Michael Tolkien

(Subtitled ‘Holding the Mirror Up to Nature’)

(This essay took shape from two linked occasions:

1.) A talk and discussion in ‘an evening of fantasy’ shared with the novelist Graham Joyce at the Leicester Adult Education College: 21st Oct.,1997.

2.) A lecture on Tolkien’s Fantasy given at the Swanwick 50th Writers’ Summer School in Derbyshire: 11th Aug.,1998. )


¶1 Writing to a publisher in 1951 when he despaired of L/Rs ever being published T. said that despite meticulous work over 15 years it is ‘...only too likely that I am deluded, lost in a web of vain imaginings of not much value to others...’( L. p.160) Typical charges against a writer of fantasy, and loaded into the very term: delusion, dreaming, unreality, escapism. He also anticipated the later accusation that his trilogy lacked sexually driven love, one of the many things excluded or merely referred to, though he said that such relationships signify ‘ordinary life springing up ever unquenched under the trample of world policies...’(L.pp 160-1) I wonder which of these factors, sex or politics, Germaine Greer really meant when she recently berated the L/R for ignoring ‘the great struggles of the 20th Century.’ ( D.Expr. 25/1/97) His fantasy also got him into trouble as an established Professor. In 1956, after L/Rs was beginning to be admired, he wrote: ‘Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (certainly behind my back, sometimes to my face) at my fall into Trivial Literature...the cry is: " now we know how you have been wasting your time for twenty years."( L. p.238)

¶2  Generous compared to his biographer, H.C.’s reported view of the 1997 Waterstones poll:- {{‘Book of the Century’ was an exaggeration that would have outraged the author, he said. The Tolkien culture had dwindled to a hard core of fans. Many people simply laugh at the mention of Tolkien, and he suspected that the Internet Culture helped to mobilise the anorak-clad troops. (Indept.,20/1 and D.Expr.25/1: 1997)}}

¶3 Though Tolkien never suffered anything as snide in his lifetime, it was the kind of thing that helped to fuel his already acute self-criticism about the time-consuming nature of his task. His own fictional character, Niggle (in the 1940 semi-autobiographical tale, Leaf by Niggle) is rebuked for his indulgence over a vast painting that seemed to be getting nowhere: ‘…a tree (which) grew, sending out innumerable branches and thrusting out the most fantastic roots...behind it a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.' ( LN.p.76) Looking back in 1962 he wrote: ‘ I was anxious about my own internal tree, the L/Rs. It was growing out of hand and revealing endless new vistas...I wanted to finish it but the world was threatening...' (L. p.321) When Frodo, the ring-bearer glimpses his uncle, Bilbo, in the Mirror of Galadriel( FR.p.383), a moment in the L/R I shall be returning to, it conjures up my grandfather's state of mind: ‘...walking restlessly about his room. The table was littered with disordered papers...’ Frodo then sees scenes felt to be part of a

‘ great history’ Bilbo is trying to piece together and somehow involves his nephew. It hints at the scope of Tolkien’s task, the results of which are called ‘shapeless’ by those who  miss the remarkable coherence of the trilogy and its pre-history.(E.g.: P.Green in D.Teleg.,27. Aug.’54.)

¶4   T. would admit to such biographical allusions though he wrote that these are ‘so obsessively interesting to modern critics that they often value a piece of literature solely in so far as it reveals the author and especially if that is in a discreditable light.’(L.p.321) There have been critical objections to his use of a quest structure, because, like so many mediaeval knightly adventures, it cannot objectify personal experience, contain committed political purpose or raise serious moral issues.(L. p.239) Charges I shall be returning to later. Meanwhile enthusiasts compensate unhelpfully  by insisting on contemporary references in allegorical or symbolic form. Like John Chute, the editor of The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, who describes L/Rs confusingly, as  ‘a counter myth to the wasteland of reality.' ( Quoted in W/end Books, D.Expr.,25/1/97)

¶5  But Tolkien was particularly irritated by those who attack the ‘heroics’ of the hosts of the west of Middle Earth, even representing ‘ me as a simple-minded adolescant inspired with, say, a With-the-Flag-to-Praetoria spirit, and wilfully distort what is in my tale.’ (L.p.244) Fantasy of the kind he wrote was and is often assumed to be essentially for children if not childish in intent, a prejudice he combated persuasively in his Essay On Fairy Stories, and an attitude which tinged even the upbeat reviews of F/Ring in 1954: ‘...A book for bright children ? Well, yes and no...’ ( W.L.Lambert: Sun.Times, 8/8/54.) and ‘...Mr Tolkien is one of those born storytellers who makes his readers as wide-eyed as children...’( H.L.A.Fawcett, Man. Guard.,20/8/54) In 1997 we still find Malcolm Bradbury commending the trilogy's ‘magical ability to cross the line between adulthood and childhood'...( W/end Books: D.Expr.,25/1/97) A divide T. defined with caution and doubt.( See OFS pp 33 ff. on valuing the responses of children unsentimentally and on patronising assumptions that fairy stories are material for children.)

¶6  The related charge of Escapism and T's view that it confuses the ‘escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter'( OFS p.56) have been heard so often it is easy to forget his implication that successful fantasy cannot turn its back on the perennial human issues despite its choice of an adjusted setting. He also wondered why Sci-Fi urbanised visions of what he called a demented freedom ‘to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed' ( OFS p.59) seemed to be acceptable, as if this version of ‘reality' were realer than the natural world and the creatures of fantasy who are bracketed together as obsolete.

¶7  These are some of the critical illusions or half-truths I will be answering in thinking about the foundations of T's fantasies with the help of his own comments in published letters and by a closer look at his practice and aims.

¶8   And first I would like to come back to THE MIRROR OF GALADRIEL {Maiden Crowned with Gleaming Hair} Elven Queen of Lothlórien.( FR bk.2,Ch.VI) The media memory banks are constantly coming up with C.S. Lewis' supposed reaction to the L/Rs: ‘not another effing elf !' (The more polite version at least alliterates ). And it has prompted me to focus on the integral part of Elves in T's fantasy.

¶9 They are the supreme creators of artifice in the best sense of that word.

{ E.g. S. pp. 150-1: where Turgon’s Gondolin is fashioned on lines comparable to Tirion beyond the western seas, or S.pp.168-9: Finrod Felagund teaches men the art of minstrelsy and is called Nóm (Wisdom)} Perhaps successful Fantasy is made and works rather like this elvish Mirror, not a mirror of metal or glass with all its literary associations of distortion and delusion, but a silver basin which the Queen fills with running water, a compound of art and elements. She explains (FR,pp 381-2) to Frodo and Sam: ‘...Many things I can command the mirror to reveal and <to> some I can show what they desire to see. But the mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than the things which we wish to behold...it shows things that were, that are and...yet may be. But which...even the wisest cannot always tell...’ Later after Sam's horror at the sight of familiar places overturned she says: ‘...The Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds.’ And to Frodo, the ring-bearer, before he looks she says: ‘...You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil <it> may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous...' She is talking of a visionary quality that cuts across divisions of time and space, appearance and reality. But it may enlighten or confuse. She says of the mirror: ‘... this is what your folk call magic though I do not understand clearly what they mean...they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the enemy.' (FR p.381) This is a confusion between ENCHANTMENT which provides inspiration or insights however disturbing and MAGICAL CONTRIVANCE used to deceive or remove limitations for immediate advantage. T. knew that assessments of fantasy would always suffer from a failure to distinguish the two.( See OFS.§2,p.49. & L. p146{‘...I have not used ‘magic’ consistently...<but the Elves’> ‘magic’ is ART, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation...’}

¶10  But before we consider more precisely what he said, I will linger in Lothlórien.  The ONE RING, which Frodo is destined to bear to destruction in the fires of Mount Orodruin, is a power-binder, a device for commanding the wills of others, and when he offers it to Galadriel as a supposed solution to the crisis, she says:

‘In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a queen, And I shall not be dark but beautiful and terrible...’ And for a moment she stands before him, ‘seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful.'( FR p.385) This is a fleeting image of the dangers and temptations of manipulative power, the harnessing of magical contrivance. For the elves and for Tolkien it is a perversion of Art. ‘Magic’ ( he said in OFS, pp 49-50)’...produces or pretends to produce an alteration in the Primary World...it is not an art but a technique, its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.’ Or put another way, not Fantasy but deliberately engineered fiction.

¶11  If we return to the creation myths of The Silmarillion ( Footnote to L.p.148) we are reminded that the ‘ Light of Valinor made visible in the two trees of silver and gold’

is ‘derived from light before any fall...the light of Art undivorced from Reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively ( or subcreatively) ...as beautiful...’ This perhaps suggests that true Art, whether literary, musical or otherwise, is  striving for a lost wholeness of vision, ‘dislocated’ in ‘a fallen world’ under a sun and moon whose light is only derivative from The Trees of Valinor after its darkening by evil.

¶12 At any rate in the essay OFS Tolkien likens fantasy to the elvish craft of Enchantment which produces (like the Mirror) ‘ a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter;...but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose.’( OFS p.49)

¶13 Remember that Galadriel resists anything other than a portrayal of events, so, if you like, she is the archetypal storyteller, who feels that if you look after the narrative the rest will follow. [Elves were indeed the repositories of lore and legend. In S pp73-4 we are told that Rúmil of Tirion, who gave the gift of written symbols to the Eldar, may be credited with the account of creation, called the Ainulindalé] But consistent with this is T's connecting tales of the realm of faërie with the word ‘Spell’, suggesting enchantment, story and a formula of power.( OFS pp 31-2). Shippey in RTME, pp 39-40, suggests persuasively that T. may have felt that Fantasy combines all three. It is an unnaturally potent experience like a spell; a literary performance like a tale; but also something inherently ‘true', in the ancient sense a ‘god spell' or good story of moral import. Indeed T's confidence in the creative purpose of Fantasy is Christian-based ( as the Epil. to OFS suggests, pp 64-6). We are redeemed, but limited and flawed in our daily lives, yet the story-maker may give us glimpses of ultimate truth, the transformation where we shall be both ‘like and unlike the fallen beings we are now.’ He felt that the entire Christian redemption myth of Birth-Death- Resurrection has the seemless web of a fine story as it is told in the gospels.

[See Appendix 1 for some of the fuller implications of this.]  

¶14 The enchantment of Fantasy can only be achieved if the reader never has reason to pause and think this is just make-believe or feel that he or she is in a world that has to be measured against the everyday one. T. felt ( OFS p.18 §2) that L.Carroll's Alice stories lacked this quality because they drew constant attention to their own dream structures and transitions. Moreover, to say that fantasy demands (in Coleridge’s phrase) ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ is to patronise it and undervalue the storyteller as a ‘subcreator’ who makes ‘a secondary world which your mind can enter. Inside it what he relates is ‘true': it accords with the laws of that world...the moment disbelief arises the SPELL is broken; the... ART has failed...you are out in the primary world again looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside...' (OFS pp36-7)

 [See Appendix 2 for further aspects of T.’s views on the importance of narrative qualities.]

¶15      In his own fairy story, Smith of Wotton Major, which deserves to be better known and appreciated, T. maintains the ‘spell’ by making the borders between the realm of Faërie (or Fantastic sights and encounters) shadowy and indistinct. Even the personalities of mortal and ‘fairy’ merge in Alf (perhaps a sound shift from ‘ELF’). He is a modest apprentice to the master cook and yet an otherworldly King. And when he leaves the village once and for all, the sluggish Noakes (his former master) makes this parting shot :’ He was artful. Too nimble you might say.’ (SWM p.47) Expressing more honestly than some critics the discomfort they feel in reading Tolkien.

¶16 I have so far used excerpts from T's own thinking to combat some of the charges against Fantasy, but as with the Mirror of Galadriel, I now want to do two things at once: answer the academics for slating him as a waster of time, his own and his readers', and  draw attention to the origin and importance of Elves. T.'s distinguished career as a philologist, a specialist in words, was not squandered by his attention to fiction but fulfilled by it. I have found no more authoritative account of this process than Profr. T. Shippey’s RTME. The ‘road’ in question is one of constant philological/literary discovery that in turn provides important substance for the fantasies; and much of what I will say at this point is based on Shippey’s lively discussion.

[See appendix 3 for a more detailed account of T.’s interest in and response to verbal shades of meaning. This was intended as part of the lecture but subsequently cut. Some of the material from the appendix appears in the truncated version that follows, and which concentrates primarily on the generation of notions of elves.]



¶17  In his studies Tolkien discovered so much about the feelings and shades of meaning conjured up in the words of the texts he studied that he developed a supersensory instinct for their implications. What Shippey calls a ‘tracker-dog instinct for validity ...<concluding that> such and such a word...was... true, even if unrecorded, meaning by true a genuine fragment of older civilisation consistent with others.’ Unlike mere lexicographers, he grew interested in ‘ the aesthetic rather than the functional aspects of language.’(L p.231) and when he made up a language he found himself inventing legends that somehow accorded to the feelings and sound of that language, what he called ‘legends’ of the same ‘taste’(L p.231) He maintained that ‘out of these languages are made nearly all the names that appear in my legends. This gives a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity...’(L. p143)

¶18 Just one e.g. I cannot resist is the cunning and sinister philological joke that accompanies the description of the tower in the Ring of Isengard invested by the treacherous wizard Saruman. (T/T p.578 §2.)’ This was ORTHANC...the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning, for in the Elvish speech <it> signifies Mount Fang, but in the language of the Mark of old, The Cunning Mind...’

¶19   Now T's notions of Elves in fact derive from the kind of processes I have outlined: fascination for shades of meaning and an instinct for how their implications cohere into a consistent way of viewing the world. This is one reason why his fairy story character, Smith of Wotton Major, is conscience-stricken in the presence of the Queen of Faërie. He recalls a winged caricature on the Great Cake:’... his mind turned back... to...the Children’s Feast...and...he saw again the little dancing figure with its wand, and in shame he lowered his eyes from the Queen's beauty.'( SWM p.27) In a sense he had once witnessed what T. deplores in OFS (thinking of the fairies of  Shakespeare’s AMSND or Farjeon's Flower Fairies). He comments there on how we transform ‘ the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse and invisibility and into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip...' (OFS p.11) Visiting enchanted realms Smith discovers (as did T., the imaginative textual philologist) that ‘the real folk of faërie...do not always look like what they are and put on a pride and beauty we would <like to> wear ourselves.’(OFS p.13)

¶19      Close study of the implications of words in early and mediaeval northern European texts revealed  consistent ingredients in notions of otherworldly beings which contributed to his fictional world but at the same time made him feel that it was rooted in a tradition of thought processes.


[Shippey in RTME(p.48) points out that T. followed in the traditions of research inaugurated by the Grimm brothers, discovering proof in texts diverse in time and language, of ‘original unity’ of notions (say, of the other-worldly being, in A.Saxon the Ælwiht or outside-dweller). The deductive process was termed Zusammenhang or a ‘holding together’. But see also Appendix 3]



Two notable tendencies that affect his fiction clearly influenced T.:-

                             1.) Mortals suffer confusion over the passage of time after their encounters. E.g. after being in Lothlórien (Blossom Dreamland) Sam Gamgee says:’ Anyone would think time did not count in there’; but through the reply of the Elf, Legolas, T. reveals how the Elves suffer feelings opposite to our sense of mortality and transience:  ‘For the Elves the world moves...swift because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by...a grief to them. Slow because they do not count the running years...The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long, long stream...’

[In RTME p.46 Shippey cites an attractive Old Danish analogue. ‘ When the elf-maid sings in...the ballad of ELVERHØJ, or Elf-Hill:

Striden strøm den stiltes derved

some førre var van at rinde;

de liden smaafiske, i flodden svam,

de legte medderes finne.’

{The swift stream then stood still, that before had been running; the little fish that swam in it played their fins in time}]

This is why T. makes Elves vulnerable to offers of power to preserve things as they are. He says they ‘regret the past...<&>become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter.’ (L p.236)

                            2.) The second prominent feature he discovered in words and the flavour they added to legends about or references to the ‘perilous realm’ was a contradictory sense of beauty and danger, familiarity and strangeness. Throughout T's history of Middle Earth and in his own fairy stories this duality disturbs, inspires or alienates characters. It also adds a tragic grandeur to the annals of Elvish conflicts of the elder days in The Silmarillion, where there is an additional fatal paradox of nobility and perversity discernible in characters like Fëanor and Thingol.

    [ Keats has dramatised some of these contradictions in the experience of the knight in his ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

The enchantress leaves him on the cold hillside and he has a vision of others similarly abandoned. Similarly in the Silmarillion Beren’s first encounter with Lúthien is less lugubrious but just as disorientating. And Shippey poins out in RTME (p.45) that T. would have encountered such implications in A.S. terms like Ælfscyne( Elf-beautiful, as applied to a mortal woman) or the O.Icelandic phrase ‘Fri₫ sem álfkona’( Lovely as an elf woman) I notice in the account of the fate of the mortal man Barahir and his persecuted descendents there is mention of ‘Morwen, who was named Eledhwen, that is Elfsheen...’(S p.186)]

¶21 Returning to Galadriel, we find similar implications by considering with Sam's answer to the enquiry of Faramir about his encounter with her. Faramir, a son of the mortal royal house of Gondor, who patrols the borders of Darkness, declares:’...she must be lovely indeed, perilously fair’...’ I don't know about perilous,' said Sam. ‘It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they've brought it. But perhaps you could call her perilous, because she's strong in herself. You could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship on a rock, or drown yourself like a hobbit in a river. But neither rock nor river would be to blame...’ (T/T p.706)

¶22 So perhaps it would be as well for those who for various reasons criticize T. for his idealized, sexually remote women at least to bear in mind their genesis.

¶23 But it was not only words that influenced Tolkien's imagination in forming his notions of Elves but also the narrative and atmospheric qualities of some of the outstanding texts he knew and loved.  Shippey cites (RTME pp 49-50) the 14th cent. version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Sir Orpheo, in which that hero in a sense defeats the Elf King to bring back his dead wife by virtue of his honour and musical talents. Here is a short excerpt from T's own translation of the poem. It describes how Sir O's wanderings in wild places lead to encounters that are ‘real’ in a mediaeval courtly context and yet larger than life:

                        The King of Faërie with his rout

                        came hunting in the woods about

                        with blowing far and crying dim

                        and barking hounds that were about him,

                        and never a beast they took or slew,

                        and where he went they never knew.

                        At other times he would descry

                        a mighty host, it seemed, go by,

                        ten hundred knights all fair arrayed

                        with many a banner proud displayed...

[We also hear that he saw knights and ladies dancing to wonderful music.]

¶24 The prominent features are hunting, dance & music and war. Some readers may recall the shadow army that followed Aragorn from the Paths of the Dead (RK pp 817 ff, The Passing of the Grey Company)  or the hunt at the crossing of the enchanted stream in Mirkwood, and the proud but honourable figure of the Wood Elf King in The Hobbit. But in ‘Sir O’ it is ART in the form of harping minstrelsy that wins over the court of Elfdom. Likewise (S pp 217 ff) the Elf-Maiden, Lúthien charms into inertia the terrible Melkor in his fortress of Angband: ‘...she offered her service to sing before him after the manner of a minstrel...and out of the shadows began a song of such surpassing loveliness, and such blinding power that he listened perforce...'

[Song is similarly potent in the episode of Lúthien’s assault with the hound Huan on the fortress of Sauron at Tol Sirion (S pp 208-10) and in Fingon’s rescue of Maedhros pinioned to the crags of the Thangorodrim ( S p.130)

‘ Then in defiance... he took his harp and sung a song of Valinor that the Noldor made of old, before strife was born among the sons of Finwë; and his voice rang in the mournful hollows that had never heard before aught save cries of fear and woe...suddenly above him far and faint his song was taken up...Maedhros it was that sang in his torment...’]

¶25 None of this is mere reference hunting. It leads to two revealing points about T.'s assimilating an imaginative study of a wealth of literature into his fantasies:

    1.)He wanted his legendary beings and creatures to be objectively part of the world, to exercise will or power (vital concerns of his stories) rather than to be relegated to the rôle of symbols or emblems of certain tendencies or forces. [He admired the Beowulf poet for avoiding this defect in the way he portrayed the monsters, Grendel and his mother, and the Dragon: see RTME p.37 and Appendix 3 & Appendix 4] Even the reincarnated evil of Sauron cannot be understood without knowing its history [See Appendix 5 on the question of Sauron and Evil]; and because it is a visible and tangible menace those who fight it do so not for freedom in any vague sense but to preserve an entire living world.

    2.)His scholarly recreation of a kind of history of legendary figures is carried over into the way he felt he was creating his own world, discovering it rather than inventing it.

¶26 He in fact underwent a process contrary to the important admission about Fantasy made in a note on the Epilogue to OFS where he says that when making a Secondary World you hope it will have a consistency based on reality, but that it is hard to be sure that all the details will be in that sense ‘true’:’…it is seldom that the inspiration is so strong and lasting that it leavens all the lump and does not leave much that is mere uninspired invention.’ (Footnote: OFS p.64) But he said with justice in writing about the L/R (L p.231) :’… there is hardly any reference in the L/R to things that do not actually exist on its own plane (of secondary or sub-creational reality).’ A hallmark of T's fantasies is indeed that nothing is felt to be tacked on. Shippey maintains that T. began with the laborious processes or ‘inventions’ in his painstaking philological studies of texts and found inspiration from their complexity, and that arguably too there is a developing pace and excitement as the stories proceed when something puzzling or unexpected stimulates his imaginative resources.(RTME p.79)

¶27 This is shown when he explained how he drew together stories written at different times into the structure of the L/R, and said:

‘Always I had the sense of recording what was already there somewhere: not of inventing.’ (L p.145) And he felt he was sharing the unpredictable journey of his characters in a world as perplexing as our own. ‘ I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me...<for example>...I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than Frodo ...< In fact this was at first not Aragorn in disguise but an heroic hobbit figure called Trotter>... The Mines of Moría had been a mere name and of Lothlórien no words had reached my mortal ears till I came there.' He also said ‘I have long ceased to invent ( though even patronising or sneering critics praise my invention). I wait till I seem to know what really happened...I am old enough... to take a dispassionate...interest in these matters and cite myself because I am interested in mythological invention and the mystery of literary creation.’ (L p.231) To argue that these may be a fantasist’s delusions and a defence of them is less easy if one is convinced that T.’s academic career and his fiction are of the same foundation. It is clear that moments where he was baffled actually produced some of the most disturbing and engaging developments.

¶28 But this sense of exploration is also insisted on when he was accused of evading his own experiences. ‘I am historically minded. Middle Earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the mod. form of {mediaeval} Midden erd > middel erd...the objectively real world...(as) opposed to imaginary worlds (Fairyland) or unseen worlds ( heaven and hell)...but the historical period is imaginary... the place feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance and time.’ ( L p.238) An  aspect of the inner consistency of this world is the careful geography with its names, a substantial part of many conversations in the L/Rs. Whatever their origins names become an essential part of a place, thing, or person, useful for Fantasy writing because they give a feeling of ‘real’ existence with historical roots, a tangible presence with a background to speculate over.[ Shippey in RTME pp77 ff discusses this in detail and says that names are  ‘useful to fantasy, weighing down as they do with repeated implicit assurances of the existence of the things they label, and of course of their nature and history too.’] Elsewhere T. says the L/R is in a sense a ‘fairy story’ because such a story’ (or, for our purposes ‘fantasy’) ‘has its own mode of reflecting truth  and ‘within its own imagined world...would be accorded literary belief.’(L p.233)

¶29  He defined the attraction for him and for readers of the L/R  as : ‘glimpses of a large history in the background...like that of viewing far off an unvisited island or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist.'(L p.247) This was a quality he liked in literature:- ‘a shimmer of suggestion which never quite becomes clear sight but always hints at something deeper further on...'( RTME pp 40-1) When sending sections of Book IV of L/Rs to Christopher Tolkien, who was training as a pilot in S.Africa, he wrote in early 1945 (L pp 109 ff) that he was moved by his characters who had a feeling for the’ seemless web of story', the unfolding of a long history, though he also reckoned the unknown tales remained the most moving and intriguing.[ A philological equivalent is suggested in RTME (p.30):’…what attracted T. most was darkness: the blank spaces, much bigger than most people realise, on the literary and historical map...’]


¶30  Smith experiences this in his visit to the perilous realm as he stands ‘beside the Sea of Windless Storm <that bears> the white ships that return from battles on the Dark Marches of which men know nothing...the Elven mariners were tall and terrible; their swords shone and their spears glinted and a piercing light was in their eyes. Suddenly they lifted up their voices in a song of triumph, and his heart was shaken with fear, and he fell upon his face, and they passed over him and went away into the echoing hills.’(SWM p.18)

¶31 Not dissimilar in the L/Rs are the ghostly encounters in the barrows* and the rescue of the hobbits by Tom Bombadil who presents them with daggers anciently crafted, weapons of warriors who once opposed a great darkness. ‘The hobbits did not understand his words, but as he spoke they had a vision as it were of a great expanse of years behind them, like a vast shadowy plain over which there strode shapes of Men, tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow...'( FR p.161)

    *Barrows(For a moving account of how such burial places originate see S.p177: the burial of Haleth.)

¶32 This feeling of a lost history of conflict recurs in The Passage of the Marshes in L/R where a mixture of ghostly faces noble and evil is revealed in the Dead Marsh.( T/T p.653)

¶33  In The T.Twrs (p.729) there is the indirectly elegaic comment on the fate of Gondor, at the cross roads in Ithilien when the three travellers are about to ascend the Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow. The last rays of the sun fall on a ‘huge sitting figure, still and solemn as the great stone kings of Argonath.. ' The graffiti of Mordor are scrawled over it but the head is lying nearby, and for a moment crowned with light and plants it feels to Frodo like a flicker of hope.

(The Sindarin ‘Argonath’ means ‘The pillars of the kings ‘. They had encountered the actual stone guardians, likenesses of Isildur and Anárion, in the great gorge of the River Anduin (Book II, ch.9: L/R) But here the history is obscure and lost, making the moment and the place more desolate.)

¶34 In OFS. T. said that what expert comparative folklorists often miss is the sheer power of antiquity, ’a great abyss of time' in ancient tales and fairy stories. Beliefs and practices that remain embedded and not wholly understood are vital to their flavour.(See OFS p.32, §3.) This sense of a huge sweep of time lying behind every event is a decisive quality of T.’s sagas and reminds me how integral to the concept of the L/R as a crisis in history was T.'s memory of the downfall of Númenor, the great island kingdom of Men and Women that succeeded the elder days.

¶35 This is chronicled in the Akallabêth (the downfallen)in S pp311 ff.

A telling passage (p.336) concerns the fate of Tar Míriel, the queen:

{{... Numenor went down into the sea with all its children and its wives and maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and halls and towers, its tombs and riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its laughter and and its mirth and music, its wisdom and its lore: they vanished for ever. And last of all the mounting wave, green and cold and plumed with foam, climbing over the land, took to its bosom Tar Míriel the Queen, fairer than silver or ivory or pearls. Too late she strove to ascend the steep ways of the Meneltarma to the holy place; for the waters overtook her and her cry was lost in the roaring of the wind.}}

¶36 T. said that it was an intrinsic part of his temperament to set his tale in the NW of this world about which he had ‘an Atlantis complex (Atalanté was one of the names subsequently given to Númenor)... possibly inherited...and inherited from me by only one of my children (my father, Michael), the terrible recurrent dream... of the Great wave...coming in ...over the trees and green fields.’(L pp 212-3) He bequeathed this to Faramir in the L/R, the character, he said, who most resembles himself, 'except in courage'( Note to L. p 232 )He contended that he had never had the dream again since he wrote of the fall of Númenor. (Would psychoanalysis perhaps conclude that Fantasy helps sublimate our fears, doubts, and obsessions ?)  But Faramir's recalling Númenor late in R/K (pp 998-9) is a moving way to bring an entire history together at the very moment when the fate of the west of Middle Earth is in the balance. T. summed this up eloquently: 'We are to see the overthrow of the last incarnation of evil, the unmaking of the Ring, the final departure of the Elves, and the return in majesty of the true King, to take over the dominion of Men, inheriting all that can be transmitted of Elfdom in his high marriage with Arwen daughter of Elrond, as well as the lineal royalty of Númenor.' (L. p.160)

¶37 As Eowyn and Faramir stand on the walls of Minas Tirith, ‘ it seemed to them above the ridges of the distant mountains another vast mountain of darkness rose, towering up like a wave that should engulf the world, and about it lightnings flickered; and then a tremor ran through the earth and they felt the walls of the city quiver. A sound like a sigh went up from all the lands about them; and their hearts began to beat suddenly again. " It reminds me of Numenor," said Faramir...."the land of Westernesse that foundered, and of a great dark wave climbing over the green lands and above the hills and coming on, darkness inescapable. I often dream of it." ‘    

¶38  But embedded below this sweep of history in T's fantasies is the rôle and hidden resources of small and apparently insignificant figures, an irony at the expense of greater powers who overlook or discount them. At the very moment I have been describing in The Return of the King(RK) we hear that Dark Lord, Sauron (aware of Frodo at the moment he puts on the ring and refuses to cast it in the fire) sees too late the 'magnitude of his own folly...in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were laid at last bare.'(RK p.981) This emphasis stems from T.'s belief that 'every event has at least two aspects: the history and development of the individual...and the history of the world which depends on his or her action.'(L p.233) And both features are anticipated in the moving tale of Beren and Lúthien from the elder days: a mortal man and an elf maiden who venture into the domain of the Darkness of Melkor and temporarily thwart its powers.(S. pp 194-225)

(For origins and development of this crucial tale see CJRT's HME vol.3 & BLTs 2. pp 3-68)

¶39 T. implied that this tale was crucial for understanding the emphases and issues of all his works. He wanted to explore how: '...the great policies of world history, the wheels of the world, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, but by the seemingly unknown and weak...'(L p.149)

(See also The Council of Elrond in FR p.288, and note that of Lúthien's stand against Sauron the disaffected in Nargothrond say:' A maiden had dared that which the sons of Fëanor had dared not do..'[S p.211])

¶40  At one level this is exciting material for fantasy adventure or quest. In OFS(p.40) talking of how Norse Myths moved him as a child, he says '...the dweller in the quiet plains may hear of the tormented hills and the unharvested sea and long for them in his heart, for the heart is hard though the body be soft.'  This is true of the diminutive hobbits { See L p.158 for their origins} who he reckoned 'put earth under the feet of romance and ...provide subjects for enoblement...heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals.'  After the final battle and their disposal of the ring Frodo and Sam are received with heraldic ceremony and enthroned on either side of Aragorn (RK pp 989-90.) A moment that moved T.:' I remember blotting < with tears>  the pages which now represent the welcome of F and S on the Field of Cormallen as I wrote.' (L p.321)

¶41  Related to this is T's interest in what is incalculable about people in a crisis, something ruled out, he felt, by allegory ' of a conscious or intentional kind' (L p.145 §4.) which reduces characters to a limited significance or type, and makes it seem as if issues are imposed rather than growing out of events. The hobbits fulfilled T.'s purposes in this respect. They are conservative, narrow-minded and secure: a good reason, he says, to send them 'on a journey far from a settled home into strange lands and dangers. Especially if they <have> some strong motive for endurance and adaptation.' Part of his defence of the quest structure of L/Rs in the draft letter to Auden, L p.239, which I will discuss further on. T. also pointed out to a correspondent (L p329 §2) when dealing with the issue of the behaviour of the hobbits, that without special graces they had a limited vision. He was under no illusions about Sam, despite his courage and doglike devotion; and he felt there was something poignant and tragic about his failure to grasp Frodo's pity for Gollum or Gollum's brief change of heart. It was characteristic that Sam's devotion was not based on a full understanding of his master's developing state of mind, so that he was quite unable to grasp Frodo's distress over Gollum's capture in the Forbidden Pool by Faramir's company.(T/T pp 715-6) Most tragic in this respect, T. felt, is Sam's failure to perceive the potential seeds of a genuine change of heart by Gollum, particularly shown in the cooking episode in Ithilien (T/T pp 323 ff)

¶42  Hobbits along with other inhabitants of Middle Earth also share our strengths and weaknesses, which allows for the whole complex matter of Frodo's apparent moral failure over his attitude to the Ring and Gollum at the Cracks of Doom.[ See appendix 4] It raised many queries and objections from readers, and T's letters show he was prepared to debate the issue in detail.(See L pp 325ff.)

¶43  Even so T’s fantasies have been variously charged with lack of political meaning or commitment, not confronting the urgent issues of power/government that this century has faced. The poet W.H.Auden wrote to him that his use of a quest structure stood in the way of doing this because the exploits are ‘…accomplished at random (and) do not fit into any politically purposive pattern…’(L.pp238-9) But T. pointed out that Frodo’s duty was in any case ‘humane’ and not political (L.pp240-1), to save an entire civilization from an evil tyrrany, not merely to subvert a faction, which is the limited aim of other heroic but inward-looking figures. Many readers will recall the Dwarf lord, Thorin’s political stubbornness over the recovered treasure in The Hobbit, where Bilbo must choose between two opposing factors: 1.)personal loyalty to him or 2.) a more general good. There is also Denethor in RK who loses capacity for wider vision because he must save the realm of Gondor at all costs. The massed forces of Mordor are to him a rival political force (see L.p241,§2) This kind of polarized attitude is already well-established in the history of middle earth. In The Silmarillion it is a tragically insidious failing that divides the Elven lords in their struggle against the incursions of evil.

¶44 But, returning to quest, Frodo’s purpose is actually clarified to him by his travels: a potent reason for using a quest structure where adventure is indistinguishable from the acquisition of insight and wisdom. T. stresses that Frodo is in what he calls a ‘sacrificial’ position, ‘in which the good of the world depends on the behaviour of an individual in circumstances which demand of him suffering and endurance beyond the normal…He is in a sense doomed to failure, doomed to fall to temptation or be broken by pressure against his will,

that is against any choice he could…or would make unfettered, not under duress…’ (L p 233) T. also felt there was an irony in that while he was conceiving of the plot of L/R he did not ‘foresee that…we should enter a dark age in which the technique of torture and disruption of personality would rival that of Mordor and the Ring and present us with the practical problems of honest men of good will broken down into apostates and traitors.’ (L p 234)

¶45  His scholarly grounding and inspiration is relevant here, too.

Part of his proposed answer to Auden(L pp241-2) indicated his admiration for the way the A.S. Beowulf poet used but went beyond the political rivalries of ancient Scandinavian peoples and created heroism against dark and perplexing forces of monstrous proportions, which were challenging the entire balance and structure of human life,

putting minor feuds into perspective. T’s fantasy share this ‘humane’, enlightened and visionary quality. In the very genesis of his world, the creation myth in the Silmarillion, there is a malicious shadow, fuelled by pride and greed, that darkens Valinor, the dwelling of creative powers. It constantly re-emerges in different forms to menace, ensnare, and infiltrate the endeavours of Elves and Humankind.

¶46  I have focused a good deal on the rôle and speech elves partly because they may be dismissed as esoteric. But in a letter of 1951, which I quoted at the very beginning (L p149), commenting on the Silmarillion, T. writes: ‘ the contact of Men and Elves foreshadows the history of later ages, and a recurrent theme in the idea that in Men (as they now are) there is a strand of blood and inheritance, derived from the Elves, and the art and poetry of humankind is largely dependent on it or modified by it’. A footnote adds:’…in reality this mean that my elves are only a representation or an apprehension of part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking…’

¶47  Which brings me back to the mirror image in connection with fantasy. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince of Denmark tells the players to hold the ‘mirror up to nature’, which implies that should avoid antics and gimmicks on the stage, and reflects the limits and potentials of human nature. Fiction must also past a similar test, whether it I a novel that anatomises and entire society with the profundity of George Eliot’ Middlemarch, or in Tolkien’s case fantasy on grandly conceived scale. Howard Spring reviewing the Fellowship of the Ring alone in 1954, prior to the publication of its successors, called it a profound parable of man’s everlasting struggle against evil.’ ( In Country Life:26/8/1954)

¶48 Remember though that Galadriel stressed that her mirror would hint at the imponderable and indefinable. And I am reminded of what the composer Edward Elgar said: that the noblest musical achievement is a symphony without a programme. A fictional equivalent is the kind of fantasy T. created; one where readers can find their own level of response in a consistent and coherent legendary world, in which they can recognise their concerns without feeling coerced by an agenda.



(The above concluding paragraphs ended the lecture at Swanwick modifying and extending this conclusion to the Oct.'97 Lecture shared with a fantasy novelist Graham Joyce:-

    Howard Spring reviewing the F/Ring alone in 1954 (Country Life, 26.Aug.) called it ' a profound parable of man's everlasting struggle against evil'; and that makes me realise how little I've said about the broader issues raised in T's fantasies, let alone the varied styles of narrative and conversation that make them accessible at so many levels.

    But I'll close with a focus on Fantasy itself. At the end of his novel 'Requiem', Graham Joyce makes a paradoxical comment about Jerusalem which has been its setting. I feel it is also in some senses applicable to Tolkien's Middle Earth:

                     '...<it> was an emblem of the source of all trouble, the human heart, with its limitless capacity for self-deception and fantasy, which one day might also be its salvation...' )


ABBREVIATIONS used as references to sources:-

BLTs: Book of Lost Tales: Ed. C. Tolkien

HME: History of Middle Earth. C. Tolkien

F/R: Fellowship of the Ring (Vol. 1 of The Lord of the Rings)

L: The Letters of JRRT ed Carpenter with CJR Tolkien.(A&U)

LN: Leaf by Niggle(Unwin p/b, 1983, incl. SWM)

L/R: The Lord of the Rings.(Page references are to the earlier composite editions. Pagination has recently altered.)

OFS: Essay on Fairy Stories ( Paperback edn.)

RTME: The Road to Middle Earth: T.A. Shippey ( A&U 1982)

RK: The Return of the King (Vol.3 of The Lord of the Rings)

S: The Silmarillion. (Grafton paperback edn. 1992) (Pagination differs from original and reprinted hardback edn.)

SWM: Smith of Wootton Major ( Same edn as LN above)

T/T: The Two Towers (Vol. 2 of The Lord of the Rings)