Tolkien is hobbit forming
-Anonymous American Graffito
One of the hallmarks of a professor is never knowing when to stop talking. Or writing. I had thought I had said all I wanted to about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in my previous diary; and indeed I had thought I had my fill of middle-earth for the time being. But the comments raised a number of issues, and at least in my mind, reminded me of things that could have been said that would maybe have illuminated a bit of how LoTR (as I will continue to abbreviate it) came to be. So I thought for this installment I might say a few more things about the man who wrote the one book in the twentieth century which I feel the most confident will still be read 400 years later, assuming that there are people, and they are reading.
Middle-earth, is, after all, timeless earth. The three ages of middle-earth seem to last thousands of years each, but it seems very similar no matter how much time has passed. Just like a woods probably looks the same as it did five thousand years ago.
Let's walk a little further
It was one of Professor Tolkien's strongly held opinions that a biography was just about the worst place for someone to look to find meaning in a work. Certainly an initial glance at the details of Tolkien's life itself would leave us in the dark about where his magnificent trilogy came from: Specifically The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, and The Silmarillion. Yes, I do consider that last magnificent, even if it reads much harder than the other two so very accessible works. But I'll get to that. For now, consider that Tolkien when he was crafting his works was living a very ordinary life of a Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, with a hardly spectacular income, a wife and four children, pressing academic duties (I can relate) and hardly any preconceived plan to start an entire subgenre of literature and do it better than anyone ever has.
And yet, as we go into his major works, certain aspects of his life are, I think illuminating and also have some relevance to what we have today in terms of the society we live in.
I should say at the outset that much of this diary derives from Humprey Carpenter's first rate biography of Tolkien, called "J.R.R. Tolkien: A biography". Short, precise and to the point, that.
The first point is that Tolkien lost his father at the age of four, and his mother at 12. His father was a minor banker who had emigrated to South Africa where there was more of an opportunity for him to find work; Consequently Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein South Africa, but was sent back to England after a few years and in fact never saw his father again, as he contracted Rheumatic fever and died before he too could go back to England. His mother tried to raise him the best she could - even at a young age his talent and fluency for languages was becoming clear - but she contracted diabetes and died within two years (this was of course before insulin became available). I and others have pointed out the obvious theme of loss in Tolkien's work; it is strongly apparent in both LoTR and Silmarillion. Was this an explicit reaction? Very doubtful, and yet it is quite striking, I think, how often family tragedy is to be found among great writers. As I read somewhere, writers are people who get kicked in the crotch - hard - by life, and it shows.
The second and in a way astonishing fact for a professor of Philology and English Language was that Tolkien was a combat veteran, for world war one broke out shortly after he gained admission to Oxford on scholarship. As he was a collegian, he was commissioned in the army and eventually became a battalion signal officer (appropriate for someone with a love of words). His battalion was sent to France and participated in the Battle of the Somme; he saw men killed in front of him, and was lucky to get out of the battle alive. In fact, he got sent back to England before the war ended with a persistent fever, likely typhus and was thus out of action when the remnants of his battalion were all captured or killed in the closing year of the war.
Lets just pause a bit. Here we have someone from a distinctly lower class background (and Great Britain before and after the first world war was a society very strongly divided by class; see the Downton Abbey series, for example.) who works his way into Oxford essentially by hard work and brilliance and motivation. And he gets in, and is not crippled by loads of student debt. Further, with just a little less luck, Tolkien could very well have been one of the casualties of the battle of the Somme; a futile campaign that would ultimately cost the British Army more than 350,000 soldiers. In either case, I don't think we would have ever seen LoTR. Can there be a better argument for the need for higher Education reform, and the gross stupidity of getting into wars for little conceivable purpose?
Anyhow, after the war Tolkien than went back to academia, first as a lexicographer for the New English Dictionary, then as a tutor, then as a reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and then as a professor of Anglo-saxon at Oxford where he remained for the rest of his professional life, producing several impressive pieces of scholarship on Beowulf and the language of The Canterbury Tales Living as an Oxford 'Don' seemed to suit Tolkien well. I have come to know a little bit of academic life myself. There are a lot of smart people interacting in a relatively small space and like most smart people, they have very strong opinions, both professionally and politically. This has good and bad points; it does succor a bit of asperity in one's personality; I can imagine some of the comments that Tolkien's fellow professors uttered when he tried to - and was ultimately successful in - reformulating the curriculum of the English literature and language course of study at Oxford. But the ability to talk and bounce ideas of and just be exposed to others equally or perhaps more brilliant than oneself is a priceless spur to creativity and original thought. Oxford was where Tolkien got together with some of his fellow professors, notably C.S Lewis and joined the 'Inklings'; an informal group that congregated around Lewis and would read old Norse poetry and English myths and pass around the whiskey. I have very little doubt that Tolkien benefited quite a lot from having his fellow inksters around; reading sagas to C.S Lewis and Hugh Dyson, refining his tales in his mind, and maybe being able to show off a bit that he could create such as masterpiece.
* * * *
Of the three, the oldest work is clearly The Silmarillion. It was a natural outgrowth of Tolkien's interest in old languages and old sagas, such as the Icelandic Elder Edda. Indeed there are antecedents of it when he was a schoolboy, and he started writing it when he was convalescing in a military hospital while the war raged. Although it is not a polished as LoTR, the work has a much merit, although I would not recommend it to anyone who has not read and familiarized themselves with LoTR.
For one, it is a more explicitly religious work. I have made the point already that Tolkien was a practicing, indeed pious Roman Catholic who never saw the slightest contradiction between his mythological work and his theologic beliefs; and indeed there are many religious themes in LoTR; it is merely the outward trappings of monotheistic religion which are absent. However, The Silmarillion starts out with a creation myth, sort of a combination of Genesis and Old Norse Gods that is explicitly monotheistic and indeed to me reads almost like John Milton, with Melkor playing the role of Lucifer; and just as Lucifer become Satan, so Melkor becomes Morgoth, and wars with the blessed realm and is ultimately defeated by it.
For another, this time more like LoTR, it deals with clear good and evil and how evil is that which corrupts the good ('For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.' says Elrond in LoTR). It is arrogance and lust for power and placing the love of that which one creates over love for the creator that causes the downfall. Which brings us to the Elves, which, as Tolkien conceived them are the most original things to me in his mythology and seem to me almost wholly without antecedents.
Tolkien's elves are not little sprightly creatures wearing green pointy slippers, making cookies or toys. They are us, in perfect form. They were explicitly created perfect and over and over Tolkien emphasizes their perfection: They are beautiful, immortal, possessed of great power and yet never evil unless deliberately ruined, skilled in craft, creative and filled with a love of literature and poetry. Who really are they? They are us before the fall, but more like angels than mortals.
And so, when they fall, their fall is long and dramatic, and their self-imposed exile from the blessed realm is just as epic as Lucifer's fall from grace. The curse that is placed on them when they leave, having defied the Gods and murdered some fellow elves who stood in their way, and sworn a blasphemous oath to recover stolen jewels and the response from Feanor, the greatest elf of them all (but also the one who falls the most) is one of the most ringing in all literature:
"Ye have spilled the blood of your kindred unrighteously and have stained the land of Aman. For blood ye shall render blood, and beyond Aman ye shall dwell in death's shadow. For though Eru appointed you to die not. . . and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and earn for your bodies, and find little pity though all ye have slain should entreat for you. And those that endure in middle-earth and come not to Mandos shall grow weary of the world as with a great burden, and shall wane, and become as shadows of regret before the younger race that cometh after. The Valar have spoken.I think even Milton would have been impressed.
Then many quailed, but Feanor hardened his heart and said: We have sworn and not lightly. This oath we will keep. We are threatened with many evils, and treason not least; but one thing is not said, that we shall suffer from cowardice, from cravens, or the fear of cravens. Therefore I say that we shall go on, and this doom I add: the deeds that we shall do shall be the matter of song until the last days of Arda"
When one takes the trilogy as a whole - for it encompasses its own complete world that was always meant to be Earth in another magical time, not another planet or another galaxy or any of that nonsense - certain other themes emerge. Rejection of the twentieth century for one; there is an anti-technology and pro-ecology slant that runs though and gives additional resonance to the works; it is the evil ones, particularly Saruman who meddle with machines and breeding half-orcs, and it gives us the characters of the Ents, the Shepherds of the Trees who are in their own way the most tragic characters of the book. There is no 'democracy' here; men, dwarves and elves are ruled by high kings and no one questions that; one of the subtexts of the book is how Aragorn regains his kingship and there are hints of disputed succession (a very Shakespearean theme by the way, the only specific one I can think of). And yes, there is some racist thinking as well that very few of the nineteenth century can escape; the fundamental equality of the races is a twentieth century notion, not a nineteenth one.
And yet for all its grandeur and grandiosity, both LoTR and The Hobbit are also, when they most resemble children's literature very droll as well, as if Tolkien wrote about hobbits and the Shire to satirize aspects of West Midlands English Society. When looked at as a group the hobbits bear a striking resemblance to the chattering classes, concerned with issues of social status and gossip. In that sense the party scene that starts of LoTR is classic, and the initial portrait of Bilbo as the comfortable satisfied burgher, who tried to initially brush off Gandalf with a pointed 'Good Morning' as in 'it won't be a good morning until you go away' is brilliant; Monty Python couldn't have done it better.
I will thus conclude with the ending of Carpenter's biography. It ends with the death of Tolkien and once again makes the interesting point of the antithesis between the ordinary life he led - he was buried in a plain cemetery with an unostentatious headstone - and the fabulous imagination, erudition, and craft that created his entire mythology. It is not, nor ever will be clear where it comes from; a mystery that I am just as comfortable living with as a Catholic is contemplating the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Or maybe can be found by reading the works themselves.
And so this epitaph
His requiem mass was held in Oxford four days after his death, in the plain modern church in Headington which he had attended so often. The prayers and readings were specially chosen by his son John, who said the mass with the assistance of Tolkien's old friend Fr. Robert Murray and his parish priest Mgr Doran. There was no sermon or quotation from his writings. However, when a few weeks later a memorial service was held in California by some of his American admirers, his short story Leaf by Niggle was read to the congregation. He would have perhaps considered it not inappropriate:And we are so much the richer for that.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly his lifted his arms and opened them wide.
'It's a gift!' he said.