Tag Archives: Tolkien

Beatrice_Addressing_Dante_(by_William_Blake)

Tolkien’s magic II; or, what hobbits have that elves don’t

In my recent post on Tolkien’s Magic I argued that words constituted the real magic of Middle-earth, and illustrated this point by an exegesis of Gandalf’s confrontation with Gríma Wormtongue as a battle between two counsellors.

But in my closing words I identified the various songs that precede the silencing of Wormtongue as the ‘real magic’ behind this battle. This was a bit of a fudge.

Counsel and song – both are instances of word magic, but they are not the same. Throughout The Lord of the Rings we find allusions to councils of great power. Think, for example, of the White Council, which drives Sauron from Mirkwood. Or the Council of Elrond, of which it was said in the dreams of Faramir and Boromir:

There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells

And we have also many a moment of enchantment when our hobbits fall under the spell of a story or song told by one or other inhabitant of Faërie. Think, for example, of the hobbits listening to the stories of Tom Bombadil:

The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted: and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars.

Or Frodo listening to the elvish minstrels in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell:

… the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues … held him in a spell… Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him … Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him…

So there are two kinds of word magic in Middle-earth: counsel, on the one hand, and story and song on the other. But what is their relationship? An initial answer is easy, although it opens a door onto a profoundly tangled web.

Story and counsel can be distinguished in relation to their temporal orientation and (which is related) their end or aim.

In The Lord of the Rings stories and songs seem always to tell of the past. In the mouths of humans, these are instance of what today would be called oral history; when told or sung by the inhabitants of Faërie they are often recollections from personal memory. The Elves who the hobbits meet in the woods of the Shire “still remember” Elbereth Githoniel, of whom they sing. Bombadil in effect treats the hobbits to a lesson in local history, extending back to the days before days and drawn from his own memories.

Counsel also looks to the past, but does so in order to act in the present and so influence the future.

Tolkien’s insistence upon the relevance of the past to counsel is quite striking. By far the main part of the Council of Elrond is taken up with long and extensive histories, told first of all by Elrond, who draws on memories extending deep into past ages of Middle-earth, but including even Bilbo’s adventure, from which account not even a single riddle is omitted.

Note that there is no hint that any of these tales of the past enchant the members of the Council.

The key difference seems to be the aim of the words. Songs and stories are works of art, crafted with no other end than existing in their own right. Counsel draws on memory, but does so with a functional end in mind, namely, to guide present action in order to better shape the future.

We can enrich this analysis by turning to two notes by Tolkien published in Unfinished Tales (512-3). Both notes pertain to Gandalf’s High-elven name, Olórin, which Tolkien relates to the words olo-s and olor.

olo-s: vision, ‘phantasy’: Common Elvish name for ‘construction of the mind’ not actually (pre) existing in Eä apart from the construction, but by the Eldar capable of being by Art (Karme) made visible and sensible.

Olor is similar. It means “clear vision, in the mind, of things not physically present at the body’s situation”. The word is usually translated as ‘dream’, Tolkien tells us, referring not to mortal but to Elvish dreams, which are comprised of “the vivid contents of their memory, as of their imagination”.

Christopher Tolkien connects these notes to the passages in The Silmarillion (20-4) where it is said of Gandalf that , when he was Olórin and still dwelt in Valinor, that he was “counsellor of Irmo”, that he awakened among the elves thoughts “of fair things that had not yet been but might yet be made for the enrichment of Arda,” and that in later days all “who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”

These notes accord with our idea that counsel, as opposed to (fairy) story, draws upon memory (history), but does so in order to picture that which has yet to come to pass. Elvish ‘imagination’ is clearly that which transforms historical reflection into a vision of what might come to be.

Yet the clarification contained in these notes also threatens to send us off into a spin. The reason for this is that the idea of counsel contained in them, and associated with the High-elven name for Gandalf, seems to accord with the definition of story, or at least fairy story, set out in Tolkien’s famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’.

‘On Fairy Stories’ introduces the notion of fantasy, which is said to be a human art of story-telling that aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment. Fantasy begins when humans utilize the fantastic device of language to imagine worlds that are not. Such creation, however, draws in elements derived from history, which have been dropped into the ‘Cauldron of Story’, by which Tolkien means that they have become detached from their original historical context and attached to other elements. Out of the Cauldron are ladled fairy stories.

So we have a seeming mismatch of categories.

From a mortal perspective: imagination + history = (human) fantasy = fairy story.

For the elves: imagination + history = (elvish) fantasy = counsel.

And what is more, human fantasy (history + imagination) aspires to the elvish craft of enchantment (history only).

Behind this apparent mismatch stands, I think, two related differences between humans and elves, pertaining to the respective limitations of each.

Elves are immortal, humans are not. This has substantial implications for their respective memories of the past. Elves remember their history, and it seems their memories are reliable. Humans die, and the deeds of the dead are forgotten, or remembered differently in different traditions, or are embellished and transformed into myth (they go into the ‘Cauldron’).

What this means is that imagination is at work in the forming of collective human memory, which comes to include tales of many things that never actually came to pass (the border between human history and human fairy story is not always easy to discern). The confused morass of collective human memory stands in marked contrast to the elvish stories and songs in The Lord of the Rings, which simply tell of things as they once were, often by those who witnessed them. As Tolkien put it in a letter of 1956: “There is hardly any reference in The Lord of the Rings to things that do not actually exist” (letter 180).

A second difference, surely related, is that the imagination (and by extension also the dreams, and the products of fantasy) of the elves seems rather limited. Both humans and elves exercise their imagination in order to form visions of different possible futures (a substantial chapter in the modern science of economics is dedicated to formulating how humans do this). But human imagination extends also to the description of impossible states of the world.

It is just this ‘impossible’ imagination that Tolkien singles out as the vital beginning of human fairy stories:

The human mind… sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water.

Elves just do not seem to engage in this art of fantasy – they are, it could be said, rather literal minded.

I suspect that our two differences are but different faces of the same coin. Elves are immortal and their memories far-reaching and keen. Humans are mortal, and their memories fade and become lost or confused; but they make up for this in having a far more powerful imagination – which not only embellishes their memories of the past but actively constructs impossible ‘other worlds’.

We have opened a door onto a tangled web, and much more needs to be said before we arrive at anything like a clear view. In a future post I hope to discuss the moral dimension of Tolkien’s thinking, which I think explains why he places counsel above enchanted story, and also what it means that Saruman confuses the two (that is, enchants under the guise of offering counsel). It would also be interesting to consider the respective natures of Rivendell, which seems mainly associated with counsel, and Lothlórien, which embodies elvish enchantment.

But I conclude for now with a brief reflection on those moments of mortal enchantment mentioned above, when all or one of our hobbits fall under a spell in the house of Tom Bombadil or in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell, and are carried away into dream-like states of consciousness.

In ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien analyses such experiences in terms of a mortal who attends a ‘Faërian Drama’:

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it.

But Tolkien warns that knowledge of the “alarming fact” that you are under a spell may slip from your grasp:

You are deluded – whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art…

This puts all the emphasis upon the magical art of the elves and the perils of Faërie that await the unwary mortal traveller. But the same point could be made from another perspective.

For sure the Faërian drama boggles the imagination of the innocent human observer, who more than likely had never even conceived of what he now hears and sees. Yet he does now gain access to this other world, and does so through precisely that faculty of imagination that puts him at risk.

By the same token, the Faërian drama does not delude the elves because they are capable only of witnessing a ‘realist drama’ drawn from their own histories – their imaginations, to be blunt, are simply too limited to comprehend an imaginary world.

So our hobbits fall under the spell of Bombadil and the minstrels of Rivendell, not because their mental faculties are inferior to those denizens of Faërie who perform before them and weave a spell around them, but because, at least in certain respects, they are superior.

Image: William Blake, ‘Beatrice Addressing Dante’. Wiki Commons.

On disciplinary sin

Here are some implicit assumptions that appear to underpin much current Tolkien studies:

Because Tolkien wrote stories the proper study of his work belongs to students of English literature. What is more, himself a Professor of English, the modern day student of English enjoys privileged access to Tolkien’s life and work.

The purpose of this post is to suggest that these assumptions limit and ultimately stultify our engagement with Tolkien. Continue reading

lake town

Lake Town

If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence.

J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter of 1967

Middle-earth, Tolkien insisted, is not an imaginary world; it is our world in an imagined past, since when the land and seas have changed and shifted. But if The Lord of the Rings tells of Hobbits who journey from around the area of Oxford in what was once the Shire all the way to Gondor and Mordor in what is now Southern Europe, where does Bilbo’s adventure take him? Continue reading

Scef or Scyld? (Tolkien’s English Mythology revisited)

‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’

The Two Towers, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’

I really want to talk about hobbits. But before I permit myself to do so I am determined to clarify Tolkien’s vision of the lost mythology of the English. For the last two weeks I’ve been struggling here. I now see that the problem arose because I arrived at an original thesis and then encountered a new primary source that, whilst it corroborated the thesis, also demanded its further refinement and development. Continue reading

‘Lord of the Rings’ as English Mythology

Of all the correspondence published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter 131 is probably the most quoted. Around 1951, as he worked to complete The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote to his publishing friend Milton Waldman:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own … Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.

Continue reading

The island at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination

Zealand (Danish: Sjælland) is the largest island of modern Denmark. Back in 1907 the Anglo-Saxon scholar H.M. Chadwick identified Zealand as the center of the ancient fertility cult of Nerthus, a goddess worshipped by a confederacy of Northern tribes that included the Angles (that is, the English). With the recent publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf, Zealand has come into view as the island at the heart of Tolkien’s imagination. Continue reading

Beowulf and UKIP

Two events of the last couple of days have arrested my attention: the much hyped launch of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and the astonishing electoral success of the anti-EU British political party, UKIP.

What do these two events have in common? From the more or less (mainly less) interesting media pundits I’ve been reading, nothing at all. But a better awareness regarding the first might have helped stem the tide of the second. Continue reading