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Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie

Chapter III

On Fantasy

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons–'twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

(Tolkien, "Mythopoeia")

The long poem "Mythopoeia" (excerpted above) in its entirety was an attempt to explain the deep, personal, and religious significance of writing fantasy for Tolkien. The poem sprang from an argument he had with his close friend C. S. Lewis, who asserted that myths were lies, albeit "lies breathed through silver." No, Tolkien responded. It is in the nature of the human mind to make myth, to "sub-create," because it is made in the image of a Maker; and in the seeds of the imagination is the residue and partial reflection of the eternal truth that comes from God (TAB: 147). It is a measure of Tolkien's conviction that Lewis declared his conversion from simple theism to Christianity a week later (TAB: 148).

Tolkien said "I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read" ("OFS": 3), but he was well aware that the academic world, and even the adult world in general, did not share his enthusiasm. In 1939, with the writing of The Lord of the Rings well underway, Tolkien set out to correct what he saw as damaging misconceptions about fairy-stories in a lecture, expanded later into an eighty page essay, entitled "On Fairy-Stories." We do not need to touch all of them here. Tolkien defined fairy-stories as tales that depend upon Faërie, the "perilous realm" of the imagination, from whence come magic, monsters, and mythology. This definition is intentionally wide enough to embrace the writings of such disparate authors as Homer, Malory, the Grimm brothers, and himself. The worst misconception about Faërie, he said, is that is somehow a "degraded" subject, suitable mainly for children. Banishing fairy-stories to the nursery, he said, has not only done incalculable damage to the genre, but inspired many second-rate writers to produce imitations of Faërie that are neither fit for children nor anyone else. Properly handled, however, fairy-stories have an advantage over other literary forms:

If adults are to read fairy-stories as a natural branch of literature–neither playing at being children, nor pretending to be choosing for children, nor being boys who would not grow up–what are the values and functions of this kind? ....First of all: if written with art, the prime value of fairy-stories will simply be that value which, as literature, they share with other literary forms. But fairy-stories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people. ("OFS": 45-6)

The remainder of the essay is devoted to discussing these four "values and functions." Of the first value, Fantasy, he said many things, but I only need to recapitulate that it is not based on delusion, or ignorance of reality; on the contrary, "the keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make" ("OFS": 54). Whether or not this is true, we can reassure ourselves that Tolkien wrote his fantasy with reference to reality in mind. The section on Consolation mostly discusses the device of the happy ending. Our interest lies with the sections on Escape and Recovery, which provide us with clues both into Tolkien's reasons for writing fantasy, and to the way in which he hoped The Lord of the Rings would be read.

In the discussion of Escape, Tolkien found it necessary to defend escapism, a characteristic that is not unique to fairy-stories, from the "scorn" of many critics. Here his writing takes a particularly dark and virulent tone. In the last chapter, I cited a passage from the essay in which Tolkien disparages modernity as a time in which we are "acutely conscious of the ugliness of our works, and their evil." Confronted with this oppressive reality, Tolkien asks, "why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?" ("OFS": 60). Other writers have described life as a "prison-house" for the spirit: Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter spring to mind. But Tolkien extends the metaphor further, charging those who disparage escapism with rank coercion:

Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Führer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery.... Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter, but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the "quisling" to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say "the land you loved is doomed" to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. ("OFS": 60-61)

There are two important ideas here: first, the bald assertion that Europe, or at least its popular semblance, in 1939, embroiled as it was in the beginning of a second great war, was doomed. This pessimism, which is very characteristic of The Lord of the Rings, intimates that Europe is facing an imaginative crisis: it redefine its self-image and its values, now that the old have been forever mangled and disproved. It must come to terms with its modernity, and recognize that it has changed. Secondly, Tolkien equates escapism with patriotism. In his mind England can somehow be served by the escapist in its crisis–the lessons to be learned from Escape may, in some measure, redeem his doomed land.

The major fruit of escape, in the essay, is Recovery, and this concept gives us our best hint as to how he thought this redemption might be accomplished. Its essence is a renewal of clear sight. Faërie, says Tolkien, restores to us the appreciation of the ordinary, which, in the course of long aging and weary familiarity with life, may be overlooked or ignored. To imagine a winged Pegasus, for instance, is see horses again as man first saw them: wild, virile, and beautiful. Through Faërie we see trees and beasts again as things apart from ourselves, powerful and free. Implicit here are other comparisons, which I believe Tolkien had firmly in his mind: to imagine a fairy-tale Hero is to regain sight of the incorrupt, inner strength and beauty of man. To imagine a Quest is to recapture a sense striving in life for a worthier and more romantic cause than profit. It is perhaps not too farfetched to claim that Tolkien saw in Faërie the possibility for the moral salvation of Europe. He makes no citations during this section of the essay, so it is not clear what specific works he had in mind that might accomplish this–but I suggest that he had no meaner goal in mind for his own epic, now two years underway.

In the first chapter I gave evidence that Tolkien began writing The Silmarillion as a gift to England, which he felt lacked a satisfactory mythical history. The Lord of the Rings was also thought of as a gift, but one that would address a different lack: the degenerated moral core of England, diminished as a consequence of modernity. Writing fiction for the first time with publication foremost in mind, he began to think in terms of what he could show England, from its heroic past, by giving it a story in the old style, that would revive the noblest passions that lay dormant in the English people. He saw the English as hobbits, who live lives of sedentary excess, but have great mettle underneath their soft exteriors. Fantasy, for him, was the ideal genre for awakening that potential. And far from being antique, immature, or blind to reality, he found it an ideal medium in which to dramatize the problems of the day, in a morally unambiguous realm where they can be combated.

But in my eagerness to make a point, I have come dangerously close to accusing Tolkien of writing what he claimed to despise: an allegory. Tolkien vehemently denied that he had written an allegory in letters to both critics and fans, and, fed up, he finally decided to set the record straight in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings' second edition:

As for any inner meaning or "message," it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. (I: 10)

This statement seems to put my thesis in serious jeopardy, and probably this self-slanderous statement of Tolkien's has done more to stymie the critical understanding of his work than any made by his detractors. Fortunately for me, there is good reason to believe that Tolkien was not really sincere in this statement, and in any event, the larger context of the passage makes it clear that he did not really intend to deny that his work has "meaning." First, far from disliking allegory, Tolkien actually used it quite frequently–as a favorite device. There is a very prominent allegory, for instance, in the essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," where Tolkien represents the Beowulf-poet as a stonemason who has built a tower from various old pieces of stone that he found in a quarry. The critics of Beowulf are represented in the allegory as nosy neighbors who try to tear down the tower to discover the origins of each brick, without ever climbing to the top and realizing that the tower gives them a clear view of the sea. Also, Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle," written to accompany "On Fairy-Stories," is a total allegorical representation of the role of fantasy, represented by a painting of a tree, in society. Finally, right after stating his dislike for allegory in the Foreword, Tolkien goes ahead and tells what the story would have been like if it had been an allegory for World War II: Sauron's enemies would have taken his evil Ring and used it to defeat him, enthroned themselves at Barad-dûr, and fought amongst themselves until they all fell to ruin. Clearly, Tolkien was not above using allegory to make a point. What he meant to say is that significance of The Lord of the Rings is not limited by allegory to a particular time or event, but stands alone as an internally consistent historical moment in Middle-earth. Reading on in the Foreword substantiates this:

I much prefer history [to allegory], true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers. I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory;" but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (I: 10)

Tolkien is actually inviting to his readers to draw comparisons, even allegorical ones, between his work and real history: he admits that it has applicability. It also happens to be full of inner meaning. But there is no single interpretation that is correct–it is instead complex enough to support many different readings and analogies.

Having rescued myself from danger, I am now free to consider how his work compares to other semi-allegorical fantasy epics, such as The Faerie Queene, in which six knights, each representing one of six virtues (if Spenser had finished, there would have been twelve), are forced to fight against monsters with names like "Errour" and "Sloth" for the greater glory of England. Fantasy lends itself particularly well to this kind of "moral allegory," and The Lord of the Rings has been accused of being one, perhaps by association. In a moral allegory, the author will create characters that represent the pure embodiment of a moral value. Fantasy is quite suited to this task: for instance, if an author intends to explore the sin of Gluttony, and wishes to represent it in a human character, he will have difficulty making the character credible to his audience. But he need only create a bloated, slavering beast that devours whole cows, and his audience will probably accept it through willing suspension of disbelief. It is true that even when no allegory is intended, the use of monsters tends to elevate the action to the semblance of a cosmic struggle, as Tolkien observed in his Beowulf essay:

It is just because the main foes in Beowulf are inhuman that the story is larger and more significant than [other stories]. It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts; it stands amid but above the petty wars of princes, and surpasses the dates and limits of historical periods.

When a hero fights a monster, it is very easy to identify which side is right and which is wrong. Since Tolkien admired Beowulf so much, we might expect him to follow its example, and construct a tale that stresses heroes battling against fearsome monsters.

But really, there is not a multitude of monsters in The Lord of the Rings, and those that exist are given surprisingly little weight. The Kraken and the Balrog that live in Moria, though important to the story, when combined occupy barely more than three pages of text. The Barrow-Wights take up about four more. The giant spider Shelob owns the caves at Cirith Ungol, but only one of the trilogy's sixty-two chapters. And apart from these there are only the orcs, who are more like a strain of brutish men than monsters, the Ringwraiths, who are generally more feared than seen, and Sauron, the arch-Enemy, who never appears at all. The book is instead almost entirely about the interactions and personal dilemmas of men (and man-like beings such as elves, dwarves, and hobbits). Like ordinary human beings, these characters may aspire to be "good," but are fallible, corruptible, and often swayed by personal interests. They do not represent either pure good or evil, and their battles are fought mostly among themselves. The Lord of the Rings has no Redcrosse Knight–a central Hero whose purity and might must inevitably conquer evil. Only one character approaches the stature of a traditional epic hero: Aragorn, the heir to the old Kings, and he is given very little attention compared to that lavished on the hobbits and others. The work is very different, in this way, from Beowulf, The Faerie Queene, The Odyssey, Morte d'Arthur, or any other Heroic Romance that Tolkien could have used as a model. The Lord of the Rings is primarily about ordinary people (and hobbits) that happen to live in a setting whose fauna includes monsters and magic.

The work does not, in short, allegorize through the device of the Hero. But it has nevertheless been accused of containing a more general sort of allegory–one which represents Good and Evil as absolutes in a conflict where Good must prevail. And while, as I have already stated, the book does not contain any characters that are absolutely good, it does have a character who is absolutely evil–Sauron, the Dark Lord. But the trilogy does not view evil simplistically. Elrond, the wise old elf, sums it up this way: "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so" (I: 351). Evil always appears in the story as a product of corruption. Sauron himself never physically appears in the trilogy, but operates through his servants, who have been corrupted or tricked. Sauron exists as a standard for judging the balance of good and evil in others. His influence over the story is like a strong magnet that draws evil into the open, making it palpable and testable. For good and evil do objectively exist (Tolkien, as a good Catholic, could hardly believe otherwise). The difficulty lies in discriminating between the two. This is summed up by Aragorn, in a rare sermon, as he responds to the question "How shall a man judge what to do in such times?":

"As he has ever judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is Man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." (II: 50)

The difference between the morality of Middle-earth and that of the real world is that the presence of Sauron makes the difference between good and evil more obvious, and forces the characters to actively choose between them. As Aragorn's speech suggests, the real struggle between good and evil is internal; the ostensibly "good" characters must learn to discriminate between right and wrong and remain true to the right. The real obstacle to the completion of the Quest–to throw Sauron's Ring into the mountain of fire, destroying his power–is not Sauron or his servants, whose actions are very predictable, and anticipated by Gandalf. It is within the forces of "good" themselves (no more good than average people) who must overcome their differences to oppose Sauron with unity. The greatest "evil" comes from their own disputes. As stated by Haldir the elf:

"Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him." (I: 451)

The Dark Lord can only be defeated by defeating the demons within–healing the self and society. The most important task, that of the Ringbearer, is essentially to do nothing: he must resist the temptation of the Ring's evil long enough to arrive at the fire mountain and drop it in. If the characters remain steadfast to the principles of the right, the threat of Sauron goes away.

So The Lord of the Rings is not a simple allegory, where good and evil simply masquerade as thinly-drawn heroes and villains. But evil exists, and in Middle-earth it is discernible, and terrifying, thanks to the influence of the Dark Lord. This is made possible by the fairy-story setting; it is another facet of the Recovery that Tolkien talked about in his essay. Renewal of sight, not only of the quotidian, but of good and evil, which often seems impossibly blurred in real life, until the distinction between the two seems imaginary and the wisdom taught to every child–the difference between right and wrong–is lost in the night.

Fantasy is a very sensual genre, and The Lord of the Rings weaves a powerful spell for (to quote an early reviewer) "those who have imagination to kindle" (TAB: 220). The trilogy must first be read, therefore, as a story–the orcs are orcs, and will not be understood otherwise. But since Tolkien's driving purpose in writing was to use escape as a means to combat dissatisfaction with the modern world, the symbolic resonances are important as well. Tolkien once wrote that "a myth... is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends; who presents it incarnate in the world of history and geography" ("BMC": 15). Part Two of this thesis will be devoted to finding and reading Tolkien's major themes to discover just how they portend to modernity, while Part Three will examine the restorative lessons that can be learned from Middle-earth, which Tolkien would have liked us to carry back to the contemporary world. Before the reading of the work can be undertaken, however, we must look more closely at how it is structured to make the journey through a fantasy world relevant and accessible to a twentieth-century reader.

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Where the Shadows Lie
 Title page
 Table of Contents
 Guide to Citations
 Part I: Escape
  Chap 1 - Introduction
  Chap 2 - Tolkien and Modernity
  Chap 3 - On Fantasy
  Chap 4 - The Structure of the Myth
 Part 2: Critique
  Chap 5 - The Old Forest
  Chap 6 - Dwarves and Elves
  Chap 7 - Men
  Chap 8 - The Enemy
 Part 3: Recovery
  Chap 9 - Hopelessness and the Renewal of Strength
  Chap 10 - Scouring the Shire


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