J. R. R. Tolkien Essay - Critical Essays

J. R. R. Tolkien Long Fiction Analysis

Looking back on his Middle-earth around 1951, J. R. R. Tolkien commented, “I do not remember a time when I was not building italways I had the sense of recording what was already ’there,’ somewhere: not of inventing.” He conceived of fantasy as a profound and powerful form of literature with intense philosophical and spiritual meaning, serious purposes, and eternal appeal. He believed the imagination, the mental power of making images, could be linked by art to “subcreation,” the successful result of image making, and so he regarded the genuine artist as partaking in the Creator’s divine nature.

Three major factors of Tolkien’s personality and environment combined to shape the theory of fantasy underlying his novels, as first enunciated in the essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1938). His love of language for its singular rewards, his delight in the English countryside, and his shattering experience of trench warfare during World War I all provided the seeds for his three longest pieces of fiction. They also contributed to the points of view, astonishingly nonhuman and yet startlingly convincing, of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, where Elves and Hobbits illuminate the world of Men.

Even as a boy, Tolkien had been enchanted by Welsh names on railway coal cars, a sign of his unusual linguistic sensitivity, and as a mature scholar, he devoted himself to the mystery of the word in its northern manifestations. In “On Fairy-Stories,” he wrote that “spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men.” Tolkien cast his spells in the building blocks of words drawn from the imaginary languages he had been constructing as long as he could remember. The two languages he formulated for his Elves, the Elder Race, both derived from a common linguistic ancestor as human languages do, and this “nexus of languages” supplied the proper names for his fiction, so that despite their considerable length and complication they possess “cohesion, consistency of linguistic style, and the illusion of historicity.” The last was possibly the greatest achievement of Tolkien’s mastery of language in his novels, fostering vital credence in his imaginary world. He felt that the finest fairy stories “open a door on Other Time, and if we pass throughwe stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.” In his own childhood, a “troublous” one Tolkien said, he had “had no special ’wish to believe’”; he instead “wanted to know,” as, perhaps, do his readers, aided by the resonance of his masterful use of words.

The memory of his years at Sarehole, the happiest of his boyhood, gave Tolkien an abiding love of nature, “above all trees,” which formed the basis for one of his principal concepts, “the inter-relations between the ’noble’ and the ’simple.’” He found “specially moving” the “ennoblement of the ignoble,” a theme that recurs throughout his fiction. Tolkien’s Elves practice love and respect toward nature, as do his Hobbits, “small people” connected closely to “the soil and other living things” who display both human pettiness and unexpected heroism “in a pinch.” The Elves, Hobbits, and good Men are countered in Tolkien’s Middle-earth by the threat of the machine, by which he meant “all use of external plans or devices,” as opposed to “the development of inner powers or talents.” The evil of the machine in Tolkien’s eyes (he did not own a car after World War II) derived from the misguided human desire for power, itself a rebellion against the Creator’s laws, a Fall from Paradise, another recurring theme in his fiction.

The horrors of World War I must have struck Tolkien as evil incarnate, with new military technology that devastated the countryside, struck down the innocent, and left no place for chivalry, heroism, or even common decency. Unlike Andrew Lang, an early Scottish collector of fairy tales, who felt children most often ask, “Is it true?,” Tolkien declared that children far more often asked him of a character, “Was he good? Was he wicked?” Tolkien shared G. K. Chesterton’s conviction that children “are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” The child’s stern perception of right and wrong, as opposed to the “mercy untempered by justice” that leads to “falsification of values,” confirmed Tolkien’s long-held inclination toward the steely world of the northern sagas, where human heroism faces inevitable defeat by the forces of evil, and the hero, according to Edith Hamilton, “can prove what he is only by dying.” From his basic distrust of the machine and his firsthand memories of the Somme, Tolkien drew one of the major lessons of his fiction: “that on callow, lumpish and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.”

Reconciling this harsh northern Weltbild with his Roman Catholic faith did not seem to be difficult for Tolkien. An indispensable element of his theory of fantasy is the “sudden joyous ’turn’” of a “eucatastrophic” story, a moment in fiction accompanied by “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” By inserting the “turn” convincingly into his tale, the subcreator “denies universal final defeat” and gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Hence, Tolkien believed that such a joy was the “mark of the true fairy story,” the revelation of truth in the fictional world the subcreator built. It might even be greater, “a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” Tolkien was able to see the Christian Gospels as “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe,” believing that in fantasy the human subcreator might “actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”

Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings form, as he always hoped, one coherent and archetypal whole. His “creative fantasy” effectively shows the three dissimilar faces his theory demanded: “the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity toward Man.” Humanity’s “oldest and deepest desire,” the “Great Escape” from death, is satisfied in Tolkien’s major fiction, not by denying Mortality but by accepting it gracefully as a gift from the Creator, a benefit to humankind that Tolkien’s immortal Elves envied. The Elves’ own magic is actually art, whose true object is “subcreation” under God, not domination of lesser beings whose world they respectfully share. Scorn for fallen people (and fallen Elves and Hobbits as well) abounds in Middle-earth, but pity, too, for guiltless creatures trapped in the most frightful evil Tolkien could envision, evil that he believed arises “from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others—speedily—and according to the benefactor’s own plans.” Middle-earth lives forever in Tolkien’s novels, and with it an affirmation of what is best, most true, and most beautiful in human nature.

For almost fifty years, mostly in the quiet academic atmosphere of Oxford, Tolkien built his resounding tales of “a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story.” He consciously dedicated the work simply “to England; to my country.” The intellectual absorption with language he had always enjoyed gave him the starting place for his mythology, which he implemented in The Silmarillion, whose unifying theme is the Fall of Elves and Men. His happiness in the English countryside seems to have provided him the landscape from which The Hobbit grew, perhaps his most approachable “fairy-story” for both children and adults, illustrating the happiness to be gained from simplicity and the acceptance of the gift of mortality. The chivalric dreams of noble sacrifice shattered for Tolkien’s generation by World War I were redeemed for him by his realization that the humble may effectively struggle against domination by the misguided technological values of modern civilization. The heroic legend of The Lord of the Rings best illustrates Tolkien’s resolution of the conflict between the northern values he had admired from youth and the Roman Catholic religion of hope and consolation to which he was devoted. Tolkien wanted to illuminate the simplest and the highest values of human existence, found in a human love that accepts and transcends mortality. Tolkien’s “mythology for England,” a unique gift of literature and language, has earned its immense popular success by appealing to humanity’s eternal desire to understand its mortal lot. As Hilda Ellis Davidson commented of the great northern myths, so like Tolkien’s own, “In reaching out to explore the distant hills where the gods dwell and the deeps where the monsters are lurking, we are perhaps discovering the way home.”

The Silmarillion

Both in Tolkien’s life and in the chronology of Middle-earth, the tales of The Silmarillion came first, but the book was not published until four years after his death. The volume called The Silmarillion contains four shorternarratives as well as the “Quenta Silmarillion,” arranged as ordered chronicles of the Three Ages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth by his son Christopher, following his father’s explicit intention.

Tolkien began parts of The Silmarillion in 1917 after he had been invalided home from France. The work steadily evolved after more than forty years, and, according to Christopher Tolkien, “incompatibilities of tone” inevitably arose from his father’s increasing preoccupation with theology and philosophy over the mythology and poetry he had originally favored. Tolkien himself never abandoned his work on The Silmarillion, even though he found himself unable to complete it. As Christopher Wiseman had suggested to Tolkien, “Why these creatures live to you is because you are still creating them,” and so Tolkien painstakingly revised, recast, and polished these stories, unwilling to banish their characters from his imagination.

The Silmarillion opens with “Ainulindalë,” a cosmogonical myth revealing the creation of Middle-earth by God (“Iluvatar”) in the presence of the Valar, whom Tolkien described as angelic powers. He wanted “to provide beings of the same orderas the ’gods’ of higher mythology” acceptable to “a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.” The universe to which Middle-earth belonged was set in living motion by music, “beheld as a light in the darkness.”

The short “Valaquenta” enumerates the individual Valar, whose personal responsibilities covered all created things of Middle-earth, stopping short of the act of creation itself. One of the Valar, Melkor, rebelled in the First Age; Tolkien believed that “there cannot be any ’story’ without a fall.” Melkor “began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descendedinto a great burning.” One of Melkor’s servants was Sauron, who later embodied evil in the Third Age of Middle-earth.

The twenty-four chapters of the “Quenta Silmarillion” recount the legendary history of the immortal Elves, the First-Born of Iluvatar, whom Tolkien elsewhere called “rational incarnate...

(The entire section is 4756 words.)