The Lord of the Rings is filled with extensive descriptions of landscapes and places. Occasionally, they were quite fascinating to read – I still recall vividly the seven walls of Minas Tirith – but more often than not, I found them (e.g. the way that the morning dew glistened on a blade of grass) rather boring and tended to skip over them in order to get to the action. I wanted fewer trees and hills and more Legolas and Gimli. In particular, the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring seemed especially tedious and filled with an overwhelming amount of what I used to think was tiresome drudgery. Don’t get me wrong though: I loved reading The Lord of the Rings as a story, and I was utterly fascinated by the history that Tolkien offered, especially in the Annals and the timeline in the Appendices. Yet, I just could not bring myself to appreciate the more static and descriptive aspects of the book. However, now having taken this class and reread parts of LotR with our discussions in mind, I think I’ve begun to understand the magic of place in Tolkien’s works.
In class, we’ve talked about how Tolkien didn’t believe that he was really inventing anything. This is of course quite puzzling since most people would categorize Tolkien as a fantasy writer, and hence, the creator of a fantastical world – what we’ve called in discussion a secondary reality. However, exactly what Tolkien was doing, if he wasn’t inventing, can better be termed as discovering. Rather than creating the elements of his legendarium out of thin air, Tolkien seemed to be grafting stories, and indeed histories, onto features he would encounter during his strolls across the landscape. T.A. Shippey points out that most of the Shire-names were taken from Tolkien’s nearby surroundings. And, as Tolkien put it in a letter to Naomi Mitchison: “I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit…The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities” (Letters, 177).
Interestingly, Shippey noted that the maps that Tolkien created contained more details than what was eventually in the text. The question is, then, why so many apparently unnecessary details? Or more fundamentally, are they unnecessary? The thing about place-names, or for that matter, names in general, is that while they are arbitrary, they still have a sort of magical power over us: once something has a name, we are more inclined to believe in its existence. Shippey can probably put it better than I: “[i]n the modern world we taken [names] as labels, as things accordingly in a very close one-to-one relationship with whatever they label” (The Road to Middle-Earth, 101). Hence, the detailed maps and the overabundance of places and landmarks in those maps are in fact very necessary to Tolkien’s task of creating a perceivably real secondary reality. Likewise, the tedious descriptions of the landscape which I alluded to at the beginning of this post are necessary for the same reason.
I also wonder about the second half of the statement that Tolkien made to Naomi Mitchison, which I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Why did Tolkien think that “[t]he other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities” – that is, why did he not begin with a story and then create the map to fit the story? I think the answer to this question lies in the fact that Tolkien was not writing a pure fantasy story. If we take his legendarium to be simply a series of stories set in this fictional place called Middle-Earth, it would certainly be odd that he should begin with a map. However, in the Foreword to the Second Edition of LotR, Tolkien told us that he much prefers to think of the book as “history.” History springs from with facts, and the facts for Tolkien were the places in Middle-Earth. So it makes sense that, according to Shippey, Tolkien did not have a concrete plan right from the start – he had no idea how Frodo would ultimately cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, or even the more simple matter of the nine members of the Fellowship (for example, Lee and Solopova talked about how Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas – my three favorite characters from the book – only appeared as later developments). Because Tolkien was working out a history, it is understandable that the “plot” is not clear-cut from beginning to end. In histories, events and characters are discovered rather than invented.
As for me, I like to imagine this process as Tolkien physically seeing history in, say, a particular arrangement of rocks or an ancient tomb. Just like how in “The Ruin,” the poet was attempting to summon up images of the past and lamenting the glorious days of yore, Tolkien was engaged in a similar process. This is clearly seen with Farmer Giles of Ham. On the one hand, we can say that it is a light-hearted story about how an unheroic farmer conquered a cowardly dragon and began his own Little Kingdom. But on the other hand, is it not the history of Thame, Worminghall, and Oakley, all places which actually exist in the England of our primary reality? In other words, Farmer Giles of Ham can be considered as a story of not people or magical creatures, but a story of places. If we imagine Tolkien as a sort of divine sub-creator, then his writing is the process by which he breathes life into places. Just like a tree is not a tree until we name it so, a place is just a place until we give it a history.
Bilbo said that “Not all those who wander are lost.” Tolkien wandered and even if he might have been lost along the way, he certainly found his way in the end. The magic of the places he encountered and created ultimately led him to discover the ancient past of the inhabited world of men.