As far back as elementary school, my two favorite subjects have always been History and English. Though I never bothered to make a connection between the two then, I will attempt one now – my love for both of them stems from my love of a great story. For in truth, the annals of history are, to me, more of a collection of particularly good stories than they are verifiable data – I am as like to meet Anne Boleyn as I am to meet Aragorn. While historians (and hopefully most other people) consider Anne a ‘real’ figure and Aragorn a fictional one, who is to say that the Anne Boleyn they have reconstructed from letters, books, and portraits bears any resemblance to the woman who inspired her? Modern visitors to the Tower of London have no way of reconstructing the complete story of Anne’s final days, but that doesn’t stop anyone, myself included, from imagining a version of it when they pass through. Put simply, who is more ‘real’ to this generation: Anne Boleyn as she truly was or the Anne Boleyn of legend?
This is, I think, what Tolkien was getting at when he wrote that “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’ – which is our habitation.” (Letters, p. 244). Tolkien saw Middle-earth not as some distant planet, a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, but rather as a long lost version of his own beloved Britain. The slides Professor Fulton showed us in class compared various ruins throughout the Welsh countryside to Tolkien’s own drawings of various places in Middle-earth, and the resemblance between the two was striking. Where some see tombs, Tolkien saw the Halls of the Elvenking; where some see a Norman keep built on the foundations of Roman walls, Tolkien saw the tower of Barad-dûr. These are “the real details, what are called facts, accidents of land-shape and sea-shape, of individual men and their actions, that are caught up: grains on which stories crystallize like snowflakes.” (Notion Club Papers, Part Two; Sauron Defeated p. 227). Middle-earth is not England or even the whole of Europe in the sense that one can match up its coastlines and latitudes to a real map; rather it is the history Tolkien imagined for this hill here and that ruin there, patched together into a cohesive legendarium.
Just as Tolkien creates these “imaginary historical moment[s]” for physical places, he creates them for their names – and various other words – as well. The obvious example from Wednesday’s reading is, of course, Farmer Giles of Ham, in which Tolkien plays with the real English names ‘Thame’ and ‘Worminghall’ to create a comic medieval fable. From the fact that “Thame with an h is a folly without warrant,” (Farmer Giles of Ham, The Tolkien Reader, p. 185) he creates an origin story that could explain such a name. Names, to Tolkien, were in and of themselves histories – note the amount of work he put into naming places within his Middle-earth. Yet it is interesting to note that within Tolkien’s oeuvre names also tend to carry a sort of magical, primal, and even at times transformative power. Think of how in Lord of the Rings, kingsfoil is more potent when it is known as athelas, how Gollum regains some of his lost humanity (hobbitity?) when Frodo calls him Sméagol. There is at times almost a sense that names are inherent to a thing’s nature, and that people come up with history to fill in the gaps and give such meaning; in the Notion Club Papers, Part Two, Lowdham cries out the name of Numenor during a dream, only to have Ramer reveal that it is his name for Atlantis. Name predates history, instead of the other way around. As Tolkien wrote a history for a name in England, his characters eventually write a history for the name of Numenor. The interest of these imagined histories are not in how plausible they are – Farmer Giles is gleefully fantastic as well as anachronistic – but in how they make sense of things.
Yet while such a history may be imaginary, that doesn’t mean it is not ‘real.’ Much has already been covered in this class on the significance Tolkien accords to myths, legends, and faerie-stories of all kinds. But in the Notion Club Papers, Ramer states that even “true past events” are “all stories or tales now, aren’t they, if you try and bring them back into the present.” (Notion Club Papers, Part Two; Sauron Defeated p. 228) Later on the same page, he states that future peoples studying the Notion Club’s documents could “let their imagination work on them, ‘til the Notion Club became a sort of secondary world set in the Past.” The similarity of phrasing to On Faerie Stories, with its talk of primary and secondary worlds, instantly struck me. And in that essay, Tolkien writes that “Belief depended on the way in which stories were presented to me, by older people, or by the authors, or on the inherent tone and quality of the tale. But at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on the belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in “real life.”” (Tree and Leaf, the Tolkien Reader, p. 63) This, I think, plays a key role in the ultimate distinction that Tolkien draws between history as a story made from surviving facts and the real Past, with a capital P. For if one can make multiple histories out of the same set of facts, the true Past, to Tolkien, is the one in which we enter the realm of secondary belief. Middle-earth, then, is Tolkien’s Past: not necessarily what happened in “real life,” but a history spanning the whole of creation that through its emotional resonance draws us wholly into believing that it could have been.