Matthew Dickerson, Following Gandalf (Brazos, 2003)

In the cult classic film, Strange Brew, Bob Mackenzie (played by Rick Moranis) finds himself trapped in a vat of beer. He laments, "I used to think that drowning in beer would be heaven, but this really sucks." Likewise, those of us who have enjoyed the works of Tolkien for years would have similarly said half a decade ago that not being able to keep up with new books on Tolkien would be a heavenly situation, but now that we're there, it really does suck. Many of the books being published consist of half-baked ideas (when they are baked at all) and seem to exist mostly to capitalize on the popularity of The Lord of the Rings to sell units for the publisher.

Yes, I'm become callous and cynical when an editor approaches me with a new Tolkien-related book to review. What used to be a moment of excitement is now a moment of dread. "Oh, no. Not another Tolkien study that reads like a freshman term-paper failure."

I am, thus, very, very happy to announce that Matthew Dickerson's Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victories in the Lord of the Rings is one of the best Tolkien-studies books to be published in recent years. The title can be misleading, however, if (like me) you think it sounds a little too reminiscent of Walking in Frodo's Footsteps, which turned out to be much like Tolkien's Virtues and Finding God in the Lord of the Rings, viz., a book that used the Tolkien's text for the author's ends rather than submitted to Tolkien's text to plumb its depths for riches. No, Dickerson's book merely has an unfortunate title, but if you can get beyond the title, you'll find a wonderfully rich analysis of the true battles of The Lord of the Rings: not the physical battles of the recent films, but the internal, spiritual, moral battles of the main characters.

Because of the influence of Peter Jackson's films, however, Dickerson spends the first chapter of his book showing how The Lord of the Rings does not glorify battle, but actually does quite the opposite, and instead shows how battles are a necessary evil in times of great moral conflict. With this simple (but not simplistic) analysis, Dickerson effectively shifts the topic of discussion from a politically correct diatribe against Tolkien the 'war glorifier' to Tolkien the veteran with subtle nuances. Dickerson redeems the conversation from the simplistic politically correct discussion of war=bad and peace=non-violence, to the more complex discussion of how the individual is affected by the moral turpitude of war. Thus, does Dickerson set the stage for his further analysis of the true victories found within The Lord of the Rings: the moral victories of those who find themselves caught up in the great War of the Ring.

Dickerson's next move to strengthen his thesis is a discussion of the Wise within Middle-earth. He shows show Tolkien establishes that true power lies not in military strength but rather in moral wisdom. The prime examples of this are the wizards Saruman and Gandalf. Saruman seeks power in military strength and ends up a pathetic old man at the conclusion of the war, while Gandalf, who never seeks military strength, but rather moral strength, ends up being the true victor.

Central to Dickerson's argument is the issue of human agency. In many discussions of war the individual soldier is often pictured as a mere tool of the generals. Too often do we hear a refrain similar to 'I did just what I was told' (especially in some of the stories coming out of the current war efforts). Dickerson deftly shows how, for Tolkien, that is never an excuse: the individual always has a choice in how to act morally, for the true battle goes on not in how armies are arranged on the battlefield, but in the heart of each and every person arrayed on the battlefield. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once commented that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, and Dickerson rightly shows Tolkien as being a part of that tradition of thought.

It is in this very discussion of human agency that Dickerson shows how he is submitting to the text, rather than making the text submit to him. The whole discussion of human agency is a difficult one if one begins from a point of view of a sovereign deity. There are few moral issues more divisive than the discussion of just such a relationship. Tolkien took the middle road and in his Middle-earth there is both a sovereign deity as well as human agency. Dickerson does not attempt to reconcile and work out Tolkien's view, but rather presents it for what it is and instead show how such a view works to strengthen the moral message of the book. In the hands of a polemicist, this issue of human agency in Tolkien can become whatever the author wants, but Dickerson instead allows Tolkien to speak for himself and shows that whichever stand the reader takes, one must take Tolkien's stand to understand The Lord of the Rings.

In short, Following Gandalf is a book definitely worth reading. Even if you are not a die-hard Tolkien fanatic, it's still a great example of what good literary criticism should do: it makes the reader want to return to the original text and pore over it yet again and again to find those things missed in earlier readings.

[Matthew Winslow]