Dr. McIntosh’s Scholarly Work on Tolkien Nominated for Award
Dr. McIntosh’s scholarly work on the metaphysics of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elaborate world is snowballing attention, being called “a most valuable addition to Tolkien scholarship” because of its “breathtakingly original” insight. Most recently, it was one of five works nominated by the Mythopoeic Society for its 2019 Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies. It was reviewed by several academic journals—The Journal of Tolkien Research, The Journal of Inkling Studies, a forthcoming issue of Tolkien Studies, and the Evangelical Review of Theology—as well as some more popular venues such as World Magazine, St. Augustine’s Review, and numerous blogs. It was the subject of Dr. McIntosh’s interview with Ken Meyers in the most recent edition of Mars Hill Audio, as well as an interview on The Catholic Culture Podcast.
Dr. Jonathan McIntosh gave us a brief overview of the book’s formation and intentions:
The Flame Imperishable began as a doctoral dissertation in philosophy. I was already a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, but I began to be particularly intrigued by what I increasingly saw as the profound philosophical and theological seriousness, sophistication, and subtly of his Middle-earth “legendarium.” In a reply to one reviewer of The Lord of the Rings, for example, Tolkien comments how he saw the story as being basically “about God, and His sole right to divine honor”—an astonishing, even audacious claim for a book that makes no overt mention of God (Gandalf’s cryptic identification of himself, facing the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, as a “servant of the Secret Fire” is arguably the most explicit reference to the divine in the whole book). Either Tolkien was confused about the theological nature of his own work, or else he had a much different, and possibly much deeper, understanding of what it means for a story to be basically “about God” than is found in a lot of other Christian literature.
Thus, while many other books have been written about the Christianity or Catholicism of Tolkien’s work, I really wanted to focus on the specifically Christian and theistic philosophy and metaphysics of Tolkien’s thought and fictional world, to get a sense of how God truly is behind everything within Tolkien’s story: first in bringing the world into being, and then by providentially directing everything according to his sovereign plan. Making this argument was a challenge, as Tolkien admittedly doesn’t talk a lot about narrow, philosophical and theological topics in his non-fiction writings, and as for his fiction, when he does touch on such matters, it is usually in the context of epic high myth, fantasy, and fairy story, where sifting genuine philosophical insights from their poetic and narratival framework requires a good deal of care. But I fortunately had a lot of help along the way, teasing out some of Tolkien’s philosophical thought using the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1277), whom I argue to be a philosophical influence on Tolkien.
In conclusion, what I think readers will get from the book is an even greater appreciation of Tolkien’s genius—although I focus on his philosophical thought, this is just one of many of the profound dimensions to his work. More generally, my hope is that the book also impresses readers with a sense of not only the difficulty, but also the rewards, value, and importance of the study of philosophy in Christian education—something, for example, we take very seriously here at New Saint Andrews College. Tolkien was not a professional philosopher, and we can all be thankful for it. But we can also be thankful that he was nevertheless a profoundly philosophical thinker, writer, and story-teller because if he weren’t, his works wouldn’t have nearly the depth that they have. And making Christians deep—through the Bible, but also through literature, history, languages, philosophy, in short, the whole panoply of the liberal arts—is just one of the things the contemporary Church desperately needs to accomplish.
While his book is cerebral through and through, it was the wonder, the Northernness, the presentation of unmolested nature, that first drew Dr. McIntosh into Tolkien’s fiction: “he opened up the beauty of the natural world. [Tolkien’s fiction] gave me a love of things that are old, permanent.” In college, Professor McIntosh had majored in mechanical engineering; The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion were some of the books that made up his first delve into literature. During his reading, he started experiencing the joyful ache—something akin to homesickness—that many Tolkien readers have shared. While studying Aquinas in graduate school at the University of Dallas, he finished the fiction of Tolkien by listening to The Silmarillion while biking through the tree-canopied parks in the city’s metro. Connecting Tolkien’s philosophy and Aquinas’s metaphysics was accidental.
“A friend of mine from church was visiting. I shared with him some passages from The Silmarillion, which he hadn’t read. To explain the passages, I found myself borrowing all these ideas from Thomistic metaphysics, and I thought, ‘this works really well.'” This was the seed that grew into The Flame Imperishable. After meeting with University of Dallas’s Tolkien Scholar, Dr. McIntosh began his dissertation on Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faerie. The name of the book is both a hat tip to Tolkien and a metaphor for Aquinas’s metaphysics. “In [Tokien’s] creation myth, the flame imperishable is the creative power of Ilúvatar.” It is also “intended to be a kind of metaphor of the perennial philosophy, the Christian thought, represented by Aquinas’s metaphysics. There is something undying about the creation philosophy of Aquinas—and of course, Tolkien is rekindling those metaphysics in the creation myth of The Silmarillion.” If J.R.R. Tolkien rekindled the Thomistic metaphysics in his creation myth, Dr. McIntosh’s work is one more flame curling from the fire.