Can digital publishing be talismanic?
We are sitting at the pub table where Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings used to sit, drink and read aloud from their various projects.
I make some notes for this post and think about getting my laptop from the car to publish the whole thing from here.
In the end, we order some more drinks and play a few rounds of Zombie Dice instead. It's less antisocial.
This turned out to be the right move, as we are in Oxford for the Magical Books exhibition at the Bodleian Library... which, as you might expect contains loads of Tolkien stuff, including his original drawing of the death of Smaug.
Despite him never expecting it to be published, the sketch adorned the cover of my father's version of The Hobbit... the drawing that launched my lifelong obsession.
Another Tolkien sketch in the exhibition is worth commenting on. Owlmaloo. From the notes:
Tolkien's son Michael was frightened by an imaginary nightmare creature that took the form of an owl and perched, glaring on the top of high furniture and picture frames. "I tried to draw owlamoo from his descriptions -which seemed to rob it of terror" Tolkien later recalled. (1928)
For more information on the significance of owls, I refer you to literally any synchromystic blog ever. Still... a small boy, while living in the same house as the creator of Middle Earth, was terrorised by a demon-owl that no one else could see and could only be banished by depiction. How interesting.
The day before, I took my little brother and his fiancée to Stonehenge and Avebury. I find it tremendously evocative that the Britons at the time of the Roman invasion would have wandered past these stones on a misty morning like the one we experienced without any idea of who built the complex or for what purpose.
In many ways their canvas was bigger than ours, more mysterious. The world is still the same but they had more in it. For me, this is the ultimate consolation of Middle Earth.
It provides an ever-expanded sense of time and a guideline for how to live in a layered universe. This is from Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writing on Tolkien's Trilogy:
Tolkien himself was fully conscious of his use of extension as an effective narrative device and noted succinctly shortly after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954 that ‘a part of the [novel]’s “fascination” consists in the vistas of yet more legend and history, to which this work does not contain a clue’. (Letters 185.)
Tolkien’s insistence on providing maps has allowed most readers the opportunity at some stage to pore over them and wonder about these locations marked but never journeyed to or in some cases even mentioned in the text… These fleeting encounters all aid the reader’s sense that this sizeable text is nonetheless merely skimming a vast and barely-glimpsed hinterland...
“Part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings, is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new attainable vistas are again revealed. (Letters 333.)”
Much of this effect relies importantly on Tolkien’s modulation of what Mieke Bal (1985) terms ‘focalization’: the manipulation of the narrative perspective(s) from and through which knowledge of the diegesis is brought to the reader. The Lord of the Rings, for the most part, communicates its sense of the wonderful elaboration of a world by relying on the perception of those to whom these wonders are almost as new as they are to the reader, pre-eminently of course the Hobbits.
This is the cornerstone of Middle Earth's morality. One acts as best one can in a much larger context than is ever possible to grasp. The decision to choose a moral road happens on a moment-by-moment basis, not because one is moving toward a preferred outcome that is fully visible from the outset.
Back to Reading The Lord of the Rings:
Then there are those who ‘opt-out’ of history altogether - a stance that Tolkien depicts as morally as well as practically unsustainable. Some characters in The Lord of the Rings - like Butterbur, or Gaffer Gamgee - are simply ignorant of history and hence of their own historical situation. But the price they pay is to be placed (however indulgently or fondly) as the objects, not the subjects, of a history they can have no part in shaping.
The painful lesson Elrond derives from all the defeats and empty victories he has seen, first enforced in the First Age when Melkor’s/Morgoth’s stronghold Thangorodrim was overthrown, is that evil may be defeated for a season or many seasons but inevitably recurs. This is a ‘long view’ that only a few -Gandalf, Aragorn (who although a mere stripling at 87 compared to Elrond, shares his perspective) and, by the end of the novel, Frodo - are able to adopt, and it makes their choice to act for the good notwithstanding the likelihood or even the inevitability of ultimate failure significantly more meaningful than the essentially reactive bravery of a man like Boromir.
In this sense, of course, the experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, with its ‘unattainable vistas’ and half-understood histories, itself enacts the posterity of its own telling. In the quite complex folded temporality of Tolkien’s narrative, final integration of the different timeframes of Tolkien’s narrative articulates at a structural level the trilogy’s central premise of an ultimate unity transcending the purely phenomenal: the reader who works to synthesize these disunities is thereby encouraged into an ethical stance through the act of reading itself.
When it comes to 'evil', when it comes to 'the enemy', the depiction is extremely sophisticated. Unfortunately this has been boiled down to 'Tolkien didn't like pollution' for the sake of providing a cleaner filmic message -and I don't judge the filmmakers for that, it's a different medium- but if you're looking for a genuinely 'pagan' view of where evil fits into a landscape that is sacred, Tolkien is seriously better than anything written in the last thousand years.
Tolkien himself states in a letter that ‘all this stuff is concerned with Fall, Mortality and the Machine.’... Patrick Curry argues that ‘the Ring epitomizes the strongest economic and political power in Middle-earth, which already threatens to dominate all others in one vast autocratic realm.’ (Curry 2000:284)
To read the text as a straightforward depiction of victory over development is to produce an account of Tolkien’s novel as an escape from the modern world into a Middle-earth in which the transformative power of the modern can still be overcome. It is, in other words, to trivialize both the pressures faced by today’s society and the text’s presentation of such conflicts. Rather, I want to follow a suggestion that Slavoj Zizek makes about the representation of religion in The Lord of the Rings, that ‘only a devout Christian could have imagined such a magnificent pagan universe, thereby confirming that paganism is the ultimate Christian dream’ (2002:580), to argue that only in the face of such modern technological reproduction does a fantasy world such as Middle-earth make sense, and that, as such, the world of Tolkien’s novel is meaningful precisely because it evokes and interrogates the rural fantasies from which technological development draws its power without simply evacuating the latter of all meaning and force.
If the conclusion of the novel does reassert the possibility of home, I want to argue that it does so only problematically and not as the result of a return ‘back again’ to a secure and unchanging community.
'Fall, Mortality and the Machine'. I like that. In the following video, Stephen A. Hoeller characterises the central moral challenge thusly: The Ring is “the wedding band of darkness, slipped on our finger by the archons.”
No one else seems to encapsulate the implications for evil on a macro scale and how they are resisted on a micro one quite so well as Professor Tolkien. It has resulted in much admiration over the years. Comme ça:
[Ursula] LeGuin’s relationship with Tolkien is more complex and uneasy: she is aware of his influence on her, critical of much of his ideological baggage and totally aware that killing the father, or walking away from him totally, is something boys do, and she need not. At the same time, she found his emphasis on the theme of return highly congenial, and some of her quasi-Taoist thinking about the appropriate use of magic derives from the differentiation made by Tolkien between the showy magical effects of his evil mages and the minimalist use of it in dire necessity by Gandalf, even after his transfiguration.
She also welcomed Tolkien’s decision to centre his narrative on the unconventional heroism of Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, whose virtues are those of endurance and nurture, and whose courage is more moral than physical. Tolkien was a very long way from being a feminist and yet there were emphases in his work that a feminist like LeGuin could make use of.
We can never be sure when, sitting down to play with powerful symbols, just how much they might be playing with us. And when Tolkien sat down to play with symbols, he was also playing with fire. From Tolkien's Ring:
‘I am interested in mythological invention, and the mystery of literary creation,’ Tolkien once wrote in a letter to a reader. ‘I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found, in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.’
This was Tolkien’s life ambition. So great was his obsession that it could be argued that the undoubted literary merits of Tolkien’s epic tale of The Lord of the Rings were almost a secondary concern. Important as the novel is, any analysis of Tolkien’s life and work makes one aware that his greatest passion and grandest ambition were focused on the creation of an entire mythological system for the English people.
‘I had in 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 England; to my country.’
The enormity of this undertaking is staggering. It would be as if Homer, before writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, had first to invent the whole of Greek mythology and history.
Insofar as we use mythology to shape and give meaning to the world, I would say he succeeded. His characterisation of the paucity of English mythology is a little over-simplified -but he is correct that it doesn't have a Bhagavad Gita or even a Kalevala. (I suspect he just simply didn't much like Arthurian stories. He abandoned The Fall of Arthur. To call them French, however, is another over-simplification, and one that is beneath an Oxford don.)
From a chaos magic perspective, a mythology lives and dies by its utility, and -in the right hands- Middle Earth knocks it out of the park. Tolkien's Ring again:
It is interesting to note Tolkien’s own comments on this in his wartime letters to his son, Christopher, who was stationed with the British forces in South Africa. He sent chapters in serial form to Christopher as he wrote them, along with personal letters with constant references to Hobbits, Orcs and Rings - as similes for individuals and issues relating to actual events in the conflict with Germany.
‘Well there you are: a hobbit among the Urukhai,’ Tolkien wrote. ‘Keep your hobbitry in heart and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them.’ However, this did not mean that real events in the war shaped Tolkien’s invented war. His ‘War of The Ring’ was about ideals, not political realities. It essentially revolved around a human moral crisis which he perceived in the real war, but not just in the enemy.
In one letter to Christopher, Tolkien wrote: ‘We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs. Not that in real life things are as clear-cut as in a story, and we started out with a great many Orcs on our side...’
Sooo.... archonology then?
How about asking his bestie, C.S Lewis? From On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature.
How far Treebeard can be regarded as a 'portrait of the artist' must remain doubtful; but when he hears that some people want to identify the Ring with the hydrogen bomb, and Mordor with Russia, I think he might call it a 'hasty' word.
How long do people think a world like his takes to grow? Do they think it can be done as quickly as a modern nation changes its Public Enemy Number One or as modern scientists invent new weapons? When Professor Tolkien began there was probably no nuclear fission and the contemporary incarnation of Mordor was a good deal nearer our shores.
But the text itself teaches us that Sauron is eternal; the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him. Every time we shall be wise to fear his ultimate victory, after which there will be 'no more songs'. Again and again we shall have good evidence that 'the wind is setting East, and the withering of all woods may be drawing near'. Every time we win we shall know that our victory is impermanent. If we insist on asking for the moral of the story, that is its moral: a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike, to that hard, yet not quite desperate, insight into man's unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived. It is here that the Norse affinity is strongest: hammer-strokes, but with compassion.
There you have it. A universe of vast, unknowable, antiquity, in which the eternal recurrence of evil is built into its very mechanics. An evil that must always be resisted. Resistance that begins with morality, that begins with do not lose your soul when it looks like all else is lost. The most profound, bombastic and inspired message from his universe to ours.
But it is also a universe that began quietly, gently. That is the other side of the equation. The words among friends over ales and a pipe in the corner of a little pub.
I am writing this at the very table where the first words of The Lord of the Rings were spoken aloud, where the place names were first uttered, where new languages were born.
Where a universe began.