Books and Code · A Miscellany

Typology and Tolkien


In a prior post I alluded to a question I asked in a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that the instructor dodged because it was religious in nature. The instructor encouraged us to view the themes and motifs that recur in Tolkien’s work over time in typological terms. My question was:

Much typology in the New Testament is “reverse engineered” from the OT by its authors (if you will excuse the term). In your examples, most seemed ascribed either to intention of a character (eg. Aragorn) or just generally from Tolkien himself in narration (eg. Theoden’s ride). How much of his use of typology might we attribute to the meta-framework? In other words, did Tolkien intend this to be the result of Bilbo, Frodo, and scribes of Gondor in the 4th age re-interpreting and harmonizing old lore and new history like the gospel writers did?

While he was okay having a generally theological discussion about the concept of typology, he was not okay with discussing the idea that typologic parallels exist because later authors consciously borrow from older authors. The former has a religious component; the latter does not. As an atheist, I am expected to have a civil discussion of the former, but apparently the latter is off limits because the lack of supernaturalism might offend a theist? I think this difference is of critical importance if we want to apply the concept of typology to Tolkien’s writings, but he “didn’t want to get into that” for reasons left unstated.

In Christian terms, typology refers to events in the Old Testament being “types” that are foreshadowings of events in the New Testament. For example, Jonah being swallowed and spit up by a fish is akin to Jesus’ resurrection. There are a million examples. They are the sort of thing that is easy to find in hindsight with a sympathetic eye. As I recall, I first learned the term in Bible college in discussion of the protoevangelium—a passage in Genesis that supposedly refers to Jesus. I remember thinking (and still think) that this crock of shit is a great litmus test for gullibility. If you find the argument convincing, then you are a credulous fool.

These foreshadowings are portrayed by believers as great proofs of divine manipulation in history, evidence of fulfilled prophecy. Rarely do they rise beyond the level of mildly interesting coincidence and when they do it is obvious that the later writer is ripping off a well-known text. It should come as no surprise to us that the author of Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, nor does it require some profound theological explanation.

The origin of the typological phenomena bears directly on the question of eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s writings—a concept he develops at length in On Fairy-Stories. We know that Tolkien was a Christian and anachronistically read the resurrection into all kinds of myths—he explicitly says so in the epilogue of On Fairy-Stories. It is ironic that he defines eucatastophe as “a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur” and yet we manage to find it recurring enough to create a term for it and reinterpret an entire corpus of religious texts as mere typological signposts to Jesus. But I digress… The implication here is that typological parallels between Silmarillion events and Hobbit/LoTR events can be interpreted as pointers to a divine plan culminating in a Middle Earth Jesus that hadn’t arrived yet.

However, Tolkien was also a rabid creator of frame stories. We have a whole meta-scribal history of the Red Book of Westmarch to consider, not to mention the conceits of the handing down of the Quenta Silmarillion, actual manuscript history of the Book of Lost Tales, or time traveling ideas explored in The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers. There is plenty of room here to imagine that the “received” texts Tolkien published were elaborated by Middle Earth scribes over the generations, the events and storytelling shaped by lore the scribes themselves received. Rather than being of divine origin, the typology is due to Middle Earth scribal practices and authorial license, in the same way that Matthew’s Old Testament allusions are due to him intentionally alluding to the Old Testament.

Anyway, both explanations have some explanatory power given what we know about Tolkien. Both are likely to have some element of truth to them. However, in either case—and in any discussion of the phenomena of typology—the question of what is the generating force of the phenomena in the secondary world has important implications that should not be overlooked.