Friday, April 15, 2011

The Magic of Place

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.



  1. Dear HY,

    I love the idea of Tolkien as a discoverer—an archaeologist or paleontologist of sorts who strives to uncover a “lost continent.” This lost continent is none other than the diluvian world of the ‘Lord of the Rings’, sunken beneath the waters of time and history. Though the conceptual framework of the world of Middle-earth has as Jeremy states in the Notion Club papers on pg 227, “roots in Being,” it belongs to a “secondary plane or degree” of existence. I like to think of this secondary plane as a hypostatic repository of thoughts and ideas that pervades—like an ocean—every corner of existence. Interestingly, all of the legends, myths, and interwoven characters and places in Tolkien’s cosmology begin and have their origin in the Mind of Eru/Illuvatar. The emanative Ainur are said to be the “offspring” of Illuvatar’s thought; even the creation of the world is a consequence of the thoughts that are “woven into the music” of the celestial pantheon. Moreover, the creation of man occurs after Illuvatar “sits in thought.” Thus everything seems to precede from this ‘plane’ or substratum of Illuvatar’s thought. These ‘thoughts’ could be perceived as the roots of being. Tolkien then—though he loves the concept of a mariner journeying to the fabled west—is more like a psychonaut; a navigator, discoverer and subsequent transcriber of the Mind of Illuvatar.

    Andrew Manns

  2. Is it the case that Tolkien’s discovery is equivalent to creative appropriation of the past or of experience? To be sure discovery is sometimes discovering objects (e.g. blunderbuss) that fill the created world. Discovery may also be waiting for the pieces to fall into place, to learn something from somewhere that points our understanding in countless other directions. And discovery may be something quite different for a person working in a traditional culture. Here I have no doubt that invention and discovery are much closer than they are now. Tolkien’s own recovery of tradition, at least his own feeling about it I think, is related to this last. For he seems to intuitively grasp the processes of literary creation in traditional cultures, even when they weren’t the dominant creative processes of his own time. At least in theory, since much narrative creation, Tolkien or not, is the unfolding of discovery, a realization that goes beyond a choice. Only sometimes do authors discover how it ‘should’ be done. And sometimes they reconsider how they would have done it, had such and such….

  3. "A place is not a place until we give it a history": I like this very much! And yet, your discussion seems to be suggesting the converse as well: history is not history until it can be located in a particular place, thus the sub-creator's need to start with a map, and thus the characters' need to walk through the landscape, revealing the map, as it were, to the reader. It is a work of naming, as you very rightly say, but also of inhabiting; history as a way of moving through space as well as time.


  4. This post made me think of Tolkien is a new light – I sort of see him as a cartographer now. He entered a world without having a great image, and then traversed his land and discovered all sorts of new and interesting places. I think it's really cool to think about how much is unmapped, and how much more expansive his world is beyond the limited range of the maps of Middle Earth we have. His cartography is not much different than his poetry or his songs. The contributions they have to the story are very understated, but extremely significant. We can see how his characters are creations of their places – we could hardly consider the Hobbits to be the same if they lived in a turgid, barren wasteland. The fact that there are different cultures of Men and Elves suggests that their geographic location plays an important aspect on their personas. There's a reason poetry in Tolkien's story is different based on geography, because his world is a world of manifold cultures. This is like you said, an aspect of subcreation that allows for consistency and persistence for anyone who encounters it. I think the fact that we take for granted a lot of Tolkien's geographical notations makes the world so much more immersible, since there are aspects to it I will never become aware of, much like in the real world.

  5. I too really like your depiction of Tolkien as an explorer or discoverer. I think the question of why there are so many seemingly unnecessary or unused details is related to this idea: Tolkien not only wanted to be a discoverer himself, but also wanted us to feel like we were as well. If I were to read a story in which the only places explained or given any sort of history were the ones the characters traveled to, and all the rest of the areas on a map were relatively blank or merely contained generic pictures of mountain ranges, I would feel much more as though I were contained in a very specific story. Tolkien, by giving us more than those bare bones, gives us a broader world without as many constraints. Even if a place does not come up specifically in his story, it helps to know it's there -- that if we could step away from the tale for a moment, we could wander there within this secondary reality and, like Tolkien, become discoverers and adventurers. This too links to the reason we're working on our final projects: Tolkien wanted others to step in where he left off. There are loose ends everywhere, not because they need to be tied off, but because they need someone else to weave them into some beautiful new story. As in Leaf By Niggle, the world is left for others (Parrish's wife and others after her) to continue to nurture and improve. Tolkien wasn't creating a single story that needed places relevant to it; he was creating a world ready to be explored.

    -Catrina D.