Franco Manni



Papers on Tolkien in English (2)





Real and Imaginary History in

The Lord of the Rings[1]


Franco Manni


   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).


A Historical Millefeuille

   Tolkien 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.[2] 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.[3] 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 general.

    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 Tolkien himself;[4] it has been rigorously demonstrated by the critic Tom Shippey[5] (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.[6]

   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.[7] 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).[8]

   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.[9]

   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.[10]

   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 Langobardorum.

   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).[11] 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.[12] In general, the Fall of Numenor signifies for Tolkien the end of the Classical Epoch and the beginning of the Middle Ages.[13]

   The Rohirrim represent the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th to 11th centuries[14] and their relations with Gondor those between the Romans/barbarians and Byzantium.[15] But the Rohirrim also stand for the North American natives, with their horses, prairies and their ingenuous and strict sense of honour.[16]

   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[17] combined with a lagoon or riverside city, such as mercantile Venice or Amsterdam in late medieval  times (14th-15th centuries).

   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.[18]

   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:[19] 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;[20] there are smials or comfortable Hobbit houses; Lobelia uses an umbrella; middle class houses have clocks hanging on the wall;[21] 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 life”,[22] 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,[23] 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[24] (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),[25] towards whom he feels both sympathy and critical doubt. When he speaks of the Elves, Aragorn, Treebeard and, especially, of Gandalf,[26] he is talking about that minority of people (as well as about another part of himself) who fulfil the vital role of “eye-openers”[27] 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).



Everyone 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?[28] 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.[29]

   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,[30] 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[31] and in Japan from the 12th to 16th centuries.[32] Considerations of space prevent me from citing other examples, which are numerous.

   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.



For Ever Medieval

   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.[33]

   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.[34] 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 reader's identification. 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):[35] 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.[36] And this adjustment could only have widespread social approval in a Christian society such as in the medieval epoch, in contrast to ancient pagan societies.

   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),[37] 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.[38]

   If one reads a serious book on medieval history,[39] 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.[40] 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 interplanetary voyage.



A 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).[41] 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  absorbed entirely 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 Langobardorum.[42]

   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.[43] Thus for Tolkien some knowledge is innate or “natural” (given by Iluvatar ?), such as that concerning family organization[44] 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 Elves.

   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 of LotR[45] and aborted the sequel set after the death of Aragorn.[46]

   As Shippey has rightly observed,[47] 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.[48] 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 change.  

   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 servants.

   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, Gondolin.[49] Glorfindel reborn[50] 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.[51]

   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”.[52] Galadriel at the end of the Third Age is the woman who stays close to her husband Celeborn,[53] 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 experience.[54] Not humanity’s collective experience, that which we call “history, but the personal experience of individuals, which we simply calllife. 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 mentality.[55]

     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”.[56] 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.



History 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 exemplary fashion?

   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 Valar).

   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 of Iluvatar.

   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 now no longer magical, so life, as it progresses, leaves behind childhood, which can be remembered but cannot – and must not – be returned to.[57] 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.[58] 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 divine super-nature;[59] 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”.[60]



The 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.[61]

   In this free and unconstrained manner, the presence of history in Tolkien’s works symbolizes diverse aspects of the meaning of human life:

·        openness to the complexity and dramatic nature of the world, of which an important precondition is historical awareness;

·        the immobility of individual characters, over and above the multiplicity of events;

·        the possibility of moral maturation as an unconstrained response to immobility of character;

·        acceptance 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 other things).


The 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 present[62] and are important, but occupy a secondary role with regard to the author’s intentions.


[translated into English by Jimmy Bishop]






[1]              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.

[2]              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).


[3]              JRRT, Letters (London : Allen & Unwin,  1981), n.294, p.376.


[4]              JRRT, Letters, cit, n.247, pp.333-334.


[5]              The Road to Middle Earth (London : Harper Collins, 1992), pp.272-281.


[6]              JRRT, Letters, cit, n.182, p.237, n.247, pp.333-334; Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.203-204, 273-274.


[7]              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.


[8]              Scull, The Influence, cit, p.39.


[9]              Ibidem, p.41.


[10]             Ibidem, pp.41-43.


[11]             JRRT, Letters, cit, n.131, p.157.


[12]             Ibidem, n.211, p.281.


[13]             Ibidem, n.131, p.154.


[14]             Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.111-119.


[15]             Georg Ostrogorsky, Storia dell'impero bizantino [Geschichte des Byzantinischen Staates] (Torino: Einaudi, 1968), pp. 39-12.


[16]             Shippey, The Road, cit, p.115.


[17]             Scull, cit, p.40.


[18]             Edmond Pognon, La vita quotidiana nell'Anno Mille [La vie quotidienne en  l’an Mille] (Milano: Rizzoli, 1989), pp. 115-132.


[19]             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.


[20]             Cf. Marc Bloch, La società feudale [La société féodale (1939)] ( Torino: Einaudi, 1987), pp. 171-315.


[21]             JRRT, The Return of the Shadow. History of Middle Earth, Vol. VI (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 15.


[22]             Invito alla lettura di Tolkien (Milano: Mursia, 1982), p. 95.


[23]             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.


[24]             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,  1992), pp.114-135.


[25]             JRRT, Letters, cit, n.213, pp. 288-289.


[26]             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.


[27]             JRRT, LotR, cit, p. 316.


[28]             JRRT, Letters, cit, n.211 p.283, n.294 p.376, n.183 p.244.


[29]             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 1958.


[30]             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.


[31]             Cf. M. Bloch, cit, pp.333-339, 457-470; Pognon, cit, pp.303-315.


[32]             Cf. Edwin O. Reischauer, Storia del Giappone [Japan. The Story of a Nation] (Milano: Bompiani, 1994), pp. 37-67.


[33]             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, democracy etc.


[34]             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.


[35]             JRRT, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth (1953) reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966).


[36]             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.


[37]             Ebherard Horst, Federico II [Friederich der staufer.Eine biographie] (Milano: Rizzoli, 1995), pp. 169-215.


[38]             Cf. Shippey, Tolkien as a Postwar Writer, in Scholarship and Fantasy, cit., p.217.


[39]             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).


[40]             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 1939–1945.


[41]             Cf. Bloch, La società feudale, cit, pp. 171-270, 363-375, 442-455, 471-489.


[42]             "History of the Langobards” ; an English translation is available  on this website :


[43]             Plato, Phaedo, Phaedrus; Republic.


[44]             Cf.JRRT, Laws and Customs among the Eldars, in Morgoth's Ring. History of Middle Earth, Vol. X (London: Harper Collins, 1994), pp.207-217.


[45]             JRRT, Sauron Defeated, cit., pp.132-133.


[46]             JRRT, The New Shadow,  in The Peoples of Middle-earth. History of Middle Earth, Vol XII (London: Harper Collins,  1996), pp. 409-421.


[47]             The Road, cit,p.199.


[48]             JRRT, LotR, cit, pp. 906-907.


[49]             JRRT, The  Silmarillion [2nd 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:  George Allen & Unwin, 1984).


[50]             JRRT, The Return of the Shadow, cit, pp. 214-215.


[51]             JRRT, LotR, cit, pp.225-230.


[52]             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)


[53]             In contrast to earlier times: cf. JRRT, The History  of Galadriel and Celeborn  in  Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle- earth (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980).


[54]             JRRT, Letters, cit, n.153, p.189: "Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires".


[55]             “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, 1990).


[56]             Fiorenzo 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, pp. 739-740.


[57]             Cf. F. Delle Rupi, The Lord of the Rings come romanzo moderno., cit, p.38.


[58]             Ibidem, pp. 30-31.


[59]             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.


[60]             As sung in Roman liturgy, in the Easter vigil Exultet.


[61]             JRRT, Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings; see also: Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.150-152.


[62]             Cf. Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.152-156.



Recovery and Transcendence for the Contemporary Mythmaker: The Spiritual Dimension in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien

A Book Review


by Franco Manni



(Translated from Italian by Jimmy Bishop)


Chris 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 English language.

I 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.

In 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.

The 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.

In 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.

According 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.

What, 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”.

In 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.

Then 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 capacities).

Speaking 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.

Tolkien 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.

Garbowski 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 frailty.

The 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.

Nature 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 civilization.

The 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.

Garbowski, 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.

Sam 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).

Frodo 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.

In 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.

The 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 theology).

At 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 good.

For 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.

The 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 :

In 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.

* * *

After this – admittedly incomplete – account of Chris Garbowski’s book, I will add a few brief comments.

This 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.

Of 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.

On 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.

Apart 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 Morrison.

Another 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”.

I 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.

Since this essay is a review and not an elegy, I must also explain certain matters in which I disagree with the author.

I 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 reality.

Another 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.

I 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!

* * *

I 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”, Garbowski writes:

In 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”.

Conversely 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.



Review of

Tom Shippey, Roots and Branches, Walking Tree Publishers, Zollikofen (Switzerland), 2007, pp. 416


by Franco Manni

This 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.

An 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.

There 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.

The 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 attempt.

The 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…

Let’s 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.

The “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.

Another 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.

A 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

[translated from Italian into English by Jimmy Bishop]



J.R.R. Tolkien,  The History of Middle-Earth, 12 volumes


Reviewed by Franco Manni


Christopher Tolkien  didn’t stop after the Silmarillion!  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:


The 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.

Suddenly 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.

Seizing 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 Last Debate:

‘But if we should find the Ring and wield it, how would it give us victory?’, asked Imrahil.

‘It 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.

‘And worse’, said Aragorn. ‘For all that is left of the ancient power and wisdom of the West he would also have broken and corrupted’.

‘Then what is the use of this Ring?’, said Imrahil.

‘Victory’, said Hurin Warden of the Keys. ‘At least we should have won the war, and not this foul lord of Mordor.’

‘So 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’.


What follows is equally fascinating.


* * *


The 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,  commits suicide.

            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 Inextinguishable-Hope.  

            When they return to the County, Ted Sandy makes this prophecy:


‘You 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,

Master  Samwise stood at the door and looked away eastward . He drew Mistress Rose to him, and set his arm about her.

‘March 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 ‘.

‘I 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 ‘.

‘I did , ‘ said Sam.’ To the most belovedest place in all the world. To my Rose and my garden’.

They 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 Middle-earth.




The 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:

The 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 depth.

            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 daughter-in-law.  These 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.

When 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.  Manwe replied:


‘Neither 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:


‘Aulë 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.

Therefore 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.

For 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.

Therefore, 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’.


Lastly, Mandos adds:


‘Let the Statute stand, for it is just.

It 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.

Healing 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.’


             Another interesting 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 unavoidable.  Finrod 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. 

Finrod 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.

Andreth 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, forgetting Middle-earth. 

            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 Middle-earth.

            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 Age.


* * *


            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:


The 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 language.


* * *


            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:


It 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 Tales.




The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien

A Book Review


by Franco Manni 



    This 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.

    In 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”.      


    The 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.

    It 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.  

    The 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 the same…


    In 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 legend.

    The 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 given.

    In 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!

    The 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.

    Various 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.

    The 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.


    The 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.

It 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!


    What 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 bridged.

The “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.


    Things 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.


    Between 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).


    The 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.


    Tom 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):  

No theory (this one included!) is ever The Truth; they exist to be challenged, and that is how disciplines move forward.


    In 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.


    Furthermore, 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.

The 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.


    In 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 Europe.


    Both 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.   


    Both 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).  








Franco Manni indice degli scritti





Maurilio Lovatti main list of online papers