Monday, April 16, 2007

Middle-earth

Four years after Lucy walked through the wardrobe door, a certain Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins celebrated his eleventy-first or one hundred and eleventh birthday. Bilbo did not need to walk into another world to do so, as he was already in one. Having been out and back again and having amassed a great treasure during his travels, he was more aware than most of the wider world that would soon be so aware of him. In contrast to most of his neighbors who were quite content to live out their lives in their generous and homely Shire, Bilbo had an adventurous streak. It appeared to have served him quite well. As Tolkien writes, “Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark.” (1 But finally, things were beginning to change, and not only did the wizard Gandalf bring fireworks for Bilbo’s gala, he also brought unsettling news.

It is a well known fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were very good friends, and that both became well known as writers of imaginative literature during the 1950's, although Tolkien had begun far earlier, with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 and with mythologies birthed, but not published, far earlier than that. Indeed, Tolkien’s well tuned instinct for the deep truths revealed in myth was instrumental in Lewis’ shedding the cocoon of his atheism and embracing the far more interesting complexities of spiritual life. Tolkien’s image was the tree of tales, branching from a common root, very different, yet revealing interlacing truths. It was through stories that our most mysterious, enduring and truthful connections were made.

As a young man, understanding innately that words are magical, Tolkien invented languages. “Many children,” he wrote to his publisher in 1950, “make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped.” (2 He soon discovered that languages, even invented ones, cannot live unless they have stories to tell, and in this way, over many, many years the cultivator of Middle-earth fashioned the languages and mythologies that sustained the land and its races that his heart and mind brought to light. I would guess that it was the stories, along with his love for the woman Edith who would become his wife, that kept him alive in the trenches of World War I where he, like almost all of the men of his generation, was sent to come of age.

My grandfather, too, survived those trenches, although as an immigrant from Scotland to Canada, and therefore a more expendable colonial, he shouldn’t have. He was one of a handful of survivors from an entire battalion, the Princess Pat. Like Tolkien, my grandfather was kept alive by love. My grandmother Esther, whom he loved, but had not yet married, knitted him socks. He credited these socks with saving him. They made it possible for him to stay connected to something deeper and truer than the sacrificial slaughter that was to traumatize him for the rest of his relatively short life. Because of Tolkien and my grandfather, I have come to believe that love and stories are the connective tissue of the human soul.

Also thanks to my grandfather, the First World War formed a part of my consciousness, although at greater remove than the second, just as Middle-earth lay at a greater remove in my young life than the more child-friendly world of Narnia. The First War was an amazing, shocking and unprecedented slap to the idea that humans had achieved in their civilization anything that might be called higher consciousness. The trenches were slimy, wet and cold and had no respect for living things. C.S. Lewis remembers them. “Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken up again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gumboots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy steam welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire.” (3 More brutalized than feet, or even lives, were ideas of honor, meaning and bravery. Men steeped in the heroic ethos of the classics suddenly found themselves animals at the slaughterhouse, their carefully trained minds cast aside, their usefulness and meaning reduced to the body. My grandfather recalled hiding like a fugitive, often buried underground like one dead already, as Germans sniffed about like predators seeking to exterminate anything that moved.

It took me a long time to understand how my childhood was shaped and formed by all this. Just as Tolkien categorically denounced any attempt on the part of his readers to directly link The Lord of the Rings with events in the wider world, so was my childhood characterized as peace time, a time when American values and goodness would surely prevail thanks to our innate goodness, a time when I did not need to worry as wise men were taking care of me. War was something behind us. I grew up during a “cold” war in which the hatred of other people, Germans, Japanese, now became a hatred of ideas. Though it began with a hatred of specific ideas such as “communism” or “fascism,” it would soon extend to a great many more ideas than that.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the fictional worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth held an appeal that the utilitarian world of my waking life did not? Is it any wonder that I sought to learn from these places? The Narnia stories, being admittedly allegorical, seemed straightforward enough in their lessons. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, was a much different case. To the very end of his days, Tolkien insisted that anyone who attempted to draw allegorical meanings from its pages was not really reading them. “The real war,” he wrote, referring to the world wars in his preface to the second edition, “does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. . . . I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” (4

In this way, Tolkien was asserting, not only the power of imagination, but the power of reading. Although The Lord of the Rings was voted the most influential novel of the twentieth century by the customers of Amazon.com, its author never claimed celebrity status. He never imposed his success upon those not fortunate enough to write great literature and leave their mark upon the ages. Indeed, the books, the deepest work of his imagination, his consciousness, even, I daresay, his soul, were ultimately not about him at all. They were a gift. And since they were a gift, we who received it, could become just as much a part of the story as the hobbits, wizards, orcs, men, dwarves, ents and elves who peopled its pages

1) Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1
2) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 143
3) Quoted in Colin Duriez, The C.S. Lewis Chronicles, Bluebridge, 2005, p. 91
4) From the forward to the Revised Edition, Fellowship of the Ring, p. 7

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