Thursday, March 31, 2011


“My picture!” (Tolkien Reader, 107)

It’s not always exclaimed, said, sighed, or explicitly thought by Niggle, but this phrase seemed to run right throughout the story. Even when Niggle is merely biking along, forced to do other things, I could almost hear it as a rhythm to his pedaling: mypicturemypicturemypicturemypicture. But it’s on page 107 where this simple, innocuous phrase broke my heart. For this is the moment when the Inspector comes to chastise Niggle and he refers to Niggle’s painting materials as building material and as the Driver led Niggle away, I could almost imagine the Inspector tearing into the painting─ even before the door has shut upon Niggle─ and shredding it to carry the materials over to Parish’s house to be utilized in a “proper” manner.

It is this question about the proper use of materials which stuck with me after reading the story, after discussion on Wednesday, and after re-reading “On Fairy Stories.” After thinking everything over, I think I’d like to add something to Tolkien’s commentary on how Fantasy enables one to Recover the clear view of one’s Primary World (Reader, 77): Fantasy causes one to rediscover the roots of the glorious complexity of our world. He seems to allude to this concept, but not say it quite outright in his claim that “[w]e should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red” (Reader, 77). In short, Fantasy allows the individual to not only rediscover his/her world anew, but also look at its very building blocks in a new way in order to continue to create and improve upon the Primary World. This process then creates a loop, for it gives the individual the “knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give” (Reader, 78), which not only allows one to create in the Primary World, but also form a more elaborate, developed Fantasy world, which will lead to even new interpretations of the building material in the Primary World, yielding a stronger, more complete Fantasy, which will in turn feed back to the Primary World… and so on and so forth.

Building on this, I’d like to argue that Tolkien’s nostalgia and desire to return to older, simpler times is also a reflection of this building process. One returns nearly to the roots, to the base form of the world, bearing in mind the failures of the first development, and begins to create afresh. Much as Sam Gamgee would prune plants in Mr. Frodo’s gardens in order to cut away extraneous growth and permit the plant to more fully blossom into its potential, so the return to the clay, stone, wood, and simplicity creates a chance for fresh growth and for humanity to develop further. As was pointed out in class, Tolkien has no desire to simply return to the past and stagnate in that mindset (consider his sharp criticism of the Gondor first witnessed by Pippin); instead, he wishes to utilize its highest points as goals and then surpass its glory, much as King Elessar does after the line of Isildur is restored to the throne (RotK, 275)*. So while the Scouring of the Shire seems horrible and sad, I almost wonder if it was one of the best things that could have happened to the hobbits. Forest fires are possibilities for cleansing; pruning brings forth new growth; the seed must die before it may become a plant; one could argue that the hobbits had become too complacent and comfortable in their well-protected corner of the Shire and had forgotten what it means to engage with their surroundings and actually develop their lands. It should be noted that the bricks and other materials used to build the ugly houses and factories were not evil in themselves. They were first used to create means of destruction and oppression, but were then repurposed for new growth and improvement upon the basic as they were “used to repair many an old hole, to make it snugger and drier” (RotK, 337). Holes are one of the oldest distinctive features of hobbits, but here old meets new and two basics were combined to create a more secure future. Or if we return to the tale of Niggle, at the end, all that was left of his great and majestic painting was the very base from which he began his work: a tiny leaf; and yet this leaf provided inspiration for Atkins.

On the religious level, it is worth considering how this process of rebirth and re-creation from the ashes figures into Tolkien’s larger assessment of humanity’s constant struggle to imitate God and achieve new levels of closeness with him through this process of Creation. “Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on” (Reader, 89). Fantasy is not something which should be accessed once, but should instead be a process of constant renewal and re-evaluation and progress. To what extent, then, can this process of escaping to the realm of Faërie be likened to the Sacrament of Reconciliation? For Tolkien seems to be implying that one’s relationship with the Primary World and the world of Fantasy cycles between periods of creation and engagement, apathy, retreat, and renewal. Eventually, one’s creations fail and one loses sight of the ultimate goal. The search to draw ever closer to God is often expressed in a similar way, where at some point one falls off the path and the extraordinary connection which exists between humanity and God is forgotten (as one forgets the extraordinary beauty of the world). In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that apathy─ even fear and hatred perhaps─ is removed and one can attempt to begin to recover what was lost in Fall, re-forging and re-creating that closeness with God, always bearing in mind those structural failures that lay at the root of the separation. However, because humans are human, full of free will and also frailty, they will eventually again fall away and need to be renewed─ even cleansed─ by Reconciliation. Can the wonder and awe that result from a retreat into Fantasy be likened to grace? I am not a theologian by any means, but Reconciliation has always seemed to be expressed as a process of stripping away the extra trappings and once again standing naked before God, ready to be re-formed and even re-created. Fantasy seems to do a similar thing, revealing the nakedness of the world, its basic, pure splendor, which leaves it open to re-cultivation and creation.

Ultimately, I personally keep coming back to─ and fixating on─ this question of how one uses materials to construct and how Fantasy allows one to constantly return to the drawing-board with those materials. Fantasy breaks down the surrounding world to its bare bones, allowing individuals to creatively re-engage with their surroundings and form new worlds within the Primary World. It provides the opportunity to use an untraditional cornerstone (this is a topic for another essay, but the improbability of a hobbit as a hero) to create an unconventional solution. So the next time we look at green and are shocked by the blue and the yellow, hopefully it will remind us that yellow can also be combined with red to form orange and who knows what world could be created if we added orange grass to a green sun.

~Jacqueline Trudeau

(Although now I'm questioning if I used the right materials to write this or try to work through these musings. Did I pick the right words? The sentence structures? The placement? The ideas? I can definitely sympathize with Tolkien's obsession for the details.)

*Quoting from the DelRey edition published in 1995. Yes, it is physically split into 3 books, unfortunately. The reference in question is from the chapter “The Steward and the King.”


  1. "Can the wonder and awe that result from a retreat into Fantasy be likened to grace?" I would say, most definitely "Yes!" Beautifully argued--I had not thought of it myself this way, but I think you are absolutely right. I suspect Tolkien would agree, too.


  2. I suppose one of the great obstacles of a modern mythology is to persuade people that the phenomena of the world also carry significance. (As for the past, it’s hard to reconstruct its mythological challenges, but if the linguistic-hermeneutic assumptions are different, then I think the challenges are likely to be so too.) And, even for those who accept this multilayered world as a matter of conviction, it is often hard to see it spontaneously and yet consistently. There is something very Blake-like in Niggle’s leaf, like the world in the grain of sand, as if, notwithstanding the loss of the rest of the image, the entire world can still be reconstructed from the leaf, it being only a matter of making explicit what is implicit. Similarly the secondary world which Niggle deplores is the one that he must learn to see as containing significance in the first place. I imagine that there are different styles of sacramental reconciliation. Some probably focus on the legal aspect of sin committed and sin repaired. Others reinvest, by verbal invocation (in the words of the sacrament), the experience of the sinner with a sense of myth. Perhaps the logic is that myth leads not only to an intensification of experience, but also to a power of choice, a *power* because it is now a matter of choice made in the context of a deeper knowledge. (That myth doesn’t invariably do either of these may well be a condition of human frailty.) Obviously, choice is a theme that will meet us again, but this puts the Scouring of the Shire directly into the relation you propose it might have to reconciliation. JCT

  3. I think your commentary on the myth intensifying choice is something which I was struggling to express but was unable to find the right words or concepts, so thank you.

    However, I'm a little confused as to what you mean by "the legal aspect of sin committed and sin repaired." Can you maybe elaborate a bit more?

  4. That moment in Leaf by Niggle which Jacqueline mentions, where the Inspector suggests using the picture to fix the roof, may be the saddest thing I have ever read. I was surprised by it and devastated along side Niggle.


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