SUMMARY OF FOLLOWING GANDALF
Literary/Religious Studies, 234 pp.
Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings is a book about the subtle manifestation of Tolkien’s personal values and beliefs, particularly those regarding free will and creativity in relation to the philosophical problem of evil, in all of his Middle-earth mythology, but especially in The Lord of the Rings (LotR).
Following Gandalf is a book about the subtle manifestation of Tolkien’s personal values and beliefs in his Middle-earth mythology, particularly his epic work LotR. Dickerson draws out a lot of material from Tolkien’s books The Hobbit, LotR, and The Silmarillion, and follows Tolkien’s writing very closely.
In Chapter One, “Epic Battles,” Dickerson argues against the loosely-grounded accusation that Tolkien’s Middle-earth literature – particularly LotR – glorifies war and violence. In Chapter Two, “The Wise of Middle-earth,” Dickerson discusses the definition of wisdom in LotR, and also points out characters in Middle-earth who are labeled as “wise” or who are portrayed as displaying wisdom.
In Chapter Three, “Military Victory or Moral Victory?”, Dickerson examines the value that is placed on warfare in LotR, and whether one’s conquests or one’s conduct is more important in Middle-earth. In Chapter Four, “Human Freedom and Creativity,” Dickerson discusses the portrayal of free will in Tolkien’s Middle-earth works, and the relationship of that portrayal to Tolkien’s personal beliefs about God and creativity. This relationship is discussed in a different context and greater depth in Chapter Five, “The Gift of Ilúvatar and the Power of the Ring.”
In Chapter Five, Dickerson addresses the nature and problem of evil in Middle-earth. In Chapter Six, “Moral Responsibility and Stewardship,” Dickerson discusses the purpose for which free will and talents are given as portrayed in LotR. Chapter Seven, “Hope and Despair,” is about the belief responses in LotR to evil circumstances and situations that require risk, and how Tolkien portrays those responses as “weapons” in the War of the Ring. In Chapter Eight, “Themes of Salvation,” Dickerson addresses the Christian theme of salvation (and damnation) as Tolkien very carefully approaches it through such characters as Boromir, Gollum, Denethor, and Saruman.
The final chapters both draw heavily upon Tolkien’s creative presentation of God in The Silmarillion (“Eru” or “Ilúvatar”) and the chapters explain how Tolkien clearly yet very implicitly reveals the plan, presence, and active work of the Divine Authority in The Hobbit and in LotR. Chapter Nine, “The Hand of Ilúvatar,” explains the subtle providence and sovereignty of the Divine Authority in the lives of the characters of The Hobbit and LotR, and this chapter also explores the theme of spiritual maturity as expressed in those stories and also by the way those stories are told. The closing chapter, “Ilúvatar’s Theme and the Real War,” ties together the themes Dickerson discussed earlier about moral victory, free will, and stewardship with the themes of the presence, plan, and work of Ilúvatar in Middle-earth, and tackles the question of whether or not Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology can be considered altogether “Christian.”
EVALUATION OF FOLLOWING GANDALF
Following Gandalf was nominated for the Mythopoeic Society’s 2004 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies (www.mythsoc.org), and deservedly so. Overall, Following Gandalf is a very strong scholarly work on the Christian themes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology. One of its strengths is Dickerson’s close reading of Tolkien’s writing, shown by Dickerson’s judicious use of textual evidence to support his arguments. This is expected of a scholarly analysis of a literary work, but the superb accessibility of Dickerson’s prose in Following Gandalf makes his analysis very appealing as well as insightful. David O’ Hara, in a review in Christianity Today, writes about Following Gandalf:
But Dickerson's mastery of Tolkien's oeuvre is complete. Written in a style that is both accessible to the general reader and inviting to academics, his book is a good introduction to the religious and moral themes in Tolkien's lesser-known writings, beginning with Dickerson's real love, The Silmarillion, and including Tolkien's writing on writing itself in "Leaf by Niggle," "On Fairy-Stories," and Tolkien's early writings on language and Beowulf (www.christianitytoday.com).
It is one of those rare jewels of a scholarly book on a work of literature where a thorough analysis is united with a clear exposition, instead of the two being at odds with one another. Dickerson’s book Following Gandalf is thus valuable for Tolkien scholars and for pleasure readers of Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology alike.
With the Christian themes in LotR in mind, perhaps it would be worthwhile to discuss one of the book’s weaknesses, which may be great or small depending upon your personal viewpoint. Dickerson is writing about the Christian themes that have been “absorbed” into Tolkien’s work from an “insider” perspective (Dickerson is a Christian). Although on the whole Dickerson does an excellent job of objectively outlining tenets of the Christian faith as Tolkien most likely would have understood them and contrasting them with the secular perspective of Tolkien’s period, there are times when Dickerson’s analysis gives way to passion, and his rhetoric begins to take on the feel of an exuberant sermon rather than an intelligent scholarly discussion. Tim McKenzie, in a review from the August 2004 issue of Stimulus, feels that this is a weakness which ultimately devalues the book:
Good theology, as much as good fiction, needs to allow for the uncertainties and doubts that characteri[z]e so much of life. While Dickerson’s book is at times instructive, it is ultimately too cheerful about these contingencies to do full justice to the complexities of either Middle or planet Earth.
McKenzie’s judgment of the work as a whole seems too harsh; Dickerson always recovers from his “cheerful” lapses and provides an overall realistic viewpoint tempered with Christian optimism in Following Gandalf. However, McKenzie’s assessment is accurate insofar as that a reader who is fundamentally opposed to Christianity may feel put out by Dickerson’s occasional didacticism.
HIGHLIGHTS OF FOLLOWING GANDALF
The subtitle of Dickerson’s book, “Epic Battles and Moral Victory,” may lead one to the conclusion that the primary topic of Following Gandalf is the battles fought in LotR. This aspect of the book is actually one of the least important topics Dickerson covers in terms of the amount of pages dedicated to it; Dickerson’s analysis caters more to subjects that have broader application, such as free will and creativity.
Dickerson’s main theme throughout the book appears to be looking from a standpoint that sees both spiritual and material reality in the world (particularly from a Christian point of view) at the relationship between free will and creativity as gifts given by a Creator in order to reflect Him in the actions of His creations. On page 113, Dickerson writes:
… a materialist is faced with a […] dilemma: either denying free will and creativity or having to explain where they come from in a material universe. Tolkien, by contrast, not only affirms free will and creativity, but tells us from whence they came […] the making of things is in our hearts because of the way in which the Maker made us as making-creatures. We are children of a Father – Ilúvatar, the “Father of All” – who is a Creator. As his children, it is only natural that we create.
This concept of free will and creativity as given by the Creator figure in Middle-earth, Ilúvatar, extends to the realm of moral responsibility and stewardship in terms of how free will and creativity are both co-existent with and subject to the will of Ilúvatar:
In their freedom, the people of Middle-earth are responsible for what they do with the time that is given them, or those years wherein they are set, and also with the skills and abilities with which they have been endowed, or what is in them. They are stewards of these things—time, skills, freedom, abilities—as Gandalf himself is a steward. To be a steward, however, is to acknowledge the over-authority of another […] (132)
It seems that one can conclude, based on how Dickerson presents the case, that this is the real way in which a reader of LotR “follows” Gandalf – by freely using all that has been entrusted to him or her by the Creator with the ultimate purposes of the Creator in mind. One does not do this as a slave, but as an agent of creativity who can choose to use his or her gifts apart from Ilúvatar’s purposes, or in service of Ilúvatar. By choosing the latter, one can achieve a moral victory.
Though the issue of free will and creativity is the most prominent aspect of Dickerson’s Following Gandalf, the book covers many other Christian themes – such as the morality of warfare, the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, and the definition of wisdom – that are intrinsic to The Hobbit, LotR, and The Silmarillion, and it is well worth the read.