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J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion [Paperback]

By Richard L. Purtill (Author)
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Item Number 126307  
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Item Specifications...

Pages   207
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 7.96" Width: 5.32" Height: 0.68"
Weight:   0.63 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Mar 1, 2003
Publisher   Ignatius Press
ISBN  0898709482  
EAN  9780898709483  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
Here is an in-depth look at the role myth, morality, and religion play in J.R.R. Tolkien's works such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion-including Tolkien's private letters and revealing opinions of his own work. Richard L. Purtill brilliantly argues that Tolkien's extraordinary ability to touch his readers' lives through his storytelling-so unlike much modern literature-accounts for his enormous literary success. This book demonstrates the moral depth in Tolkien's work and cuts through current subjectivism and cynicism about morality. A careful reader will find a subtle religious dimension to Tolkien's work-all the more potent because it is below the surface. Purtill reveals that Tolkien's fantasy stories creatively incorporate profound religious and ethical ideas. For example, Purtill shows us how hobbits reflect both the pettiness of parochial humanity and unexpected heroism. Purtill, author of 19 books, effectively addresses larger issues of the place of myth, the relation of religion and morality to literature, the relation of Tolkien's work to traditional mythology, and the lessons Tolkien's work teaches for our own lives.

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More About Richard L. Purtill

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Purtill is emeritus professor of Philosophy at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Richard L. Purtill currently resides in Bellingham, in the state of Washington. Richard L. Purtill was born in 1931.

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Product Categories
1Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > General   [15121  similar products]
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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Excellent  May 23, 2008
This little book is an excellent companion to all of Tolkien's books about Middle Earth. I found that Purtill's insights -- informed by his Catholic faith -- were fresh and illuminated the Catholicity of Tolkien's work. His explanation of why Tolkien felt impelled to create his own Brittish Myth was interesting too. The book was a quick and easy read.
Further Up and Further Into Middle Earth  Aug 14, 2003
Before the outstanding films of The Lord of the Rings, readers stumbling across The Hobbit or the trilogy (actually six books in three volumes), came away dazzled, but often with questions. Who was or is J.R.R.Tolkien? Where did these books come from? Why are they so wildly popular? When they first appeared, The Hobbit and the subsequent books were panned by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, but then among the youth they suddenly caught fire. Fifty years later, the films top critics' lists.

But why did the Ballantine paperbacks have a note on the back from Tolkien urging readers to buy the authorized editions (were there bootlegs floating around?). Why did another English professor, C.S.Lewis, devote the preface of his science-fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet to gaining support for Tolkien's not yet published epic, The Lord of the Rings?

In one of the earliest books on Tolkien's novels, Dr. Richard Purtill, a philosophy professor at Western Washington University, addressed these and other questions. As an author, Dr. Purtill ranged widely, writing textbooks, philosophy books on logic, ethics and religion on the one hand, and fantasy novels, science-fiction and mysteries on the other. For years he taught a popular class on Philosophy and Fantasy; this book, originally published in hardback by Harper and Row in the mid '80s, both follows from and expands on that series.

This book starts in what may seem an odd place, with a discussion of a short story by Tolkien called "Leaf By Niggle." Many addicts of The Lord of the Rings, however, are not even aware the story exists, and with good reason. Originally published as half of a slim hardback called "Tree and Leaf," it now appears in a small paperback called The Tolkien Reader. The other half of "Tree and Leaf" is a famous essay called "On Fairy Stories," which gives Tolkien's views of literature and its connection to life. It's one of the very few places he gives his spiritual views or refers to his faith as a Catholic. Yet, as avid readers of C.S.Lewis know, Lewis was an atheist before talks with Tolkien led to his conversion. Purtill gives three possible interpretations of "Leaf By Niggle" (without ruining the story), and touches lightly on Tolkien's views in "On Fairy Stories."

The rest of these brief essays explore various topics in Tolkienana, such as the real heroes in The Lord of the Rings (this heroism is greatly attractive in the movies), and a topic he often discusses at fantasy conventions: myth, fantasy and science-fiction in The Lord of the Rings. An oft-seen poster used to bear the invitation: "Come to Middle Earth." With the advent of the films, it's once again a popular destination, and exploring is all the more enjoyable with this classic guide.

Reading Tolkien, Right and Wrong  Apr 8, 2003
This is a new edition of a book published in 1984 that has long been out of print. So far as I can tell, the only change is a new preface of Joseph Pierce. The republication is due in part to the surge of interest in Middle Earth occasioned by the new movies, and in part due to the interest the publisher, Ignatius Press, has in the book's subject matter.

What Tolkien, Purtill, and Ignatius Press all have in common is their Roman Catholicism, and of particular relevance to this book, a common sense of morality stemming from it. Between the Purtill the critic and Tolkien the author are additional commonalities as well: Purtill, like Tolkien, is an academic who is also an author of fantasy.

Given the commonalities between Purtill and Tolkien, it is therefore not surprising that the critic is entirely sympathetic to the author. In explaining, Purtill also defends. There are a few passages where Purtill makes the defense explicit, citing negative comments by others and then arguing against them. For the most part, however, the defense is implicit, inherent in the explanations he gives. The explicit defenses are not fully satisfactory. In terms of tone they come off as, for lack of a better word, defensive. A deeper problem however is that the explicit defenses by their very nature tend to distort that which they defend - points minor in Tolkien can become major in a defense of Tolkien. These defects make Purtill's explicit defenses sufficiently unsatisfactory that the work would have been improved through their omission.

Where Purtill succeeds and succeeds quite well is when he defends Tolkien implicitly. The strength of his book lies in his explanations of Tolkien's moral views, as well as how myth is used as a means to convey them. When Purtill works directly with Tolkien's published writings and with comments he made about them in his letters, Purtill is at his most interesting and his book most worth the time spent with it.

The main works of Tolkien taken up by Purtill are "Leaf by Niggle", "On Fairy Stories", "The Hobbit", "Lord of the Rings", and "The Silmarillion". The attention paid by Purtill to the first of these, "Leaf by Niggle" will surprise some readers, but it is I think justified by the parallels between the character Niggle and Tolkien; to understand how Tolkien saw Niggle is to a considerable extent to understand how Tolkien saw himself. "On Fairy Stories" is similarly self-referential in that Tolkien is writing about a genre in which he himself works. If "Leaf by Niggle" is about the relationship between Tolkien and his writing, "On Fairy Stories" is about the relationship between Tolkien's writing and the world. Together, these works give the reader a sense of how Tolkien saw his writing and it is through these works that Purtill approaches the others.

Tolkien's chief works, "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings", and "The Silmarillion" share a common world, and are treated by Purtill in an overlapping fashion. Purtill's main goal is to separate and discuss the works' moral themes. In his discussion of how morality is presented in the three works, Purtill applies the approach developed in his discussion of the previous two: the use of a particular world and a particular story to illuminate the universal and unchanging. What is the nature of good? What is the nature of evil? How do good and evil operate in man? It is simply by explaining what Tolkien has to say about these themes that Purtill's literary defense of Tolkien succeeds; it is when he is least concerned with defending him and most concerned with simply explaining him that Purtill defends Tolkien best.

Tolkien employs multiple methods to make his moral points. First, he often simply makes the moral physical - beauty and ugliness representing good and evil. Second, he facets personality; this character receives this facet while another character receives another. Third, he makes moral choices stark. While it is many other things as well, morally Tolkien's work is one of analysis - he breaks up complexity into simpler parts for study. Given this, an analytical reader is doomed to failure because his work has already been done for him - he can't break up Tolkien's characters into simpler parts because they are simple parts already. Morality in Tolkien becomes interesting not when he is read analytically, but when he is read synthetically - when the reader considers not the parts in themselves but in how the parts relate to each other.

Purtill's book benefits its reader in two ways. First, in his explanation of particular moral points that Tolkien makes that many readers may not have caught, but which enrich the experience once understood. Second, and more importantly, Purtill explains how to read Tolkien - Purtill has by no means exhausted the moral complexities of Tolkien's work; he opens the door but ultimately leaves each reader with the pleasure of crossing through and exploring it for himself.


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