December 18, 2002, 9:00 a.m.
The Truth Beyond Memory
What lies behind the Fellowship.
my source: The Old National Review
By John J. Miller
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two Towers, the second movie in the Fellowship of the Rings series (based on the books by J. R. R. Tolkien) is released in movie theaters nationwide today. Last year, John J. Miller wrote on Tolkien for National Review, in the December 31, 2001 issue. It is reprinted here.
Professor J. R. R. Tolkien was grading papers on a summer day in 1928 when he came upon a blank page in an exam book. Something inspired him to scribble a few words: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." The whole thing might have ended there, but it was only a beginning. "Names always generate a story in my mind," he explained later. "Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like."
By now, millions of readers know what hobbits are like. They're the short, rustic, and unlikely heroes of the 20th century's best-loved book, The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Hobbit, a preceding story written mainly for children. They're about to become even more familiar: New Line Cinema has just released The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of an expensive trilogy of movies based on Tolkien's masterpiece. Before long, there probably won't be anybody left who doesn't have an inkling of what hobbits are like. This will annoy certain people. If Tolkien has an army of fawning admirers, he also has a legion of fierce detractors. When readers chose The Lord of the Rings as "the greatest book of the century" in a 1997 poll by the British bookseller Waterstone's, the reaction from the critical class was quick and harsh. "Horrifying," gasped the Times Literary Supplement. "Novels don't come more fictional than that," sneered Germaine Greer. "The books that come from Tolkien's train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic."
If the new film version of The Lord of the Rings is seen as a flight from reality, then it has impeccable timing; after September 11, retreating into a fantasy realm of wizards and ringwraiths sounds like a welcome diversion. The movie does fulfill its simple promise of entertainment. Yet the book on which it is based offers the opposite of escapism. It speaks directly to some of the most fundamental concerns of this world: the nature of evil, the lure of power, and the duty of courage. In other words, it considers questions that definitely have not preoccupied the cultural elite for more than a generation.
At bottom, The Lord of the Rings is a deeply conservative book — a fact that may explain the hostility it faces from some quarters. Tolkien is often credited with the radical act of inventing the sword-and-sorcery epic, a genre of literature filed alongside science fiction in the bookstores. Surely he has many imitators; but he viewed himself in an altogether different light, as the heir to a grand tradition rather than the author of a new one. He called his Middle Earth a "sub-creation," partly in deference to the real Creator (Tolkien was a devout Catholic) but also because he owed so much to writers who lived centuries before him.
Knowing and understanding these writers was his day job as an Oxford University philologist — that is, an expert on the historical forms of language and literature. If Tolkien had never attempted fiction, he would still be remembered for his impressive scholarship: He penned what is perhaps the most influential essay ever written about Beowulf; many of the students enrolled in medieval-English-lit courses probably have encountered his popular translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien was a giant in his academic field, and left a mark that remains there today.
For Tolkien, though, the old stories were more than texts to analyze; they were a vital source of personal inspiration. Characters and events in The Lord of the Rings often echo the half-forgotten poems of the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and their kin. There is hardly a proper noun in Tolkien's oeuvre that doesn't derive in some fashion from the ancient manuscripts of northern Europe. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Gandalf is the name of a good and great wizard; in the 13th-century Norse epic known as the Elder Edda, it is the name of a dwarf. Tolkien borrowed it to indulge his philologist's love of words, and also to lend linguistic authenticity to his project.
Tolkien intended to create an imaginary world that was fundamentally real, or at least potentially real. He did not want readers merely to suspend their disbelief in hobbits and elves; he wanted them to believe in their possibility. He devised whole languages and elaborate histories of Middle Earth long before he started writing the stories that would make use of them — they filled reams of notebooks that have been published posthumously as The Silmarillion and several other tomes. In the end, Middle Earth became a place that was so real to him that he compared actual places to it, rather than the other way around. (Venice, he once wrote, was "like a dream of Old Gondor.")
For the rest of us, of course, detailed accounts of wars between dwarves and orcs don't exactly enhance Middle Earth's realism. Yet Middle Earth is emphatically not another planet — it is our own world in a much earlier age. We have no specific knowledge of the era because it is so remote from us in time, though hints of it have seeped into our cultural memory through fairy tales and nursery rhymes. As a narrator in the movie puts it, "History became legend, legend became myth." In the book, Gandalf provides a fuller explanation when one of his companions asks about an odd creature they've met. "Is it so long since you listened to tales by a fireside? There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question," says Gandalf. "Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as careless custom."
Take the word "orc," the name given to a nasty race of goblin-like monsters. It appears in Beowulf as "orc-neas." Rendered into modern English from Beowulf's Old English (a language almost as foreign to our ears as German), it means something like "demon-corpse," or perhaps "zombie." But the truth is that even scholars of Tolkien's caliber aren't sure of its precise definition or etymology — leaving open the delightful idea that there's far more to its meaning and background than what is dreamt of in our philosophy.
One of the most famous questions scholars have asked about Beowulf is whether it's a Christian poem; it seems to have been written by a Christian, but it deals with a pagan society. Likewise, there is no mention of God or even religion in Middle Earth. Yet Tolkien considered the book a reflection of his own faith. "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision," wrote Tolkien in 1953. "The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." There are many examples of this, though readers frequently overlook them. A close examination of the appendices (there are six, plus indexes and maps) reveals a detail that goes unmentioned in the main narrative: The nine companions who comprise "the fellowship of the ring" begin their fateful mission on December 25 (Christmas), and their story climaxes exactly three months later, on March 25 (in the traditional English calendar, the date of the Fall of Man, the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion). Too much can be read into all this — Tolkien insisted that his book was not an allegory — but it does carry at least a limited meaning. Tom Shippey, Tolkien's finest interpreter, calls it "a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety."
The Lord of the Rings, then, is not an explicitly Christian work, but it is entirely consistent with Christianity. This is an essential element for Tolkien. As Joseph Pearce points out in his literary biography of Tolkien, "[his] Catholicism was not an opinion to which one subscribed but a reality to which one submitted." There is nothing in what he wrote that contradicts Christian belief. Middle Earth is un-Christian only in the sense that everything coming before Christ is un-Christian.
Tolkien does more than strive to avoid contradiction, however; he filled The Lord of the Rings with patchy foreshadowings of a Christian truth that had not yet revealed itself in fullness. Early on, when Frodo says he wishes someone would kill Gollum, a pitiful beast who haunts Tolkien's heroes, Gandalf objects. "Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it," he says. "My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end." Indeed Gollum does, and he contributes to a medley of themes about knowledge, salvation, and eternity.
The Lord of the Rings may be read and enjoyed without reference to any theology whatsoever; it is a wonderful and well-told story. The movie is more or less faithful to it, but only gestures toward the deeper questions. It succeeds mainly as an exciting tale. Yet a full appreciation of Tolkien's accomplishment requires some sense of what lies behind the book.
The proclamation of any novel as the greatest of the 20th century is as much a burden as an accolade; it sets up the book for all kinds of sniping, lots of it undeserved. Yet it is impossible to deny the extraordinary fondness millions of ordinary readers have shown for The Lord of the Rings over the last five decades, and very difficult to disagree with the simple judgment of W. H. Auden: "If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again."