What Tolkien Saw: Part One
Entropy, Hubris, and Hope
-- Maureen McKittrick Stewart
Tolkien is a storyteller whose stories enchant with the very strongest of spells. The community of readership has formed fan clubs from their first publication, first locally, and now globally, through the internet. The successful translation of the story to the screen has spread the enchantment, even to those who have not yet read the books.
Why? I don't think I am alone in weeping with sorrow when beloved characters die; in feeling a deep sense of loss and melancholy when Sam sits down in his chair by the fire, accepts his infant daughter on his lap and says to his dear Rosie, "Well, I'm back;" or in the poignant sadness of reading the back story and outcome of the last days of the members of the fellowship described in the appendices. What other books include an appendix that makes the cheeks of the readers wet?!
Some critics have called Tolkien a pessimist, citing his early difficulty and great loss in life as the reason for the lugubrious character of the books. But how does that characterize the response of the readers? Despite tears, despite regret that the magic journey is done, despite the longing we are left with, we return to the real world of our lives strangely uplifted and filled with hope. What is it within Tolkien's Middle-earth that brings us back again and again?
Perhaps the key is in the way Tolkien saw the world--both the one in which he actually lived, and the one of his own "sub-creation". I recall the dominant cultural view of the world in which he lived--the same views I was educated under, and which are difficult for me to step out of--as is any point of view absorbed since infancy.
Though I wasn't born until the year "The Lord of the Rings" was published, the spirit of the age hadn't shifted much since Tolkien's youth. Historians now talk about the Modern age, and characterize our current climate of thought as the Post-Modern age (which is an oxymoron, if I ever heard one). Modernity was when all poverty, ignorance, starvation, and disease was supposed to be eradicated by new philosophies of government such as Marxism, Socialism, Capitalism, and several other kinds of isms. If we just invented the right machines and discovered the right facts, understood the right sciences, we believed we could fix anything. Utopia was to come. "A new power is rising!" Instead, more lives were lost in the cause of political ideology in one century than all the lives lost for the same cause in the entire course of human history prior to that. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin--these were the likes of the great men who promised heaven on earth to their followers. But the goals of these were the same as the goals of Churchill, Eisenhower, and the rest, though their methods were for the most part vastly different.
The spirit of Modernism was hubris. The spirit of the likes of Saruman and Sauron was hubris. The spirit of current political and policy pundits is hubris.
Tolkien, like his friend, C. S. Lewis, saw through the hype of all the philosophical posturing of their time. As Lewis said, "[T]hey use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever. Hence all the nonsense that Mr. Shaw puts into the final speech of Lilith, and Bergson's remark that the e´lan vital is capable of surmounting all obstacles, perhaps even death--as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics." (The Weight of Glory)
This is not, however, a discussion of the pros and cons of various ideologies of the past or the present. What is the point here is our underlying expectation that we, homo sapiens sapiens, are somehow in control, able to manage our environment, our world, our lives according to whatever standards we deem good. When was the last time you thought, "Somebody ought to do something!" (It's only been moments for me.)
Contrast this with the following words from "The Return of the King," The Last Debate:
Between Gimli and Legolas [Speaking of Imrahil and of Minas Tirith]:
"That is a fair lord and great captain of men," said Legolas. "If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising."
Or Gandalf's words:
"And doubtless the good stonework is the older and wrought in the first building," said Gimli. "It is ever so with such things that Men begin; there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise."
"Yet seldom do they fail of their seed," said Legolas. "And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli."
"And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess," said the Dwarf.
"To that the Elves know not the answer," said Legolas.
"Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule."
Such doom and gloom!
"We must walk open-eyed into the trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless--as we surely shall, if we sit here,--and know as we die that no new age shall be."
Tolkien saw not only a beginning to the world, but its ultimate end, and foreshadowings of that ending in the fall of civilization after civilization. He saw the whole sweep of history as, in Galadriel's words, a "long defeat." This can be seen in the accounts of the Silmarillion and the entire history of Middle-earth. Peoples fail and migrate, Númenóreans overreach their limits and sink into the sea, Gondor dwindles until a brief renaissance under Aragorn--all fail of their promise. He clearly understood the law of entropy--all order deteriorating into chaos--and saw it played out in history and story.
So what is the magic of the world of Middle-earth that so infects us with a curiously poignant joy and longing? What is the nature of that ache we feel?
One facet of the gem might be in the underlying assumptions of the characters and how those assumptions move their choices. Gandalf reminds Frodo that, "There was more than one power at work." On that basis, each member of the fellowship dedicates his whole energy, intelligence, passion, and will to resisting the approaching darkness. In faith that there is some intentionality working beyond the events they are dealing with, they can only give their being wholeheartedly to the battle, trusting that any gap will be closed and good will triumph.
Here is another insight the movie caused me to view afresh. Seeing these characters fling themselves into whatever confrontation arises without hesitation takes me aback. There is some serious hope and faith underlying such courage. When Aragorn invites Théoden to ride with him, not for death and glory, but for his people, he is revealing the essence of leadership characterized by the will and conviction to serve.
None of the captains and strategists entertains ideas about imposing his own norms upon all of Middle-earth. Elrond doesn't think that he ought to annex the Shire and "improve" its cultural elevation. Aragorn doesn't attempt to establish a kingdom that will enforce "zero tolerance" for evil. Gandalf strives only to preserve some good, even if his efforts may fail to preserve Minas Tirith. This is true humility: not in thinking less of yourself than you really are, but in not thinking of yourself at all. These are people given over to doing what must be done, not accumulating glory for its own sake. None were out to prove their worthiness as a goal in itself. "Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it." (Lewis, Membership)
Samwise, of course, exhibits quintessential humility. Tolkien maps the ground of Sam's character this way: "In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command."
Faith, hope, love, humility: these are the traditional virtues that Tolkien portrays in his work. We care about these characters, admire them, sympathize with them, want to exhibit those same virtues ourselves, but that only inspires us to be better persons. There is some other magic at work that is almost impossible to quantify. I have for years puzzled over it, and talked about, "the first time" with other Tolkien fans, once our guard was down and we knew this was a "safe" person to whom we could admit this secret vice. (Remember when it was the height of weird to admit to reading Tolkien?)
Then The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in theaters, and the old "first time" feeling was back. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was anxiously awaiting the release of the rest of the story. A trip to a bookstore to pick up something to read on a long plane ride discovered a collection of addresses by C. S. Lewis which contained The Weight of Glory. I'd been running across quotes for years, but never before seen it in its entirety. There, several thousand feet above the ground, my eyes opened in astonishment, for encapsulated in twenty pages was what I saw as the essence of Tolkien's magic, as well as many of the principle themes of Middle-earth's history. And that, of course, is what has prompted my first essay, as well as this one.
Tolkien's work isn't the only thing that has taken me right out of myself to some exquisite place of pain, joy, and longing combined. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 or A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Patrick, among other pieces of music, have wrung my heart. Watching a full moon set behind the Rocky Mountains early one bitter mid-winter morning as I crunched through deep snow and saw silver night blush with rosy dawn will for me forever instill the word joy with new meaning. Watching my granddaughter come into the world-- there are a host of experiences for which I can recount the circumstances but cannot explain the feeling.
In The Weight of Glory Lewis explores this inexplicable phenomenon:
"We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name
But all this is a cheat
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing
There are many works or experiences that evoke that mysterious and elusive joy. Which experience will evoke it varies from person to person and from time to time. I think that Tolkien's gift is that he evokes it for most people who read his books at least the first time they read it, and for some, upon subsequent readings. For me at least, and--I would guess from their popularity-- for many others also, the movies convey that same mysterious haunting.
"For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited
. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words--to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
"That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves--that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image.
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure."
So, here I am, haunted by these elusive glimpses of beauty. What do they mean; what is the unseen, unexperienced thing that I long for? Tolkien painted a portrait of it in his works, and Lewis gives the coordinates to locating it: "Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it?
A man's physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist."
Tolkien's own hope and faith that there is Good, that it is in control, and that each person has ultimate significance and value granted and redeemed by its Creator saturate his work. When we tread upon the green sod of Middle-earth and breathe its air and sing its songs, with Aragorn we feel, "In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory."
Were you haunted your "first time"? I'd love your feedback.
-- Maureen McKittrick Stewart