We have spent a quarter immersed in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, populated by hobbits, orcs, dwarves, elves, and wizards, and now our journey has come to an end. In class, we discussed the meaning of an end to something, and the different ways we can think of the end. Some people said there never is an end - the stories have stayed with them and become a part of who they are and the fabric of their everyday lives. Some said something has ended, but the end is an opportunity to a new beginning - a new reading and a new experience. Still others pointed out that if anything ends, it would be us. The stories are immortal, but we are not. As A.S. Byatt said in "Old Tales, New Forms": "At one point my heroine (who has an Alice-in-Wonderland English empirical stubbornness) realizes that both the many-breasted Diana of Ephesus and the Djinn are more real than she herself, in her mortal and fragile body. More people have known and have believed in the goddess than will ever believe in her....I understood that the tales had power because they were alive everywhere. A myth derives force from its endless repeatability." (132)
This is the end of our class on hobbits and elves, but it is by no means the end of the tales themselves. They have existed long before us and will exist even when we're gone. As Byatt and Professor Fulton-Brown said in class, it is the young who often feel immortal, while the aging become more and more aware of the fact that we are mortal and in human affairs there is always an end. An end is hard to deal with even for a grown-up. In A Whistling Woman, though the adults acted slightly better than the kids at Agatha's end to the story, they still felt shocked and affronted. Frederica withdrew into her defenses when she thought her love affair was nearing an end. When Leo decries that Agatha's ending isn't a "real end," Frederica replies, "What's a real end? It is always the end that is the most unreal bit..." While stories live on in their infinite repeatability, they do end in the sense that stories do not literally go on forever. What do we do when a story has ended?
Byatt's title "Old Tales, New Forms" is one answer. To tell and retell a story is to make it immortal. Byatt says, “The pleasure of writing was in...a sense that I was myself partaking in the continuity of the tales by retelling them in a new context in a way old and new.” (131) Stories outlive any single person. They are bigger than anyone, even the author. In contrasting modern novels and stories, the Cardinal in Blixen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” says, “It [the novel] is a noble art, a great earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. The human characters came on the sixth day only and the day of judgment will be the end of the story.” (133) To tell and retell a story is to make it immortal, and it is also to engage in the sub-creation of something bigger than us. Byatt said that storytelling has a lot to do with death and biologic time; perhaps storytelling allows human beings, who are mortal, to be immortal.
As sub-creators who carry on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in our own projects, then, we are engaging in something important. The readings assigned for our last class are themselves examples of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work being carried out after his death, and into new contexts and wider horizons. A.S. Byatt in Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman writes a story within a story. Frederica reads The Hobbit to her son Leo, and Agatha tells a story within Byatt’s story. They are stories of storytelling. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is also a story about storytelling. Tolkien did not create his stories - he transmitted the stories of the hobbits, of the elves, of Middle Earth. His stories are bigger than us because they are not just about humans. Unlike the modern novel, it’s not about psychology, it’s not even about people. Stories have existed before the individual existed. As the Cardinal says, “‘Madame, I have been telling you a story. Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water. You will see the characters of the true story clearly, as if luminous and on a higher plane, and at the same time they may not look quite human, and you may well be a little afraid of them. That is all in the order of things...” (133) Critics who criticize Tolkien for writing a fairytale, or for not developing the psyche of a character, are not looking at the stories that came before the modern novel and their importance in the world. In the Happening within Babel Tower and in our own Happening as well, we are sub-creators engaging in the creative act through which we have built our world. At the end of our journey we are reminded of the beginning, where we opened up with Tolkien’s Mythopoeia:
Man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seeds of dragons, ‘twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.