Tolkien and the Age of Myths 1

February 9, 2015

the lord of the rings booksJ. R. R. Tolkien – the Age of Myths… and modern fantasies

(Part 1 – an imaginary history of the world)

Having recently lost myself in The Hobbit lore yet again, due to the final movie release this winter, I have decided to revisit J. R. R. Tolkien’s main works – The Lord of the Rings – by reading the books and then closely watching the movies. As always, when coming back to such wondrous tales, I have discovered some new things, that I’d like to share with you in a two-part article that analyses this epic story from a rather more spiritual point of view (that combines faith and myth and imagination).

It is no secret that the author of The Lord of the Rings was no mere writer of simple fairy tales – he was a university professor and also a devout Christian. He made it clear himself that what inspired him are both the Christian faith and all the stories he knew as a child and the vast mythologies he came to study as an adult. It is easy to find in The Lord of the Rings bits and pieces of everything ever written or imagined in the domain of religion, myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales: forces of good and evil, guardian spirits and deity-like beings, angelic and demonic entities, stories of great heroes and villains, legendary bravery, true love and least but not last, magic and mythical creatures. It is also easy to discard all of this as a simple mash-up of elements anyone could do nowadays…

… unless you pay close attention to the detail and great craftsmanship that these elements were selected and combined with and the whole idea behind it that gives it meaning. We look down and are rather tired of such fairy tales today because there are so many out there that re-interpret myths and beliefs and seem so similar that we forgot where it all began. Definitely, Tolkien is amongst the first who had great success with a modern fairy tale of great size, but he isn’t famous just because he is the first to try and be successful in this literary domain. He is a great writer because he knew exactly what he was doing and he did it with both passion and a lot of real knowledge of how myths and fairy takes work – and all of this especially for a mature audience!

I shall assume that you know at least a little bit about what The Lord of the Rings is, either from the books or at least from the movies, and I will not waste time summarizing it for you. I want to point out just a few details that you might have not given a lot of thought until now. For example, what’s with the *huge* size of the tale (was all that hard work really necessary just to say that good still wins?) and how exactly does an essentially Christian spirit, that goes through the entire fictional universe, combine with myths and maybe even magic?

It is my personal belief that no matter how well you know The Lord of the Rings universe or think you love this piece of literature (or the movies) you cannot really enjoy Tolkien’s imagination to its absolute fullest and finest unless you have at least some affinity with Christianity. Just mere knowledge is not enough. Knowledge will allow you to properly identify religious themes, but won’t allow you to love them with passion and see the real genius behind this novel. Unlike some modern writers or perhaps modern theories, Tolkien did not avoid putting a little bit of himself and his beliefs in the story he wrote. As a mater of fact, that was the whole point to begin with!!

He was part of a college group called The Inklings, that encouraged fairy tales and even what might have passed as science fiction at that time. C. S. Lewis (the author of The Chronicles of Narnia) was also a member of this group and a friend of Tolkien, which actually helped him regain his faith. Amongst other things, this group wanted to bring back the religious feeling, the wonder and miracles in a world marked by positivist sciences led to their extremes, a world that seemed to have lost its faith and any type of spiritual feeling. So Tolkien wrote his fairy tale while also having in mind the possibility of making people believe again in miracles.

Everything is based on the very interesting assumption that if you like the fictional things that you read, if you like to live in a horizon where beautiful mysteries still exist and miracles do happen due to pure faith and goodness, then maybe – just maybe! – you are going to try for the real ones and change your life for the better (don’t take lightly the fact that the author was a practicing Christian and a strong believer). This was part of the motivation at the base of The Lord of the Rings. This is why the story had to be so complex! It was never meantLove LOTR for kids (unlike some other works, like Roverandom or even The Hobbit, which was aimed at a younger audience). And mature people tend to look down on fairy tales – how, then, do you make them take you seriously?

Tolkien’s answer is simple as it is ingenious: you give them a fairy tale which is very realistic regarding characters and events, while keeping the “fairy” factor as subtle as possible (and yet always present). This way, they can enjoy a fictional history with all the sophisticated details of a real one, but with the special touch of fantasy. All those carefully drawn maps, all those invented languages and genealogical trees and all the back-story that Tolkien put together (especially in Silmarillion) serve a single mighty purpose: to convince the unbelieving adult that fairy tales can be both fun and useful, AND also to show that faith is neither dead, nor fruitless! I shall now expand on this ambitious project.

The first part of the discussion is about the allegory and history involved in such a long fairy tale. A while ago, I talked briefly to one of my college professors about these kind of stories. He didn’t quite understand why people would write them, or why they should be considered high literature. What do they speak about and what is their purpose? Do they talk about human problems while pretending not to talk about them? If so, then why bother making such complicated allegories and not just go straight to the point? Later on I remembered Tolkien’s answer to that from his various letters and introduction to The Lord of the Rings, or even his great essay, On Fairy-Tales. Amazingly enough, he said that he is against allegory! We can ask ourselves why, given the fact that the fairy tale genre is very much doomed to be allegorically interpreted almost every time. What more can it be, than the good vs. evil fight reshaped every time a bit differently?

Well, Tolkien says, there is more than allegory; there is history. Yes, be it imaginary, fairy tales tell us something of the history of man (not biologically, but spiritually). And Tolkien wrote a modern fairy-tale-like history for the modern man to gently (and very pleasantly I might say!) put him back once more in the universe of wonder and faith and mystery from where man has been violently taken away by the troubled modern times, resulting in alienation and angst. Tolkien didn’t like his works to be seen as allegory, but as fictional history. What exactly is the difference?

If you want to write an allegory, you take some very real and precise things, (they can be facts, events, human traits) and transform them in a different story, but underneath it everyone knows the allusions that you make and what you are actually speaking about. What Tolkien did, however, is to take patterns and structures from the reality that he observed in man’s spirit and history, and he wrote his works based on those structures. He didn’t speak about any real events that we might identify behind The Lord of the Rings, but about the naked spirit of man and the essence of the course of our world.

Basically, it goes like this: if you have great heroes in reality, you are going to have them in a realistic, yet fictional history, and the same goes for villains, wars or times of peace and prosperity. As he himself states in an introductory note to the novel, Tolkien did not place the dark land of Mordor in the east to speak about Russia or communism in eastern Europe, he didn’t have a great war against darkness just to speak about World War II (and so on). If he wanted to talk about real warfare, many things would have gone seriously different, for example places would have been conquered and not destroyed (like the northern kingdom Arnor), Saruman, with all his ring-lore, since long would have forged his own master ring. Instead, Tolkien gives us a history of the human spirit and his constant struggle to evolve towards goodness against the efforts of true evil to destroy everything. This is the “moral” of the story, so to say.

Of course, as stubborn readers, we will see allegory even here, against the author’s wishes. But perhaps there is a compromise: The Lord of the Rings wasn’t meant to be merely a longer allegory of the very vague good versus evil battle. Amazingly, the novel tells us in a fictional way what has actually happened with us along time; otherwise said,the events are imaginary, but their structure is true. This is an imaginary history, realistic enough, but much more filled with the presence of wonder and mystery. It doesn’t come to replace the real one, but to complement our need for miracles especially in modern times.

And you don’t need just literary talent to create a great story, you need to be a very good observant of the human spirit to write not allegorically, but an actually credible imaginary history. And I believe Tolkien managed especially well to observe how man reacts spiritually to both the good and the evil around him and to write his fictional story of the human spirit along the passing of time.

lord of the ringsAnd here we reach the second part of the “mighty purpose” that the sheer length and complexity of the novel serves, in the following line of thought: if miracles happen in a world very similar to our own, then they might just happen in this real world as well.


This is what I’m going to explain in the second part of the article and give you more examples. Don’t go wandering too far!

Image source: ColectTolkien

by Anca-Raluca Sandu

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