Evangelical Christian publishers, always looking for ways to exploit current cultural phenomena, are currently falling over themselves to spew out books related to two recent movies: Mel Gibson's cinematic passion play and Peter Jackson's version of Tolkien's LOTR. The two books on Tolkien reviewed here show that the people who write for them bear a striking resemblance to a certain little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When they are good they are very, very good, and when they are bad . . . well, you know. (Disclaimer: I am one of these disreputable writers, with a book on the treatment of the human condition in various Inklings-related authors coming out from Broadman & Holman in February, 2006. You will have to wait until then to determine which of the two modes of curly-headed urchin behavior I will exhibit.)
I chose these two books to represent two poles you will find in Evangelical writers on Tolkien and Lewis: the evangelistically pragmatic and the evangelically profound. The one kind can cause even their Evangelical cohorts to roll their eyes, and the other can help even people who do not share their Christian faith to read Tolkien with better understanding and greater sympathy.
Smith represents the first group. At least his title is not inaccurate. One gets the impression that he is not so much interested in LOTR as he is in the spiritual themes he can find there. LOTR is basically a convenient excuse to do Sunday-School lessons. Fortunately there are no serious misinterpretations of Tolkien generated in the process, but the exercise of making explicit the various moral platitudes that are embodied by his vision, while not illegitimate in itself, stays on the surface of the story and runs the risk of trivializing those very moral lessons. Those who buy Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues will be hiring a (very ordinary) personal coach to help them with exercises they could do more profitably on their own.
Dickerson represents the second group. Virtue was of course important to Tolkien; but Following Gandalf will in the long run teach you much more about virtue than its rival discussed above, because it wants to understand the story and the issues it raises. Dickerson begins by wrestling with one of the common criticisms we hear from Tolkien's detractors: that LOTR glorifies war and violence. So he carefully looks at the battles, at how they are described, at how the heroes respond to them and participate in them and feel about it afterward.
In the process of his careful reading of these passages, Dickerson not only shatters the criticism but notices a significant pattern. Gandalf, Frodo, Elrond, Aragorn, Faramir, and Galadriel all chose what looks like certain military defeat rather than submit to various moral defeats that appear to be the path to victory. They do this even when the military defeat they are apparently accepting is total and devastating. Saruman, Boromir, and Denethor enact the opposite choices. The grand irony, indeed the eucatastrophe, is that this very preference of military defeat to moral defeat, no matter what the cost, turns out to be the key to ultimate victory. Yet the people making these choices do not know in advance that it will be so; that is not the reason for their choice. All they have at best is what Gandalf ruefully admits to be "a fool's hope." Why do they make these choices? How does one make such choices? How are they rooted in Tolkien's biblical world view? Such are the questions to which this study is naturally led.
Wrestling with such questions as they are raised and answered by details of plot and texture of passage, Dickerson shows a profound understanding of what literature is and therefore of how it should be studied. He is too accepting of the movie's dilutions of Tolkien's themes and bends over a little bit too far backward to avoid calling LOTR a "Christian myth" simpliciter, perhaps. But this book's virtues far outweigh its flaws. Those who share Tolkien's Christian commitment will have added reasons to appreciate this study, but any one who wants to understand Tolkien's work better will read it profitably. I hope somebody says that about my book when it comes out!