I think the most interesting part of Monday’s readings was Tolkien’s statement that the issue of mortality was a major motivation in his work. This struck me as strange at first; given the fact that Tolkien has created a universe whose inhabitants live for a fantastically long amount of time, sometimes forever. In the perspective of Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories, it makes sense that these characters live for such a long time because it lends an enchantment to them and makes them intriguingly different from the primary reality. The desire for immortality, then, is an attempt to keep the secondary reality partiality grounded to the primary.
Tolkien states that his definition of the fundamental human activity, sub-creation, is driven by an attempt at immortality.
“With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it.” (Letter 131)
In this quote, Tolkien tells us that desire is not scientifically vital to life and because we have nothing better to do with it, we focus creative desire into the world. The world is ephemeral in a cosmological perspective and therefore our sub-creations will fade with time, a depressing realization for a life’s work. Therefore the goal of the inhabitants of Middle-Earth( and Man himself) is to attempt to transcend time. Characters that achieve this in the Lord of The Rings Universe include Feanor, whose Silmarils are responsible for approximately six hundred years of history and inspire great and terrible deeds in numerous characters helping them cement their place in legend of Middle-Earth and therefore in true immortality. The crafting of the One Ring by Sauron does much of the same.
There are, of course, ways to achieve immortality without participating in sub-creation. Sam and Frodo’s conversation on the steps of Cirith Ungol( a personal favorite scene) is representative of that. They recall the tale of Beren and Luthien and discover that they themselves are part of the same story, based on the fact that they own a part of the same light that Beren and Luthien stole ages ago. Sam contemplates “All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales”(LOTR 712) It has occurred to Sam that he and Frodo have stumbled into a major conflict in the history of Middle-Earth, the kind of conflicts that are immortalized. By embarking on the journey to Mount Doom, both Frodo and Sam have guaranteed their place in the legend of Middle-Earth, despite the success of their mission.
I believe Tolkien is attempting to cement his immortality much in the same way. He writes the Lord of the Rings saga and beyond as an attempt to create a mythology for the citizens of England. His methodology for creating this legend has its roots in philology, using the creation of the etymology of words as inspiration for writing. Perhaps this is how Tolkien has found the cleverest way of achieving immortality. In the same way that Sam and Frodo have become part of the history of Middle-Earth, Tolkien through a philological approach to literature has become immortal. The expanded nursery rhyme that Frodo sings in Bree is a perfect example. Tolkien has taken a rhyme almost universally taught to children of an English-speaking background and completed it, making it hard to dissociate the nursery rhyme from the Lord of The Rings and therefore Tolkien himself. Another example of this is his translation of Beowulf. Once released, Tolkien will have had his hand in the way generations remember the fundamental epic of Beowulf, like a number of other literary greats such as Borges and Heaney. By creating etymologies for words both scientifically and through mythology, Tolkien puts his mark on the word, forever changing how we understand it and where it comes from. Honestly it makes me wonder how much of our speech is attributed to Tolkien and if his philological methods help shape the alluring quality of his work. Tolkien has achieve his immortality through both sub-creation (his writings) and his participation in a grand overarching tale, the history of the English Language.
Tolkien’s fragments are his way of elevating himself to immortal status of his creations such as Beren and Luthien, Feanor and Hurin. As he says in another rebuttal of allegory, described in Letter 203, “But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!”