Tomorrow evening, I begin a book group at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Lander, Wyoming. The topic is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I’m working with two other experts—Tami Kozinski, who has an MA in English and encyclopedic knowledge of Tolkien, and Frank Milligan, a student at Wyoming Catholic College, who’s read The Lord of the Rings almost thirty times. Really. Both of my colleagues know way more than I do, but what I’m contributing to tomorrow’s meeting is a quick analysis of Tolkien’s scholarship.
Here’s the thing. Most people who read LOTR for the first time think, “Wow! That was great. I want to read some more.” Then they hurry off to the local Barnes and Noble and buy another fantasy novel.
Now, I’m not knocking that. I think you should all hurry off and buy The Hawk and the Wolf at once. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve already bought it—you can’t have enough copies of The Hawk and the Wolf. But there is a problem.
I don’t think any other fantasy novel is really as satisfying as LOTR. I don’t know anybody who’s read even a good fantasy novel—say, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King—twenty-seven times, like Frank has. Why do we keep on going back to it?
The first answer is, I think, Truth. LOTR presents us with Truth far more comprehensively than any other fantasy novel ever written—better than any other novel in the twentieth or, so far, twenty-first century. This is largely because Tolkien didn’t buy into the materialistic mishmash that masquerades as a philosophy of life for most people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And if you don’t have a guiding philosophy for your fiction, it really won’t endure. Great authors present their worldviews unapologetically, and don’t try to satisfy the masses with vague political correctness or postmodernism or whatever happens to be the philosophy du jour.
The other answer is that no other fantasy writer has ever steeped himself so completely in his subject matter. Tolkien lived in Middle earth. It happened to be located in Oxford, particularly in the garage of his house, where he did all his writing. But the real world—he would have called it the primary world—didn’t have such a real existence to Tolkien as his invented world—what he would have called his secondary world—of Middle earth.
When we write a novel, whether we know it or not, we’re creating a world. Most of us make notes on that world as we’re writing our novels, so that we don’t have our characters do anything inconsistent. But Tolkien invented the world first, and then situated his stories in it. No wonder it’s more convincing than other fantasy worlds, like the Star Wars universe. In fact, Middle earth is sometimes more convincing to me than, say, America in the early twenty-first century. It certainly makes more sense. And it’s a whole lot more attractive.
From his earliest days, Tolkien was working on Middle earth, and what he created arose out of his studies and, ultimately, his teaching. That is to say, his scholarship. This is the mistake that fantasy-readers make, I think. Having finished LOTR, they shouldn’t go off and read The Sword of Shannara. They ought to go off and read what Tolkien read.
The odd thing is that the feeling you get from reading LOTR is very similar to the feeling you get from reading Tolkien’s favourite stories—Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo.
Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature, specifically of Old and Middle English. Old English is the language spoken and written in England from the fifth century through to the eleventh; Middle English was spoken and written between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. (And, no, Shakespeare did not write in Old English. It might be old to you, but he actually wrote Early Modern English, which everybody spoke until the beginning of the nineteenth century.)
Tolkien made a special study of these three poems. In the 1930s, he wrote an article on Beowulf called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Previous scholars had plundered the poem to discover more about Anglo-Saxon culture. By reading Beowulf, they argued, you could find out a lot about Anglo-Saxon burial rituals, armour, feasting customs, and gift-giving, for example. Such critics seemed to be just a little embarrassed by the fact that the main action of Beowulf was about a man killing monsters—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon. Tolkien reversed the tables on such critics, pointing out that the monsters were actually central to the poem, which should be read as a work of art in its own right, and not just as a quarry for archaeological details. He then tackled the question of whether the poet was a Christian or a pagan, a historically vexed question in Beowulf studies. His conclusion was that the poet was a Christian, but that he was writing about pagan times—in other words, the Beowulf-poet was a historically conscious writer. His article really marks the beginning of the modern study of Beowulf.
Another point that he makes in this article is about the poet’s digressions. The Beowulf-poet can’t stick to his topic. He keeps stopping the action so that he can describe something that happened in the remote past, the near future, or in legend. Tolkien’s point about these digressions was that they helped to flesh out the world Beowulf moved through, make it more convincing. Of course, Tolkien was himself busy writing such digressions for his own masterwork at the time. He had been working on what would become known as The Silmarillion since 1917. He knew what it was like to create history and traditions for a fictional world, and when he saw it in Beowulf, he recognized it. And, of course, Beowulf undoubtedly inspired him to do more in the creation of Middle earth.
The other article Tolkien wrote in the 1930s was entitled “On Fairy Stories.” The two main ideas that he described in this article are those of subcreation and eucatastrophe.
Subcreation is the act of world-building in which all creators of stories participate. It’s not creation. The primary world, the physical and spiritual world in which we live, was created by God. The world in which the events of our stories take place is not the primary world, but a secondary world that has been subcreated by an author. The author stands in relation to his subcreated world as God stands to the primary world. There is, of course, one big difference: characters in the primary world have free will, whereas characters in the secondary world do not. Even here, you can be nit-picky. Every author will attest that, sometimes, characters take on lives of their own and assert a kind of freedom over events in the secondary world. Whatever the psychological origin of such a phenomenon, it happens, and really attests to the divine nature of subcreation.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that reading poetry involved the reader in “the willing suspense of disbelief.” The reader has to make a conscious agreement to believe in the secondary world created by the poet. Tolkien was a little harsher. If the author was doing a good job, he reasoned, the reader shouldn’t need to suspend his disbelief. He wouldn’t even realize that he was in a fictional world until he reached the end of the tale and had to close the book. Anyone who has read all afternoon and not noticed the passage of time knows exactly what Tolkien was talking about!
Tolkien was writing The Hobbit at the time, and clearly, his analysis of fairy story was at the same time an analysis of what he was doing in his own fairy story. The Hobbit isn’t a great deal like LOTR. The elves are not so much the figures of veneration as they are in LOTR—they’re more frivolous, more childlike. You can make what excuses you like—we’re only seeing an aspect of their nature in The Hobbit, perhaps—but the fact is that they’re written to satisfy the same mind that finds wonder in fairy story.
The eucatastrophe is the sudden and unexpected happy ending in a story. Against all expectations, things turn out right. The hero was thought to be dead, but is not. All is better than could really have been imagined before. The Resurrection is the prime historical example of eucatastrophe, of course, and there are numerous examples in literature, including most notably the destruction of the Ring of Power at the end of LOTR.
The final aspect of Tolkien’s scholarly work I want to look at here is his work with the translation of some Middle English poems. The most important of these is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an artistically very sophisticated narrative poem written in an obscure dialect of English in about 1400. Tolkien translated the poem, but he also edited it, and his edition is still the standard one used by scholars all over the world. If you buy Tolkien’s translation of SGGK nowadays, it comes in a volume with two other Middle English poems he translated, Sir Orfeo and Pearl. Sir Orfeo is a medieval retelling of the Orpheus myth, with a happy ending. It’s a story that take the reader (or the listener—most medieval literature was oral) right into the heart of Faerie, the perilous realm Tolkien described in “On Fairy Stories.” Pearl is the account of a dream, in which the dreamer meets the soul of his dead daughter, and receives her consolation for his loss. The intensely pious poem was probably written by the same poet who wrote SGGK.
The world of Faerie is the world into which Tolkien draws us in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and LOTR. It is closely modeled on the worlds of SGGK and Sir Orfeo. The terrible nature of the fairies in Sir Orfeo, for example, who abduct Orfeo’s wife just because she falls asleep under a grafted tree, is amply mirrored in the elves who seduce the dwarves and the hobbit away from the path through Mirkwood in The Hobbit. And Gawain, the titular hero of SGGK, is mighty similar to Aragorn, unswerving in his adherence to goodness and beauty, implacable in his opposition to evil. Gawain has a flaw, of course—his sense of self-preservation leads him into an act of deception—but like Aragorn he has high ideals and holds his own behaviour to the highest of standards.
So, where do we go when we’ve read and enjoyed LOTR? Not forward into the realms of modern fantasy novels, but back—back to the wonderful realm of medieval literature, to Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to Sir Orfeo, and Pearl. And this is a journey that never leaves us wanting, and can last for the rest of our lives.