Shippey on Tolkien’s Virtuous Pagans

Recently, going through my old notes from Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series I found a post it note with Tom Shippey’s name on it.  Synchronicity strikes again! A quick wiki search revealed this gem:

Tolkien was “rather disturbed by [an Armageddon which the wrong side wins (Ragnarök)]: he saw that the ethos it represented could be used by either side, as indeed it was in the deliberate cultivation of Götterdämmerung by the Nazi leadership a few years later. Nevertheless it did provide an image of heroic virtue which could exist, and could be admired, outside the Christian framework. In some respects (as you can see in his 1936 Beowulf lecture, see Essays, 24–25) the Old Norse ‘theory of courage‘ might even be regarded as ethically superior to the Classical if not to the Christian world-view, in that it demanded commitment to virtue without any offer of lasting reward. . . . He also felt that Old Norse mythology provided a model for what one might call ‘virtuous paganism,’ which was heathen; conscious of its own inadequacy, and so ripe for conversion; but not yet sunk into despair and disillusionment like so much of 20th-century post-Christian literature; a mythology which was in its way light-hearted.”[2]

Tolkien’s begrudging respect for virtuous pagans complements Karl Rahner’s anonymous Christian  and represents a road that hearkens back to Aquinas and to the Gnostic traditions of yore, namely, all can be sons of God.  Of interest to me is also Jung’s Wotan essay from 1936 which presents the Ergriffenheit in opposition of the virtuous pagan (Tolkien and Jung both feeling the vibrations of long sleeping gods waking in the collective unconscious), but that is grist for another day.


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