Friday 10 June 2016

Is the Lord of the Rings true? Of course! - but in what way?

I remember being aged about 14 and being mildly mocked and teased for believing that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was true - the person doing the mocking was the friend who had actually introduced me to the book, and he liked it very much. That was one thing, he said; but I actually believed it.

What I found so cutting - and this is why I remember the event - was that it was correct: I did believe LotR was true; and I was shocked to discover that this friend did not - it seemed like a betrayal, and indeed I did not regard him as a friend after that point.

For me, the main fact about the Lord of the Rings was that it was true. How exactly to explain that - to explain what 'being true' meant in this context - was a further question; but the truth was the main thing. Indeed, I have never come across a satisfying explanation of the way that LotR (for example) is true. I am not satisfied by Tolkien's own explanation with respect to Subcreation in his essay On Fairy Stories and the many other pieces in that tradition; I am not satisfied by the explanations based on Symbolism; nor by Jungian Collective Unconscious type explanations - even less by post-Jungian explanations of myth in the Joseph Campbell/ James Hillman style.

All these sell short the way in which LotR is true. On the one hand it is not literally true in any kind of fact-by-fact basis; but on the other hand it is solidly true in-and-of-itself in a way that is grossly under-sold by the explanations I have seen. These explanations are, indeed, not even the kind of thing that could be a satisfactory explanation - they are abstract schemes based on abstractions; whereas the truth of Tolkien is anything-but abstract - the opposite of abstract! It is something experienced.

In fact, given its role in my life over many decades, this inability to explain the truth of LotR takes on a decisive aspect - it points to a major inadequacy of metaphysics, a failure of the basic structure of thinking which I have assumed and lived-by.

If it was just the Lord of the Rings, that would perhaps be less significant; but the problem is more general. For example, the truth of Father Christmas/ Santa Claus. I really dislike hearing people say that Father Christmas is untrue - it seems like a shocking and shameful admission to advertise oneself as an unbeliever in so obviously and importantly true a phenomenon. Yet I seemingly can't explain how or why Father Christmas is true - any explanation I have known for the way he is true, grossly undersells the matter.

On the flip-side, there are many, indeed most, things in public life which it would be regarded as a mark of insanity to deny the truth of that do not strike me as true - things in science, history, common knowledge... They conspicuously lack that which Lord of the Rings has in such abundance - I know that LotR is true, and with them... I don't.

This is a long-way-round to my recent grasp of Rudolf Steiner's metaphysics (or, 'epistemology' as modern philosophers tend to call it) which I outlined yesterday - 

- and its clear assertion that what is thought is reality: not a 'representation' of reality, but actually the same thing. In thinking we are participating-in the totality of universal truth.

This is metaphysics, so it is not the kind of question we discuss on the basis of 'evidence' - but (among many other attributes and consequences) this seems to me to be the solution to the problem of the truth of the Lord of the Rings. In reading (and thinking about) LotR I was - with great focus, concentration and clarity - thinking some of the truths of the universe; the actual primary stuff of creation was active in my consciousness.

But why specifically LotR? Surely all thoughts and all thinking have that characteristic? Yes, but not all things that we casually assume are thoughts and thinking, actually are thoughts and thinking. For me, clearly (assuming the metaphysical assumptions) there was something about Lord of the Rings that made it so I really, clearly, powerfully thought it and was aware of my thinking.                 

Of course the Lord of the Rings is true! - universally, and really true.    


Seijio Arakawa said...

Oddly, I always had the same feeling about The Princess Bride. In my teen years, it led me to wonder if there was a non-abridged version anywhere.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - Some equivalent of The Red Book of Westmarch; the source cited by Tolkien (as 'editor') in the LotR Prologue and Appendices. One of the very best things ever written about Tolkien is Interrupted Music (2005) by Verlyn Flieger; which is about Tolkien's intricate, twisting, ultimately inconclusive attempt to provide a 'provenance' for LotR - to explain the transmission of the text from ancient times.

AnteB said...

I´m somewhat familiar with Jungs and Campbells psychological explanations of myths but what is Symbolism?

Era Denmark said...

I have also always felt that LotR is true and the more I studied Steiner, Hermetics, European myths and alternative history (from Russian scholars), the more clearly I see that Tolkien was inspired, literally to record events that really happened in the past. of course the story and characters are not exactly, literally true in ever sense, but what he described in the general gist of what happened in our ancient history...and even then, only a small part of it.

Joel said...

Our window on reality is very small, even in the everyday world. Even the universe at our fingertips is vast compared to what we imagine. A microscope (or even moreso, an electron-microscope) shows that there are new vistas contained in the most humdrum familiar thing. We see only a part of it. We understand very little of what goes on inside of our own bodies. Our view of the universe is unimaginably concentrated on a small slice of facts relevant to our lives.

However, and this is what is relevant to stories like LOTR, we are also limited in the other direction as well. We don't see what is really relevant. We are distracted by things that have no true significance, and our senses often make the mundane seem more than it is.

The LOTR is a story about true and significant things. The vessel, the story, may be unrealistic -- as is our day-to-day "reality" unrealistic in many ways due to the limitations of our senses -- but the unreality of LOTR in necessary to present the more significant truth. This sort of truth cannot be distilled into a short essay or Wikipedia article.

Which is a truer account of the Battle of Agincourt, Wikipedia's account or Shakespeare's? Wikipedia certainly contains some facts about troop movements that Shakespeare could care less about. But Shakespeare tells us about courage and glory and the things that are really significant to men's hearts.

The worst misreaders of the Bible are people who read it looking for facts or arguments that they can put on notecards, like they were reading a textbook. They miss the real significant things that can hardly be stated.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ante The general method of interpreting myth in terms of symbols - the ring symbolizes X, dragon symbolizes Y etc.

John Fitzgerald said...

I'd second all these comments, especially Era's. The Lord of the Rings feels much more true and real to me than many a realistic novel, even great ones like 'The Power and the Glory'. Personally, I do believe that it's an authentic representation of the ancient past - as authentic as is humanly possible from a distance of thousands of years. This seems to reflect Tolkien's own intuition as well.

It may sound fantastical, but I've often dwelt on the lives and works of Tolkien and CS Lewis while pondering the 'two witnesses' of Revelation chapter 11. It doesn't map on exactly, of course. Neither Lewis nor Tolkien were martyred (though the possibility remains, I suppose, that their books might one day be banned in this increasingly militantly-secular West). Yet considering their humble aims when they started out, their reach and influence has been utterly extraordinary. Surely one sees the hand of the Divine at work here?

What's key for me is the type of Christianity they bear witness to. It isn't a legalistic 'defending the rights of the Church' type of thing (hough that has it's place too). Tolkien and Lewis tune in instead to a deep, rich and resonant stream of Christianity, where the Imagination takes centre stage and the pantheons and mythologies of Old Europe are included in the embrace of the 'Sun of Justice' rather than cast out into outer, 'heathen' darkness.

I think this is exactly the kind of Christianity that needs tapping into today. The next Christian renaissance, I believe - before or after the dissolution of the present world order - will come from here.

David Balfour said...

Interesting piece of reflection here. I can echo the other commentators sentiments about 'the princess bride,' which also moved me to feel a sense of connection with that realm of the mythopoeic.

I have been pondering further today and particularly about the concept of 'nostalgia' and how to unpack it as a concept and an experience. What is it? I am inclined to speculate that it is a perception of truth or wholesomeness within a past time. It is as though the falsehood has fallen away and left memory cleansed in some way; left it refined or resonant with the golden thread of meaning. But then how can i feel the same sense of nostalgia when comtemplating my childhood, reading LOTR or the Princess Bride or standing in a Northumbrian Meadow and feeling at one with a spirit of the English landscape?! Nostalgia has certainly a kind of magic within it. Perhaps the magic of truth hinting like summer breeze at the creator that lies behind all things. Like Platos cave wall shadows stirring a realisation of thd hand that casts them...

AdamW said...

I agree: there are a small number of 'fictional' works which have this quality of truth-beyond-truth. I commented to a friend recently about one such which occupied me in my youth: 'you do know it's all true, don't you?' - and then had to explain what I meant by that. Largely I failed but I stand by my statement.
Tolkien is on record as detesting allegory: he wanted LotR to be read as history. Which leaves the problem of how to understand what he meant by that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AdamW - I don't think Tolkien himself really understood what happened when he wrote the LotR - in his letters he says at one point that it wasn't really him that wrote it, meaning it was inspired. He tried to find a way to explain its truth - for example the subcreatoin idea; and sometimes he pretended that it was just entertainment (on the lines of 'people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like'). But I don't think he had the conceptual framework to explain in what way it was really true beyond that that was how it felt to him.

The interesting thing about the Steiner metaphysics is that it doesn't undersell what was going on.