Tolkien’s interest in fantasy began with his childhood curiosity about languages. Later, his professional linguistic training enabled him to create a Middle-earth in which cultural differences are significant. In the essay “On Fairy-Stories,” however, he suggests what underlay this curiosity. In the traditional tales of the past, readers could explore “Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself”:The magic of Faërie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is . . . to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.
Two key phrases, “survey the depths of space and time” and “hold communion with other living things,” suggest the direction of his own fiction. He believed that imaginative participation in stories was possible only when an author invested his creation with a rich, overlaid texture of history, geography, and culture. The Lord of the Rings exemplifies Tolkien’s intent, set as it is in a world embedded in millennia of history, enriched by an enormous variety of creatures. To borrow Tolkien’s phrase, he engaged in “sub-creation”:What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.
The true extent of Tolkien’s vision lay undiscovered until the publication of The Silmarillion, followed by subsequent volumes of unfinished tales edited by his son Christopher. Readers glimpsed this faintly in the six appendices to The Return of the King, which trace events in Middle-earth back several millennia.
Tolkien discusses other “primordial desires” that fantasy may satisfy: recovery, escape, and consolation. Because fantasy allows readers to contemplate alternatives to the present, it may offer hope for change. Recovery, or “’seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves”—means recapturing the sense of wonder, dulled by familiarity, inherent in everyday life. Escape refers to the human need to escape the threat to life and humane values. By “consolation,” Tolkien suggests that stories that nurture communicate the hope that human suffering will end, that happy endings come unexpectedly, a “eucatastrophe,” a “good disaster,” providentially delivered.
This emphasis on the affective purpose of fiction separated Tolkien from contemporary stylistic experimentalists and realists. His fiction looks to the past, as is implied in an audience’s “Recovery,” their regaining something lost. Recapturing a sense of wonder in the natural world, reaffirming the values of human life, occur in examining a simpler age. In The Lord of the Rings, “progress,” technology, machinery, and the destruction of nature are linked to evil. Tolkien’s protagonists from another age uphold values that appear outmoded yet impart a sense of dignity, purpose, and resolve. While some readers find the heroic language and formality of epic adventures foreign, these stylistic elements seem essential to Tolkien’s imaginative purposes.
Tolkien’s reliance on Norse and Old English mythology may account for the novels’ heroic atmosphere. The names of many locations and characters and the many “manufactured” words of his fiction are borrowed from the sagas. As an example, The Song of the Seeress , an anonymous tenth century Icelandic poem, contains the names of fifteen of...
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- Critical Essays