Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Immortality through Fragmentation

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!” 
 -Javon Brown


  1. In many ancient religions, there exists an idea of two sorts of death. One, where the body dies, is the first. But the second sort occurs when there is no one alive who knows the name and works of the one who died-and this death is absolute. But for someone like Tolkien-whose works are known, whose name is remembered, it would be impossible to have this sort of "absolute" death. Every word of Elvish spoken is a word that Tolkien gave life to. His works form a sort of mythology, but he himself has inserted himself into this mythology-he is the immortal storyteller of Middle Earth, the connection between the realms of reality and fantasy. When Christopher Tolkien took up his father's work and put it in the History of Middle Earth, he wraps his father and his creation together-it becomes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. In a way, Tolkien has imprinted part of his soul in his work-and so long as his work lives on, so does he. And unlike Sauron, it's much easier to drop a ring into the fires of Mt. Doom than it would be to completely eradicate all traces and memories of Tolkien in the millions of people who have read-and shared-his work.

    -N Rossum

  2. I agree that the trilogy’s focus on mortality is at least partially demonstrated by the Elves. Their immortality obviously plays as a foil to the mortality of Men/Hobbits/legions of Orcs. I do however, disagree that Tolkein consciously created the trilogy to achieve literary immortality.
    For one, Tolkein credits his obsession with languages as the Legendarium’s foundation, a project he had been working on since he was small. I find it hard to believe that teenage Tolkein was particularly concerned with his mortality, mostly cause that sort of topic is far from the minds of most young men. While the argument can be made that the death of his parents and his military service affected his worldview, everything we have seen in his correspondence belies the idea that he was concerned with his own legacy. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the stories found him, rather than being crafted to some conscious goal. He credits many of his ideas as coming from dreams. Others, like the Ents, were written without much conscious calculus. This spontaneity and limited agency on Tolkein’s part makes me think that he was not particularly directed towards achieving immortality.
    Moving to a different point, you posit that the inhabitants of Middle-Earth seek to transcend time with long lasting/eternal creations. I think an interesting contrast to this idea is the Army of the Dead. Here is a collection of warriors that is even more immortal than the Elves. Imagine, if Aragorn had been pulverized by a random troll in the North, the specters would never have been granted rest. In this instance, a group of people had become immortal, completely independent of any creative action. While their civilization did not peter out immediately, Return of the King does not mention any great works or efforts by the Oathbreakers to stave off death; it was merely the curse of Elendil that shackled them to Middle Earth. While the Oathbreakers refused to march against Sauron due to their love of the primary world/fear of death/feelings of mortality, their lack of creative action does somewhat complicate Legendarium’s concept of immortality.

  3. I agree with many of the claims here, particularly the idea that Tolkien has achieved a form of immortality through sub-creation - but I'm not sure that I agree that it's his philological approach to literature that has made him immortal. I feel like it verges on blasphemy to say this (and I'm sure it'd displease Tolkien), but I don't think it's the philology in his work has any particularly large impact on why it's so lasting, at least not directly.

    I have the utmost respect for the languages and etymologies Tolkien created, in fact I'm completely in awe of most of his philological methods and attention to detail- but philology isn't what drew me to the works as a child, it's not what interests me about the books now. I care about the use of language in the stories because I care so deeply about the characters and the journey - taken separately from the story, I have very little interest in Tolkien's languages. It would be crazy to say that nobody is attracted to Tolkien's work primarily because of the philological power of the stories, but I'd be willing to bet those individuals represent a vast minority within Tolkien's readership.

    I think there's something much more psychologically appealing to large audiences than philology which makes Tolkien so immortal. It's the synthesis of many things - how relatable hobbits are, the yearning for adventure meshed with fear of peril (I loved when Tolkien spoke of this in On Fairy Stories - "I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world... the heart is hard thought the body be soft"), the great adventure, the beauty in the battle for goodness and righteousness, the and beautiful world which he managed to create. Philology is certainly a part of this beauty, a piece of the complex detail of Tolkien's world which he cared greatly about and which contributed enormous amounts to the actual creation of the world, but just a piece nonetheless. In my opinion, the works are immortal because of the countless interwoven threads that create the incredible stories. Philology is just one of those threads, hardly the key the immortality of the works.


  4. The notion that we too have the potential to leave our own fragments throughout time and space, the way that the figures of the Great Stories were able to, is absolutely fascinating, and I believe that this idea begs the question: what makes a fragment? Tolkien has provided us with a variety of examples--the languages of his subcreation that fuse our primary reality with secondary realities, tangible objects such as the One Ring and the light of Beren and Luthien, and the tales which intermingle the two--that seem to each have a unifying characteristic: that which becomes a fragment is able to hold a physical form throughout the ages in some manner. There are the objects that Tolkien’s characters can hold, but there is also the physical form and aesthetic that language has. Tolkien discusses the physicality of language in his letter to Auben--delineating a number of languages that have come to him because they have a particular taste and physical form. This form that language is able to take on allows it to reverberate throughout the ages and link together the past and present. Fragments, in some manner, have take on a physical form that lets them attain the immortality of which you speak.

    - Megan Porter

  5. Javon, thanks for a provocative post!

    Myself, I’d hesistate to ascribe such a motive to Tolkien without some biographical or psychological support, but it’s certainly a possibility. I think Tolkien would agree that all artists—and indeed most people—are to some degree hoping to transcend the tiny window of time we’re given to live in some respect. The most common way, of course, is through one’s children—children inevitably bear some bit of you down through the generations long after you’re gone, just as you yourself bear some inheritance of your long-dead forebears. As I'm not a man of the 1930s, my ideas on the nature and significance of this inheritance are rather different from Tolkien’s, but it’s hard to argue that some aspects of our nature are rooted in our biological being, and that we get those from our parents who got them from &c. &c. &c.

    Culture might also be seen (more controversially, I think) as having a similar geneological lines, if ones a bit more subject to radical changes in direction.

    The question of whether immortality is a good thing or a bad thing seems to be one of the richest in Tolkien, and if it seizes your imagination, would probably make a great paper topic.

    On Tolkien himself, he seems to have been a personally fairly modest and unassuming guy. Do you think this is inconsistent with the powerful desire for immortality you divine? Or merely his human personality versus his artistic will?

    Bill the Heliotrope

  6. I similarly do not think it is Tolkien's philological work that makes his work immortal. Nor do I think that Tolkien's desire for immortality in art was particularly stronger or lesser than any other artist's. In fact, he speaks to that point in the last quote you mention from one of his letters: "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!" Art for many millions of years has served as a place for man to attempt to be immortal, and Tolkien does not fancy himself different than any other men throughout history in this regard. I personally wonder how much Tolkien's own interest in immortality relates to his faith. Because Christians are promised immortality through Christ, I think his Elves might be creatures through which he is thinking what immortality might look like more fully. This is not to say that Tolkien thinks Christians in the afterlife are going to become Elves, but they are the "first children" of Iluvatar and in that way closer to him. The relationships of mortals with immortals also provides a place for Tolkien to think more about self-sacrifice - a sacrifice even to death, which is the sacrifice Christ made.


  7. I, too, hesitate to place the desire for immortality upon Tolkien, as in the Legendarium mortality is a great gift to the race of men. But, thinking through your references to philology, I find myself musing on the role of a professor. Is it not the desire to mold, to enrich, to make your mark upon successive generations by which the most devoted of lecturers find themselves in teaching roles?

    The Legendarium feels to me as though it's a teaching tool--a project left for his students and for the world--to take his teachings to heart and to entrench themselves in his teaching. In this, the Legendarium becomes an extension of his primary attempt at--again, should we ascibe this to Tolkien--immortality.