BC professor talks on Tolkien’s insights on evil

Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, lectured on “Wartime Wisdom: Ten Uncommon Insights From The Lord of the Rings About Evil” on April 4 in Thompson Memorial Chapel. Kreeft, who has written over 40 books on ethics, philosophy of religion and Christian apologetics, was the inaugural speaker in the Fay Vincent Jr. ’60 Catholic Faith and Culture Lecture Series.

Kreeft began the lecture by proposing that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 prompted Americans to reconsider a cultural embarrassment at “the very word” evil. Convinced that evil is an “evolutionary stage we’ll grow out of,” Americans had turned to pop psychology and a belief in the power of positive thinking, he said.

“This is a story of evil, and we need this story,” said Kreeft. “The Lord of the Rings offers us the only possible radicalism left – traditionalism.”

Kreeft described ten “forgotten points of wisdom” offered by The Lord of the Rings, explaining the trilogy’s hidden meaning in light of the Catholic beliefs of its author, J.R.R. Tolkien. First, Kreeft said, The Lord of the Rings “reminds us that we’re at war, not at peace.” He compared the pre-Sept. 11 United States to Frodo Baggins’ homeland, the Shire, which had been lulled by prosperity and security into forgetting the danger of Middle Earth. The terrorist attacks were “a sudden enlightenment, an alarm clock ringing,” and similarly Tolkien’s epic is “a long and beautiful alarm clock” for its readers.

“The second surprise in The Lord of the Rings is the spiritual size of our enemy – evil is formidable,” said Kreeft. The wizard Gandalf perceives that evil is immortal, that “we can break the swords but not the swordsmen.” He highlighted the parallel between Sauron, whose power in Middle Earth is far greater than that of anyone else in the trilogy, and the devil, whom Christ called “the ruler of this world.”

Kreeft’s third point was that the line between good and evil in the real world is clear and obvious, as it is in Middle Earth. “Our culture is the first where our teachers have sold our moral birthright for relativism,” he said, referring to the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western morality. “Right and wrong are hard to know only for the clever.”

Fourth, Kreeft said, it is sometimes better not to know the full extent of evil’s power. He quoted Frodo Baggins’ words at the Council of Elrond: “‘I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.’” The fifth insight was that “we can’t defeat evil, but we can help it defeat itself.” Kreeft claimed that the truth must be the “bait” for evil’s self-destruction, pointing to both Christ’s death on the cross and Frodo’s carrying the ring into the land of Mordor.

The sixth lesson Kreeft drew from The Lord of the Rings was that evil is useful for the good. He once again mentioned the crucifixion and explained how, in the Old Testament, the abandonment of Joseph by his brothers and the incompetence of an Egyptian tailor conspired to put Joseph in the seat of power and establish the bloodline leading to Christ.

Kreeft’s last four points were four of the “strongest but most overlooked weapons” against evil. One such weapon is sacrifice, before which “evil is utterly helpless.” Kreeft identified Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo as martyrs or Christ-figures and “my life for yours” as “the universal rule” underlying by the trilogy.

The second weapon against evil is humility. “Only hobbits, the lowest ones of all [in Middle Earth], could get into Mordor,” Kreeft observed. “Unless we become like little Hobbits, we cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven,” he said, parodying the words of Christ.

Third on Kreeft’s list was friendship, which “is strength because it unites, refuses to be divided and thus won’t be conquered.” He described how the friendship of Sam and Frodo sustained both in Mordor, and how Sam, when carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom, amazingly found his burden light. A fourth weapon was words, which “have great power over things” and enabled Frodo to invoke the help of Tom Bombadil and Gandalf to open the mines of Moria.

“God spoke words and things came out of them,” said Kreeft. “Tolkien began a book by creating a language,” referring to the elfish language that predated The Lord of the Rings.

During a lengthy question and answer period, Kreeft speculated that The Lord of the Rings had risen to the top of numerous reader surveys while being virtually dismissed by critics because it was written in a straightforward manner not catering to the critics’ hauteur. “It sounds cynical, but I believe it’s true,” he said. Kreeft also answered questions about religion, expressing his view that God works through many faith traditions.

“Professor Kreeft’s lecture provided a much needed forum for discussing matters of faith,” said Grace Smith ’04. “As one student put it during the question and answer session, ‘We don’t get to talk seriously about religion at Williams.’ The Newman Association looks forward to sponsoring more events that promote a deeper understanding of faith and culture.”

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