Tolkien was a slow reader. He certainly read Beowulf, yet we shall see in later posts his mind was always drawn back to the first story of this Old English poem. We may be certain he also read all of the Latin Bible, and no doubt looked on occasion at the Hebrew and Greek originals. Yet, again, he never quite got beyond the first story.
The story at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination throughout his life is that of the first family, the man who first named the animals and dwelled together with a woman drawn from him in the Garden of Eden. The first family, who broke the prohibition by eating of the forbidden fruit, knew themselves sexually, and so received the doom of death and were exiled from paradise so they could no longer eat of the tree of life. Tolkien’s imaginative life can be delineated in relation to distinct phases of his reflection on this biblical myth and its sequels.
In 1916 a young soldier sick with trench fever began writing a cycle of stories of the elves in the ancient north. At the heart of these stories is an idea of elves as humans who never broke the prohibition and so hardly knew themselves as sexual beings and never received the doom of death. These ‘Silmarillion,’ which Tolkien dedicated his life to, were from the beginning bound up in an imagination of the story not told in Genesis, the story of humans who did not eat the forbidden fruit and continued to eat of the tree of life – the human ‘others’ who did not take the mortal road out of paradise.
Yet Tolkien’s youthful history of the elves in the ancient north had soon discovered an immortal fall, the consequence of a jealous love bound up, not with sexual relations, but in precious stones magically wrought by cunning hands.
In 1936, a forty-four-year-old Oxford Professor reconceived his stories of the elves in the ancient North. This was achieved through an unfinished novel about time travel, entitled ‘The Lost Road,’ which Tolkien began in early 1936 having agreed with C.S. Lewis that each would compose a story that touched on myth.
Tolkien’s novel begins with a father and son pair of early twentieth-century academics who travel back through various legends of the old north until they reach a mythological beginning of history in the story’s concluding chapter, entitled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’
Now the elves told a story of a second mortal fall, a northern sequel to the story of the Garden of Eden, in which mortals doomed to die try to take the immortality they have lost. The story cemented Tolkien’s imagination of the culture of the ancient north as complementing that of the ancient Hebrews by telling stories bound up in the fruit of the other tree, the tree of life.
Sauron the Necromancer, tempted a righteous mortal people into once again rebelling against the will of God. A story from neither the Old nor the New but an imagined Northern Testament.