What Tolkien Saw: Part Two
Truth, Glory and Applicability
-- Maureen McKittrick Stewart
There is more to the appeal of Tolkien than just his understanding of humility and the limitations of human kind, as well as our deepest and most secret longing. In his essay, On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien says of any good story, "What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true:' it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside." The Secondary World of Middle-earth succeeds in this so well that we are, as I wrote before, haunted by its beauty. In writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien clearly abided by all of these standards. We find enchantment in Middle-earth because: "Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose."
Other writers have created worlds of fantastic scenery, creatures, and events of amazing heroism. These are good books. They do not captivate us as Tolkien does. So, as delightful as they are, such trappings as elves and magic don't quite explain the power of Tolkien to move us. I believe, however, that our enchantment has more to do with the assumptions built into Middle-earth from the moment Eru first created his choir and the chorus began to sing a deep continuity throughout all the minutiae of Arda's existence. About fantasy in general, Tolkien says this: "Magic produces
an alteration in the Primary World:
its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills." The characters and events of other stories often demonstrate just this arrogance and domination in triumph that springs from our cultural mindset.
In writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien instead followed his own guidelines: "To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful, of all forms of human art most nearly approaches," and, "That Creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits; whether the
human dramatist, or the malevolent
Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves."
Tolkien, I think, would be pleased and surprised by the elvish Enchantment that has come through the visual and auditory medium of the movie for he was wary of the failures he had seen in dramatization. Although it descends occasionally into mere delusion, the movie does indeed draw us into a satisfaction that is artistic. The Lord of the Rings was clearly woven in such a way as to incorporate all the elements laid out in On Fairy-Stories, and the movie has adhered to that vision.
In the essay's introduction Tolkien mentions that it was written in 1938-1939, when The Lord of the Rings was just starting to unfold. In it he writes about Joy in a concept akin to that of Lewis which I quoted in Part One: "The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or [the eucatastrophe], the sudden joyous 'turn:'
is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies
universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."
Lewis no doubt had heard excerpts of The Lord of the Rings read aloud before he delivered The Weight of Glory in June of 1941. Surely the Inklings had tossed ideas around in the smoky air of their favorite pub about the function of joy in literature. It's rather interesting to see evidence of a clear connection between two great writers of very different talents. The world of literature would likely include the works of neither if they had not met, disagreed, and debated various aspects of their shared interests. Tolkien is quoted in one of my collections of Lewis' essays as saying of his friend: "We owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot remains."
This same principle applies to Jackson's interpretation of the books and our sharing of insights as fans. I now have a detailed and intimate exposition of someone else's vision of Tolkien against which I can measure my own assumptions and interpretations--and hone and expand them as well. My enjoyment of the books has multiplied exponentially because an entire cast and crew with equal love saw it with different eyes, and thousands of fans have shared their own insights and delight (and objections). I am especially grateful for the love that was so great that Tolkien's central themes were portrayed and the fans' delight honored with and by true grace.
There are some things about the human experience and understanding that cannot be truthfully conveyed except by story, by myth. It is myth that shapes culture and myth that comes out of culture. The power of story is in not just saying, "it is important to be loyal," or truthful, or whatever. It is in giving us the vision of how to go about that. It is also in the ability to help us distill the complexities of relationships and conflict and conscience into something beautiful. We learn from myth what it is to be persons in time, in space, and in our place in the community.
Myth gives us significance and meaning in a huge universe. In the chapter, Shadow of the Past, when he asks, "Why was I chosen?" Gandalf tells Frodo, "Such questions cannot be answered. You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have."
Lewis expresses something similar in "Perelandra," (1944) the second book of the "Out of the Silent Planet Trilogy." Dr. Elwin Ransom*, philologist, says regarding his appointment by otherworldly beings for a task on a world known as Perelandra, "One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly, it is never for what the man himself would have regarded as his chief qualifications."
Why is anyone "chosen" for whatever part they play on the stage of time? Because some nameless scribes with cramped fingers and watering eyes put quill dipped in hand-made ink to vellum in far off days, a young boy was enchanted by legends and poetry and myths out of the past. Because he loved languages and history, when that young boy became a man, he created his own myth, incorporating all his grief, compassion, and the truths he had learned, and writing a body of works that moved thousands with their power and beauty. Because he had friends who encouraged it, the books reached a publisher. Because many talented individuals like tinkering with bits and bytes, software was developed to do amazing things with graphics. Because people wanted to explore space, the microchip was developed . . .Everything from ninth century monks to the Apollo Program – dozens of becauses trickle down to Enchantment powerful enough to effect our delight in images on a screen.
Legend inspiring book, book going to screen despite near misses, events seeming to jockey specific individuals into specific parts to play, talents and inspiration and weather all tumbling around in the mix
And the timing of its release--The Fellowship of the Ring came to the screen just when the world desperately needed to be reminded of hope, fellowship, perseverance and the need of sacrifice to combat evil. These long and complex chains of interrelated events and efforts stretching through time and place seem strangely resonant with the march of the history of Middle-earth. Is it that Tolkien, familiar with the way history flows, replicated it well in his sub-creation, or is there something more than unfolding chance at work in the world--or both? How true is the myth?
"Among times there is a time that turns a corner and everything this side of it is new." (Lewis, "Perelandra")
Myth also gives us the possibility of becoming. Pippin, in the chapter The Houses of Healing, says to Merry "Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can't live long on the heights." His reply is telling: "'No,' said Merry. 'I can't. Not yet at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could tend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not.'"
Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam--Tolkien's Everyman--all grow to be numbered among the great. The individual deeds that they do are not remarkable in their action or skill or strength. They are well within the hobbits' natural capabilities (although they are also more than the hobbits realize that they are able to do). This reminds us that most heroism is not comprised of extraordinary feats, but rather of all the small right things that we do when we can and just how influential and effective the sum of many small deeds of light are. Even the smallest light can be seen clearly in dark places, and there can perhaps effect the greatest transformation--transformation for ourselves as much as for those whom we serve. However, none of us can know which deeds will have what effect. That is in the laps of the Valar.
This is terrifying as well as uplifting. I have done or almost done things that wake me in the watches of the night, sweating and wondering, "What if?" Frodo's nightmares surely were comprised of the terror of contemplating what might have happened if he had not shown pity to Gollum. No wonder he was content to live quietly in the Shire until it was time to depart for the Havens.
Ransom, when he finally learns the import of the task he has accomplished at the end of "Perelandra," falls to the ground in terror and deep humility. He has achieved what was required by expending more determination and effort than he realized he was capable of, but still not more than any middle aged academic might have. The placement of the deed has made it a pivotal point not in the history of a world, but in the history of the universe and Ransom is reassured: "Be comforted. It is no doing of yours.
Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! It is beneath your head and carries you."
Tolkien's integrity of vision manifests itself in Middle-earth in the warp of the tapestry. All the story events and characters are woven onto an underlying foundation based on the inherent value of persons as separate entities with complete freedom--freedom that can affect outcomes. The reader is welcomed in, no opinion is imposed, but within the Enchantment, one can taste and know and feel what it is to partake of that vision.
While we are within the Enchantment, within this Secondary World--whatever we feel about our own Primary World--we see what Tolkien saw. There the nature of life is perilous, for as it exists only in free will, choices can change the course of history. In "The Silmarillion" the destruction of good intended, including the self, is described for the greatest of the Ainur and his acolyte: "In all the deeds of Melkor the Morgoth upon Arda, in his vast works and in the deceits of his cunning, Sauron had a part, and was only less evil than his master in that for long he served another and not himself. But in after years he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down to the Void."
Lewis in The Weight of Glory notes the shadows that we, ourselves pursue: "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
But in peril there is glory. One of Lewis' characters in "Perelandra" says this about the splendor of personhood and the potency of our choices: "I have thought that I was being carried, and behold, I was walking.
One joy was expected and another is given. But this I had never noticed before--that the very moment of finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back or setting aside.
is the glory and wonder you have made me see; that it is I, I myself, who turn from the good expected to the given good.
It is a delight with terror in it! One's own self to be walking from one good to another, walking beside Him as Himself may walk, not even holding hands. How has He made me so separate from Himself?"
Yet another character, the new king of Perelandra, says, "All is gift.
Through many hands, enriched with many different kinds of love and labour, the gift comes to me. It is the Law. The best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not his own."
And Aragorn, at last ready to fulfill his destiny, says: "By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance."
To remove risk is to undo personhood--and the opportunity for "sub-creation." The world is full of peril--perhaps more so than even Faërie. The difference is that Faërie is unfamiliar and therefore gets our attention. Tolkien has enchanted us and we can, if we are willing, gain a great deal of understanding of peril--and of grace and mercy and joy poignant as grief--that comes through his sub-creation. "All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know." (On Fairy-Stories)
May your road go ever on to many blessings!
I would love, as usual, to know your thoughts on what I have explored. Send them to me at this address
-- Maureen McKittrick Stewart
*It is rather delightful to realize, if you aren't already aware of it, that Ransom was not identical to, but patterned after Tolkien. Tolkien returned the compliment in his portrayal of Treebeard's manner of speech. (Apparently Lewis was fond of interposing lots of hrums and hroms in his conversation and had a very deep voice.)