A sort of addendum to my last two posts: two scenes from the siege of Gondor in the movie version of The Return of the King that provide food for thought.
Here is Gandalf explaining to Pippin what awaits a mortal after death. But the description he gives is lifted from Frodo’s vision of the undying lands beyond the shoreless sea. Here are the textual sources: In the house of Tom Bombadil, “either in his dreams or out of them,” Frodo hears a sweet singing:
a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.
And then, at the end of his story, Frodo sails from the Grey Havens:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
So Peter Jackson has taken Tolkien’s description of the immortal realm on earth and presented it as a description of what awaits mortals after death. This is pretty much exactly the error that Tolkien attributed to the heathen pagans of Middle-earth!
The second scene is not a misinterpretation; but it is illuminating to add in some of the dialogue in the book passed over in the movie.
“No tomb for Denethor and Faramir… We shall burn like the heathen kings of old.”
I remember watching this scene years ago and puzzling over the reference to “heathen kings,” which is left utterly unexplained in the movie. In fact this line is a fairly faithful reflection of the original:
No tomb for Denethor and Faramir… We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.
But the original line is more illuminating. The ships that sailed hither from the West are the ships that came from Númenor (before and in the wake of its destruction). So here we have the idea that the Númenoreans are the source of a noble paganism that displaced an older heathen paganism. We learn even more if we read on to the moment when Gandalf confronts Denethor:
‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,’ answered Gandalf. ‘And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair…’
For Tolkien, heathenism is a paganism under the domination of the Dark Power; a paganism that feeds on human pride, and folly, and fear. Its ultimate source is fear of death, and its ultimate manifestation, in one form or another, is an attempt to cheat death. And by implication, noble paganism – the state of mind and attitudes that characterize the free Men of Middle-earth – rests ultimately upon an acceptance that death marks the limits of human power, and cannot be cheated.
Commenting on my last post,Death and the Tower, John Carswell of True Myths raised the issue of the relevance of Tolkien’s own religious beliefs to my discussion of Tolkien’s meditations on death…
Let’s revisit briefly the concluding passages of Tolkien’s 1936 tale of the ‘Fall of Númenor’.
Seeking immortality, the Númenoreans had prepared to sail to the undying lands in the uttermost West. But Númenor was destroyed by an act of God. A remnant escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores on Middle-earth. Among their descendants we find two views about the undying lands beyond the sundering sea: in the crookedness of their hearts, most imagine a place where dwell the shades of the mortal dead (for which reason they practice ship funerals); yet a wise minority seek to glimpse the undying lands (for which reason they build tall towers on the coast) but understand that it is not a land where Men may dwell.
What arrests my attention here is the contrast between grasping at a (confused) vision and seeing a (true) image without mistaking it for a goal. I think this contrast is key to the perils and rewards of the ‘Faërie sight’ that we encounter in The Lord of the Rings (most obviously, but by no means exclusively, in both the palantíri and Galadriel’s Mirror).
But John Carswell is correct in suggesting that the whole picture requires a consideration of Tolkien’s own beliefs. And the ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a useful text from this perspective because it contains a rare hint of those beliefs (rare at least in the context of the stories of Middle-earth).
Of those Númenoreans who do not seek to reach the undying lands (neither in life nor in death), Tolkien writes:
… they knew that the fate of Men was not bounded by the round path of the world, nor destined for the straight path. For the round is crooked and has no end but no escape; and the straight is true, but has an end within the world, and that is the fate of the Elves. But the fate of Men, they said, is neither round nor ended, and is not within the world.
Now, we who have heard the teachings of Christianity can readily interpret this passage as offering a contrast between immortality and eternity. Immortality is a life within the world that lasts as long as the world; this is the fate of the Elves. Eternity is found outside the walls of the world, the gateway to eternity is death; and this is the fate of Men. From this Christian perspective, the striving for immortality is a false answer to the riddle of death; acceptance of death as the gateway to eternal life is the true answer.
But note that this Christian reading puts into the quoted passage more than it actually contains. All that Tolkien allows his true Númenoreans is a knowledge that the answer to the riddle of death is found beyond and not within the world. The passage bears the imprint of Tolkien’s Christian faith, but in a fashion deemed appropriate for an ancient Northern world that has not yet received the gospels and has not heard of Christ.
The ‘Fall of Númenor’ was conceived as a sort of origin story of the ancient history of the North. Today, of course, we read it as a bridge that connects the stories of the First Age in The Silmarillion with the great story of the Third Age in The Lord of the Rings. But in 1936 this latter story had yet to be conceived, and, as the last line of the ‘Fall of Númenor’ makes clear, this was to be the closing chapter in the Elvish prehistory of the North:
And here the tale of the ancient world, as the Elves keep it, comes to an end.
So the ‘Fall of Númenor’ can be read as a meditation upon two kinds of ancient, yet historical Northern paganism: a heathenism that strove for immortality and a noble paganism that accepted death as the fate of Men, knew that death was not the end but the gateway to a fate beyond the walls of the world, but (prior to the spread of Christian teachings) had no guarantee of its hope of eternal life.*
Putting Tolkien’s Christian faith into the picture allows us to see how Middle-earth enchants both a Christian audience and those who reject Christianity and are fascinated by ancient pagan alternatives. Simply put, the noble paganism that Tolkien fashions is fully compatible with the teachings of Christianity: it contains the same moral virtues but is absent those metaphysical revelations concerning death and what follows it.
Bringing Christianity into the picture also provides a clue as to the nobility of spirit that we find in The Lord of the Rings. Vain dreams of escaping death tempt us all. But the Christian today is armed with the teachings of Christ and the support of his Church. The heroes of Middle-earth must spurn the temptations of the enemy, yet do so with no hope that their righteousness will earn any reward other than death. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo embodies this ideal of heroism, but it is actually a characteristic of all who sacrifice themselves with no thought of earning a place in heaven. Tolkien’s Christian faith entailed that when he imagined virtuous pagans without his own faith he imagined them as particularly noble and heroic.
Tolkien’s imagination of noble paganism thus has its own internal logic. It’s worth bearing this in mind in light of criticisms by Tom Shippey (Roots and Branches, ‘Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet’ and ‘Heroes and Heroism’) that Tolkien airbrushed out of Middle-earth all the nastier elements of the Germanic pagan past (such as human sacrifice). Actually, this heathenism is not absent in Middle-earth, it is merely placed on the periphery of our vision and so hardly touched upon: heathenism is the choice of those Men who worship Morgoth and Sauron. But in making the ‘Fall of Númenor’ the origin, not of the history of the North, but of the history of the Third Age, Tolkien took his conception of noble paganism and made it the dominant attitude among the Dúnedain and the men of Gondor and Rohan. This, of course, is not an historically accurate picture of the ancient North; but it is not simply a presentation of ancient paganism through rose-tinted-spectacles.
But does any of this illuminate what I have called the ‘Faërie sight’ found in The Lord of the Rings? I am not convinced that it does.
Clearly, the worldview of Tolkien’s paganism (be it heathen or noble) is very far from atheism. Those who inhabit such a world may encounter magical and mysterious beings simply by following far enough the road that leads from their door. And certain objects in this world may provide magical visions, even to the extent of providing a glimpse of the undying lands beyond the sundering sea. To look into such objects is perilous, at least for a mortal. And that peril is bound up with the good and evil in the heart of the beholder.** But while such ideas of good and evil are close (if not identical) to the moral lessons taught by Christianity, the very idea of a noble paganism is grounded upon the universality of such ideas.
I’m still thinking about this, but for the present I remain of the opinion that the sight of Faërie is bound up in the fantasies of our heart, of which those born out of our fear of death are the most important, but that such fantasies are independent of any knowledge (or lack thereof) of the Eternity that may (or may not) await us once we die.
Image credit: Kontis Šatūnas, ‘Contemporary Romuvan sacred space in Šventoji, Lithuania.’
* Text revised in light of post linked to by JC in his comment below.
** Text revised in light of astute comment below from TH.
At the root of Tolkien’s fantasy is a meditation upon death. Paradoxically, this is the reason that Tolkien strikes such deep chords and yet remains so little understood. For death is the last taboo. An author who has thought long and hard about death can tell us much that we yearn to know but dare not ponder aloud.
Meditation on death is deemed morbid in our modern culture. Death does not sell commodities, nor politicians. We are bombarded with feel-good images of life that are inherently superficial because our mortality is airbrushed out of the glossy pictures supposed to represent ourselves. Yet not only is death the inevitable doom for all of us, it is also our fate to possess this knowledge throughout our lives.
Tolkien engraved our mortality upon the One Ring: “Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die.” He also understood that the greatest fantasies of the human heart are spun from our yearning to escape our doom. Elves and Ring-wraiths together provide a lesson in what we desire and what is forbidden to us. The immortal Elves reveal an image of our heart’s desire, but teach us that to become immortal within this world is to become a different kind of being altogether. The Nazgûl show the inescapable human condition, wherein death can be postponed only at the price of relinquishing life.
Tolkien reminds us that knowledge of death is the source of many of our fantasies. But he also teaches us that not all such fantasies are evil.
Consider his early story of the ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (published in The Lost Road). Desiring immortality, the Númenoreans are preparing to sail to the undying lands in the West. Then Ilúvatar (God) intervenes: Númenor is overwhelmed by the sea and the hitherto flat world is bent into a globe so that the straight way to the True West is lost. A remnant of the Númenoreans escape to Middle-earth, where they become kings of men. But the thought of Death remains heavy on these exiles. They build great tombs for the dead, and “in the fantasy of their hearts, and the confusion of legends half-forgotten” they conjure up an image of an undying land in the West, a land of wraiths where dwell the departed spirits of the dead:
For which reason in after days many of their descendants, or men taught by them, buried their dead in ships and sent them in pomp upon the sea by the west coasts of the Old World.
But some few among the Númenóreans preserved a true memory of the old line of the world, and could still half see the paths to the True West. These few “believed that at times from a high place they could descry the peaks of Taniquetil at the end of the straight road, high above the world. Therefore they built very high towers in those days.”
But most, who could not see this or conceive it in thought, scorned the builders of towers, and trusted to ships that sailed upon water.
Tolkien offers here, first of all, a fairy-tale reflection on ancient paganism, which conjures up a dream of a land of shadow on the further shore in which mortal men achieve a wraith-like immortality. The sea burials of old are but an echo of the Númenorean resolve to live forever, a sea-crossing achieved now in death rather than life.
But he offers, too, a different kind of mortal perspective on the undying lands. He shows us a glimpse that inspires a striving to see more clearly, but not an aspiration to reach the immortal realm.
Tolkien held the human heart to be intrinsically good; its yearnings placed within us by a benevolent Creator. Evil is but a corruption, not an inherent condition. Our fear of death is intense, and the fantasies that arise in its wake are astonishing, but they should not in themselves be scorned. Where we fall into error is by mistaking the vision for a goal, in striving to reach that which is given to us only as vision. We fall because we try to grasp for ourselves that which is not for us, but which we are allowed, on rare occasion, to catch sight of.
To see the fantasy of our heart’s desire, Tolkien teaches us, is good. Our fantasies of escape from death are not in themselves evil; indeed, they may be dreams of heart-piercing beauty.
It would be easy to dismiss this contrast of towers and burial-ships as just another marginal detail dug up from the now vast treasure of obscurities that is Tolkien’s posthumously published writings. But such dismissal would be a mistake: the image of the tower stands at the heart of Tolkien’s mature thought, both his scholarship and his fairy stories.
Christopher Tolkien dates the ‘The Fall of Númenor’ to 1936, the same year that Tolkien delivered his famous British Academy lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.’ This lecture presented the Old English poem as a meditation upon death – the tale of a hero who meets the monsters he must fight with courage, yet knows what the eventual outcome of his struggles must be. And the poet who crafted this poem, Tolkien insisted, had built a tower that looked out upon the sea:
A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower… from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
And Christopher Tolkien, in his editorial notes on ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ identifies his father’s account of the towers built by the Númenoreans as “the first reference to the White Towers on Emyn Beraid, the Tower Hills.” Within a few years, Tolkien had placed within the tallest of these towers a palantír that looked back over the sundering sea into the uttermost West, into which Elendil would gaze when his heart was heavy with the yearning of exile.
It is of just this tower that Frodo dreams in his last night in the Shire before setting off on a journey that will take him all the way to Mount Doom.
He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.
Tolkien’s fantasy begins from a recognition that knowledge of death haunts our waking lives. He meditated long on the ways in which such knowledge touches our hearts and sparks our imaginations. And at the heart of his fantasy is a profound discernment between grasping and seeing, between the error that we fall into when we try to realize our dreams of escape, and the beauty that is discovered when we simply unveil them.
This post derives from my attempts to write the introductory chapter to a new book on Tolkien. I am still grappling with these ideas and welcome comments.
Over the weekend a couple of people sent me links to ‘All the East is Moving‘, an online essay by the British popular historian Tom Holland. His long essay is thought provoking and flawed.
Holland describes the First Reich as born a thousand years ago out of life-or-death struggles between Christian Germans and invading barbarian hordes – which begin as Hungarians but rapidly turn into Muslim Arabs and then Turks. This early medieval history provides Holland with his ideal of a Christian Europe, which he then uses to criticize the liberal ideal of a secular Europe embodied in the modern EU, arguing that Europe today needs to recognize its Christian heritage.
The weak point in all this is a failure to note that modern European secularism was born out of the centuries of internal religious warfare that devastated Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In the 17th century Europe learned the lesson that Islam still needs to learn today, namely, that if tolerance and freedom are not enshrined in our constitution we will kill even our co-religionists in the name of God.
But my reason for making this post is not to argue over the ideological history of Europe but to warn against what I perceive as a new and all too compelling line in Tolkien appropriation.
Holland wants to claim Tolkien as a Christian scholar who understood and embraced the ideals of the the First Reich, a point he makes by drawing a parallel between Aragorn, who relieves a besieged Minas Tirith carrying the sword Andúril, Flame of the West, and Otto the Great, the king who rode to the relief of Augsburg carrying the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ.
On one level this is interesting because I don’t doubt that some elements of this early medieval Christian ideal of kingship as embodied in Otto were consciously projected onto Aragorn by Tolkien.
But in general this seems to me yet another case of someone using Tolkien’s fantasy for their own ends. A more interesting case than usual because Holland knows a lot about early medieval Germany, and also – and more importantly – because we are no doubt seeing here the birth of a new wave of Tolkien appropriation.
A generation ago the great threat from the East, against which the ‘free peoples of the West’ had to band together, was the Soviet Union.
And to the generations before that – the generations to which Tolkien and his children belonged – the evil East was Germany herself.
These different identifications surely seemed self-evident to everyone at the time – how could the ‘evil East’ be anything else?
Today, with Holland, the East has become Islam. ‘All the East is moving’ is the title of his article, a quote from Denethor intended here to invoke the influx into Europe of Syrian refugees (Holland has to turn some cartwheels to push all this home because, as he tells us, Otto delivered Augsburg from Hungarians and not from Muslims).
I’m guessing that Holland’s essay is the start of a new wave and that it will not be long before it becomes a commonplace that Mordor is Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Now, I’m not trying to tell you what you should think of Islam, or Christianity for that matter. But I do want to warn against the mistake of believing that any of these identifications of Tolkien’s ‘nameless East’ and whatever happens to be the (real or supposed) geopolitical or ideological enemy of the day have anything to do with Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth.
A laundry list “from the darker side of JRR Tolkien’s washing basket,” which hints at an early version of the orc clothing that Sam and Frodo wore on the last stage of their journey in The Lord of the Rings, is due to be published for the first time in more than 70 days this November.
The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.
Tolkien’s laundry list, which is of no interest to anyone in their right mind, is a lengthy list of laundry items, possibly written in a novel form of alliterative verse in which each word is given its own distinct line on the page. It has previously been published in 29 different editions but has been out of print for the last week.
HarpyCollumnns, which will publish the laundry list along with Tolkien’s other writings about his collection of Cardigans on 3 November, called it “an important non Middle-earth work to set alongside his various shopping lists.”
But the laundry list has generated controversy among scholars, some of whom claim that it was in fact written by Tolkien’s wife, Edith. The consensus among Tolkieniests, however, is that, contrary to first, second, and third impressions, Tolkien wrote marvellous female characters and therefore must have written the laundry list.
The eagerly anticipated new volume includes a 55 page introduction and 324 pages of annotated commentary. The original laundry list is half a page.
A spokesperson for HarpyCollumnns said: “Tolkien fought in the Great War and this is another reason to buy a hardback collector’s edition of our new publication.”
I just received an automatic email from the Journal of Tolkien Research (JTR) saying my new Tolkien article – ‘Fantasy Incarnate: Of Elves and Men’ – has been published. JTR is an open access journal, so you can read the article here. This post is not about the article, however, but the journal it has just appeared in.
This is my second peer reviewed Tolkien paper. The first, ‘The Peace of Frodo’, appeared in the last volume of Tolkien Studies (TS). Consider the following comparisons.
TS is a traditional scholarly journal, which appears in print and electronic form. You can purchase the printed volume for $60.00. You can purchase an electronic form of my article (I do not know how much this costs), but cannot access it for free unless you are a member of a subscribing institution.
JTR is an open access electronic journal. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can read all content for free.
I submitted my TS article in January of 2014. It was accepted without a demand for revisions but did not appear until December 2015.
I submitted my JTR article in late January of this year. In late February I received three peer reviews and an editorial letter requesting revisions, which I completed on Saturday (March 12). This Monday morning (March 14) I received the email informing me that the article is now published online.
Note also the following. Having written my TS paper I worked up the ideas into a small electronic book that I published on Amazon (it is now available for free on Rounded Globe). In this ebook I not only clarified my ideas but also developed them further in light of the recent publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf (which had not yet appeared when the TS article was submitted). This electronic ebook was thus a development of the TS paper, yet appeared over a year earlier! Consequently, when the TS paper finally appeared it was seen by many as a development of my ebook.
And note also this: on Friday I communicated with a fellow author who, like myself, is an independent scholar, and therefore without access to traditional scholarly journals, and like myself has an article in the recent volume of TS. In the course of our communication I discovered that she was unaware of the fact that her article has finally been published! Neither of us has yet received a complimentary copy of our article, even in electronic form, which means that we, the authors, have no access to our own published work!
Of course, there are costs to the JTR model. Basically, the journal cuts its own costs to a minimum by leaving all copy-editing to the authors of the articles. This is no bad thing. But this is something scholars will have to get used to, and at present the articles hosted on JTR can look a little scrappy. Yet if academics mastered the computer, they can certainly master basic copy-editing skills.
Bradford Lee Eden, the editor of JTR, is Dean of Library Services at Valparaiso University. I infer (perhaps incorrectly) that JTR was born from some hard thinking about the new digital age and the place within it of modern universities coming out of library studies (if that is the correct name for this discipline). Whether or not that is the case (and I’d like to know), Brad deserves some hearty thanks and congratulations. I’d urge anyone considering submitting a Tolkien-related article to consider JTR as their first port of call.
We have got too hung up on the idea of Tolkien’s fantasy as an escape into a world of make believe. Tolkien believed that humans, as mortal souls, are part strangers here on earth. From this perspective Faërie, rather than some ‘other world’, is simply the natural world as experienced by those who truly belong to it.
We can begin to understand this thought by turning to the first adventure into which the hobbits fall in The Lord of the Rings.
‘Three is Company’
Leaving Bag End in Hobbiton, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin walk much of the night. Still in land that Sam knows well, they sleep curled up against the roots of a great fir tree. A fox, ‘passing through the wood on business of his own’, pauses in wonderment:
‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer about this.’
The next night, following two near encounters with a black rider and having passed the limits of Sam’s geographical knowledge, the hobbits meet a company of Elves, who echo out loud the silent thoughts of the fox:
‘This is indeed wonderful!’ they said. ‘Three hobbits in a wood at night! We have not seen such a thing since Bilbo went away. What is the meaning of it?’
Our hobbits join the Elves, who walk without sound or footfall, following an almost unseen path through the trees. They come out upon a space of grass upon a hill, looking down over the village of Woodhall. At first the Elves sit and speak only softly. But when the twinkling lights from the village go out, and the stars come out above them, a fire springs up, a song bursts out, and the Elves declare it time for speech and merriment. His mind filled with light and Elvish voices, Pippin feels he is in a waking dream.
In this very first adventure Tolkien takes us into nature and shows us what may be happening in the woods just beyond our homes. Beginning in one village, Hobbiton, our travellers end with a view of another, the lights of which they see twinkling in the valley below. The hobbits of Woodhall are preparing for bed, and only when they extinguish their lights does the Elf fire blaze and the woodland merriment begin.
In this journey from hobbit hole to Faërie the thinking fox marks a transitional point. A natural creature, with business of his own, it is strange for us to read his thoughts. Yet from the perspective of the fox what is queer is that domestic creatures like us are asleep beneath the stars. When we encounter Elves, who give voice to the same thought, we know that the transition from snug home to sylvan magic is complete.
Mortal participation in such a woodland scene is a rare occurrence, as the words of one of the Elves to Frodo makes clear:
‘The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creature upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose.’
A statement that echoes Tolkien’s observation in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:
Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways. (OFS 32)
Yet such an encounter is no meeting with aliens. Like the fox of the previous night, the Elves met in the woods of the Shire are denizens of the natural world. In contrast to Man, Tolkien notes in ‘On Fairy Stories’, Elves “are natural, far more natural than he is” (OFS 28). Tolkien’s story is thus no exercise in science fiction, no account of an imaginary meeting with creatures from another planet. Rather, we are taken into the heart of the natural world that surrounds our scattered human settlements.
Of course, the Elves appear more magical than the fox, for they can not only talk but also enchant us. This is why nature, when fully entered into, is called Faërie. And nature, so conceived, is a perilous place. Black riders hunt in it (although they may ride up to our very doorstep), and beyond the Brandywine our hobbits will soon be caught by the song of Old Man Willow and fall under the evil spell of a wight who haunts a now desolate landscape. Pippin’s waking dream in the Shire will soon give way to waking nightmare in the less gentle countryside beyond it.
Faërie is perilous for humans. Yet the perils it contains arise, perhaps, because we do not fully belong in nature. Elves are more natural than humans because their souls, like their bodies, remain always within this world. Human bodies are part of this world, but our souls – at least for the Christian Tolkien – are not. Man is “but a guest here in Arda and not here at home” (Morgoth 317). Part strangers in this world, we can only imagine what it would be like to fully belong to nature. When we do so imagine we conjure up the creatures of Faërie. Such fully natural creatures cannot but appear strange to us, their enchantment perilous.
The following post was written as a guest post for Tom Hillman’s blog, Alas, not me.
At the March 1920 meeting of the Folk-Lore Society, all three papers were delivered by Cambridge men. A.C. Haddon gave the presidential address, W.H.R. Rivers discussed the conception of ‘soul-substance’ in New Guinea and Melanesia, and F.C. Bartlett reported on ‘Some Experiments in the Reproduction of Folk-Stories’.
Does this have anything to do with Tolkien?
It depends how you look at things; which is really what I want to talk about in this post. Tolkien studies are full of ‘influences’ – as highlighted in the recent flurry of discussion over the state of Tolkien scholarship. Personally, I don’t get ‘influence’, a seemingly occultist notion of action at a distance. No doubt the confusion is subjective.
Another perspective draws upon notions like context and conversation. These are my preferred terms of art, reflecting my training as an intellectual historian. I’ll illustrate how they work by first discussing Bartlett and his 1920 paper, and then pointing to its possible significance for how we think about Tolkien.
Anthropology at Cambridge was established in the wake of a university expedition to Torres Straits in 1898. Returning from the expedition, Haddon and Rivers joined forces with more traditional scholars, notably the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway and the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, to establish a new faculty of anthropology. Ridgeway and Chadwick were working on a novel approach to early European history, which combined archaeology with the study of old literature, such as the Iliad and Beowulf. Haddon and Rivers introduced to this approach the folktales of contemporary ‘primitives’. Bartlett’s 1920 paper was a contribution to an emerging account of the relationship between story and society in history.
Bartlett was a psychologist. His paper on the reproduction of Folk Stories discussed an experiment in which members of his university read a Chinook folk tale, ‘The War of the Ghosts’, and, after varying intervals of time, reproduced it. Reproduction, Bartlett showed, was actually reconstruction: over successive retellings familiar elements were substituted for unfamiliar and the plot structure changed to remove (seemingly) inexplicable connections. As such, Bartlett’s paper contributed to the study of cultural diffusion by way of a psychological experiment on memory.
So what does this tell us? If we approach Bartlett’s paper in terms of influence, pretty much nothing. Tolkien may possibly have read the paper, but probably did not; and even if he did, any direct connection we might establish would probably sit all too easily between the trivial and the vacuous.
Approaching Bartlett’s paper in terms of context is another matter. To begin with, we see immediately that disciplinary divisions were not then what they are now. Under the broad umbrella of ‘anthropology’ we find a sustained interaction between students of Classical and Old English literature, archaeologists, experimental psychologists, and practitioners of a new participant-observer method of ethnological fieldwork. This was not an exercise in what today is called ‘inter-disciplinary studies’; rather, it reflects the fact that before the 1930s the borders between scholarly disciplines had not yet ossified.
Subsequent closing of the borders between academic disciplines has fostered a distorted image of the recent intellectual past. If you search for Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts’ on the internet you will find many accounts by modern psychologists of a celebrated chapter in the history of their discipline. Unless you open up the original report of the experiment in Folk-Lore, however, you would never guess that this psychological experiment was designed to illuminate the processes of cultural diffusion.
Something similar has happened to Tolkien, whose intellectual context is very largely missing from modern Tolkien studies. Verlyn Flieger is better than most, and has correctly identified the discussions of the Folk-Lore Society as important background to Tolkien’s 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’. Yet even Flieger presents these discussions as focused simply on explaining the unpalatable elements of ancient stories. This is to project the concerns of a modern discipline (English) onto a past in which such narrow and restricted focus would have seemed an inexplicable voluntary myopia. The Folk-Lore Society brought to the table a wide range of interconnected contemporary debates, ranging over issues of comparative religion, racial ethnology, social history, and much else besides.
The context of intellectual debate was different back then. Disciplinary divisions counted for less, and the scholarly mind roamed over a much larger intellectual terrain. Scholars from a wide variety of specialized fields were engaged in the same or similar conversations.
Reading Bartlett can tell us something about the nature of these conversations, which form a vital (yet passed over) context of Tolkien’s thought. Of course, Tolkien was not part of this Cambridge project, nor were his methods, interests, or conclusions aligned with theirs. Yet his were responses to similar questions, and it is easy to locate ground shared by Cambridge psychologist and Oxford philologist.
Consider the ‘Origins’ section in ‘On Fairy Stories’, where Tolkien introduces his notion of individual sub-creation, alludes to the debate over diffusion, and then introduces his metaphor of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron presents an image of diffusion at work, with invented elements of fantasy blending with elements of stories significant parts of which have been forgotten. It is the fact that we forget elements of the old stories that allows invented elements of fantasy to be blended into them to make fairy stories.
Whether or not Tolkien was ‘influenced’ by Bartlett is largely irrelevant. The point is that the two men were both participants in a wide-ranging and ongoing conversation. Their work, or at least parts of it, emerged from a shared intellectual context. Bartlett was particularly arrested by the distortions introduced by memory, Tolkien was concerned especially with forgetting. But reading their texts together reveals a wider scholarly community grappling with the relationship of memory and story in history.
One could go further (much further), had we but world enough and time. Suffice it here to point out that while Bartlett’s most famous book was entitled Remembering (1932), Tolkien’s Elves, with their immortal memories and seemingly perfect recall, can be viewed (in addition to many other things) as an intensive and prolonged thought-experiment on what human memory might aspire to, yet palpably is not.
Again, I suggest no influence of Bartlett’s psychology of memory upon Tolkien’s Elves. What I do suggest is that reading Tolkien in context reveals much about the kind of questions that stand behind his writing, just as Tolkien’s highly idiosyncratic answers illuminate the intellectual and cultural concerns of the twentieth century far more than is usually suspected.
Whatever the present state of Tolkien studies might be, it leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the intellectual historian. I submit that, alongside established methods, the cultivation of a contextualist reading of the history of ideas has the potential to transform our understanding of what Tolkien was about.
Some bibliographical references
On the recent ‘state of Tolkien studies’ debates, my favourite contribution, which contains links to others, is ‘Tolkien Criticism Unbound’.
Bartlett’s 1920 paper (as also those of Haddon and Rivers) can be accessed here, via the (wonderful) archive.org (make sure to turn to the second half of the volume).
Flieger has written about the Folk-Lore Society in several places. See for example the first chapter of her Interrupted Music (Kent State University Press, 2005).
You can no doubt access Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ without need of biographical reference from me.
Those who wish to read more on Bartlett and Cambridge anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century can soon turn to two papers available on my Academia.edu page : ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’, forthcoming in History of European Ideas, and (with Tiziana Foresti) ‘War of the Ghosts: Marshall, Veblen, and Bartlett’, forthcoming in History of Political Economy.
We find magical items in Middle-earth, and also magical creatures, but at first sight magical spells appear rather scarce. Yet once we take Tolkien at his word we find magic interspersed throughout his stories, which themselves weave a spell of extraordinary potency.
A spell, Tolkien explained in his St Andrews lecture on fairy stories, “means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men” (OFS 47).
Here is a philologist talking. Yet the meaning of spell as story is not so arcane as you might think. Children still learn their letters, that is, are taught to spell. Spelling is associated with words as well as magic, or if you want, with word magic.
The older meaning of spell as story is preserved in our gospel, a word that is indirectly invoked in The Lord of the Rings when, in the hall of Théoden, Gríma Wormtongue names Gandalf Láthspell. Gospel is from the Old English good spell, or good story; Láthspell, its opposite, means evil story or ill news.
Tolkien does not state outright that the two meanings of spell are the same; he does not say that a story told is a formula of power. Yet I would argue that he plays on the difference while holding that at root the two may be the same.
Consider this description of the faithless Unfriend in ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s telling of the fairy story he discerned within Beowulf:
He had a keen wit, and the King set great store by his counsels, though some said that he used secret spells, and that his counsels roused strife more often than they made peace. (Beowulf 365-6)
On the surface a distinction is clearly drawn here between the counsel Unfriend offers the king and his secret spells. Yet it is not the narrator who separates spells and counsel, but some others in the story. A suspicion hangs in the air that these are people who do not quite grasp the full potency of words in themselves.
Now, Gríma Wormtongue, the counsellor of King Théoden, was drawn by Tolkien out of the character Unfriend (Unferth in Beowulf). I want to compare the cinematic treatment of Gandalf’s encounter with Wormtongue with the scene as told in Tolkien’s own story because, I think, it will allow us to weigh better the significance of this suspicion.
In this scene from the movie a magical dual takes place between Gandalf and Saruman, who has possessed the mind and body of King Théoden. Wormtongue is early stomped upon by Gimli the Dwarf, and is incidental to the battle between the two wizards, which concludes with Saruman’s exorcism and the physical transformation of Théoden from decrepit wreck to comely if middle-aged king.
Turning to the book, I suggest that the real confrontation begins already when the travellers – Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas – arrive at the gates of the hill fort of Edoras and men in bright mail spring up to bar their way, crying in the tongue of the Riddermark:
Stay, strangers here unknown!
Gandalf replies in their language, but observes that it is a tongue that few strangers understand. If you wish to be answered, he asks the guards, why not speak in the Common Tongue? The guards reply that it is the will of Théoden that none enter who do not speak the language of Rohan. Yet a moment later it is suggested that Wormtongue – and this is the first time we hear his name – has been instrumental in establishing this gate policy:
It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.
Here is no sorcery. Yet Wormtongue is implicated from the first in an attempt to use words to isolate the Rohirrim and their king. And Gandalf, the wizard, overcomes this obstacle by mastery of their language.
The travellers now enter Edoras and climb up to Meduseld, the golden hall of Théoden. At the far end of the hall sits the King on a great gilded chair, while at his feet upon the steps sits Gríma Wormtongue, “a wizened figure of a man, with a pale wise face and heavy-lidded eyes”.
There was a silence.
At length Gandalf speaks. Théoden replies briefly, and not with words of welcome. Then Gríma speaks, naming Gandalf Láthspell, ill-news. An exchange of words unfolds between Gandalf and Wormtongue, who accuses the wizard of being in league with the Lady Galadriel, “the Sorceress of the Golden Wood”, where “webs of deceit were ever woven”. Gandalf has had enough. He sings a song about Galadriel, commands Wormtongue to silence, and then raises his staff and performs the only bit of theatrical magic in the whole scene:
There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers.
And still Wormtongue speaks: “Did I not counsel you, lord, to forbid his staff?”
There was a flash as if lightening had cloven the roof. Then all was silent.
Thunder and lightning, and a wizard’s staff. A moment of drama that achieves one end: the silencing of Wormtongue. And this is the real magic performed by Gandalf. Not the exorcism of Saruman, but the breaking of Gríma’s web of deceit by the silencing of his spells.
And the rest is easy.
‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?’ said Gandalf… ‘No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them?’
Gandalf leads Théoden out of his hall.
Quickly now Gandalf spoke. His voice was low and secret, and none save the king heard what he said. But ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye…
On the silver screen Peter Jackson treated us to a struggle between wizards. Tolkien, however, tells a story of a battle between two counsellors. Gandalf does not break the incantations of Saruman but silences the twisted words of Wormtongue. He does not lead Théoden back to the light by exorcising Saruman, but by talking to him, speaking to him words of good counsel.
None of this is meant especially as criticism of the movie scene. Peter Jackson correctly discerned that this is a scene of magic, in which spells are spoken and a part of Gandalf’s true nature is revealed. But the real magic in Tolkien’s story, the dramatic thunder and lightning notwithstanding, is word magic.
And this does perhaps point to an intrinsic limitation of the movie adaptations of Tolkien’s stories. For how can a visual drama capture and convey Tolkien’s foundational idea that words are the real magic, that stories sung or spoken aloud are the real spells?
Those who know Tolkien’s writings only through their cinematic adaptations are like those who held that Unfriend relied upon “secret spells” – ignorant of the power of Tolkien’s words they conflate the real magic of Middle-earth with computer aided special effects.
But again, neither Peter Jackson nor those who suspected Unfriend of using secret spells are altogether off the mark. Tolkien was not demystifying sorcery by collapsing magical spells into story and counsel. He was reminding us of the magic incarnate in cunningly crafted words. A battle between two counsellors is a struggle of opposing magical forces.
We can appreciate the real magic invoked by Tolkien in this part of his story by noting three key moments in the coming of the travellers to Rohan.
First, walking between the burial mounds of the kings of Rohan before their arrival at Edoras itself, Aragorn sings – first in the original tongue, then in the Common Speech – the song of “a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan”.
Second, outside the doors of Meduseld, Háma, the door warden, hearing of the lineage of Aragorn’s sword, declares:
It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days…
And third, recall how Gandalf’s ‘thunder and lightning’ moment of magic is directly preceded by his soft singing of a song of Lórien and Galadriel.
Here, in these two songs and the intimation of songs from a long forgotten past, is an indication of the profound magical power brought by these travellers to Rohan: a magic that can hardly fail to break the cunning webs of deceit woven by Gríma Wormtongue.