Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Taking Root: Tolkien and the Land

          In The Notion Club Papers Tolkien writes through the voice of Jeremy: “[Legends and myths] are not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots” (History of Middle Earth 9 227). In this context Jeremy means roots to be something abstract; in other words, he is citing the broad concepts of Being, History, and Geography to be the roots, or foundations, of the worlds of myths pushing his claim that fantasy is not pure invention. Fiction is a trick, but myth is a major construction of a secondary world that is rooted into reality (228). And, like I said, in this context construction and roots are figurative, but I want to argue that Tolkien could have also meant literal roots. History and language are crucial to the creation of Tolkien’s legendarium, but it can also be discerned that the physical land is just as influential. Therefore, I am willing to conjecture that construction as we discussed in class today not only encompasses recruiting history and the Past but also the landscapes.
            The idea is already supported by Jeremy in The Notion Club Papers because, as I paraphrased above, legends and myths have roots in geography, the solid Earth of our reality. While Jeremy does not elaborate on the “designs of Geography” further into the night’s records, the author Tom Shippey has his own study. In Shippey’s discussion of Elves and their relationship to land, for instance, he lingers on the word choice of “fade” as in turning into stone and integrating with the landscape. The Elves are a people already closely related with the physical Earth having nurtured it and made it beautiful throughout their infinite lives, but in the Third Age Elrond, Galadriel, and others recognize the coming of the end. Thus, the Elves must choose and Shippey writes that turning into the landscape would be their best choice for staying in Middle-earth. My understanding is in doing so the Elves retain their permanence by combining with the physical landscape which defies time in its own way. The Elves and the land share the power of immortality, yet unlike the Elves Middle-earth is timeless and does not change when its inhabits come and go. As Shippey writes, submitting themselves to the earth
“assure[s] them a kind of existence, a kind of integrity with the land they come from” (134). The earth will last forever, and its role is to host a diversity of peoples, take up their histories, and preserve them when the people leave. Tolkien, therefore, can go to the land itself to determine or construct its past inhabitants and imagine their histories and their effects on the landscape.
            Shippey also makes a claim to Middle-earth’s timelessness and absorptive qualities in discussing the Hobbits. He writes that they “were immigrants too, that their land had had a history before them” (109). I take this to mean that the land the Hobbits now inhabit, the Shire, has been an aspect of Middle-earth for many centuries before the Hobbits arrived, playing host to many other kinds of creatures and species, and none of which can be confirmed as fact or as fantasy. Most importantly, though, this land has played host for centuries and it will continue to do so as time passes as it takes in history’s roots. In this way, Middle-earth is continuous to our own reality because its landscapes could be the very ones we, or really the English, can observe in the present. As we saw in our class today, Middle-earth can be mapped to fit uncannily well onto a modern map of Europe, and the latitudinal consistencies are revealing of the fantasy’s roots in reality. Tolkien has taken the physical geography of primary reality as an anchor to his secondary reality, and in using the land as foundation to his sub-creations he constructs this story that is a creation but could also be the real, true Past.
            Perhaps my argument will be verified by Tolkien’s words themselves from his letter to Hugh Brogan and his notes from W. H. Auden’s review of The Return of the King. I have been of the belief that Tolkien’s fantasies are based not only in philology and history but also in the “roots,” the physical landscape of his country. In fact, through his language and philological research, his world of Middle-earth, he asserts to Mr. Brogan from a letter in 1954, “is just archaic English…the inhabited world of men. It lay then as it does. In fact just as it does, round and inescapable” (Letters 186). Tolkien points out here that his word “Middle-earth” is not made up at all, but instead he adopted it in his stories as a derivative of an ancient English word for the space where men live. Then he presses that this space for men is the same as it is now, men still inhabit Middle-earth because it is the same place as it was for the ancient English.

            Well then, how about all the Elves and the Ring and the Hobbits? Tolkien surely doesn’t believe these creatures and situations are real, does he? No, he is perfectly aware that it was his mind that came up with Frodo and the rest of them, but Tolkien is not about to deny the existence of its roots because it would be difficult to deny the reality of the earth. In his notes on Auden’s review he writes: “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’ – which is our habitation” (244). It is just as Jeremy asserts in The Notion Club Papers: the invention is not unattached because it has to be grounded in something real, whether that is humanity, history, or geography. Tolkien has rooted his construction in the land; the physical landscape he lived in was inspiration for the stories. I am arguing that the reason he has been able to construct a secondary reality out of this geography is because of land’s permanence compared to creatures’ mortality, or impermanence in the case of the Elves. As Shippey writes of the Hobbits, they are just guests to a land that has existed without them and hosted many others; in other words, the inhabitants have changed, but the land remains the same, if a little worn down by traffic. Tolkien takes advantage of the landscape as a reservoir of many different histories, some “real” according to academics and some less stable, and he sees in the land as the collective history of all these secondary worlds. 

- K. Beach

1 comment:

  1. K.,

    Thanks for the post. You raise some really interesting issues and tie together some of the core issues of Tolkien’s work: myth, history, immortality, reality, and fantasy. And as you describe, they’re not easy to tease out and treat discretely.

    I think your comments—on what Tolkien might have thought the connection between the more fantastic elements (like immortal elves) and the historical continuties he seems to have elaborately cultivated upon the firm belief of the truth (representational and, in some ways, historical) of myth were—deserve some further and closer analysis.

    To pick a puckish thread at the edge of the question: Is it possible that he felt that, somewhere in the distant past, there must have actually, historically been something, someone like an “elf,” in his sense? After all, he seems to derive so much about them…

    Moreover, if we can take the Notion Club character’s words on the éala éarendel verse to represent Tolkien’s own view (an open question), one wonders how much and what Tolkien might have intuited were the resonant truths lost and hidden behind the few, tiny, slight ancient traces which have come down to us. One suspects his elaborate, lifelong (not to say obsessive) elaboration and discernment of them was for him a pursuit of lost truths.

    I rather suspect his private thoughts (if we don’t have them all in his work) might surprise and baffle us somewhat, as children of a positivist age, but that’s merely my intution of what was is, of course, now lost to the world of Men…

    So, just to give you some room for thought, yes, even given the landscape as an anchor of permanence, we can really wonder and examine just how real, how true, and in what sense of reality and truth, Tolkien meant to conjoin his and all our Middle-Earth–Midgard–Midden-geard–oikumenë–‘ecumenical’ places, times, events, and people.

    Bill the Heliotrope