Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4756
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.”
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 creatures of more or less comparable stature with our own.” After writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien clearly indicated that the Elves were “only a representation of an apprehension of a part of human nature” from which art and poetry spring, but, he said, “that is not the legendary mode of talking.” The Elves originally share the Paradise of the Valar, Valinor, but the Elves suffer a fall from that grace in the “Quenta Silmarillion,” the rebellion and exile to Middle-earth of one of the great families of Elves, led by their chief, the artificer Fëanor, who has captured the primal light of Iluvatar in the three Silmarils. Tolkien described these great jewels as aglow with the “light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and ’says that they are good’—as beautiful.” Fëanor’s lust to possess the Silmarils for himself leads to their capture by Melkor, and in the struggle to redeem them, splendid deeds are performed by Beren, a Man of Middle-earth beloved of the Elvish princess Lúthien. Tolkien called this “the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world historyare often turnedby the seemingly unknown and weak.” The union of Beren and Lúthien is the first between mortal Man and immortal Elf; they win Paradise together, and eventually Earendil the Elven Mariner closes the “Quenta Silmarillion” by bringing the gem Beren painfully rescued from Melkor to the land of the Valar. His Silmaril was set into the sky as its brightest star, while the others were lost in the depths of the earth and sea, and the First Age of Middle-earth came to its end.
Tolkien saw the Second Age of Middle-earth as dark, and he believed “not very much of its history is (or need be) told.” The Valar continued to dwell at Valinor with the faithful Elves, but the exiled Elves with Fëanor were commanded to leave Middle-earth and live in the lonely Isle of Eressëa in the West. Some of them, however, ignored the order and remained in Middle-earth. Those Men of Middle-earth who had aided the Elves to redeem the Silmarils were given the Atlantis-like realm of Númenor as their reward, as well as life spans three times the normal age of Men. Though Melkor was chained, his servant Sauron remained free to roam Middle-earth, and through his evil influence, both Men of Númenor and the Delaying Elves came to grief.
The decay of Númenor is told in the Akallabeth, a much briefer illustration of Tolkien’s belief that the inevitable theme of human stories is “a Ban, or Prohibition.” The long-lived Númenoreans were prohibited by the Valar from setting foot on “immortal” lands in the West. Their wrongful desire to escape death, their gift from Iluvatar, causes them to rebel and bring about their own watery destruction through the worship of Sauron, Melkor’s servant. At the same time, the Elves who delayed in Middle-earth suffered the painful consequences of their flawed choice. Tolkien said they “wanted to have their cake without eating it,” enjoying the perfection of the West while remaining on ordinary earth, revered as superior beings by the other, lesser races. Some of them cast their lot with Sauron, who enticed them to create three Rings of Power, in the misguided hope of making Middle-earth another Valinor. Sauron secretly made another ring himself, one with the power to enslave all the others. The ensuing war between Sauron and the Elves devastated Middle-earth, but in the Last Alliance of Elves and Men against Sauron, the One Ring was lost. Tolkien calls this the “catastrophic end, not only of the Second Age, but of the Old World, the primeval age of Legend.”
The posthumous collection called The Silmarillion ends with Tolkien’s résumé “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” which introduces the motives, themes, and chief actors in the next inevitable war between Sauron and the Free Peoples of Middle-earth. Although The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have proved vastly more popular, and both can be enjoyed without the complicated and generally loftily pitched history of The Silmarillion, its information is essential to a thorough understanding of the forces Tolkien set at work in the later novels. Even more important, The Silmarillion was for Tolkien, as his son Christopher has said, “the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections,” and as such, it holds the bejewelled key to the autobiography Tolkien felt was embedded in his fiction.
Around 1930, Tolkien jotted a few enigmatic words about “a hobbit” on the back of an examination paper he was grading. “Names always generate a story in my mind,” he observed, and eventually he found out “what hobbits were like.” The Hobbits, whom he subsequently described as “a branch of the specifically human race (not Elves or Dwarves),” became the vital link between Tolkien’s mythology as constructed in The Silmarillion and the heroic legend that dominates The Lord of the Rings. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s official biographer, has written that Bilbo Baggins, hero of The Hobbit, “embodied everything he [Tolkien] loved about the West Midlands.” Tolkien himself once wrote, “I am in fact a hobbit, in all but size,” and beyond personal affinities, he saw the Hobbits as “rustic English people,” small in size to reflect “the generally small reach of their imagination—not the small reach of their courage or latent power.”
Tolkien’s Hobbits appear in the Third Age of Middle-earth, in an ominously quiet lull before a fearful storm. Sauron had been overthrown by the Elflord Gil-galad and the Númenorean King Elendil, but since evil is never completely vanquished, Sauron’s creatures lurk in the margins of Middle-earth, in the mountain-enclosed region of Mordor, while a few Elves keep watch on its borders. Descendants of a few Númenoreans were saved from their land’s disaster (Atlantean destruction was a recurrent nightmare for both Tolkien and his son Christopher), and they rule in the Kingdoms of Arnor in the North of Middle-earth and Gondor of the South. The former Númenoreans are allies of the Homeric Riders of Rohan, whose human forefathers had remained in Middle-earth when Númenor came to be. The three Elven Rings of Power secretly guard Rivendell and Lothlórien, which Tolkien called “enchanted enclaves of peace where Time seems to stand still and decay is restrained, a semblance of the bliss of the True West.”
The Hobbits live in the Shire, in “an ordered, civilised, if simple rural life.” One day, the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins receives an odd visitor, Gandalf the Wizard, who sends Bilbo off with traveling dwarves, as a professional burglar, in search of Dragon’s Gold, the major theme of the novel. In the process, Tolkien uses the humble Hobbit to illustrate one of his chief preoccupations, the process by which “small imagination” combines with “great courage.” As he recalled from his months in the trenches, “I’ve always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.”
Starting from the idyllic rural world of the Shire, The Hobbit, ostensibly a children’s book, traces the typical quest of the northern hero about whom Tolkien himself had loved to read in his youth. Gandalf shares certain characteristics with the Scandinavian god Odin, said to wander among people as an “old man of great height,” with a long grey cloak, a white beard, and supernatural powers. Gandalf, like Odin, understands the speech of birds, being especially fond of eagles and ravens, and his strange savage friend Beorn, who rescues the Hobbits at one critical point, recalls the berserkers, bearskin-clad warriors consecrated to Odin who fought with superhuman strength in the intoxication of battle. The Dwarves of Middle-earth distinctly resemble their Old Norse forebears, skilled craftsmen who made treasures for the gods. Smaug the Dragon, eventually slain by the human hero Bard, is surely related to “the prince of all dragons” who had captured Tolkien’s boyish imagination and who would reappear in Farmer Giles of Ham. The Germanic code of the comitatus, the warrior’s fidelity unto death, celebrated in the tenth century Anglo-Saxon poem “The Battle of Maldon,” inspired Tolkien’s only play and applies to The Hobbit, too, since Bilbo’s outward perils are overshadowed by the worst threat of all to the northern hero, the inward danger of proving a coward.
Bilbo’s hard-won self-knowledge allows him to demonstrate the “indomitable courage of small people against great odds” when he saves Dwarves, Men, and Elves from suicidal war against one another, after the Dragon has been slain and its treasure freed. The Hobbit far exceeded its beginnings as a bedtime story for Tolkien’s small sons, since it is also a fable about the child at the heart of every person, perceiving right and wrong as sternly as did the heroes of the North.
In late 1937, at the suggestion of his British publisher, Stanley Unwin, Tolkien began a sequel to The Hobbit. To the East, a malignant force was gathering strength in the Europe that even the mammoth sacrifices of World War I had not redeemed from oppression, and while Tolkien often cautions against interpreting his works allegorically, the apprehensive atmosphere of prewar England must have affected his own peace of mind. He described his intention in The Lord of the Rings as “an attempt towind up all the elements and motives of what has preceded.” He wanted “to include the colloquialism and vulgarity of Hobbits, poetry and the highest style of prose.” The moral of this novel, not a “trilogy” but, he stressed, “conceived and written as a whole,” was “obvious”: “that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean; and without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is a vast panoramic contest between good and evil played out against the backdrop of Tolkien’s mythology as presented in The Silmarillion. The One Ring of Sauron, long lost, was found by little Bilbo Baggins, and from him it passed to his kinsman Frodo, who becomes the central figure of the quest-in-reverse: Having found the Ring, the allied Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits must destroy it where it was forged, so that its power can never again dominate Middle-earth. Another quest takes place simultaneously in the novel, as the mysterious Strider who greets the Hobbits at Bree on the first stage of their perilous journey is gradually revealed as Aragorn, son of Arathorn and heir to Arnor in the North, descendant of Elendil who kept faith with the Valar; he is the human King of Middle-earth who must reclaim his realm. Sauron’s minions rise to threaten the Ringbearer and his companions, and, after many adventures, a great hopeless battle is fought before the Gates of Mordor. As Tolkien stated in “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” “There at the last they looked upon death and defeat, and all their valour was in vain; for Sauron was too strong.” This is the paradoxical defeat-and-victory of the northern hero, whose glory is won in the manner of his death. As a practicing Christian, however, Tolkien had to see hope clearly in the ultimate struggle between right and wrong, “and help came from the hands of the weak when the Wise faltered.” Frodo the Hobbit at last manages to carry the Ring to Mount Doom in spite of Sauron, and there it is destroyed, and “a new Spring opened up on Earth.” Even then, Frodo’s mission is not completed. With his three Hobbit companions, he has to return to the Shire and undo the evil that has corrupted the hearts, minds, and landscape of that quiet region. Only after that may Frodo, with the Elves, depart for the far west.
In retrospect, Tolkien acknowledged that another central issue of The Lord of the Rings is “love in different modes,” which had been “wholly absent from The Hobbit.” Tolkien considered the “simple ’rustic’ love” between Sam, Frodo’s faithful batman, and his Rosie was “absolutely essential” both to the study of the main hero of the novel and “to the theme of the relation of ordinary lifeto quests, to sacrifice, causes, and the ’longing for Elves,’ and sheer beauty.” The evidence of Tolkien’s own life indicates the depth of his ability to love, like Beren, always faithful to his Lúthien. Such love that makes all sacrifice possible forms the indestructible core of The Lord of the Rings, which moved C. S. Lewis to speak of “beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold irona book that will break your heart.”
Love exemplified in two important romances softens the necromancy and the battles of The Lord of the Rings: the poignant “mistaken love” of Eowyn for Aragorn, as Tolkien described it, and the novel’s “highest love-story,” the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, daughter of Elrond, leader of the Elves of Middle-earth. Eowyn is niece to Theoden, King of Rohan, the land of the horsemen that Tolkien patterned on ancient Anglo-Saxon tribes, which he first encountered through William Morris’s The House of the Wolfings (1888). In Theoden’s decline, the shield-maiden Eowyn gives her first love to the royalty-in-exile she senses in Aragorn, and although he in no sense encourages her, Eowyn’s tragedy is one only he can heal once he is restored as King. In contrast, Tolkien merely alludes to the love of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, since it seems almost too deep for tears. Arwen must forsake her Elven immortality and join Aragorn in human death, paralleling the earlier story of Beren and Lúthien. Like Tolkien’s own love for Edith, Aragorn’s for Arwen is temporarily prevented from reaching fruition until he can return to her in full possession of his birthright. The shadow of her possible loss lends stature to the characterization of Aragorn, the hero of The Lord of the Rings.
In 1955, Tolkien observed that “certain featuresand especially certain places” of The Lord of the Rings “still move me very powerfully.” The passages he cited sum up the major means by which the novel so strongly conveys love, redemption, and heroism achieved in the face of overwhelming odds. “The heart remains in the description of Cerin Amroth,” he wrote, the spot where Aragorn and Arwen first pledged their love and where, many years later at the beginning of his fearful quest, “the grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair.” Tolkien magnifies this small epiphany of love through the eyes of the Hobbit Frodo. Another key episode, the wretched Gollum’s failure to repent because Sam interrupts him, grieved Tolkien deeply, he said, for it resembled “the real world in which the instruments of just retribution are seldom themselves just or holy.” In his favorite passage, however, Tolkien was “most stirred by the sound of the horns of the Rohirrim at cockcrow,” the great “turn” of The Lord of the Rings, a flash of salvation in the face of all odds that comes beyond hope, beyond prayer, like a stroke of unexpected bliss from the hand of the Creator.
The “turn” that makes The Lord of the Rings a “true fairy-story” in Tolkien’s definition links fidelity to a vow, a Germanic value, to the Christian loyalty that animated many of the great Anglo-Saxon works Tolkien had spent his scholarly life studying. By weaving the immensely complex threads of Elves, Hobbits, Men, and Dwarves into his heroic legend of the last great age of Middle-earth, he achieved a valid subcreation, sharing in the nature of what for him was most divine.
The History of Middle-Earth
Tolkien’s son Christopher undertook the massive task of editing and commenting on the many drafts and manuscripts Tolkien left unpublished. These volumes, grouped under the title The History of Middle-Earth, became commentary of a painstaking, scholarly kind, such as Tolkien himself would have enjoyed, no doubt, though it leaves the average reader rather befuddled. Each volume reprints, compares, and comments on original draft material in chronological order. One interesting feature is the emergence of the Annals, running alongside the stories; another is the evolution of the Elvish languages and etymologies. Tolkien’s original attempt to make this a mythology of England through the character of Aelfwine, an Anglo-Saxon who had somehow reached Middle-earth and then translated some of its material into Old English, can also be seen. The Lost Road (1937) emerges as a fragment produced as part of an agreement with C. S. Lewis for a science-fiction story on time travel that would complement a story by Lewis on space. The latter produced Out of the Silent Planet (1938), but Tolkien gave up on his, though the attempt to connect it to the Akallabeth can be seen clearly.
Christopher Tolkien also edited the childhood stories and poetry; others have dealt with Tolkien’s drawings, illustrations, and mapmaking predilections. The production of such works is perhaps in some danger of overshadowing the myth that gave them life. Tolkien saw all of his writings as unfinished and imperfect. As C. S. Lewis saw too in his Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956), our myths can only ever be the first page of the Great Myth that goes on forever.
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