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...
(The entire section is 4,756 words.)