Concerned About Many Things
(...making it longer than most of these essays)
From some of what's been said and written about Tolkien's work by evangelical Christians, one source of misunderstandings about it seems to be a tendency to take things too literally. I've wondered if this might be a more-or-less natural result of the practice of reading the Bible literally, especially its more ancient parts. I'm not going to suggest that anyone who accepts all of Scripture as literally, historically true should stop doing so. But I am going to ask that this kind of interpretation not be carried over to Tolkien's fiction.
But wasn't JRRT's aim to make his secondary creation real to his readers? Yes, and part of what makes reality real is uncertainty, especially when dealing with events that happened long ago. Tolkien used the term "feigned history," and we know that history - especially when as ancient as Middle-earth's is meant to be - is far from cut and dried. Unlike most fiction authors, Tolkien wasn't writing the story as if he were there witnessing the events firsthand. He was writing as a historian who had discovered ancient records and was piecing the story together from them (a process he was very familiar with from his academic work): records that even in the beginning weren't completely from firsthand accounts; records found in hand-copied books that didn't always contain the same information; records written in different hands by different people, sometimes with notes scrawled in the margins. Even the actual title of the Red Book is telling (and makes it easy to see why it ended up being called simply "the Red Book"):
THE DOWNFALL OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS
AND THE RETURN OF THE KING
(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.)
Together with extracts from Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell.
And that was just the original - before copies were made and each copy collected additions of its own. "Note on the Shire Records" in the Prologue to LotR gives something of an idea of what was involved in the work of the "feigned historian" when it came to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The original of the Red Book was written at the beginning of the Fourth Age, and was written by mortals. When we go back even further, to Translations from the Elvish (containing the stories that became the Silmarillion), we're seeing the world from the perspective of the immortal Elves, which makes a big difference regarding such things as life and death, and life after death, as well as the roles of Eru and the Valar in the scheme of things. In addition, the stories that are set during the earliest times take us from history into the world of legend. Tolkien's cosmos has one advantage over our primary creation in having people who live for thousands of years and so could give firsthand accounts of long-past events. Because of this, the story of the fall of Gondolin is probably closer to secondary-creation factual history than The Iliad is to primary-creation factual history. On the other hand, we now know what the evening and morning star really is, and it's not a silmaril being worn by Eärendil as he sails the heavens. Venus was just as much a planet during the fictional Third Age (or the fictional Second Age, when the legend of Eärendil is set) as it is now. But the characters living at the end of the Third Age would have had the legend of Eärendil's heavenly voyage as part of their understanding of creation, because they'd have no knowledge of Venus as a planet; neither would the Elves who originally composed the legend. Even in Tolkien's subcreation, that legend isn't literally, historically true, but that doesn't mean the good people of the Third Age didn't find some Truth in it - and receive some hope from seeing Eärendil's light. (We talked earlier about the light of Eärendil being sacramental - an efficacious sign that produces the hope it signifies. That would seem to indicate that not just old legends but Providence itself had something to do with the reality of that hope. If God can use water and bread as efficacious signs, He could certainly use Venus.)
As with the legends of northern Europe that Tolkien studied and taught, those in the Silmarillion are mixtures of (feigned) historical facts and Story. Tolkien specifically said that his original purpose in writing those early legends was to provide a "mythology for England," because he felt that England didn't really have one. He thought, for example, that the Arthurian mythos had been so altered by French thought that it was no longer truly English. So, even though he later felt he hadn't achieved this original purpose, it does indicate what level of historicity he was aiming for in his early stories. Was there an actual historical person behind the legendary figure of King Arthur? Literary historians tell us that very likely there was. Is it historical fact that he was conceived because of a magical spell that caused his mother's eyes to see Uther Pendragon as her husband? Much less likely. (A note on a point that bothers some Christians: Yes, Tolkien saw the infusion of Christianity into the Arthurian sagas as something that marred them - not because Christianity inherently mars stories, but because the Arthurian stories are originally pre-Christian, so bringing Christianity into them makes them something they weren't meant to be, in the same way that injecting French influence does. Remember that we're talking here about someone whose profession was studying the history of language and stories.)
Primary creation and secondary creation:
No matter how good Tolkien was at making his feigned history seem real, it is feigned. His secondary creation has no existence in our primary creation, not even in its remote history. He pointed this out in a response (Letter #153) to one Catholic reader who complained that the reincarnation of Elves in his subcreation wasn't orthodox (among other complaints):
You have at any rate paid me the compliment of taking me seriously; though I cannot avoid wondering whether it is not 'too seriously', or in the wrong directions. The tale is after all in the ultimate analysis a tale, a piece of literature, intended to have literary effect, and not real history. That the device adopted, that of giving its setting an historical air or feeling, and (an illusion of?) three dimensions, is successful, seems shown by the fact that several correspondents have treated it in the same way- according to their different points of interest or knowledge: i.e., as if it were a report of 'real' times and places, which my ignorance or carelessness had misrepresented in places or failed to describe properly in others... [After 9 pages of discussing all kinds of things this reader thought were "wrong", there's a note saying: 'Not sent. It seemed to be taking myself too importantly.']
One of the oddest (to me) forms of taking Tolkien's subcreation too literally is trying to fit it into a specific timeframe in our primary creation history and then using that primary creation timing to judge the religious sensibilities of the inhabitants of Middle-earth. I have a difficult time even imagining that this has to be mentioned, but I've seen it done. Now, this kind of thing can be an interesting Tolkien geek exercise. One reason Tolkien has geeky followers is that there's a lot of detail involved in his stories (not to mention multiple versions of some of them), and a multitude of ways the information can be used to form hypotheses. But attempting to literally bring those hypotheses out of his secondary creation into our primary one blurs the line between reality and fiction; using the results of that extrapolation to judge what certain characters (back in the secondary creation) should, for example, have known about Christ and Christianity, ignores any distinction between the two. I can understand using Scripture to calculate when our primary creation began, even though it's not something I'd do myself, because the Bible and our primary creation belong to the same reality. Tolkien's fiction does not. Using Scripture to calculate the timing of the creation of our earth and then imposing that same timing on the creation of Arda in Tolkien's secondary creation, for example, would give the subcreation a place within our primary creation - something Tolkien never intended (although he used his device of a 'historical air or feeling' so well that we sometimes have to remind ourselves of that).
Something else we need to remember about secondary creations - even Tolkien's - is that they contain mistakes:
If only term had not caught me on the hop again, I should have revised the whole [of LotR] - it is astonishingly difficult to avoid mistakes and changes of name and all kinds of inconsistencies of detail in a long work, as critics forget, who have not tried to make one - and sent it to the typists. [Letter #117; 31 October 1948]
Compared with most other authors, Tolkien made so few mistakes that it's tempting to try to explain them away rather than accept them for what they are. I've also seen a serious attempt to date the Shire (and to use the result to make religious judgments) by the fact that hobbits have bound books, which in primary creation wouldn't have been possible until after the beginning of Christianity (meaning that hobbits should have known about Christianity- and should have been Christian). Sure, thousands of years ago hobbits shouldn't have had bound books. They also shouldn't have had taters, and in The Hobbit they shouldn't have had tobacco, since both of those plants were unknown in the Old World until America was discovered. (By the time The Lord of the Rings was written, tobacco had been changed to pipe weed, which simply shows that Tolkien realized he'd made a mistake.) Some time after LotR was published, Tolkien said that if he'd understood geology better he wouldn't have given Mordor mountain chains that ran at right angles to each other. But he didn't understand geology well enough when he wrote the book, so Mordor will forever remain behind mountains that couldn't naturally exist, even though the author didn't intend it to be that way - and hobbits will always have bound books centuries before they historically should have. Tolkien made mistakes, and realized that he made mistakes. He was enough of a perfectionist that he never stopped trying to make his secondary creation more "correct," from minor details to important concepts; a few years ago, after mentioning the taters issue on my website, I received an email from a Tolkien scholar saying that at the time of his death JRRT was trying to work in taters by making them an import from Númenor (not, you'll notice, by changing the timeline of Middle-earth so that the Third Age follows the discovery of America, as would be the result if the "bound book" theorizing mentioned above were followed).
It feels kind of odd to be writing this, as I'm usually the person who gets asked, "Um... You do realize this is fiction, don't you?" But maybe that just means that if I think an interpretation takes things too literally - it probably does.
I have an amazingly literal-minded acquaintance who insists that the Gospel parables must be reports of events that actually happened, because "Jesus wouldn't lie." No, he wouldn't, but he did tell stories as part of his teaching, and so have a lot of other people throughout history. An interesting point about Jesus' parables is that, with very few exceptions, they're not allegories*. They're stories. They have points to make, but the details don't neatly line up as they would in an allegory. For example, it's important to persevere in prayer, but not because we have to harass God into giving us what we need, as the widow had to with the judge - who was afraid that if he didn't give her what she was due she would "end up doing me violence."
Tolkien's stories are also stories. Elements don't fit together as if they were allegories. Tolkien reminded readers more than once in his letters that it wasn't possible to equate a character saying something with him saying it, even if the character is fundamentally good and wise. The same is true of decisions made and actions carried out by those characters; just because a good character makes a particular decision doesn't mean that Tolkien would wholeheartedly approve it, or that he'd personally make the same choice. Tolkien's story writing was meant to show what would happen under a certain set of circumstances, not what should happen (cf. letter #109). What Tolkien himself says to us isn't found so much in specific events or the words of particular characters as it is absorbed into the fabric of the story and the unspoken assumptions behind it - assumptions such as mystery, sacramentality, community, Providence, faithfulness, humility, mercy, hope that is open to "what should be," love that doesn't count the cost... This becomes especially clear if we remember that much of what made LotR "fundamentally Catholic and religious" was woven into the story unconsciously. That's one reason that discovering those elements isn't primarily an intellectual activity but one of the heart and spirit that allows us to encounter mystery.
If you asked most Catholics what "form criticism" is, they might not be able to define it, but it almost certainly affects how they read (or hear) Scripture and what they learn about it from sermons and other Bible study. Form criticism is simply understanding various parts of Scripture as the forms of literature the authors intended them to be: reading Genesis 1, for example, as a poem rather than a scientific account. Understanding Genesis 1 this way doesn't mean it isn't true, but its Truth is one that's deeper than simple fact, so it was put into poetry. In a parallel example from Tolkien's cosmos, not even Elves were around during the Song of the Ainur that Eru used to shape creation. And if they had been, the event would have been so far beyond their understanding that they couldn't have given a historically factual account of it. What Bilbo translated from the Elvish, and what finally found its way into the first chapter of the Silmarillion, is the way the Elves described in Story something that they couldn't fit within the boundary of a set of facts.
Is this way of reading Scripture something Tolkien would have understood? Absolutely. Tolkien worked on the translation into English of the Jerusalem Bible (a translation accepted by the Catholic Church, although not the one usually used in liturgy). Tolkien's primary focus in the project was the book of Jonah, which was originally written as a story that taught a lesson rather than as a historically accurate account of a specific individual's life.
What validates form criticism for Catholics and many other Christians is that the original audience would have understood what kind of literature they were reading or listening to, just as we understand that Jesus' parables weren't news reports. The people for whom the Gospel of John was written, for example, wouldn't have listened to John's account of the trial and death of Jesus and said, "Hey, hold on! This guy says everything happened on a completely different day than the other three. Somebody must be wrong!" They would have realized John was telling them something deeper than a journalistic report of events. For John, the reality that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice transcended the historically literal timing of events. And, importantly, his audience would have understood this.
As I said above, this brief explanation of form criticism isn't meant to convert anyone to its use when reading Scripture. But it's important when reading Tolkien's fiction to keep in mind that its "form" is a historical account drawn from various points of view, with missing pieces, uncertainties and, at least in the older material, out-and-out legend and mythology.
[More on Catholic stories]
In some ways, it's the opposite pole from form criticism, but what Tolkien calls applicability has also been part of Catholic Scripture interpretation over the centuries. It's more weak-group-friendly than form criticism, and probably much more recognizable to evangelical Christians, as it's the type of Scripture reading that leads us to say, "What this passage says to me..." This isn't to say that it's the meaning the human author had in mind, or even the primary message of God that the human author was inspired to write, but it's what I gain from it today. This might not be exactly what the same passage said to me a month ago - or what it will say to me next year.
The "Foreword to the Second Edition" of The Lord of the Rings tells us that, because the book isn't an allegory, different people can apply the story to their own lives in different ways - as long as they don't claim to have found the only way. Those applications will change not only from person to person but over time. There are things I find applicable to my life now that I didn't see that way when I was a teenager; "I sit beside the fire and think," for example, says a lot more to me now than it used to. I still cry every time I reach the Grey Havens, but now I cry for completely different reasons than I did the first time I read the book (although I can't completely put those reasons into words).
Not all applications of LotR will be Christian - at least not all readers will recognize them as such. In her article about Phillip Pullman titled "Paradise Denied," published in Touchstone magazine, Leonie Caldecott talks also about the effect of Tolkien's writing:
I know a number of teenagers, contemporaries of my oldest daughter, who have no religious background at all, and yet who are completely caught up in the mythos of Middle-earth. Through this mythos, symbolically embedded in the story, young people are unconsciously absorbing any number of spiritual nutrients which may serve them well in later life. They will have learned to see the world in a certain way, as it is seen by Christianity.
For non-Christians, LotR doesn't have the value of a lesson about Christianity. It has the value of becoming so used to looking at the world from a Christian perspective that they begin to see the world as Christianity sees it. And if they discover that this mythos was created by a Christian, there can be another advantage - with C.S. Lewis's conversion as an example. In her book on the Inklings, The Company They Keep, Diana Pavlak Glyer says, "...Lewis found it increasingly difficult to remain an atheist, in part because he kept meeting intelligent, articulate men who turned out to be Christian." One of these "intelligent, articulate men" was, of course, Professor Tolkien.
For Christians, the value of LotR doesn't come from learning new things, but in recognizing new resonances and new depths in something already known, by seeing it through the decidedly non-literal perspective of Story.
*The parable of the sower could probably be considered an allegory, if we include the entire explanation given to the disciples. One purposeful allegory is the story about the keepers of the vineyard who killed the owner's servants and then his son; Jesus wanted the subjects of that allegory to be able to recognize themselves in it.