Sunday 2 January 2022

The reality of the imagined world of The Lord of the Rings

The Red Book of Westmarch - source text for The Lord of the Rings...

Something missed by casual readers of The Lord of the Rings (or ignored by 'sophisticated' ones!) is the 'editorial' apparatus that presents the book as based-upon an ancient manuscript; in other words, the claim that the book is real history. 

Why did Tolkien do this - especially considering that he had not done so in The Hobbit

Well, in the first place, it was not unusual for the early novelists to claim explicitly and non-ironically that their books were either real records of actual events, or based upon such accounts (e.g. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe - if considered as a novel). Indeed, this was so common as to be almost normal up to the twentieth century. 

However, the practice had stopped before Tolkien began work on his Silmarillion legendarium with the unpublished (in his lifetime) Lost Tales commenced late in the 1914-18 War. These stories included a very elaborate feigned-historical framing and explanation of their provenance - that is, the links of how it was that these stories came into our world, into the hands of the modern reader. 

The practice had become very rare by the time Tolkien published Lord of the Rings - except in a self-conscious manner that was intended to be taken ironically or satirically (as with the tongue-in-cheek 'editorial' apparatus of Farmer Giles of Ham). 

Tolkien, by contrast, was not-at-all ironic, but indeed very serious and 'literal' in his within-text claim that LotR came from 'The Red Book of Westmarch', a strategy repeatedly pursued in the Prologue and Appendices that bracket the story; and this was later buttressed by the editorial introduction he included with The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

Furthermore, it is a significant part of the failure of The Silmarillion of 1977, that any attempt at framing was abandoned by Christopher Tolkien - a decision CRT soon regretted, and endeavored to 'undo' indirectly, by his History of Middle Earth.  

Note: Verlyn Flieger has written an excellent account of Tolkien's lifelong wrestling with the matter of framing his stories - Interrupted Music, 2005.)

So why was it so important for Tolkien to frame his stories by serious attempts to explain how they came down to modern readers - against the trend of 20th century fiction? 

I think the answer is simply that he wanted to create an imaginative bridge that explained why these stories were not-just-entertainment, not just 'escapism; but were intended to be 'relevant': of serious concern to modern readers. 

This was especially important to Tolkien because he eschewed the usual means of making imagined world relevant - which is allegory

Tolkien's world was not meant to be allegorical, and he reacted quite aggressively against those who said it was; but real in-it-own-terms. Yet without any framing and linking between the stories and ourselves this detailed, autonomous, not-allegorical world-building might make the stories feel simply irrelevant... 

By providing a feigned history to bridge between the stories and ourselves, Tolkien created a single imaginative conception of the stories as forming part of our living world - hence obviously of relevance and serious concern to modern readers.

It seems pretty clear to me that Tolkien did not want to admit that he was doing this! - and indeed (e.g. in the preface to the second edition of LotR) he sometimes denied that his stories had any 'purpose' except to entertain people who happened to share his taste for such things. 

But this is to ignore the great efforts he made to frame and link LotR. These went far beyond parody, satire or the merely fictively-sophisticated. 

Indeed, setting aside defensiveness; the truth of the matter was apparent in Tolkien's own - passionate, and non-ironic - practice of referencing his own work in commenting on everyday life; e.g. labelling the attacks on trees (e.g. by chain-saws) as orcish, or modern bureaucracy as the work of Saruman. 

And even developing (post LotR) Galadriel as more and more an echo of the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom he was religiously devoted. This linkage would be merely blasphemous unless it were underpinned by a very serious and real imaginative link between his sub-created world and God's creation as known by modern people. 

In other words, Tolkien wrote and lived-by a belief in the potential reality of the imagined: and the actual reality of his own imagined world. 

Tolkien did not, however, theorize the reality of imagination.  

So we can see that for Tolkien it was vitally important the seriously imagined worlds were regarded as really-real - despite that, at another and theological level, he denied this very assertion. 

According to available biographical data, and confirmed by the brilliant analysis by RJ Reilly in his Romantic Religion; Tolkien was apparently unaware of his friend Owen Barfield's extensive and rigorous philosophical work that coherently theorized the reality and truth of imagination. 

Of course; Barfield was working from a metaphysical basis that Tolkien's orthodox, traditional Catholicism did not share. 

But we, looking back, can now perceive that Barfield explained the reality of Tolkien's profound intuitions regarding his own world; and why it is that an imagined provenance for The Lord of the Rings was so important to Tolkien - and so effective for some of those most serious of his readers who regard the Prologue and Appendices as a vital part of the effect made by the whole book.  


Epimetheus said...

It's interesting that the Harry Potter series had this precise effect on many people, myself included. There's something special about these books, something extra.

I do hope the afterlife/Heaven is a place where one can create things directly from one's mind. A few people who've had near-death experiences have implied as much.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - "Heaven is a place where one can create things directly from one's mind"

That is certainly what I believe - spirit came before matter (so matter is a kind of 'condensed' or 'bounded' spirit); a young child lives in a world where the mind control events - so we have dim memories of what this is like; and our dreams are a partial and distorted version of the way that mind creates reality.

Indeed, it is the blessing and curse of this modern world that - increasingly obviously - thinking creates reality; thus we must choose that reality we will to be: a reality in accordance with divine creation, or one in opposition.

ben said...

"a young child lives in a world where the mind control events - so we have dim memories of what this is like"

I wonder if a child is actually still partially spirit, partially body. One foot in each form. The soul between spirithood and bodyhood. A child growing would be the same thing as a process of spirit condensing into body, spirit continuously being added to the man.

It would go incarnation -> process of condensation lasting 25? years -> the soul then being in a fully condensed/no longer at all spirit state.

Philip Neal said...

The device of a source text within a fictional text has medieval precedent: for instance, Mallory's Morte d'Arthur derives its air of authority and unity from references to its source in "the French book" (in fact several books, not all of them French).

Tolkien's fictional scholarship often reverses the true working of his imagination. At the very end of the Appendices we read "in reducing Gammidgy to Gamgee to represent Galpsi, no reference was intended to the connexion of Samwise with the family of Cotton, though a jest of that kind would have been hobbit-like enough, had there been any warrant in their language." In fact, as Tolkien explained to a real Mr Sam Gamgee (in the Letters) "gamgee" was a Birmingham word for cotton-wool. The invented Westron words in the Appendix illustrate the role of "philology" in transforming the comic, rustic hobbits into the protagonists of a heroic myth.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PN - Yes. I think Gamgee cotton dressings were at the time of LotR publication quite well known even beyond Birmingham (I think they were used in the British military, for example) - so his comment was more relevant then, than it seems now.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ben "a child is actually still partially spirit, partially body"

Yes, that is one reasonable way of modeling the situation, although it makes a picture in my mind of children being less dense and more diffusely bounded! However, in a spiritual sense that is exactly right.

ben said...

"although it makes a picture in my mind of children being less dense and more diffusely bounded!"

Well the child itself that an observer would see would only be a part of the total soul; the soul would be part visible child/body, part invisible spirit. The observable body wouldn't yet constitute the totality of the soul. The child part of the soul would be just as dense by this principle as a full adult body.