The Astrology of J.R.R. Tolkien

On Tuesday, October 23 I will be offering a presentation for Adam Elenbaas’s Nightlight Astrology School on “The Astrology of J.R.R. Tolkien“! This talk brings together two of my greatest loves and areas of expertise: the practice of astrology and the biography and writings of fantasy author and linguist John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. The presentation will be hosted online, at 4:00 pm Pacific time, 7:00 pm Eastern. Please visit the Events page of the Nightlight Astrology School for details on how to log in to the meeting.

NIghtlight Fall Speaker Series

The Astrology of J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the author of the fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, first published in the mid-1950s and now translated into almost 40 languages. Tolkien first began writing about the world of Middle-earth during World War I, and continued doing so almost until the end of his life in 1973. Although he is best known as a writer, Tolkien was also a visual artist and an extraordinary linguist, holding a position as a professor of philology at Oxford University in England. As his close friend and colleague C.S. Lewis once said: “He had been inside language.” Drawing on an archetypal astrological perspective, this presentation will explore the natal chart of J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as his transits during the creation of some of his major works of art and writing.  

To view my schedule of upcoming events, please visit my Events page!

Talking The Lord of the Rings on Rune Soup

Gordon White, the fantastic host of Rune Soup, kindly invited me back on his podcast to discuss the practice of active imagination and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It was such a pleasure to drop back into conversation together two and a half years later, and to see how my research has evolved since my first interview with him back in 2016! The podcast is available for download or can be listened to directly below.

 

Journey to the Imaginal Realm: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Journey to the Imaginal Realm Course

Since I was 9 years old, I have been a devotee of the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and an avid explorer of the world of Middle-earth. I am therefore beyond excited to be teaching an online course through Nura Learning this autumn on Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings. I feel as though I have been waiting half my life to teach this class, and at last such an opportunity has arisen. If you have never read The Lord of the Rings before, or wish to return to Middle-earth to deepen your connection with this remarkable tale, I would be delighted to have you in this course.

Learn more and Register

Course Description

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien has been a beloved story to several generations since its publication in the mid-1950s. The story has a timeless quality to it, and engages with a complex struggle between good and evil, death and immortality, power and freedom. The Lord of the Rings blends otherworldly romance with the high rhetoric of epic mythology, at times interwoven with the internal depths of the nineteenth century novel and the political climate of the twentieth century. As Tolkien’s close friend and colleague C. S. Lewis once said: “Nothing quite like it has been done before. This book is like lightning from a clear sky . . . here are beauties which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron.”

The Lord of the Rings is a text treated by many as a sacred text, one to be returned to year after year, or read aloud with loved ones. The Lord of the Rings, for many, has become a myth for our time. This course offers a journey through Tolkien’s magnum opus in a community of learning, guided by a scholar who has spent more than two decades engaging Tolkien’s writings and artwork. This course is designed both for newcomers to Tolkien’s narrative, and for veteran travelers through Middle-earth’s many realms. Together we will explore the grand themes and hidden nuances of Tolkien’s epic story, connecting The Lord of the Rings to the larger mythology of Middle-earth, and situating Tolkien’s process of writing within his own powerful experiences of the imaginal realm.

To learn more and register, please visit: Nura Learning: Journey to the Imaginal Realm 

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

Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010.

Caldecott, Stratford. The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2012.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

–––––. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Chance, Jane, ed. Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

–––––. Tolkien the Medievalist. Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.  

Croft, Janet Brennan and Leslie A. Donovan, eds. Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press, 2015.

Curry, Patrick. Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien. Zürich, Switzerland: Walking Tree Publishers, 2014.

–––––. Defending Middle-Earth. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997.

Dickerson, Matthew and Jonathan Evans. Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Duriez, Colin. The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien and Their Circle. Oxford, England: Lion Books, 2015.

–––––. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003.

–––––. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings: A Guide to Middle-Earth. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2001.

Edwards, Raymond. Tolkien. London, England: Robert Hale Limited, 2014.

Flieger, Verlyn. “But What Did He Really Mean?” Tolkien Studies 11 (2014): 149-66.

–––––. Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2012.

–––––. Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2005.

–––––. A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1997.

–––––. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2002.

Flieger, Verlyn and Carl F. Hostetter, eds. Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-Earth. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.

–––––. The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.

–––––. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Jung, C.G. The Red Book: Liber Novus. Edited by Sonu Shamdasani. Translated by Mark

Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Knight, Gareth. The Magical World of the Inklings. Cheltenham, England: Skylight Press, 2010.

Lang, Andrew. The Red Fairy Book. Mineola, NY: Dover Children’s Classics, 1966.  

Lee, Stuart D. ed. A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2014.  

Lobdell, Jared, ed. A Tolkien Compass. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2003.

Lönnrot, Elias. Kalevala: Land of Heroes. Translated by W.F. Kirby. London, England: Everyman’s Library, 1966.

Milbank, Alison. Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real. New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2007.

Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

O’Neill, Timothy R. The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien and the Archetypes of Middle-Earth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Owens, Lance. “Lecture I: The Discovery of Faërie.” In J.R.R. Tolkien: An Imaginative Life. Salt Lake City, UT: Westminster College, 2009. http://gnosis.org/tolkien/lecture1/index.html.

–––––. “Tolkien, Jung, and the Imagination.” Interview with Miguel Conner. AeonBytes Gnostic Radio, April 2011. http://gnosis.org/audio/Tolkien-Interview-with-Owens.mp3.

Reilly, R.J. Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971.

Salu, Mary and Robert T. Farrell, eds. J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1979.  

Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Vol. 1: Chronology. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

–––––. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Vol. 2: Reader’s Guide. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

–––––. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Skogemann, Pia. Where the Shadows Lie: A Jungian Interpretation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publication, 2009.

Tolkien, Christopher. Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. Edited by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond. London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014.

–––––. The Annotated Hobbit. Annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

–––––. Beowulf. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2014.

–––––. The Children of Húrin. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

–––––. The History of Middle-Earth. Vol. 1-12. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2010.

–––––. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

–––––. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

–––––. The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

–––––. On Fairy-Stories. Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014.

–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

–––––. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1995.

–––––. Smith of Wootton Major. Edited by Verlyn Flieger. London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005.

–––––. Tales from the Perilous Realm. London: England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1997.

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

–––––. Unfinished Tales: Of Númenor and Middle-Earth. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.

Zaleski, Philip and Carol Zaleski. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Zimbardo, Rose A. and Neil D. Isaacs, eds. Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

 

 

Trickster: At the Boundary Between Creator and Sub-Creator

I am not going to tell you a story of this world. And I am going to tell you a story of this world. It is for you to find out where the story came from. Or I will tell you. Or something in between.

For no apparent reason the One chose to become many. For no apparent reason. The key here is whether it was apparent, not whether it was without reason. How can one ascertain the appearances of the reason of the One? The One alone knows the reason for being, and from thence does faith in the One arise. A faith based on reason. But no apparent reason.

We are going to enter a world together. Likely it is a world with which you are deeply familiar. Or somewhat familiar if you have chosen me (or I have chosen myself) to be your guide into this world. But to enter the world together we must, on this day, begin outside it. Usually we awaken already within the circles of this world, if we have chosen to explore it. But today we shall suspend time—for who is more able to suspend time than that which (or whom) we wish to encounter on this journey? We shall suspend time and enter the imagination of a world before time, the world before the world, the world even before the waking into reality of imagination.

I wish to explore Creativity as Trickster. If, as Lewis Hyde claims, Trickster Makes This World, who makes Trickster? The ambiguity, the shape-shifting, the amorality, the potential and paradox: these qualities of the Trickster are birthed from Creativity. Is the Trickster really Trickster? Or does Creativity take hold for some time, and make Trickster what Trickster is?

The world into which were are entering is one that happened to be penned by a single author, or so it is often said. You probably already know his name if you know me. Can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? What must that have felt like? How many times has that happened in the history of our one species? How many beginnings have been retold of our world?

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “sub-creation” to describe the desire to create and experience Art, what he saw as the shaping and crafting of imaginal experience into artistic form. Yet Tolkien used the term “sub-creator” because he believed the desire to create arose within created beings because they in turn were first created by a divine Creator. “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[1] Tolkien saw himself as a sub-creator, making Art—an enchanted, Secondary World—under the creative imagination of God. But the Secondary World Tolkien shaped, a world called Arda, is one that tells the stories of other sub-creators, other divinely created beings who wished to create in their own measure and derivative mode. A world within a world, sub-creators under sub-creators. The desire to create itself, what we might call the embodiment of Creativity, has a Trickster form. Yet no single figure in Tolkien’s world remains Trickster for long: rather the Trickster energy appears to move on, igniting creativity and even chaos, yet ultimately bringing more beauty into the world for its disruption.

I would like to turn to Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, called the Ainulindalë, the Music of the Ainur. Again, can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? The Ainulindalë began with Eru, the One, who first made the Ainur, spirits of divine thought. Eru, called also Ilúvatar in the world of Arda, inspired the Ainur to make music—and they did. Their singing, unbeknownst to them, shaped the world they would eventually build. The Ainur are the first sub-creators under Ilúvatar, shaping the divine imagining they received from Eru. The musical strands wove together and formed the first harmonies:

. . . a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.[2]

But one among the Ainur wished not to be a sub-creator, one whose musical threads were woven into the melodies of all others seamlessly. He wished to be a creator in his own right. His name is Melkor, and at this moment he is the first embodiment of the Trickster in the Deeps of Time before the world of Arda is brought into being. “He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own . . . . Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.”[3] Melkor’s thoughts and desires began to give rise to a new music, a strand of melody that clashed with the harmonies already in motion. Some of the Ainur followed his lead and soon the music became “a sea of turbulent sound.”[4] From amidst the “raging storm”[5] Ilúvatar, with a smile, brought forth a new theme. Again Melkor’s discord ignited disruptive clashing and violent disharmony. And in response Ilúvatar drew forward a third theme. The two melodies played simultaneously, conflicting yet interwoven: “there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.”[6] Melkor’s music was loud, violent, drowning, and repetitive, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”[7] The rebellion of Melkor, the desire for individual creativity apart from the Creativity of the One, was ultimately woven into the very patterning of the third theme of music making it all the more beautiful. For it was the sorrow of the third theme, sorrow in response to the violence of the disharmony, that gave it its profound beauty.

Many Trickster themes are woven into this narrative, although the Trickster is not embodied by one being alone. The Trickster energy moved quickly from being to being, never settling but still creating the dynamism of the moment. In Melkor’s rebellion and Ilúvatar’s creative response, the Trickster moved between them, crossing the boundaries between Creator and sub-creator. The Music of the Ainur is the moment of Creation, when the world is first imagined into being. It cannot be done again, and there are no mistakes. Disharmony is part of the world’s story from the beginning, and the suffering it causes gives rise to greater beauty than if all were melodious. So it is that Trickster does indeed make this world, or rather shapes it, by being many agents of creativity in succession.

After the making of the Music, Ilúvatar showed another of the most powerful Ainur how the discordant Music of Melkor had reshaped his own Music, that which had made the waters:

Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heat and fires without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth![8]

To this, the Ainu of the Waters responded: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain.”[9]

In his rebellion Melkor became identified with the Trickster. He had wandered through the Void looking for the Secret Fire, that which grants true Being to the creative impulse. To Melkor is seemed “that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.”[10] As Lewis Hyde writes, the Trickster “embodies and enacts that large portion of our experience where good and evil are hopelessly intertwined. He represents the paradoxical category of sacred amorality.”[11] Melkor faced the darkness of the Void looking for the Imperishable Flame of Creativity, searching for consciousness in unconsciousness. As Tanya Wilkinson writes, “The archetypal Trickster faces both ways, toward consciousness and unconsciousness, embodying contradiction.”[12] Melkor’s desire to create was the gift bestowed on him by the Creator, but it was a gift he sought to wrest to his own devices, and the violence of his attempt to rip away that gift and make it solely his own changed the course of all subsequent actions. Ilúvatar showed the Ainur a vision of their Music, that they might see how their melodies each unfolded into form. Ilúvatar then said: “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.”[13] Perhaps here the One outwitted the Trickster, and became Trickster himself.

Melkor’s role in the beginning was ambiguous, as the role of the Trickster should be. He is the mightiest of the Ainur, “given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge,”[14] and his desire to use those gifts walks the boundary of good and evil. The evils he caused served the ultimate good of Ilúvatar, sorrow and suffering making the poignant beauty of Creation. Only later, when Melkor’s fall was complete, when he became identified no longer as a sub-creator under the One but simply a being marring the sub-creations of the other powerful Ainur, did he lose his ambiguous position. No longer was he named Melkor, meaning “He who arises in Might,”[15] but Morgoth, “the Black Enemy.”[16] If the Trickster is to be found at the boundary, the place of ambiguity, then the moment Melkor chose not to remain in that ambiguity he ceased to be the Trickster. Creative Trickster energy moved on, and found its home in other sub-creators who walk the fine line between good and evil, following the ambiguous path of ingenuity and clever creativity.

Melkor has a foil among the Ainur, one who also desired to make his own independent creations: Aulë, who longed for beings to whom he could teach craft and wisdom. Like the other Ainur, Aulë had recognized that the third themes of the Music signified the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar and Edain—Elves and Humans—who would people the world. Yet Aulë was impatient for their coming, and instead crafted a new race of beings, the Naugrim, called also the Dwarves. In this moment Ilúvatar came to him, and we are able to see here most clearly the divine relationship between Creator and sub-creator. Ilúvatar spoke to Aulë saying: “For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?”[17] Aulë replied with an explanation of his seeming rebellion, so like Melkor’s rebellion in many ways: it came not from a desire for power and lordship in his own right but from a desire for “things other than I am, to love and to teach them.”[18] But it was the inherent desire to create, to be a sub-creator, that Aulë gave most convincing voice to: “Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.” This supplication of the sub-creator is not that of the Trickster, but its effect on the One is such that the Naugrim awaken with their own individual life and wills, independent of their maker. Something new is introduced that would have not existed otherwise, without the seeming rebellion of the sub-creator, or the unexpected move of the Creator to give them life.

A sub-creator shapes a world within a world, Art from the raw material of Imagination. A world within a world naturally has its boundaries, but while within the world it can be difficult to see where the boundaries lie, if it is possible to see them at all. Only when a new world is created do we see that boundary drawn, the moment sub-creator and Creator work together to breathe life into new form. The Trickster waits at the boundaries, the crossroads, the borders, leaping between those who dare to draw a line against what has come before to make something new and different.

In this world we have entered the Trickster seems particularly evasive, changing names and changing shapes, crossing from good to evil and back before there was good and evil to cross between. If he who seems to be a Trickster falls from grace, the Trickster energy moves on, finds somewhere else to be. The Trickster seems to be Creativity itself, the Imperishable Flame that gives life, that is within Ilúvatar and yet is not Ilúvatar. And what is the Imperishable Flame, the Secret Fire?

Why was there a great Music to begin with? Why were the Ainur brought into being? For no apparent reason . . . Is that not the sign of the Trickster?

Works Cited

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Wilkinson, Tanya. Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld. Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 145.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 15.

[3] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 16.

[4] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 16.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 16-17.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 19.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 16.

[11] Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 10.

[12] Tanya Wilkinson, Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld (Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996), 153.

[13] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 17.

[14] Ibid, 16.

[15] Ibid, 340.

[16] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 341.

[17] Ibid, 43.

[18] Ibid.

Becoming Acquainted with “The Inklings”

“It was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with
vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien[1]

The Oxford Inklings have long held a fascination for me—a group of great literary authors meeting weekly to share their poetry and fiction, and discuss their ideas and beliefs. A meeting of the minds who, at different points in their careers, produced The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Poetic Diction, The Place of the Lion, and multiple other works across a great range of genres and topics. How did these writers come to know each other? How much did they influence one another’s work? Such questions as these are addressed by Humphrey Carpenter in his biographical work The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends.

The InklingsIn many ways, Carpenter’s The Inklings is primarily a biography of C.S. Lewis, with the lives of Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and others woven in when their narrative threads cross paths with Lewis’s. Yet this is perhaps an entirely appropriate approach considering the group that called themselves the Inklings ultimately orbited around Lewis—the meetings took place in his Magdalen rooms, and his friendship was what the members of the group held in common. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s weaving together of these many, and often disparate, biographical threads produces a compelling tapestry that displays a historical picture both complex and deep, inviting one into the nuanced differences of multiple intellectual and creative lives.

Certain aspects of this interwoven narrative particularly shone forth for me, such as the descriptions of the shared feeling between Lewis and Tolkien when reading certain myths and stories of familiarity with the unfolding tale, a sense of longing and nostalgia as though one has somehow participated in this story before. It is a feeling with which I also am familiar, becoming apparent to me the first time I heard The Hobbit read aloud. Names such as Rivendell, Middle-Earth, and Dale, the songs and laughter of the Elves, all felt deeply familiar from the first time I heard them. Tolkien was able to imbue his own stories with that same essence that he and Lewis felt and found so richly compelling in the myths of Northern Europe.

Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship could really be seen as the core of the Inklings, as it was they who were the most consistent members throughout the duration of the informal literary group. Another moment I found particularly touching and unique to their characters was when Lewis first critiqued a poem of Tolkien’s, but instead of simply writing a commentary in his own voice he rather chose to execute his narrative creativity by annotating the poem “as if it were a celebrated piece of ancient literature, already heavily studied by scholars with such names as ‘Pumpernickel,’ ‘Peabody,’ ‘Bentley,’ and ‘Schick;’ he alleged that any weaknesses in Tolkien’s verses were the result of scribal errors or corruptions in the manuscript.”[2] Their creativity is coming through even in these most simple of interactions, giving the reader a greater sense of the imaginations able to access the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole of the book was the one entitled “Mythopoeia.” It centers around Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, first through his recognition of a divine presence when he, in his words, “admitted that God was God,”[3] and ending with his belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The key to his conversion was a recognition of the truth of myth, as articulated both by Barfield and by Tolkien. Barfield’s book Poetic Diction had a major impact on both Lewis and Tolkien, in which he describes the way in which language has evolved to show a correlated evolution of consciousness, from mythical perception to rational intellect. In Carpenter’s narrative: “In the dawn of language, said Barfield, speakers did not make a distinction between the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical,’ but used words in what might be called a ‘mythological’ manner.”[4] One of the examples Barfield uses to illustrate this is when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English it can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence. This is also the perspective from which Tolkien argued when he and Lewis entered into debate about the truth of myths. To quote Carpenter’s narrative at some length:

[Lewis] still did not believe in the myths that delighted him. Beautiful and moving though such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

No, said Tolkien. They are not lies.

Just then (Lewis afterwards recalled) there was a “rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”[5]

Tolkien goes on to illustrate his point with what surrounded them in that moment, the trees and night sky overhead. I find it significant that in this pivotal moment it is as though the world itself is speaking, to offer its subtle yet powerful evidence to the words Tolkien says. No, myths are not lies. They are all around us. The rush of wind, spiritus, makes its presence known. The men hold their breath, spiritus. Spirit is present.

To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music.[6]

I would even alter Carpenter’s language further in keeping with what both Tolkien and Barfield understood. The stars were not “as living silver” they were living silver. Not only did the first humans to speak of trees and stars “see” them differently, they were different because they were in participatory relationship to these ancient people.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity came about later that night when Tolkien explained first that “not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth,”[7] and then later not only is “the death and resurrection of Christ . . . the old ‘dying god’ story all over again,” but that “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact.”[8] Tolkien’s recourse to myth, first by showing the truth of it, and then by showing how myth entered history in the story of Christ, is what led to Lewis’s conversion, and hence to his many works of Christian apologetics and allegorical fantasy.

The Inkling with whom I was the least familiar, but whose life and personality I felt completely charmed by and engaged with, was Charles Williams. The portrait Carpenter draws of him feels so alive, I was amazed I had somehow gone so long without an introduction to Williams and his work. In Carpenter’s words:

He would treat someone’s personal worry with the same vitality that he showed in [his] lecture, the same grave courtesy and fiery vision; so that it was easy to go home feeling that this was what it would have been like to meet Dante himself, or Blake, or even Shakespeare.[9]

Williams seemed to be an immensely complex and nuanced figure, always holding in balance perspectives of light and shadow: “Behind every bad thing he could see something good, and also behind every good thing he could see darkness.”[10] Furthermore, “He was able to embrace everything—belief and doubt, hope and disillusion, love and hatred—within the secure irony that he had developed.”[11] Meeting Williams through biography first, rather than through his fiction, has left me simply with the wish that I might have met him.

Carpenter’s biographical style flows best when he is able to paint a narrative picture, as though one were really present, for example, at a particular meeting of the Inklings. He does this in a chapter entitled “Thursday evenings,” in which he combines quotations from works and letters with multiple reports of what the evenings were like to give a fictional portrait of an Inklings gathering (he does this also in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in which he narrates a sample day of Tolkien’s life in Oxford). The effect is absolutely enticing, making the reader feel almost as if they were there, and wish that to do so were really a possibility.

Perhaps my most pervasive feeling as I read The Inklings was a continual desire to have been able to participate in this group, wondering what it may have been like to listen to the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings when it was still titled “The New Hobbit,” or to hear Barfield and Tolkien discuss language, or Lewis and Williams on poetry and theology. And this longing actually brought forward an unexpectedly painful realization as I continued to read about this group of writers, at least one of whom has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I think, feel, imagine, and engage creatively with the world. All of the Inklings were men, and a woman was never permitted to be present at a Thursday gathering, or invited to join in the conversation at the Bird and Baby pub on Tuesday mornings. I realized that at the table of my intellectual forebears I, as a woman, would not have been welcome.

It was Lewis who held the most, to be frank, misogynist views, but I was pained to find the ways in which Barfield and Tolkien also agreed with him. Lewis has said that

“the husband is the head of the wife just so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church” adding: “If there must be a head, why the man? Well, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” And elsewhere: “Do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”[12]

I had hoped such views might have been confined to Lewis, but Tolkien has also written:

“How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp the teacher’s ideas, see his point—and how (with some exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. It is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”[13]

I do recognize that such sexist views are, in large part, a product of the time in which these men lived. Yet I also cannot help but feel their words with pain, and recognize the countless women whose voices have been silenced, again and again, by such mistaken and degrading beliefs. It is an injustice to recognize at once how much Tolkien and so many other male writers have shaped who I am through their words and imaginal creations, and then to know that they regarded “the female mind as inferior to the male.”[14] If somehow I were able to go back through time and arrive at Lewis’s Magdalen door on a Thursday evening I would not have been permitted to cross the threshold because of my gender.

There is some comfort to know that perhaps Williams might have made an argument for my entry if such a situation were to occur (and it would be far more likely to occur in the supernatural fluidity of space and time in Williams’ novels than elsewhere). Williams once said that it would be likely that “any principle of the relations of the sexes will be wrong, since there are, after all, no such things; there are an infinite number of women and an infinite number of men.”[15] Williams, it seems, would have at least based his admission on individual merit rather than blind gender exclusion.

Perhaps because of these statements from Lewis and Tolkien I was particularly delighted to meet on the page the woman who became Lewis’s wife later in his life, Joy Davidman.

Lewis was astonished by her. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he wrote of her. “Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure of being exposed and laughed at.”[16]

That such a woman came into his life and made the powerful impact she did felt long overdue as I was reaching the later pages of Carpenter’s book. But the role Joy Davidman played in Lewis’s life was indeed significant, and one that seemed to make a lasting imprint.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were resistant to having their personal lives explored in the context of their literary works, likely because they did not want the work to be psychoanalyzed and picked apart in search of biographical details and hidden personal truths. My sense is that this desire in part comes from their belief—shared at least after Lewis’s conversion—that myths ultimately are true. Because the source of myth is beyond simple human invention, but is rather the divine imagination creating through the human artist, the personal lives of the creators should not be looked to for the source of the stories. A human being is simply the container for them, the vessel into which the divine inspiration pours. And while such myths may be “partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual ‘invention,’”[17] the hope is that we as readers, as fellow explorers of imagination, can see past those personal faults, and truly “glimpse” the reality of “Other-worlds.”[18]

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 67.

[2] Carpenter, The Inklings, 30,

[3] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 40.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings, 41.

[5] Carpenter, The Inklings, 43.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carpenter, The Inklings, 44.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Ibid, 90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 169.

[14] Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[15] Carpenter, The Inklings, 171.

[16] C.S. Lewis qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 237.

[17] Carpenter, The Inklings, 138.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 64.