J.R.R. Tolkien: A Brief Survey and a Comparison

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[page 21] J. R. R. TOLKIEN: A BRIEF SURVEY AND A COMPARISON by DOC WEIR PROLOGUE: I wrote this study because I was asked to do so, not because I imagined that I had any special knowledge or qualifications for the task. It is an invidious business to write about a man whom you have never even seen though I have heard Professor Tolkien described by several of his students ), and if I have, at any point , misinterpreted or misunderstood him, I am sincerely sorry. Such errors as it may contain are entirely my own; such merits or virtues as it may posess will serve, I hope, to magnify his, as some small return for the very great pleasure that his work has given both to me and to many others. Arthur R. Wier, D.Sc. --------:-------- The great success achieved by Professor Tolkien's Trilogy, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, among the most varied and diverse readers and critics, makes it clear that we have here a genuine literary achievement which, unlike many, has had its merits recognized from the onset. It is accordingly, interesting to look more closely at the author, and to see how far his qualifications and background have assisted him in winning the success which he has so notably attained. The first step is to see what account he has given of himself, and for this we may use the most obvious and easily-consulted of reference-books, WH0'S WHO, supplementing it, where necessary, by University calendars. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on 3rd. January, 1892, so we know that he has had a full life's experience upon which to draw, and he served in the Lancashire Fusiliers from 1915 to 1918, so he is a man who sees war through the eyes of his own personal experience of it. Then follows his academic carreer @career@: _Reader in English Language_, Leeds 1920; _Professor of English Language_, Leeds, 1924-5. Now this in itself tells us much; the English language, with its dual origin, makes greater demands than almost any other upon the learning of any man who sets out to specialize in it: English is fifty percent of Latin origin, so that the English scholar must have a first-rateknowledge @first-rate knowledge@ of Latin and also of both the Northern and Southern forms of Old French, through which so many Latin words came to us -- and, since so many Latin words are of Greek origin, it will be well for him to have a reasonable acquaintance with Greek as well. Another forty percent of English is of Teutonic origen @origin@, so whoever sets out to be an English scholar must know the Old High German that was the language of the hard-handed thick-skulled fighting farmers who swarmed over into the fertile and defenceless island of Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries; also since Britain suffered a second very considerable invasion by Danes, Norse, Frisians, and Swedes during the ninth century, who even set up their own "Dane-Law" territory with its owm laws and customs (which have strongly influenced English Common Law and Parliamentary Governnent to this day!), the scholar had better know the old Norse language as well, which has survived, little changed as the present-day speech of Iceland. The remaining ten percent of the English language is of the most miscellaneous origin, but so many Celtic words have survived in Latinized of Teutonized forms that it will be as well for our scholar to be acquainted mth the old Celtic that is the common denominator and origen @origin@ of the modern Welsh, Erse, Gaelic, and Breton speech. Few of us who learn English as our mother-tongue realize the richness and complexity of the sources upon which we can draw, if we choose -- the features that give English [page 22] a flexibility, exactness and richness of implied meaning that is at once the pride of the English man of letters and the utter despair of the foreigner who is trying to acquire a reasonable mastery of the the language. The next entry is _Rawlinson & Bosworth Profossor of Anglo Saxon; Oxford,_ 1925--45, and this tells us that by this date we have to do with a man who is already a fine scholar and who is recognized as such in the world of learning, since you do not attain an Oxford Professorship at the age of 33 unless you are much more than ordinarily well up in your chosen branch of scholarship. Also, as part of his regualr @regular@ work, the holder of this Professorial Chair will have to be intimately acquainted with the heroic tales that were the common heritage of the Norsemen and of the Northern Germans, and which, in their Scandinavian form, gave us, as the Norse "Sagas," some of the finest hero-tales of all time. The list goes on : _Fellow of Penbroke College_, 1926--45 : _Leverhulme Research Fellow_, 1934 --35 ( we shall see, later, to what this special piece of research led ) ; while finally and in many ways tne most revealing of all, we have _Andrew Lang Lecturer at St. Andrew's_, 1939. St. Andrews University delights to pay honour to one of her most notable figures, Andrew Lang, philologist, famous literary critic, and collector of folk-lore and fairytales from all the countries of the earth -- the editor and compiler of that splendid set of books that the older of us remember from our own childhood, and for which many generations of children have blessed his name : the Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, White and Black Fairy Books, The Red and Blue Books of Animal Stories and the Red Book of Romance. Here we had fairy-tales, hero-tales, animal-tales and the best of the romances from every country on earth, English, Celtic, Norse, German, Frech @French@, Italian, Slavonic, Indian, Persian, Chines @Chinese@, Japanese, Amerindian and Pacific Island --all most carefully and artistically re-told in style and language not too difficlult @difficult@ for reading aloud to the six-year-old, yet interesting and exciting enough to hold the attention of even the fourteen-year-old, and all enriched with the most delightful illustrations that ever rejoiced the heart of a child -- in which dragons, bears and lions were properly huge and menacing, fairy princesses were beautiful beyond imagining, enchanted forests had all manner of delightfully horrible things peering out of their shadows and enchanted palaces and castles were picturesque and magnificent beyond belief! That Tolkien should have been chosen to lecture in memory of this man, of whom a critic well said that, "he was never so much at home as on that ground which is the borderland between legend and history," was a most significant pointer towards his future. Next in order comes the list of Tolkien's own publications, showing the sort of work to which the man himself chose to turn his hand : _A Middle English Vocabulary_, 1922 -- a sound scholastic start; then, Co-Editor (with E.V. Gordon) of "_Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_", 1925. Now this, again, is significant and revealing, for while the "Arthurian" legends are mostly drawn from the Old and Mediaeval @Medieval@ French tales, these, in turn, are founded upon older legends, many of then of Celtic origin -- indeed the name Gawain is itself @Cetlic@ -- and here we may remember the markedly Celtic sound of the Elven-tongues that Tolkien devised for his trilogy : Glorfindel's relieved and enthusiastic greeting to Agagorn: "_Ai, na vedui, Dunadan! Mae govannen!_" or the inscription that Clebrimbor cut over the hidden Gates of Moria. To any of us who have ever lived for a little time in a country district in Wales, or who have been in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, these words have a ring and intonation that is unmistakeable and familiar. Next comes _Chaucer as a Philologist_, a Philological Society pamphlet in 1934, followed, in 1937, by something that is almost certainly the outcome of his Leverhulme Research Fellowship, and which, from our point of view, is one of the most important of his academic publications : _Beowulf -- the Monsters and the Critics_. [page 23] Now even the most superficial acquaintance with the Beowulf legend is enough to reveal it as the source book for many of the incidents of THE HOBBIT and of the RINGS trilogy : the hideous "Thing in the Water" that guarded the West Gate of Moria, that was the death of Oin and came near to being the death of Frodo, comes from the mosters @monsters@ of the enchanted lake in Beowulf. Beowulf's sword turning off harmlessly from the scaly hide of grendel's @Grendel's@ mother gave us Boromir's sword turning on the hide of the great cave-troll in Moria ; in the deadly struggle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother in the cavern at the bottom of the lake, the invulnerable monster is killed only by the spellwrought might of an enchanted weapon from of old, snatched up by chance by the hero from among the loot that litters her lair, and it is just such an enchanted weapon from of old that enables the valiant little hobbit , Meriodoc Brandybuck, to hamstring and bring down the terrible king of the Ringwraiths, who is invulnerable to ordinary weapons -- and, immediately after, Merry is magic blade smokes and writhes and fades away, just as Beowulf's did in the hag's inhuman blood . Smaug the dragon, in THE HOBBIT, and his bed of golden treasure, is no more than a more detailed, and in some ways more terrifying version of Beowulf's fire-drake and its hoard of treasure -- indeed in one place Tolkien has even used the very wording of the Beowulf poem, where , in the appendix summarizing the history of the Rohirrim, he writes: "_Of Fram, they tell that, he slew Scatha, the great dragon of Ered Mithrin, and the land had peace from the long-worms afterwards_." "Long-worm" is the very opithet @epithet@ used for the fire-drake in the Beowulf epic, in several places. Following, in the list of Tolkien's works, we have, in 1946, first _The Pearl -- a Verse Translation_ and then, last of all, and the nost telling: _Fairy Stories -- a Critical Study_. The last item in WHO'S WHO is equally revealing : _Recreations : Writing verse, fairy stories and romances_ -- and we remember P. Schuyler Miller's delighted review of the RINGS trilogy, extolling its author for his skill in producing "chantable lyrics." The next pertinent evidence comes from Tolkien's works themselves; a glance makes it obvious that THE HOBBIT was written for children in the six-to ten @six-to-ten@ age group, but Tolkien has himself apologized, at the beginning of the RINGS for the fact that the promised sequel has been fourteen years on the way. Combiming this with the fact that the detailed maps at the end of the RINGS volumes bear the initials of another member of the Tolkien family, it is clear that the RINGS trilogy has been written for -- and pretty certainly discussed and criticized at length by -- an audience just at the argumentative and cocksure age, who most probably inherited at least a portion of their father's brains, and could hardly help-- brought up in such an atmosphere -- acquiring at least some of his catholic @Catholic@ literary taste, wide culture and amazing powers of constructive imagination. It is not possible, in a short article like this, to make any sort of detailed comparison of Tolkien's work with that of the most notable fantasy writers -- a theme that might well fill a moderate-sized book -- but it may be interesting to conduct a brief and limited survey. For a comparison we may take, in the first place, his two personal friends nnd contemporaries : _Clive Staples Lewis_, author of some of the most controversial works on modern man and religion that have been produced in this generation, together with a Science Fantasy trilogy equally noted both inside and outside Science Fiction circles -- OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, PERELANDRA and THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH - and Charles Williams, poet, visionary, famous critic of Dante and author of a series of semi-supernatural adventure fantasies that , for some unknown reason, seen @seem@ hardly known at all to the general public : MANY DIMENSIONS, WAR IN HEAVEN, THE PLACE OF THE LION, SHADOWS OF ECSTACY, DESCENT INTO HELL, ALL HALLOW'S EVE and THE GREATER TRUMPS, of which only the first has ever gotten through into a cheap paper-back edition (Penguin. It is a mystery to me why people who now extol Ray Bradbury, to their friends' complete boredom, never seen to have heard of this splendid fantasist, who wrote (and, in my [page 24] own opinion, wrote imeasurably better) in almost exactly Bradbury's own vein of semi-supernatural fantasy some years before Bradbury had ever been heard of. With these, for complement and contrast, we may consider _Howard Phillips Lovecraft_ and _Abraham Merritt_, two Americans who are acknowledged masters of fantasy. Let us now compare, in turn, the moral outlook and demonology of these authors. Lewis' morality is openly and expressesly Christian -- his Maleldil the Young, Creator and ruler of the Universe, is (implicitly, and all but explicitly) equated with that aspect of the Holy Trinity that, as Guardian Savior and Companion, is incarnated for the Christian in Jesus of Nazareth, while his "Black Oyarsa" who bedevils, in the most literal sense, the affairs of this unfortunate planet, is none other than the Christian Satan, the "Our Father Below" of his most amusing of militantly Christian books, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. Charles Williams' religious background, while equally strongly felt, is far less prominent and indeed is nowhere explicity stated; the invocation of or use of supernatural powere @power@ "from the outside" is portrayed throughout as inadmissable, not only because they are evil and dangerous, but even more because nobody cansee @can see@ just where even the simplest action of the kind may ultimately lead -- and in Williams' fantasies such actions lead us into some peculiarly horrible places. Merritt, specializing, as he does, chiefly in exploration fantasies of the "lost race" type, has little moral or religious background, and his villians suffer the ordinary corruptions of mankind: in THE MOON POOL as also in THE FACE IN THE ABYSS the ruling people have, by long use, become callously and completely indifferent to the sufferings of their subject peoples, and have gradually and imperceptively passed from mere indifference to positive cruelty and enjoyment of the sufferings of others. There is a touch of this also in his DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, while the central villians of his later fantasies SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN and BURN, WHITCH @WITCH@, BURN! are afflicted s imply @simply@ with devouring ambition -- the desire for unlimited power over their fellow-creatures without the slightest regard for their individual wishes or desires. Lovecraft's villians are of more complex type -- here there is sometimes the desire for power (occasionally disguised as the desire for riches) and sometimes the ill-conditioned under-dog's desire to tear down anything that seems to be above him simply because it is above him, but it is usually complicated with the deliberate indulgence in forbidden rites, sometimes of almost bestial foulness, and with communion with beings from beyond the ordinary limits of time and space who are beatliness @beastliness@ and evil personified. In this connection it is interesting that Lovecraft seldom even mentions Christian rites or beliefs at all, but leaves it to be tacitly assumed that against these transdimensional powers of evil they are of little or no use or effect. Since Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Lovecraft, and Merritt all make use of magic in their fantasies, it is instrucive to look at their magicians. Those of Lovecraft and Merritt are in the old "Gothic Romance" tradition, making use of elaborate diagrams, rituals and incantations -- they in themselves are of no power worth mentioning (old Ephraim Whatetley, of Lovecrafts's @Lovecraft's@ gruesome tale "The Dunwich Horror" is quite openly half-witted!) but they command the powers they do through the rituals and spell @spells@ that they have learnt. Lewis, on the other hand, says of Merlin, in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, that "He was a magician, not becuase of what he had _learnt_, but because of the kind of man he _was_." And Tolkien's magicians, Gandalf, Rhadagast and the turncoat Saruman are of the same kind. Though they are called "Masters of Lore" their spells are worked with the very minimum of ritual or of external paraphernalia -- The Master speaks the Word, and the thing is done. It is interesting to compare this with the wonders said to be worked by the adepts of the Tantric and Mahayana coteries in Tibet; here we are told that the adepts of the medium grades use and @an@ enormously elaborate ritual of charms,spells and [page 25] diagrams, whereas the really great masters seem to be able to work far greater wonders without any aparatus at all, and with the very minimum of ritual! Excepting Charles Williams, all these writers have to some extent created their own historical or semi-mythical backgrounds for their stories: Lewis uses the background of Christian mythology and history and of accepted geological and cosmological science, merely observing, in passing, that the "Black Oyarsa," the perverted guardian spirit of Earth, turned to evil courses long before the appearance of man on earth. Two of Merritt's pseudo-historical suggestions are of interest here. In THE DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE he postulates the existance in Central Asia of a remote Uighur civilization at a time when the Gobi desert was still fertile country, and links this up with the more generally accepted notion that the Viking heroic legends of Odin, Thor and the main Norse pantheon date form the period of their wanderings after the increasing dessication of Central Asia had made it uninhabitable for them. In THE FACE IN THE ABYSS, he suggests the existance @existence@ on earth of a reptile civilization, antedating that of mankind, which, in the action of the story, is represented by the single survivor, the strange being known as the Snake-Mother who is the central figure of the action of the book. Lovecraft has also used a similar idea in his tale THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK, namely that the fearful talisman described therein, which has again and again exposed mankind to danger from beings of hideous evil, residing in other dimensions of space and time, had also been revered and used before ever mankind existed on earth by "the serpent men of Valusia" and by "the crinoid (=sea-urchin) beings of Antarctica." Both these authors, of course, derived the idea from the Asiatic legend of the "Nagas", the halfserpent half-human beings depicted in Hindu sculpture from the Indus valley to Java. Lovecraft's main contribution to the mythos of the supernatural was, however, the idea, which he used again and again, that before the evolution of mankind the earth had been inhabited by beings of an etirely inhuman kind, who, by ferocious cruelty and by the practice of black magic of the most revolting kind, had forfeited their birthright and had been outlawed to some other dimension of space and time, from which they ceaselessly plotted to regain their power on earth, using as their tools, depraved, ignorant or conscienceless experimenters with "magic" with whom they might, on occasion, be able to open communication. Merritt himself once produced something parallel to this in the terrible deity Khalkru, the Kraken-God, Lord of Chaos, depicted in THE DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE, who dwells in some other dimension of time and space, but who can be summoned thence by ritual to recieve the ghastly human sacrifices desribed @described@ in the story. Tolkien, however, by comparison with these indulges in a far grander and more wide-sweeping historical creation, going back several thousand years, and postualting the former existence on earth of a race of Immortals, the Elves, as well as of two other races, mortal but not human -- the dwarven-folk, and the Ents, the great shepards @shepherds@ of the trees. There have been few things in recent literature more heartrendingly srrowful @sorrowful@ than his picture of the elves, great, beautiful, but, since in bygone ages they helped men to forbidden knowledge, condemned to exile in Middle Earth, where they are slowly being exterminated, since though immune to old age or sickness they can yet he killed in battle by the evilly disposed. His "Great Enemy", who brought about the fall of the first kindly society of Elves and Men living in love and trust together, is, presumably the Christian Satan, of whom, as we are told "the Dark Lord, Sauron (the central evil genius of the RING trilogy) was but a servant." And here we come to one of the strangest things about Tolkien's trilogy -- not only is there no mention of Christian mythology or of the Christian faith, but there is no where @nowhere@ in it any mention of any religion at all! Even more remarkable, there is nowhere any quatation @quotation@ from any religious work -- and when one considers the dozens of metaphors and comparisons in everyday English that are direct quotatio ns @quotations@ from the Bible -- such "clear as crystal" "lick the dust" "a broke reed" "a law unto themselves" or "weighed and found wanting" -- this curious "spiritual disinfection" is in itslef @itself@ no mean literary feat! [page 26] THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not an allegory, like the PLIGRIM'S @PILGRIM'S@ PROGRESS, yet, like that and similar works, it is on the very highest moral plane, and likely in the very foremost degree to promote such things as courage, humility, friendship, kindliness and self-sacrifice, and generally to keep us mindful of that Virtue which, the Chatechism @Catechism@ tells us, is the Chief End of Man.

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