatics. 


Much of Tolkien’s writing, including all of his best-known titles, are works of fiction. Thus the opening discussion on the methodology of extracting theology from fantasy fiction is intriguing if not entirely convincing. The individual studies on areas of theology are equally interesting, through inevitably follow much more circuitous lines of enquiry than a normal systematic theology. For example, the discussion of whether the ‘secret fire’ of Eru can be equated to the Holy Spirit or can illuminate anything of Tolkien’s pneumatology delves into several corners of the Arda legendarium but ultimately seems to be quite limited in what can be concluded. 


Tolkien did write much non-fiction (as we should expect from one who occupied professorial chairs in Oxford for well over thirty years) but proportionally little of this touched on theology. Tolkien himself admitted his lack of formal training in theology and Freeman identifies several points at which this shortcoming is alarmingly evident, e.g. in relation to intra-Trinitarian relations. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, but Freeman shows that his thought was certainly not straightforwardly aping the Papal Catechism. One of the most interesting excurses in the book is on the topic of whether Tolkien considered himself to be writing inspired literature. Alarming though this proposition may sound, the reality of what he actually meant by it is benign. 


Freeman himself is Protestant, and with a doctorate in theology from a respectable evangelical seminary in North America, is a steady guide to the subject at hand. The main reservation to be expressed is simply at the subject itself is slightly eccentric, much, perhaps, like the person of Tolkien himself. But eccentric in a relatively homely, unobjectionable fashion. 


Edward Keene, Little Shelford