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The View from the Tower

In my last post I suggested a connection between the reading of modern literature and an Elvish vision that discerns the hearts and minds of others. While this might seem an outlandish claim, I think a related connection emerges into view if we approach Tolkien’s thought from a quite different perspective, namely the allegory of the tower set out in his famous lecture on Beowulf.

‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ was delivered as a lecture before the British Academy in late 1936. Early in the lecture Tolkien criticized then dominant approaches to the Old English poem by way of the following allegory:

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.

The man’s friends do not climb the tower; rather, perceiving that its stones had once belonged to a more ancient building, they push it over, and search among the rubble for hidden carvings and descriptions. And, surveying the rubble, they all declare that the tower, while very interesting, is in a terrible muddle!

And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea. (‘Monsters and the Critics’, 7-8)

The allegory establishes a straightforward – albeit metaphorical – connection between the written word and (a fairy-tale) vision. But I think we can push this a little further by inquiring into the origins of the allegory.

The British Academy lecture was worked up from older material (dated by Michael Drout, who has edited these manuscripts, to 1933-1935). In this earlier material Tolkien likens the Old English poem, not to a tower but (believe it or not) a rock-garden:

A man found a mass of old stone: it was part of the old wall of his small house and garden which had recently been considerably altered and enlarged. Of this stone he made a rock-garden… And even the gardener’s best friend… was heard to say: ‘He’s such a tiresome fellow – imagine using these beautiful old stones just to set off commonplace flowers that are found in every back-garden: he has no sense of proportion, poor man!’ (Beowulf & the Critics, 81).

The difference between the two allegories is so striking – the one presenting a fairy-tale tower, the other a suburban English rock-garden – that a comment on the original allegory seems in order. As I read it, the commonplace rock-garden, back-garden, and flowers work to situate the Beowulf poet as belonging firmly on our side of the great divide that separates a modern, literate, and Christian English civilization from its ancient, oral, and pagan Germanic past – a past that the Old English poet was writing about. It reflects Tolkien’s conviction that the author of Beowulf was rather like him: a man of learning, who read books and composed a story by writing it down.

Be that as it may, the question arises as to what Tolkien was doing when, in preparing his British Academy lecture, he substituted the image of the rock-garden for that of the tower.

I think we can find an answer in the ‘Fall of Númenor’, which Tolkien also composed in 1936 – presumably before he worked up his British Academy lecture for delivery in late November. The tale is concerned with another great temporal divide – not the historical division between oral and literate society, but between Myth and History itself. The tale, presented as the last of those told by the Elves, tells how the Númenóreans attempted to conquer Valinor, thereby changing the very nature of the world: not only was Númenor destroyed but the world was bent into a globe so that mortals can no longer find the straight road over the ocean to the undying lands. Yet a remnant of the Númenóreans escape the deluge and settle in Middle-earth, where a few could still:

half see the paths to the True West, and 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.

In his editorial notes to the ‘Fall of Númenor’ (Lost Road 33), Christopher Tolkien identifies the high towers built by the righteous exiles of Númenor as his father’s first reference to the Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid described in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings. I concur, but would suggest that we can also discern in these Númenórean towers the source of the revised allegory of the British Academy lecture.

Both the Beowulf poet and the exiled Númenóreans are doing the same thing: peering into the abyss, straining to catch a glimpse of a now vanished world. But Beowulf is not simply a work of ‘historical fiction’, it is also a fairy tale, and Tolkien evidently believed that the poem provides a glimpse, not simply of a vanished past, but also of a lost world of Faërie.

So far we have not stepped beyond allegory and metaphor: it is as if the Beowulf poet, by the power of his word craft, has allowed us to see Faërie. Yet if we accept that the Númenórean towers are the origin of both the allegory of the tower in the 1936 lecture and the Elf-towers of Emyn Beraid to the west of the Shire, then we must conclude that in writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien took what was an allegory in his British Academy lecture and realized it within his fantasy world.

What had been a metaphor of the power of the written word in a scholarly lecture became actual Elvish vision in Middle-earth.

For as time went by, Tolkien further developed his conception of these high coastal towers. They became the work of Elves rather than mortals (who else could build a tower that allows mortals to glimpse the realm of Faërie and itself symbolizes a fairy story?) And within the tallest Tolkien now placed a palantír, an Elvish crystal ball that allows mortals to see with Elvish vision. So, in The Silmarillion, we find:

It is said that the towers of Emyn Beraid were not built indeed by the Exiles of Númenor, but were raised by Gil-galad for Elendil, his friend; and the Seeing Stone of Emyn Beraid was set in Elostirion, the tallest of the towers. Thither Elendil would repair, and thence he would gaze out over the sundering seas, when the yearning of exile was upon him…

I suggest that we can read this passage in two ways: as a literal description of how a mortal once accessed Elvish vision in an ancient fantasy world; and as a development of the allegory of the tower in the British Academy lecture: an allegory of how we ourselves might read a fairy story – weary of the world, we remove ourselves to a secluded spot and, looking into the pages of The Lord of the Rings, we cast ourselves for a brief while into a world in which mortals may still encounter Faërie.

Image credit: runmonty: ‘Robe Coastline.’