Great stories become symbols as they are encountered again and again by successive generations, as they are read in the context of currently unfolding lives. Stories become a part of the ecology in which they are told, participating in shaping the cultural landscape and being reshaped by it as well. Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare—these are but a few of the authors whose stories have withstood the slow wearing and reshaping of the passing river of time; they are narratives that have become changing symbols for those who have taken them up in their own time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, principally his Lord of the Rings epic, has been called by several scholars a myth for our time, a symbol of the age in which we live. As one Tolkien scholar writes, The Lord of the Rings is a tale that “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.” Such is the gift of a story written not as prescriptive allegory, but rather as what Tolkien preferred to see as “history, true or feigned, with its various applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” It is the flexible applicability of Tolkien’s narrative that allows it to be adapted and molded according to the needs and desires of the generations encountering it, providing a symbolic foil to the world in which it is being retold.
Tolkien began writing his mythology during a time of rapid transformation in Europe, as he witnessed increasing industrialization overwhelm the rural landscape of his native England. His stories carry much of the melancholy rendered by this loss of ecological beauty, and seem to plant seeds of warning for upcoming generations as more and more of the Earth’s landscapes are being turned to solely human uses. The ecological awareness at the heart of Tolkien’s world may contribute to its particular applicability to the current time period in which we face massive anthropogenic ecological destruction. Methods of engagement with the ecological crisis are innumerably diverse, a reflection of the broad scale of the problems with which the Earth community is challenged. Philosophical approaches to ecology and environmentalism have sought different means of engaging with the very concept of nature, as well as the dualisms created between human and nature, self and other, subject and object, that have contributed to making the Earth crisis what it is. Can Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth provide a symbolic mirror for some of these approaches, from ecofeminism, to dark ecology, to process ethics? By bringing such frameworks into dialogue with narrative, can new concepts be born through their interminglings and diversions?
This study of Middle-Earth as an ecological foil will go in several different directions, although they will all address overlapping issues related to how concepts of unity and difference play significant roles in the human relationship to the Earth. I will be using Tolkien’s narrative in two ways: on the one hand, by looking at it from the outside to see how it might change the engagement of the reader—as a participant in an imaginal world—with the primary world in which she lives; and on the other hand, by diving into the world itself and studying the characters directly as examples of individuals engaging in different ways with their own world. I will first explore the role art plays in shaping the human relationship with the Earth, seeing how art can both cultivate a sense of identity with the natural world, but also how it can give a clearer view of the diversity and inherent difference in that world. Crossing the threshold and entering into Middle-Earth itself we can continue exploring themes of identity and difference, remoteness and entanglement, duality and unity, by bringing such thinkers as Timothy Morton, Val Plumwood, Pierre Hadot, Slavov Zizek, and Alfred North Whitehead into dialogue with Tolkien’s work.
Imaginal worlds and the stories which take place within them can provide what Tolkien calls a “recovery,” a “regaining of a clear view.” He goes on to elaborate what such a clear view can offer, saying:
I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.
Although he mentions not wanting to involve himself with the philosophers, for the purpose of this essay I will be drawing Tolkien’s narratives into philosophical dialogue. The ecophenomenologist Neil Evernden offers a complementary, although somewhat reoriented, view to Tolkien’s on the role that art and the humanities can play in ecology: quoting Northrop Frye to make his point, Evernden says, “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’” Evernden’s perspective dissolves the boundary between the human and the natural world, whereas Tolkien’s sharpens awareness that there is a surrounding world that cannot be possessed by the human. Both perspectives, however, lead to a reorientation of values in which the natural world cannot become forgotten or taken for granted. They both call forth a sense of wonder.
The French philosopher Pierre Hadot points towards how art can create continuity between humanity and nature, offering another perspective for regaining the clear view of which Tolkien speaks:
If . . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.
Art offers to the spectator the possibility of becoming a participant, to engage at a personal level with the subject as portrayed by the work of art. The human subject can no longer encounter the other in the art as solely objective for, as Evernden writes, “The artist makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever, but not neutral.” For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality” that allows both the designer and spectator to enter into the created world. We have the possibility of entering fully into a world such as Tolkien’s and seeing its applicability to our own world, which is what makes it such a potent symbol for our own actions.
Entering into Middle-Earth we find ourselves in the Shire, the quiet, sheltered landscape inhabited by Hobbits. The Shire is insolated from the outside world, its inhabitants peacefully oblivious to the wider world, its borders guarded unbeknownst to the Hobbits by human Rangers of the North. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a literary example and metaphor of overcoming the dualism between self and other, human and nature, and subject and object. It tells the story of how four Hobbits leave their isolated world—and also world view—of the Shire to journey into the diverse landscapes of Middle-Earth and encounter the many peoples shaped by those lands. They realize they are but one small part of a larger, diverse ecology of beings. As Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature,
The strangeness of Middle-Earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narrative. The road comes right up to your front door. To step into it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside.
Morton is quite critical of Tolkien, seeing Middle-Earth as an “elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch,” a closed world where “however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar” because “it has all been planned out in advance.” This criticism is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what Tolkien describes the very aim of fantasy to be, to free things ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.’ Is this an indication that Tolkien has failed in his project, or rather that Morton is misreading what it is that Tolkien is attempting to do? Morton begins his analysis of Middle-Earth by saying,
The Shire . . . depicts the world-bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them.
In many ways this is a true characterization of the Shire at the start of the tale. There is an idyllic pastoralism to the Shire that is cherished by many of Tolkien’s readers, but it is also a realm of sheltered innocence as Morton points out, a Paradise before the Fall. However, by substituting this image of the Shire for the whole of Middle-Earth, Morton misses an essential aspect of the narrative: the Hobbits must depart from the Shire and encounter the strangeness and diversity of the larger world. The Hobbits, who may start out as ‘little suburbanites,’ cannot accomplish the tasks asked of them without first being transformed through the suffering and awakening that comes from walking every step of their journey. To return to Morton’s quote about the Road, once the ‘threshold between inside and outside’ has been crossed, the traveler cannot return to his former innocence. It is a shift in world view. The Hobbits can never return to the solipsistic world that existed prior to that crossing. This is an essential move that is also being asked of the human species in our own time; to cross out of our anthropocentric world view to encounter the great and imperiled diversity of the wider world.
While the Hobbits’ journey can serve as a metaphor for the journey the human species is being called to take—to awaken to the crisis at hand and leave our anthropocentric world view—The Lord of the Rings can be read symbolically from another perspective in which different characters represent alternative approaches to the natural world that have been taken by humanity over the course of history. These differing approaches have been laid out by Pierre Hadot in his “essay on the history of the idea of nature,” The Veil of Isis. Using mythic terms, these are what Hadot calls the Orphic and Promethean attitudes:
Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.
The three primary methods of the Promethean attitude, according to Hadot, are experimentation, mechanics, and magic, each of which seek to manipulate nature for some specific end. In Middle-Earth the Promethean approach is used by the Dark Lord Sauron, and later by the wizard Saruman, as they each seek to employ technology to gain power and dominion over others. Hadot writes of the Promethean attitude: “Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.” As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.” Saruman’s drive for power is a mere shadow and an echo of Sauron’s: the emblematic symbol of the power of technology in The Lord of the Rings is of course the One Ring itself, a device or machine that takes away the free will of those who use it.
Hadot’s consideration of magic as an aspect of the Promethean attitude is quite similar to Tolkien’s own views on magic, although this might not be expected with a first glance at his works. Tolkien differentiates between magic and enchantment, seeing magic as the technological manipulations of the Enemy, while enchantment is the exquisite creations of peoples such as the Elves. Tolkien writes in one of his letters that “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference” between magic and enchantment. He goes on to say, “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete . . . . its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.” Elvish enchantment might be seen as an example of Hadot’s Orphic approach to nature, with its focus on poetry, music, art, holistic science, myth and contemplation.
The Orphic attitude holds the belief that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.” It is an approach that seeks to come to understanding through contemplating the whole, without reducing it into simplistic parts. This is illustrated by the difference between the two Istari, or wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. In his bid for power, Saruman has renounced his rank as White Wizard rather to become Saruman of Many Colors. He mocks the symbol represented by his former color, proclaiming:
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it is no longer white,” said [Gandalf]. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
Saruman has moved from being one of the Wise, those who bring an Orphic approach to all they undertake, to a dark Promethean figure seeking domination, power, and control over others.
The attitudes Sauron and Saruman take towards the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth can be better understood through the ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s model of anthropocentrism, which she recognizes as the dominant human culture’s relationship with nature. Her language is particularly appropriate for mapping onto The Lord of the Rings because she refers to the dualism between One and Other as played out in this form of hegemonic centrism. In this symbolic mapping, the One represents the centralized power of the Lord of the One Ring, while the Other represents the diversity of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and their multiplicity of cultures and landscapes. Plumwood’s anthropocentric model demonstrates the ways in which the One approaches the Other, particularly through means of homogenization, backgrounding, incorporation or assimilation, and instrumentalism. A breakdown of these terms follows, each of which can be seen in the way Tolkien’s dark powers seek to dominate and control the peoples of Middle-Earth:
• Homogenization – “The model promotes insensitivity to the marvelous diversity of nature, since differences in nature are attended to only if they are likely to contribute in some obvious way to human welfare.”
• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”
• Incorporation (Assimilation) – “The intricate order of nature is perceived as disorder, as unreason, to be replaced where possible by human order in development, an assimilating project of colonisation.”
• Instrumentalism – “In anthropocentric culture, nature’s agency and independence of ends are denied, subsumed in or remade to coincide with human interests, which are thought to be the source of all value in the world. Mechanistic worldviews especially deny nature any form of agency of its own.”
Sauron seeks to turn all of Middle-Earth to his own devices, by reducing the great diversity of the land’s peoples to mere tributes and instruments. The power of the One Ring is that it can bring all beings, even the land itself, under its dominion: “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.” Sauron’s darkness is homogenous, erasing all difference, backgrounding all who do not fit his plans, and incorporating and using as instruments those who do.
The key actions to the three great victories accomplished by the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are carried out by characters or races that have been forgotten or backgrounded in just the way Plumwood describes: Sauron is overthrown by the actions of Frodo and Sam, two small Hobbits of a race he considered too unimportant to account for in his schemes; Saruman is defeated by the Ents whom he dismissed as mere myth; and the Witch-King of Angmar is overthrown by the shieldmaiden Eowyn, whose coming was concealed by the patriarchal language that referred to her entire race as Men—leaving the arrogant Lord of the Nazgûl to be defeated at the hands of a woman. As Elrond says at the Council held in Rivendell that decides the fate of the Ring, “This quest must be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
There are, of course, flaws with Tolkien’s work that a perspective such as Plumwood’s would be quick to point out. For example, it is a largely androcentric work, with the majority of the characters being male. It also has a Eurocentric focus, as Middle-Earth was intended by Tolkien to be set in Europe, although in an imaginary time: “The theatre of my tale is this earth,” Tolkien wrote in one letter, “the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” Critics such as Morton point out that “For Tolkien, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and talking eagles are welcome others, but swarthy ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ men are not.” Although I do not want to discount these valid criticisms, I will point out some subtleties that emerge in the text that complexify Morton’s simple rendering of good and evil in Tolkien’s world.
For example, when Sam witnesses the violent death of a Southron man he finds himself contemplating what the character of this man might have been in life.
He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.
In this moment I believe Tolkien is asking the reader to contemplate the same: to not take the presentation of the other at face value, but rather to look deeper. He is bringing moral complexity into a story that has often been initially perceived to present a Manichean vision of evil and good. Often the struggle between good and evil takes place within a single person, as can be seen emblematically in Frodo and Sméagol’s internal struggles with their own potential for evil, and even Gandalf and Aragorn’s wrestling with the corrupting influence of power. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond says. “Even Sauron was not so.”
One’s actions, and not one’s inherent being, are what turn a person evil in Tolkien’s world. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes on the nature of evil and its root in inhibiting, either through violence or neglect, the potential for beauty in the world. For Whitehead, the evil of violence “lies in the loss to the social environment.” He also writes,
Evil in itself leads to the world losing forms of attainment in which that evil manifests itself . . . . Thus evil promotes its own elimination by destruction, or degradation, or by elevation. But in its own nature it is unstable.
An example of this can be seen at times throughout The Lord of the Rings when the Orcs, acting as evil minions doing the bidding of Sauron or Saruman, turn on each other during a dispute and often end up killing one another in their anger—often eliminating a danger otherwise needing to be faced by the protagonists. As Brian Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insight is that violence and force tend to be self-defeating in that they undermine the very social structures that make them possible.” Another case is Saruman, who cuts the trees of Fangorn to feed his fires, allowing him to raise an industrial army. Without doing this harm, which is what makes him evil to begin with, he would not have triggered the anger of the Ents, leading to his defeat. Finally, a more abstract illustration of how evil undermines itself can be seen in Sauron. Gandalf says of Sauron that “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.” Sauron’s desire for power, which is what initially corrupts him and turns him evil, is also that which is his undoing, for it blinds him to the moral will of others, resulting in his utter demise.
One must be careful of the way in which one relates to the actions of evil in the world. Creating a dualism between oneself and what one sees as evil can lead to what Hegel, from the perspective of Morton, called the Beautiful Soul. Morton writes, “The Beautiful Soul suffers from seeing reality as an evil thing ‘over yonder.’ Is this not precisely the attitude of many forms of environmentalism?” He goes on to say,
It’s that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over yonder,’ is evil as such. The environmental fundamentalism that sees the world as an essential, living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the Beautiful Soul’s evil gaze.
The evil of the Beautiful Soul’s gaze is only evil when one remains at a remove from what one perceives as evil out in the world. So long as it remains a distant gaze, evil can flourish in the world. “How do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul?” Morton asks. “By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. On the ground this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it.” The burden of the One Ring is that Frodo must take responsibility for it once he is aware that the world is imperiled by it. It is his task to take responsibility for the Ring, and the longer he is in possession of it the more he is corrupted by its power. “The only way is in and down. . .” as Morton says. Frodo and Sam not only go down into the heart of Mordor, they also face the capacity for evil in themselves. Indeed, Frodo must take responsibility for his inability to destroy the Ring, but in doing so he also must forgive himself, for only in his failure was the task actually able to be accomplished.
The approach of going ‘in and down’ is what Morton has called dark ecology. “Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth’s humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms.” There is a melancholy too that is inherent to the heart of The Lord of the Rings. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Rings of the Elves are also stripped of their power, and all that was wrought with them in symbiotic harmony with beauty of the Earth begins to fade and pass away. Interconnection is at the heart of this story, the power of good intrinsically interwoven and even dependent on the power of evil, and vice versa. Destroying the One Ring is choosing to lose the great beauty created by the Elves to allow the greater beauty of a free Middle-Earth to flourish. It is a moral decision according to Henning’s kalogenic ethics of creativity, but it is a tragic, a melancholic decision as well. The Lord of the Rings concludes with a sense of bittersweet mourning, the mourning of all that has passed, the mourning of the end of an age.
In reference to the ecological crisis, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes on what hope we have for the future:
We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny—and, then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself by inserting a new possibility into the past.
In many ways the future of Middle-Earth is also doomed, poised on the edge of ruin. Late in the story Pippin asks Gandalf:
“Tell me,” he said, “is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.”
Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope.”
‘On the background of this acceptance,’ as Zizek has said, we must then make our decision, the melancholic choice that leads us ‘in and down’ into the darkness of the world, a darkness mirrored potentially in each of us as well, whose very success leads to mourning. When Frodo first learns that he is in possession of the One Ring, that it is his responsibility to face the darkness head on, he confides to Gandalf:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).
Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.
Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.
Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
–––––. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. Edited by Judith A. Jones. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996.
Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.
 Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xii.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.
 Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.
 Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.
 Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.
 Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.
 Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.
 Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.
 Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.
 Ibid, 92.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.
 Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.
 Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.
 Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.
 Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.
 Ibid, 109.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.
 Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.
 Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.
 Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.
 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.
 Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.
 Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.
 Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.
 Ibid, 291.
 Ibid, 293.
 Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.
 Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.
 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.
As the final part of the Integrative Seminar, the capstone course of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness master’s program, I gave this presentation as part of a day-long seminar with twelve of my fellow graduates in May 2013. The accompanying paper can be found here, and a shorter introduction is available here.
The essay “The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-Creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth,” which is the foundation of this presentation, is available here.
The road toward truth is circuitous and winding, and passes through many realms. It may be that this path will lead you not outward to the world of objective facts and figures but deep inward, to a realm residing in the soul. This realm has been given innumerable names: the mundus imaginalis, the world of the imagination, Faërie, or by one seer of this Secondary World: Middle-Earth. It is a place we all have been at some point in our lives, and it takes a myriad of forms. Yet some wanderers may choose to linger on the misty, sylvan paths under Faërie’s diamond stars longer than others, revealing enchanted truths and realities hidden to those who choose to remain almost exclusively in the world of common day.
A mythology wields great power and has a desire to be told: thus it became the task of one English philologist, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to imagine the mythic world of Middle-Earth into being. During the decades when he crafted Middle-Earth Tolkien often felt as though the mythology was not being made by him, but rather coming through him. In part to explain this experience, Tolkien described his building of Middle-Earth as a Sub-creation, an intertwined outpouring of both invention and inspiration. These ideas, and the power of the imagination to create reality, relate closely to the philosophical explorations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his delineations of the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, their relationship to each other, and their ultimate source.
Tolkien composed a world with roots deeply grown into the rich soils of our own world; to achieve this, he employed the powers of language, cartography, history, and legend. Yet, as the willing reader steps through the page into Middle-Earth, the landscape and peoples one encounters seem to have a life of their own, as if a spark of vitality had been breathed by a Primary Creator into the realm Tolkien wove from the resources of his own genius. Whether humanity was indeed given life and form by an ultimate Creator or not, we have been endowed with the ability to create in our own right; sometimes these creations may be gifted their own life and become as real as we are, while still residing within a Secondary World accessible through the imagination that bridges to our Primary World. Why some of our creations are granted such life and others not is a mystery beyond my ability to fathom, but it could perhaps be that some are meant to have their own life and truth, an idea which Tolkien expresses in The Lord of the Rings through Gandalf, when he speaks to Frodo about Bilbo’s finding of the Ring of Power:
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.
It too may be that Tolkien was meant to bring the mythology of Middle-Earth into being through his writing, and as such it was given the authenticity and truth that so many feel when they traverse its woods and mountains, and converse with its inhabitants as they walk along their roads.
As Henry Corbin points out, the current predominant usage of “the term ‘imaginary’ is equated with the unreal, with something that is outside the framework of being and existing.” Yet one may find quite the opposite: the imaginary, or the imaginal, exists in the innermost place of our souls, and thus is internal and intrinsic to the outer world we call reality. Tolkien is an avid explorer of this realm, which he sometimes calls Faërie, and seems to attest to its reality in an almost off-hand way in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” Tom Shippey sees this as a sign of Tolkien talking down to his readers: “Repeatedly he plays the trick of pretending that fairies are real––they tell ‘human stories’ instead of ‘fairy stories,’ they put on plays for men ‘according to abundant records,’ and so on.” While this could certainly be interpreted that way, it seems rather that Tolkien may actually be describing what he knows of Faërie, as a genuine traveler in the perilous realm. Tolkien valued viewing the world symbolically and mythically, perceiving reality as a whole through the organ of the imagination. As Peter Beagle writes, “I believe that Tolkien has wandered in Middle-Earth” and that he “believes in his world, and in all those who inhabit it.” For Tolkien, Beagle, and many others, Middle-Earth was not “created, for it was always there.”
Tolkien’s own experience of writing was that he was “recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.” He also expressed that “the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch.” This has, of course, been the experience of countless artists over the centuries in moments of high inspiration. Norris Clarke writes of these creative experiences, saying, “It felt, they say, as though they were tuned in or connected to some higher power which somehow took over and flowed through them.” What this higher power may be, and how it relates to the imagination, can better be understood by contemplating Coleridge’s philosophical delineations of Primary Imagination, Secondary Imagination, and Fancy.
Other authors, such as Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and R.J. Reilly, have observed the connection between the imagined world of Faërie, and Coleridge’s “esemplastic imagination.” Reilly describes such imagined realms as “Romantic” because they exist for their own sake, and as such have an inherent relationship or agreement with Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination. Faërie is a creation of the Secondary Imagination, which in turn is an echo of the Primary Imagination, what Coleridge holds “to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” The Primary and Secondary Imaginations differ from each other only in degree and mode but not in kind, yet the Secondary is “co-existing with the conscious will” of the human being. While the Primary Imagination can be understood as operating in the mind of the divine Creator, and thus bringing the world as we know it into being, the Secondary Imagination is that same imaginative power operating through the human mind. Owen Barfield, a friend of Tolkien’s and a fellow member of their literary circle “the Inklings,” explored Coleridge’s thought deeply in this area. Barfield explains that the Primary Imagination is an act that we, as human beings, are not conscious of, and when we are conscious of it as our own creative agency it becomes the Secondary Imagination.
The Secondary Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate” and “struggles to idealize and to unify.” As an extension of the Primary Imagination responsible for creating reality, the Secondary Imagination also has the ability to create reality, but of a different degree: imaginal reality. This is, for example, why Corbin chose the term mundus imaginalis to differentiate what is just “made up” from “the object of imaginative or imagining perception.” This concept indicates that the product of the Secondary Imagination has a reality of its own, because its ultimate source, like reality, is the Primary Imagination, only it is created through the agency of the human being. Tolkien uses the term “Sub-creation” to refer to the product of the Secondary Imagination, because the result is created under an ultimate Creator.
In addition to the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, Coleridge also writes of Fancy, which is “no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.” Barfield notes that Coleridge seems to not have explicitly segregated Fancy from Imagination, for at times he appears to write of them differing entirely in kind, and at others in degree, comparable to the distinction between Primary and Secondary Imagination. The difference between the product of Fancy, compared to Imagination, could be seen as the difference between something that is just “made up” and a living imaginal world, a true mundus imaginalis.
Tolkien himself addresses the differences between Imagination and Fancy in his essay “On Fairy Stories” and although he does not refer directly to Coleridge, it is clear, as Shippey points out, that Coleridge is whom he is addressing. While Tolkien has comparable, if not identical, definitions of these terms, as a philologist he disagrees with Coleridge’s choice of names. Tolkien asserts that the image-making faculty is the Imagination, and any difference in kind marked by Coleridge between Fancy and Imagination, Tolkien feels solely belongs to a difference in degree. What gives the “inner consistency of reality” to Imagination, the same reality the product of Coleridge’s Imagination has, Tolkien calls Art. Art conjoins with Imagination to create the final result, Sub-creation. The word Tolkien chooses to fully encompass Imagination and the resulting Sub-creative Art, perhaps out of philological jest with Coleridge, is Fantasy, an older form of the diminished word Fancy. Tolkien acknowledged that “fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds,” is difficult to achieve: in order to be true Fantasy it must have an inner consistency of reality flowing through the sub-creator’s imagination and into the Secondary World.
A successful sub-creator brings into being a world which both the spectator and designer may enter, a world that has its own laws by which it operates. As long as every facet of the imaginal realm follows these laws, the inner reality of the world remains intact and the world is true. Because of this, for Tolkien, it is essential that all stories about such Secondary Worlds are presented as truth––not as a dream, or some other unreal whimsical creation. For Coleridge, the richness of art is dependent on the unity provided by the Secondary Imagination: it will be “rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity.” The unity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is held together because each landscape, creature, and name has a consistency that he has forged into the very structure of his world. Furthermore, when the imaginal world is consistent with itself it creates for the reader what Tolkien calls Secondary Belief, or Enchantment. Thus it is as enchanted humans that we walk the glades and forests of Middle-Earth.
What ultimately gives reality to Secondary Art is that it is consistent not only with itself, but also with what Tolkien and Shippey refer to as Primary Art. If the source of Secondary Art is the human imagination, the source of Primary Art is the divine Imagination, or what Coleridge calls the Primary Imagination. For Tolkien, Primary Art is synonymous with Creation, or Truth. For a sub-created Secondary World, or Fantasy, to be true it then must echo the Primary World, as Colin Duriez writes, capturing in its “imaginative accuracy […] some of the depths and splendor of the Primary World.” Fantasy is crafted out of the Primary World, just as the painter or sculptor’s materials are drawn from nature. But in the Fantasy realm we are able to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world. Tolkien shows the overlap between our own world and Faërie when he writes,
Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. (Emphasis added.)
Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. After all, as Beagle remarks, the same forces that shape our own lives shape the lives of those in Middle-Earth: “history, chance and desire,” and so forth. When we lead our lives in response to these forces, whether or not we find ourselves in Faërie depends on our level of enchantment, or our Secondary Belief.
Tolkien’s initial desire behind his decades of imaginative effort was to create a mythology for England, which he felt lacked a myth comparable to the great Norse and Greek traditions. England did have the Arthurian legends, but these he felt did not suffice, in part because they contained Christianity, and in part because they were not rooted in the ancient languages of England. Tolkien’s objection to religion in myth is based on his sense that the contours of religious doctrine should only exist implicitly within Fantasy, sunk deep into the morality and actions of the characters. He writes of the Arthurian myth that
it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.
Like the religious element, language also plays a foundational role in the development of Middle-Earth, rooted deeply into the world’s symbolism and structures. To forge a world like Middle-Earth, and bring it to the level of a mythology, Tolkien drew simultaneously on invention and inspiration, which seem to be the two major ingredients of Sub-creation. Through invention he built up the world of Middle-Earth from the myths, legends, and languages of Europe. As Patrick Curry writes, Middle-Earth “was a co-creation, in partnership with some very old and durable cultural materials.” Yet it was inspiration that breathed life into the world Tolkien had constructed, giving it its unique characteristics and a vitality of its own.
In some ways invention can be seen as related to Coleridge’s notion of Fancy, and inspiration to the Imagination. Fancy is memory disconnected from time and space, and can only draw on what has been experienced. “Fancy is the aggregating power,” as Barfield writes, “it combines and aggregates given units of already conscious experience; whereas the secondary imagination ‘modifies’ the units themselves.” On the other hand, inspiration, like Imagination, almost seems to have a divine source that pours through the sub-creator and imbues the creation with life and individuality. An example of the difference between Fancy and Imagination, invention and inspiration, can be seen in the race of Ents in Middle-Earth. As invented by Fancy, an Ent is just a talking tree, a rearrangement of the idea “tree” by giving it the human property of “speech.” The word “Ent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word enta uncovered by Tolkien in his philological research. At this stage Ents are perhaps an interesting etymological find, something to peak one’s curiosity, but as of yet certainly not a living being. But through the power of imaginative inspiration, the invented concept of Ent suddenly comes alive as the bark-skinned Treebeard, also named Fangorn, the oldest living being to walk under the sun. It is truly an enchanted transformation. Ents are bestowed life and step forth as a race of creatures, tree-herders, shepherds of the forests, with a long tragic history of their own, speaking in a slow, rhythmic language of names compiled over the Ages of the World.
Fancy, without the influence of Imagination, also has ties to another form of artistic creation, one which Tolkien said he “cordially dislike[d] […] in all its manifestations”: allegory. By having a prescribed intention––whether a moral, lesson, or message––or by telling an old story in the same configuration but with new names, allegory undermines the freedom of the reader to experience a story as an entity in itself, a self-contained reality. Allegory, by its very nature, undermines truth. Corbin draws out the difference between allegory and genuine Image when he writes, “Allegory […] is a cover, or rather a travesty of something that is already known or at least knowable in some other way; whereas, the appearance of an Image that can be qualified as a symbol is a primordial phenomenon.” Great imaginative works cannot be reduced simply to a moral message or lesson, they have a life of their own, an inherent autonomy beyond the will of the author.
Despite his dislike of allegory, Tolkien did write at least one in his career, but it served the purpose of encouraging him to continue his work on The Lord of the Rings, and offered an image of his hope for the world of Middle-Earth. This was the little tale Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a painter, who can be equated with Tolkien the writer, who spends his life working on a detailed painting of a tree.
It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.
Shippey sees in the allegory that the Leaf is Tolkien’s first book The Hobbit, his Tree The Lord of the Rings, and the landscape behind as all the other stories that make up The Silmarillion and fill in the vastness of Middle-Earth. However, the most remarkable part of the story is when it seems to leave the realm of allegory altogether. Niggle goes on a great journey, which is synonymous with death, and after some time in a hospitalized form of purgatory, he is sent to an oddly familiar country which he suddenly recognizes:
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. […] All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were many others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.
By stepping into an enchanted realm, Niggle’s work becomes real, the invented becomes the imagined, and he can stand in the shade of his own Tree. The Tree, whether an allegory for The Lord of the Rings, or for fairy story in general, is aptly chosen: the philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the tree as a symbol of the imagination, an imagination with the gift to create worlds.
The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…
Trees not only have high branches but also long roots, and the roots of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth run deep, drawing nourishment from the soil of our own Primary World.
Like most cultural myths, Middle-Earth is rooted in language, but unlike the ancient cultures in which stories and languages evolved simultaneously, Middle-Earth is a philological re-creation, a laying of stonework far older than the hands that built it. Tolkien was as well-equipped as any builder to undertake the task: as a philologist who taught at Oxford and Leeds, he knew twenty languages to varying degrees, and during his lifetime invented another fourteen as well as a variety of scripts. He reconstructed words and names from almost forgotten linguistic origins, drawing on fragments of words from poems and texts that had once formed legends. Tolkien writes in one letter of his Middle-Earth myths:
These tales are “new,” they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of “truth.”
For Tolkien reconstruction was the work of invention, but as he would have known, the root of the word “invention” comes from the Latin invenire, meaning “to find.” So for him invention certainly was not “making up,” but rather “discovering,” an experience he mentioned many times when reflecting on writing the mythology of Middle-Earth. He was not only discovering the different names and languages in the Primary World and reconfiguring them: he seemed also to be discovering Middle-Earth itself, a complete world existing already in the Primary Imagination, coming into form through Tolkien’s own Secondary Imagination.
In approaching The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began with the map, which gave a solid foundation for the world before he and his characters embarked on their adventures. As in the Primary World, the names of places on the map were crafted out of descriptions of the places; these, in turn, were then worn down into names used in other languages, but no longer holding a meaning beyond the given places. Whether called Tookland, Nobottle, Wetwang, Dunharrow, Gladden, Silverlode, or Limlight each place has its history within and outside of Middle-Earth.
The name Middle-Earth itself, related to the Norse Midgard, actually came to Tolkien through an Old English poem called Crist by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. Two lines particularly caught Tolkien’s eye:Eala Earendel engla beorhtast offer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.
Not only was the name Middle-Earth present as middangeard, but the name Earendel stood out to Tolkien as well, a name which became Eärendil in The Silmarillion; Eärendil was the father of Elrond, bearer of the last Silmaril, the evening star most beloved by the Elves.
Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are drawn from the legends and myths of immemorable age that pervade cultures across Europe. Tolkien drew on many aspects of the lore of Elves and Dwarves, presenting both the peril and beauty of the Elves, the longevity and gold-mongering of the Dwarves. His emphasis on spelling “Elves” and “Dwarves” in the ancient manner, as opposed to “elfs” and “dwarfs,” further deepened their roots in history. His invented languages were also based on the languages of Europe; the two Elvish tongues were his most developed vocabulary, with the more common Sindarin Elvish rooted in Welsh, and the High Elvish Quenya drawing on Finnish structures.
Because Middle-Earth was to be a mythology for England, Tolkien drew deeply from the waters of the Anglo-Saxon well: the Rohirrim were based in part on Anglo-Saxons, and the name Eorl is from a line of Old English poetry; other names such as Eomer and Eowyn, as well as the term eored for a troop of horses, all stem from the word eoh meaning “horse.” Tolkien even embedded linguistic changes in the history of Middle-Earth itself. For example, before Eorl the Young brought the Rohirrim from the North to inhabit the Gondorian plains of Rohan, the names of Rohirric leaders had Gothic origins: Vidugavia, Vidumavi, Marhwini. Only after they enter into allegiance with Gondor do the Rohirrim take on Anglo-Saxon names. Both the words “Ent” and “Woses” appeared in Old English poetry, and in Middle-Earth the Rohirrim are appropriately situated between the Entish woods of Fangorn, and the Druadan Forest in which the Woses dwell to the South.
Tolkien’s perfectionism touched every word he wrote in The Lord of the Rings, and he even attended to such details as the direction of the blowing wind and the cycling phases of the moon. He wanted his readers to feel as though they had stepped into history. All of his attention to the distinctions of locality, as Curry describes,
contributes greatly to the uncanny feeling, shared by many of his readers, of actually having been there, and knowing it from the inside, rather than simply having read about it––the sensation, as one put it, of “actually walking, running, fighting and breathing in Middle-Earth.”
Beagle captures beautifully the interwoven intricacy of Middle-Earth, the miniscule details discovered to invent it, and the natural reality they express when fused together as a unified whole: “The structure of Tolkien’s world is as dizzyingly complex and as natural as a snowflake or a spiderweb.” Inspiration unifies the invented parts into an organic whole, thereby animating them. Tolkien writes in one letter, “I have long ceased to invent. […] I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.” In another letter, this one to W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes,
I daresay something had been going on in the “unconscious” for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till “what really happened” came through.
As Shippey observed, Tolkien seemed to labor at invention until he reached a moment when he could go no further. Somehow, in that moment inspiration would take over and life would fill the creation he had built; he would then be led into the adventure with just as much bewilderment as his literary companions. It was, as Tolkien calls it, the “fusion-point of imagination,” where invention and inspiration meet and something new is born.
The race of people that set Middle-Earth apart most from all other manifestations of Faërie were not invented from European legends. They seemed to have arrived fully formed, already inhabiting their little Northwestern corner of Tolkien’s world. These were the Hobbits. As Tolkien writes on several occasions, the origin of Hobbits is unknown, even to themselves. In the now well-known pivotal moment, Tolkien was grading exams one summer’s day when he unexpectedly wrote on a blank sheet: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” As Shippey notes, Hobbits are “pure inspiration”  without a trace of invention to them. Tolkien of course quickly gave them philological roots, connecting “Hobbit” to the Old English word hol-bytla, meaning “hole-dweller.” He went further, setting the Hobbits in an English style of life, seemingly far more modern than the rest of Middle-Earth extending beyond the Shire. Even the names of the Hobbits have echoes of English culture; for example, the name Baggins echoes the English word “baggins” meaning afternoon tea, or any food eaten in between meals, of which Hobbits are rather fond. “The implication,” writes Shippey, “is that the inspiration was a memory of something that could in reality have existed.”
Hobbits, in many ways, are more human than the Men in Middle-Earth, and offer us modern readers a window into their world. They provided the link for Tolkien to connect the Elvish mythologies recorded in The Silmarillion to the world presented in The Hobbit; the result was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits put “earth under the feet of ‘romance,’” and as readers we are invited to walk with them.
While Fantasy, as Sub-created Art, can be expressed through many art forms, Tolkien felt Fantasy was “best left to words, to true literature.” Literature allows the imagination to flourish at every level, from the author writing it, to each individual reader imagining what the author presents in her or his own unique way. Tolkien writes, “every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.” It is as though author and reader alike are drawing on an archetypal realm of the imagination, and each of the images they produce of this world adds another layer of dimensionality, bringing it further into reality. As Reilly writes, “Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive.”
When the imagination of the reader participates in the Secondary World, the reader then becomes part of that world as well. Beagle writes on his experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, “Something of ourselves has gone into reading it, and so it belongs to us.” He goes on to say the book “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood. The meaning of the work, as Reilly says, resides between the “art work and the perceiving subject” and ultimately lies in the “freedom of the reader.”As readers we also become sub-creators of the Secondary World, as our own imaginations pour forth into our experience of it.
As Duriez expresses, and as a Roman Catholic Tolkien surely believed, our human ability to be sub-creators derives from our being made in God’s image. Tolkien confirms his belief in this when he writes in “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: 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.” Sub-creation is the imagining of God’s world after God but, as Clarke writes, expanding the “limited boundaries of the real world in which we presently live by creating something really new, never experienced by humans before,” and thus enhancing human life. Indeed, Tolkien writes that “liberation ‘from the channels the creator is known to have used already’ is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation,’ a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety.” For Tolkien, God was, in a way, creating Middle-Earth through him, which may be why he felt like he was discovering a world already in existence.
In one of the last years of Tolkien’s life he received a letter from a man, which he describes as follows: This man
[…] classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling […] but you [Tolkien],’ he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.’ I [Tolkien] can only answer: ‘Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And […] you would [not] perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also.
Beagle too was perceiving something of this quality of Tolkien’s work when he wrote about the music that “springs from the center of this world.” Tolkien’s living imagination, flowing from what Coleridge called the Primary Imagination, sprang up alive in the heart of Middle-Earth. It was almost as though the story were asking to be written. For example, Tolkien had a recurrent dream of “the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields.” He eventually wrote this dream into Middle-Earth, giving it as a dream to Faramir, but also capturing it more fully in the “Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion. Interestingly, once he did write it, the dream ceased recurring. It was as though the dream, possibly coming from the Primary Imagination, needed to become a reality, and once revealed through Tolkien it could rest.
In the lecture Tolkien gave which eventually became the essay “On Fairy Stories,” he expressed his wish that one day the mythology of Middle-Earth would be discovered to be “true,” as he felt the possibility that all myths might be in some realm other than our own. Indeed, it was because of the link Tolkien saw between human creativity and divine making, that he felt “all tales may come true.” Many critics have accused Tolkien’s stories of being escapist, and not having a clear message for the modern world, but as Curry points out, “It offers not an ‘escape’ from our world, this world, but hope for its future.” So indeed maybe all myths may come true, and Middle-Earth will be a reality, in another realm not of space, but of time, possibly a time in our distant future.
At last perhaps we can return to Tolkien’s little allegory, “Leaf by Niggle,” to better understand what he meant. Niggle is joined in the country he painted by his neighbor Parish, who never much appreciated his painting when they had been alive together. Yet when he realizes that it was Niggle who dreamt up the country they are now in he remarks:
“But it did not look like this then, not real,” said Parish.
“No, it was only a glimpse then,” said the man; “but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worth while to try.”
Whenever Tolkien uses the word “glimpse” he frequently seems to be referring to the gleam of truth that shines through Fantasy, whether it is in Niggle’s story, in the preliminary sketches of his plots, or in his definition of Fantasy as “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds.” Tolkien believed that “there is no higher function for man than the ‘sub-creation’ of a Secondary World” because, as Shippey writes, “it might be mankind’s one chance to create a vision of Paradise which would be true in the future if never in the past.” For Tolkien, the human imagination had the power to create a new Paradise, because he saw the Secondary Imagination as an echo of God’s Imagination, and as it worked through him he felt he was ultimately doing the creative work of God.
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 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 54-55.
 Henry Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal,” trans. Ruth Horine, En Islam Iranien: Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7 (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1971), 1.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 33.
 Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 49.
 Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003), 178.
 Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xvi.
 Ibid, ix.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 145.
 Tolkien, Letters, 104.
 Norris Clarke, “The Creative Imagination: Unique Expression of Our Soul-Body Unity,” in The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009), 203.
 R.J. Reilly, Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 8.
 Ibid, 159.
 Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971), 77.
 Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 159.
 Ibid, 160.
 Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10.
 Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.
 Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 82.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader, 68.
 Ibid, 68.
 Ibid, 64
 Ibid, 60.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 41-42.
 Coleridge, qtd. in Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 81.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 73.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 93.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 89.
 Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.
 Ibid, 77.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 38.
 Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.
 Tolkien, Letters, 144.
 Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997), 134.
 Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.
 Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 86.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 131.
 Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.
 Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10-11.
 Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 186.
 Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 101.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 43.
 Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 113.
 Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 48-49.
 Tolkien, Letters, 147.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 25.
 Ibid, 101.
 Ibid, 103.
 Cynewulf, qtd. in Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, 4.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57-58
 Ibid, 59-61.
 Ibid, 56.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 20-21.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 131.
 Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 198-99.
 Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 27.
 Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xi.
 Tolkien, Letters, 231.
 Ibid, 212.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 104.
 Tolkien, qtd. in Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 63.
 Tolkien, Letters, 158.
 Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 175.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 65.
 Ibid, 66.
 Ibid, 72.
 Ibid, 67.
 Tolkien, Letters, 215.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 70.
 Ibid, 95, n E.
 Reilly, Romantic Religion, 195.
 Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.
 Ibid, xii.
 Reilly, Romantic Religion, 196.
 Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.
 Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 72.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 75.
 Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 198.
 Clarke, “The Creative Imagination,” 205.
 Tolkien, Letters, 188. This particular letter by Tolkien was in response to a fellow Catholic, Peter Hastings, who felt that a sub-creator should not diverge “from the channels the creator is known to have used already,” as Tolkien did when he wrote about the reincarnation of Elves. He continued in his response to Hastings to say “But I do not see how even in the Primary World any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of reincarnation as a mode of existence, prescribed for certain kinds of rational incarnate creatures.”
 Tolkien, Letters, 413.
 Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xv.
 Tolkien, Letters, 213.
 Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195
 Reilly, Romantic Religion, 214.
 Tolkien, qtd. in Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.
 Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 33.
 Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 117.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 64
 Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 53.
Hîr I Chorvath
Sen sir am le im linnathon
Min gwanod o athra i aearon,
Uin rhovan dôr od Ennorath
Di ir silivren elenath,
Sin lach sui celair sui miriel
Thanant na i arod Gilthoniel.
I ambar ne apa i rima mornië
Mi raxalë ho i corma laurië,
Nertë nildor hehtae i lómë
Ar oantë i ambar apa undómë,
I perian oantië lá i hisië
Ar quentë ana Endórë namarië!
The Lord of the Rings
Upon this day I will sing to thee
One tale from across the great sea,
Of the wild land of Middle-Earth
Beneath the glittering host of stars,
Those flames as brilliant as jewels
Kindled by the royal Gilthoniel.
The world was on the edge of darkness
Endangered by a golden ring,
Nine friends forsook the night
And journeyed through the twilit world,
The halfling passed beyond the mists
And said farewell to Middle-Earth!
This was my first foray into the world of Tolkien studies, an essay I wrote at age 17 that captures my earliest scholarly perspectives on the tales of Middle-Earth and the man who brought them into written form.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
J.R.R. Tolkien gave to our time a reenchanted image of our world in his mythological epic The Lord of the Rings. He lived through many deep experiences, losses, and challenges, and it was from this journey of life that the noble and timeless vision of the mythology of Middle-earth was born. The Lord of the Rings gives an enchanted view of our world in which the individual comes to possess the willpower to carry the weight of the world, enabling him or her to overcome the evils present in both the inner and outer journey.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He was born to British parents, Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield. When Tolkien was only three years old he moved back to England with his mother and younger brother Hilary. The following year Arthur Tolkien died of a severe hemorrhage, leaving his family with very little money. For the following four years Tolkien and his family lived in a little home in the countryside of Sarehole. Later in life Tolkien said those early years in Sarehole were the most formative part of his life. It was there that his great affection for nature, especially trees, developed. “He reveled in his surroundings with a desperate enjoyment, perhaps sensing that one day this paradise would be lost.”
Tolkien’s connection with his mother was one of the strongest relationships he had in his lifetime. While they were living in Sarehole, Mabel Suffield chose to convert from her family’s faith of Unitarianism to Catholicism, against her family’s wishes. Tolkien saw how much her faith meant to her and how much she suffered for it. In part because of her, Tolkien’s faith became a central aspect of his character. Mabel Suffield educated her two sons at home before they attended grammar school. She taught Tolkien Latin, French, and German and encouraged him not only to learn languages but to love them. In the course of his life he learned nineteen languages and came to invent another fourteen while also making a career as a philologist. Language became the roots of his Middle-earth mythology.
In 1904 Mabel Suffield’s health began to deteriorate. She spent much of her time in bed but recovery soon proved to be impossible. On November 14, when Tolkien was twelve years old, his mother died, leaving her two sons as orphans. When she died Tolkien’s religious faith and his love of languages were solidified within him, and he devoted himself passionately to them. At this time Tolkien began to see the loss and tragedy life presents us with. In a scene in The Lord of the Rings one of Tolkien’s hero characters, Aragorn (also called Strider), begins to tell a tale of Middle-earth. “‘I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,’ said Strider, ‘. . . It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.’” The tales of Middle-earth carry the same emotions and themes that we experience in our own world today.
In the course of Tolkien’s school career he made three very close friends: Christopher Wiseman, Robert Quilter Gilson, and Geoffrey Bache Smith. They were the four members of the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, also called the T.C.B.S. Much later in his life Tolkien was part of a literary group who “with a blend of wit and humility” called themselves the Inklings. One member of the Inklings was Tolkien’s closest friend and colleague, C.S. Lewis. Both of these social groups established in Tolkien a deep sense of camaraderie and fellowship, a theme that is also carried throughout his mythology. In 1916 the four members of the T.C.B.S. joined the British forces in World War I. The horror of the trenches stayed with Tolkien his entire life. Two members of the T.C.B.S, Gilson and Smith, were killed in action. Before he died G.B. Smith sent Tolkien a letter saying,
Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! . . . May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.
It was these words that set Tolkien to work creating a mythology for England. He felt that unlike other cultures, such as the Greek, Finnish, and Norse, the English did not have their own mythology. In Tolkien’s mind the Arthurian legends did not suffice, because they contained Christianity. The first idea for the mythology came from an Old English poem called Crist by Cynewulf. From two of the lines were born his first character and the name for the land of his creation.
Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
offer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.
His first stories developed into what was much later published as The Silmarillion. They were tales about the creation of Middle-earth and the events that followed. Middle-earth was the same as our earth but set in a different time.
Meanwhile Tolkien’s external life continued and he married and had three sons and one daughter. His wife, Edith Bratt, was the source for the character of the Elven lady Lúthien Tinúviel. Their life together is reflected in two love stories set in Middle-earth: that of Beren and Lúthien, and that of Arwen and Aragorn. Today Edith and Tolkien are buried under the same tombstone bearing the unusual epigraph:
Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889–1971.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892–1973.
Tolkien had a very deep connection to his wife, which he portrayed beautifully in Aragorn’s final farewell to Arwen in “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!” Although a Christian, Tolkien was still open-minded to accept that neither he nor anyone else truly knew what followed death.
The brilliant storyteller in Tolkien came through in two very different forms. The first was the grand mythology set out in The Silmarillion with its high, eloquent language; the second was his love of creating fairy-tales and adventures to tell his children. One day while grading tests for one of his classes at Oxford, Tolkien was struck by an idea and wrote down the simple sentence, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Hobbit is a derivative of the Old English word hol-bytla meaning “hole-dweller.” Tolkien, however, didn’t figure out this meaning until long after his discovery of their existence in his imagination. Throughout the creation of Middle-earth Tolkien felt that rather than inventing the stories and characters he was discovering them. He felt that these tales were being channeled through him and that he was merely “sub-creating” their existence. (Sub-creation was a term Tolkien came up with to describe his feeling of discovering his stories and characters rather than inventing them.)
Hobbits are a little people of a land called the Shire located in the northwest of Middle-earth. “Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people” who “love peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” “They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green; but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown. . . . Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking.” The Shire is primarily based on Tolkien’s childhood home of Sarehole and the hobbits resemble the ordinary folk of the English countryside. Tolkien even considered himself to be a hobbit “in all but size” and there are remarkable similarities between himself and the hero of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. The discovery of the good-natured, three-foot high, hairy-footed hobbits was the missing link to bring the rich mythology of The Silmarillion and the children’s fairy-tales together into one.
Tolkien set The Hobbit in the third age of Middle-earth, thousands of years after the events of The Silmarillion. The Hobbit tells of the adventures of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins who traveled with a company of thirteen dwarves and the wizard Gandalf to the Lonely Mountain of Erebor to regain the dwarves’ stolen treasure. Along the way Bilbo picks up a magic ring that makes its wearer invisible. He found the ring in a cave where its previous owner, the slimy creature Gollum, had accidentally dropped it. Unbeknownst to both Bilbo and Tolkien, this ring had more power than was first apparent.
The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was an unexpectedly huge success. Soon there was great public demand for more stories about hobbits. Tolkien set about writing a sequel the same year that The Hobbit was published, and the theme he chose to develop was that of this particular ring. Over the next twelve years, with unending encouragement from C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s story became his life’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings.
In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo’s little ring turns out to be the ruling Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron who plans to regain it and rule all of Middle-earth. The One Ring has the power to corrupt all that bear it. One who keeps this Ring of Power “does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.” It stretches the life already given to its bearer so that his life becomes a mere shadow of what it once was. It becomes the task of Bilbo’s young cousin Frodo Baggins to destroy the One Ring by throwing it into the volcanic Mount Doom in Sauron’s land of Mordor, the place where the Ring had been forged centuries before. Along the way he is followed by the creature Gollum who left his cave in search of his precious ring. The Ring is guarded by a fellowship of nine of the free peoples of Middle-earth: the four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, Aragorn lord of the Dúnedain, Boromir captain of Gondor, Legolas the Elf of Mirkwood, Gimli the Dwarf of Erebor, and the wizard Gandalf the Grey. Throughout the story each member of the Fellowship of the Ring meets challenges both from the outside world and within himself. Each member must face his challenge by finding inside himself what he needs to overcome it.
The Lord of the Rings gives three profound gifts to our time. All three of these gifts reflect Tolkien’s ability to recognize the mythic, enchanted quality of life: first, the recognition that the individual may be called upon to carry the weight of the whole, to bear the fate of the world; second, the reenchantment of the natural world, the recognition of the soul of nature which is filled with deep meanings and purposes; and the recognition of the battle between good and evil both in the external world and within each individual person.
Although The Lord of the Rings has many heroes, Frodo is truly a hero for our time. He is a humble character; he is not born a hero but grows into one. At the Council of Elrond, where the fate of the Ring is decided, Frodo takes upon himself the laborious task of the Ring’s destruction. The nature of the task is so great that no one could possibly impose it upon another, and it is only by Frodo’s willingly choosing to bear it that Middle-earth could be saved. Furthermore, Tolkien portrays Frodo as a hero who depends on others throughout his journey, and willingly accepts that help. Although the Ring was primarily Frodo’s burden he could not have accomplished his task without the help and support of others: a true friend like Samwise Gamgee, a wise mentor like Gandalf, a steadfast group of comrades like the Fellowship. It was the loyalty and courage of Sam that allowed Frodo to see his task to the end.
Tolkien’s reenchantment of the world is most evident in his portrayal of nature. The love of nature that was formed in his youth literally comes alive in his creation of Ents. Ents are tree-herders who resemble talking, walking trees. As the Ent Treebeard says, they have a deep love of nature that a human is not capable of. When asked the question of whose side he is on in the conflict with Sauron he replies,
I am not altogether on anybody’s side because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even the Elves nowadays.
In Middle-earth, nature has its own soul and purposes; it does not need humanity to be more than it already is.
Tolkien recognised that the conflict of good and evil has existed in the world throughout all of time. In The Lord of the Rings there are two very strong examples of this conflict. In his lifetime Tolkien saw how the new technology of the modern world began to overpower and destroy the beautiful countryside which Tolkien so greatly revered. Tolkien saw Sauron’s Ring of Power as a machine, something that took away the free will of humanity. The battle for Middle-earth was to reinstate that free will in both humanity and in nature.
The other great conflict of good and evil is in the parallel stories of Frodo and Gollum. Frodo is the angelic hero who is barely eluding the grasp of the Ring’s evil power. Gollum, or Sméagol as he was once known, was a hobbit whose mind was poisoned by the Ring for five hundred years while it lay in his possession. In his loneliness and his struggle he began to speak to himself, creating two separate personalities: Sméagol, the naive hobbit, and Gollum, the slimy creature enslaved by the Ring. Both Frodo and Sméagol fight to overthrow the temptation of the Ring; Frodo so that he may destroy it, Sméagol so that he may be free of the hold that the Ring has on his mind. However, it is only through their joining together, a compromise and interaction between good and evil, that the destruction of the Ring can actually be achieved. The struggle, or battle, of life is to recognise and overcome this evil present not only in the external world but also, more importantly, within ourselves.
The profound message carried by The Lord of the Rings is that each individual person on this earth has a task that they must fulfill. The world will provide obstacles but in the end it will be those obstacles that make us strong enough to complete the task we have taken upon ourselves. The task Tolkien unconsciously took upon himself was to give this message to the world in the form of his book. The Lord of the Rings renews a timeless tale that has lived throughout history, the story of the heroic quest of the individual human being. The Lord of the Rings truly is a mythology for our time. It reminds us of what we are each capable of doing.
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—. Telephone interview. 07 May 2005.
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