Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Story We Share

          Often Tolkien is described as someone who, feeling that England lacked its own proper and unique mythology, created his own mythology to fill what was missing. Of course, to a certain extent, this is true; Tolkien himself stated, “I was from the early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own . . ., not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands” (Letters 144). Yet, to argue that Tolkien was filling in what England lacked would be to ignore what Tolkien actually viewed himself as doing.    
            Tolkien states in his letter to Milton Waldman that, with regards to his “imaginary world”, “I do not remember a time when I was not building it” (Letters 143). This provides an interesting contrast to when he later states, “always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (Letters 145). I think that there is an important distinction between building and ‘inventing’ for Tolkien. Tolkien does not see himself as someone simply making up a story from nothing. In his essay On Fairy Tales, Tolkien uses a similar metaphor to the builder when he says, “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, lower and fruit are manifested in glory” (Reader 78). The good fantasy writer is a craftsman and builder; he takes his material from the Primary world and, by building on that material, makes the original material even more beautiful. For me personally, Tolkien had a profound effect on the way I look at nature and, in particular, at trees. The Ents especially were my favorite creation of Tolkien and his descriptions of forests have made them in my eyes more mysterious and wondrous than they appeared to me before. For this I am very grateful.
            Of course, the existence of Gram, Pegasus, and Trees in a story and their relation to the Primary world do not lead alone to the story having any claim to being myth or history.  So how does Tolkien make his work not only fantastical but also mythical and historical? In class, we spoke about how Tolkien uses scraps and fragments as the basis for his myths. For example, in Lord of the Rings, we discover that the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle, Diddle” is in fact from Bilbo’s song about The Man in the Moon (LotR 158-60). Another example, which I remember from middle school thinking was absurd, humorous, and clever, is the origin of the game golf; according to The Hobbit, we received that incredibly tame and restrained game from the hobbit Bullroarer lopping off the head of a goblin king named Golfimbul.
            These little ties to the world we live in alone would not, however, are not enough to present convincingly a world with hobbits and elves and goblins as being the same world that we exist in. This is where the importance of Elf-friends comes in. The Elf-friend is, as Flieger states, “the link, the connector or mediator between the ‘real’ or natural world and the world of Faerie-the supernatural world of myth and imagination” (185). Without the Elf-friend, Tolkien, by being the sole transmitter as the narrator, would be susceptible to appearing to be doing no more than fabricating or ‘inventing’ stories; the Elf-friend is what allows Tolkien to make the claim truthfully that he felt like he was recording what was ‘already there’. The Elf-friend allows Tolkien to, as Flieger states, “gratify his mostly deeply held desires – to participate in myth firsthand, to converse with other kinds of beings, to visit other dimensions of time and space, to experience, in humans forms and human terms, something of the believers sense of awe and wonder at the supernatural. Aelfwine provided Tolkien a way to participate in his own mythology” (189-90).
            Sam’s realization that he’s in the same story of the Simaril leads him to ask, “Don’t the great tales never end?” and Frodo’s response ‘No, they never end as tales, But the people in them come, and go, when their part’s ended. Our part will end later- or sooner” (713). When I first read this, I thought that Frodo was just being morbid; that he meant that his part in the story ended with his death. However, the part of the Elf-friend’s in the story does not end in death. In class, Professor Brown brought our attention to the last line in The Lord of the Rings, a line which I had not ever given any thought to. “He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said”. Sam’s role in the story was over, but, like Bilbo, he afterwards transmits the stories to others in writing. By coming back home, he is able to connect the world of faeries and elves to the real or natural world that we live in. Similarly, the elf-friend Smith also must return back and transmit the world of faeries to humans, although in his case it is not through writing but through the giving up of the moon star. We should be very thankful towards Tolkien for using Elf-friends as the transmitter of the fairy world to use. It is the Elf-friend who makes it possible to believe that the world we live in is not all that we see; that elves exist and that we do not just have to live solitary and contained lives but that we can also have our part in the great tales that never end. 

-F. E. Whitehouse


  1. To be fair, I wouldn't say that all of these other examples are incompatible with the idea that Tolkien was attempting to craft an "English mythology." That being said, I definitely agree that Tolkien didn't see what he did as creation from absolutely nothing, and that the "materials" he used to craft Middle Earth were definitely fragments of our world, both in the case of natural objects like trees (which I share your sentiment that Tolkien gives one a sort of spiritual appreciation for nature) and in more ephemeral things like dreams, which Tolkien draws from both within (through various fictional elf-friends) and outside of his world (such as the dreams he had which would eventually become the Numenor story).

    I also find your point that placing elf-friends makes the story more believable to be an interesting one. At the very least I agree that it gives him a framework from which to make the claim that this world already exists independent from ours in some sense. Also I don't think that his placing of fragments like "Hey Diddle Diddle" is indicative of Tolkien trying to establish a direct historical path from Middle Earth to our world, only that there is some sort of link (e.g. dreams) between our world and others like Middle Earth such that fragments can travel between them.

    -Chris Eidsmoe

  2. I am not quite sure I follow the link you posit between the Elf-friends as story-tellers and Tolkien's conviction that he is recording what was "already there." These seem to be two different kinds of claim, one on the level of rhetoric (how the story works), the other on the level of composition (where the story came from). Could you articulate? RLFB