Following the Day Star

“To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
– Cicero

Night comes softly following the glory of sunset. The sun dies in a blaze of color, hues of gold and magenta, blood orange and dusty rose. When the sun sinks below the horizon it is as though it has taken hold of all the colors of the waking world and pulled them from out of the landscape, like dye extracted from cloth, and trailed them in streaming splendor toward the dying sun. The landscape bleeds out its colors, fading to a twilight gray, while the dying ember of the sun shines forth in one final burst of magnificence. At last, when the day star appears to sink beneath the wine-dark horizon, the colors depart with it, the inky black of night oozing out across the open canvas of the sky.

Moon and Venus SunsetWait patiently. The liminal space seems to be most still now, in this time that is neither day nor night. The world seems to hold its breath. Then, with a gasp of wonder, the dusk is pierced by the first white star of the evening. It is there, where it was not a moment before, yet the exact moment it appeared is unknown. In cooling quiet the sky bedecks herself in jewels, webs and nets of storied interconnection, shapes that have walked the sky since before ever human eyes beheld their patterns.

Socrates drank the hemlock at sunset.

No sunset is ever the same. If you are present to witness one, you cannot bring yourself to look away. The sunset is like a moment out of time; yet it is the moment that makes time be as well.

In the period of time right before to his execution, Socrates spoke to his students of the rhythms of life and death. “Well then,” he spoke, “is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is the opposite of being awake?” “Being dead,” one student answers.[1]

Sleep follows waking, waking follows sleep. Dawn comes after each long night. Does death too birth into new life? How can we know? How do we prepare ourselves for our own sunset, the inevitable ending of this life? Plato’s dialogue Apology tells of the trial and condemnation of Socrates, in which he says

To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.[2]

Here Socrates claims that no one knows if death is a great blessing, yet in the dialogues that lead up to his inevitable demise he seems to have an increasingly clearer understanding that death is indeed a gift.

Many of Plato’s dialogues carry implicitly the theme of death in their tone and setting. Plato was just crossing into his third decade of life when his teacher Socrates was condemned to death by the city of Athens. He did not begin writing the dialogues until some time after the execution of his mentor, but the impression of that pivotal moment underlies nearly every dialogue composed. Socrates’ death is imprinted upon each of Plato’s dialogues as words and images are upon the face of a wax tablet. Other philosophies may be engraved over the initial impression, but through the palimpsest can often be read the echo of this early, defining tragedy.

In the Republic, as Socrates and his students are choosing how best to educate the future guardians of their ideal city, they decide the young guardians should “be told stories that will make them least afraid of death.”[3] Socrates begins reciting lines that must be expunged from the poetry of Greek tradition, censoring and editing to find the tales that will shape the future guardians into the philosopher-kings they are meant to become. But in his dialogues Plato is not only editing the old myths; he is bringing forth new myths as well, illustrating them with images that have since been impressed up the philosophic imagination of the Western world for two and a half thousand years.

While some dialogues literally recount the story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment, and execution, others carry the weight of his death more symbolically. The Republic opens with Socrates saying “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday. . .” in language echoing Odysseus’s “I went down to Hades” in Homer’s epic. One of the first characters we meet is the aging Cephalus, who seems rapidly to be approaching death. Yet the dramatic date of the dialogue is set some twenty to thirty years after the historical Cephalus passed away. Plato’s dialogue is evidently not taking place in the land of the living.

At Socrates’ request Cephalus begins speaking of what it is like to approach death:

When someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there—stories he used to make fun of—twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true . . . . he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examines himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone.[4]

These are the stories that Socrates later refers to that he wishes to censor: stories that ignite a fear of death. Yet it is these very stories that inspire an examination of justice in one’s life. Does not this indicate that the stories do some good?

In the Phaedo, the dialogue that ends in Socrates’ execution, the philosopher says to his gathered students, “I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked.”[5] Here too, Socrates gives reference to myths of Hades for his understanding of the underworld. But Socrates also has his own assurance that death is the right course for him, that it is nothing to fear. During his trial, as laid out in the Apology, he refers to his “familiar sign,” the daemon that accompanies and guides his actions by negating what he ought not to do. Socrates comes to find that his daemon has not opposed anything that he said during his trial.

What do you think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. I have convincing proof of this, for it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what is right.[6]

His absolute trust in the guidance of his daemon is remarkable. This assuredness appears to come from an inherent trust Socrates has in the way he has spent his life; if the guidance of the daemon has led him to follow a just life, this guidance must be true. Furthermore, his daemon is one whom Socrates chose himself, if indeed the myth that ends the Republic is meant to be read in such a way. As depicted in the Myth of Er, reincarnating souls choosing their next lifetimes are told “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.”[7] The guidance one receives in life is freely chosen by each individual before birth.

In the Phaedo, Socrates refutes the idea that there might be but a single path to Hades. Rather, he says,

I think it is neither one nor simple, for then there would be no need of guides; one could not make any mistake if there were but one path. As it is, it is likely to have many forks and crossroads; and I base this judgment on the sacred rites and customs here.[8]

The many paths to Hades can also be read symbolically: there are many paths one can choose in life; if there were but one then leading a just life would not be a free decision made with the help of one’s chosen daemon, rather it would be predetermined and unchangeable. One’s lot would be cast and there would be naught to strive for.

Within the prison Socrates tells his gathered followers that “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”[9] Considering all that philosophy seems to cover in its practice, this statement carries significant weight. But Socrates goes on to explain exactly what he means by this statement. He defines death, saying that it is, “namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul.”[10] The action of the philosopher is to contemplate the divine Forms or Ideas, and to do this he must reach for the Ideas not with his bodily senses but through thought alone, with the soul. The philosopher is therefore in a state most closely related to death, a separating of the soul from the body.

If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom.[11]

As a philosopher, Socrates does not claim to ever have attained wisdom, and here we see that he does not believe it to be possible while one is alive and incarnated in physical form. Yet not much earlier in this same dialogue he emphasizes to his disciples that one must not end one’s life to attain the wisdom that is accessible after death. “There is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries,” he says, “that we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away.”[12] A reason exists for incarnation, for this being one with a body.Venus Sunset

The Myth of Er in the Republic tells of how souls after death are led to heaven or hell and, after a specific amount of time in one or the other place, are brought forth again to choose new lives and to be born anew. Socrates notes that most of the souls who come from heaven choose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time in hell are able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they have witnessed and experienced.[13] Only the philosopher is able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. By studying philosophy, Socrates says,

he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way to choose, whether in life or death.[14]

The philosopher’s ability to discern a good life is presumably because, as said in the Phaedo, it is only after death that one is able to directly perceive the Forms and to attain wisdom. Yet it seems that not any soul is able to attain wisdom after death, otherwise all of the other souls coming from heaven to choose their new lives would not be plagued by ignorance and choose difficult new lives. Plato seems to be indicating that it is only one who has been a philosopher in life that has the ability after death to reach wisdom.

Plato has often been accused of being a dualist who denies the value of the body, instead privileging the soul and the abstract realm of the Forms. While a soul-body dualism seems to be implicit in Plato’s dialogues, the utter denial of the body may not be a full reading of Plato’s project. The philosopher in life is not one who has attained wisdom; he is a lover of wisdom and not in possession of it. Only by being a philosopher, one who loves but does not possess wisdom, can one choose a just life when one reincarnates. And it is only by being in a body, and therefore at a certain distance from the Forms, that one can actually become a philosopher.

The doctrine of the Forms indicates that an archetype exists for each thing that we experience in the earthly realm, from the more concrete Ideas of Bed, Horse, and Tree, to the more abstract Ideas of Justice, Truth, and the Good. Would this not also indicate that there must be an Idea for Death? Is there an archetypal expression of the mysterious transition that ends all lives? In the ancient Greek world Cronus, later to be named Saturn by the Romans, was the god of Time who ruled endings, mortality, finitude, old age, and death. Saturn was the outermost planet known to the ancients, the furthest celestial body visible to the naked eye. Saturn was the guardian of the threshold, the last circle of the wandering planets inside the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars that encircled the cosmos.

The nature of the Forms is such they can be approached by the philosopher in thought, but never attained while he lives. So too it is with death, that direct knowledge of death is unattainable while alive; as one is dying one comes ever closer to death, yet does not ever fully know what it is until one has actually died. Just as Saturn represents the guardian of the threshold, death too may be such a guardian, standing at the gateway to the realm of Forms: the first Form to be attained by the soul may be Death itself.

How then does one spend one’s life preparing to cross this threshold, cultivating the philosophic way of life? If, as Socrates said in the Phaedo, there is a mirroring between sleeping and waking, death and life, what further insight can be drawn forth from these parallels? After death Socrates says we are released from our bodies and the soul is able, without hindrance, to contemplate the eternal Forms. In embodied life the philosopher strives for the Forms in thought, never fully attaining them but coming ever closer with practice. In the Apology Socrates describes what he sees as the two options for what comes after death: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.”[15] Death is either “like a dreamless sleep”[16] or a “change from here to another place”[17] where one would encounter the “true jurymen who are said to sit in judgment there” and the “other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life.” [18] If death is the former, Socrates says “it is an advantage, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night”[19] and if it is the latter he says, “I am willing to die many times if that is true.”[20] In the parallel between sleep and death, if the former is like a dreamless sleep then the latter, in which one meets gods and heroes, and encounters the realm of eternal Ideas, may be likened to a night rich with dreaming in which one encounters images strange and familiar, beings of all kinds from humans and animals, to mythic creatures, the living Earth, and gods and deities. Dreaming too is like entering into a realm of archetypes.

If death can be likened to entering a realm of dreams, what is it that the philosopher does in life to bring himself closer to that realm? The philosopher contemplates the eternal Forms, but what does this in practice look like? In the Symposium, as Socrates and Aristodemus are walking to the home of Agathon for dinner, Socrates begins to get lost in thought. “As they were walking, Socrates began to think about something, lost himself in thought, and kept lagging behind. Whenever Aristodemus stopped to wait for him, Socrates would urge him to go on ahead.”[21] When Aristodemus arrives Agathon asks of him, “‘But where is Socrates? How come you didn’t bring him along?” So I turned around (Aristodemus said), and Socrates was nowhere to be seen.”[22] Once Socrates has been located, standing still in contemplation on a neighbor’s porch, Aristodemus says, “‘Leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands motionless, wherever he happens to be. I’m sure he’ll come in very soon, so don’t disturb him; let him be.”[23] What is it that Socrates is doing? He is clearly lost in thought, but to a degree beyond what most people do. He has the air of one lost in a dream but in waking life; perhaps in contemplating the realm of eternal Forms the philosopher becomes a daydreamer, meditating upon dreams more real than common life.

The Symposium takes place over the course of a single night, the story bookended by sunset and sunrise. Socrates is the only one to stay awake through the entire course of the night, departing quietly at dawn to go about his day. Within the narrative of the dialogue, another story is told of Socrates when he slips into one of his daydreaming states. The tale, spoken by Alcibiades, is worth quoting at length, as it gives a beautiful character picture of Socrates, this man who “as a whole . . . is unique; he is like no one else in the past and no one in the present—this is by far the most amazing thing about him.”[24] So Alcibiades describes:

One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they all told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.[25]

The imagery of the sun in this story is prominent, with the period of thought or daydreaming beginning at dawn and not reaching completion until the following sunrise. In the Republic, Socrates gives the image of the sun as a metaphor for the Good. “This is what I called the offspring of the good,” he says, “which the good begot as its analogue. What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things.”[26] But, from an earthly perspective, the sun dies every night, descending below the horizon in a flaring forth of color. The sun pulls the clear definition of all that has illuminated, the bright hues of the landscape, into the underworld with it. To follow the images of the sun we must dream, or learn to contemplate them in thought or dialogue through the night.

Socrates, the only member of the Symposium to stay awake through the entire night, was in the same way caught in thought all through the long night during the summer campaign of which Alcibiades speaks. The work of the philosopher takes place within the embodied realm, for once he has passed the threshold of death he is no longer a lover of wisdom; he has attained wisdom and is no longer a practitioner of philosophia. To be a philosopher is to prepare to cross the threshold of death by always striving to remain in a state closest to death. Thus Socrates, the true lover of wisdom, stays awake through the night to try to consciously understand the Forms in their completeness, so he might recognize them once he too crosses with the Sun below the horizon. “As long as I draw breath and am able,” he says in the Apology, “I shall not cease to practice philosophy.”[27]

The death of Socrates was a literal event in the life of Plato, but the dialogues that poured forth afterwards are a mythological eulogy that has elevated Socrates from human status to that of mythic daemon, a mentor and conscience to guide the dawning philosophical tradition as it walked across Greece’s borders and began its criss-crossing journey throughout the Eurasian continent, leading it eventually to cross the encircling seas and make its wanderings throughout other continents as well.

Socrates was executed at sunset. It is those who remain who are asked to contemplate the long night. It is those who remain who must await the dawn. But in that quiet twilight moment between the sun’s departure and the descent of dark night, we wait for the arrival of that first shining star, the wanderer who appears in the metaxic realm of dusk. As night deepens, the star known by the ancients to be the shining symbol of Love blazes forth ever brighter in the darkening western sky. Never far from the sun, this brightest of planets circles sometimes closer, sometimes further from the celestial image of the Good. It stands as a guide for those called to follow, to be lovers also of wisdom.

“Evening star, you bring all things
which the bright dawn has scattered . . .”
– Sappho

 Moon, Venus, Jupiter

Work Cited

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.

 


[1] Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 62, 71c.

[2]Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 27, 29a-b.

[3] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1022, 386a.

[4] Plato, Republic, 975, 330d-e.

[5] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 63c.

[6] Plato, Apology, 35, 40b-c.

[7] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617d.

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 92, 108a.

[9] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 64a.

[10] Ibid, 56, 64c.

[11] Ibid, 58, 66e.

[12] Ibid, 54, 62b.

[13] Plato, Republic, 1222, 619d.

[14] Ibid, 1221, 618d-e.

[15] Plato, Apology, 35, 40c-d.

[16] Ibid, 40d.

[17] Ibid, 40e.

[18] Ibid, 41a.

[19] Ibid, 40e.

[20] Ibid, 41a.

[21] Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 460, 174d-e.

[22] Plato, Symposium, 460, 174e.

[23] Ibid, 461, 175b.

[24] Plato, Symposium, 503, 221c.

[25] Ibid, 502, 220c-d.

[26] Plato, Republic, 1129, 508b.

[27] Plato, Apology, 27, 29d.

Crossing the Threshold: The Ecological Road into Mordor

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.’”[5] 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.[6]

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.”[7] For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality”[8] 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.[9]

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.”[10] 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.[11]

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.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

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.[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14] 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”[15] 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.”[16] 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.”[17] 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.”[18]

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.”[19]

• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”[20]

• 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.”[21]

• 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.”[22]

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.”[23] 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.”[24]

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.”[25] 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.”[26] 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.[27]

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.”[28]

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.”[29] 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.[30]

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.”[31] 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.”[32] 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?”[33] 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.[34]

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.”[35] 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.[36] 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.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

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.”[37] 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.[38]

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.”[39]

‘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.”[40]

 

Works Cited

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.

 


[1] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xii.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.

[5] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.

[6] 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.

[7] Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.

[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.

[9] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.

[10] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.

[12] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[13] Ibid, 92.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.

[15] 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.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[17] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.

[19] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[20] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.

[21] Ibid, 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[25] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.

[26] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.

[28] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.

[29] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.

[30] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.

[31] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.

[32] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[33] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.

[34] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.

[35] Ibid, 291.

[36] Ibid, 293.

[37] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

[38] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.

[39] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.

[40] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.

Bridging Our Attitudes Toward Nature

“Phusis kruptesthai philei”

For twenty-five hundred years the concept of Nature has evolved through the writings of Western History. The myriad meanings of the Greek word phusis have unfolded through history as Nature personified, Nature divine, Nature hidden, Nature secretive, nature separate from humanity, nature inclusive of humanity, nature as dead matter, Nature as art, Nature as All. Pierre Hadot traces this winding history in his book-length essay The Veil of Isis by examining the famous aphorism attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, “phusis kruptesthai philei,” usually translated as “Nature loves to hide.”[1] Using these three cryptic words, whose meaning it seems also loves to hide, Hadot explores the many different ways this aphorism could be—and has been—translated, and the various effects such interpretations have had upon the continuing relationship humanity has with the world into which we each are born. Hadot perceives how traditional metaphors such as Heraclitus’ phrase will

hold sway for centuries over successive generations like a kind of program to be realized, a task to be accomplished, or an attitude to be assumed, even if, throughout the ages, the meaning given to these sentences, images, and metaphors can be profoundly modified.[2]

He goes on to note that “To write the history of a thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.”[3]

Isis Veiled

Why is it that Nature loves to hide? What is it she—for in Hadot’s traced lineage Nature is always unquestioningly personified as female—is hiding, and from whom is she hiding it? History has offered many answers, from Nature as divine mystery, to Nature as weak and inferior and thus wrapped up in shame, Nature as clothed in imagination, Nature as malicious toward humanity, Nature protective of humanity: all of these and more have been reasons given for why Nature’s veils have been deemed so difficult to peel away.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the veils and the secrets of Nature never ceases to fade, until it gives way to amazement before an unveiled Nature, which, in Goethe’s expression, henceforth became “mysterious in full daylight,” in the nudity of her presence.[4]

The image of veiled Nature has tempted the curiosity of humanity from deep into our ancestral memory until the present day, although the understanding of who and what Nature is has shifted dramatically over that time.

Hadot posits two archetypal narratives to illustrate what he sees as the primary approaches humanity has taken in the quest to unveil Nature: the Promethean and the Orphic. In Hadot’s own words, these approaches or perspectives can be understood as follows:

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.[5]

The Promethean attitude is based upon a notion of progress in which humanity will some day attain all of nature’s veiled secrets so that they might be put to use for the betterment of the human species. The three main methods of the Promethean attitude, as Hadot delineates them, are that of experimentation, mechanics, and magic, all of which manipulate nature in some way for a specific end. In this perspective Nature is seen as hiding her secrets out of hostility for humanity, keeping her knowledge hidden due to a kind of spite.

The Orphic attitude takes the approach that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[6] In many ways the Orphic is an antidote to the Promethean, although it extends far beyond that as well. The Orphic approach is that of approaching nature through the contemplation of art, poetry, music, classical physics, and myth. Hadot’s archetypal analysis of nature is itself an Orphic approach, in that he draws on myth and art to unfold the meanings of humanity’s changing relationship to the natural world.

In our current era of ecological destruction and crisis, understanding what is at stake and how we came to this precipice is key to moving in a new direction. If we do not have an understanding of what humanity has perceived nature to be throughout history then we have little chance of knowing how to heal our relationship to that which we call nature. Although in The Veil of Isis Hadot seems to favor more of an Orphic approach, in that it is more holistic, contemplative, non-violent, and non-exploitative, it could be that finding a bridge between the two perspectives is a better way forward. Although a deep chasm has often separated the two, Hadot offers examples of individual thinkers who embody both perspectives within themselves. For example, to dive back toward Western philosophy’s beginnings, Hadot demonstrates how Plato carries both a Promethean and Orphic attitude within his works. In the Timaeus, “Plato represents the world fashioned in an artisanal way,” but that world can also be understood through mechanical, mathematical models.[7] Plato saw phusis as divine art.[8] For Hadot, the view of nature as art is in itself part of a solution for overcoming the division of human and nature that has contributed to create the ecological crisis.

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.[9]

Hadot’s work is not prescriptive, yet he indicates that finding bridges may be what is needed: a bridge between Promethean and Orphic, a bridge between humanity and nature—and in many ways art is able to fill this bridging role.

 

Work Cited

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.

 


[1] 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), 1.

[2] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, xiii.

[3] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 14.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[6] Ibid, 91.

[7] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 97.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 92.

Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“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…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our 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.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.

Bibliography

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. 2010.

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 2006.

–––––. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1995.

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

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


[1] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

Prehending The Monster: A Dance With Whiteheadian Dragons

What does it mean to be a monster in a Whiteheadian universe? A world in which “the holy idea of process”[1] pervades, and all beings are defined in relationship to each other. A world in which God is unconscious and yet able to see all Time and Space, who gives limit and also meaning through infinite patience, a God who may indeed even be a dragon. “Seek out gold and sit on it.”[2] Infinitely patient, eternally growing with the accumulation of the experience of all lowly creatures, God becomes a creature himself bound within the immanent sphere of Time. How does one define oneself in such a world? How to know thyself when there is “No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter”[3]?

Dragon

Beowulf is a poetic elegy of heroism, written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon imagination, which we have inherited from Europe’s Dark Ages. “Not that one age is darker than another,”[4] as a post-modern dragon proclaims. The novelist John Gardner has taken this Medieval text and offered it from a new perspective: the man-eating monster Grendel, whom the hero Beowulf defeats in his first battle, tells us his own story of how he came to be who he is. Gardner’s tale is woven of the post-modern philosophies existentialism and nihilism, framing Grendel’s solipsistic view of a disenchanted, mechanistic universe devoid of all meaning. Yet the narrative is also richly saturated with the thought, and even direct quotations of, the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose voice speaks through a worm from the ancient world, as well as an old priest enraptured with his musings on God, but also through each scene of the story’s unfolding.

It may be that Gardner was able to write Grendel’s tale through a Whiteheadian lens because something of Whitehead’s thought was already present in the original poem of Beowulf, although written some ten to thirteen centuries before Whitehead was ever born. Through Grendel one can begin to see glimpses in Beowulf of prehension and concrescence captured in narrative form, long before they were ever named as philosophical concepts. This study of ancient myth, imaginative poetry, and process philosophy is an exploration in which cause and effect are not dependent upon time, in which the hero’s final defeat can illustrate concrescence, Whitehead’s prehension can illuminate Grendel’s monstrosity, and Gardner’s dragon can give metaphor to the contemporary practice of creating concepts without images, and the dangerous bridges we may walk to understand them.

Grendel woke up in a mechanistic universe, to paraphrase John McDermott.[5] He contemplates the indifference of his world, the “cold mechanics of the stars.”[6] All things are inanimate to him, religion is lunatic, he is vastly alone, isolated. “Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.”[7] Yet, like so many “terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,”[8] Grendel seeks out meaning, even as he denies its existence: “Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.”[9]

It is as this post-modern “meaning-seeking speck of dust”[10] that Grendel has his first crisis of meaning, in which he sees the living values of what he thought of as the inanimate world. While trapped painfully between two trees, Grendel searches the landscape in vain for his mother, and the objects of the world each present themselves to him.

I twisted around as far as I could, hunting wildly for her shape on the cliffs, but there was nothing, or rather, there was everything but my mother. Thing after thing tried, cynical and cruel, to foist itself off as my mama’s shape… each thing trying to detach itself, lift itself out of the general meaningless scramble of objects, but falling back, melting to the blank, infuriating clutter of not-my-mother…. I seemed to see the whole universe, even the sun and sky, leaping forward, then sinking away again, decomposing.[11]

Grendel is having a cruel experience of the full presence of everything, a multiplicity of what Whitehead calls prehensions, in which everything is always present in, and creating the relational essence of, all other things. Whitehead writes,

The actual world is a manifold of prehensions; and a ‘prehension’ is a ‘prehensive occasion;’ and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not as from its aspect in the essence of another such occasion.[12]

Each entity in Grendel’s experience is actively putting itself forward; the objects and Grendel prehend each other, yet Grendel also prehends the absence of his mother—her very absence is a real entity that is defining the essence of each object in Grendel’s experience. “Every occasion is a synthesis of being and not-being.”[13] “Being,” in this case, refers to Grendel’s prehensions of all that is physically present, whereas “not-being” refers to his prehensions of what is only conceptually there as a desirable possibility—his mother.

In the trauma and pain of being caught in the tree, believing he is dying, Grendel is having an enchanted experience of the world that immensely contradicts his belief in a meaningless, inanimate universe. He has lost the ability for negative prehension, the “definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution.”[14] He cannot filter out any presence; it is utterly overwhelming, this interconnection of all things.

At last Grendel is rescued, hours later, by his mother. As he lies safe within his subterranean cave he contemplates his experience and can only conclude that it was entirely projection: “‘The world resists me and I resist the world’ I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as….The world is all pointless accident… I exist, nothing else.’”[15] Grendel refuses to be changed by his experience. Yet, as he thinks on himself thinking, he comes to a realization: “I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes!’ I am lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter!”[16] The interconnectivity that is his essence, without which he is lack, sinks in. He experiences a reversal of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am not. Grendel only exists in relation to the entirety of the universal clutter. Who then is he to be?

It is in this state of existential isolation that Grendel first encounters the Shaper. The Shaper is the name Grendel uses to refer to an old minstrel who has come to entertain the thanes of King Hrothgar beneath the golden eaves of Heorot. The Shaper cannot be allegorically exhausted in Gardner’s rendering. On one level the Shaper is clearly the forgotten Beowulf poet himself. His first lines are explicitly the opening lines of the Medieval poem, translated into English:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena     in gear-dagum, 
þeod-cyninga,     þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas     ellen fremedon.[17]

Lo, we have heard the honor of the Speardanes,
nation-kings, in days now gone,
how those battle-lords brought themselves glory.[18]

This puts the Shaper simultaneously inside and outside Grendel’s story. He is composing the tale, yet is also a character within it. Yet Grendel outlives him, so the Shaper writing the entirety of the Beowulf poem is an impossibility, as that poem carries on long past Grendel’s own death. The timing of their deaths contradict each other.

Grendel’s desire to find meaning is met by the song of the Shaper, images woven on the weft of his harp strings. “Even to me,” Grendel says, “incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine.”[19] He hears the roaring applause, following the song, of “men gone mad on art.”[20]

What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I.[21]

The Shaper has the ability to create and reshape history with the power of his poetic imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the greatest advocate for Beowulf as a work of creative imagination, perceives this ability of the Beowulf poet to make art appear as history. Beowulf was long studied as no more than a historical document, of little artistic or literary significance, until Tolkien shone a new light on its virtues. “The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry,” Tolkien writes, “is largely a product of art.”[22] Tolkien tends to use the term art in a highly specific way: Art is what gives an “inner consistency of reality”[23] to a creation of the imagination. Art is what makes the imaginal real, and what gives the Shaper his great powers.

The Shaper of Gardner’s tale has more roles to play than one in Gardner’s Whiteheadian universe, and he may be no mere mortal poet. His ability to reshape history, to imbue it with beauty and meaning, thus inspiring Hrothgar’s people to lead better lives, bears strong resemblance to what Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God.” Whitehead writes,

God’s role… lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.[24]

This characteristic of the Shaper is what so enchants Grendel, what draws him in with a desire to participate in the poetic image the Shaper weaves. “He takes what he finds,” Grendel says, “And by changing men’s minds he makes the best of it.”[25]

Finally, it is through Whiteheadian scholar Isabelle Stengers’ reading of Grendel that yet another role of the Shaper is revealed: the Shaper may be Whitehead himself in his mode of creating philosophical thought. Stengers writes that Whitehead “conceived philosophical thought as the Shaper himself conceives of history—as fabulation—and who has succeeded in making converge what should have diverged.”[26] Whitehead creates concepts as the Shaper sings his heroic tales: “Whitehead fabricates, composes, constructs—deliberately, technically, artificially—a universe whose facticity and fictional character cannot be denounced, because they are obvious.”[27] The only character in Grendel who can denounce the Shaper is the dragon. He says, “That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality—puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me.”[28] The dragon can make such assured insults because he is granted a greater perspective on all existence; yet he too is limited, for he cannot see his own nature, a topic to which we will return.

Grendel is born into the body of a monster, cursed to be misunderstood in his actions at first sight. Thus he truly becomes a monster, choosing to murder viciously and devour crudely, only after this definition has been projected by others upon him. He sees himself as lack ever since he experienced the world as “not-my-mother,” a lack which awaits definition in relationship to others. But his grotesque physical form can only offer him one relationship. Eavesdropping at Hrothgar’s hall, Grendel hears the Shaper tell of the world’s creation by the greatest of gods, followed by a tale of two brothers: one killed the other, splitting the world into dark and light, and God cursed the murderer. As he listens Grendel realizes he is one of the accursed, doomed to darkness. Throughout Beowulf Grendel is often referred to as of Cain’s descent, an indication of the strange mix of early Christianity and northern mythologies that ignited the poet’s imagination.

þanon woc fela 
geosceaft-gasta;     wæs þæra Grendel sum, 
heoro-wearh hetelic.

And from Cain there sprang,
misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel,
the banished and accursed.[29]

Grendel is enchanted by the Shaper’s words. He believes his tales, even as he wishes for them to be untrue. In a fit of religious conversion Grendel rushes down to Heorot calling “Mercy! Peace!”[30] His presence incites fear in Hrothgar’s thanes and they attack the crying beast they believe to be threatening them. Grendel flees. He is saddled with Cain’s guilt before ever committing Cain’s crime. It is this burden that draws him to the dragon.

Premonitions of the dragon’s presence resound throughout the chapters of Grendel that lead up to the dragon’s introduction; whispers of “something deeper, an impression from another mind, some live thing old and terrible.”[31] Grendel begins to sense the dragon more and more as he sinks further into his own darkness and cravings for violence. “I could feel it all around me,” Grendel recalls, “that invisible presence, chilly as the first intimation of death, the dusty unblinking eyes of a thousand snakes.”[32] Grendel’s prehensions of the dragon seem to shift from non-being ever more toward being until finally he stands within the dragon’s presence. Yet it is never made clear if he ever encounters the dragon in the flesh, or whether the dragon always remains a conceptual prehension. Grendel sits in silence feeling an unknown presence. Then, he says, “I made my mind a blank and fell, sank away like a stone through earth and sea, toward the dragon.”[33]

“I know everything, you see,” the old voice wheedled. “The beginning, the present, the end. Everything. You now, you see the past and the present, like other low creatures: no higher faculties than memory and perception.” He stretched his mouth in a kind of smile, no trace of pleasure in it. But dragons, my boy, have a whole different kind of mind. “We see from the mountaintop: all time, all space. We see in one instant the passionate vision and the blowout. Not that we cause things to fail, you understand…. Dragons don’t mess with your piddling free will.”[34]

“Dragons, real dragons,” Tolkien writes, “are actually rare.”[35] The presence of the dragon in both Grendel and Beowulf is “richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”[36] Gardner’s dragon hurls philosophy at Grendel with the ferocity of his fiery breath, and Grendel leaves more than a little singed by perplexity. The dragon’s mountaintop view of the universe—all time, all space in one instant—is a view, at least in Whitehead’s cosmology, only God can have. Like Whitehead’s God, the dragon can only know the universe, not alter its outcome. Whitehead’s God can know all the possibilities of the future, but it is the actual occasions themselves that determine the outcome. Creativity thus reigns supreme. “My knowledge of the future does not cause the future,” the dragon says. “It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past.”[37]

Whitehead’s God, like the dragon, is a creature himself, a creation of ultimate creativity, just as the dragon is a creation of the creative imagination, “incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North.”[38] There are interesting parallels here with the gods of Norse mythology that was a deep wellspring of inspiration for the Beowulf poet. “In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death.”[39] Gardner’s dragon, like the Norse gods, knows he will eventually die. “A certain man will absurdly kill me.”[40] The man he refers to is, of course, Beowulf, although his name is never once mentioned in the entirety of Grendel. “A terrible pity—loss of a remarkable form of life. Conservationists will howl,”[41] he says with bitter irony. Perhaps it is here that fiction and philosophy diverge, for no such fate seems to await Whitehead’s God, unless we take a deep plunge into Nietzschean post-modern despair.

The dragon and God’s apparent omniscience brings to light the question of fate within Beowulf and Grendel’s stories. God can see all possibilities but not determine the outcome; the dragon seems to be able to see a single outcome but not have the ability to alter it—even his own actions always unfold according to what he has seen. If the dragon is indeed God he seems not to be aware of it, making him unconscious of his full omniscience. Fate certainly plays a prominent role within Beowulf, as we hear of how “one man lay down to his rest, already marked for death;”[42] that “doom abided”[43] in the high, golden gables of Heorot that someday they would burn; or finally, that Beowulf’s “fate hovered near, unknowable but certain”[44] as he went to face the dragon and his own demise.

Sceolde læn-daga 
æþeling ær-god     ende gebidan, 
worulde lifes,     ond se wyrm somod, 
þeah ðe hord-welan     heolde lange. 

After many trials,
he was destined to face the end of his days
in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
for all his long leasehold on the treasure.[45]

The role of fate in Beowulf is a clear sign of what has shifted in our philosophies since the Middle Ages, and what differentiates the Anglo-Saxon poem from Grendel. We have, in many ways, been released from a world in which “the Lord was weaving a victory on His war-loom”[46] into one where God can behold each possible string of the warp and weft but it is up to the tapestry to move the shuttle.

Gardner’s dragon explodes in a tirade against humanity’s inability to create a comprehensive philosophy when it becomes clear his words are not having the desired effect upon Grendel.

“Man” …He snorted fire. “They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs. But they rush across chasms on spiderwebs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”[47]

In the “leap of imagination”[48] it takes to create truly new concepts sometimes one must run forth blindly, balanced on a spider’s thread over a bottomless chasm mired in fog. No images on which to grasp hold. Such is the adventure Stengers embarks on when she undertakes to “think with Whitehead.” In her introduction she warns:

It is a strange tongue that will gradually be elaborated here, a language that challenges all clear distinctions between description and tale-spinning, and induces a singular experience of disorientation in the heart of the most familiar experiences.[49]

Yet the work Whitehead, Stengers, and other process philosophers have taken on is to move away from what the dragon derides: “Simple facts in isolation, and facts to connect—ands and buts—are the sine qua non of all their glorious achievement.”[50] He goes on, succinctly summarizing Whitehead’s project in two simple sentences: “But there are no such facts. Connectedness is the essence of everything.”[51]

Connectedness is the essence of everything. Grendel experienced just this as he searched the landscape of “not-my-mother” and instead encountered the universe rushing in at him with organic attention. But it is more than he can handle. It is more than most mortal beings can handle. The dragon knows this when he says, using direct quotes from Whitehead’s Modes of Thought,

Listen. Listen closely! An angry man does not usually shake his fist at the universe in general. He makes a selection and knocks his neighbor down. A piece of rock, on the other hand, impartially attracts the universe according to the law of gravitation. You grant there’s a difference?[52]

This form of selection is how we handle prehension without being overwhelmed as Grendel was when his ability for negative prehension dissipated. Furthermore, it is the method Grendel chooses from then on so that he can maintain the isolated boundaries of his mechanistic, meaningless world view. He chooses to direct his anger at the universe by brutally murdering and devouring the men of Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Connectedness is the essence of everything. As prehension is defined by Whitehead, nothing has any independent existence. All things “are only entities as within the totality; you cannot extract them from their environment without destruction of their very essence.”[53] If this is the case, by their very existence Grendel needs the humans to be who he is, and the humans need him. But they also are defined by the actions and existence of all the past; Grendel carries Cain’s guilt and the humans can only define him as such. “This unity of a prehension,” writes Whitehead, “defines itself as a here and now, and the things so gathered into the grasped unity have essential reference to other places and other times.”[54] The other places and times in which creatures like Grendel have acted violently toward human beings now weighs on Grendel’s own life, as the dragon mercilessly points out to him.

“Ah Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? …You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.”[55]

The unity of prehension seems to have two important effects in this case. In some strange way the deep interconnectedness of everything begins to bear the weight of fate. Grendel cannot escape who he is meant to be in relation to all others. But prehension holds another effect: if the monster is not monstrous without humans, and humans are not human without the monster, their essence is not only defined against the other but as the other. Thus to reject the monster is also to be the monster. There is a monster inside each of us.

Whether or not we wish to interpret the dragon or the Shaper as aspects of Whitehead’s God, we are given a much more direct glimpse of his God in Grendel’s encounter with the old priest Ork. In Beowulf the God of Christian monotheism is unknown to the Danes, although he does seem to be known to Beowulf, who is a Geat, a foreigner.

Metod hie ne cuþon, 
dæda Demend,     ne wiston hie Drihten God, 
ne hie huru heofena Helm     herian ne cuþon, 
wuldres Waldend.

The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.[56]

The God we meet in Ork’s spiritual revelation is, as Stengers points out, first God as principle of limitation from Science and the Modern World, followed by the God of infinite patience in Process and Reality.[57] “The King of the Gods is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality,”[58] Ork whispers in a trembling fit. “He is the eternal urge of desire establishing the purposes of all creatures. He is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain.”[59] Grendel watches in wonder as the priest sobs in the snow, overcome by his vision, by his realization of the nature of God. Whitehead writes, “The power of God is the worship He inspires.”[60] The worship to which Ork is inspired baffles Grendel because he has never encountered a being worthy of such worship. The dragon inspired terror, anger; the Shaper inspired enchantment, confusion, but neither inspired worship. The dragon and the Shaper do not hold the power that the priest, and before him Whitehead, feels emanating from the King of Gods.

“The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination,”[61] Ork cries forth. The encounter with death is a strong theme that courses through Beowulf, and subsequently Grendel.

Ure æghwylc sceal     ende gebidan 
worolde lifes;     wyrce se þe mote 
domes ær deaþe.

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death.[62]

Tolkien describes poignantly the experiences of heroes as they live their lives fighting the long defeat against darkness: “…as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”[63] Perpetual perishing may indeed be the ultimate evil, but it is inevitable. In that inevitability, perhaps, is where the beauty and meaning lies. Every actual occasion, in its process of concrescence, becomes in relation to all other actual occasions. So too the hero becomes a hero in relationship to all the surrounding darkness. When concrescence is complete the actual occasion perishes into objective immortality, and thus participates in the concrescence of all other actual occasions. In his final defeat the hero too perishes, but he also perishes into immortality, the immortality born by the glory he has won. Thus God takes care that nothing in the universe is done in vain.

But what, then, of Grendel? He does not seek to win glory, to attain any form of immortality. What can be the meaning of the actions of one who still sees no meaning in the universe in which he lives? His entire journey has not changed him—he was born into the post-modern, encountered the enchanted pagan-Christianity of the Shaper, the undetermined fatalism of the dragon, the painful onslaught of interconnection between himself and all that was not-his-mother—yet by story’s end he is unchanged, a psychopath to experience. In his fatal encounter with Beowulf he recognizes the dragon within Beowulf, sees flames slip from the corners of his mouth, fiery wings ignite behind him. The words of the dragon are whispering through Beowulf, whether in reality or in Grendel’s hallucinating imagination it matters not, for they are all one: Beowulf, the dragon, Grendel. Each is not without the others.

Yet as Grendel escapes Beowulf’s grasp, leaving his arm and life force behind him, he reverts to his sense of meaningless once again, for the final time. He knows he has encountered another world view, the Whiteheadian philosopher embodied in Beowulf as well, and believes he understands him. “Understand his lunatic theory of matter and mind, the chilly intellect, the hot imagination, blocks and builder, reality as stress.”[64] Yet he defines himself to the last in opposition to this.

“It was an accident,” I bellow back. I will cling to what is true. “Blind, mindless, mechanical. Mere logic of chance.”[65]

He cannot change. He does not evolve through any process. This is not why he must die; death is the inevitable, the meaningful, the beautiful. He cannot change. That is what makes him a monster. And the potential to be that monster resides in each of us.

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”[66]

 

Bibliography

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group. 1991.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

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

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.

–––––. Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967.


[1] John Gardner, Grendel (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 159.

[2] Gardner, Grendel, 74.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 69.

[5] John J. McDermott, qtd. in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 417.

[6] Gardner, Grendel, 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Blaise Pascal, in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 420.

[9] Gardner, Grendel, 11.

[10] Richard Tarnas, “A Brief History of Western Thought,” course taught at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, October 5, 2012.

[11] Gardner, Grendel, 19.

[12] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967), 71.

[13] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 163.

[14] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 41.

[15] Gardner, Grendel, 28.

[16] Gardner, Grendel, 29.

[17] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 2.

[18] Gardner, Grendel, 41.

[19] Gardner, Grendel, 43.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 7.

[23] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 68.

[24] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

[25] Gardner, Grendel, 49.

[26] Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 503-504.

[27] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 506.

[28] Gardner, Grendel, 65.

[29] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 88-89.

[30] Gardner, Grendel, 51.

[31] Ibid, 48.

[32] Ibid, 50.

[33] Gardner, Grendel, 56.

[34] Gardner, Grendel, 62-63.

[35] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 12.

[36] Ibid, 16.

[37] Gardner, Grendel, 63.

[38] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 17.

[39] Ibid, 25.

[40] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[41] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[42] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 87.

[43] Ibid, 7.

[44] Ibid, 165.

[45] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 158-159.

[46] Ibid, 47.

[47] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[48] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

[49] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[50] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Gardner, Grendel, 69.

[53] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 65.

[54] Ibid, 69.

[55] Gardner, Grendel, 72-73.

[56] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 14-15.

[57] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[58] Gardner, Grendel, 131.

[59] Ibid, 132.

[60] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.

[61] Gardner, Grendel, 132.

[62] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 96-97.

[63] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 18.

[64] Gardner, Grendel, 172.

[65] Ibid, 173.

[66] Ibid, 174.

The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

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.

Middle-Earth

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] For Tolkien, Beagle, and many others, Middle-Earth was not “created, for it was always there.”[7]

Tolkien’s own experience of writing was that he was “recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.”[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

The Secondary Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate”[15] and “struggles to idealize and to unify.”[16] 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.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.[19] 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”[20] 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.[21] Tolkien acknowledged that “fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds,”[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.”[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28] 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.”[29] Fantasy is crafted out of the Primary World, just as the painter or sculptor’s materials are drawn from nature.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] (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,”[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

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.”[36] 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.[37] “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.”[38] 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.[39] 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.[40] 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.”[41] 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.[42]

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.[43]

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.[44] 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.[45]

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…[46]

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.[47] 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.[48] He reconstructed words and names from almost forgotten linguistic origins, drawing on fragments of words from poems and texts that had once formed legends.[49] 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.”[50]

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.”[51] 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.[52] Whether called Tookland, Nobottle, Wetwang, Dunharrow, Gladden, Silverlode, or Limlight each place has its history within and outside of Middle-Earth.[53]

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.[54]

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.[55] 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.[56] His emphasis on spelling “Elves” and “Dwarves” in the ancient manner, as opposed to “elfs” and “dwarfs,” further deepened their roots in history.[57] 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.”[58] 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.[59] 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.[60]

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.[61] 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.”[62]

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.”[63] 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.”[64] 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.[65]

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.[66] It was, as Tolkien calls it, the “fusion-point of imagination,”[67] 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.[68] 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.”[69] As Shippey notes, Hobbits are “pure inspiration” [70] 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.”[71] 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.[72] “The implication,” writes Shippey, “is that the inspiration was a memory of something that could in reality have existed.”[73]

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,’”[74] 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.”[75] 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.”[76] 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.”[77]

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.”[78] 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.[79] The meaning of the work, as Reilly says, resides between the “art work and the perceiving subject”[80] and ultimately lies in the “freedom of the reader.”[81]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.[82] 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.”[83] Sub-creation is the imagining of God’s world after God[84] 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,”[85] 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.”[86] 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.[87]

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.”[88] 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.”[89] 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,”[90] as he felt the possibility that all myths might be in some realm other than our own.[91] Indeed, it was because of the link Tolkien saw between human creativity and divine making, that he felt “all tales may come true.”[92] 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.”[93] 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.”[94]

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.”[95] Tolkien believed that “there is no higher function for man than the ‘sub-creation’ of a Secondary World”[96] 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.”[97] 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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–––––. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
 
–––––. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 
 
–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
 
–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 54-55.

[2] 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.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 33.

[4] Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 49.

[5] Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003), 178.

[6] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xvi.

[7] Ibid, ix.

[8] 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.

[9] Tolkien, Letters, 104.

[10] 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.

[11] R.J. Reilly, Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 8.

[12] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.

[13] Ibid, 159.

[14] Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971), 77.

[15] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 159.

[16] Ibid, 160.

[17] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10.

[18] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[19] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 82.

[20] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader, 68.

[21] Ibid, 68.

[22] Ibid, 64

[23] Ibid, 60.

[24] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 41-42.

[25] Coleridge, qtd. in Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 81.

[26] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 73.

[27] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 93.

[28] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 89.

[29] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[30] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[31] Ibid, 77.

[32] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 38.

[33] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[34] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 97.

[35] Tolkien, Letters, 144.

[36] Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997), 134.

[37] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[38] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 86.

[39] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 131.

[40] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[41] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10-11.

[42] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 186.

[43] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 101.

[44] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 43.

[45] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 113.

[46] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[47] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57.

[48] Ruth S. Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 3-4.

[49] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 48-49.

[50] Tolkien, Letters, 147.

[51] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 25.

[52] Ibid, 101.

[53] Ibid, 103.

[54] Cynewulf, qtd. in Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, 4.

[55] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57-58

[56] Ibid, 59-61.

[57] Ibid, 56.

[58] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 20-21.

[59] Ibid, 15.

[60] Ibid, 131.

[61] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 198-99.

[62] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 27.

[63] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xi.

[64] Tolkien, Letters, 231.

[65] Ibid, 212.

[66] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 104.

[67] Tolkien, qtd. in Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 63.

[68] Tolkien, Letters, 158.

[69] Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 175.

[70] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 65.

[71] Ibid, 66.

[72] Ibid, 72.

[73] Ibid, 67.

[74] Tolkien, Letters, 215.

[75] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 70.

[76] Ibid, 95, n E.

[77] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 195.

[78] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[79] Ibid, xii.

[80] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 196.

[81] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[82] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 72.

[83] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 75.

[84] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 198.

[85] Clarke, “The Creative Imagination,” 205.

[86] 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.”

[87] Tolkien, Letters, 413.

[88] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xv.

[89] Tolkien, Letters, 213.

[90] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195

[91] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 214.

[92] Tolkien, qtd. in Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[93] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 33.

[94] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 117.

[95] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 64

[96] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195.

[97] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 53.