Book Review: A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie

By Professor Ralph C. Wood

A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie by Verlyn Flieger (Kent, Ohio and London, England: Kent State University Press, 1997).

Verlyn Flieger regards J. R. R. Tolkien as a thoroughly modern writer, not as a mastodon medievalist and anti-modern escapist who enabled his readers to retreat from the Age of Anxiety into an ancient and idealized past. Surely she is right. Tolkien sought to inhabit antique languages and worlds in order to come to terms with 20th century life--not only to recoil from its worst horrors, but also to engage its best possibilities. Tolkien was caught on the cusp that joins two worlds: the traditional Christian world of angels and demons and dream-visions wherein the natural and the supernatural were inextricably interwoven, and the modern world where space and time have been radically relativized by scientific discovery, psychological exploration, and imaginative invention. Flieger argues, with considerable persuasiveness, that Tolkien's art has lasting life because it seeks to join these seemingly contradictory realms.

It is not surprising to learn that Tolkien was deeply influenced by the 19th century Romantics, chiefly S. T. Coleridge and George Macdonald, since his friend and literary companion C. S. Lewis was also decisively shaped by them. Nor is it startling to find Tolkienian connections with J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Mary Rose, with the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, even with Henry James' unfinished story The Sense of the Past. What comes as a genuine shock is the news that Tolkien's mind and work were marked by the fictional dream-journeys of George Du Maurier, by the psychic experiences of Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, by the time-travel fantasies of H. G. Wells, and especially by the notion of J. W. Dunne that all temporal events are simultaneous. Dunne held that time is no less constant than space, and that by certain habits of mind we can move backward and forward over time as we traverse space, even experiencing events that have not yet happened.

Flieger makes Dunne's thesis central to her own, insisting that Tolkien created the whole realm of faërie in order to show the possibility of inhabiting a world where events are synchronous rather than successive--where time is not only chronological and historical but also cyclical and mythical. Her argument is most persuasive when she applies it to Frodo's various dreams in The Lord of the Rings, to the Lorien episode in The Two Towers, and to two unfinished works: an early piece called The Lost Road and a late one entitled The Notion Club Papers. In explicating these minor moments within Tolkien's fiction, Flieger displays masterful learning and philological skill. These are the talents that also make her earlier book, The Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World (Eerdmans, 1983), an indispensable work for any serious study of the great fantasist, especially of The Silmarillion. There she revealed, as she does again here, that the massive moral and religious questions that exercised and animated Tolkien's imagination--the nature of good and evil, of heroism and self-sacrifice, of desire and dispossession, of death and immortality--are but subsets of his central lifelong concern with the nature of time and timelessness.

In both books Flieger has shown us a darker, less cheering Tolkien than many of his Christian apologists have acknowledged. Here again she is right: Tolkien was a man whose faith was shadowed and doubt-filled, and whose fiction thus counsels a sad joyfulness as the most that we can hope for this side of eternity. Yet if the worth of a critical study lies in its illumination of an author's main work, then Flieger's book must be faulted even as it is to be praised. She fails to illuminate The Lord of the Rings nearly as much she explains two minor works that interest few folk other than Tolkienian archivists. Flieger believes, of course, that Tolkien's oeuvre is of a piece, and that to excavate such small parts is to disclose the whole. And because she finds Tolkien entertaining notions of reincarnation and psychic time-travel and occult experience at these particular points in his fiction, she assumes that they are at work everywhere in his work.

Flieger gives us a Tolkien who is much closer to the heterodoxy of Owen Barfield and Charles Williams than to the orthodoxy of C. S. Lewis. What she misses, in my view, is Tolkien's deliberate resistance to the occult and the psychic. As M. H. Abrams has shown, the Romantics sought to cultivate a "natural supernaturalism." They endeavored to revive the transcendence which Newtonian science had silenced by relocating it either within outer nature or inner experience. In The Disappearance of God, Hillis Miller has demonstrated how this valiant experiment failed. Yet the late legatees of Romanticism remained largely undaunted. Like their New Ageish counterparts in our own time, they sought not a this-worldly transcendence so much as an other-worldly immanence. Yeats and Steiner, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, the theosophists and anthroposophists and seancers all practiced a gnostic neo-Platonism which sought to overcome the mortal limits of time-bound flesh by human imagination alone.

Flieger is right to contend that Tolkien shared their neo-gnostic critique of our century's decadent and violent materialism. Yet she fails to see that Tolkien also resists what is spurious in the attempt to have God without incarnation or cross or resurrection--in short, to have God without God. The new gnostics were scandalized, as Tolkien was not, by the claim that, in Israel and the Jews, God has subjected himself to the conditions of time, and that this very God has died and risen again for the redemption of history--not in cyclical repetition of mythic timelessness, but in once-and-for-all, unrepeatable, space-time events. Tolkien's attempt to give fictional expression to this radically historical faith is largely missing in Flieger's new book. Even so, it remains a work that all serious students of Tolkien must reckon with. Avoiding the easy filiopietism of many Tolkienian enthusiasts, she demonstrates that the gnostic urge for the sheer open-ended quest, for time-free and undirected longing, remains very strong in his fiction.

Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University, is a Tolkien expert and has studied Christian literary classics and the Inklings (the close group of Oxford literary masters including C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien). He taught for 26 years at Wake Forest University, where he won awards for distinguished teaching. His publications include "Traveling the One Road: The Lord of the Rings as a 'Pre-Christian' Classic," Christian Century 110, 6 (February 24, 1993): 208-11.