Introduction: A Comprehensive Exam on the Works and Context of J.R.R. Tolkien

On this last New Moon of 2015, I am sharing the introduction to my comprehensive exam on the works and context of J.R.R. Tolkien, the composition of which has been my primary occupation over the last seven months. This is the first of two comprehensive exams to be written for my dissertation on the Red Books of Tolkien and C.G. Jung. Because much of the material in the exam will be included in my dissertation I am not posting it publicly, rather allowing it to gestate until the full book is ready to publish. But I wished to share something of the labor of love in which I have been most recently engaged.

A Comprehensive Exam
on
The Works & Context of J.R.R. Tolkien

“On the edge of a valley one of Professor Tolkien’s characters can pause and say: ‘It smells like elves.’ It may be years before we produce another author with such a nose for an elf. The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity which is worth oceans of ‘glib’ originality.”
– C.S. Lewis, Review of The Hobbit[1]

O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring[2]

Introduction

When Professor J.R.R. Tolkien of Oxford, England set out to write a mythology, he did not know he would end up writing one of the most beloved works of literature of the 20th century. Indeed, he did not know of Hobbits or the King of Gondor, or even of Mount Doom. But he did know about Elves, and Middle-Earth, the endless Sea, and the far shores of Faërie. He knew he wanted to write poems and tell stories that had a particular “quality of strangeness and wonder,” stories that would bring “the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires”: the desire “to survey the depths of space and time” and “hold communion with other living things.”[3] J.R.R. Tolkien – The Halls of ManwëAnd this he did, penning thousands of pages that came to tell the many myths of Middle-Earth.

Over the course of his lifetime, Tolkien published the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the short stories Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootton Major, and the book of poetry The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. He translated the medieval English poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, and wrote scholarly papers on Beowulf and the Ancrene Wisse. But, except for the twelve long years dedicated to the composition of his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s primary creative occupation was writing and re-writing the cosmogonic myths and epic tales of the Silmarillion, a book never published in his lifetime. Indeed, when he passed away in 1973, he left behind him “the serried ranks of box files that contained . . . like beads without a string, the raw material of ‘The Silmarillion.’”[4] As his publisher Rayner Unwin says: “although over the years some authors have written at greater length, few if any have left behind a more purposeful yet inchoate creative complexity than Tolkien.”[5] But, thanks to the decades-long effort of Tolkien’s son Christopher, the world can now read these pages, published as a compact narrative in The Silmarillion, and in the vast drafts and retellings found in Unfinished Tales and the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-Earth.

Who knows what form the Silmarillion may have taken if Tolkien had given it the same level of perfectionist revisioning that he gave The Lord of the Rings. But perhaps that is not how the tales of the Silmarillion were meant to be told. Perhaps they were meant to be received in the way primary myth is: with overlapping narratives and changing names, some stories drawn with great detail in both poetry and prose, others sketched as tales to be glimpsed in the background. Exploring the world of Middle-Earth can be like crossing a threshold into another realm, losing sight even of the pages in one’s hands, as far landscapes and poignant beauties pierce to the depths of one’s experience.

As his philological collaborator Simone D’Ardenne writes, “Tolkien’s personality was so rich, so diverse, so vast and so elusive” that to paint any portrait of his life will inherently be inadequate.[6] Although born in South Africa in 1892, Tolkien spent the majority of his life in England, only going to the European continent a few times, or occasionally across the water to Ireland. But this does not mean he was untraveled. Tolkien arguably explored more distant lands than many, but they are lands only found in the imagination. In this comprehensive exam I seek to understand Tolkien’s life and work in the context of his imaginal experiences, and the people and ideas that supported him in having them.

I begin with Tolkien’s family and friends, the literary midwives who helped him bring his mythology to birth. From there I turn to Tolkien’s artwork, the paintings, drawings, and sketches that he made before his writing had begun to take shape. I focus primarily on the early years when he was illustrating The Book of Ishness, although Tolkien continued throughout his life to make beautiful works of art to accompany his stories. From these images I shift to language, the subject that was central to the person Tolkien was. Not only was he a professional philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon, first at Leeds University and later at Oxford, he was an artist of language as well, inventing words, grammar, and etymology for multiple languages of Middle-Earth. Finally, I turn to an exploration of Tolkien’s experience of the imagination, looking particularly through the lens of his theory of Sub-creation. To conclude, I touch on the connection between Tolkien’s work and The Red Book of C.G. Jung, the subject on which my subsequent dissertation will be focused.

Tolkien’s personality was multifaceted; one could encounter him as “the Christian, or the friend, the artist or the humanist, the father or the teacher,” as D’Ardenne writes.[7] Many possibilities are open to us for exploring who he was. In an obituary written long in advance of Tolkien’s death, his close friend C.S. Lewis says: “He was a man of ‘cronies’ rather than of general society and was always best after midnight (he had a Johnsonian horror of going to bed) and in some small circle of intimates where the tone was at once Bohemian, literary, and Christian.”[8] If he was best in his small circle of intimates, perhaps that is the place to meet him first—among his own Fellowship.

[1] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 209.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 78.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014), 4.

[4] Rayner Unwin, “Early Days of Elder Days,” in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-Earth, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 247

[5]Unwin, “Early Days of Elder Days,” 6.

[6] Simone D’Ardenne, “The Man and Scholar,” in J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1979), 33.

[7] D’Ardenne, “The Man and Scholar,” 33.

[8] C.S. Lewis, “Professor J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Hobbits and Inventor of a New Mythology” in J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, ed. Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1979), 15.

 

Bibliography

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6 Comments

  1. patrickkidd

     /  December 17, 2015

    Becca, I can’t wait to read the finished piece. I feel all of my inner happy-alarms going off when reading this! I’m excited to see if you find anything for the Transcendent Function in Tolkien’s meta-work. That is, what power and purpose writing and reading this myth has, and why the figures in Ae are so important to us.

    Reply
  2. Can’t Wait.

    Reply
  3. I’m wondering what C.S. Lewis means by “a Johnsonian horror of going to bed”.

    Very interesting work!

    Reply
    • Great question! It refers to the quote by Samuel Johnson: “Whoever thinks of going to bed before twelve o’clock is a scoundrel.”

      Reply
  1. Introduction: A Comprehensive Exam on The Red Book of C.G. Jung | Becca Psyche Tarnas

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