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Volume 14, Issue 2: Poetics

Lord of the Rings

Douglas Wilson

J.R.R. Tolkien had an objection, which he shared with C.S. Lewis, to those people who tried to understand works of literature as mere extension of the author's biography. While this is reasonable, we cannot simply dismiss the outline of someone's life as irrelevant to the work they do. An author is more than a simple pipeline or conduit for inspirations from the Beyond. How Tolkien lived his life, what his worldview was, what influenced him, are all relevant in seeking to understand this wonderful work of literature.

Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, the son of an English banker, in the town of Bloemfontein. His father died in South Africa when Tolkien was four years old—while his mother was visiting England with him and his brother. After this, he, his mother, and brother remained in England. Earlier in Africa, when he was first beginning to walk, he was bitten by a tarantula and ran terrified to a nurse who sucked out the poison. He said this left him with no particular fear of spiders, but perhaps it left him with a peculiar awareness of them. It ought to have. Biographical details do make a difference. Tolkien and his brother were once chased out of a field by a farmer they called the "Black Ogre," who was displeased at their picking of his mushrooms. A nearby inventor of cotton-wool dressing was named Dr. Gamgee, and so cotton wool was called gamgee.
Tolkien grew up without a father, but under the influence of a gracious, cultivated mother. The small family was not wealthy, but his mother knew Latin, French, and German, and was artistic in her gifts. Tolkien, as we all know by now, was brilliant, and had the kind of upbringing which could frequently leave him alone with his own thoughts—including in his case, invented languages. He loved the sounds of words.
In 1900, his mother was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This caused great tension in her family, and Tolkien blamed her early death on the treatment she received. He considered her a martyr, and this helps explain his whole-hearted devotion to the Roman Church. Personal loyalties are not always a matter of rational calculus.
At school, Tolkien developed a friendship with Christopher Wiseman, a son of a Methodist minister. They were both gifted in Latin and Greek, and were both what we Americans call jocks; they were fierce rugby players. Tolkien made his acquaintance with Anglo-Saxon—a language which combines in a strange way the familial and the remote, both characteristics of Tolkien's writing.
He met Edith Bratt at this time, his future wife. They were separated for three years before Tolkien could pursue his interest. He was her Beren; she was his Luthien, an identification which Tolkien had inscribed on their tombstones.
Let one anecdote suffice for this time in his life. "There was a custom at King Edward's of holding a debate entirely in Latin, but that was almost too easy for Tolkien, and in one debate when taking the role of Greek Ambassador to the Senate he spoke entirely in Greek. On another occasion he astonished his schoolfellows when, in the character of a barbarian envoy, he broke into fluent Gothic; and on a third occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon."
Tolkien married Edith just before he shipped out to fight in the First World War. The war is significant in understanding Tolkien for various reasons, but one of the great ones is what Tolkien saw as the Mordor of modernity. Tolkien never forgot what he called the "animal horror" of trench warfare. The modern age clanks, grinds, and devours.
After the war, Tolkien got his first academic position at Leeds. He helped put the English department there on the map. But when a position opened at Oxford in 1925, a professorship of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien applied for it and was accepted. It was at Oxford that he met C.S. Lewis. The two men were wary of one another at first. Lewis wrote in his journal, "No harm in him: only needs a smack or so."
England had no mythology, unlike the Scandinavian nations, and unlike the Mediterranean nations. Tolkien's avowed aim was to write one. But "inventing" for him was more a matter of "finding out." "Is all this true?" he was once asked. "One hopes," he replied. According to Tolkien, the writer does not bring things into existence; he finds. When he finds, he assembles. But as a sub-creator, under God, he never creates ex nihilo.
Without a doubt, Lewis was Tolkien's closest friend over the course of his lifetime. When they met, neither was a stranger to the world of close emotional and intellectual friendship, but at the same time, they were particularly suited to one another. Because of this, we can learn a great deal about each from the other. The friendship began in earnest in 1927 when Tolkien recruited Lewis into the Coalbiters, a group he established so that the members could learn Icelandic.
Lewis, though brilliant, was still a generalist. Tolkien, though a lover of the forest, was a scholar close enough to see the trees. Lewis was not a perfectionist, and Tolkien was. As Lewis put it in a comment on how Tolkien reacted to criticism of his writing—"Either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or he takes no notice at all" (Tolkien, p. 161).
These differences are notable in their production. Lewis could simply crank it out. Tolkien's production was painstakingly slow—The Lord of the Rings being produced over many years. As is evident in his letters, Tolkien agonized over making sure that the phases of the moon were not contradictory in the chronologies. Lewis would sit down, lick his pencil, and Io! Triumphum!
Their shared love of myth was at the foundation of their friendship. It was also the basis of Lewis' conversion to the Christian faith. One night Tolkien and Hugo Dyson had a lengthy talk with Lewis in which they showed him that "myth" need not be equated with "false." As a result of this talk, Lewis came to see that the story of Christ was true myth. But this introduced an important difference between the men. Lewis rapidly became an apologist for the Christian faith, but he did so as a Protestant. Lewis had been brought up an Ulster Protestant—his nurse had once warned him against stepping in a puddle full of "wee, nastie popes." As Lewis grew and matured in his Christian life, he grew increasingly committed to the Protestant faith. What had been his default position became a matter of deep conviction. Tolkien later said, "He would become again a Northern Ireland Protestant" (Tolkien, p. 168).
Let's turn to Tolkien's great work, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien argued in multiple places that while all of life has allegorical elements, his story was by no means formal allegory. Such distinctions were very important to both Tolkien and Lewis. The Pilgrim's Regress by Lewis is allegory. The Great Divorce is symbolism. But The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories are subcreated and mythopoeic realms, not allegory.
However, the mythopoeic themes of The Lord of the Rings, although not allegorical, did involve certain key meanings. In developing this world, Tolkien attributed it to linguistics, his passionate love for growing things, and "the deep response to legends (for lack of a better word) that have what I would call the North-western temper and temperature" (Letters, p. 212). In other words, we have a world made up of words, life, and northern nobility. The combination was and is potent. Lewis put it this way: "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart" ("On Stories").
With this said, what connections can we make within the story? "Elves and Men are represented as biologically akin in this `history', because Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world . . ." (Letters, p. 189.). In short, Tolkien saw them as the incarnation of nobility—beauty, sorrow, wisdom, authority. They represent "beauty and grace of life and artifact" (Letters, p. 85). They are a representation of a part of human nature (p. 149). If "I were pressed to rationalize, I should say that they represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, greater beauty and longer life, and nobility" (Letters, p. 176).
Another important theme in Tolkien's work is the relationship between art and machinery. A very interesting contrast is found here. True magic for him was not a matter of wizards who "chirp and mutter," to use Isaiah's taunt. According to Tolkien, Gandalf was an angelic being, one of the lesser Valar, not a wizard in our sense. For Tolkien, the machinery that clanks and smokes was always wicked. And power-seeking magic did the same. Frictionless technology was not really magic, not science, but rather art. Authority and dominion in the world through art was noble, and domination through machinery and raw power was ignoble.
The whole point of magic is the manipulation of matter in order to acquire power, which is the lust that makes magicians and other assorted alchemists do what they do. But the world of The Lord of the Rings is the reverse of this—if anything, the good guys represent a photo-negative of this kind of magic. The ring of power is the ultimate symbol of magic in the traditional sense, and the whole point of the book is to destroy it, resisting all temptations to use it.
Some Christians are troubled by the apparent absence of God. Part of the problem that Tolkien had with the Arthurian stories is that they were explicitly set within the Christian era, and this made the "remoteness" which he wanted for dramatic reasons impossible. The long-ago-ness and far-away-ness would not have been long enough ago, or far enough away. But God was not excluded because of any embarrassment. At the ultimate level in the mythology (in the Silmarillion), God necessarily fills the place that only He can fill—and His name is Illuvatar. He is the only Creator. And this is why, as one said, that God is nowhere mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, but everywhere present—although Faramir does say grace once.
Mankind is represented in a realistic and complex way, and clearly bears the imago Dei. Recall that Elves "represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, great beauty and longer life, and nobility—the Elder Children" (Letters, p. 176.). They are biologically one with men, which is why they can and do intermarry with men. And this means that Orcs are corruptions of Elves (Letters, pp. 178, 191, 287), representations of man's potential for sin. Tolkien goes so far as to say that many men "to be met today" are as horribly corrupted as the Orcs are (p. 190). The hobbits are also men. "The Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race" (Letters, p. 158). This is why they can dwell with the Big Folk at Bree. For Tolkien, they represent the sturdy heroism of ordinary men. The only "children" of middle earth who are not men in some way are the dwarves.
No virtue (or fault) is ever found in a transitive verb. We do not know if someone is virtuous simply because they "love." What do they love? Or that they are wicked if they "hate." What do they hate? When literature like The Lord of the Rings is criticized, it is often attacked for being "escapist." This means we should ask a question. What is being escaped from? As Tolkien once put it, the people who are so concerned about escapism do have a name—we call them jailers.

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