This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats mountains down.
- Gollum, to Bilbo Baggins, a riddle whose answer is “time”
There is a crucial gap between our perceptions of the present and the past. The past is, of course, only defined in relation to the present (the past must have taken place before the current moment). In another sense, the past is only the collection of all previous presents; it is the present, only displaced in time. This displacement, however, prevents us from actually being able to understand the reality of the past. History, then, is just an interpretation of the surviving records of the past. Even with a complete record, recreating the reality of the past is an impossibility.
Tolkien was aware of the yawning gap between past and present. It was what allowed him to create his mythology of England. “And what do you know about ‘true past events’,” Ramer asks of Frankley in The Notion Club Papers. “Have you ever seen one, when once it was past? They are all stories or tales now, aren’t they, if you try to bring them back into the present?” If all history is stories of the past, then mythology or fantasy may just be another way to tell a story of the past. Ramer continues a little later, “People of the future, if they only knew the records and studied them, and let their imagination work on them, till the Notion Club became a sort of secondary world set in the Past,” they were able to read the Club minutes and understand it in the present. But only as a story, as a “secondary world” – putting it on the same plane as The Lord of the Rings. It is possible, Tolkien thus seems to be suggesting, that LotR could have taken place in some form within the history of this world. At the very least, he considered Middle-Earth to be a real place. In a letter to Hugh Brogan, he wrote, “Middle-earth is just archaic English for… the inhabited world of men. It lay then as it does [now]… round and inescapable.”
But, of course, the specifics of the history within LotR do not match any recorded history; it is fantasy, closer to Arthurian legend than to Hamlet or Macbeth. In a response to a review of LotR, Tolkien explains his thinking a little further: “The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.” Though Middle-Earth may be a form of Europe, it has a more nebulous relationship with the history of Europe. This contrasts with the setting of “Farmer Giles of Ham”, which is not only explicitly in southern England, but also in a distinct time. It is not a specific time – the narrator states that the story place after King Coel but before Arthur and the Seven Kingdoms of the English, yet the title character has a blunderbuss (and there are giants and dragons) – but it can be fit within a specific period of history. The stories of Middle-Earth cannot be fit into history in the same way. One might say that “Farmer Giles” is a false history form of fantasy, while LotR is a mythology form of fantasy; the latter is in a separate level of [something missing here?]
It cannot be dated in the same way that “Farmer Giles” can; Tolkien only states that, “The new situation, established at the end of the Third Age, leads on eventually inevitably to ordinary History,” placing the events more properly in a prehistory or legendary history. But such as it is with all mythology or legend: how long did Zeus reign on Mount Olympus? Or, to take an example a little bit closer to the topic, how long ago did knights and dragons fight in “Farmer Giles”? Within LotR, Tolkien created a detailed timeline that explains the specific relationship of events, but it only exists within that secondary reality, not within our primary reality like the ‘legends’ of dragons in “Farmer Giles” might. The latter’s direct link to our history makes it different in kind from LotR.
To return to the point, Tolkien’s stories exploit the gap between the past we can perceive and the past as it really happened. There would be no room for mythology without it. Tolkien is thus able to create a ‘reality’ that exists within the ‘history’ of Europe; an imagined time in a real place. But this is not to say that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is set in Europe. Continuing from his quote about an imaginary period in history, Tolkien says, “The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar.” [My emphasis] This feeling of familiarity was obviously an important part of Tolkien’s work, but it is just that, a feeling. The Shire is not meant as a stand-in for England; it only evokes it or acts as its analogue. To set a story in a real place is to set it in a specific real time, much as “Farmer Giles” takes place in England during the Medieval Period. But LotR is meant to be mythological, a separate secondary reality with respect to our primary reality.
- Matthew Neer