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Old 07-02-2014, 12:46 AM   #1
Lotrelf
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Silmaril Can atheists appreciate/understand Lord of the Ring?

It is clear that LotR books are religious work and are widely loved and appreciated. And most of the readers I have come across are believers of God's existence. But there's no doubt there are people too who don't believe in God. Can they really understand the depth of the books; and appreciate as we do? Though, it is not easy to understand everything about the books(e.g. Tom Bombadil and his mystery; and Frodo's actions at Mount Doom are never ending debates), but there are many readers who understand the books(many I've met here).
But if it comes to atheists are they really going to get them the way we did?
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Old 07-02-2014, 02:40 AM   #2
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Could you actually clarify the question a little bit? Are you asking whether atheists can understand the books (in some general sense) or understand the books like you do?


Also I find it curious that you think that you should believe in God in order to understand LotR in the first place.

I would agree with you that one should know something about basic Christian beliefs and ideas to appreciate some religious themes LotR contains, but would that require also a faith in (Christian) God's existence - well that's a bit more complicated matter.

And given your requirement, there is also the question: in which kind of (Christian) God you should believe in in order to understand the books? An (American) evangelical understanding of God, Liberal / (European) Lutheran God; South-American or African Catholic God... would belief in the God of the Mormons help you understand the book or would it lead one astray? Or should you actually hold on to prof. Tolkien's old-time abstractly academic yet conservative Catholicism to understand the books?
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Old 07-02-2014, 03:35 AM   #3
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Yes.

I wonder if English people understand them better than we who are not from England? Do I understand Narn i Chîn Húrin better because I'm Finnish and it's based on the Tale of Kullervo? Does a religious non-Christian understand the books better or worse than a non-religious person raised in a Christian country because they don't share Tolkien's cultural heritage?

Religion/spirituality is just one aspect among many that makes up a person. The fact that somebody doesn't believe in something doesn't mean they're not able to relate to people who do or that they don't understand what religion or belief are about. Many non-religious people I know are very well-versed in different religions; better so than many religious people I know. A non-Christian can know more about the Bible than a Christian - can even have read it more times.

Also, while Tolkien's Legendarium has many Christian elements, it's not an allegory. Therefore understanding shouldn't depend on your own religious background. The depth of the books is not just for understanding, it's for experiencing.

As you keep posting on the Downs, you'll come to find there are many agnostic, atheist and non-religious members (yours truly included). That's what the discussion forum is for - talking about how we understand the books. And as you read these discussions, it's up to you to decide if a non-religious Tolkien enthusiast can fully understand them, or understand them as you do.
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Old 07-02-2014, 06:29 AM   #4
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Tolkien synthesized mythos from Finnish, Icelandic, Germanic, Greek, Anglo-Saxon and biblical sources. As long as you understand the motifs and doctrines Tolkien employed, his Christianity becomes just another myth among many. Which is how I view his tale in its entirety.

In fact, if you view Middle-earth chronologically, from creation through the 1st, 2nd and through the 3rd Age story of The Hobbit, you'll find Christianity superseded by other mythos.
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Old 07-02-2014, 08:12 AM   #5
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I think the issue with this question is that it presupposes some kind of "God-believer" or "atheist" divide with no middle ground. Tolkien was a Catholic. That is a very specific system of beliefs. You might as well ask the same question of "appreciation/understanding" for other denominations of Christianity, let alone other religions and spiritualities.

Can a Hindu appreciate/understand The Lord of the Rings? How about a Buddhist? A Muslim? A Jew? What about an Anglican? An evangelical baptist? etc.

Or, as has been stated, non-spiritual or less spiritual accounts of life: agnosticism and so forth.

The short answer is: yes. I find this quote relevant from Claudio Testi's article "Tolkien's Work: Is it Christian or Pagan? A Proposal for a 'Synthetic' Approach" in Tolkien Studies 10 (2013):
the fundamental catholicity of Tolkien’s work is not to be found in confessional elements related to his Faith, but paradoxically in the quite peculiar non-Christianity of his world, where the most authentic existential and ethical tensions involving the “mere natural” Man are represented.
Testi further argues that Professor Tolkien's work:
is meant neither for a single nation (England) nor a specific religion (be it Christian or Pagan), but for “all of Mankind” capable of sensing with their natural capabilities that beyond the Circles of the World there is “more than memory”
Perhaps an atheist does not believe, or "sense" as Testi would have it, that there is "more than memory" beyond the Circles of the World, but in any event I think that the themes of the work are universal and do not depend on a particular spirituality to be understood. Similarly, I consider the theodicy (and, I suppose, theology) of the narrative to be internally self-consistent, such that while, for example, an education in Christian belief might be useful for interpreting some of the text, no specific real-world belief system has a particular bearing on the "appreciation" or "understanding" of the work.
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Old 07-02-2014, 08:56 AM   #6
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Being theist does not mean you have to be religious. I'm not "religious" if being religious means belonging to a religion. The better word I use for this is SPRITITUAL. Professor certainly wrote his books for all mankind instead of just religious people. But do all the people understand the books?
I started the thread because my experience with atheists has always been bad, so to speak (and I think most of them are arrogant). They doubt God's existence in real life. How are they going to understand characters that are directly affected by "God" or "Eru"? Would they take him as a "character"? Or as an energy? If they do so(energy thought), why not think this is true in real life as well? Or would they say "in Tolkien's world God existed because he saved the world"?
As Prof. said mercy and pity are in divine nature, it's not only true for LotR but for our real lives too. At times it happens when our previous mercy or pity saves us from a disaster. This is what I call "miracle". Miracles do happen; and they take place because of the "divine intervention" Prof. talks about. I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth of Frodo's actions that saved the world in this context?
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Old 07-02-2014, 10:09 AM   #7
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I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth of Frodo's actions that saved the world in this context?
Watch out lest what you say be interpreted as "You choose not to believe in a higher entity, therefore you're too stupid to understand this book." An attitude like that could well be returned with arrogance.

I'd be curious to hear what precisely you mean by "the depth of Frodo's actions" here. You spoke about that and Tom Bombadil's mystery in your first post but I'm not quite sure what you are referring to - there are a gazillion different aspects and ideas and theories to both.

Quote:
They doubt God's existence in real life. How are they going to understand characters that are directly affected by "God" or "Eru"? Would they take him as a "character"? Or as an energy? If they do so(energy thought), why not think this is true in real life as well?
Because Tolkien's work is fiction. I don't see why enjoying, say, the Ainulindalë should suddenly make one believe in something similar in real life.

I actually do see Eru as a character, but mainly for narrative purposes. He's sort of the personification of the Secret Fire, which, then, is the "energy" you speak about (and which for example the Ainur channel in their work). It's hard to explain a god, isn't it?
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Old 07-02-2014, 10:45 AM   #8
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Being theist does not mean you have to be religious. I'm not "religious" if being religious means belonging to a religion. The better word I use for this is SPRITITUAL. Professor certainly wrote his books for all mankind instead of just religious people. But do all the people understand the books?
I started the thread because my experience with atheists has always been bad, so to speak (and I think most of them are arrogant). They doubt God's existence in real life. How are they going to understand characters that are directly affected by "God" or "Eru"? Would they take him as a "character"? Or as an energy? If they do so(energy thought), why not think this is true in real life as well? Or would they say "in Tolkien's world God existed because he saved the world"?
As Prof. said mercy and pity are in divine nature, it's not only true for LotR but for our real lives too. At times it happens when our previous mercy or pity saves us from a disaster. This is what I call "miracle". Miracles do happen; and they take place because of the "divine intervention" Prof. talks about. I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth of Frodo's actions that saved the world in this context?
I am an atheist. I more than likely understand the context Tolkien wrote in better than you do. No, I take that back: I am certain I understand the context of Tolkien's entire corpus better than you do. So please, don't preach to the rest of us.
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Old 07-02-2014, 11:03 AM   #9
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I think we might actually have a really interesting question here.

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Originally Posted by Lotrelf
I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth
Okay, I edited the specific example out from the end of the quote to kind of stress what I think is interesting here.

So. If we have a piece of fiction and in there a fictional reality where some divine forces (internal to that fictious world) are at play, but which at the same time refer to actual religious or spiritual views held by some people in the Real World outside that work of fiction, is it then so, that those people who hold those beliefs in the Real Life kind of "get more" from that fiction than those who do not actually believe in those views?

I mean it is easy to say that if a fiction is written based on a particular world-view then the one who knows and understands the world-view in depth has better chances of understanding what the author has possibly meant and probably has a "deeper understanding" of the work than one who doesn't know much about the world-view in question.

But that's something based on knowledge, not on faith or personal belief.

I have always thought of myself as an enlightened reader of Tolkien's work because of my pretty extensive studies on humanities (like philosophy, literature, different mythologies, religions, general history of ideas, cultural anthropology and Christian religion - it's history, different doxa, sociology, psychology... - etc.). So I can see where Tolkien uses fex. the idea of providence, or where he gets inspired or plays with the ideas of grace, forgiveness, faith, sacrifice... and what is the status of these ideas in different versions of Christian belief - and how Tolkien kind of sides with certain interpretations and ignores some others - and oftentimes blends and sets them up side by side with many pagan beliefs and...

But how does my reading or understanding of Tolkien differ from the reading by someone who actually believes in some of the metaphysical views Tolkien uses as the basis of his story in real life?

That might indeed be a question worth pondering.

My first reaction would be that the experiences between a believer and non-believer would be different indeed. But if we have fex. a believer with only shallow understanding of the issues s/he believes in and a non-believer who has a thorough understanding of them, which one of them would then have the desired or "deep" understanding (it looks like you think there is a desired way to understand LotR)?

Or is it reasonable in a first place to put different readings of a work on a scale where some are worthy of praise or desirable and others are not?

Well. These are interesting questions...
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Old 07-02-2014, 11:21 AM   #10
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I am an atheist. I more than likely understand the context Tolkien wrote in better than you do. No, I take that back: I am certain I understand the context of Tolkien's entire corpus better than you do. So please, don't preach to the rest of us.
Obviously you do. I didn't deny the fact. My post was not meant to offend you or anyone. No, it wasn't. This thread I started to know the fact, more than discussing it. And I do not think you have any problem if I put up the questions to you or anyone here. I thank you for clarifying this misconception of mine.
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Old 07-02-2014, 11:38 AM   #11
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Watch out lest what you say be interpreted as "You choose not to believe in a higher entity, therefore you're too stupid to understand this book." An attitude like that could well be returned with arrogance.
That post of mine was not about the books; but in general. I see people in general who are atheists are very rude and arrogant. I've had many debates with folks who don't believe in God. This is where the "arrogant" thought came to me from.

Quote:
I'd be curious to hear what precisely you mean by "the depth of Frodo's actions" here. You spoke about that and Tom Bombadil's mystery in your first post but I'm not quite sure what you are referring to - there are a gazillion different aspects and ideas and theories to both.
By the actions of Frodo I meant that there's more divinity in the scene than any direct action. Frodo destroys the Ring not by himself but by mercy and pity: that's in the divine nature. So, how does an atheist see this? As a moral failure? Misadventure of Gollum? I'd like to know that.
I gave Tom Bombadil's example to say that there's a lot about the books and characters that most can not interprete on their own. Many say whatever the interpretation of his character is done is false. Some see him as Evil. Some see him as Eru. So, in simple words: It is not easy to get all the facts just like that. And be it theist of atheist, we all find it hard to get many things about the book. Even those who are reading the books for decades. If there's another theory, please let me know.
Quote:
Because Tolkien's work is fiction. I don't see why enjoying, say, the Ainulindal0Š5 should suddenly make one believe in something similar in real life.
I didn't say if one would start believing in God after reading The Silm. I meant that can they really understand the meaning of it? May be they can. I'm proved wrong. *shrugs*
Quote:
I actually do see Eru as a character, but mainly for narrative purposes. He's sort of the personification of the Secret Fire, which, then, is the "energy" you speak about (and which for example the Ainur channel in their work). It's hard to explain a god, isn't it?
So do I. Eru is a fictional character but with lots of(or almost) real life values. We expect him to be perfect. Is he? He created both good and evil. Like in our world. Things in the fiction of Prof. Tolkien and in our real world are not too different. That's the reason I believed that atheists can't understand or appreciate the books.
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Old 07-02-2014, 12:53 PM   #12
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I have found many Christians rude and arrogant...even back in the day when I counted myself as a believer and was thus ashamed by the association. Nothing like an unshakeable bdlief in being right and righteous to make someone totally obnoxious in my experience.

It is knowledge that is the key to understanding not belief.
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Old 07-02-2014, 03:33 PM   #13
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I have found many Christians rude and arrogant...even back in the day when I counted myself as a believer and was thus ashamed by the association. Nothing like an unshakeable bdlief in being right and righteous to make someone totally obnoxious in my experience.

It is knowledge that is the key to understanding not belief.
I've found the same thing about the current, strident crop of atheists lately. What a coincidence, yes?
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Old 07-02-2014, 03:39 PM   #14
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This thread has an explosive potential, though the topic itself is quite interesting.

I'm merely going to say that I think Tolkien, though a Christian himself, deliberately wrote LOTR in a way that was thought-provoking and accessible to every reader. There are various truths and meanings that persons of different spiritual and intellectual bents can derive from these works. Hence, an internet forum over ten years old and still going strong, devoted to them.
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Old 07-02-2014, 06:21 PM   #15
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I started the thread because my experience with atheists has always been bad, so to speak (and I think most of them are arrogant).
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I have found many Christians rude and arrogant.
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Originally Posted by Andsigil View Post
I've found the same thing about the current, strident crop of atheists lately. What a coincidence, yes?
I would argue that the important thing to realise is that people are not strident or arrogant or what have you because of their beliefs but because of their personalities. Being a Christian, an atheist, of any other belief or ideology does not make one arrogant, in my opinion, but arrogant people will use those things as a bludgeon to try to quash differing opinions or points of view which threaten their own self-image. For this reason I would argue that we ought to avoid generalisations wherever possible.

Returning to Professor Tolkien's work more specifically, I find the question of a generalised spirituality, setting any specifically Catholic doctrine aside, to not be irreconcilable with a non-spiritual view of the world. What are the most spiritual elements of the text, then?

1) The idea that there are 'divine' forces at work in the world: Eru, the Valar etc. I think even in a non-spiritual sense it is possible to appreciate the idea that human power has severe limitations in the grand scope of time and space, and that history is complex and rife with the unexpected, that evil will not always triumph and so on.

2) Mercy, pity and self-sacrifice: I don't think compassion and altruism need to be considered 'divine' traits but that from a non-spiritual point of view they can derive from a recognition of weakness and suffering in others as we ourselves are weak and suffer. Ultimately I would link this back again, I suppose, to a recognition of human limitations.

I am neither a religious nor a spiritual person. I don't know for sure what I would classify myself as: I'm not overly keen on "labeling" myself in any sense. Lately in fact thoughts have been troubling me when I consider Professor Tolkien's faith and the "catholicity" of his work and whether I'm to any extent a hypocrite for appreciating it as I do. I think the internal consistency of the narrative helps a great deal, however, what with the account of Eru, the Valar, the Ainulindalë and so forth, and again the recognition that the themes of the work, in my opinion, have great relevance to human life regardless of beliefs.
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Old 07-02-2014, 07:21 PM   #16
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Being theist does not mean you have to be religious. I'm not "religious" if being religious means belonging to a religion. The better word I use for this is SPRITITUAL.
You stole my thought, Lotrelf. I was just catching up on this thread and thinking that it's more about the spitiruality of the person than his religious denomination.

I'm not an atheist, but I don't assign myself to any religious dimension. I have more than slightly visible paganistic tendencies, or pantheistic maybe, or panentheistic, or whatever they call it, except that I'm neither really. I've been educated in two different monotheistic systems of belief, but at a certain point I decided that it's not so much that religion is rubbish and therefore God doesn't exist as organized (and especially monotheistic) religion is unappealing to me and therefore I don't like it. And, now that I think of it, around the same age I stopped liking the beginning-of-The-Sil backdrop - the more organized "theology" of the legendarium. Yeah, I don't appreciate it enough, most likely. However, I can't appreciate more the more mysterious references to the more obscure "fate" in LOTR. (And I've always loved the First Age tragedies, they remain amazing no matter what )

So can I appreciate LOTR? (hint: if you answer "no" to this question, you will suffer a slow and painful... lecture ). I can understand the relationship of Eru-Valar-World, but it doesn't feel right, or maybe doesn't appeal to me. I can still put myself in that perspective's shoes, though.
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Old 07-02-2014, 08:07 PM   #17
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I'm not an atheist, but I don't assign myself to any religious dimension. I have more than slightly paganistic tedencies....
Good lord! G55 eats Christian babies!

Just when you think you know someone, they get all pagan on you.
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Old 07-02-2014, 08:11 PM   #18
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Good lord! G55 eats Christian babies!
They're best stewed with some spices and vegetables, if you have some at hand. The whole trick is not to put too much pepper.




EDIT: well, crap, I've just wasted my 6000th post on this joke. After WEEKS of making sure I don't miss the anniversary. Blargh!

EDIT2: On a second thought, what better way to spend an anniversary post?
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Old 07-02-2014, 11:21 PM   #19
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I'm a devout agnostic, and I'll admit that the dependence of LoTR's plot on miracles, faith, and divine inspiration bothers me somewhat. But the work has enough other themes that I understand better or more intuitively that the whole still resonates.

Whether I understand "the depth" of it as well as I would if were a person of faith, I have no idea. But I'd guess one might as well ask similar questions with regards to having "scholarly credentials in philology", or "experience fighting in World War I", or "a West Midlands English middle-class background circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

Jeeze, it's some kind of miracle any of us understands the book in the slightest.
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Old 07-03-2014, 02:38 AM   #20
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I've found the same thing about the current, strident crop of atheists lately. What a coincidence, yes?
Almost certainly not. Extremists tend to have more in common with the opposing extreme than The inbetweeners and no one group has a monopoly on arrogance. Or indeed goodness and morality.
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Old 07-03-2014, 06:56 AM   #21
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My initial inclination was to ignore this topic and given its inflammability, perhaps that would have been the better choice, but I've been ruminating on it and have been driven from my tree-like state into movement.

As with some prior posters, my reaction to the bare question "can atheists appreciate/understand The Lord of the Rings?" was "well, obviously they can." A lack of belief doesn't not mean the inability to understand a belief or to appreciate the artistry of something created under a belief. If it did, there were would have been a sharp decline in the appreciation of Bach and Michelangelo (to name but two) in the past century--or, to name some non-Christian religious art that has seen *increased* interest from those not sharing the faith of the original artists, in ancient Egyptian art in the past two centuries.

My second thought was that asking the question seems to fly a bit in the face of Tolkien-as-anti-allegorist. Although Christian apologists have flocked to The Lord of the Rings as their standard, Tolkien was much more ambivalent about the specificity of his faith in the work than, say, C.S. Lewis--let alone most of these apologists. The whole point of applicability-vs-allegory seems, to me, to be that the work can be appreciated as a story-in-itself by anyone.

That said, speaking out of my own intensely subjective experience as a Catholic sharing Tolkien's faith, this question isn't completely pointless, even if (first language barrier being in play?) it has to be sifted a little to get there. As I said, there is no bar to the capacity of an atheist or non-Catholic generally to comprehend or appreciate what Tolkien is doing, nor is The Lord of the Rings itself designed to be exclusive to non-Catholic/non-religious readers--yet, perhaps, I would be willing to admit that there's a certain intuitiveness that comes to sharing the perspective of the original author.

Of course, born a century later in the New World and lacking Tolkien's strong classical education--to say nothing of linguistic virtuosity--I do not dare say anything that remotely suggests I can read his mind, but certain analogies or impressions come to me automatically that I think do not come to others. When Tolkien says that The Lord of the Rings was an unconsciously Catholic work in the writing and conscious in the revision, I feel like I have a sense of what he is saying, and when he compares the eucatastrophes of his work to The Eucatastrophe of the Resurrection, it's not as though "ah, that's what he's going for" clicks on in my head, because it's already natural to my sense of storytelling (derived from my metaphysics of reality) that is how stories work.

I would add, too, that this is not the sort of intuitivity that is limited to shared religious belief. As I noted before, I do not share all of Tolkien's formative elements. I am not a philogist at all (though, thanks to Tolkien, I have frequently wished I were), but it is apparent to me that when a philogist reads Tolkien they *get* that side of him--this is, at its heart I think, why Shippey is such a good and instructive commentator on Tolkien: because there is one major element of Tolkien that comes to him with such naturalness.

This is not to say that any intuitivity is *needed*--all the connections that a linguist or a Catholic or an Englishman would make intuitively can be made with study by a non-linguist, a non-Catholic, a foreigner. Can be made and have been made. And if this extra effort (however minor or major it may be in individual cases) is required, Tolkien's storytelling is such that he invites the effort and encourages the exploration. The mark of a good professor, I suppose, as well as a good storyteller.
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Old 07-03-2014, 08:28 AM   #22
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Ugh! I'm just wondering if I need to defend myself here! The question wasn't asked to hurt anyone's feelings, beliefs, ideas be it believers or non-believers, theists or atheists, spiritual or non-spiritual. It was a general query.
The question rose in my mind because LotR's characters are Spiritual and has lots of stuff that connects this book to real life beliefs too. Atheists tend to ignore this all. Recently I came across someone who reads the books and is non-believer and asked him to read LotR. He just denied saying it is "crap" (see? Arrogance!). There are many people who I met on Facebook and are non-believers and atheists. I personally haven't seen anyone who is as good as being mentioned here.
By understanding I meant to point out the religious (or spiritual) beliefs that are in the book. And if everyone understands and loves the book like that, it's a good thing, and very much proud too.
P.S.: Now PLEASE don't take anything in a wrong way. I meant no harm to anyone.
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Old 07-03-2014, 09:00 AM   #23
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Don't worry, Lotrelf. It is a valid topic. It's just that, like some other issues, threads touching on religion tend to have a polarizing effect on people depending on one's personal beliefs.

I personally am a Christ-follower, so what I take from these books is highly unlikely to match that of an atheist. But I reiterate that I believe Tolkien's works have immense value for any who take the time to read them, while opening their minds to the experience.
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Old 07-03-2014, 09:57 AM   #24
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It is a valid topic but it could have been phrased better without the assumptions... an observation not an attack nb. It is a very complex though since individual readers of Tolkien are going to be at different points on various spectrums that may have a factor in their understanding and appreciationof different aspects of Tolkien's work.

Then belief and understanding are not the same.Nor perhaps are understanding and knowledge -the distinction the French make between savoir and connaître. I haven't lost my knowledge and understanding of religion with my loss of faith.

Yes things will be more obvious or resonate if they chime with one's own experience Having roots in the same part of England may help my appreciation, or. y fascination with language but does that count for more than a Finn or Norse scholar's familiarity with the Kalevala and Eddas? Maybe the mathmagicians could work out a formula to decide if a sincere but otherwise ignorant believer has a deeper appreciation than a learned atheist, but it does rather head towards a method acting approach to literary appreciation. It is rather insulting to the human powers of imagination and empathy to think you have to be like the author or stories have to be "relatable". Stories let us try on another's life, another worldview, lead us to find out more and perhaps thereby increase in understanding and compassion.

Not forgetting of course that as our lives may affect our understanding of books, books may affect our understanding of our lives. I don't quite have a "What would Elrond do?" wristband but I discovered Mordor takes many forms.
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Old 07-03-2014, 11:07 AM   #25
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It is a valid topic but it could have been phrased better without the assumptions... an observation not an attack nb. It is a very complex though since individual readers of Tolkien are going to be at different points on various spectrums that may have a factor in their understanding and appreciationof different aspects of Tolkien's work.

Then belief and understanding are not the same.Nor perhaps are understanding and knowledge -the distinction the French make between savoir and connaître. I haven't lost my knowledge and understanding of religion with my loss of faith.

Yes things will be more obvious or resonate if they chime with one's own experience Having roots in the same part of England may help my appreciation, or. y fascination with language but does that count for more than a Finn or Norse scholar's familiarity with the Kalevala and Eddas? Maybe the mathmagicians could work out a formula to decide if a sincere but otherwise ignorant believer has a deeper appreciation than a learned atheist, but it does rather head towards a method acting approach to literary appreciation. It is rather insulting to the human powers of imagination and empathy to think you have to be like the author or stories have to be "relatable". Stories let us try on another's life, another worldview, lead us to find out more and perhaps thereby increase in understanding and compassion.

Not forgetting of course that as our lives may affect our understanding of books, books may affect our understanding of our lives. I don't quite have a "What would Elrond do?" wristband but I discovered Mordor takes many forms.
What irked me originally was the fallacious assumption that an atheist cannot comprehend Tolkien's symbology. People aren't born atheist, any more than they are born Catholic (ignoring Monty Python's song implying you're Catholic the moment dad did his duty with mum). It is based on your experience and most often on your familial background.

I was raised a Catholic -- yes, laughably, the Dark Elf was even an altar boy and an acolyte up to age 11 -- and I went to Catholic school. I understand Catholic dogma, and as a medievalist I have researched the Church and its doctrines moreso than many adherents who wash up and go to mass on Sunday, whether they need to or not.

I understand Tolkien's applicability and his Catholicism, but I reject Catholic doctrines in a real-life worldview; after all, isn't it the running joke that most atheists were once Catholics? I reject the Catholic worldview in reality, just as I reject the idea of a benevolent deity floating about benignly in the ether spraying his blessings about while mankind commits genocide. That, however, does not mean I cannot appreciate the deftness by which Tolkien built his subcreation.

On the contrary, and as I stated before, his is a synthesis of varying mythos that is transformative and unique in all of literature. His creation outdoes the biblical version in beauty and awe. It is great as a myth goes, just as there are great myths in the Eddas and Sagas, the Grecian works of Homer and Plato, the Mabingion, the Finnish Kalavela and the bible. And to really understand Tolkien, you must have a grasp of all these to truly appreciate his Middle-earth. But you don't have to accept Elves or Trolls as being real to appreciate it, any more than you have to accept Eru as the monotheistic god of Christianity.
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Old 07-03-2014, 12:08 PM   #26
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Silmaril

I was raised a Christian, and read the books for the first time when I still was and I remember especially with the Ainulindale feeling very 'connected' to what Tolkien wrote, and it really held a lot of deep meaning for me. Similarly, when I read the Narnia books, those really touched me and I saw Christian symbolism everywhere and I enjoyed them all the more because of it.

For the past three years, after quite the journey, I am an atheist (might shock a few people!), and though I think of these books in a different way I don't think I necessarily appreciate them any less. As I now view the Bible as an impressive work of (fictional) literature and still appreciate it for it's literary value, I hold that same appreciation towards Tolkien's and Lewis' works.

I love Tolkien's books just as much as I did before. I do think that my intensive knowledge of Christianity has made the symbolism more obvious than someone without that knowledge, but not to the point where I wouldn't have appreciated or understood the books otherwise. With Narnia the symbolism is way more blatant, I remember seeing the first film with a non-religious friend who didn't pick up on any of the symbolism, but it didn't stop them from enjoying it and understanding the plot (though it does sort of make it less enjoyable now for me, because it's just so blatant it brings up bad feelings, LotR is certainly not near that point).

Basically, I think there are religious aspects to Tolkien, but it isn't actually necessary for someone to be religious to understand or appreciate those aspects, and as someone who has had both mind sets when reading them it did not at all diminish my love or appreciation of the books, I perhaps wasn't "spiritually" connected to them anymore, but the religious aspects of the books didn't turn me off at all, because they aren't really blatant enough in my opinion, but rather very subtle.

So yeah, my complete turn-around in perspective did not at all change the way I see LotR, I love it just as much, if not more.
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Old 07-03-2014, 03:27 PM   #27
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Amazing. A thread like this hasn't turned into a flame war within half-a-dozen posts? Truly an internet first!
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Old 07-03-2014, 04:01 PM   #28
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Amazing. A thread like this hasn't turned into a flame war within half-a-dozen posts? Truly an internet first!
I think that's a big part of why this forum has endured so long.

And now, on to the Middle-earth Climate Change debate: natural, or Morgoth made?
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Old 07-03-2014, 04:51 PM   #29
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I see no reason why atheists cannot understand or appreciate LOTR, but I think it's generally hard to like a film, which goes against your morals and beliefs. The LOTR is a very catholic book, more than Tolkien probably intended, but it's virtually impossible for an authors beliefs to not seep into his work.

Knowledge of Catholic doctrine and philosophy would probably enhance the story, but book knowledge not mean you belief in something.

Ultimately I think some atheist would struggle to by the numerous times Eru intervenes to save the day. That being said Kingdom of Heaven is a film I completely disagree with, but I still love the film.
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Old 07-03-2014, 08:09 PM   #30
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It is a valid topic but it could have been phrased better without the assumptions... an observation not an attack nb.
I understand what you mean. The reason for my first post got posted they way it did is partially because English is not my first language. Yes, English is given a place in Indian Constitution like many other Indian languages; but not many, in my area, think it is good to speak English. Another reason is that I have never met a Christian. I don't know what their beliefs are or what terms they use. Had I known this my post would have been better.
This is another my "defence" post. Thanks for enduring.
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Old 07-03-2014, 11:36 PM   #31
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I see no reason why atheists cannot understand or appreciate LOTR, but I think it's generally hard to like a film, which goes against your morals and beliefs.
Courage, hope, self-sacrifice, refusal of power, acceptance of the inevitability of change: are these solely theistic (or Christian, or Catholic) beliefs? The Lord of the Rings doesn't go against my morals or beliefs because a) I think a lot of its morals are universally good, and b) I don't think a reader has to believe in god, fate or providence in the real world to accept that god, fate and providence can exist in a story.

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Frodo destroys the Ring not by himself but by mercy and pity: that's in the divine nature. So, how does an atheist see this? As a moral failure? Misadventure of Gollum? I'd like to know that.
I suppose The Lord of the Rings in isolation is sufficiently ambiguous about things (is Eru mentioned specifically anywhere outside the Appendices as 'the One'?) but within the context of the broader corpus of literature it's observable that in the narrative there is a god (Eru) who does influence things, subtly in some cases and directly in others. It'd seem bizarre to me if an atheist didn't consider the god within the world of a fictional narrative to be real.

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Ultimately I think some atheist would struggle to by the numerous times Eru intervenes to save the day.
In all honesty I find some of Eru's actions to be rather inscrutable, or rather his fluctuating levels of involvement, but I don't think I struggle to "buy" his role in the narrative because, well, if Professor Tolkien says that's what happened then that's what happened. But that's a story of his invention. Surely it's entirely reasonable to differentiate between that and reality.

I agree that a particular faith or system of belief may influence one's reading of a text but in my opinion there are so many different beliefs and ideologies that it doesn't work to simply draw a line between atheists and all forms of spiritual belief and say that the latter are predisposed to "get it" better than the former. Many forms of "belief" are vastly different from Professor Tolkien's Catholicism and have different values and ethics despite still believing in a spiritual sphere of existence.
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Old 07-04-2014, 01:26 AM   #32
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I understand what you mean. The reason for my first post got posted they way it did is partially because English is not my first language. Yes, English is given a place in Indian Constitution like many other Indian languages; but not many, in my area, think it is good to speak English. Another reason is that I have never met a Christian. I don't know what their beliefs are or what terms they use. Had I known this my post would have been better.
This is another my "defence" post. Thanks for enduring.
Ah well there is quite a range of Christian belief, and also a range of unbelief. I would call my self agnostic rather than atheist and still regard myself as culturally Christian. But then a UK anglican upbringing is fairly low key as such things go and perhaps less likely to inspire rebellion. So iam in a different situation to Morth and both of us are different to someone who had no religious element to their upbringing and these days that is increasingly common.
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Old 07-04-2014, 02:38 AM   #33
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Courage, hope, self-sacrifice, refusal of power, acceptance of the inevitability of change: are these solely theistic (or Christian, or Catholic) beliefs? The Lord of the Rings doesn't go against my morals or beliefs because a) I think a lot of its morals are universally good, and b) I don't think a reader has to believe in god, fate or providence in the real world to accept that god, fate and providence can exist in a story.
The 'hope' in LOTR is actually solely a Christian belief as is the acceptance of the inevitable change. The hope in Catholicism comes from the belief that God will never let humanity completely fall. To quote Hurin there is always a belief that 'Day shall come again'. However, at the same time Man has been in a downward spiral since the Fall and things will get worse. The latter is not strictly Catholic, but found in numerous religions and mythologies from Greek to African. Numenor will never happen again and even Aragorn is the last of the Numenoreans.

Nor does LOTR have any kind of theme about rejecting power. There is nothing wrong with power, when it is something innately yours or taking up your responsibility.

However, the biggest theme of the books and the mythology as a whole is Death and how we cope with the fact that one day we will die.
Quote:
In all honesty I find some of Eru's actions to be rather inscrutable, or rather his fluctuating levels of involvement, but I don't think I struggle to "buy" his role in the narrative because, well, if Professor Tolkien says that's what happened then that's what happened. But that's a story of his invention. Surely it's entirely reasonable to differentiate between that and reality.

I agree that a particular faith or system of belief may influence one's reading of a text but in my opinion there are so many different beliefs and ideologies that it doesn't work to simply draw a line between atheists and all forms of spiritual belief and say that the latter are predisposed to "get it" better than the former. Many forms of "belief" are vastly different from Professor Tolkien's Catholicism and have different values and ethics despite still believing in a spiritual sphere of existence.
Maybe "buy" is not the correct word, maybe accept is more useful. I agree with you though it is too wide to draw a line between atheist and belief in God. I personally am agnostic, but was raised Catholic. Whilst I am no longer Catholic and I am agnostic, I would struggle to enjoy any story, which was anti-Catholic in nature like say the Dark Materials books.
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Old 07-04-2014, 02:58 AM   #34
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The 'hope' in LOTR is actually solely a Christian belief as is the acceptance of the inevitable change.
Professor Tolkien may have written about them in a Christian way but my point is that personally I don't think we have to appreciate them from a Christian point of view, as I've already argued. I think much of The Lord of the Rings can be read (but does not have to be read) in terms of human limitations: applicability as opposed to allegory. But that's just how I tend to read it. I don't think there's a single, unilateral reading of the text and that other readings are bunk. Which leads me on to:

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Nor does LOTR have any kind of theme about rejecting power. There is nothing wrong with power, when it is something innately yours or taking up your responsibility.
Maybe I should have said a rejection of totalitarianism, which is to say "power" in the sense of the capacity of an individual to force others to do and even to be what the power-wielder wants. I know Professor Tolkien says in his letters that it's not the main issue, but it nevertheless is part of the whole scheme. Of course the text seems to value leadership, responsibility and strength.

I suppose it's because of my own opinions (I won't say "beliefs") that I tend to generalise and abstract the ideas about "death and the desire for deathlessness" to apply more generally to "change and the desire for changelessness" but personally I think that's borne out in the text, especially in terms of the relationship between human lives and the passage of history.
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Old 07-04-2014, 06:05 PM   #35
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And now, on to the Middle-earth Climate Change debate: natural, or Morgoth made?
From the Silmarillion, it seems very clear Morgoth is responsible for a lot of the climatic unbalance in the First Age and before (as well as a number of natural catastrophies)! While we have to keep in mind the Silmarillion is mostly written from the Noldor's point of view and they are very unreliable narrators, especially when it comes to Morgoth, a few quotes from the pre-Noldor era need to be brought up in this context.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ainulindalë
...and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold.
The combination of unexpected heat/cold exists from the very start. These seem to be among Melkor's dominant passions.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ainulindalë
He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of the fountains, nor of my clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the earth!
It seems very much that not only did Melkor create ice and clouds, but the Climate Change was brought into the Music as part of his discord.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Of the Beginning of Days
And seeing now his time he drew near again to Arda, and looked down upon it, and the beauty of the Earth in its Spring filled him the more with hate.
And so was the Spring of Arda marred - Melkor seemed to hate everything in its natural state. His need to corrupt reached even the nature and, I would argue, the climate.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin
Slow was their going by twilight or by night in the pathless wilds, and the fell winter came down swiftly from the realm of Morgoth.
This quote implies Morgoth had indeed some control over the climate. Of course the phrasing could be a result of Thangorodrim's northern location, but given Morgoth's earlier pendant for fine-tuning the weather, we can't rule out the option that the fell winter (and other such occasions) were entirely his doing. After all, we know even Saruman, who is considerably less mighty than Morgoth, could do all sorts of things with the weather.

Also, think about the fires they burned in Angband and Morgoth's other strongholds. Think about the dragons and the balrogs. It's not far-fetched at all to say that a horde of these spirits of fire could have raised the average temperature in Middle-earth by a couple of degrees during their main era of wreaking havoc.

Based on this, I'm led to the conclusion that the Peoples of Middle-earth had very little to do with the changes in the climate, but it was mostly the Enemies' doing. They played a major part in teaching Men and Hobbits the art of pollution, too - mainly Saruman here, what with everything he did at Isengard and in the Shire.
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Old 07-05-2014, 02:10 PM   #36
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In theory, Christians, in particular Roman Catholics, ought to appreciate The Lord of the Rings more than non-Christians. In fact Tolkien has more arguments and disagreements with obvious Roman Catholics in the book Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien than with anyone else.

The Lord of the Rings is obviously a fictional work. Manwë and Varda never existed, ever. The earth was never flat. Gandalf never existed. Hairy-footed hobbits never existed. Tom Bombadil never existed. Númenor never existed. Ents never existed. None of these things has any connection to Christianity.

But anyone who attempts to read The Lord of the Rings as though it were real is badly misreading it. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories” makes it clear that fairy tales, attract, to those who find them attractive, by their very unreality. The story The Juniper Tree is, according to Tolkien, an amazing tale. I agree. But it is not in the least realistic. It is not in the least Christian. Nor is it any kind of allegory. It is pure fantasy.

Lotrelf seems to miss that Christian theists are as ready to misread Tolkien as anyone. Anne Marie Gazzolo’s Moments of Grace and Spiritual Warfare in The Lord of the Rings I found to be hideous pious piffle, to take a recent example. And there are other well-known Tolkien fans who I find to my taste to be pure evil.

Tolkien himself very much enjoyed David Lindsey’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a gnostic tale in which the moral is that pain is the sole virtue. In later life Tolkien found at least some of George MacDonald’s fantasy works unreadable and loathed C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Like everyone, Tolkien had individual tastes which were not always in synch with his fans. He liked what he liked.

Personally I left the Mythopoeic Society years ago because of my revulsion for its leader, Glen GoodKnight, a purported Christian, and a person whom I grew to loathe for his continual flagrant dishonesty. Eventually the Society, who had previously made him permanent president, realized they could legally get rid of his influence by just removing all presidential duties, and did so. Glen was still president, legally, but had no further duties or responsibilities or role.

Note that Tolkien’s religion was, despite what is often claimed, not so Catholic as is often claimed. Tolkien, in his fantasy, did not claim death was brought on humans as a punishment for eating the forbidden fruit. Tolkien very much disagreed with some of the reforms of Vatican II, notably the replacement of Latin in the church service. In his fantasy he avoids anything like a parish priest.

See http://bustedhalo.com/features/of-go...en-and-hobbits for the statement:

Scholars of Tolkien, including Matthew Dickerson, author of A Hobbit Journey, adds that the Lembas, the thin small cakes that the elves make and eat, have sacramental or even Eucharistic connotations.

Wait a minute. How can lembas have “Eucharistic connotations” when it is supposedly consumed thousands of years before Jesus was born.

Dickerson says that Marian imagery also abounds in Tolkien’s work. “The Vala Elbereth, also called Varda, is certainly a Marian figure. She is a venerated and revered queen, whom the elves of Middle-earth call upon in times of need. Her name alone has power, and when those in need call upon her, help comes.”

The problem is that the same is true when in old legends believers call on pagan goddesses, and Elbereth, again, is supposed to exist thousands of years before the Virgin Mary was even born. And Elbereth has no son.

I am, or was, in personal communication with a fan who similarly believed, and presumably still believes, that Goldberry is really the Virgin Mary.

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Old 07-05-2014, 04:20 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by jallanite View Post
The Lord of the Rings is obviously a fictional work. Manwë and Varda never existed, ever. The earth was never flat. Gandalf never existed. Hairy-footed hobbits never existed. Númenor never existed. Ents never existed. None of these things has any connection to Christianity.
I don't think anyone would dispute that.

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But anyone who attempts to read The Lord of the Rings as though it were real is badly misreading it. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories” makes it clear that fairy tales, attract, to those who find them attractive, by their very unreality. The story The Juniper Tree is, according to Tolkien, an amazing tale. I agree. But it is not in the least realistic. Nor is it any kind of allegory. It is pure fantasy.
Of course LOTR is a fantasy, and I have never met anyone who arose in the morning and went to the local tall hill to worship Eru Ilúvatar. But that is not to say that there cannot exist ideals and characters in the books that could have a particular resonance for a reader, whether they see the works from a Christian perspective, or not. The freedom to interpret a work as one reads is of vital importance, and why would anyone bother to read any work of fiction, if they were told they must limit themselves in what they take from it?
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Old 07-05-2014, 06:11 PM   #38
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The freedom to interpret a work as one reads is of vital importance, and why would anyone bother to read any work of fiction, if they were told they must limit themselves in what they take from it?
Do you mean that there is no point in reading anything in any fiction if one must in any way limit oneself? I am unaware that I am in any way limiting your freedom. Believe whatever you wish. And allow me the same privilege to disbelieve in Bilbo Baggins, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Peter Pan.

I strongly believe that one should not take Ents, or Hobbits, or Elves as factual. Why should this bother you? Is it ok to believe that Goldberry is really the Virgin Mary?

Believe whatever you wish. I have no power to limit your beliefs.
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Old 07-05-2014, 07:39 PM   #39
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Even if I agree with the contents of your burst Jallanite, I would suggest we'd do well to steer this discussion back to those dimensions we can have an enlightened exchange of ideas on. I mean this atheism / theism and real / not real - POV gets us nowhere but into arguments which heat up unnecessarily...

I was kind of intrigued by the idea that if you were a devout Catholic, would you then enjoy or "understand" the work more deeply?

The former of course means something like an old time Catholic aka. agreeing with and believing in most of the prof's world-view from which he wrote his work - unlike many modern-day "true-Christians" who have all these frivolous ideas that they have the "fundamentals" of Christianity right when they have ultra-liberal and over-individualistic beliefs which people of the past, like the prof. or people in the Middle-ages, would have abhorred!

But would fex. Formendacil have a deeper understanding of the books as he is both a theologian and a firm Catholic?


In literary-studies the POV of the author has been held to be the key to understanding any work for a long time - with some marked counter-trends of course (which should not be passed with just a shrug as they have good points)... but just taken at the face-value it looks "natural" to say that you understand a work when you understand what the author was trying to say.

And if the author has a deeply religious world-view - even if he tries to keep that at bay or thinks he's looking at things from a wider perspective, from something like a shared human mythological POV in the first place - wouldn't that apply then? That someone sharing some of the basic metaphysical views with Tolkien would be more deeply moved or would feel the story more "deeply" in comparison to someone who only "knows" the theological and mythical aspects referred to in the books, even iof that was a result of decades of intensive humanistic studies?

So does sharing beliefs with the author add something to the experience, or to the understanding of a work?

To me that is a perplexing question as I have always thought I have a deep understanding of Tolkien's world just because I know a lot of different religions (and their theological schisms & their history), myths, general history of ideas & philosophy etc. But would it be different if I also believed in those things?
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Old 07-05-2014, 08:58 PM   #40
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I’m not sure what a devout Catholic is any more. But devout Catholics are under no compulsion or necessity to believe in Valar, Elves, Númenoreans, Hobbits, Trolls, Balrogs, or Tom Tombadil. Indeed the default pure Catholic position seems to me to be not to believe in any of them.

This is where Lotrelf’s position seems to me to be odd. Why should Christians have a better understanding of Tolkien than non-Christians, when much of The Lord of the Rings tells of things not believed by either Christians or non-Christians very much or at all? The events in the story are supposed to have occurred ages before the Virgin May or Jesus Christ were born or prophesied.

And that also is recognized by the author as nonsense. The religion practiced by Men and Hobbits is deliberately kept vague. No-one goes regularly to church or to temple.
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