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Is Tolkien Truly Medieval?

     J.R.R. Tolkien was born in 1892, so he obviously did not live in the Middle Ages. Is it, therefore, absurd to claim that he was Medieval? No, it is not absurd. I, and scholars greater than me (for example, Dr. Corey Olsen), claim unabashedly that Tolkien is medieval.  A professor at Rice University, Dr. Jane Chance, has edited a book titled, Tolkien the Medievalist.  In it she writes that "Tolkien was, over time, influenced by his own personal mediavalism, his profession as a medievalist, his relationships with other medievalists, and his own mythologizing in constructing his major fiction."

Dr. Chance says that C.S. Lewis was Tolkien's "friend and fellow medievalist."

Dr. Chance says that "Tolkien's medievalness and his medievalism informed and shaped his fantasy."

     It has been said that the different between modern novels and postmodern novels is that in modern novels the hero starts poor, or in some other way at a disadvantage, then overcomes obstacles to become wealthy, or famous, or happily married, whereas in postmodern novels the 'hero' is not admirable at all; he or she begins in a lowly position and stays there, overcome by evil, the majority of which are internal - psychological weaknesses, moral defects, lack of intelligence, etc..  The modern hero was someone whom 'we' could all relate to.  He or she was someone ordinary who did extraordinary things.  The postmodern 'hero' is someone whom only disfunctional individuals could relate to.  He or she is strange.  Camu's 'L'etranger' is a good example. Tolkien's heros are neither modern, nor postmodern; they are medieval.  In some ways they might seem to be modern.  Aragorn, for example, enters The Lord of the Rings as Strider, a swarthy woodsman, and then he becomes King.  Frodo begins as a little hobit, and becomes the savior of Middle-Earth.   Upon further consideration, however, it can be understood that things are not as they seem.  Aragorn might have appeared to be just a swarthy woodsman, but he wasactually a King, a decendant of Isildur.

     Perhaps the best way to understand Tolkien's medievalness is to look at his view of the world's creating, as described in the Ainulindale at the beginning of The Silmarilion.  Please note that I have used two sources to write this paragraph.  The first is The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis, the second is the essay "Augustine in the cottage of lost play: The Ainulindale as asterisk cosmogony" by John William Houghton, which is chaper 11 in Jane Chance's book.  Medievals believed in The Bible, but they did not believe in it as modern protestant fundamentalists do.  Even when they claimed to believe in the 'literal' meaning of The Bible, they still interpreted much as symbolic.  I almost wrote "as merely symbolic", but if I had done that then I would have been thinking like a modern person, for whom the literal meaning is real and therefore important, whereas the symbolic meaning is only imaginary and therefore unimportant.  For medieval  people, however, symbolic meanings were are more important than literal ones.  For example, there was Abraham, his wife Sarah, and his slave Agar with whom he fathered a child.  The literal, historic meaning of their story was important for them, for only three people, but not for us.  The symbolic meaning of thier lives, however, are important for us.  Millions of people, not just three, can learn important truths by reading about the travails of Abraham, Sarah and Agar.  Another example: Adam and Eve were two individuals.  Fundamentalists claim that they really lived, whereas many people with more scientific leanings do not believe that they ever lived.  People in the Middle Ages believed that Adam and Eve really lived, but if a scientist could somehow probe that they never did, that would not change much for the medievals, because the historical lives of Adam and Eve were not considered to be very important.  It was the symbolic significance of their lives that was very important.  Adam and Eve either lived and died thousands of years ago, or they never really lived, but either way they are not among us now.  The importance of their lives, or rather the importance of the Biblical stories about their lives, are as important for us today as they were thousands of years ago.  They teach us that men and women naturally love each other and join in matrimony (or at least in sexual intercourse).  They teach us that pride leads to disobedience, and that leads to the fall, which leads to a loss of innocent joy and causes much suffering.  They teach us that men naturally work to produce wealth, wheras women naturally serve.  We know of course that many men serve others, and many women work to produce wealth, but the men who serve others must develop their feminine side, and the women who work to produce wealth must develop their masculine side.  The truths expressed symbolically are more important than the historical facts, over which modern fundamentalists argue with scientists.  "One part of God's plan does not contradict another."

"Tolkien asks us to look fully into the future only by gazing intently into the medieval past," (Leslie A. Donovan, "The valkyrie reflex in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Eowyn, and Arwen" in Tolkien the Medievalist.

       During the 1960s, when Tolkien's books, especially The Lord of the Rings were popular, a critic named Walmsley claimed that Tolkien's writings were attractive to 1960s adolescents because they were antirevolutionary; for those who lived in a rebellious generation, yet did not did not have a rebellious nature, Tolkien's books were an escape into an imaginary world in which the old was good and the new was bad, which comforted those who could not embrace the youth culture which proclaimed that the old was bad and the new was invariably good (I learned of Walmsley's criticism in footnote #19 of the essay "Middle-earth, the Middle Ages, and the Aryan nation: Myth and history in World War II," written by Christine Chism and included in Dr. Chance's book Tolkien the Medievalist.  Walmsley was wrong; the proof is that he claimed Tolkien's writings would be popular only as long as the 1960s youth rebellion lasted, after which time people would lose interest in them, but interest in Tolkien's writings grew after the 1960s ended.  Walmsley and other similar critics were wrong because they did not understand that Tolkien's writings were not antirevolutionary, reactionary, essentially against the post-modern world that began in the 1960s, rather they were for the medieval world that had long-since vanished.  Their message was positive, and it appeals to all with a medieval nature, even and especially those who have not studied the Middle Ages and therefore cannot identify themselves as medieval.  So what is it to have a medieval nature?  For that, I want to look at a popular medievalist who lived two generations before Tolkien: Richard Wagner.  Wagner studied German medieval literature and used it as the basis of his operas, much as Tolkien used it as the basis of his novels.  The two actually have much in common; Wagner's four great operas tell the story of a dwarf who obtains a magic ring, a tarnhelm that makes its owner invisible, and the struggles of the gods and heroic men who fought for power.  Tolkien's four novels (The Hobit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) tell the tale of a dwarf-like creature who obtains a magic ring that makes him invisible, and the struggles of heroic men and super-human creatures who fought for power.  We know that Tolkien, his best friend C.S. Lewis, and Lewis's brother Warnie read Wagner's Die Walkure aloud together and discussed it.  Tolkien was a big fan of Wagner until the late 1930s when Hitler and the Nazis used Wagner's mythology to promote their racism.  After that, Tolkien denied that Wagner influenced him, and said that the only similarity between the ring of his books and the ring of Wagner's operas was the fact that they were both round (Christine Chism, ibid.).  I find that implausible; can a man like Tolkien read Die Walkure, see the operas performed, and discuss it with his friends, yet not be influenced?  Perhaps he was influenced, but in a negative way, that-is-to-say he unconsciously used the same medieval mythology that Wagner used, but he used it in a different way so as to repudiate Wagner and those like the Nazis who used Wagner for what Tolkien believed were evil purposes.

     People debate different questions in different ages.  Now, in the post-modern age, people debate, on the metaphysical level, the existence of GOD; on the political level, individualistim capitalism vs. communal socialism; on the ethical level, objective morality vs. moral relativism.  In the Middle Ages, people did not debate these questions; they debated other questions.  Medievals did not doubt the existence of GOD, but they debated "What is GOD?".  Medievals did not debate political or economic questions, because their political/economic situation was much simpler, nor did they much debate the objectivity of morality (almost all, except Peter Abelard, believed in objective morality).  The big debate among medievals was between platonism and aristotelianism (at the end of the Middle Ages this debate changed into a debate between Scottism and the Nominalism of Ockam).  Towards the end of teh Middle Ages, the scholastics, greatest among whom was Thomas Aquinas, won victory for Aristotelianism.  Tolkien, however, harkens back to pre-scholastic platonism.  One example of this in his writing was the second chapter of The Return of the King in which he writes of the Army of the Dead who remained in Middle-Earth as ghosts, unable to die because they had broken their oaths.  Only by fulfilling their oaths could would they be allowed to die.  Tolkien copied this idea from the 'exercitus moruorum' of medieval litterature.  "These prescholastic treatments of the Exercitus mortuorum highlight two elements of particular relevance to Tolkein's creation: the military threat posed by the troop of the wandering dead and its penitential purpose.  Twelfth-century authors wrote their accounts before the concept of purgatory had fully crystalized and before the ghostly troop became thoroughly 'diabolized' and plainly equated with infernal powers.  In these early texts, the ultimate fate of the troop's members is not altogether clear, and as selected examples will illustrate, tormented souls still hope for salvation under certain circumstances. . . . Those special circumstances require the cooperation of the living.  Consequently, the spiritual meaning assigned to the hosts is more ambiguous, a bit murkier, than it became in later scholastic treatments," (MargaretA.Sinex, "Oathbreakers, why have you come?" chapger 10 of Chance). 

     It has been said that the different between modern novels and postmodern novels is that in modern novels the hero starts poor, or in some other way at a disadvantage, then overcomes obstacles to become wealthy, or famous, or happily married, whereas in postmodern novels the 'hero' is not admirable at all; he or she begins in a lowly position and stays there, overcome by evil, the majority of which are internal - psychological weaknesses, moral defects, lack of intelligence, etc..  The modern hero was someone whom 'we' could all relate to.  He or she was someone ordinary who did extraordinary things.  The postmodern 'hero' is someone whom only disfunctional individuals could relate to.  He or she is strange.  Camu's 'L'etranger' is a good example. Tolkien's heros are neither modern, nor postmodern; they are medieval.  In some ways they might seem to be modern.  Aragorn, for example, enters The Lord of the Rings as Strider, a swarthy woodsman, and then he becomes King.  Frodo begins as a little hobit, and becomes the savior of Middle-Earth.   Upon further consideration, however, it can be understood that things are not as they seem.  Aragorn might have appeared to be just a swarthy woodsman, but he wasactually a King, a decendant of Isildur.

"Tolkien asks us to look fully into the future only by gazing intently into the medieval past," (Leslie A. Donovan, "The valkyrie reflex in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Eowyn, and Arwen" in Tolkien the Medievalist.

            To answer the question “Is Tolkien Truly Medieval,” it is necessary to first answer another, which is “what is time?”  According to Plato, time is eternity broken up into parts. According to Aristotle, time is measured change.  These definitions are both true.  They are different because they look at time from two different viewpoints.  Plato looked at time as God does.  God lives in eternity, outside of time, where everything happens at once.  In eternity, there is not before and after, but only ‘now’.  Aristotle looked at time as we do.  We live in time; for us there is before and after; every event does not happen simultaneously.

            Aristotle’s view, though less lofty than Plato’s, is yet more realistic, for we men can only imagine how God lives, but we know how we live.  We have the experience of time passing, of old things fading away and new things coming into being.  We know of things that were and are not more, and we remember when the things that are now were not yet.  In God’s mind, everything is.  From His view, the Middle Ages have not ended and never will.  From His view, it is very possible for a man – J.R.R. Tolkien – to live in both the Middle Ages and the Modern age.  From His view, it is possible for us living now in the post-modern age to live also in the Middle Ages.  The problem with Plato, however, is that he does not distinguish clearly between what he imagines and what is.  Such confusion, such inability to tell the difference between what we dream while asleep and what we experience while awake, is called insanity.  From a more human, and therefore realistic, Aristotelian perspective, it would seem to be impossible to live simultaneously in two different ages, yet when understood well, we can see that it is possible.  Time is not simply change; time is the measure of, or experience of, change.  We human beings experience changes, we remember them, and in our memories we carry the past into the present.  Augustine of Hippo wrote well of this.  We mere humans do not experience everything simultaneously, yet by our memories we can keep the past alive, and by our hopes and our plans, we can vicariously live the future now. 

            Having established that, in a certain way, it is possible for a man to live in more than one age, I think that the answer to the question “Is Tolkien Truly Medieval” is obviously ‘yes’.  Others agree, most notably Dr. Jane Chance and Dr. Corey Olsen (a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor, who has a web page – http://www.tolkienprofessor.com/index.html.

            I have chosen not to fill this article with quotations from Tolkien’s books because I assume that y’all have read or will read them, and so it is not necessary.  Below, however, are several citations from five books not by Tolkien but rather about Tolkien and his writings.  I doubt that any of you have or will read all five of these books, and even though I enjoyed them all, I do not recommend them for people who are busy doing better things, so because y’all have not yet and probably never will read these five books, I here write what in them seemed the most interesting to me:

Tolkien the Medievalist, edited by Dr. Jane Chance, Kindle e-book, 2002.

“Tolkien was, over time, influenced by his own personal medievalism, his profession as a medievalist,his relationships with other medievalists, and his own mythologizing in constructing his major fiction,” (line 312).

“Tolkien and his friend and fellow medievalist C. S, Lewis,” (line 338).

“Tolkien’s medievalness and his medievalism informed and shaped his fantasy,” (line 486).

“May 11, 1926, was a fateful day in the imaginative life of the English-speaking world.  At 4:00 P.M., C.S. Lewis found himself at a tea for the English department at Oxford University, where he was a don.  There he met J.R.R. Tolkien for the first time,” (line 1051).

“Tolkien asserts in the poem that ‘evil lies / not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,” (line 1198).

“Medieval romance was another enormously significant common love of both men.  Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo are still in print today,” (line 1324).

“Some aspects of medieval romance worried him,” (line 1331),

“1950 to 1956, Lewis published the Chronicles of Narnia, which Lewis filled with literary allusions and structured with a medieval hierarchy and courtesy,” (line 1378).

“Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia is here a book of nearly inestimable value.  Although he includes few explicitly Arthurian references, he does yeoman’s work in collating and identifying references to such medieval themes as courtesy, hierarchy, chivalric orders, and quests.  Medieval romance sets the tone for the entire seven books,” (line 1379).

“All his Middle-earth fiction has its heritage in the literature and culture of the Middle Ages,” (line 2808).

“It is this loss eternal, which can be neither denied nor succumbed to, that Tolkien himself has identified as the ‘real theme’ of The Lord of the Rings,” (line 3077).

“Tolkien asks us to look fully into the future only by gazing intently into the medieval past,” (line 3360).

“With their memories on overload, exiles see double, feel double, are double.  When exiles see one place they’re also seeing – looking for – another behind it … . Exiles see two or more places at the same time not just because they are addicted to a lost past.  There is a very real, active component to seeing in this particularly heightened retrospective manner: an exile is continuously prospecting for a future home,” (line 3769).

“One part of God’s plan does not contradict another,” (line 4559).

“Taking the Ainur as angels and, accordingly, Eru Iluvatar as God, the reader would find the Ainulindale strikingly similar to the scheme set out in De Genesi.  In both cases, God first creates the angels and then reveals to them the further elements of Creation; the angels’ own knowledge reflects ideas in the divine mind.  In both cases, as well, after the revelation, God gives real existence to what the angels have perceived, upholding that existence in the void; yet that real existence has only the undeveloped potential of what it will become in the unfolding of time, and God reserves to God’s self the introduction of elements unanticipated in the basic design,”(lines 4603-4).

“Thou shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.  For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined,” (from Silmarilion; line 4622).

“Augustine does specifically say (while discussing the temptation of Adam and Eve) that God will bring good from Satan’s actions, despite what the devil intends,” (from De Genesi 11.22.29; line 4627).

“Augustine says, if Christians wish to have their neighbors believe the great miracles of the Gospel, it is necessary to avoid interpretations of Scripture that conflict with what the pagans know to be true from reason and experiences,” (line 4672).

“The world is, as one volume of the History of Middle-earth declares in its title, Morgoth’s Ring,” (line 4720).

“Augustine would say the God’s assessment of the world as ‘very good’ includes evil – it is a verdict on the whole of the universe as unfolded in time, not merely on the state of affairs at the moment of Creation (cf. De Genesi 3.24.37),” (line 4723).

“Boethius was the first to state in his treatise De institutione musica that music was divided into three specific kinds, in order of priority and importance: the music of the universe, human music (vocal), and instrumental music.  The first kind, the music of the universe, is embodied in the movement of celestial bodies, the harmony of the four elements, and the four seasons.  About the movement of heavenly bodies Boethius argues: ‘How indeed could the swift mechanism of the sky move silently in its course?  And although this sound does not reach our ears (as must for many reasons be the case), the extremely rapid motion of such great bodies could not be altogether without sound, especially since the courses of the stars are joined together by such mutual adaptation that nothing more equally compacted or united could be imagined.  For some are borne higher and others lower, and all are revolved with a just impulse, and from their different inequalities an established order of their courses may be deduced.  For this reason an established order of modulation cannot be lacking in its celestial revolution,’” (lines 4767-4773).

“Tolkien actually does with the ‘music of the spheres’ is to take a well-constructed historical and religious theory and belief from ancient and medieval literature and transplant it wholesale into his world,” (line 4969).

“The coherence between medieval concept and his fantasy mythology becomes so much a part of his belief, his education, his religion, his medieval background and research that the threads and strands throughout Middle-earth, once detected, make his genius transparent,”(line 4971).

“It must be remembered that Christianity flourished early principally as an urban phenomenon,” (line 5058).

“’Man,’ finally, is a word associated with Latin mens, ‘mind.’  Owen Barfield says the etymology ‘hints at a dim consciousness among the Aryans that the essential function of the human being – at any rate of the Aryan human being – is to think’ (History in English Words, 84),” (line 5063).

“The institutions of modern life together constitute an elaborate invented ‘mechanism’ for the achievement of political, social, economic, and other goals, reflecting in an immense way the same fundamental impulse illustrated in more humble terms in the design of an automobile, the composition of a poem, the painting of a mural, or the preparation of a meal,”(line 5249).

“Over the course of twenty-six lines from the poem’s beginning, Milton’s choice of nouns moves from Man (‘Of man’s First Disobedience’) to men (‘justify the ways of God to men’), suggesting that as a race ‘Man’ is fallen, but the desire for redemption is a personal matter requiring instruction, acceptance, repentance, and devotion from individual people – ‘men’,” (line 5530)

“The habit of identifying the limits of reality with the limits of his own horizons defines Satan,”(Fish, Why We Can’t All Just Get Along, page 22; e-book line 5554).

“Without the Fall, there could be no stories, no art of any kind.  Indeed, not only may evil be a prerequisite for aesthetic experience and its production through art, but the origins of evil … may be linked to the sub-creative impulse itself.  Melkor’s first sin is to insert his own discordant theme into the music of Iluvatar,” ( line 5567).

“Tolkien further refuses to walk ‘erect and sapient’ with the ‘progressive apes’ of the modern age, seeing only ‘the dark abyss to which their progress tends’,” (line 5647).

Morgoth says – “I bow not yet before the Iron Crown / nor cast my own small golden scepter down,”(line 5648).

“Two Hebrew words ‘gld’ and ‘r’al’, which when combined mean ‘smooth or polished skin,’” (line 5843).

“In Thomistic philosophy, justice is understood as that which is due a person or due to God (Gilson).  Mary is a mirror because she renders or reflects back to God what is due to God,” (line 5938).

Tolkien – man and Myth: a Literary Life, by Joseph Pearce, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1998.

“He [J.R.R. Tolkien] had shown that pagan myths were, in fact, God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopeoia’ to reveal fragments of His eternal truth.  Yet, most astonishing of all, Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet Who invented it was God Himself, and the images He used were real men and actual history.  The death and resurrection of Christ was the old ‘dying god’ myth except that Christ was the real dying God, with a precise and verifiable location in history and definite historical consequences.  The old myth had become a fact while still retaining the character of a myth,” (page 59).

C.S Lewis is quoted as saying – “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.  Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties.  The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection,” (page 60).

C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying – “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it [Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings] really succeeded (in selling I mean)?  It would inaugurate a new age.  Dare we hope?” (page 79).

Stratford Caldeccott is quoted as saying – “God created us incomplete, because the kind of creation that can only be perfected by its own choices (and so through Quest and trial) is more glorious than the kind that has only to be whatever it was made to be,” (page 107).

J.R.R. Tolkien is quoted as saying – “It may be that the chief purpose of life . . . is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks,” (page 212).

 

The Philosophy of Tolkien: the worldview behind The Lord of the Rings, by Peter Kreeft, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2005.

 

"How big is reality?

 

There are only three logically possible answers to this question.

 

     The first is that "there are more things in heaven and earth (i.e. in reality) than are dreamed of in your philosophies (i.e. in thought)."  That was Shakespeare's philosophy, as expressed by Hamlet to Horatio, who found it hard to believe in ghosts.  This is the philosophy of the poet and of the happy man, for whom nature is a fullness, a moreness, and therefore onderful.  It is the philosophy of all pre-modern cultures.

 

     The second possible answer is that there are fewer things in reality than in thought; that most of our thought is ere myth, error,convention, projection, fantasy, fallacy, folly, dream, etc.  This is the philospy of the unhappy man, the cynic, the pessimist: "Trust nobodyand nothing."  This philosophy is hardly ever found in any pre-modern culture, except in a small minortiy.

 

     The third possibility is that there are exactly the same number of things in reality and in thought, that is, that we "know it all".

 

. . .

 

If you believe the first philosophy, as Shakespeare did, as Tolkien did, and as most pre-modern peoples did, then our fundamental attitude toward all reality is wonder and humility," (pages 32-33).

 

"There are CHRIST figures everywhere in literature and life.  This should not surprise us.  For CHRIST was not an emergency afterthought or a freak from outer space, but the central point of the whole human story from the beginning in the Mind of the Author.  In fact, Christ is the Mind of the Author, the inner Word, the LOGOS," (page 54).

 

"GOD prefers to act by providence rather than miracles, because HE loves the natures of all the things HE created and wants to perfect them rather than bypass them.  HE is like a wise, unselfish king WHO exalts and empowers His servants rather than distrusting them and micro-managing His kingdom.  "Grace perfects nature."," (page 54).

 

"I believe man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has "the free-born mind."  But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing.  For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of the Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. . . . Who will talk when the State is everyone's schoolmaster and employer?  Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few.  I know.  Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none," (page 165, Kreeft here quotes C.S. Lewis from the book C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection, page 338, the essay is titled "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State".

 

"Tolkien's patriotic populism also embraced an individualistic, or libertarian, tendency at odds with the totalitarianizing tendency of modernity," (page 165).

 

Kreeft quotes C.S. Lewis who wrote, “It is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should get there,” (page 204).

 

C.S. Lewis says that “obedience accepted with delight and authority exercised with humility are the very lines along which our spirits live” (The Weight of Glory, p. 115).  And “If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, ‘I am’.  To know God is to know that our obedience is due to Him” (Surprised by Joy, p. 231).  Like Frodo, Lewis believes in an ethic of duty and obedience rather than an ethic of consequences: “To play well the scenes in which we are ‘on’ concerns us much more than guessing about future scenes” (The World’s Last Night, p. 104).

 

Promise keeping is the fundamental thing that holds all societies together.  It is the root of all law and thus of all social stability.  Personal integrity is the basis for social integrity.  All pre-modern societies knew that.  Tolkien notes that “promises were held sacred, and of old all but the wickedest things feared to break them” (L.O.T.R., p. 12).  The consequences of promise breaking are the loss of personal integrity,” (page 207).

 

Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle-Earth by John Garth, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003.

 

This book could be used as support that World War I began the decline of the West from its pinnacle.  I could use this in the article “Three steps backwards on the road to personalism.”

 

“Tolkien’s idyll, for all its carefree joy, is lost in the past,” (page 73).

 

“The Great War was a time of enormous upheaval, when old orders were indeed thrust aside; the desire for a newer, better world was everywhere and took many forms.  For the revolutionaries now plotting the downfall of Tsarist Russia, new meant new.  For Tolkien, Smith, and Gilson (none of whom shared much of Wiseman’s progressive, scientific liberalism), new meant a variety of old.  Each had his personal, nostalgic Parnassus: the Anglo-Saxon period, the eighteenth century, the Italian Renaissance.  None of these eras had been utopian, but distance lent them a glittering clarity.  The twentieth century seems a fogbound wilderness in comparison, and now civilization truly seemed to have lost its way,” (page 106).

 

“The First World War poet Wilfred Owen, in ‘Soldier’s Dream’, imagined merciful Jesus spiking all the guns but God fixing them again.  In contrast, though, Tolkien’s faith in God and the mythological method may be gauged by his personification of cruel destiny in satanic Melko rather than in Manwe or Iluvator; and by Melko’s status as an actor in the drama rather than a metaphor,” (page 266).

 

“Urin’s defiant words to Melko, ‘At least none shall pity him for this, that he had a craven for father,” (page 269).

 

“Hugh Broga asks bluntly ‘how it was that Tolkien, a man whose life was language, could have gone through the great ar with all its rants and lies, and still come out committed to a “feudal” literary style’.  Brogan concludes that in refusing to conform to the new rules established by Robert Graves and the arch-modernist Ezra Pound, Tolkien was engaged in ‘an act of deliberate defiance of modern history’,” (page 289).

 

“Tolkien’s greater passion was for the genuinely medieval, from Beowulf to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  As he said after the publication of The Lord of the Rings (in a reply, never sent, to a friendly but critical letter from Brogan), ‘not being especially well read in modern English, and far more familiar with works in the ancient and “middle” idioms, my own ear is to some extent affected; so that though I could easily recollect how a modern would put this and that, what comes easiest to mind or pen is not quite that’.  Tolkien remained committed to an archaic air because it was the one he breathed,” (pages 290-1).

 

“To Tolkien’s generation, nostalgia was a constant companion: they were looking over their shoulders, like the survivors of Gondolin, at an old home that seemed now to embody everything beautiful and doomed.  Tolkien’s myth expresses the desire for such apparently timeless beauty, but constantly recognizes that it is indeed doomed,” (pages 297-8).

 

“Following the introduction of discord into the Music of the Ainur,  Iluvatar asserts that ‘even shall those beings, who must now dwell among his evil and endure through Melko misery and sorrow, terror and wickedness, declare in the end that it redoundeth only to my great glory, and doth but make the theme more worth the hearing, Life more worth the living, and the World so much more the wonderful and marvellous’. . . .  In Tolkien’s myth, our immortal souls will be able to contemplate the drama in which we have taken part as a finished work of art. They will also join the Ainur in a second, greater Music, when Iluvatar’s themes will ‘be played aright; for then Ainur and Men will know his mind and heart as well as may be, and all his intent’,” (page 306).

 

I have read the book "Tolkien and the Great War" by John Garth, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 2003.  I intend to incorporate information from this book into this article.  For now, I want to mention two things: #1. Tolkien might not have liked such a book.  He wrote in a letter, "I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists.  They only distract attention from an author's works," (page VX).  #2. Having noted this objection, I want to agree with John Garth who states that World War I caused "cultural upheavals," (page XIII), which certainly affected Tolkien's development as a man and as a writer.  Some historians, influenced by Marxism or envy of the rich, or with sour memories of the Vietnam War, claim that war is good for the wealthy, who profit from it, and bad for the poor, who fight and die.  In World War I, however, the wealthy suffered heavier casualties, as a percentage of their total number, than the poor.  In Great Britain, the military was entirely volunteer for the first two years of the war, and to encourage men to volunteer there were 'buddy brigades', which is to say friends who volunteered together were guaranteed to be placed in the same units and serve their country together.  The elite schools, which were male-only institutions, instilled a strong patriotic spirit in the upper-class young men of England, Scotland and Wales, so many of them volunteered, and many of them subsequently died.  "Of every eight men mobilized in Britain during the First World War, one was killed.  [But for men who had studied at Britain's top high schools, that number was] about one in five. . . . The Great War cut a deeper swathe through Tolkien's peers than among any other social group in Britain.  Contemporaries spoke of the Lost Generation.  'By 1918,' Tolkien wrote half a century later in his preface to the second edition of "The Lord of the Rings," 'all but one of my close friends were dead," (pages 8-9).  Indeed, of the fifteen members of Tolkien's high school rugby team, four died in the war and four others were wounded.  Such losses, and the unpleasant experience of trench warfare, which consisted of, basically, living in a hole in the mud for three years, must have had an effect on Tolkien, as it did on many others in his generation.  Noble patriotism turned into despair.  Many became cynics, which was demonstrated in the thirty years following World War I.  Many sources, most especially the book "War of the World" by Niall Fergusson, show that the British and the French emerged from World War I demoralized, even though they won.  During the 1930's they acted in a cowardly manner, trying to avoid war with Nazi Germany at all cost, even the sacrifice of honor.  In 1940, thousands of French soldiers surrendered after resisting the German blitzkrieg only half-heartedly.  In some instances, large numbers of French soldiers surrendered to small numbers of Germans, because the French lacked the will to fight.  Though Britain and France emerged from World War II as the victors, just as they had in World War I, they were much different than they had been thirty years earlier.  Britain and France lost their empires in the years following their victories in the two world wars.  They lost their empires largely because they were unwilling to make the efforts necessary to keep them.  Having lost their patriotism, their concern for honor, their willingness to sacrifice for causes that transcended them, the British and French people voted for governments that gave them welfare states, dedicated to providing the most comfort and security as possible.  Tolkien was changed by the war, but not in the same way as most other British.  He realized that the modern world in which he lived was very flawed, but instead of abandoning his ideals and living for nothing more than comfort and security, he looked back to pre-modern times to a world that had not the defects of the modern world.  Tolkien had been interested in languages long before World War I, but it seems that it was during World War I that he became especially interested in the Middle Ages and began to write medieval stories.  I will write more after I finish reading this book.


"Some critics have tended to dismiss him as an ostrich with head buried in the past; as a pasticheur of medieval or mythological literature desperate to shut out the modern world.  But for Tolkien the medieval and the mythological were urgently alive.  Their narrative structures and symbolic languages were simply the tools most apt to the hand of this most dissident of twentieth-century writers.  Unlike many others shocked by the explosion of 1914-1918, he did not discard the old ways of writing, the classicism or medievalism," (pages 39-40).

 

Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, edited by Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers, Palgrave MacMillan, New York 2005.

 

“Tolkien’s yoking of the medieval with modern issues in his fantasy elicits connections that are postmodern in nature.  And these postmodern connections require a more serious acknowledgment of the political role of medievalism as a response to modernism than scholarship has provided to date.  Indeed, medievalism bears real social implications, primarily a looking to the past for a vision of more ‘organic’ alternatives to modern institutions and systems of political and ethical value.  This kind of backward look often confounds modern abstract categories of political ideology.  The approach of this collection thus depends both on acknowledgment of the intellectual categories of ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ among scholars addressing related issues.  Tolkien’s fiction, particularly The Lord of the Rings, offers an ideal canvas for debating these issues,” (Chance and Siewers, page 2).

 

“Tolkien likewise allows his good characters to fight a glamorous ‘medieval’ war of volunteers and pledged fellowship, while the bad side is ’modern,’ with its nameless conscripts and industrialized war machinery that are associated with the desolate landscape of the trenches,” (Chance and Siewers, page 8).

 

“Views of nature in a cosmic Incarnational strain of early-medieval Christian asceticism influenced early Irish and Welsh monastic literary cultures,” (Chance and Siewers, page 9).

 

“Concepts of historicity and textuality in Tolkien’s fantasy form a distinctive bridge between medieval culture and postmodernist intellectual life.  His medievalized fantasy illustrates how texts and stories (ultimately, fictions) work in our cultural history to produce complex signifying systems of mythology, ideology and history, and how we ourselves use these systems to produce theories of meaning,” (Chance and Siewers, page 11).

 

“The insistent archaism of battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings reveals his cultural campaign to restore a sense of heroic potential to English life,” (Andrew Lynch, page 81).

 

“Tolkien also strongly resembles Tennyson in the broad political reliance he places on the central role of a true king, and particularly in his vision of good rule as environmental and moral cleansing, based on a prior inner cultivation of the self,” (Andrew Lynch, pages 85-6).

 

“One side, led by Aragorn and advised by Gandalf, fights a ‘medieval’ war ofnamed volunteers and pledged faith, while the bad side is ‘modern’ with its nameless conscripts, machines, slaves, and creatures of Sauron,” (Andrew Lynch, page 87).

 

“Tolkien never wroteexplicitly political works, and he never seems to have committed himself explicitly to any ‘ism’ other than Catholicism.  Tolkien, it is safe to say, had no tolerance for socialism.  ‘My political opinions lean more and more to Anarcy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of contol not whiskered men with bombs) - or to ‘unconstitutional’ monarchy.’  In one breath, Tolkien expresses his preference for the complete absence of government. . . . It is safe to say, as many have, that he was closer to old Tory conservatism than to anything that modern people would recognize as being on the left (or, I would add, on the modern right),” (Chesterr N. Scoville, page 95).

 

“Divinity was seen as immanent in the medieval world,” (page 163).

 

C.S. Lewis wrote – “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity.’ . . . By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality, we rediscover it,” (page 183, this quote comes from Lewis’s review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings).

 

            I now finish this article as similar articles would have begun, that-is-to-say, with biographical information about Tolkien.  I do this because Tolkien disliked judging a written work by thinking of the author and guessing what he would want to say.  Rather than thinking of an author and guessing what he would say, it is better by far to simply read what he does say.  There is a trend in post-modern literary criticism to ‘read between the lines’ and find implicit meanings which are not explicitly stated.  This has some value, but it should never be primary.  Before guessing at what an author might mean, we should read carefully what he actually wrote.  A texts implicit meaning might be real, or it might come from the critic’s imagination, but the actual words of a text are objective.  The words, sentences, stories, etc. should be our starting point, and studying the life of the person who wrote them should come second, never first, lest we get so focused on reading everything according to our never perfect understanding of an author and we forget what the author said and probably meant.

     Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 and moved to England with his mother and younger brother three years later. He manifested great intelligence, and a love of words, from a very early age. Before beginning school, he learned to read and began his life-long study of etymologies and fantasy tales. Tolkien's childhood was not easy, and religion seems to have made things harder on him. His father died shortly after Tolkien moved to England. After that, his single mother converted to the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, which much angered her Baptist relatives and caused her to survive in poverty because they refused to help her as they would if she had remained Protestant. She died nine years later, leaving Tolkien an orphan. A Roman Catholic priest adopted J.R.R. and raised him until he was eighteen and went to college at Oxford. While at Oxford, Tolkien met and fell in love with a Protestant woman three years older than himself. He wanted to marry her immediately, but did not do so for several years until she finally agreed to convert to the Roman Catholic form of Christianity.

      Despite Tolkien's great intelligence, he almost failed his freshman year because he spent time creating his own language - which would become Elvish - instead of studying for his classes. He managed to get through, however, and shortly after graduation entered the Army to fight for the British Empire during World War I. He served bravely as an officer on the Western Front, leading his men into and out of very dangerous situations. Most of his companions died. After the war, Tolkien worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, writing about words beginning with the letter W. Then he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds. While a professor at Leeds, Tolkien translated some books which were published and well received by English academics. These publications gained Tolkien a good reputation and so he obtained a position at Oxford University where he was a professor from 1925 until 1959. During his years at Oxford, Tolkien wrote the books for which he is most famous: the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. While at Oxford, he had a great friendship with C.S. Lewis. I say that it was great for three reasons. First, both were great men. The greatness of a friendship can be measured by the greatness of the individuals who are friends. Two individuals who are rather lowly cannot have a great friendship. Cowards, for example, will betray each other to avoid danger. Gluttons or drunkards, for example, will betray each other for food or alcohol. Idiots will waste time together, because they are not intelligent enough to spend their time well either alone or together. Only individuals who have both moral and intellectual virtue are capable of having truly great friendships. Tolkien and Lewis were such individuals. The second reason why their friendship was great was the time that they spent together. Two great individuals, each full of moral and intellectual virtue, might not be friends because they are too busy to spend much time together. Tolkien and Lewis spent two evenings together each week for many years. They often met at a bar, and sometimes at the home of one or the other. The third thing that made their friendship great was the literary fruits that the friendship produced. When they got together, they talked about their writings, and they helped each other to improve their writings. Tolkien almost certainly would not have written the Lord of the Rings without the encouragement of Lewis. Lewis probably would not have written so well if he had not benefited from Tolkien's advice.

            Tolkien worked as a translator and then a professor at Oxford University.  Among his translations were Beowulf, which he translated from Anglo-Saxon into modern English, and The Book of Job which he translated from Hebrew into English (his translated Job can be found in The Jerusalem Bible).  Tolkien retired and then died in 1973.

 

3 comments

nestor's picture

by nestor on Mon, 03/07/2011 - 23:42

This is interesting. I always thought that J.R.R Tolkien was medieval. It will be intriguing what you have to say about this.

by eva on Wed, 03/09/2011 - 16:09

I love J.R.R. Tolkien. I'm very interested to see where this essay goes.

ChoochPooperton's picture

by ChoochPooperton on Sat, 09/03/2011 - 15:39

This is just the kind of thing I'd been thinkin bout for a while but hadn't really been able to put into words quite like this. Good stuff. Its so funny sometimes to see the rather "petty" concerns of a generation, i.e. Communism vs Capitalism, etc., put into the context of their greater philosophies struggling with each other over vast periods of time while only a few are really aware of this. Definitely a theme Tolkien used throughout his stories to great effect. Interested to see where this goes from here. :)