Papers on Tolkien in English (2)
and Imaginary History in
Lord of the Rings
Reading and re-reading The
Lord of the Rings, I feel immersed in a world which differs from that
of my normal daily experience. This would in some measure be true, of
course, for any interesting novel: the events are experienced by other
people (the characters) and theirs are the decisions, the joys and the
perils. Furthermore, in The Lord of
the Rings I feel immersed in the Middle Ages. When I read books about
medieval history, though, my mind resists this sensation; if I were to be
transported in my imagination to any century of the Middle Ages, it would
never be the same as the world of LotR,
which is much wider than the medieval period, more complex, more idealized
and closer to me and my experience (although not, of course, the greater
part of it).
wanted to talk about our world,
and to do so he used that which he loved and which constituted his work:
archaeological and philological evidence concerning the Middle Ages,
especially the early medieval period.
Tolkien said that the events recounted in LotR
took place in Middle-earth – at latitudes corresponding to the Atlantic
coast of Europe, down to the northern Mediterranean lands - in an epoch
which resembles that which saw the struggles between late-Roman/barbarian
kingdoms which led to the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire with Rome
as its capital. Hobbiton and Rivendell are at the same latitude as Oxford,
and Minas Tirith is at that of Florence. The mouth of the Anduin and the
city of Pelargir are at the latitude of ancient Troy.
That in the passage Tolkien refers to Troy and Florence, the first an
important city in classical antiquity and the second during the
Renaissance, is an indication that Tolkien, though fascinated by the early
medieval period (he studied Gothic, old Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf
etc.), was in fact fascinated by history in
An interest in history may be motivated by nostalgia (which Tolkien
certainly felt) or the desire to understand the genesis of the present and
thus to understand the present in greater depth than would be afforded by
a mere examination of the results, with no consideration of the causes.
Tolkien also possessed this, I think more important, motivation. His world
– as we shall see below in greater detail – is like a millefeuille
cake which has been cut, so that one can see how it is made. The reader
can see the layers from twin perspectives because of two literary
techniques used by Tolkien: vertically, giving the effect of depth, or
horizontally, in greater complexity.
The first viewpoint is more evident and was spoken of explicitly by
it has been rigorously demonstrated by the critic Tom Shippey
(and so I will pass over it rapidly): LotR
recounts events which occurred, over the space of about a year, at the end
of the Third Age. But here and there, in fact fairly frequently, reference
is made to historical episodes from all three ages. This involves
reference to tales, poems, songs, monuments, inscriptions, natural
landscapes and ancient artefacts. These past events are never expounded
fully, but only glimpsed partially. This technique creates an “effect of
depth” which gradually augments the appearance of reality in the
imaginary world which is described. In fact, every real world has its own
structured past, which is never presented in its completeness to anyone,
but limited portions of which are investigated when an external event or
internal motivation acts as a stimulus. An important reason for which LotR
is considerably more absorbing than Silmarillion
is due to the fact that it contains temporal backdrops which give rise to
a realistic effect of depth, whilst the Silmarillion
does not, for it constitutes them itself. And this is also the principal
reason why Tolkien preferred not to publish Silmarillion,
as he himself admitted and as Shippey underlines.
The second perspective, more elusive, although abundantly present
in LotR, has not (to my
knowledge) received explicit critical attention, although several points
are made in an article by Christina Scull.
This is the "horizontal" or synchronic viewpoint, in which the
various historical layers are present at the same time and “spatialized”,
that is transformed into territories of Middle-earth.
The Barrow-downs represent the late Stone Age to early Bronze Age
(c. 3000 BC).
Numenor, with its gigantic funerary constructions and embalming of
the dead, is ancient Egypt. And also ancient Israel which, at the time of
the monarchy (c. 900 BC), forsook the iconless cult of Yahweh (Eru on
Meneltarma) for idolatry, and Israel of the Exodus, with the flight of
Elendil/Moses and the remaining faithful. Then again, the human sacrifices
demanded by Sauron in the temple at Melkor bring to mind the customs of
the ancient Carthaginians and the Aztecs; and the conquest for plunder and
slave-taking, the markedly different foreign policy of imperial with
respect to republican Rome.
Arnor represents the Western Roman Empire in the 4th and
5th century, with internal struggles between the imperatores,
as well as the complicated wars between barbarian tribes and barbarian/Roman
kingdoms, in particular the Anglo-Saxons and the Merovingians’ realm.
The Wainriders and Easterlings represent nomadic and semi-nomadic
Slavs, Magyars, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Mongols, Tartars and Turks in their
continual incursions into Europe from the East during late-classical and
early medieval times.
The Dwarf races, with their age-old feuding are the 5th
– 8th century Germanic kings, as recounted, for example, in
Paul the Deacon’s Historia
Gondor is - in Tolkien’s own words - a sort of proud and
venerable (but ever more impotent) Byzantium, which reaches the peak of
its power (10th century) only to unravel in a decadent medieval
period (11th – 15th century).
Tolkien also relates that the Numenoreans in Gondor were proud, strange
and archaic, just like the ultra-traditionalist ancient Egyptians, who
resemble them in their love of gigantic edifices and interest in tombs and
ancestors, although in their theology they are more like the Hebrews.
In general, the Fall of Numenor signifies for Tolkien the end of the
Classical Epoch and the beginning of the Middle Ages.
The Rohirrim represent the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th to
and their relations with Gondor those between the Romans/barbarians and
But the Rohirrim also stand for the North American natives, with their
horses, prairies and their ingenuous and strict sense of honour.
Mordor in general represents the despotism of the ancient eastern
empires (Eygptian, Chaldean, Mesopotamian, Persian), who deported entire
peoples and made widespread use of slavery (but also suggests the
despotism of our own time: the "racial" experiments and the
attempt to introduce a new paganism on the part of the Nazis of the
Governorship of the Reich and in the Eastern Territories; whereas Saruman,
who aspires to install himself in Isengard, resembles the Vichy,
Bratislava and Budapest governments).
The Isengard of Saruman is also the lair of powerful medieval to 18th-century
pirates, like Saracen Algeria or the Caribbean island of Tortuga.
The City of the Lake (in the
Hobbit) is like a European Bronze Age lake settlement
combined with a lagoon or riverside city, such as mercantile Venice
or Amsterdam in late medieval times
Lorien and Rivendell are a mixture of the medieval (12th-13th
century) baronial courts of Provence, with their troubadours, and early
medieval Benedictine – in particular Cluniac – abbeys.
The Druedain are a blend of Neolithic and nineteenth-century third
world peoples at the time of their first contacts with European colonizers.
Not only, then is Middle-earth in its entirety a mixture of
different historical periods, each one referred to a geographical region,
a sort of “synchronized diachrony” (in which events separated in time
are made contemporary), but also in some individual areas a certain degree
of combination occurs, as we have seen in several examples.
The most evident example is the Shire. So as to make it compatible
with the other parts of Middle-earth which will be visited by the Hobbits,
it manifests certain generalized medieval
(plumed headgear, bows and arrows, travel on foot or on horseback, the
existence of the Thain, and so on) or Ancien Règime qualities (extended
rather than nuclear families; no electricity; little travel occurs: most
people are born, live and die in one place; the economy is almost
exclusively agricultural). Thus it exhibits numerous aspects of the past
which lasted for millennia and are compatible with the various
geographically (not temporally) expressed “pasts” to be found
elsewhere in Middle-earth.
But, exceptionally, it also contains (blended with the ingredients
outlined above) modern and contemporary elements:
there are American plants, potatoes and tobacco (“pipe-weed” was
called tobacco in the first drafts of LotR);
a well organized postal service exists for
everyone (not just for the aristocracy); there is a civic museum;
neither vassalage nor a rural nobility exist;
there are smials or comfortable Hobbit houses; Lobelia uses an umbrella;
middle class houses have clocks hanging on the wall;
Sharkey introduces the accumulation of state wealth, industrial pollution
of rivers, prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, and smokestacks.
As Emilia Lodigiani has observed, the Shire represents "everyday
which cannot exist or sustain itself in isolation from a much wider
cultural, political and military background: the Hobbits as a race were
relatives of Men,
who themselves had received language, writing and science from the Elves;
in particular, there was peace in the Shire only because the Elves and Men
(the last of which were the Rangers) had curbed the forces of evil.
Similarly, the Shire symbolizes the actual present, with which the reader
identifies (the Hobbit and LotR
are written – in “The Red Book of Westmarch” -
from the point of view of the Hobbits). And the present cannot
exist without the past, or survive without a “sense of history” (or historia
magistra vitae, which is developed for the Hobbit population by a few
selected individuals, especially Bilbo and Frodo).
If we enter into the intimate life of the Shire, we find a well-fed
Hobbit (Bilbo, or Frodo before his voyage) in his comfortable home, Bag
End, seated in a comfortable armchair, smoking a pipe, whilst the clock on
the wall and the crackling of the fire mark the passing of time spent
waiting for the scones and sponge cake which is being baked for afternoon
tea; outside, the gardener is attending to the lawn and flowerbeds. This
authentic personal life of the Shire is very childish and celibate
(psychologically), very petit-bourgeois (socially), very countrified
(from a geographical point of view) and very 20th-century (temporally).
It portrays, in other words, a style of life disconnected from an
awareness of great historical events. We know that Bilbo and Frodo have
"Tookish blood", take part in important adventures and meet
Elves and Wizards, but these facts are what make them different, and
distinguish them from – rather than making them fit into – the Shire.
It seems then, that when Tolkien speaks of Hobbits, he makes
reference to his readers (as well as to a part of himself),
towards whom he feels both sympathy and critical doubt. When he speaks of
the Elves, Aragorn, Treebeard and, especially, of Gandalf,
he is talking about that minority of people (as well as about another part
of himself) who fulfil the vital role of “eye-openers”
and, in particular, curators of that sense of history which is essential
for the defence and promotion of everyday life. (Though this knowledge of
history may be necessary for the defence and encouragement of “normal”
existence, it is certainly not sufficient to guarantee it: Saruman is a
scholar expert in the tradition of the Rings and many other historical
matters, but this knowledge does not enable him to avoid becoming a great
deceiver and master of self-deception).
to the Bronze Age!
If the Hobbits represent 20th-century readers, the
regions of Middle-earth are a historical atlas and characters such as
Gandalf, Elrond and Aragorn are history professors, why did Tolkien state
more than once that the events recounted in his saga are episodes that
took place in our world, in particular in Europe, but in the distant past?
Tolkien was, in fact, quite detailed: his present, and that of LotR’s
readers (the second half of the 20th century) corresponds to
the end of the Sixth Age or the beginning of the seventh. Since an Age
lasts for about 2000 years, between the end of the Third Age – and the
happenings chronicled in LotR
– and the publication of the book, 6000 years would have passed.
What sense could it have though, to construct a Shire which
somewhat resembles the home of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, and then say that
this land – with its clocks, umbrella-carrying widows, well-tended lawns
and five-o’clock tea - existed 6000 years ago, between the Neolithic and
the Bronze Age?
The most plausible explanation is, I think, the following: it is
because neither the twentieth-century Shire, nor Byzantine Gondor, nor
indeed any other component of the Middle-earth tableau historique
are real; all are “idealized”.
In the Shire there are no weapons, no murders, no cases of incest or rape,
no robberies, no social conflicts, no epidemics, no infant mortality,
hunger or cancer; everyone is long-lived and the only deaths described (such
as that of Otho Sackville Baggins) are due to "old age".
Gondorian Byzantium, unlike the real Byzantium,
seems to have a sort of feudal system (manifested in Prince Imrahil and
the other Lords who gathered to defend Minas Tirith in its hour of need),
but there are not the continuous feudal wars which were present in chronic
form wherever the presence of the feudal system may be historically
recognised, such as in medieval western Europe
and in Japan from the 12th to 16th centuries.
Considerations of space prevent me from citing other examples, which are
It is true that few of the LotR’s
readers would be able, or interested, to recognize the marked
incongruities that exist between Tolkien’s imaginary medieval worlds and
the actual Middle Ages; but nearly all of these readers, whether
they like it or not, cannot avoid accepting the rural England of the Shire
as real. Indeed, that “Shire” is too idealized! Thus, by pushing the
“modernity” of the Shire (together with the surrounding “medieval”
regions) back to 6000 years ago, Tolkien is able to make the two things
compatible: readers identify with the Shire’s twentieth-century features,
but this identification is not ruined by unsustainable comparisons.
On the other hand, shifting the time of the War of the Ring to 6000
years ago has the result that the First Age commenced 12000 years ago, and
this happens – as every reader of LotR
and Silmarillion knows –
without transforming the "medieval" status of the Elf, Men’s
and Dwarf civilizations (without
considering the Hobbits of the Shire, whose recorded history begins no
earlier than the Third Age). In all three ages we find a single and
unchanging level of civilization, the "medieval".
This brings us to consider two further problems of Tolkien’s use
of history in his works of fiction. The first is that, in one sense, time
passes (kingdoms are born and destroyed; continents change; characters are
born, perform actions and then die), but in a second sense it seems not to
pass (scientific, technological, artistic, literary, jurisprudential and
religious notions do not change). It is as though civilization was
immobile, as though only brief events (battles, adventures, deaths etc.)
occurred, and not long-term processes.
The second problem is that this immobility sustains the "medieval":
the same type of armour, castles, hereditary monarchy and the same absence
of industrialization are found both at the onset of the First Age and at
the end of the Third, as is the lack of widespread slavery.
Why this immobility? Why does it maintain "medieval" ways?
I will consider the second question first.
It should be made clear at the outset that this "medieval"
character is expressed between inverted commas for several reasons: it
includes elements of antiquity, such as the deification of Sauron and
slavery in Mordor and, generally, the extreme
slowness of change (in the 4000 years of the ancient civilized world,
cultural and social changes were much slower than in the 1000 years of the
Middle Ages, from late classical to Renaissance). Then there are
ingredients from the modern age, such as the presence of national rather
than feudal monarchies; the presence of armies composed largely of
foot-soldiers; and the ideology noted by
Shippey, who refers to Lord Acton’s aphorism that power always corrupts
and therefore that someone who seeks power cannot remain untainted.
Furthermore, the scenario of an alliance of many peoples (the "Free
Peoples of Middle-earth") who, in
the name of freedom and other values which go beyond the mere politics
of state power, fight against a common enemy which aims to conquer and
enslave the whole world, is an idea not to be found in the Middle Ages or
the Ancien Règime, but appears in European alliances only at the time of
the French Revolution and Napoleon I Bonaparte. In addition, as mentioned
above, there is neither clear-cut vassalage (the word is used only with
regard to Gwaihir and his eagles), nor serfdom. In particular, there is no
organized church with related customs rooted in the life of the populace.
Perhaps Tolkien chose the medieval period because the classical
civilizations had aspects too different from ours (human sacrifice,
polytheism, gladiatorial contests, deification of rulers,
sexual licence, slavery), which would have created obstacles to
On the other hand, the modern age did not easily lend itself to the
landscapes and characters Tolkien had in mind; bureaucracy,
industrialization, mass culture etc. would have resembled hard,
un-fantasized reality a bit too much.
The Middle Ages also lend themselves well to the expression of the
"Germanic" ideals of Beowulf,
according to which "heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, more
proud the spirit as our power lessens". Tolkien, however wanted this
ideal in the following form (as he says explicitly in The
Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son):
desperate courage is a moral value only if uncorrupted by a desire for
glory, for personal recognition, but motivated only by the loyalty of a
subordinate to his superiors.
And this adjustment could only have widespread social approval in a
Christian society such as in the medieval epoch, in contrast to ancient
Other motives: medieval times are fascinating because of the
stratification of previous cultures (Theodoric’s keeping of the Roman
senate; Frederick II, who mixed elements of ancient Roman with Byzantine,
Norman, Arab and Frankish feudal in his Palermo palace),
a stratification which also existed in the ancient world but about which
we, from our greater distance in time, know much less. In medieval, but
not ancient, times an original English civilization and language were born
(from a synthesis of British Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons).
Pre-Reformation medieval England was still Catholic, not yet become
insular, but with deep linguistic, cultural and dynastic ties with the
Continent – and so different from in the modern age. Lastly, in the
Middle Ages Tolkien could make appropriate use of a series of languages of
his own invention, based on the Germanic and Celtic tongues which he loved.
If one reads a serious book on medieval history,
one immediately makes the (predictable) discovery that all medieval kings
were – in varying proportions, of course - both good and bad, and there
is never a moment during these 1000 years when an alliance which clearly
aims at conquest, enslavement and massacre is opposed by an alliance which
proposes to defend liberty and promote justice. Such groupings – either
in practice or, at least, in theory – may be found from the time of the
French Revolution onwards and, especially, from the time of World War II.
Following Tom Shippey’s analysis, it seems to me that Tolkien also
wants (it is not his principal aim) to talk about the mid-20th
century and its particular political problems. But, like other British
fantasy writers of the same period (T.H. White, G. Orwell, C.S. Lewis and
W. Golding) he could not do so using a form of literary realism. None of
these authors addressed politics and social problems directly,
because they felt that beneath them lay other more important issues (for
example, the investigation of the nature of evil) that many "realist"
writers were tempted to avoid or completely ignore.
Tolkien elected to use medieval fantasy, like T.H. White, whereas Orwell
chose the near future, Golding a mid-oceanic desert island and Lewis an
Multitude of Events, but Only One Change
In order to reply to the second question posed above (why does
Tolkien “immobilize" history?), let us begin by noting that the
Middle Ages – as commonly perceived – seem to embody the idea of
immobility; we do not find it easy to distinguish the various subdivisions
of western medieval history (e.g. the phases of feudalism).
We clearly perceive the differences between the 18th and 20th
centuries, but not those between the 7th and 9th or
11th and 13th centuries; it seems to us as though
each generation of medieval peasants, monks, nuns, housewifes and warriors
and without additions the heritage of ideas and habits bequeathed by the
preceding generation. Whether this might really be due to the existence of
an objective medieval “slowness” (which was still more pronounced in
antiquity), or alternatively to our subjective obtuseness in
discriminating, is a complex problem which I will not discuss here. The
fact, though, remains.
Certainly, medieval historians were not aware of important
historical changes; they recorded bundles of events, but did not notice
fundamental changes: and Tolkien in Silmarillion
and the retrospective passages of LotR
does not describe past centuries and millennia after the fashion of a
modern historian, but rather he recounts them as might have Paul the
Deacon in his Historia
To a certain extent Tolkien accepts, as a philosophical basis for
this immobility, the Platonic theory: for Plato all knowledge is
pre-existent to history, it exists from the birth of the heavens, and
during life it is remembered, but either augmented nor modified; progress
does not exist.
Thus for Tolkien some knowledge is innate or “natural” (given by
Iluvatar ?), such as that concerning family organization
whilst all other knowledge (astronomical, artistic, military, linguistic
etc.) was taught by the Valar to the Elves at the beginning of their
history: more to the Eldar and less to the Moriquendi, but at the
beginning a body of knowledge was transmitted and afterwards basically
conserved without change (there were some specific developments, such as
the art of precious metalwork in Feanor and Celembribor,
but these had no general significance for the Elves’ social
practices). The circumstances of Men during the first three Ages are
little different, except that for them the Valar’s role is played by the
It is true that in the Fourth Age the Men break away from the
tutelage of the Elves and the Istari (and, in the final analysis, the
Valar) and develop a "Time of Men" which leads to our actual
history, and up to our present, which is no longer "medieval",
and therefore presupposes that historical change had been “set in motion”.
But the Fourth Age is not
described by Tolkien: he eliminated the Epilogue
and aborted the sequel set after the death of Aragorn.
As Shippey has rightly observed,
the dialogue between Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith has a particular
importance in LotR: the
representatives of the two main non-human races of Middle-earth discuss
history and the role of Men in it: the latter are described as the new
protagonists who will replace the old, with the principal defect of
inconstancy and the principal merit of being enterprising.
This is a prophecy whose meaning is ambiguous: Legolas – arguing against
Gimli who plays the part of detractor – emphasizes the human qualities
which will guarantee – according to the Elf’s prophecy – their
survival after the disappearance of Elves and Dwarves. But what is the
value of this vitality if what Gimli says – that Men are unable to
complete the projects they undertake or to conserve what is good from the
past – is true (and the allegation is not contradicted by Legolas)?
Aragorn Elfstone, although the first king of the Fourth Age – the
Age of Men – does not seem to fit the descriptions of Legolas and Gimli:
certainly not that of Gimli, because he is constancy personified, able to
live anonymously at length, carrying out an unrecognised service for which
he postpones political action and marriage until he is able to complete,
at the right moment, his
mission. But neither does he correspond to Legolas’s description: he re-forges
the broken sword, reunites the
divided kingdom, replants the
withered tree, but sows no “new seeds", takes no new initiatives.
He conserves tradition; he sets off the Fourth Age not because he
interprets its special destiny, but simply because he presides over the
passage from the Third Age. He saves the freedom of the peoples of
Middle-earth, but does not use that freedom to create anything new.
What does he conserve? In accordance with the name he is known by (Elessar
= Elf-stone), he (who grew up in the house of Elrond and his son-in-law,
was a descendant of the Numenoreans of Elendil, that is those faithful
both to the Elves of Tol Eressea and the Middle-earth Elves) is the human
who conserves the tradition of the Elves.
Now Tolkien did not intend to narrate the events of the Time of Men
(the 4th, 5th and 6th Ages), whereas he
recounted in great detail the three eras of the Time of the Elves (see Silmarillion,
Unfinished Tales and the
12-volume History of Middle-earth).
The three eras of Men are those of our actual history and therefore are
full of historical changes, as Tolkien well understood (and his readers at
least approximately). The three Elvish ages, in contrast, do not have
anything analogous to our Renaissance or Protestant Reforms, the
conversion of entire populations to Christianity, feudalization of
societies, birth of city-states or bourgeois power, constitution of
nation-states, the English liberal revolution, democratic revolution in
the United States, liberal-democratic and partly socialist revolution in
France; or to the Copernican, Galilean, Newtonian, Darwinian, Einsteinian
or Freudian scientific revolutions; the Enlightenment, Romanticism,
Positivism; the discovery of the New World, colonization, decolonization;
the agricultural, industrial, transport, telecommunications or information
technology revolutions; the demographic boom or the advent of mass
culture, bureaucratization, constitution of the welfare state or the
growth of the division of labour in a complex society.
The Time of the Elves is a “frozen” history, filled with
happenings, but without changes. Except for one.
Although from the First to Third Ages the Elves do not develop new
knowledge or modify their social organization, they still experience a
real, though isolated, historical change during this period. This
transformation is essentially internal, notwithstanding its important
external results, and cannot correctly be called intellectual, political
or social; it is really a moral
The Elves whose history Tolkien narrates are not the Vanyar or
Teleri of Valinor, but rather those of Middle-earth: the Moriquendi who
refused to leave and the Noldor who wished to return. Elf lineages who
loved Middle-earth, because of its beauty, because they could found there
a dominion independently of the Valar, enough to stay there for thousands
of years, even though they knew it was inhabited by Melkor and his
These Middle-earth Elves, though, change greatly between the First
Age and the end of the Third: at first they are founders of kingdoms,
builders of cities, makers of rings, teachers of peoples and generals in
great wars. At the end of the Third Age they are elusive woodland dwellers,
reduced to giving shelter, curing and giving advice in the
“monasteries” of Rivendell and Lorien, progressively disillusioned
with Middle-earth and on the point of leaving for somewhere beyond the sea
or “fading away”.
The Elf who most typifies the First Age is Feanor, with his great
bravery, but also his overweening pride (and thus, though to a less marked
extent, are also Finrod, Thingol and Turgon). The most typical Third Age
Elf is Elrond (A Half-elven who has chose the destiny of the Firstborn):
with no earthly ambition, "abbot" of Rivendell and with his
heart already beyond the Sea.
The only Elves living in Middle-earth in both the First and Third
Ages are Glorfindel and, in particular, Galadriel. Glorfindel in the First
Age is the heroic warrior who falls defending what is left of his homeland,
at the end of the Third Age is a messenger and scout for individuals from
other peoples, Aragorn and Frodo, in whose campaigns he takes no part.
Galadriel in the First Age is a proud Noldor princess who goes to
Middle-earth against the wishes of the Valar, neither to recover the
Silmarils like Feanor, nor to influence their leadership, like Fingolfin.
She seeks in Middle-earth a "dominion of her own”.
Galadriel at the end of the Third Age is the woman who stays close to her
who secretly keeps the Nenya Ring, who keeps an eye on the movements of
the enemy, who gives shelter to and encourages the Fellowship of the Ring,
who refuses – in a memorable scene with Frodo – any prospect of
independence, who goes with Elrond and Gandalf to the Grey Havens and
leaves Middle-earth for ever.
Historical immobility, we can begin to understand, makes sense
because it applies to the Time of Elves. A history of mankind without
cultural and social change would make no sense and would result in
theological scepticism and desperation: why should innumerable generations
of individuals be born and die if this served no purpose for future
generations, if no journey was undertaken, no mission fulfilled? Real
antiquity certainly had its historical changes, but ancient historiography
was not aware of them; human nature was held immutable and time cyclical;
this fed a profound scepticism towards the traditional gods and a pitiful
sense of desperation which – like a karstic stream – re-emerge,
despite their best intentions, in Thucydides and Tacitus.
But Tolkien’s Elves live for thousands of years and can therefore
experience personally the
passage of time: individual experiences which, during the course of their
lives, slowly and painfully, lead to a moral maturation.
This, then, seems to me the answer to the question that I posed
above (why is there immobility in Tolkien’s imaginary history?):
Tolkien, by means of the Elves, wants to talk about an aspect of human
Not humanity’s collective experience, that which we call “history”,
but the personal experience of individuals, which we simply call
“life”. In fact, that
which happens to the Elves collectively during the three Ages – there
are no important cultural and social changes – occurs during the life of
each single human being: the “character” does not change, because the
cultural and social factors in the world which led to its formation are
unchangeable: a thirteenth-century man, be he Dante Alighieri or the
humblest serf, could never think, feel and act like an eighteenth or
twentieth-century man, as is well understood by the historians of human
Even if character cannot change, the life of a person makes sense
because he changes his own “response” to that character. Free will
does not consist of trying to be a different person or living an external
or internal life different from that which destiny has bestowed; it
consists of trying to understand ("know thyself") and thus make
a critical analysis – which
are the good points, and which the bad – and to behave accordingly. This
is moral maturity, which is the only change recorded in Tolkien’s
history of the Elves, inasmuch, I believe, as this
history was not really about history, but about life.
Using a literary technique not the least bit "medieval"
or "traditional", but instead similar to Samuel Beckett’s in Waiting
for Godot (as Delle Rupi has observed), Tolkien makes Frodo and Sam
realize, when they are near Cirith Ungol, that they are fictitious
characters: "characters become legends, narrators become characters
and listeners become narrators”.
The three authors of the Red Book
of Westmark - Bilbo, Frodo and Sam - are protagonists of the events
which are recounted and are aware that these serve as material for a
narration. They serve, that is, the hearer or reader who will receive a
message, a teaching, that will help them to understand that they now are
the actor who must continue the story. De
te fabula docet: the
story speaks of your own life.
From the Valar and Iluvatar Perspectives
Apart from Melkor, the Ainur were content with the first Music of
Iluvatar: their attitude was conservative.
When Melkor introduced dissonance, the Ainur would have preferred to
eliminate it. Iluvatar maintained it, though, and incorporated it into a
new music, more glorious than the old. When shaping Arda, the Ainur (who
then became the Valar) wanted to perform the first music, and then wished
to conserve the result. After the coming of the Firstborn, the Valar aimed
to take them away from Middle-earth - where, clearly not by chance,
Iluvatar had placed them – and have them live in Valinor so that they
could share together the contemplation of unchanging beauty.
When the Noldor decide to return to Middle-earth, they are
influenced by the false accusations against the Valar spread by Melkor
("the Valar want you to
stay in Valinor in order to rule over you") and shaken by the violent
arguments between Feanor and his half-brothers, motivated, at least
partially, by the prospect of vindictive greed (the reconquest of the
Silmarils), and the killing of the related Teleri race. There are all the
ingredients here of the biblical account of the Fall in Genesis
3: the falsehoods recounted by the Serpent-Satan against Yahweh, the
advent of the incomprehension and reciprocal accusations between Adam and
Eve, the desire for the forbidden fruit and the slaying of Abel by Cain.
The Valar condemn the Noldors’ emigration, gathered in council and
influenced by the first prophecy of Mandos.
However, even if it is true that the emigration of the Noldor took
place in practice against a
background of wrong-doing, might not it have been possible in
theory for it to occur righteously? And would not the Valar, beside
the fact that they condemned it on grounds of sinfulness, have opposed it
anyway, at least in their hearts – even if it had been conducted in
Although one cannot be certain of the answer to the first of these
questions, there is no doubt of that to the second, as may seen from the
Valar’s behaviour prior to the Noldor’s misdeeds. According to the
conservative historical perspective of the Valar, it would have been
preferable for the Elves to live out their time in Valinor, rather than
going to Middle-earth (which was probably unforeseen on the part of the
I have argued above that the
imaginary history Tolkien
recounts is not really history, but principally a metaphor for the life of
the individual. I would now like to suggest that the meaning of life
embodied in LotR does not
follow exclusively the Valar conservative viewpoint, but also partially
the "creative" perspective
The point of view of the Valar follows the Platonic model of "emanation"
and "return" (mimesis
and metexis): the temporal world is an emanation of the eternal
world, and returns to it. This emanation is an imperfect copy of the
perfect archetype and represents an infelicitous descent, in the cycle of
rebirth, from the state of beatitude. The primordial condition is restored
by the process of return, compared to which the intervening time adds
nothing new or significant. Thus the Elves, after their errors in
Middle-earth, return to Valinor: some
go to the Halls of Mandos (the killed ones), others to Eldamar (those who
chose to sail the Great Sea).
When Bilbo, in the Hobbit
(which is subtitled “There and Back Again”), returns to the Shire
after his adventure, he is essentially unchanged: Tolkien ends the work
with "and he lived happy and content", underlining the
resumption of that interrupted “bourgeois” and “infantile” state
of beatitude in his comfortable house, Bag End, which was described at the
beginning of this essay. It is true that now Bilbo is not merely
well-to-do, but has become decidedly prosperous. And it is also true that
he has managed to avoid forgetting his "Tookish part", but
instead has put it to the test and found in himself great reserves of
courage, sagacity and generosity. But all this, in 1937, was a theme still
undeveloped (the book was, after all, expressly aimed at children), and
the Hobbit concludes with the
Platonic model: the return to an individualistic and infantile life of
good square meals, friendly jokes, pipe-smoking and dozing.
In LotR – which opens
with abundant meals and friendly joking – something of this perspective
remains: Frodo and Sam do not die on Mount Doom, but are saved by the (Deus
ex machina) eagles and return to the Shire, which in the meantime has
become corrupt and polluted, but which is rapidly restored and cleaned up.
Flowers and lawns once more surround the house at Bag End and – at least
for Sam – the cycle of peaceful days restarts. He says, in fact, in the
book’s last line, “Well, I’m back”.
Together with this perspective, though, there is another, which
predominates in LotR: Frodo
cannot remain in the Shire, some wounds cannot be healed, he must leave
for the sea and death. Sam, too, knows that he cannot expect to see again
Galadriel in Lorien, Elrond in Rivendell, Gildor Inglorion in the woods of
the Shire or Gandalf in Bag End. They have gone for ever. Sam himself will
go to the Grey Havens (as is recounted in the Appendix).
As Middle-earth is our Earth, once magical, but
longer magical, so life, as it progresses, leaves behind childhood, which
can be remembered but cannot – and must not – be returned to.
Fiorenzo Delle Rupi rightly observes, in his essay on the modernity of LotR,
that in this work – in contrast to the Hobbit
– return is denied from the very beginning.
Life has a meaning because Iluvatar suffers no restrictions, and
continually creates a realistic context in which our existential
adventures - which necessarily include knowledge, pain and death – are
not just wanderings or errors, but become an integral part of a future
music of unimagined beauty.
This is obviously a Christian point of view. Whereas in certain
Greek thought "it is best for a man not to be born, or to die
at an early age", for a Christian, despite the knowledge that a child
as it grows will suffer and commit many sins, it is not to be desired that
children should die so as to return immediately to heaven and the angels.
For Christianity, temporal events are opportunities to be saved;
there is no return for the soul to a heaven or an earthly paradise; human
nature is not unchangeable, but is called to transform itself into a
suffering gives privileged access to this transformation; death is not
cancellation, but fulfilment. It is, however, the death of all
the person, body and soul, and
not just of the body – as for Plato or the Elves (while the body is
mortal, the soul is immortal and ready for reincarnation) – and sin is
in fact a "felix culpa”.
abundant use of elements taken from real history in LotR
does not mean, I would suggest, that Tolkien’s primary aim was to
talk of real history, long past or recent.
Tolkien disapproved of the use of allegory, in which there is a
one-to-one relationship between a signifying element X and a signified
element Y, a relation which leaves freedom to neither the sender of the
message nor its receiver. He explained that his work contained "large
symbolism", in which the relations between signifier and signified
are manifold, rather than unambiguous and predetermined.
In this free and unconstrained manner, the presence of history in
Tolkien’s works symbolizes diverse aspects of the meaning of human life:
to the complexity and dramatic nature of the world, of which an important
precondition is historical awareness;
immobility of individual characters, over and above the multiplicity of
possibility of moral maturation as an unconstrained response to immobility
of unforeseen innovations, of the confluence of individual paths into a
vast Way with no return, which presupposes, at least implicitly, the
acceptance of the creative role of Iluvatar with respect to evil (amongst
idealization of isolated historical elements, the spatialization of time
which makes later and earlier historical components contemporary, and the
assimilation of all historical ingredients into a generalized medieval
period are all literary techniques which serve to achieve the
philosophical aims (outlined above) of Tolkien’s historical symbolism.
The effect of depth created by the detailed construction of a
long-past imaginary history predating the epoch in which the LotR’s
events are set constitutes a literary stratagem which serves a different
purpose, the aesthetic need to give the work "the intimate
consistence of reality", to make of it a "subcreation" in
which readers could imagine living.
Direct references to recent history or contemporary events (for
example Sauron’s totalitarian experiments and Saruman’s bureaucratic
and anti-ecological administration of the Shire) are also certainly
and are important, but occupy a secondary role with regard to the
into English by Jimmy Bishop]
Thanks to Patrick Curry and Tom Shippey, who read this paper,
found several mistakes, made some remarks to improve it and encouraged
me to published it.
The medieval period or Middle Ages, according to Western
historical convention, refers to events in the West from the fall of the
Western Roman Empire (AD
476) until the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453) or the discovery
of America (1492). The early part of the period (also known as the Dark
Ages) extends from the 5th century until the 10th
century (end of the Carolingian Empire).
JRRT, Letters (London
: Allen & Unwin, 1981),
JRRT, Letters, cit,
The Road to Middle Earth
(London : Harper Collins, 1992), pp.272-281.
JRRT, Letters, cit,
n.182, p.237, n.247, pp.333-334; Shippey, The
Road, cit, pp.203-204, 273-274.
Which discusses the "feeling that some readers have that
Tolkien's writings recover a lost part of actual history". C. Scull,
The Influence of Archaeology and
History on Tolkien's World, in K.J. Battarbee (editor),
Scholarship and Fantasy: proceedings of the Tolkien Phaenomenon (Turku:
University of Turku, 1993), p.34.
Scull, The Influence,
cit, n.131, p.157.
Shippey, The Road,
 Georg Ostrogorsky, Storia dell'impero bizantino [Geschichte des Byzantinischen Staates] (Torino: Einaudi, 1968), pp. 39-12.
Shippey, The Road,
 Scull, cit, p.40.
 Edmond Pognon, La vita quotidiana nell'Anno Mille [La vie quotidienne en l’an Mille] (Milano: Rizzoli, 1989), pp. 115-132.
According to the generally-accepted conventions amongst Western
historians, the Modern Age
begins in 1492 and ends in 1789 (French Revolution), 1815 (Congress of
Vienna), 1870 (end of the constitution of nation-states and beginning of
imperialism) or 1918 (end of First World War and European
world domination). There follows the Contemporary
Age, which lasts from one of these dates until the present.
 Cf. Marc Bloch, La società feudale [La société féodale (1939)] ( Torino: Einaudi, 1987), pp. 171-315.
 JRRT, The Return of the Shadow. History of Middle Earth, Vol. VI (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 15.
 Invito alla lettura di Tolkien (Milano: Mursia, 1982), p. 95.
JRRT, The Lord of the
Rings [LotR, 1954-1955] (London: Unwin Paperback,1983) : “It is
plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives
of ours : far nearer to us than the Elves, or even the Dwarves. Of old
they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion, and liked and
disliked much the same things as Men did.”, p. 14.
The married-couple version , after criticism from others and
personal doubts, was excised from the definitive version of LotR:
cf. The Epilogue in JRRT, Sauron
Defeated. History of Middle Earth, Vol. IX (London: Harper Collins,
cit, n.213, pp. 288-289.
Gandalf, more than Elrond or Aragorn, was an expert scholar and
effective transmitter of historical awareness. This may be seen in many
parts of the work, especially in the chapters The
Shadow of the Past and The
Council of Elrond.
JRRT, LotR, cit, p.
cit, n.211 p.283, n.294 p.376, n.183 p.244.
JRRT, Letters, cit,
n.211 p.283. The idea of living at the end of the Sixth Age of the world
,or at the beginning of the Seventh, is not original to Tolkien, but may
be found in the writings of an eighth-century English monk, the
Venerable Bede: De temporum
Ratione (cf. Pognon, La vita
quotidiana, cit., pp.71-73).
Since Tolkien defined the ends
of the First, Second and Third Ages to coincide with important
events in Middle-earth, when the forces of good conquer those of evil (respectively,
the War of Wrath and Melkor’s expulsion; the war of Elendil and
Gil-Galaad against Sauron and Isildur’s control of
the One Ring; the War of the Ring and the destruction of Sauron),it
is interesting to wonder which events might have marked the following
divisions. As pure speculation, I propose: the Fourth Age finished in
about 2000 BC at the onset of the Bronze Age, when the Indo-European
Elamite people defeated and extinguished the Semitic civilization
of Sumer, when the unified Middle Kingdom (with capital at Thebes) began,
bringing to a close a period of anarchy in the Egyptian Empire, when the
Rigveda, the oldest Hindu
text, was written (Hinduism is the oldest religion which survives today).
The Fifth Age finished around the year zero and the Sixth Age
started: when Octavian Augustus defeated Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium
(31 BC), impeding Eastern domination of the West; when the second
manifestation of the Christian god was born as Jesus of Nazareth (3 BC);
when Jesus Christ was crucified on the Cross initiating universal
redemption (AD 30).
The Sixth Age ended with the defeat of Hitler’s project to
conquer the planet and impose Nazi ideology and methods (AD 1945); when
decolonization occurred and the
peoples of the Third World were freed from European domination; when,
with the death of Stalin and the 20th CPSU Congress, the
irreversible de-totalitarianization of the USSR started, together with
the disintegration of the Third Communist Internationale (1953). We
should remember that JRRT’s letter referred to above was written in
A difference between the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires was
that the former did not experience feudalism, judged by some historians
(e.g. Ostrogorsky, Storia,
cit) as a positive feature, but by others (such as Kazhdan, Bisanzio
e la sua civiltà [Vizantijskaja kul’tura], Laterza, Bari, 1995)
as a negative one.
 Cf. M. Bloch, cit, pp.333-339, 457-470; Pognon, cit, pp.303-315.
Cf. Edwin O. Reischauer,
Storia del Giappone [Japan. The
Story of a Nation] (Milano:
Bompiani, 1994), pp. 37-67.
Examples of tong-term processes: the spread of feudalism; the
passage from the extended family to the nuclear family;
industrialization; the spread of Christianity; the growth of liberalism,
Lord Acton (a late nineteenth-century
English historian) famously said: "Power tends to corrupt,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Tom Shippey (The
Road, cit, p.125) discusses this notion, central to LotR,
and correctly notes that the idea is not present in antiquity or the
Middle Ages, but is specifically modern; neither Plato nor Thomas
Aquinas would have had it, because they thought that those who managed
to gain power could use it for both good and evil purposes.
JRRT, The Homecoming of
Beorhtnoth (1953) reprinted in
The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966).
At the first glance, it could seem that Tolkien did not realize
that this identical position was adopted by the defence of Nazis accused
at the Nuremberg trials.
Ebherard Horst, Federico
II [Friederich der staufer.Eine biographie] (Milano: Rizzoli, 1995),
Cf. Shippey, Tolkien as a
Postwar Writer, in Scholarship
and Fantasy, cit., p.217.
 M. Bloch, La società feudale, cit; Henri Pirenne, Storia d’Europa dalle invasioni al XVI secolo [Histoire de l’Europe des invasions au XVI siècle (1937)] (Milano: Garzanti, 1967); Johann Huizinga, L'autunno del Medioevo [Herfsttij der middeleeuwen (1919)] (Firenze: Sansoni, 1966).
T. Shippey, Tolkien as a
Postwar Writer, cit., pp. 217-236. Shippey observes that all 5 of
these British writers had had direct experience of the tragedies of war,
and that Britain was the only Western country (apart from its enemies,
Austria and Germany) at war for 10 out of 31 years: 1914–1918 and
 Cf. Bloch, La società feudale, cit, pp. 171-270, 363-375, 442-455, 471-489.
"History of the Langobards” ; an English translation is
available on this website :
Cf.JRRT, Laws and Customs
among the Eldars, in Morgoth's
Ring. History of Middle Earth, Vol. X (London: Harper Collins,
JRRT, Sauron Defeated,
JRRT, The New Shadow, in
The Peoples of Middle-earth. History
of Middle Earth, Vol XII (London: Harper Collins,
1996), pp. 409-421.
 JRRT, LotR, cit, pp. 906-907.
edition, 1977] (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 292
; see also The Fall of
Gondolin in The
Book of Lost Tales – part II .
History of Middle Earth, Vol. II (London:
Allen & Unwin, 1984).
JRRT, The Return of the
Shadow, cit, pp. 214-215.
LotR, cit, pp.225-230.
JRRT, The Silmarillion,
cit: "But Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day
tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. No
oaths she swore, but the words of Feanor concerning Middle-earth had
kindled in her heart, for she yearned to wide unguarded lands and to
rule there a realm at her own will"( p. 90)
In contrast to earlier times: cf. JRRT, The
History of Galadriel and
Unfinished Tales of
Numenor and Middle- earth (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980).
JRRT, Letters, cit,
n.153, p.189: "Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents
“Mentality "is defined as that group of notions which
accumulate in all people of a certain historical and geographical,
independently of their level of education, personal ability, gender,
profession, wealth or age:
see, e.g., Michel
Vovelle, Ideologies and Mentalities (Cambridge: Polity Press,
Delle Rupi , The Lord of the
Rings come romanzo moderno, "Terra di Mezzo" n. 1 (nuova
serie) , April 1995, pp. 37-39, reprinted in : Franco Manni (editor), Introduzione
a Tolkien (Milano: Simonelli, 2002), pp. 168-175.
Cf. JRRT, LotR, cit,
Cf. F. Delle
Rupi, The Lord of the Rings come
romanzo moderno., cit, p.38.
 As happened, by means of a diametrically opposed pathway (humiliation rather than pride), with respect to Satan’s prophetic lie to Adam and Eva in Genesis 3: "eritis sicut Dii". Cf. Louis Ladaria s.j., Antropologia teologica (Roma: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1983), p.214.
As sung in Roman liturgy, in the Easter vigil Exultet.
JRRT, Foreword to the
second edition of The Lord of the
Rings; see also: Shippey, The
Road, cit, pp.150-152.
 Cf. Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.152-156.
and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker: The Spiritual Dimension
in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien
from Italian by Jimmy Bishop)
Garbowski is of Polish origins; after spending the first part of his life
in Canada he returned to Poland, where he teaches history at the
University of Lublin. He is thus bilingual, though with a fuller command
of English than Polish. In 2003 he participated as a speaker in the second
Brescia convention “Tolkien and Middle-earth”. I met him again in 2005
in Birmingham at the 50th anniversary celebrations for Lord
of the Rings. We maintain correspondence via email and he gave me
critical advice whilst I was writing the paper on Tolkien and the Second
World War which I presented in Birmingham. I know him as a calm and
composed person and appreciated his courtesy both in Brescia and in
Birmingham, where on several occasions he bought me drinks in a pub during
lengthy conversations about Tolkien, history and other topics and
demonstrated notable patience with my rather limited knowledge of the
have always appreciated his works of Tolkienian criticism (first brought
to my notice by my friend Alqua, alias Alberto Quagliaroli, who first
found Chris on the web and put me in contact with him in autumn 2002) and
referred to them in my own writings on Tolkien (e.g. in the introduction
to the Italian edition of Tom Shippey’s book, Tolkien, Author of the
Century); I also published the text of his Brescian paper in the
volume Mitopoiesi. Fantasia
e Storia in Tolkien (Grafo
Editore, Brescia, 2005) which I edited. I
have still a debt with Chris though, which is to review his book; I have
promised this review a number of times, but always put it off because of
other obligations. But now, with great pleasure, I want to release myself
from this debt.
the initial acknowledgements, the author expresses special thanks to Brian
Rosebury, acclaimed as having inspired the book and assisted, in the role
of consultant. This reference to a scholar of Rosebury’s calibre
indicates to the careful reader what may be expected of the work: it will
be a study learned with regard to theory and factually well-informed,
interested in history and literary aspects, up-to-date concerning
criticism and little inclined to flights of fancy.
book’s structure is made clear by the General Index: 1.
Introduction; 2. Tolkien the Soldier, Scholar and Storyteller: the Man and
his Middle-earth; 3. The Mythopoeic Process: the Elder Days and the
Problem of Myth; 4. Art and Axiology of Middle-earth; 5. Authority and
Revelation: Aspects of the Religious Artist; 6. Cosmic Eucatastrophe and
the Gift of Ilùvatar; 7. The “Good Life” and the Journey; 8. Epilogue:
a Little Faerian Drama.
the Introduction, the first citation quotes Luthien and her choice of
mortality and the consequent abandonment of this terrestrial dimension and
the author comments (quoting a famous theologian of secularisation, the
American Peter Berger) that, although man has always searched for a
meaning to life in transcendence, in contemporary western society the idea
of transcendence is often not expressed in the easily recognisable
forms of the past, i.e. metaphysics and religion. And Garbowski
immediately says that in the 20th century, Tolkien used his
“myth” to speak to us of the transcendental aspects of life without
using metaphysics or religion, as another man of the 20th
century, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, has also done. Frankl was
anti-positivist and therefore anti-reductionist: he did not think that if
one-hundred men were taken and observed under extreme conditions, such as
the extreme hunger experienced in Nazi concentration camps, all would
behave in the same fashion, that material “need and instinct” would
annihilate the differences in spirit between individuals; Frankl himself
was able to observe (whilst detained in a Nazi concentration camp) that
what happens is in fact the opposite: individual differences are
exaggerated, the beast is unmasked, but also the saint. Frankl thought and
theorized that the strongest force which determines human behaviour is not
need or instinct, but the search for a meaning in life. Instincts also act,
but they are only instruments of the search for meaning. The quest for
power is also a force which acts in men, but only after the search for
meaning has failed.
to Frankl, the search for meaning is based in the capacity to “transcend
ourselves”. What is self-transcendence? It is the fact that man is a
responsible creature and must concretise the meaning of his life, a
meaning which is initially only potential. Consequentially, the individual
experiences a creative tension between the “I am” situation and the
“I should be” situation, the expression of this potential that all of
us – each in a different and unique manner – carries within.
then, is the meaning of “spiritual”? In contrast to the “New Age”
cliché, the Spiritual is not something which refers to the self and its
structure, but rather to the world and the people around us to which
our Self is drawn. It is the outreaching to the world,
metaphorically expressed so well in the literary creations of the episodes
of the Journey (of life) which expands the limits which previously
confined us. Frankl wrote that: “The self should be like an eye, an
organ which is aware of itself only when it suffers from some physical
defect. The more an eye sees itself, the less the world and other objects
are visible to it”.
the first chapter, the author analyses how certain events in Tolkien’s
own life, his experience as a soldier in the trenches during the Great War
(after he was prematurely orphaned), gave a tone of “pagan pessimism”
to his first mythological writings (of Silmarillion tendency). An
interesting problem is to explain how Tolkien passed from that pessimism
to the “subtle optimism” of Lord of the Rings. One instrument
which led to this passage was the activity of study: the love of knowledge
for its own sake (apart from being a means for developing one’s own
personality) was cultivated by Tolkien during and thanks to the decades he
spent as professor of medieval philology. It was centred on his membership
of the group known as the Inklings. His linguistic work and profound
knowledge of real medieval sources vaccinated Tolkien against the danger
of idealizing the medieval period (in contrast to traditionalists, both
nineteenth-century romantics and twentieth-century neo-romantics).
According to Garbowski, Tolkien never saw poetic intuition as being in
contrast with reason, but rather to be taken in conjunction with it, and
never expressed exaggerated nostalgia for the past (although often he felt
it). He was a Christian, and for Christians “every generation is
equidistant from Eternity” (a quote from the historian Leopold Von Ranke),
no period is superior to others (such as to inspire nostalgia); Tolkien
did not fall into this error of “chronocentrism”. The non-idealization
of things medieval allowed Tolkien to create Bilbo, who in The Hobbit
plays the part of “spokesman” of modern reactions against old values,
of modern sensibilities and opinions.
the author follows the long and tormented process by which Tolkien
constructed Middle-earth and, following Rosebury, shows how “flat” the
epic Silmarillion is compared to the romance of LotR, which
in fact takes its three-dimensionality from the references made by
Gandalf, Aragorn or Elrond to the events of Silmarillion. Here I
must comment that in this part of the book the reader is not given a
linear and conclusive explanation. On this question of the relations
between Silmarillion, The Hobbit and LotR, The
Uncharted Realms of Tolkien by Alex Lewis and Elisabeth Currie is
rather more clear and perceptive. It is true that Garbowski is not
particularly interested in this evolution, but rather in several issues
such as that of “recovery”. Tolkien wanted to show how goodness
possesses its own beauty, but it was not an easy task, with the risk of
falling into the cloying happy ending of popular literature. The
Tolkienian “eucatastrophe” served to create a rebirth of optimism from
the pessimism present throughout almost all of LotR, and without
making the operation seem rhetorical and artificial. The “recovery” is
not so much a faithful description of reality as an exercise in “seeing
things the way we should see them”: a demonstration of human beings’
positive potential (without having in any way forgotten their negative
of Middle-earth’s moral qualities, the author stresses that the Ring
represents a different evil to that, say, of a dragon: the latter
constitutes an external evil, whereas the former is, above all, internal.
In addition, we are told that evil is “monologic”, whilst good is “dialogic”,
and the Ring embodies the monologic tendency of the ego.
did not aim his writing to receive approval from intellectuals, those who
worked in similar fields (a fairly easy goal achieve, if pursued
intentionally), but rather to speak to the heart of the common man (a more
difficult aim). He spoke to the heart, but also instructed the mind; the
union of the search for entertainment with the search for profundity is
typical of LotR. An example of a profound idea is the notion that
life does not have to achieve any clear purpose (Frodo does not
have to find a magical object, but already has it and must destroy it),
but instead herself calls us, saying “Do not despair!”, beseeching us
to accept the actual facts of history and resist the desperation which
they could provoke.
next discusses the relationship with Christianity and shows how
Middle-earth speaks to us of “virtuous pagans” who lived before any
premonition of the Christian revelation, and thus creates a scenario
suitable for appreciation by non-believing modern readers, offering a
space for dialogue and thus anticipating the Gaudium et Spes of the
2nd Vatican Council, the proclamation which considers relations
between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. If Tolkien had not
already conceived the ideas of the Council and instead had explicitly
inserted Christianity in his fiction (apologetically or even in the form
of instruction), the LotR would now appear “hopelessly dated for
many thinking religious readers of today, and certainly unpalatable for
the secular one”. The author then acutely observes that Tolkien
implicitly refers to the problem of Protestant reform when, in the Silmarillion,
he writes of the flight of the Noldor from Valinor to Middle-earth: they
leave the Valar “of the same race as Melkor” – in the words of –
just as in the reformers left the Church of Rome, accomplice of the
Antichrist. This rebellion (or “protest”) gave rise to many tragedies,
but also to many benefits, much as the Reformation, as well as causing
reciprocal hatred and religious wars, produced fruit such as secular
education, political liberalism, free scientific research and tolerance.
The Valar took the Elves to Valinor because of their over-protectiveness,
and their decision was not “infallible” because they did not consult
Iluvatar. Tolkien wants to tell us that religious authority at times does
not have divine sanction, because its actions may derive from human
various moral failings of the peoples invented by Tolkien, and recounted
in both the Silmarillion and the LotR, are, the author
maintains, inspired by the Old Testament (Adam and Eve, the Flood, Babel
etc.). The destructive presence of Melkor resembles biblical Satan, not a
divinity of evil in a Manichaean dualism, but an involuntary executor of
the plans of Ilùvatar.
is often described in emotional and aesthetically motivated terms, but at
the level of moral values Tolkien does not subscribe to the romantic idea
of “man who has isolated himself from Nature and thus condemned himself
to unhappiness”. Instead, Tolkien shows how man has ruined his natural
environment (e.g. by destroying trees) and also that nature herself is
cruel: the Ice of Forochel, the eruptions of Mount Doom, the Carahdras
storm, the crow spies, the Willow Man of the Old Forest. Cruelty – in a
world corrupted by sin – is present both in extra-human nature and human
theme of the “eucatastrophe” rests on a philosophical theory
concerning happiness: for example, Kant’s theory separates morality and
happiness and would be more suited to a narrative of “tragic” rather
than “mythic” type. But Tolkien is a “eudaemonist”; he prefers an
ethical theory which does not separate morality from happiness, and
therefore he constructs a (problematic) happy ending. And here the author
once more makes a comparison with Frankl’s ideas: “human behaviour
cannot be fully understood if one subscribes to the theory that man seeks
pleasure and happiness independently of the possibility to experience them”.
According to Thomas Aquinas, every rational act has as its purpose a good
consequence, and these intermediate “goods” guide us towards (although
they do not lead to) the Highest Good, which is God. In LotR –
the author observes – the more rational the characters are, the more
they incline towards good actions: figures such as Saruman believe
themselves to be rational, but in fact this is self-delusion and they
drive themselves mad.
following Frankl, is convinced that each human life has a special “mission”,
each person has a concrete task which must be carried out, and thus no
life can be replaced or repeated. For example, three leading characters of
LotR - Aragorn, Sam, and Frodo - follow different paths. Aragorn is
the incarnation of the “purposeful action”: he is the “real gold”
of Bilbo’s song, as opposed to the “counterfeit gold” of the Ring,
and his goal is to become the true king, the Lord of the Ring, not by
means of the Ring, but by rejecting it.
embodies “service” rendered to other people – in his case,
especially Frodo – driven by a personal love which leads to strong
loyalty, but which is free and uncommitted by any vow (for Tolkien, vows
are connected with power, as he explains concerning Feanor and his sons,
and Gollum with respect to Frodo, but – speaking through Elrond –
excluded from the Fellowship of the Ring).
represents the path of “suffering”: he must continue to carry the
burden of the Ring, accepting the episodes that befall him without
yielding to desperation. Frodo experiences three types of suffering: from
Weathertop to Rauros he suffers from illness; from Rauros to MountDoom his
suffering resembles the Way of the Cross; after Mount Doom, back in the
County, his suffering is more intimate and less apparent and includes the
“failure” of Mount Doom.
this third phase, not even Gandalf can help him, and Frodo must find on
his own the redeeming sense of his suffering: I had to sacrifice myself so
that others might be happy. When Frodo becomes aware of this, the author
says, he reaches “transcendence”. Thus with this realization, the
transitory nature of the journey (of life) achieves a clear significance:
once we realize the meaning inherent in a concrete situation, and intuit
and fulfill the actions which it suggests to us, we have “converted that
possibility into a reality, and we have done so once and forever!”,
writes the author, using Frankl’s words.
deepest meaning of life may be sought, but not “seen”, because it is a
gift which comes from an Other (Tolkien implies this through the richness,
diversity and unpredictability of Middle-earth), and a task which we have
yet to accomplish. According to Garbowski, both Tolkien and Frankl agree
that self-transcendence is found in awareness of the Other rather than in
awareness of oneself; he therefore denies that LotR may be
understood mystically (in the sense of oriental Orthodox Christian
the conclusion of his work, the author reminds us that in his essay, On
Fairy Stories, Tolkien wrote that literature is not the most powerful
medium for fantasy, but that there exists another more potent art-form
which he called “Faerian Drama”. Garbowski comments: here in
Middle-earth, the form of art which most closely resembles Tolkien’s
“Faerian Drama” is cinema, which, like the Second Music of the Ainur,
is created by many people (script and screenplay writers, director, actors,
musicians etc.). Twentieth-century cinema, in contrast to
twentieth-century literature, has often that happy ending which is also
found in LotR. The best example the author can think of is Frank
Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life. This film especially resembles
“Faerian Drama” in the Pottersville episode, when Clarence the second
class angel shows the protagonist – George Bailey – what would have
happened if he had never been born. This experience is similar to dreaming
(and at times confused with it), but different. A critic has said that
Bailey’s real enemy is not the cynical speculator Potter, but his own
indecision about what he really wants from life: to be successful or to do
Tolkien, eternity is not as it is commonly imagined, a chronological
moment which comes at the end of all preceding time, but rather as
Augustine of Hippo saw it: eternity is always present, here and now,
available to those who yearn for it. Tolkien’s “recovery” is the
awareness of the closeness of the transcendental to everyday existence.
The realization that, if the “horizontal” dimension of transcendence
did not exist, the “vertical” dimension would become ephemeral.
“Horizontal transcendence” guides each person towards a concrete
relation with the “Other” in Middle-earth.
author closes with the observation that Tolkien suffered in the trenches
during the First World War and Viktor Frankl in Second World War
concentration camps; both have tried to show how it is possible to search
for a meaning to life even in extremely painful experiences, and that it
is possible to not be overcome by desperation. Garbowski writes :
the fantasy of one and the psychology of the other simple truths are
wrested from the cataclysms of the twentieth century.It would be a pity if
these truths were lost on those of us less profoundly tried.
this – admittedly incomplete – account of Chris Garbowski’s book, I
will add a few brief comments.
study certainly demonstrates the author’s extensive and open-minded
general culture; it is enough to glance rapidly at the list of names
referred to: Adler, Adorno, Althusser, Aristotle, Mikhail Bakhtin, Marc
Bloch, Herbert Butterfield, Cassirer, Cervantes, Chesterton, Dante
Alighieri, Dumezil, Dostoevsky, Descartes, Freud, Goethe, Illich, Joyce,
Jung, Kafka, Kant, Keats, Leonardo da Vinci, Colin Manlove, Nietzsche,
George Orwell, Perrault, Leopold von Ranke, Ricoeur, Sartre, Socrates,
Tolstoy, Simone Weil, H. G. Wells, Wim Wenders (and many others). The
author’s references range from literary theory to philosophy, sociology,
psychiatry and cinema.
prime importance is Garbowski’s knowledge of religion and theology:
detailed reference is made to the Bible, Augustine of Hippo, Irenaeus,
Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, theologians such as T. de Chardin, Peter
Berger, David Tracy, Zachary Hayes, Waclaw Hryniewicz, Andrew Louth,
Thomas Merton, Gabriel Moran, Clark Pinnock, J. R. Porter, John Rogerson,
Jeffrey B. Russell, Nbahum Sarna, Ronald Simkins and Avivah G. Zomberg ( a
pity, though, that he had not also read Henri De Lubac!). Discussion of
the relationship between Christianity and paganism, between Catholicism,
Protestantism and Orthodoxy, of the 2nd Vatican Council, the
difference between “dialectical theology” and “analogical theology”,
eschatology and eudaemonism: these all demonstrate that the author’s
cultural interests and competence are deeply-rooted and were not pursued
merely for the purpose of this work.
the other hand, the book shows an unusually profound knowledge of Tolkien:
the informed reader will notice that Garbowski has read and meditated upon
all of Tolkien’s available writings: e.g. all the volumes of History
of Middle-earth, Unfinished Tales, poems (such as Mythopoeia
and The Sea Bell), academic essays, short works such as The
Smith of Wootton Major, and in particular read with great attention
and perception the Letters. He also commands a most extensive and
up-to-date knowledge of critical writing on Tolkien: Shippey, Flieger,
Curry, Helms, Rosebury, Joseph Pearce, Auden, Lewis and Carpenter, papers
edited by Isaacs, Zimbardo and Paul Kocher. Not to forget: Hammond &
Scull, Charles Coulombe, John Flood, Karen Fonstad, Willis Glover, Charles
Huttar, Maria Kuteeva, Jakub Lichanski, Jared Lobdell, Sean McGrath,
Timothy O’Neill, Tadeusz Olsanski, Richard Purtill, Mary Sirridge,
Gunnar Urang, J. R. Watson, Richard West and Andrzej Zgorzelski.
from the author’s culture, I appreciated other things amongst which a lack
of academic snobbery: references are not made to exhibit erudition,
but only in order to sustain or illustrate arguments at the appropriate
juncture; the language used tends as much as possible to be accessible,
and when Garbowski is obliged to introduce technical terms (for example
“chronocentrism” or “self-transcendence”), he is at pains to give
a full explanation; quotations are taken from the widest range of sources:
not just Aristotle and Goethe, but also Frank Capra, George Lucas and Van
aspect which I appreciated is the work’s moral and instructive intent.
The author, especially by means of his references to Viktor Frankl, wants
to give the reader not just a critical reading of a novelist who wrote of
the “Good Life”, but also to give suggestions and advice towards the
reader’s attainment of a “Good Life”.
also appreciated the author’s moderation. Through my reading of his
work, our email correspondence and private conversations, I have formed
the opinion that Chris Garbowski is, politically and culturally speaking,
a conservative: he does not celebrate secular culture or social justice,
criticize nationalism, or praise non-reactionary liberation movements (political,
sexual or economic). He condemns communism, the consumer society,
technology and liberalism, but does not feel the urgency to express
criticism of fascism, peasant culture or the patriarchal family. And yet
in his book, though one can see the conservative, one does not see a
reactionary: fascism, theocracy, patriarchal values or the class structure
of society are never propounded. He feels sympathy for the 2nd
Vatican Council. He appreciates theological research (and therefore
innovation). He is sceptical of the idyllic nature of “local communities”
(called “heimat”). He shows no signs of xenophobia, racism or
chauvinism. He feels no nostalgia for the medieval period. His virtue of
moderation, in other words, keeps him well away from extremism.
this essay is a review and not an elegy, I must also explain certain
matters in which I disagree with the author.
disagree with Garbowski’s treatment of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis:
he has not read Freud’s works carefully and lacks knowledge of great
Freudians, such as (to name but a few) Karl Abraham, Melanie Klein, Ronald
Fairbairn, Donald Winnicott, Roger Money-Kyrle, Hanna Segal or Donald
Meltzer. His portrait of Freudianism is thus largely a caricature: it is
presented as a reductionist theory, positivist, materialist and
anti-humanist. There certainly existed – above all in North American
society and culture from the nineteen-fifties to the eighties – a
degraded Freudianism of this type that is treated with irony in the films
of Woody Allen, for example. But Freud’s heritage is far from being
reduced to these distortions and misunderstandings: it would be like
attacking Charles Darwin because his theory was misunderstood and
manipulated by Spencer, Haeckel, Rosemberg and Hitler. Garbowski rightly
argues against “cosmetic” and consolatory introspectionism and
comments that a healthy psychotherapy must remember the outside world and
other people. But Freud and his important followers have always done
exactly this! For them the positivist apparatus of “drives and needs”
was never of primary importance and eventually, with the passage of
psychoanalytical generations, it was eliminated. In the forefront of
Freudian theory there has always been the external world with its traumas
and healing resources, the principle of reality, the so-called Object,
interpersonal relations (the Oedipal triangle, transfer, identification
models), a great faith in the continuous and unpredictable growth of
knowledge (“Acheronta movebo”) according to an unending analysis of
criticism I wish to make is more specifically philosophical: when the
author (and Viktor Frankl) speak of “self-transcendence” and the
“search for meaning”, there is a certain lack of rigour. They either
describe these things as the accomplishment of an individual’s internal
potentialities (which already exist within him), thus referring to an
Aristotelian-naturalistic vision of the relation between potentiality and
act, or alternatively as the entrance of the Other, an unpredictable
external novelty, with reference to a religious-supernatural and
historical-extranatural vision. I hope that Garbowski will find an
occasion to develop this aspect in greater depth and more precision, and
to explicitly address this theoretical question with a description of how
much and in what circumstances the “meaning of life” and
“transcendence” are connected through the concepts outlined above:
innate qualities, individuality, potentiality, accomplishment, the
interior, the exterior, nature and history.
was also unsatisfied for the reason that this book – as often happens in
Tolkien studies, even with masterly writers like Shippey – treats
Tolkien with too much respect. Acute and penetrating as he is in finding
Tolkien’s positive qualities, Garbowski never makes criticisms, never
finds weak aspects in his characters, his ideas or his works. It is
undeniable that many literary critics have treated Tolkien unjustly and
with disdain. But it is also true that one can feel respect and affection
for a person or a work and at the same time make criticisms. Respect and
intellectual honesty require that nothing and no-one should be criticized
without being read, studied and researched!
will conclude this review with a passage from the book that I particularly
liked, because it contradicts a widespread prejudice which is hostile
towards Tolkien and fantasy literature in general. After having argued
against the superficiality with which Tolkien’s spirituality is confused
with the very different model available in the “New Age supermarket”,
the title song “Enlightenment” from an album of the early nineties Van
Morrison, one of the more perceptive of popular artists, exposes a key
juncture where the two types of spirituality certainly part ways. “Enlightenment”,
sings the artist, “says the world is nothing but a dream”.
Tolkien uses the somewhat dream-like art of fantasy to imaginatively
recover as much of the real world as possible for our spiritual
advancement, a world that he believes is anything but a dream.
Shippey, Roots and Branches,
Tree Publishers, Zollikofen (Switzerland), 2007, pp. 416
is a collection of pieces – 23 in all – by Tom Shippey, most already
published, grouped together under “arboreal” headings (“The
Roots” for Tolkien’s predecessors, “Heartwood” for philology,
“The Trunk” for The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion,
“Twigs and Branches” for minor works). In the Introduction Shippey
notes that a topic on which much still remains to be written is that of
proximate (i.e. 19th and 20th century) literary
forbears, with regard both to similarities and contrasts.
essay in the “Roots” section is about the author of Beowulf,
who, although Christian, does not refer explicitly to Christianity and
whose characters are rather un-pagan pagans – “virtuous pagans”. The
following piece deals with connections with the Edda and Kalevala.
The next paper is on the West Midlands, where Tolkien lived as a boy:
these five English counties near Wales conserved at least until the
Edwardian period the majority of what was for Tolkien the “true
tradition” of English mythology and poetry, elsewhere in the country
destroyed by foreign influences. Local places and words provided
imaginative inspiration for the Shire, the Woses and Rohan. Tolkien’s
emotional life during his early years was centred here; he lost first his
father and then his mother, and the area became for him a sort of paradise
lost. Everything, though, was transformed by his philological imagination.
follows a piece on the poet who wrote Gawain, and another
concerning the 19th century inventions of nationalist mythology
by the Dane Grundtvig and the German Grimm: here Shippey describes how
these formidable scholars succeeded in stimulating the appreciation of
medieval literary texts on the part of a European public which until the
18th century knew nothing of them (being familiar only with
classical and biblical mythology); their aim was to exalt their own
literary tradition and reconcile it with Christianity. In the next essay,
on Wagner, Shippey criticizes Tolkien’s remark concerning the German
composer (“the only resemblance between my Ring and that of Wagner is
that both are round”): not only was Tolkien most interested in the
central problem of 19th century philology, the relationship
between the various texts which contain the Nibelung Sagas, but he also
took characters from these (such as Mim the Petty-dwarf) and above all the
Wagnerian characteristics of the Ring, central and maleficent throughout
the saga. The real great difference between Tolkien and Wagner is in the
moral evaluation of the Ring: Wagner sympathizes with the desire for it,
though with “ifs” and “buts”, whilst Tolkien rejects this without
qualification. Between the two there had been two world wars and all that
was associated with these.
following paper discusses how the Goths, Huns and other northern cultures
were rediscovered in the 19th century: to philologists at this
time (and to Tolkien) it seemed possible at least to get close to
reconstructing the “lost worlds” of these peoples. It was hoped that
philology itself, with its reconstructive approach, would lead to this
romantic conclusion – which today may be judged impossible to reach on
the basis of so few surviving texts. If these “dark ages” are to be
reconstructed, it can only be done by means of the novelist’s
imagination, as first William Morris and then Tolkien himself were to
first piece in the “Heartwood” section uses a phrase of Galadriel as
its title: “Fighting the Long Defeat”. Here Shippey blends his own
experience with the story of his hero Tolkien in a way that is both moving
and, I think, of great interest as cultural history: both during their
long lives had the opportunity to be competent, involved witnesses of the
second part of the historical parabola of a venerable human science,
Philology. The first part of this history – although its earliest roots
were amongst the erudite scholars in the Hellenistic period (4th
– 2nd century BC) and further impetus was given by inquiring
15th-century humanists – dates from its foundation as a
systematic discipline and rapid growth during the 19th century,
above all in Germany, reaching a maximum in the first decade of the 20th
century. The second part – a decline that was rapid in the 1920s and
even more precipitous after the Second World War – coincided with the
entire careers of Tolkien and then Shippey (who retired from his
university post last year). Shippey writes of a long battle that took
place during Tolkien’s life between the Language (philology) and
Literature departments of all the universities in the English-speaking
world: the struggle ended with the defeat of the side on which Tolkien and
Shippey himself had fought, philology. Shippey outlines this story and
attempts a description of the “heart” of Venerable Comparative
Philology; he does this by means of a discussion of a “notorious and
unresolved philological crux”, the translation of several verses
of Beowulf regarding the curse associated with the dragon’s
treasure. Conjunctions and verb classes are examined in an attempt to
understand whether the curse was introduced into the treasure from outside
by something or someone, or whether the curse resulted directly from the
unnatural greed the treasure provoked. Shippey thinks that according to
Tolkien the malediction was caused by both factors, but he emphasizes that
there is no conclusive grammatical or historical evidence. This example
serves, he explains, purely to illustrate how in the minds of the
philologists the discussion of the conjunctions became identified with the
mythological and moral content of the tale. But this was a fundamental
error on the part of the philologists: they did not make this connection
clear, explicit; they did not explain that the research into conjunctions
had no sense without a strong motivation to understand the mythological
and moral truth of the stories. Thus, in the hands of workers more
superficial than Tolkien, phonetic shifts and a thousand other linguistic
details lost contact with myths and became mere components of erudite, but
pedantic, inventories: this was the beginning of the “long defeat”,
because external observers of such pedantry could not fail to notice its
irrelevance to culture, together with the accompanying strange and haughty
collective isolation of the practitioners. In this way was lost the
comprehension that a single word can open an enormous field of hypotheses
which might explain historical occurrences, and that thousands such words
might throw light on connections between various and dissimilar works of
poetry and chronicles, not only ancient and medieval, but also modern. The
external observers (from the “Literature” side) thought that all right
was on their side: that historical and philological research were
irrelevant to so-called “poetic inspiration” or even that they were an
obstacle to or destructive of it. At the level of academic politics these
were the results: when Tolkien began his teaching career at Leeds with a
programme of philological studies he had 150 students, whereas during the
last year that this programme was taught (1983) there were only 8!
Tolkien the academic was defeated, even though outside of academia he
triumphed thanks to the huge worldwide success of his fiction (which, of
course, was squarely based on Germanic philology). The many novelists who
imitate his work have understood (and Shippey gives precise examples) that
philology gives depth to a narrative, and this depth helps to sell books!
On the other hand, the winners of this academic war – the modern
scholars of Literature – although victorious in academia, lost much of
their outside readership in the decades that followed the fifties, and
were ultimately also defeated within the academic world itself. In fact,
Shippey taught his last years in the US, and reports that there the number
of students in the departments of English literature has fallen to
two-thirds of that in Tolkien’s time. Popular interest should not be
completely separated from scholarly study, on the pain of failure of the
academic field which, for reasons of snobbery or ideological pathology,
instigated the divorce in the first place! I asked Tom Shippey if now, as
far as he knows (and he is certainly competent in this field), there exist
today young researchers able to prepare “critical editions” of ancient
or medieval texts (such as those – Loeb Classics – which I
read in my youth as a student at the Scuola Normale di Pisa), and Tom
replied that no, there are not, at least in the English-speaking world! A
reply which at first amazed me. But then again, I recalled that thirty
years ago at the Normale I became friends with a school-mate who was a
researcher in Romance philology under a professor considered at the time
the foremost scholar in the field, Gianfranco Contini. We have remained
friends and recently, during a conversation about the current state of
Romance philology, he (now a Carmelite monk and theology teacher) told me
a similar thing: critical editions are no longer made! I don’t want to
exaggerate this point since I don’t know how much or in what way Romance
philology is pursued in France or Spain, and I didn’t ask Tom how and to
what extent Germanic philology is studied in Germany or Norway. However,
these two pieces of evidence made me reflect a little on the cultural
history of the 20th century…
return to the review: the next essay is about “History in Words”,
defined as Tolkien’s ruling passion and of which Shippey gives numerous
detailed examples. Here too, though, he comments on modern life, observing
that although for some years it has been fashionable in universities to
“change the canon” with regard to the authors read in literature
courses (and for study, précis etc.), in truth nothing of the sort
actually happens as a result of such talk; on the contrary, the canon of
authors read (etc.) does not change, but rather – at least with respect
to the number of writers – is progressively reduced! A further piece
deals with Tolkien and Iceland; Shippey compares the Second World War
Years, when evil appeared to spring back stronger than ever from its ashes
and those who fought it seemed to do so on principle rather than to win:
this situation brings to mind the pre-Christian Icelandic sagas of Early
Medieval age in which wise and courageous men fight knowing that they will
lose, but maintain their courage nonetheless. The next paper is an
evaluation of Tolkien’s current academic reputation, and concludes that
he produced few writings on philology, but at least half of these had
great success among specialists in the subject, and that this was not due
to the fame he acquired from his fiction, but to the intrinsic merits of
his academic work, which was always highly accurate and often innovative.
“Trunk” section discusses themes from the major works, The Lord of
the Rings and The Silmarillion. The essay which
interested me most concerns the wicked characters: Orcs, Wraiths and
Wights. The Orcs represent age-old human behaviour, cynical and debased in
certain circumstances. The Wraiths seem to Shippey to resemble quite
specific contemporary figures: powerful men whose choice to serve power
has made them inhuman, becoming almost automata in their machine-like
reactions and in part invisible to normal men, hidden by their ideological
propaganda. These are the great bureaucrats of 20th-century
totalitarian states, which started out with the good intentions of
bringing order, progress and knowledge, were devoured by the “cause”
in which they believed. The Orcs and Wraiths share the idea of Boethius (Augustinian
and Neo-Platonic) of Evil as the corruption of Good. Whereas the
Wights seem to embody the Manichean vision of Absolute Evil, an Evil with
no motivation beyond that of causing evil itself. A Wight is not a ghost
of one of the corpses buried in the Barrows (these are the bodies of the
good Men of the West who in time gone by had fought Sauron), but an entity
which tries to make their old triumph over the Men of the West live on in
the Hobbits. Where did they come from? As Tom Bombadil says: “from where
the gates stand forever shut, till the World is mended”. Not from humans,
but rather from an Idea which infests the time of men, returning
through the centuries. How can it have happened – Shippey wonders –
that in the heart of the “civilized” 20th century things
materialized that were considered impossible only shortly before, such as
state torture, extermination camps, genocide, ethnic cleansing? Almost as
if “Ideas of Destruction”, which were present in latent form in the
human race, continually sought and at times found the great bureaucrats (Wraiths,
and Saruman who was becoming one of them) who directed operations so as to
make them real (allowing them to escape from the gates “forever shut”)
and Orcs ready to put them into practice.
piece deals with Tolkienian solutions to the problem of heroism. It begins
by noting a difficult dilemma for Tolkien: his work as a scholar of Early
Medieval sagas concerned tales replete with courage and honour, but also
full of great cruelty. On the other hand, it seemed to him that admitting
that heroism could exist without delicacy, forgiveness and a sense of
humour was contrary to civilized values. The oscillation between these two
poles gives Tolkien’s writing a force and vitality which is often
missing from that of his imitators. Tolkien knew what our Germanic
ancestors were really like – courageous and cruel – and that
even if in cruelty we find nothing to admire, the fact remains that it
coexisted with the pride and bravery which we do admire. The solution was
to construct a myth (if it is true that the purpose of myths is to produce
conciliation between irreconcilable cultures), a 20th-century
myth in which Tolkien asks himself if in a Christian world there can be a
noble non-Christian idea, if a person can have a fully developed moral
sense without the support of faith and revelation, if pagan virtues can be
separated from pagan vices. These questions of Tolkien appear to Shippey
to be increasingly appropriate, as the West enters a post-Christian age.
In practice, Tolkien makes different styles of heroism coexist in his myth:
Aragorn and Denethor, Frodo and Gimli, and Faramir as well as Boromir.
following essay on social classes in Tolkien’s world analyzes the Shire,
Gondor and the Mark in this respect. Another considers the proverbs to be
found in the writings of Tolkien, including many Tolkien originals
together with others based on traditional forms. A group of Tolkien’s
own proverbs (spoken by various different characters) address the theme of
ignorance, of lack of knowledge about things. Gandalf says to Frodo that
even the wisest cannot see ultimate ends and Frodo remembers these words
when he has to decide what to do with Gollum; at an intermediate point
Gandalf recounts a variant to the Council of Elrond, “despair is only
for those who see the end beyond all doubt”, and Legolas, near Fangorn
Forest says, “few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till
they come to its end”. These proverbs tell us first that you may never
know your destiny, and second that others (for example enemies) have also
their own problems. A further point is that one should not act on the
basis of what one thinks others are doing, because this can only result in
deviation, the forgetting of duty and falling into desperation. Another
group of proverbs regards the idea of Providence – which for Shippey is
the “ideological core” of The Lord of the Rings – and shows
us how it works through people, who differ in their capacities and
intentions. These various intentions, good or evil, are used for a
higher-level synthesis by a superior power, and this synthesis is
hidden even from the wisest: the pinnacle of wisdom is to understand the
limits of wisdom itself.
section entitled “Twigs and Branches” covers Tolkien’s lesser works.
In a piece on the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Shippey comments that
Tolkien thought the theme of pagan heroism had become dangerous during the
time of Hitler, and this was why he felt critical of the medieval variety.
He also thought that an effective image of Christian heroism was lacking,
and that the spirit of the Vikings and Berserkers had again become popular
and seductive at this time, just as it had ensnared many minds in
centuries past, and had once more to be fought against. He therefore
proposed alternative images of heroism such as Aragorn, Theoden and Sam
Gamgee. Another paper is about a poem by Tolkien first called The
Griphon and then re-entitled The Hoard and included in The
Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which regards the question of “dragon
sickness” or greed. A further piece concerns the question of the ways in
which Smith of Wooton Major is allegorical, and to what extent. And
another is on the idealized anarchy of everyday life in a similarly
idealized England which is described in Mr Bliss.
last essay deals with Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. Shippey makes
various observations: although 68 years ago the English might well have
believed that the forces of good were quantitatively superior to those of
evil (the Battle of Britain), at the beginning of the 21st
century after a long period of US military supremacy, spectators need to
be told that the forces of good are weakened by desperation and disunited.
In order to achieve this, Jackson shows (for example) Denethor in a worse
state than that described by Tolkien: the beacon that would have called
for help from Rohan is not lit. Another modernization is the
“democratic” role given by Jackson to Sam when he makes him prophet
with a “philosophical message” who talks to Frodo at Osgiliath and
even converts Faramir from his previous opinions. Jackson oversimplifies
at several points when it is said that Evil could be destroyed forever,
whereas in Tolkien the “wise” characters are well aware that this is
impossible, since it remains latent and ready to re-emerge.
main criticism that Shippey makes of the director concerns his handling of
the Palantiri: in the book the characters are “lost” not just in the
literal sense of being lost on paths in real woods, but above all in the
existential sense of not knowing where they will end up or how to arrive
at their destination, or even if there is a destination. Tolkien
repeatedly demonstrates the disastrous effect of the use of the Palantiri
(Seeing Stones) and of attempting to escape from the state of bewilderment
by trying to foresee the future by making a “speculation”. Too much
speculation about the future in general erodes the will to act in the
present. Tolkien shows that the destiny of the characters depends instead
upon assistance which comes from completely unexpected directions and
sources. The Palantiri lead the characters astray by causing unjustified
fear, whereas the entire structure of The Lord of the Rings
indicates that decisiveness and perseverance in doing what one must do
(and not speculation on what is happening or will happen elsewhere) can be
rewarded more than could have been hoped for. For Shippey this (and not
the themes of Power or Death) is the “philosophical core” of The
Lord of the Rings: Providence, a Providence which does not have
dominion over free will but resides in the very decisions and actions of
the characters. In Tolkien chance does not exist, and neither coincidence.
Characters’ understanding of events as chance or coincidence is due only
to their inability to see how they are interconnected. Now, Shippey
observes, Jackson first weakens the sense of “ bewilderment” present
in the novel (for example by narrating the entire story of the Ring from
the beginning), then removes all of Tolkien’s warnings against
speculation, makes little use of the Palantiri and then makes a decisive
error: he creates a scene in which rather than Sauron seeing Pippin and
making a mistaken speculation, Pippin sees Sauron and draws a correct
conclusion. Furthermore, Jackson removes Tolkien’s theme of apparent
coincidences (and real connections): for example the tie between
Denethor’s attempt to kill Faramir and the doom of Theoden becomes
invisible – without Denethor’s act Theoden’s death would not have
occurred – but Jackson hides this mechanism. Are these serious
errors in Jackson’s work?, Shippey asks at the end. And he concludes: in
reality the great majority of readers of the book do not notice these
messages, and Jackson – on the other hand – has managed to bring to
the screen a considerable number of more obvious Tolkenian messages, at
times going against the norms of Hollywood: the difference between
“primary action” and “subsidiary action”, the differences between
the styles of heroism, the need for both piety and courage, the
vulnerability of good, the real cost of evil; and besides, he did well in
remaining faithful to the sad, mute and ambiguous finale of the original,
hinting at all that in both novel and film remains unsaid.
from Italian into English by Jimmy Bishop]
History of Middle-Earth,
by Franco Manni
Tolkien didn’t stop after
After Unfinished Tales,
other volumes written by the father and deciphered, arranged and annotated
with great precision by the son have been published.
At present they number twelve and are collectively entitled The
History of Middle-Earth.
The first is The Book
of Lost Tales – Part One. Most of the work consists of expanded and
modified versions of events narrated in the Silmarillion; for example, it
deals with the music of the Ainur, the construction of Valinor, the
chaining of Melko, the Noldor’s flight from Valinor, and so on.
A tale entitled The Cottage
of Lost Play, though, is original; it dates to the winter of 1916-17
and the author, orphan and separated from his young wife, the friends who
had provided companionship during his youth dead in the trenches, was
himself serving in a front line battalion in which all were either killed
or taken prisoner.
The story describes an Elf dwelling where human children who have
reached it by means of the “Path of Dreams” live.
After the blockage of the path, some of the children decide to
remain and are allowed to return to the Land of Men in the guise of angels
What do these child-angels do? With “evident contradiction” (as
the editor justly notes), in the space of several lines JRRT writes first
that “all those we allow to leave do not return”, but remain in the
Land of Men because “there are delightful places and lovable kingdoms
full of attractions” and then
that ”the majority (of the children) return here, and tell us many
stories and melancholy tales of their travels”.
This piece contains the idea, which echoes the Never-Never Land in
Barrie’s Peter Pan, that
children can make contact with a higher reality, the Elf world, but then
return to the Land of Men – they grow up – and the reason for growing
up is altruistic love (to console those who cry).
They return no more to the world of the Elves, since growth is
irreversible, and the reason for this irreversibility is the desire for
experience (the delightful places full of attractions).
And yet, there is also the notion (in contradiction with the
previous idea) that the return to the Land of Men – growing up – is
disappointing and so the children go back to the Elf world; in other words,
growing up is only a change in external appearance and the heart – the
most genuine aspect of the personality – remains a child which lives in
some other world whilst the superficial parts of the personality seem to
conduct an adult life amongst other adults.
Is adulthood a positive or negative condition, then?
Does growing up mean to come into contact with reality or the
opposite? To this choice
between alternatives in which “tertium non datur”,
JRRT is only able to offer a contradiction by way of reply.
But as has been clear from the time of Aristotle, a contradiction
– to affirm and deny at the same time – is the same as saying nothing.
In fact, as Tom Shippey has observed, JRRT “immediately let drop
this Peter Pan dilemma, and subsequently had no time for it”.
Shell-shock kept him in hospital for a long period and saved him
from the massacre of his battalion.
He was able to return to his wife and later John, his first son,
was born; the possibility of a university career in the field he loved
became concrete. The “Land
of Men” thus appeared attractive enough to JRRT.
The second volume is The
Book of Lost Tales – Part Two.
Here, too, most of the chapters are expanded versions of parts of
the Silmarillion: the tales of
Lúthien Tinúviel, Túrin Turambar and Eärendel, and the story of the
necklace forged by the Dwarves to restrain one of the Silmarils,
Nauglafring, who caused the spillage of blood between Elves and Dwarves.
One of these expansions is noteworthy, both quantitatively (in the Silmarillion
the same event takes up a few lines; here, 58 pages) and qualitatively: it
represents one of the peaks of a particular style of Tolkien, the “epic-sublime”.
It is called “The Fall of
Gondolin”; first the Secret Kingdom of the Elf king Turgon is
described in all its fabulous beauty, then when it is discovered (due to a
betrayal) by Melkor, Gondolin is laid siege by the Dragons, the Balrogs
and the legions of the Orcs. The
resistance of the various Elf companies – each described with its
heraldic colours, its duke and its distinctive fighting style – against
the opponents’ overwhelming strength, is inspiring and moving and
reaches final tragedy with the death of Turgon and Gondolin in flames.
The epilogue is weighed down with grief, but touched by hope due to
the flight (through an underground passageway)
of Tuor, Idril and their infant Eärendel, he who was to appeal to the
Gods for help for the exhausted Middle-earth.
The third volume is The Lays
of Beleriand, which contains two long poems (in various versions): The
Lay of the Children of Húrin which recounts the story of Túrin and The
Lay of Leithian, the tale of Beren and Lúthien.
For those who like the archaic and high-flown style of Tolkien’s
poetry (and are able to appreciate it in English!), these works are a sort
of Pantagruelian banquet.
In addition there is a commentary by Tolkien’s great friend C.S.
Lewis. Lewis pretends
to have found an ancient manuscript, makes reference to numerous (supposed)
textual variants and quotes imaginary eighteenth philologists with absurd
names. Despite the humorous
presentation, the evaluation of the content is entirely serious and was
taken as such by Tolkien.
The fourth work, The Shaping
of Middle-Earth, contains Ambarkanta,
a detailed account of the physical structure of Arda: Valinor, the Western
Sea, Middle-earth, the Eastern Sea, the Eastern Lands and everything
surrounding the Encircling Ocean, Vaiya.
Above, Vista (the air of weather) and Ilmen (the air of light).
All enclosed by Ilurambar, the Wall of the World, made of ice,
glass and steel. Beyond, the
Empty Timeless Night.
There follow two versions of the Silmarillion
which differ from that previously published.
The presence of the Second Prophecy of Mandos in these is
interesting: when the world
becomes old and the Powers weakened, Morgoth will come back from the
External Vacuum through the Door of the Night.
He will destroy the Sun and the Moon, but Eärendel will be on to
him straight away, like a white-hot flame, and bring him to the ground.
Then the Great Battle (Dagor Dagorath) will take place on the
fields of Valinor. Tulkas
will face Melko, with Finwë on his right and Túrin Turambar to his left.
The black sword of Túrin will finally kill Melko, and thus the
sons of Húrin and all the Men will be avenged.
Then the Silmarils will be pulled from the air, the water and the
earth; Fëanor will seize them and take them as an offering to Yavanna
Palurien. She will break them
and with their fire regenerate the Two Trees and immediately a great Light
will shine out. And the
mountains of Valinor will be levelled so that the Light reaches every
region of the world. In this
Light the Gods will become young once more and all the dead Elves will be
resurrected and the plan of the watching Ilúvatar will reach fulfilment.
But the prophecy makes no mention of the Men, apart from Túrin, who is
included among the Gods.
The book ends with a coloured map of Middle-earth in the First Age,
drawn by Tolkien.
The fifth volume is entitled The
Lost Road and Other Writings. This
lengthy work contains many pieces: various versions of The Fall of Númenor,
Ainulindalë, The Annals of Valinor, The Annals of Beleriand and Quenta
Silmarillion. There in
addition two “scientific” tracts on the Elvish languages which will
amaze enthusiasts of these by their completeness and by the quantity of
new material they contain (The
Lhammas and The Etymologies).
The most important part is The
Lost Road, an unfinished novel based on a conversation between JRRT
and his friend C.S.Lewis. Since
neither could find stories they liked, they decided to write their own;
Lewis produced a tale of space travel (Out
of the Silent Planet) and JRRT an account of travel through time. JRRT
starts from the present and goes backwards, following the adventures of
pairs of fathers and sons (which includes autobiographical material,
testified to by Christopher Tolkien, the curator); the mothers are dead.
The first such couple is composed of the contemporary English
Albain and adolescent Audoin who are on holiday alone in a cottage on the
Cornish coast, preoccupied by strange visions of the “Eagles of the Lord
of the West Flying Over Númenor” whilst they try to construct an
abstract “time machine”, until Elendil himself appears to Albain and
offers a pact which would enable them to return forwards in time.
The chapters regarding the father-and-son pairs from the
Anglo-Saxon 10th century, the Lombard 6th century
and glacial prehistory were only sketched out.
Two chapters from the final part of the voyage through time were
written in full, the story of Elendil the father and his son Herendil in Númenor
whilst Sauron is steadily gaining power on the island and persecuting the
Faithful and spurring on the king to act against the Valar.
The description of Elendil’s villa by the sea is enchanting: JRRT
wishes to recreate a distant world, perhaps a piece of the Roman Empire
where pagan decadence and the first thrilled, untamed Christians meet and
struggle grimly. The son does
not understand his father’s ideas and wavers between his affection for
him and the corrupt seductiveness of Sauron.
The work was written in 1937 and the horrifying totalitarian state
of Númenor under Ar-Pharazon
which is about to bring war to Tol Eressea (and the rest) drew on
contemporary events: the Third Reich and the imminent war in Europe.
In volume six, The Return of
the Shadow, Christopher Tolkien has arranged
and annotated with customary precision his father’s unpublished
papers. Here we find a first
collection of Lord of the Rings
variants, from the opening words up to Moria. The complexity of JRRT’s
work of composition and rewriting in these first chapters of LOTR
is enormous. Having sat down
to write a sequel to The Hobbit
for the publisher Unwin, JRRT found himself possessed by fresh inspiration.
Certain scenes never change, such as when Bilbo disappears with a
flash and a bang or Sam overhears Gandalf’s tale from the garden.
The general impression, as Tom Shippey has observed, is that the
inspiration for some key scenes was primordial, whereas the invention of
the plot came afterwards and was the result of many uncertainties and many
changes of mind. It is all
excellent material for the study of LOTR
and for a deepened understanding of many points.
Eight versions of “A Long-expected Party” were produced before
it reached its final form. In
one, Bilbo holds the party to announce his wedding, leaves Hobbiton, gets
married, has numerous children and the next story will be about one of
these; Bilbo is worse thought of (with respect to LOTR)
because of his strangeness and when he announces his departure the Hobbits
make many malicious comments, wondering (for example) whether he will
really marry afterwards. In
another, Bilbo is married and disappears from Hobbiton together with his
wife; Frodo (here known as Bingo) is his son and does not go into mourning
because he believes his parents to be still alive, he lives alone but is
rarely at home and knows only several Tooks (related of his paternal
grandmother) and a few Brandibucks (his mother’s relatives).
Frodo gives the party before leaving.
In yet another version Bilbo and Frodo’s uncle disappear
mysteriously from Hobbiton, Frodo does not mourn and it is he that throws
the party. In some versions
Gandalf does not attend the party, or argues with Bilbo on the hill
outside the house but does not have a row with him because of the ring
that Bilbo has left in a casket for Frodo.
The ring (a present from Bilbo to his son) does not appear until
the third version and only in the fourth is comes to be considered as the
motive for the departure of the party-holder (Bilbo or Frodo); there are
other reasons: the search for a wife, tiredness of life amongst the
Hobbits, a desire for adventure or a need of money.
There are other interesting variations of events in the story: in
the countryside of the Shire, the Hobbits hide in bushes at the sound of
hooves and a horse comes to a halt nearby; the rider, covered by a cloak
and hood, sniffs the air. Who
is it? Gandalf! (not the Black Rider!).
At Tumulilande, when Frodo becomes separated from his companions
and calls them, they have not been taken by the spectre and it all turns
out just to have been a fearful imagining on the part of Frodo.
The old Maggot is much more aggressive, remembering that Frodo
Baggins had killed one of his dogs and still hating him profoundly for it;
Frodo annoys him by using the ring to become invisible and frightens him
by tripping him up. At Bree,
the Hobbits meet Strider (here called Trotter), but who is he?
A Hobbit – Peregrine Took – a childhood friend of Bilbo whose
parents had forbidden to continue seeing him who then left the County and
travelled as far as Mordor where he was tortured and now must walk with
wooden clogs (!) because of the sores.
Tolkien decided to make Strider a Man only after Bilbo asked his
help at Rivendell to compose a song about ancient times.
Gandalf is a old and short and the reasons for his lateness in
reaching the fleeing Hobbits are narrated in detail.
Glorfindel reveals that he is the reincarnation of the Glorfindel
who died in the First Age fighting the Balrogs after the fall of Gondolin.
After having developed considerably the story with Bingo/Frodo as
protagonist, in August 1939 (during the last few days before Second World
War broke out, a period which depressed him greatly, as he confessed in a
letter), Tolkien suffered a crisis of pessimism and reverted to the
original idea of writing a sequel to the Hobbit.
He wrote: “New plot. Bilbo is the hero all through. Merry and
Frodo his companions. This helps with Gollum (though Gollum probably gets
new ring in Mordor)”.
The seventh and eighth books are entitled
The Treason of Isengard and The
War of the Ring. The
composition of the later chapters of LOTR,
recounted in these two further volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien, was
much less complex. The first
work, after a rewriting of the chapters from Hobbiton to Rivendell,
takes us from the Council of Elrond to the debate with Theoden at
Meduseld and contains a concise appendix dealing with the Elvish and runic
alphabets. The second book
goes from Helm’s Deep to the Last Debate of the Captains of Gondor
before the desperate march of their army towards the Gates of Mordor.
Both volumes contain maps and drawings by the hand of JRRT.
There follow several examples of the numerous variants.
Gandalf and the Balrogs at Moria:
Balrog rushed to the Bridge-foot. Legolas raised his bow and an arrow
pierced his shoulder. The bow fell useless. Gandalf stood in the midst of
the bridge. In his hand Glamdring gleamed. In his left he held up his
staff. The Balrog advanced and stood gazing at him.
with a spout of flame it sprang on the Bridge, but Gandalf stood firm.
‘You cannot pass’, he said, ‘Go back into the fiery depths. It is
forbidden for any Balrog to come beneath the sky since Fionwë son of Manwë
overthrew Thangorodrim. I am the master of the White Fire. The red flame
cannot come this way’. The creature made no reply, but standing up tall
so that it loomed above the wizard it strode forward and smote him. A
sheet of white flame sprang before him like
a shield, and the Balrog fell backward, its sword shivered into
molten pieces and flew, but Gandalf’s staff snapped and fell from his
hand. With a gasping hiss the Balrog sprang up ; it seemed to be half
blind but it came on and grasped at the wizard. Glamdring shore off its
empty right hand, but in that instant as he delivered the stroke the
Balrog struck with its whip. The thongs lashed round the wizard’s knees
and he staggered.
Legolas’ bow Gimli shot, but the arow fell. Trotter [Strider] sprang
back along the bridge with his sword. But at that moment a great troll
came up from the other side and leaped on the bridge. There was a terrible
crack and the bridge broke. All the western end fell. With a terrible cry
the troll fell after it, and the Balrog tumbled sideways with a yell and
fell into the chasm. Before Trotter could reach the wizard the bridge
broke before his feet, and with a great cry Gandalf fell into the darkness.
At Minas Tirith, the child Bergil is much more aggressive, cannot
be calmed by Pippin and is about to start fighting him when stopped by the
arrival of a Man from Gondor.
Gandalf reveals to Denethor that the Wizard King, leader of the
Nazguls, is a disowned ex-member of Gandalf’s order, the Istari, who
comes from Númenor.
Denethor is more gentle with Faramir, and when the latter tells of
his meeting with Frodo in Ithilien, replies that although he wished that
Boromir could have been there instead, adding – with a slap on the
shoulder to his son – but only if
Boromir had had a stouter heart and more trustworthy character; if,
that is, he had brought him the ring without using it.
Tolkien changed his mind because, as he wrote,
only if Denethor were harder on Faramir could we see why he went
crazy when his son returned on the point of death.
It should be added that Denethor uses the Palantír for the first
and last time only when he thinks his son is about to die; he scrutinizes
the stone to see if help might come, but Sauron only lets him the strength
of Mordor and Denethor,
despairing, goes mad.
Theoden narrates the meeting between his ancestor Baldor and a
talking stone statue at the entrance to the Pathway of the Dead.
And when Aragorn sees the skeleton in armour and recognises it as
Baldor, he has a tomb built in such a way that no one may reach the
mysterious closed door. At
Pelargir the army of the Dead hesitates to attack the fleet of Umbar and
Aragorn is compelled to harangue the Dead until they find the courage at
last to make war on Sauron.
Aragorn is acclaimed by the people of Lebennin as “Lord of the
Rings” and Tolkien wonders if this happens in order that Sauron should
believe himself in possession of the Only and stop worrying about Frodo,
or because Galadriel had handed Nenya over to him.
Here is a variant from the chapter The
if we should find the Ring and wield it, how would it give us victory?’,
would not do so all in a day’, answered Gandalf. ‘But were it to come
to the hand of some one of power or royalty, as say the Lord Aragorn, or
the Steward of this City, or Elrond of Imladrist, or even to me, then he
being the Ringlord would wax ever in power and the desire of power ; and
all minds he would cow or dominate so that they would blindly do his will.
And he could not be slain. More : the deepest secrets of the mind and
heart of Sauron would become plain to him, so that the Dark Lord could do
nothing unforeseen . The Ringlord would suck the very power and thought
from him, so that all would forsake his allegiance and follow the Ringlord,
and they would serve him and worship him as a God. And so Sauron would be
overthrown utterly and fade into oblivion ; but behold, there would be
Sauron still....but upon the other side, a tyrant brooking no freedom,
shrinking from no deed of evil to hold his sway and to widen it.
worse’, said Aragorn. ‘For all that is left of the ancient power and
wisdom of the West he would also have broken and corrupted’.
what is the use of this Ring?’, said Imrahil.
said Hurin Warden of the Keys. ‘At least we should have won the war, and
not this foul lord of Mordor.’
might many a brave knight of the Mark or the Realm speak’, said Imrahil.
‘But surely more wisdom is required of lords in council. Victory in
itself is worthless. Unless Gondor stand for some good, then lei it not
stand at all; and if Mordor doth not stand for some evil that we will not
brook in Mordor or out of it, then let it triumph’.
follows is equally fascinating.
ninth volume is called Sauron
Defeated. The first
section of this sizeable tome contains variants of the final part of The
Lord of the Rings, from Sam and Frodo at Mordor to The Grey Havens.
I have selected some interesting points.
Frodo does not want to throw the Ring into the Abyss of Fate
because he hears a deep, slow, but persuasive voice which offers him life,
peace, honour, a rich reward, a lordship and finally a share of the Great
Power, if only he will wait and return to Baradur with a Slave of the
Ring. This terrorizes Frodo
and he remains immobilized by the choice between resistance and surrender,
in torment, for a period that seems to him incredibly long and unmarked by
the passage of time. Then he
is disturbed by a fresh thought, not from outside, but a thought from
within his being: he should keep the ring himself
and gain control of everything. Frodo,
King of Kings. The Hobbits (naturally,
he would not have forgotten his friends) would be in command and he would
command the Hobbits. He
would write great poems and compose great songs and all the earth would
bloom and everyone would be invited to his parties.
And so Frodo takes the Ring!
Variants of the final catastrophe are that Sam pushes Gollum and
the Ring into the abyss, or Gollum, overcome by remorse and the terror of
being forever deprived of the Ring by the advancing Nazguls,
At Edoras during the banquet which follows Theoden’s funeral,
Gandalf, during a toast, refers to Frodo and Sam by Elvish names which
translate, respectively, as Resistance-Beyond-Hope and
When they return to the County, Ted Sandy makes this prophecy:
are out of date, Mr. Samwise, with your elves and your dragons. If I were
you I’d go and catch one of their ships that are always sailing,
according to your tale. Go back to Babyland and rock your cradle, and do
not bother us. We are going to make a big town here with twenty mills. A
hundred new houses next year. Big stuff coming up from the South. Chaps
who can work metals. And make big holes in the ground. There’ll be
forges a-humming and steamwhistles and wheels going round. Elves can’t
do things like that.’
A small difference is that Sharkey is not a Saruman, but a Man-Orc.
More noteworthy, that Frodo eliminates various enemies in the County and
is a energetic and determined leader, strong in war and resolute in his
decisions, who comes to be honoured by all the Hobbits with such devotion
that “not even Sam could complain”.
Fortunately Tolkien changed his mind in the definitive version and
gave us in Frodo a great icon of humanity and not the hero of a TV series!
A comment by Tolkien refers to The Grey Havens as an
“Arthurian” finale for Bilbo and Frodo, in which of course he does not
explain whether he intends an allegory of death or a means of healing and
restoration as prelude to a return.
There follow two versions of the Epilogue
which does not appear in LOTR.
Sam is surrounded by numerous children of both sexes to whom he
recounts stories of long ago. He
speaks to eldest, Elanor, of the Elfin beauty which is disappearing, but
has not yet gone and which she may therefore see too.
Lastly, he announces that King Elessar will be passing near the
border of the County and would like to see his old friends.
Here are the last lines of the Epilogue: after having sent the
children to bed,
Samwise stood at the door and looked away eastward . He drew
Mistress Rose to him, and set his arm about her.
the twenty-fifth!’, he said. ‘This day seventeen years ago, Rose wife,
I didn’t think I should ever see thee again. But I kept on hoping ‘.
never hoped at all, Sam’, she said., ‘Not until that very day ; and
then suddenly I did .About noon it was, and I felt so glad that I began
singing. And mother said: “Quiet , lass! There is
ruffians about”. And I said : “Let them come !Their time will
soon be over. Sam’s coming back .” And you came ‘.
did , ‘ said Sam.’ To the most belovedest place in all the world. To
my Rose and my garden’.
went in , and Sam shut the door. But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled, the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of
Epilogue, which indeed is in
some passages a little sugary and simpering, was eliminated by Tolkien on
the basis of the many criticisms he received: “it has been so
universally condemned…” But
he remained unsatisfied because he felt
“the picture to be incomplete…”
The second part of the book is dedicated to the unfinished novel The
Notion Club Papers, which is very similar to The
Lost Road (also unfinished), telling of a group professors, friends
who during their discussions at the Club find themselves - without
understanding why - wandering through and space, ending up in the 10th
century when the Danes were attacking the Anglo-Saxons and, still further
back, in a time shortly before the Fall of Númenor.
Tolkien enthusiasts will be interested three versions of the poem
Imram (the death of St Brendan). We
find Tolkien caught in a typical position between a
Hindu-Orphic-Pythagorean and Christian point of view:
theory is that the sight and memory goes on with descendants of Elendil
and Voronwë [his companion ], but not reincarnation ; they are
different people even if they still resemble one another in some ways even
after a lapse of many generations
The third section contains four versions of
the Fall of Númenor and finishes with a linguistic treatise on
Adunaic, the tongue of the Númenoreans.
It seems to me to that the tenth volume, The
Morgoth’s Ring, is that amongst the 12 of HoME
which contains the most new material and which is of greater philosophical
A piece entitled Laws and
Customs among the Eldar recounts how the bodies of Elves grew more
slowly than those of Men, but their minds more quickly; they learned to
talk before they were one year old and at the same to walk and dance.
During infancy it was difficult to distinguish between the children
of Elves and those of Men. The
latter, however, seemed happier because they still enjoyed the world, the
fire of their own spirits had not yet consumed them and the weight of
memory was still light upon them. At
the end of the third year human children continued to grow whilst Elfin
children did not; a Man reached his full stature at an age when an Elf was
only the height of a human seven-year old.
Fifty years (and for some, a hundred) were needed for an Elf to
reach full size.
Elves married only once in their lives, even during the most
obscure periods in the history of Arda, and the occurrence of lewd
behaviour amongst them was rare. The
Noldor observed the custom that the bride’s mother gave the son-in-law a
jewel suspended from a chain, and likewise the groom’s father to his
ceremonies were not considered necessary for the marriage, but were merely
courtesies by which the parents demonstrated their love and recognition
that the union bonded the families as well as the couple.
The essential wedding rite was carnal union, after which a typical
unbreakable marriage bond came into existence.
In times of peace and prosperity it was considered discourteous not
to hold a public ceremony, but Elvish law always held that marriage
required only the free consent of the couple without the need for
witnesses and thus it often was in times of difficulty.
Conception and pregnancy took a larger amount of physical and
spiritual energy from Elf women than human ones.
For this reason Elves had few offspring whilst they were young,
usually not long after getting married.
With respect to Elfin sexuality, fertility and sexual desire could
not easily be distinguished; they would undoubtedly have kept their sexual
potency for a long time if their desire remained unsatisfied, but when
generative power was effectively exercised, sexual desire disappeared
rapidly and the mind occupied itself with other things.
Sexual union certainly gave them great joy and the “child days”
– as they called them – remained in the memory as the most joyful in
their lives. But they had
many other potentialities of the mind and body which their nature urged
them to fulfil.
Míriel died, weakened by her pregnancy with Fëanor, her husband Finwë,
who was still young and wished for more children, asked Manwe to be
allowed to remarry. Manwe
asked Míriel, who was in the halls of Mandos, if she wanted to be
reincarnated and she replied that she did not (she could no longer find in
herself any desire for life, at least within the borders of Arda).
Manwe thus gave permission to Finwë to marry again and he did so
with Ingwe’s sister, Vanyar Indis.
The Valar debated much over the case of Míriel and Finwë, because
it was unusual for someone to die at Valinor.
Some Valar, although agreeing with the decision, thought that
instead of solving the problem it would have perpetuated it.
must ye forget that in Arda Marred Justice
is not Healing . Healing cometh
only by suffering and patience, and maketh no demand, not even for Justice.
Justice worketh only within the bonds of things as they are, accepting the
marring of Arda, and therefore though Justice is itself good and desireth
no farther evil, it came but perpetuate the evil that was, and doth not
prevent it from the bearing of fruit in sorrow. Thus the Statute was just,
but it accepted Death and the severance of Finwë and Miriel, a thing
unnatural in Arda Unmarred, and therefore with reference to Arda Unmarred
it was unnatural and fraught with Death. The liberty that it gave was a
lower road that, if it led not still downwards, could not again ascend.
But Healing must retain ever the thought of Arda Unmarred, and if it
cannot ascend, must abide in patience. This is Hope which, I deem , is
before all else the virtue
most fair in the Children of Eru, but cannot be commanded
to come when needed : patience must often long await it.’
The debate which follows Manwe’s words is most interesting (Aule,
Ulmo, Yavanna and Nienna voice different opinions); it is a rare example (insofar
as I am able to judge) of the embodiment of a profound theological
argument in a fictional narrative. The
Manwe speaks again:
and Niënna err, I deem ; for what each said in different words meaneth
this much : that Death which cometh from the Marred may be one thing , and
Death as an instrument of Eru be another thing and discernible : the one
being of malice, and therefore only evil and inevitably grievous ; the
other , being of benevolence, intending particular and immediate good, and
therefore not evil, and either not grievous or easily and swiftly to be
healed. For the evil and the grief of Death are in mere severance and
breach of nature which is alike in both (or Death is not their name) ; and
both occur only in Arda Marred, and accord with its processes.
I deem that Ulmo is to be followed rather , holding that Eru need not and
would not desire as a special instrument of his benevolence a thing that
is evil. Wherefore, indeed, should he intrude Death as a “new thing”
into a world that suffereth it already ? Nonetheless, Eru is Lord of all,
and will use as instrument of his final purposes, which are good,
whatsoever any of his creatures, great or small, do or devise, in his
despite or in his service. But we must hold that it is his will that those
of the Eldar who serve him should not be cast down by griefs or evils that
they encounter in Arda Marred ; but should ascend to a strength and wisdom
that they would not otherwise have achieved : that the Children of Eru
should grow to be daughters and sons.
Arda Unmarred hath to aspects or senses. The first is the Unmarred that
they discern in the Marred, if their eyes are not deemed, and yearn for,
as we yearn for the Will of Eru : this is the ground upon which Hope is
built. The second is the Unmarred that shall be : that is, to speak
according to Time in which they have their being, the Arda Healed, which
shall be greater and more fair than the first , because of the Marring :
this is the Hope that sustaineth. It cameth not only from the yearning for
the Will of Iluvatar the Begetters (which by itself may lead those within
Time to no more then regret), but also from trust in Eru the Lord
everlasting, that he is good , and that his works shall all end in good.
This the Marrer hath denied, and in this denial is the root of evil, and
its end is in despair.
notwithstanding the words of Vairë, I abide by that which I said first.
For though she speaketh not without knowledge, she uttereth opinion and
not certainty. The Valar have not and must not presume certainty with
regard to the wills of the Children. Nor, even were they certain in this
one case concerning the fëa [soul]
of Miriel would that
unmake the union of love that once was between her and her spouse, or
render void the judgement that constancy to it would in Finwë be a better
and fairer course , more in accord with Arda Unmarred, or with the will of
Eru in permitting this thing to befall him. The Statute openeth the
liberty of a lower road, and accepting Death, countenanceth Death, and
cannot heal it. If that liberty is used , the evil of the death of Miriel
will continue to have power, and will bear fruit in sorrow’.
the Statute stand, for it is just.
is our part to rule Arda, and to counsel the Children, or to command them
in things committed to our authority. Therefore it is our task to deal
with Arda Marred, and to declare what is just within it. We may indeed in
counsel point to the Higher Road, but we cannot compel any free creature
to walk upon it. That leadeth to tyranny, which disfigureth good and
maketh it seem hateful.
by final Hope, as Manwë hath spoken of it, is a law which one can give to
oneself only ; of others justice alone can be demanded. A ruler who
discerning justice refuseth to it the sanction of law, demanding
abnegation of rights and self-sacrifice, will not drive his subjects to
these virtues, virtuous only if free, but by unnaturally making justice
unlawful, will drive them rather to rebellion against all law.’
piece of the work is The Controversy Between Finrod and Andreth;
the Elf who was friendly with Men and the wise elderly woman engaged in a
philosophical discussion because Finrod had heard of a tradition amongst
Men according to which they considered death not to be a natural event,
but a result of the malice of Melkor.
Andreth was aware of the uncertain status of tradition, both
because it had no scientific basis and because there were diverse
traditions, such as that (shared by the Elves) which maintained that the
death of Men was natural and
maintained that Melkor did not create death, but had merely perverted it;
previously it had existed and been considered a good thing.
Furthermore, Elves too would one day die, albeit after many eras
had passed, and they did not know what would come after.
Thus, after living for thousands of years, their condition was no
different to that of a young Man who does not think of death because it is
still far off. Andreth
replied that thinking of death leads to desperation, because the world is
controlled by Melkor, and no valorous Elfin or human action can succeed.
Finrod chided her for confounding Melkor with Eru: he was the real
lord of Arda and Manwe his second in command.
then said that Elves and Men see Arda differently; Men are like guests who
stay for a short while in a new land and all is new and strange to their
eyes, whilst the Elves are like people born in that land and everything
seems familiar to them, all that exists, and their own property and
therefore precious. For
Finrod, the death of Men, before Melkor covered it with fear and anguish,
was a “returning home” of the spirit which left Arda and the body
which is part of Arda and went to some place of immortality.
asserted such an opinion to be false and the product of the Enemy’s lies,
because it implied a sinful disregard for the body, whereas in every
incarnate creature body and soul love one another mutually.
Andreth then asked Finrod what hope was, and he distinguished two
meanings: the first, more common, was “the search for improvement” and
is the expectancy of good which, although uncertain, has some foundation
in that which is already known (the Elvish word is Amdir).
The second, more profound, is “faith” and since it is not
derived from experience is not affected by things of this world, but is
based on the belief that, since we are Children of Eru,
he will not allow any enemy or us ourselves to deprive him of what
is his (in Elvish, Estel).
Andreth replied that Men’s Estel
is shaken and that they doubt that Melkor is lord of the world.
Finrod’s rejoinder was that even though Estel
can be suffocated, there always remains at least a spark of it in our
wishes and dreams.
The most interesting section of the book is, in my opinion, Myths
Transformed; in the last years of his life JRRT modified several ideas
which were central to his mythology.
The Silmarillion was described as a human interpretation of Elf
history known to the Men of Númenor and then of Middle-earth.
The Men added their own primitive and absurd cosmological notions
such as the Flat Earth and the Sun and the Moon as navigators in the sky,
each with its own home etc., which were not shared by the High Elves, who
had the same astronomical knowledge as twentieth-century men (considering
Arda just a tiny speck lost amongst the endless regions of Ea).
JRRT became convinced, towards the end of his life, that the
Subcreator cannot present his readers with a world whose laws are in
contrast with that which they are familiar.
Thus, the Sun and Moon had to be born long
before the Trees; the
Trees, moreover, must have been created by the Valar for selfish motives,
to decorate Valinor with which they became progressively infatuated,
As for Melkor, although lord of the infinite regions of Ea, he was
jealous of the kingdom of Manwe on Arda because he knew that the Sons of
Eru would be born there and wanted to be their only lord and master.
To this end, he had to make Men and
Elves forget of the existence of Eru.
But this could never happen because Eru had given the Vala Varda
the power to take a Holy Light to Ea.
JRRT wanted to make Melkor much more powerful than in the previous
scheme of things; stronger than all the Valar put together.
The Valar managed to beat him in the War of Ira only because,
through lust for power he had become the tyrant Morgoth, with enslaved
Orcs, Balrogs, Dragons etc. In order to achieve this change, though, he
had had to concede to these creatures the ability to procreate and
multiply, thus greatly diminishing his individual creative power by giving
a portion of it to beings which were partly independent and there
potentially beyond his control – otherwise he would have been unable to
slake his thirst for power. When
Manwe saw Melkor transformed in Morgoth, he was amazed to see him so
reduced in personal power; without his slaves he was now much weaker than
Manwe and could not meet his stare.
In the Second Age, Sauron was imagined to be “greater” than
Melkor at the end of the First Age since, although much smaller in size,
he had not yet been reduced to such a weakened state.
Morgoth had exhausted much of his essence by transferring it into
the physical constituents of Arda, so much that creatures born there would
be potentially corruptible (he did on a much larger scale the same thing
that Sauron was to do with the Ring; but, although the destruction of the
Ring was sufficient to destroy Sauron’s power, to destroy Melkor’s it
was necessary to eliminate Arda, “Morgoth’s Ring”).
Sauron just inherited the corrupted Arda.
Sauron was moreover wiser than Melkor, because, not having
initiated the rebellion, he could have stayed listening to the Music for
longer. Melkor was possessed
by a complete nihilism, wishing to destroy all the Elves and Men, that
drove him mad, for he would have certainly have eliminated his Orcs too if
he had won the war. The roots
of Melkor’s desperation and his final impotence were in the fact that
– whilst Elves and Men continued to love Arda even though it was corrupt,
because they could attempt to cure its wounds – he felt powerless
towards it and, if he had had the freedom to act, he would angrily have
sought to recreate the original chaos.
And in this case he would have been defeated, since the world would
have existed at some past time, independent from his mind.
Sauron never reached this degree of nihilism, never objected to the
world’s existence, as long as he could do as he wished in it.
He still contained the relics of good qualities; his virtue was a
love of order and coordination and he hated confusion and wasted energy (he
was attracted to Melkor because he thought – erroneously – that the
former would be able to achieve his aims authoritatively and efficiently,
in contrast to the wavering and wasteful behaviour of the other Valars).
Sauron was, in fact, very similar to Saruman and for this reason
was able to understand his plans immediately.
But, as with all minds of this sort, his love and comprehension of
other intelligences was weak; although the only rational motive for all
his order and planning was the good of all the inhabitants of Arda, his
“plans” and “ideas” were the products of an isolated and therefore
limited and simplistic mind and could only be implemented in a more
complex reality by means of violence.
This distinction between Melkor and Sauron is oversimplified,
because Sauron, after beginning to serve Melkor, became infected by his
lust for destruction and hatred of God.
But Sauron could not be a sincere atheist, because he had met Eru.
He deceived himself into believing that Eru no longer cared about
the destiny of Ea, or at least of Arda, because of the failure of the
Valar, including Melkor. At
the Fall of Númenor, he therefore interpreted as the isolation of Aman as
Eru’s punishment of the Valar, who were deprived of all control over
When he saw the Istari, he
supposed that they had been sent by the Valar in a pathetic attempt to
regain control over Middle-earth in order to colonize it, an imperialistic
endeavour lacking the approval of Eru.
Observation of Saruman’s behaviour confirmed his hypothesis and
he became convinced. He could
not understand Gandalf, but by now Sauron had become stupid enough to
imagine that the difference in his behaviour compared to that of Saruman
was merely due to an inferior intelligence and the wish to cause trouble.
Sauron was not a genuine atheist, but preached atheism because he
knew it weakened other creatures’ resistance to him.
Or he proclaimed idolatry of Melkor, as in the case of Ar-Pharazon.
Here, he wanted to destroy the Men of Númenor in revenge for the
humiliation inflicted upon Ar-Pharazon, although in fact (in contrast to
Morgoth) Sauron would have been happy that they existed in his service,
and corrupted and exploited for his own ends many of them.
Other subjects are dealt with in this section, such as the origin
and behaviour of the Orcs, the reason why Manwe did not fight and the
cause and modality of the “disappearance” of the Elves after the Third
The eleventh volume is entitled “The War of the Jewels”,
considered by Christopher Tolkien companion to The Morgoth’s Ring; both
refer to the First Age, the previous book to the earlier part (in Aman)
and this to the later (in Beleriand).
Little completely new material is to be found, though, unlike in
the dazzling tenth volume.
It is said of female Dwarves:
Naugrim have beards, male and female alike ; nor indeed can their
womenkind be discerned by those of other race, be it in feature or in gait
or in voice, nor in any wise save this : that they go not to war, and
seldom save direst need issue from their deep bowers and halls. It is said,
also, that their womenkind are few, and that save their kings and
chieftains few Dwarves ever wed ; wherefore their race multiplied slowly,
and now is dwindling
A long section (60 pages) is dedicated to The
Wanderings of Húrin, in which the adventures of Túrin’s father,
after his release by Morgoth, are narrated in much greater detail than in
the Silmarillion or Unfinished
Tales. Four pages are
devoted to the story of Maeglin, the unfortunate son of Isfin and Eol and
rejected suitor of Idril.
A linguistic passage covers words which refer to Elves and their
variety, such as the clan names, with a rich appendix listing the names
used by Elves for Men, Dwarves and Orcs.
Another section is about the Valar language, which explains, or
example, that in their tongue the “Gods” call the Telperion tree Ibrîniðilpathânezel
and the Laurelin tree Tulukhedelgorûs.
This interesting volume concludes with a piece about the Awakening
of the very first Elves and their brides and the invention of spoken
The twelfth book is called The
Peoples of Middle-Earth. This
is the last volume of
JRRT’s previously unpublished writings edited by his son Christopher,
who observes in the Preface:
is a long time since I began the work of ordering and elucidating the vast
collection of papers in which my father’s conception of Arda, Aman, and
Middle-earth was contained[...] Nearly a quarter of a century later the
story, as I have been able to tell it, is as last concluded. This is not
to say that I have given an account of everything that my father wrote,
even leaving aside the great body of his work on the language of Elves
So it doesn’t seem impossible that other books of Tolkien’s
unpublished writings might appear in the future.
This twelfth book covers many topics.
The first part contains various versions of the Appendices
and Prologue to the Lord
of the Rings. There
follow several late writings of greater interest.
A brief account of the relations between Dwarves and Men describes
the seven Dwarf tribes and where they Awoke, with references to their
language and those of Men. A passage deals with some details of the Qenya
spoken by Fëanor, the maternal names and names of all the descendents of
Finwë and their meanings. A
short piece outlining the problem of the reincarnation of Glorfindel, one
of the five Wizards (and in which the two Blue Wizards have different
names to those used in the Unfinished
Tales) is followed by another on Cirdan the Carpenter.
There is a piece containing the reply of the Elf Pengoloð to a
question posed by the English sailor Ælfwine on the differences between
the Elves’ languages, and one concerning lembas.
Lastly, the plots of two interesting tales.
The first, The New Shadow,
is set in Minas Tirith in the Fourth Age after Aragorn’s death; it is a
sort of thriller in which an old man (younger brother of Bergil, the child
who knew Pippin) finds out about a secret association of youngsters
devoted to the cult of the Shadow and begins to investigate together with
an ambiguous friend of his son. The
second, Tal-Elmar, is set on
the west coast of Middle-earth during the Second Age, at the time when the
settlements of the Númenoreans had begun to spread, and takes the point
of view of the indigenous people. Tal-Elmar
is a youth sent in an advance patrol who finds out that he can understand
the strangers’ language.
Looking back over these twelve volumes of the History
of Middle Earth, then, one must express gratitude that Christopher
Tolkien has made available to scholars such a large and precious
collection of material. It
must be admitted that for the normal Tolkien reader the going is often
heavy, since the work contains many repetitions on the part of the author
and much erudite commentary on behalf of the editor.
It would be useful to concentrate the most interesting passages
into a single volume, so as to create a work which could be enjoyed in the
same fashion as – and perhaps even more than - Unfinished
Uncharted Realms of Tolkien
substantial work (250 pages of small type), jointly written by Alex Lewis
and Elizabeth Currie, is subtitled: “A Critical Study of Text, Context
and Subtext in the Works of JRR Tolkien”. The authors emphasize
that the title was chosen “with great care”; “uncharted” because
the Tolkienian territories they wish to explore are unfamiliar. They
use the metaphor of a tapestry (the works of JRRT) composed of many
different threads, some already well known (philology, history, geography,
politics and mythology) and others to now be added: folklore, the
fantastic setting, non Middle-earth elements and gender.
the first chapter the two major categories of story are defined (according
to whether or not the events take place “within the map” or “off the
map” of known History) : “story as history” and “fantasy”.
Numerous works from Homer onwards are analysed on the basis of this
distinction. And Tolkien? He operates both on and off the map.
In the Lord of the Rings (LotR), we have
history, in a time before it was written down, in a definite region: the
north-west of the Old World (i.e. Europe). […] The Shire is equated
geographically with, even though there is no English Channel […] Readers
could equate the Misty Mountains with the Alps. Tolkien himself
[…] suggested that Minas Tirith in Gondor was around the same location
as Genoa in Italy. Yet it cannot be denied that the places are
“fantastic” and “off the map”.
effect is similar to that in Homer’s Odyssey; places such
as Scylla and Charybdis, the island of Polyphemus, Circe, Ogygia and the
island of the Phaeacians are of mixed ontology: both known and unknown.
is suggested in the second chapter that one of Tolkien’s sources of
inspiration may have been a work which was well known in the early
twentieth century, Alexander von Humboldt’s Journeys through the
Equinoctial Regions. Humboldt (1769-1859) was a naturalist and
explorer and made contributions to meteorology, geophysics and
oceanography; he made a 5-year-long voyage from Spain to the Canary
Islands, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, ascended the volcano
Chimborazo in Ecuador and explored the entire length of the Orinoco River
and most of the Amazon River system. He arrived in South America a
believer in the theory of Neptunism (all rocks are sedimentary in origin)
and then became convinced of the correctness of Plutonism (mountains are
formed by violent upheaval); some of his descriptions resemble those of
Mordor and Mount Doom, written by Tolkien. Von Humboldt’s
catastrophism is reflected in the history of Arda, where the transition
between the Ages is marked by violent upheavals (the fall of the Lamps,
the War of Wrath, the collapse of Númenor and the explosion of Mount Doom).
Similarities are demonstrated between Humboldt’s account of his
ascent of Chimborazo and the descriptions of the Misty Mountains in The
Hobbit (HOB) and the Caradhras in LotR.
third chapter deals with the inspiration Tolkien drew from English
folklore. It starts by demythologizing the idea (widespread in the
late 19th and early 20th century) that the “countryside” is a timeless
and unchanging entity, a notion that could only be entertained by
idealistic town dwellers who had never lived in the country. On the
contrary, when an honest Yorkshireman was asked […] if things were
much different to fifty years ago, he replied that […] nothing was
Tolkien this recognition of change is to be seen in the way he recounts
the history of the Shire. Like a Medieval historian, he had a clear
idea of the discontinuity of tradition which resulted from
invasions; this is evident when he describes the Wild Men or the Woses.
It is for the same reason that he differs from Frazer (The Golden Bough),
who depicts “paganism” as “dark and bloody”, well beyond
what might have been arguable from the available evidence. Tolkien
describes pagan (non-Christian) cultures as neither dark nor bloody.
Furthermore, Frazer and his followers “wanted” to believe that
paganism was preserved unchanged in folklore, whereas Tolkien, who
possessed greater factual knowledge, knew that this was untrue and that
successive waves of Christianization had profoundly modified popular
fourth chapter discusses the haunting of the landscape in myth and legend
and declares its opposition to the commonly held view that “by now,
after the industrial revolution, the English countryside has been
‘cleansed’ of all haunting”. The authors cite numerous rural
legends in circulation today with regard to “mysterious happenings” in
rural England, attributed, for example, to long-dead Saxons whose burial
grounds are disturbed. Tolkien drank in this feeling, still present,
of the haunting of landscapes, and many examples from his writings are
the fifth chapter the authors explain that myth was responsible for the
birth of Hobbits not as rabbits (as found in rural legends, see the
discussion in Shippey’s book, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century),
but rather as …badgers!
sixth chapter consists of a profound, detailed and absolutely convincing
analysis of The Hobbit which shows that the origin of this
novel is completely independent of the “Legendarium” of the Silmarillion
(SIL) and how it was only after the LotR was written that HOB
began to be drawn into the Legendarium. The authors expound upon
their thesis concerning the editorial transformations of HOB; this
account has been anticipated since the 1992 Oxford Centenary Conference
and here, at last, it is. Initially, neither HOB nor LotR
were set in the Middle Earth of the SIL. The change was due
to the publication and success of HOB and the subsequent request
for a sequel; this became “enormous and monstrous” in the hands of
Tolkien (whose primary concern was to publish SIL) and gradually
absorbed both HOB and the sequel - which was, by now, LotR
– into the Legendarium.
inconsistencies in HOB are reviewed : the Trolls’ talking purses,
for example, (absurd in the Middle Earth where there are only two talking
swords, forged by Eol the Dark Elf) and the numerous Elven-rings scattered
about. The authors point out that one of these purses could
potentially have become (with the capital letter) the Purse of LotR,
much as one of the HOB rings became the Ring of LotR.
seventh chapter, which is longer and more detailed than the previous
one, continues this argument (Tolkien’s two novels were not created from
the Middle Earth, but ended up there) with an analysis of LotR.
The material is considered from the viewpoint of the 45 year old Tolkien
embarking upon what was still the sequel to a children’s story, the
“New Hobbit”, and not the 60 year old author who drew all the
conceptions together by the end of LotR.
publisher, who had refused Tolkien’s request to publish SIL,
suggested that he use it as a “mine” for books similar to HOB.
In the end there was a compromise; SIL was not published, but the
“loans” to the New Hobbit were so significant that the story became
progressively darker and was no more a children’s tale. Tolkien
told his publisher in 1938 that he was finding it only too easy to write
the opening chapters (from the world of HOB) but that for the
moment “the story is not unfolding”. Gandalf no longer provided
inspiration, because at that time neither he nor the Istari are mentioned
in SIL, they were inserted, due to the evolution of LotR’s
plot, in 1950. In the beginning the most important link between HOB
and SIL was Bilbo, whom Tolkien wanted to give the role of
Eriol (the Elves’ friend in the Lost Tales), which was to find
the Elves and listen to their stories. But it did not remain thus:
Bilbo was marginalized, Gandalf took the centre stage and new characters,
Frodo and Aragorn, appeared.
should be noted, however, that although the story of HOB was
absorbed into the SIL Legendarium, SIL itself was modified;
the map of Middle Earth was enlarged to join Beleriand (of SIL)
together with the places referred to in HOB and, as LotR
progressed, the Third Age was constructed : in 1948 Tolkien still thought
that the events in HOB were close to the Last Alliance between
Gil-Galad and Elendil! In about 1950-51 Tolkien saw clearly
that the Lord of the Rings, originally expected to be a sequel to The
Hobbit, [is rather a sequel] to The Silmarillion. Not merely a
sequel to, but a reconstruction of, SIL. The authors
emphasize and illustrate how it was in the Appendices to LotR that
there emerged a comprehensive historical structure of the Second and Third
Ages. Even Akallabêth (which tells of the destruction of Númenor)
post-dates the writing of LotR, appearing only in the Appendices!
can be said, perhaps, after studying the History of the Middle-earth
in tandem with the Letters of Tolkien and Carpenter’s Biography,
is that a highly complex individual emerges. Tolkien seems to have
divided his writings into what one might call “serious” and
“trivial” – and there was a huge gulf between the two that finally LotR
“trivial” creations of Tolkien would have probably constituted Roverandom,
Mr Bliss, The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham and the Father
Christmas Letters. These are characterised by a large comedic
content and that they seem aimed at children. They were indeed
created for his own children. [LotR blends the “trivial”
with the “serious”], with the hobbits acting as “mediators” as
Shippey and Carpenter describe them, between the modern world and the old
high style of ancient days.
could have gone differently. Tolkien, as a result of the pact with his
friend C. S. Lewis (he was to write a “time” story and Lewis a
“space” story), had intended to incorporate the Númenorean material
into a novel called the Lost Road, a work which was to have linked
the legendary SIL material with real history from the Fourth Age
(instead, this happened later in LotR). But there was an
unforeseen disturbance: HOB was published, was successful , a
sequel was called for and Tolkien began work on it.
1944 and 1946 Tolkien had a change of heart; he could not write too dark a
sequel to HOB (such as that which was developing), but did not wish
to abandon “serious” writing for “trivial” material and so
interrupted work on the New Hobbit and took up once more the idea of
the Lost Road, turning into the Notion Club Papers.
But when this “serious” book seemed to be getting nowhere, Tolkien
returned to the “trivial” hobbits and allowed the floodgates to open;
a great deal of material from both the Beleriand and Númenor
traditions was incorporated into a work (LotR) which became by
definition “serious”, but retained the Shire and the hobbits and their
point of view (The Red Book of Westmarch).
eighth chapter considers the character Tom Bombadil. Who is Tom? The
“Maia” and “Vala” hypotheses are rejected, together with the
audacious “Ilúvatar” theory (it is true that Goldberry says “He
is” of Tom, but, as the authors rightly point out, in his cartoons
Popeye the Sailor-Man often says “I am what I am,” without any
pretence to being Yahweh). It is instead proposed that he is a
personage who does belong to the fantasy world of Middle Earth (Tom
Bombadil is mentioned neither in the Ages which precede the LotR events,
nor in the introduction to the Fourth Age), but rather that he is
connected with the actual England in which Tolkien lived. The
authors suggest that he is based on the medieval Green Knight and a
red-haired, sparkling-eyed figure from North English folklore called
the Brown Man o’ the Muirs, a vegetarian who rebukes the hunters who
search for prey on his land, threatening the creatures in his care.
is an element from the “hobbit” material of LotR, whom Tolkien
never wished to integrate into the SIL Legendarium. Tom seems
to be the embodiment of a “pure” natural science ; he is the spirit
that desires knowledge of other things inasmuch as they are “other”
and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a rational spirit which
desires knowledge as an end in itself : zoology and botany, not
cattle-breeding or agriculture. But the authors underline (almost
repeating sir Karl Popper’s maxim):
theory (this one included!) is ever The Truth; they exist to be
challenged, and that is how disciplines move forward.
the ninth to eleventh chapters (entitled “Realms of Gender”) the
authors deal with issues concerning gender in Tolkien’s works.
They point out that in LotR and Unfinished Tales there are
many “strong” female characters, no female figures at all in HOB
(a book which was written for his own sons when they were young) and few
(but “strong”) females in LotR. By “strong” they mean
women who are not dependent in their decisions upon men or bound by family
or social conventions, able to enter into conflict in their search for
their independence and to achieve their goals. Although these
figures of womanhood may not seem “liberated” according to our
standards in the year 2000, if we examine them against the
background of the majority of twentieth-century narrative, they
stand out for their nonconformism.
in the description of a certain female character, the criticism of a
certain type of feminism which Tolkien disliked (that of Virginia Woolf,
the authors state) may be discerned. This is Erendis, wife of
Aldarion, the Mariner King of Númenor. Erendis, in a grotesque inversion
of the male stereotype according to which the woman ought to dissolve into
the man and his interests, wants Aldarion to live only for her and abandon
every other interest and vocation. This tyrannical will of Erendis
causes much damage to her daughter and to Númenor itself.
feminism Tolkien criticises is that which does not limit itself to
establishing the importance of specific female interests, but which
considers masculine interests narrow-minded and ridiculous or disgusting
and believes males to be nothing but overgrown children who amuse
themselves stupidly with their endless game of war.
the last chapter a comparison is made between Tolkien and Shakespeare,
both innovative and influential authors in English literature. Both
lived through grave political crises: Shakespeare during the attempted
invasion by Philip II’s Invincible Armada (if it had succeeded, the
religious tolerance of Elizabeth I would have ended and episodes like the
St. Bartholomew Massacres in France would have followed). Tolkien
lived during Hitler’s attempt to invade England in order to export
his ferocious totalitarianism and wipe out the last trace of liberty in
writers had other, principal, occupations: Shakespeare was an actor and
theatrical company director, Tolkien an academic philologist, and their
peers underrated their secondary activities (respectively playwright and
novelist). The works of neither were recognised as “high
literature” by the critics of the time, but rather as “popular
literature”. Both were innovators: Shakespeare did not use the
customary stock figures (the King, the King’s Son, etc.), but rather,
individual characters (Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.). Tolkien created the
fantasy genre using the technique of “intralacement”, as has been
clearly demonstrated by Tom Shippey in his analysis of “The
Council of Elrond” chapter in LotR.
liked poetry and wrote it ably. Both were interested in how, at the
heart of individual, private matters, important forces are born which then
influence the public sphere of major historical events. Both lead
fairly ordinary private lives without dramatic interruptions and were made
into myths, Shakespeare by nineteenth-century critics and Tolkien by his
fans (“a deplorable cult”, he said), in homage to the Romantic
stereotype of “genius” according to which the life of the genius
should be remarkable. Lastly, both left works which can be enjoyed
by readers from different epochs and cultures. Just as Shakespeare’s
plays do not age, LotR continues to receive an enthusiastic
reception from generations well after the nineteen-fifties (in contrast
with, for example, the novels of C. S. Lewis, overly tied to contemporary
events and tastes).