Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Holly and Ruin

In my last blog post, I explored Tolkien’s use of the Atlantis story and its influence on his writing. Tolkien was obsessed with the fall of the Numenoreans, writing and rewriting about their plight throughout his career. However, Tolkien was not just interested in their demise; this week’s readings emphasized that Tolkien was captivated by the traces of fallen civilizations themselves. When passing through Hollin, Legolas discusses a previous race of elves who had lived there. He describes how “only the stones lament them. Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.” (318). Legolas’ elegy is mournful. The poem has no air of consolation or reconciliation—it simply laments the loss of the elves and that no one else has any memory of the elves, their impact, or civilization.
Throughout LOTR Tolkien describes many other ruins: the hobbits and Strider fight on Weathertop, the fellowship marvels at the decaying grandeur of Moria, and Frodo explores Amon Hen while contemplating his next move. Along each step of the journey, members of the fellowship face the ruins and decay of old. These passages resonate with melancholy, but also with awe. When the Fellowship sails down the Anduin, they stare in wonder at the giant statues of Argonoth. While they are on a quest to save their civilization, they constantly encounter relics that remind them how no civilization lives forever, and that, as Gollum’s riddle says, time devours all. The characters struggle with their inevitable end and are struck with wonder of how they can ever live up to the past. Tolkien seems to grapple with questions of transience and decay. Though he realizes his characters are fighting for a battle of survival, he parallels their fight with images of the inevitable rise and fall of civilization.
Tolkien is clearly struck by the frailty and fall of civilizations. I think these passages are significant, however, because they not only prompt questions of transience but also are connected with Tolkien’s stories and ideas of history. Tolkien uses fallen civilizations as fuel for his writing, as he explores civilizations before their fall. To do this, Tolkien bases his stories off of details and seeds from the present world. As we saw in class, Tolkien’s drawings of Rivendell emulate the ruins of Ynys Mon, while Barad Dur is reminiscent of Roman walls. Tolkien did not just lament and mourn the passing of civilizations through his depictions of ruins but also seems to try to cope with his awe and sadness by writing accounts behind fallen civilizations.
Tolkien inlaid these records with incredible depth and breadth of detail. In The Notion Club Papers, Jeremy remarks how creations like Tolkien’s have roots “in the springs of History and in the designs of Geography” (227). Tolkien’s maps can be seen to line up latitudinally with those of Europe. Tolkien used geography as another seed for his stories.
Tolkien also creates vast lineages for his characters. The Annals of Beleriand and the appendices in LOTR seem reminiscent of biblical genealogies. They create a depth to the history in his stories, and give his stories more of an inner logic and familiarity. Tolkien also takes great care in aligning the chronology of Middle Earth so that the civilizations rise and fall in correlation with civilizations viewed in our primary reality. By creating elements of time that align with our primary reality, he continues to root his stories in the past, which give his writing an air of authenticity.
Tolkien however is doing more than simply marking and providing possible stories behind past civilizations. Wainwright connects the old English word Holegn, meaning holly, to the place “Hollin,” the location is where Legolas’ mourns the loss of the elves. While spending the night at Hollin, Tolkien describes how the fellowship stays in a glen “shrouded by great bushes of holly” (318).  Holly is an English symbol for everlasting life. In the midst of sadness over a forgotten civilization, Tolkien inputs a symbol of eternity. I think to Tolkien, the idea of holly, of something eternal, is important to his conception of history.
             In his letters Tolkien describes how the world he writes in is that of man and not of an imaginary world (Letters 239). Tolkien views his writing as something more than stories and mythology, but rather is a work that begins to cross over into the realm of history. In The Notion Club Papers, Jeremy and Ramer defend intermingling ideas of history and myth. Jeremy discusses how real details “crystallize like snowflakes”—and how central to history King Arthur is (227). The legendary king is forever immortalized in history because of his significant impact on our views and conceptions of the past. He has been so influential in our knowledge and beliefs of the Middle Ages that it ceases to be important whether or not he actually lived.
            Tolkien therefore sees history not as an absolute idea, because history and myth can overlap. What people think is important, or what has shaped their views or ideas can be considered a history that is worth studying. In a sense, this is the holly. A character like Arthur, though he may not be someone who actually lived or walked the earth, is significant but because the ideas surrounding him are everlasting.

            Tolkien seems to struggle greatly with the rise and fall of civilizations. He mourns the loss of the tales of the past and leaves his characters to struggle for survival, while being perpetually faced with reminders of the finiteness and transience of life. From this fascination with the fall of civilization, however, Tolkien creates complex stories. However he also uses these stories to create a nuanced idea of what is history. Although his stories may not reflect actual historical events in our time and place, they can still be seen in a way as historical. Tolkien, using seeds from our primary reality, uses the ruins of civilizations to cope with questions about transience and rise and fall, and also to present a new idea of truth in history.


  1. My bad: the images I showed in class were not Rivendell, but the Elven-King's Hall (in Mirkwood?) and Nargothrond in Beleriand.


  2. I'm so sorry!! I definitely mixed it up while taking notes!

  3. Hope,

    You creatively connect some absolutely central, profound themes in this post: transience, loss, history, myth, immortality and continuity. I would say that the invoking an “absolute idea” of history is the one, tiny false step, as Tolkien, as a practitioner of the history of language, seems to have believed firmly that history is a provisional, limited, subjective, and fragmentary practice—not an idea or an absolute. When done right, history, like all inquiry, tries to move in the direction of the Absolute Truth that it knows it’ll never reach. The hobbitish Prof. Tolkien, though possessed of Baggins-like gifts and erudition, had nevertheless a very Gamgeevian humility and diligence in his work.

    Other than that, I think you do a terrific job in tying together the fundamentally tragic view of history that Tolkien constructs across so many of his works, with glorious civilizations going under (sometimes literally) due to inborn flaws present almost at their creation. The parallels with Biblical literature and human history you draw are, to me, all but undeniable fingerposts to his thinking.

    Finally, your invoking his use holly is quite discerning. It is important, and I think it represents not only continuity, as you say, but—appositely enough—Hope, a virtue (of a particular kind) which lies at the heart of The Lord of the Rings

    Bill the Heliotrope