Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Giving the Ordinary Meaning

             Picture something ordinary, a pen for instance. If, say, you picture the pen on your desk at home, pulled from a box bought from the office supply store, perhaps this pen seems rather ordinary. But what if someone told you this pen was the first pen to go up in space? Or the one with which the first manuscript of The Hobbit was written? The pen may seem to have greater importance now. But what changed? How could an inanimate everyday object somehow seem interesting and significant? It is because that pen has gained a history. This is exactly the technique by which Tolkien is able to make the ordinary extraordinary: by giving a unique and important history to something that may seem completely normal, such as the town in which he lives, a peasant farmer, or a single golden ring.
            Tolkien, in his Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, wrote that he wanted to create a legend “which [he] could dedicate to England; [his] country…redolent of [the] ‘air’...the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131, p.144). But someone may ask, why write a mythology on a topic so literally close to home, when fantasy and imagination could give an author endless possibility? By giving Britain a history, the mythology of Middle-earth, he gives the land he lives on an ancient significance, going back to the dawn of time.
             Tolkien’s short story Farmer Giles of Ham is his way of giving Britain it’s history in an extremely direct way- by making a history of his neighboring towns. As Tom Shippey writes, Farmer Giles of Ham “is the only one of [Tolkien’s] stories set unmistakably in England…Ham is now Thame, a town in Buckinghamshire twelve miles east of Oxford. Worminghall is four miles away, and Oakley which had its parson eaten, five” (The Road to Middle-earth, p.98). The ‘Britain’ of the Little Kingdom in Farmer Giles is not, however, the same one its author was living in. Shippey continues to say,  “Tolkien wanted to re-create a timeless and idealized England (or rather Britain) in which the place and the people remained the same regardless of politics” (The Road to Middle-earth, p.98).  Tolkien essentially takes his surrounding neighborhoods and creates the Little Kingdom from them. The land itself is similar, but its significance is instantly heightened. The Standing Stones become a place where a real dragon lies, and a small town becomes one that experiences his extraordinary taming.  Tolkien adds history to these ordinary places, and suddenly they seem extraordinary today.
             Farmer Giles himself serves as an example of taking something commonplace and ennobling and enriching it. A farmer is one of the most commonplace people to exist. A society can’t survive without farmers, simply because they are they main source of food for the people. Farmer Giles seems to the reader a most ordinary farmer at the start of the story (aside from perhaps his talking dog), living in a most ordinary village. Giles’s history shapes his life and his significance to his people on a micro-scale. As his dumb luck “defeating the giant” leads him into local fame, his reputation is the first step in his growing importance. The giant has added to Giles’s history, and given him a story that has become part of his life, adding meaning and improving his reputation. He becomes giant slayer, and then dragon tamer, and finally King. As Giles’s history continues to unfold, he becomes a more and more significant, important, and valuable person because of the events he has lived through, a smaller-scale version of what Tolkien is doing with all of England in his short story.
             The Lord of the Rings itself is full of giving history to the commonplace. Hobbits, a most ordinary sort, suddenly become mythical Halflings when they are mentioned in the prophecy. Characters we meet in the story can trace their ancestry back many years, some to the beginning of known history. The mythology of Middle-earth is Tolkien’s history of Britain. He gives Britain a history, through detailed Appendices of past rulers, warriors, and enemies, as well as through detailed chronologies of the stories of Middle-earth’s past, to make those who read his mythology understand the real significance and importance of Britain, his country. By giving Britain it’s own mythology, previously unknown stories of heroic adventures in its past, the ground itself is living evidence of the country’s mighty history.  While as a whole mythology of Middle-earth may seem fully fantastical, they still give present day Britain a history that shows that it is beautiful, important, and significant today.
             This reason is perhaps why Tolkien felt it was so important to call his mythology a ‘history’. History in particular is what gives something its value. To make Britain’s mythology have significance to Britain, Tolkien needed to be “historically minded” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 183, p.239). He writes in his Letter 151 to Hugh Brogan, “Middle-earth is just archaic English for…the inhabited world of men. It lay then as it does…[and] leads on…inevitably to ordinary History” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 151, p.186). It has to be the history behind our world for it to make the biggest impact on how readers of Lord of the Rings see Britain and “ordinary life” before and after reading his books. “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 183, p.239), and it should not be thought of as one; it is as real as any other history of Britain.

-Suryalekha Rajan


  1. In your first example of a pen you choose two extraordinary events as the history of the pen. It's very exciting to think of the first pen to have gone into space or the pen which wrote the words of the first manuscript of The Hobbit, yet I do not think such a wonderful history is needed. Tolkien certainly likes the common becoming extraordinary, with Farmer Giles of Ham being an obvious example, but history does not need to be extraordinary to be important. Tolkien remarked on Sam being the chief hero of the Lord of the Rings. But his heroism was the sort of heroism that is seen in the most mundane of situations. He returns to a friend in need, even though that friend had scorned him. He gave up something extremely tempting. He carried his friend when his friend could not walk. It is only by coincidence that Sam made these choices while on a quest to save the world. And that makes for very exciting history. But these acts of heroism which are woven through Sam's history could have happened living with the Shire. It's the everyday actions that form most of our histories. And these little actions might very well be as heroic as Sam's.

  2. I very much enjoyed this post, and I especially appreciated your recognition of Farmer Giles as a sort of living example of Tolkien's project as a whole. It really spurs me to pursue this thread further. Not only can we trace how Tolkien does this throughout, Daniel very wisely points to Sam as a key example of this, but also we can examine what the consequences of this ennobling is. Tolkien ennobles England with his myth/history-making. What then does this ennobled England "look" like? What does it tell us about England and about the world more generally? Fascinating questions that strike at what I take to be the heart (or at least *a* heart) of Tolkien's project.

    In response to Daniel, I'd push back a little against the idea that Sam's actions are properly characterized as "mundane," or as the result of coincidence (indeed, suggesting that it is coincidence seems to me to ignore the clear sense that Providence is playing a hand in everything that occurs with LotR) Certainly storming an orc fortress is no mundane or ordinary thing, even if it is a manifestation of a down-to-Earth and pure sort of loyalty. However, I think you're largely right that Tolkien is trying to say that there is an inherent heroism, perhaps the greatest heroism of all, within the ordinary.