I am a history major, and when I saw that this course was listed in my department, I was ecstatic: history and Lord of the Rings…what could be better? To be completely honest, however, I was initially disappointed with the scope of history in this class. I think that I expected to find some very real ties between the contemporary events of Tolkien’s time (World War I and World War II, for instance) and his literature.
However, Tolkien directly claims in his Forward to the Second Edition of Lord of the Rings that “the real war [WWII] does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion”. He goes on to outline what the War of the Ring would have looked like if it had followed the motions of the Second World War, or if the War of the Ring had truly been some sort of allegory to World War II. This outline does not even closely resemble the actual events and outcome of the War of the Ring with which we are familiar. In this same Forward, Tolkien claims to “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations”. It is clear, then, that the importance of history to Tolkien, and in our course, does not lie in any type of ‘direct connection’ to contemporary events.
So what is the importance of history for Tolkien, and for us as his readers and interpreters? In the Forward, Tolkien says that “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers”. Why is Tolkien so drawn to history? What does he mean by “true” and “feigned” history? And why does he think that history has the capacity to deeply touch and apply to the “thought and experience of readers?”.
For me, the answer to these questions starts with my own experience: why do I like history? Why does it affect me so much? I am, after all, one of Tolkien’s readers – one of the people whose “thought and experience” he hopes to touch with his work. So, about me: I like the connections that history illuminates for me. I like seeing the movement of events, how they overlap and affect each other, and move on to produce new events. I like the collectivity of history: it’s there for all of us, whether we want to look at it or not. I know that it doesn’t exist for all of us in the same sense – we all look at it in our own way, and have our own interpretation of it. That’s almost its allure: it’s a summation of our collective interpretations. Even though there were concrete events that happened, history is not concrete like a math equation or a science experiment. It is mutable, because the human memory, and human interpretation, is mutable. History is therefore something of the past, for that is when it took place, but also something of the present, for it is in the present that we modify and interpret it.
Tolkien went to great pains to create a “history” behind his stories. In fact, much of Tolkien’s fundamental “world” history pre-dated his stories. It almost seems that he started with the creation of a world and its history, and then wove his stories into this framework. This creation is perhaps what he would call “feigned” history – a history, developed by a sub-creator, which has a semblance of reality. For Tolkien’s “feigned” history functions much like the history of our own world, in an abstract sense. Tolkien weaves in details, and shows the movements and repercussions of events and decisions throughout time. His stories, then, with this history as their background, are comparable to the “present”. The characters in them are part of the ever-moving history, but like us in the real world, the characters’ views and interpretations of the past shape both their history and their present.
The fact that Tolkien created a history, and tied it in with his stories, draws me even more to his writing. It gives it depth and continuity, and a captivating sense of reality. Like I mentioned before, I like seeing the connections in history, and looking at how people interpret the past. Tolkien’s writing gives me a chance to do this in a sub-created world, and in this way he really has touched my “thought and experience”. History belongs to everyone, and Tolkien recognizes its commonality and its allure, and brings that to us through his creation.
There’s more, however, to Tolkien’s sense of history. Not only does he sub-create this history, he also envisions it as a history that is almost intertwined with our own. In a drafted letter to Auden, Tolkien writes that “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world […] the theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time” (Letter 183, p239). Tolkien has imagined a historical period, but has somehow attempted to make it contiguous with our own vision of history. The Lord of the Rings is set in “this earth,” and Tolkien has striven to make this world feel “familiar” to us. In doing this, he draws readers even deeper into his story, and makes us feel part of something bigger – history.