So here’s a fun fact – the word pontiff, used to refer to Catholic bishops in general and the Pope in particular, is popularly etymologized to come from a Latin root meaning “bridge-builder”. In addition to a literal meaning deriving from the priestly duty to maintain bridges over the sacred Tiber river, the term also alludes to the priestly duty to build a bridge from the earthly to the divine, neither elevating the profane nor drawing down the sacred but rather allowing the two worlds to intermingle and effect each other, primarily in the form of receiving divine blessing.
The reason I mention this (probably not all that fun, now that I think about it, but I enjoyed it) piece of trivia is because our classes so far, especially this past Monday, have made me think a lot about bridges (and, to a lesser extent, etymologies). Tolkien’s entire project, as we have discussed at length, was an act of sub-creation, to make through his stories a Secondary Reality to fit into our Primary one. He was focused on the great work not just to appease audiences like Nokes, whose focus in making the Great Cake was that it be pretty to the children, but almost for its own sake, to make something of substance.
But the Great Cake, despite Alf’s distaste for its frivolousness, was meant to be eaten, and Tolkien must at some point regard the audience. Middle-Earth can’t work if no one reads Tolkien’s books. But he cannot “betray” the work for the sake of appeasement either, as he has shown by the way he treats his writings and ideas as given things of which he is in many ways a transcriber. When something he wrote on later reflection didn’t make sense or didn’t fit the tone, Tolkien didn’t always (though he did sometimes) just go back and change it, but treated it as it was and tried to “find” an explanation for what he saw. The work must stand on its own, but must also draw readers in a way that a collection of strange tales of imaginary lands cannot do alone.
Tolkien’s task, it appears, was not to bring Middle-Earth to his readers, but to bring his readers to Middle-Earth. To accomplish this, he used plenty of different methods, but two that we have discussed the most (and which I was the most interested in) was the Elf-friend and etymologies. In the former we have a character who is in the fantastic world of the books, but not quite of it. This character serves as both a framing device and as, well, a character, driving events and the plot. Frodo, then, is an Elf-friend, as is Bilbo, or the Smith’s grandfather, or Aelfwine. In a more general sense Tolkien is himself an elf-friend, as is his son Christopher and, debatably (as shown by our debate), even Peter Jackson. The elf-friend allows us to be brought into the world of the sub-creation by someone familiar with it, but not intimately so. Were they less intimate, we’d run the risk of just reading an editor describe stories devoid of real meaning – more intimate, and the elves (no longer elf-friends) might seem so different from us as to offer us no hope of bringing us into their world. The Elf-friend, the pontiff, the guide, eases us in and takes us safely and carefully out of our world into Faerie.
The second tool, as mentioned, was etymologies. To further connect the audience and the work, Tolkien blurred the lines between fiction and reality, making his world the origin of ours: “Hey Diddle-Diddle” is a half-remembered garbled version of one of Bilbo’s songs, a half-elf has become, in modern stories, an angel. Through these tidy little origins, Tolkien again familiarizes us with what might have been an alien world, and allows it to be fulfilling to us.
Let me put it another way. Neil Gaiman once described Tolkien’s writings as “like natural things, like rock formations or waterfalls”. The Lord of the Rings is so potent, so couldn’t-be-other, in a way that makes clear that Middle-Earth was itself a labor of love, where he described a land that was already there. But so too was Niggle’s painting, which was not complete without Parish’s help. Now the importance of the audience to the completion of the work in Niggle’s case is clear, but what I think is even more important is that Niggle didn’t bring his painting to Parish. Parish came to Niggle’s slice of the afterlife, and there they worked together to complete something that the creator was foolish to have once believed belonged only to him. What’s so magnificent about Tolkien’s work is that the audience does not feel like one for whom this great story was written, but like the recipient of an invitation into a fantastic world. Concessions to the audience feel like just that – a way to ease the audience into a world that exists almost independently of them. The elf-friends hold our hands, the etymologies provide familiar landmarks. Even the conceit that The Lord of the Rings is translated fits into this framework, as it is meant to help an audience who might, for some unfathomable reason, not read Westron.
Tolkien’s genius, I think, did not lie in the novel’s work of reaching an audience, but in an unparalleled act of world-building and in guiding the audience to that world. Clearly he is not at all interested in bringing the mountain to Muhammed, but Muhammed could not have hoped for better help in getting to the mountain.