John Rateliff reviewed the book for Mythlore (the 2009 Fall/Winter issue). You can read the entire review online at the Mythopoeic Society’s website by following this link, but here is what Rateliff had to say about my essay:
The second essay focused on Tolkien, by Jason Fisher, looks at the question of whether or not Tolkien’s cosmology incorporates the idea of the ‘Fortunate Fall’ or Felix Culpa — the idea that greater good comes about as a result of evil than would have been the case had the evil never taken place. Here we have a case of a single essay, of moderate length, that tackles a major topic with vast ramifications and implications and yet manages to be relatively thorough within a short space. Fisher discusses all three Falls that take place within the legendarium (that of Morgoth, that of the Noldor, and that of the Númenóreans) and reaches the rather unusual conclusion that Tolkien himself did not believe many of the core theological positions underlying his mythology – for example, that “Tolkien’s world doesn’t seem to incorporate the idea of Original Sin” (101) but “certainly Tolkien himself, in his Primary World beliefs, would have subscribed to the doctrine of Original Sin” (109n15). And again, Fisher asserts “As a devout Catholic, Tolkien would have firmly believed that Lucifer played no part in God’s creation of the World” (102). I remain unpersuaded, but it’s an intriguing idea, and I’m curious to see if others will take up this proposed barrier between Tolkien’s real beliefs and the beliefs upon which he based his life’s work.Having also mentioned me by name in his introductory remarks, Rateliff does so again in his conclusion, calling my essay one of the book’s “high points”:
In the end, this is not an essential purchase for Inklings scholars, especially given its high price for such a slim volume. But there’s certainly enough of interest here to make the book worth reading, with the high points being Khoddam’s quote from The Quest of Bleheris, Himes’s valiant attempt to sort out the mess regarding The Dark Tower, Howard’s reminiscences, and the essays by Fisher and Shippey.I was very pleased to see this, as you can well imagine! That Rateliff isn’t fully convinced is not a great surprise. Editor Jonathan Himes and I, when discussing my essay as we maneuvered it through several rounds of revision and expansion, always knew the thesis would be a somewhat provocative one, especially among readers with an interest in theology.
Jason Fisher, in “Tolkien’s Fortunate Fall and the Third Theme of Ilúvatar,” systematically shows how the omnipotent One takes all the evils that enter his creation, whether through Melkor, through Elves, or through Men, and makes them part of a larger pattern of his own devising that is good. Granted that none of these “falls” is ultimately disastrous, but is it valid to call them “fortunate”? Repeatedly the argument depends on fallacious reasoning; one example will have to suffice. “Thus, though tragic, the Fall of Man necessarily precipitates vastly greater good in the later ages of the world — is distills the good of the faithful and leads to the ultimate banishment of Sauron and his sinful influence from Middle-earth, just as the Fall of the Elves led to the banishment of Morgoth” (101). But the word “necessarily” begs the question; the phrase “greater good” rests on a comparison only with the immediate results of the evil, not with what good might have been in store had the evil not occurred (which cannot be discounted though of course it cannot be known); and the repeated “leads to ... led to” assumes a causality not proved or even argued: post hoc non ergo propter hoc [Latin for, “after this not therefore because of this”]. (Shall we sin that grace may abound?)
For the most part, I can accept these remarks as a perfectly legitimate reaction to my thesis, well within the range of responses I anticipated. I bristled just a bit at his judgment that my reasoning is repeatedly “fallacious”; his one example (to me) does not justify such a blanket assertion. I understand the limits of space imposed on reviewers as well as anyone, but if you are going to say “repeatedly”, I think you owe me at least two examples. :)
The one example given could easily prompt a protracted debate, which I will not enter into here lest I seem overly defensive. But anyway, there is no need. Why not? Because such questions as “could the good that would have arisen without the intervention of evil have been greater than the good evil itself brought about” are inevitably unanswerable, but — and here is where I lay the emphasis — that is beside the point. The point is that the Roman Catholic Tolkien would have believed in the Fortunate Fall without the need for explanation, justification, or debate. Its contrary assertion (that evil brought about greater good than would have occurred without it) is simply a matter of orthodox belief. That he would endow his Secondary World with such an element as he believed to be present in the Primary World should surprise no one; indeed, I would have expected this to be the most uncontroversial assertion I make in my essay. In other words, the very questions Huttar raises about my view of the world of Middle-earth might as easily be raised about the Fortunate Fall in our own world, but it was not the aim of my essay to tackle that thorny question. Perhaps I could have been clearer.
Overall, Huttar seems to find as the collection’s weakest essays some of the very ones John Rateliff found to be its highlights — and vice versa. For example, while Rateliff appreciated “Howard’s reminiscences”, Huttar feels Howard’s paper is “out of place in this volume. It was doubtless much appreciated as an after-dinner talk, but it does not make the kind of scholarly contribution a published paper should aim at and that the other papers in the book do achieve. In both style and content it does less than justice to the author’s stature as a contributor to Inklings studies over the years.” If you’re anything like me, you will immediately recall Tolkien’s words in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings — “the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.”
It just goes to show you: three different reviewers, three very different reviews. But I am pleased to have been singled out for extended commentary by two of the three — even when the reviewer disagrees with my methods or conclusions. This is all part of a larger conversation, an incremental grasping to understand and appreciate the vast depth of Tolkien’s creation. To all my reviewers, thank you for taking the time to read my essay and ponder its conclusions. For one of you, I have already returned the favor; perhaps the other two will feel the weight of my pen one day to come.