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Myth, Machines and Mortality: The Mind of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ivor Chipman

Updated: Apr 15

'If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgement about anything again'- W. H. Auden on The Lord of the Rings

 

Few authors suffer from the malaise of academic contempt quite like John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Amidst snooty corners of university offices, festooned with shelves of so called 'classics' that barely enter the public conscience, scholars remain robotically aloof to what they consider to be simple fiction. The obstinacy with which this disdain is held is only enhanced by Tolkien's esteem outside collegiate circles. His regnant position in the collective imagination, his synonymity with a sort of idealised Englishness, and his translation into popular film and culture has only hardened elitist resentment. Yet his denial into the high literary canon for his works of epic fantasy only reflects a wilful disregard to try and treat them properly. Tolkien himself was a professor of English in his own right and an authority on many matters of philology and medieval literature. Yet while his scholastic expertise in these areas is regarded as suitably high-brow to merit serious attention, it is merely because they, rather than his mythical works, are explicitly identified as works of scholarship. His fantasy corpus is, of course, a primarily escapist enterprise for which allegorical and especially political interpretation Tolkien intensely disavowed. Yet his rich learning is nonetheless interwoven into the fabric of his mythology. The present author does not wish to transport Tolkien from the wistful fires of a wintry sitting room to the solemn silence of the Bodleian library. A good story is an end in and of itself, and should not have to justify any elitist snobbery to be thus considered. Yet we should appreciate that his narrative contains the culture of centuries compressed, and is not simply a nice tale bereft of any deeper sophistication. This was a mind rich with the most arresting of thoughts. 


Myth, History, and Englishness

 

Myth-making, either consciously or not, is an act of imitation. Even the most incautious reader can find instinctive parallels in a story to a story they have heard before. The most 'original' of tales is merely the one which reshapes the traditional in the most interesting manner. For Italo Calvino, the very nature of a classic narrative is that one never really reads it for the first time. The more fundamental ideas, tropes and character-types that it entails are so deeply bound up with the human experience that it is in a sense a re-reading. Tolkien's works seem like this- epic stories of adventure, love, war and nostalgia (in the purest sense of the word as a 'yearning for home' rather than seeking a regression into the past) that are instantly familiar. He amalgamates the prototypes of various past civilisations, whose influence on him he frequently stressed, into a both fresh and classic cohesive whole. It would be excessively onerous to trace every granule of influence. Tolkien was heavily inspired by Finnish, Middle English and Celtic texts, as well as those traditions addressed here. The Graeco-Roman world is alive too; Numenor is Atlantis, Beren and Luthien Orpheus and Eurydice, Gondolin is Troy, Gondor Rome. The Umayyad siege of Constantinople was the basis for the siege of Minas Tirith. The One Ring parallels Plato's Ring of Gyges. One could go on forever. Yet it is worthwhile mapping the terrain that seems most artfully remoulded to suit Tolkien's specific mythological purposes.

 

Tolkien's stated purpose with The Lord of the Rings and his broader legendarium was (though he never used the phrase verbatim) to create a mythology for England. In a letter written to publisher Milton Waldman in late 1951, he explained that this desire was borne out of what he saw to be an upsetting literary vacancy:

'I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found, (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands'.

The reader may wonder about the Arthurian legends, which Tolkien addresses as bred of English soil but not about the English per se, and, most importantly, too patently infused with contemporary realities such as the Christian religion to feel like pure myth. His idea was that, while admitting the principle that all art and storytelling must inevitably include elements of moral and religious truth known in the 'primary' world, it ought not be explicit. The Lord of the Rings, whose author was a devout Catholic, is garlanded in Christian clothing. For instance, Christ's tripartite representation as a priest, prophet and king is embodied respectively by Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn. Yet there is no 'religion' in his work per se, though his broader mythology includes divine figures who command reverence. Explicitness would reduce the escapist element of proper 'fairly-tales' by inviting allegorical readings that have no place in high fiction. This point is worth briefly addressing. He easily confesses the inescapability of allegory, saying how 'the more 'life' a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations', and that 'any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairy-tale must use allegorical language'. Yet it is something he openly dislikes, repeatedly noting that he is a storyteller rather than an allegorical writer. The proper distinction rests in the latter's conscious and intentional use of the motif. This he finds problematic, as it creates something closer to a polemical statement that fantasy literature. Critics have frequently mined his work for an overarching political or religious statement. Though an understanding of Tolkien's own beliefs, background and experiences do make such interpretations plausible (some of which will be supported here), Tolkien always disclaimed such readings. His primary motivation was purely aesthetic.

 

That said, into Tolkien's mythical recipe were added ingredients of great cultural variety transfused to create a quintessentially English product. His perception of the nebulous term 'Englishness' originates in a rural upbringing in Sarehole, which Brian Rosebury sees as the Shire's inspiration: 'Sarehole, with its nearby farms, its mill by the riverside, its willow-trees, its pool with swans, its dell with blackberries, was a serene quasi-rural enclave, an obvious model-to-be for Hobbiton and the Shire'. This countryside childhood lay the seeds for Tolkien's fascination with the England of the Middle Ages, whose vestiges he transports into his mythical geography. A shire itself is of course an English administrative region, yet the landscape of the region of which the Shire is a part parallels the terrain of North Sea Europe. The Angle between Flensburg Fjord in the Baltic Sea and the Shlei imitates the Angle between the Rivers Hoarwell (Mitheithel) and the Loudwater (Bruinen) from the East in Eriador. 

 

Yet the world of Anglo-Saxon England and its tales lies beyond the purely geographical. Tolkien the philologist imbued this epoch into his mythical nomenclature. The 'Mark' of Rohan is the 'marc' from which the proper noun 'Mercia' is ultimately derived, while Rohan's capital Edoras stems from the Old English 'eodoras', meaning 'the dwellings'. Meanwhile the royal hall 'Meduseld' is the Old English word for 'mead-hall'. Character comes from name. Rohan is a rustic dwelling through which much of The Lord of the Rings is focalised, and whose people are honest, hospitable and brave yet without the lofty origins that Gondor boasts. It is where Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf first receive respite and welcome after their travails, and we can see that Rohan is Tolkien's romantic idea of what an Anglo-Saxon kingdom might have resembled; iron-clad knights riding across vast green pastures, ale foaming in grand noble halls alight with the din of the country-folk. Rohan defines a pre-industrial England that Tolkien may as well have labelled prelapsarian. It is the crackling fire of the hearth and the summer harvest that yields prosperity, as related by Theoden's musings at the battle of Helm's Deep: 'Where is the harp on the harp string, and the red fire glowing? Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?' Yet this pleasant simplicity is offset by an irrepressible chivalric code that is defiant precisely because it is devoted to protecting these simple pleasures. Indeed, the very word for simply 'a brave man' in Old English, 'eorl', is the name Tolkien gives to Rohan's founder. What we have therefore with Rohan is a kind of English heroism that Tolkien called 'Homeric', but in the mould of a Hector rather than an Achilles. It aimed to recapture the spirit of medieval English chivalry, in a setting that was distinctly anglicised as well. 

 

Tolkien's literary roots stretch yet deeper into the sphere of Old Norse poetry. Indeed, the very term 'Middle Earth' comes from the Nordic 'Midgard', which means simply 'the world'. Although Tolkien was reluctant to acknowledge precisely the overlap between his academic and creative interests (except perhaps with Beowulf), they abound everywhere. The names of the Dwarves of Erebor are adaptations of those in the Voluspa, while the very first incarnation of Tolkien's legendarium, the story of Earendil the Mariner, is a tale found in the Old Norse poem Crist A, where a figure with the same name is described as the 'brightest of angels'. One line of the poem for instance seems unmistakeably inspirational: 'Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent'. Frodo's name has Old Norse parallels. Motifs of Old Norse poetry, such as the contest of riddles, appears in The Hobbit, yet in this instance Tolkien anglicises, in a sense, the contest's end. Whereas in the brutality of Old Norse myth, the loser tends to end up dead, here Bilbo spares Gollum and in doing so, a kind of Christian compassion prevails over Pagan brutality. Motifs of pagan apocalypse are also converted to symbols of Christian salvation. Compare first the words of Theoden before man's victory at Pelennor Fields, and then the passage in the Voluspa relating the 'fell deeds' that are to presage Ragnarok:

 

'Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!

Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

a sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now! Ride to ruin, and the world's ending!'

 

'An axe age, a sword age,

shields will be cloven,

a storm age, a wolf age,

before the world sinks.'

 

The latter's transformation into the former imbues Theoden's words with the pathos of imminent personal doom, yet the overarching catastrophe of Ragnarok for the world as its characters know it is reversed into a victory of good over evil. This is the doctrine of hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances: 'what can men do against such reckless hate?' Theoden had once asked, discovering the answer of unexpected triumph. This triumph of good and evil avoids the stoic fatalism of the pagan prototype which is difficult to reconcile with the Christian belief of Tolkien's England that focused on redemption and restoration. The final battle that is fought is not destructive, but rewarding of that heroic temper that persists in all great epics, yet furnished anew for an England that Tolkien had seen tragically victorious in war all too personally. 


Machines versus Nature

 

A recent event that would have torn Tolkien's soul apart was the felling of the Sycamore gap tree in Northumberland. Stood amidst the loping hills beside Hadrian's Wall, the tree represented a magnificent monument to the nature of England. It towered imperiously on a dip in the hillside, a solitary edifice in a sea of greenery. It was one of the most photographed trees in the world and was so beloved that its death was mourned with the same intensity as a human one. When I heard that some callous maniac had chopped it down, I found myself lamenting for a society that cared more about the fake world on their mobile phones than the authentic one that has existed for time immemorial, and whose beauty can never be replicated by any human hand. 

 

The most cursory glance at anything Tolkien wrote would tell you of his love for the natural world. Probably the only thing that the recent Amazon TV series The Rings of Power got right was the poignant moment when an elf was forced to cut down a tree, tortured as he did it. Trees of course speak in The Lord of the Rings, and have charmingly quaint personalities. One of the great evils of Saruman is his deforestation of Fangorn, and his scouring of the idyllic Shire. This is the mind of a man responding to the vast changes of his time. Tolkien lived amidst great upheaval not least in terms of industrialisation, and saw in this the replacement of nature by machine. Like many writers of his generation (famously T. S. Eliot, whom he knew well), he regarded this not in optimistic terms of 'progress' or 'development', but technological advancement which only brought humanity further away from its natural essence. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, in his celebrated essay 'On Nature', that 'nature always wears the colours of the spirit'. This captures the sort of philosophical environmentalism that lay close to Tolkien's heart, the notion that to despoil a tree or a river is somehow an aberration of the human condition. 

 

The most poignant expressions of this ethos appear in Tolkien's letters, where he twice witnessed, first personally and then vicariously through his sons, the desolation of natural landscapes. Writing to his first-born Christopher in 1944, he expressed empathy for what he was experiencing by reference to his own toils in Flanders: 'the burnt hand teaches most about fire'. The advancements in the apparatus of war were a human regression rather than improvement, as they are tools for corruption and desecration of the natural and innocent. In 1951 he wrote to Milton Waldman of how the idea of the 'machine' permeates The Lord of the Rings in the form of its mythical parallel, magic. Sauron intends to dominate through magical 'devices', such as the rings, which facilitate 'bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills'. The Machine is 'our more obvious modern form' of this trope. In spite of, in Tolkien's belief, its creation stemming from a natural human rebellion against mortality, to ward it off, instead it merely promotes it. The Machine is thus innately a tool of evil: 'The Enemy in successive forms is always naturally concerned with sheer domination, and so the lord of magic and machines'. Machinery to Tolkien is therefore the means by which the fallen individual satisfies his will to power. A sidenote point of interest is that (and one might expect this of such a fine philologist), the word 'machine' ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root '*magh', 'to have power', through the Greek 'mechane', meaning a physical device or, in a more abstract sense, 'contrivance'. Tolkien was engaging in long-standing cultural associations revealed by linguistics. Regardless, the great Nazi war machine naturally seems a direct inspiration for Tolkien's conception of malice in his work- Tolkien called Hitler's subordinates 'the lesser servants of Mordor'. The brutal capabilities of the Panza and the Messerschmidt were alive on paper, and there is no doubt that reality and literature worked in tandem.

 

The Scouring of the Shire is usually regarded as the fullest expression of this love of natural habitat, and despair for its ruin. In recent times garbage alternative interpretations have sprung from political motivations. Georgia Meloni's far right Brothers of Italy party has claimed that the episode articulates the need for draconian anti-immigration legislation to deter outsiders from ravishing the homeland. Tolkien would have choked on his ale hearing this. He denied any political allegory as always, but the chapter has striking resemblances to post-war Britain; fuelled by industrialisation, riven with shortages, increased pollution and a general decrease in environmental health and so forth. It also bears a striking resemblance to Tolkien's description of the decline of his hometown Sarehole. During Tolkien’s youth, it had been consumed by Birmingham's industrial growth. This image has long been thought to have contributed to his conception of Mordor as well, and the words in particular with which Isengard is associated ('tunnelled', 'dark', 'treasuries', 'furnaces') ring of a man of the trenches. What Tolkien was imagining was a pre-industrial England that loved grass more than iron. This ecology is unmissable in his works and consistent with the trends of inter-war literature. 


Mortality and War

 

In a BBC interview from 1962, Tolkien described this quote from Simone de Beauvoir as the 'key spring' of his work:

'There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident, and, even if he knows it and gives sense to it, an unjustifiable violation'. 

I'm not sure I entirely agree with de Beauvoir, and certainly Tolkien himself, in calling man's mortality in The Silmarillion a gift from Eru Iluvatar (God), indicated some reservation about it. Yet the general premise of death as a violation, as something to be avoided, if possible, permeates the work of a man who had seen it too often. There are noble deaths in all of his books, underpinned by codes resembling Homeric heroism. The Lament for Theoden, written in Anglo-Saxon style alliterative verse, echoes the celebrative dirge of Beowulf, and Eomer himself cautions against excess mourning as 'mighty was the fallen, meet was his ending'. There was certainly moral scope for Tolkien's characters to swell their chests in the din of battle.

 

Yet death in war is not something to seek for the abstract repercussion of glory. Tolkien took the view of battle of Wilfred Owen, his contemporary, much more than Homer or Horace, hence his words to Christopher in 1944:

'The utter stupid waste of war, not only material but moral and spiritual, is so staggering to those who have to endure it. And always was (despite the poets), and always will be (despite the propagandists)-not of course that is has not, is, and will be necessary to face in an evil world'.

War caused Tolkien more personal heartache than most. All but one member of his beloved school club, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, perished in the Great War. He regarded the relationship he had with these intimates as 'friendship to the Nth power', and regarded their deaths as the epitome of war's wastefulness. Tolkien wrote to Geoffrey Smith on the 12th August 1916 to address the passing of fallen member Rob Gilson at the Somme, and said that the T.C.B.S was 'destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war'. The notions of squandered potential and frittered youth have classical roots. If no death is particularly 'natural', then young death is most transgressive. Croesus in Herodotus' Histories once put it that 'nobody is so foolish as to choose war over peace. In peace, sons bury fathers. In war, fathers bury sons'. Similarly, the tragedy of Aeschylus' Persians is the loss of Persia's 'blooming youth', and in the Iliad the notion of 'young beauty laid low' is ubiquitous. Tolkien knew this tradition that happily saw both glory and tragedy in war. However, like the rest of his generation, he had seen the evisceration of the youths closest to him and fell much more strongly on the latter interpretation. These sufferings must have informed much of his wartime philosophy that found its way into his books. Indeed, he once recommended to his son during World War Two that writing was a kind of therapy for the festering thoughts in his head after the traumas of war. The Lord of the Rings, as he said repeatedly, 'was no bedtime story'. It was full of the scorpions in his mind.

 

Perhaps the best summation of how Tolkien thought of this phenomenon was as a grim necessity at best. There is no revelry in having to fight a war though there be nobility in defending a cause worth defending, and though the defeat of genuine evil may offer a gleeful cheer that the Rohirrim for one indulge. Tolkien in one letter stated that he was most like Faramir of all characters and thus discernible in his own mind are these striking words from The Return of the King:

'War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour us all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the men of Numenor'.

When I read this passage, written by a man who was haunted by war's ghastly spectres, I also think of the idiot gun lobbyists in America amongst whom one justified the 2nd Amendment because 'guns are cool'. These people are so divorced from reality that they treat it like the kids who know nothing better. 'What fools we are, to live in a generation for which war is a computer game for our children, and just an interesting little Channel 4 news item'. Tony Benn's speech in opposition to the Iraq War is perhaps my favourite thing to ever come out of a Labour mouth. Tolkien viewed war with a respectful sobriety that only one who'd seen its ghastliest incarnations could. 

 

I shall leave it to my co-editor and fellow Tolkien enthusiast to fill in the edges of the map as it were. Tolkien's religiosity, alluded to here, his literary style (about as poetic as prose gets) and his political mores are fascinating features that have been regrettably omitted. Yet the purpose of this essay was to rectify a wrong, if one likes, in telegraphing Tolkien's immense literary and philosophical stature. I hope I have at least begun to succeed. Tolkien's name may be risible in certain corners of society. Yet to the Audens of the world, it symbolises a scarcely rivalled artistry and a truly polymathic mind. The more this symbol is advertised, the closer will truth come to reputation. 

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