Tolkiens of My Affection
Department of Communication and Media Studies
Bronx, New York 10458
Paper presented at the 61st Annual New York State Communication Association Conference
Oct. 24-26, 2003
The title that I have taken for this paper is something of a pun, as the name Tolkien is frequently mispronounced as Tolkehn, and when written out looks like the word token. No doubt Professor J. R. R. Tolkien would have been able to explain the linguistic origins of this mispronunciation. He was, after all, a renowned philologist who held first the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon, and later the Merton Chair of English Language at Oxford University. And perhaps, as an expert in linguistics, he would not have been too insulted to have his name conflated with the term token, given that token can be defined as a symbol or sign. And my intention is to present this paper as a symbol or sign of my affection for the author and his works. I suspect that affection is a term that is not used very frequently in serious scholarship, as we academics tend to traffic in thoughts, rather than emotions, in arguments and propositions rather than feelings and intuitions. But I take as my authority Susanne K. Langer, who in works such as Philosophy in a New Key (1957), Feeling and Form (1953), and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967, 1972, 1982) has championed the study of emotion in cognition and symbolic form. And when it comes to books like The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1965a, 1965c, 1965d), there is no denying the powerful feelings that the novel evokes in so many readers.
Tolkien lovers exhibit the fervor of the spiritual convert, not the objectively distanced appreciation of the critical reader. This too can be disturbing to the serious scholar, unless The Lord of the Rings is framed as a religious narrative. And Tolkien did confess that the novel is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision" (quoted in Shippey, 2000, p. 175). Now, I should also mention that he wrote this in a letter to a Jesuit priest, but what is particularly interesting is what he went on to write:
That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion', to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (p. 175).
The result is something quite different than the religious fiction of Tolkien's fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis. The Lord of the Rings does not point to any specific institution, belief-system, or practice. Rather, it presents us with a narrative that represents religious experience as a symbolic form, a narrative that evokes the general conception of religious experience in all of its varieties, as William James would have it. Along with The Hobbit (Tolkien, 1965b), we have a set of stories that take us from the familiar and profane world of the Shire, to alien landscapes and sacred spaces inhabited by wizards, elves, dwarves, nature spirits, dragons, wraiths, and demons. We have a hero's journey, but in place of Joseph Campbell's (1968) monomyth, we have Tolkien's multimyth, one for each member of the fellowship of the ring.
Frodo's quest is necessitated by Bilbo's earlier travels "there and back again," but in place of an adventure we have the solemn enactment of the scapegoat myth, as discussed by Kenneth Burke (1950). Sam's journey begins in service to his master, but ends with his mastering of himself. Merry and Pippin both go through a rite of passage from playful youth to mature leadership. Legolas and Gimli begin by championing their own races, but go on to transcend the limitations of species loyalty to become defenders of all life. Gandalf falls and rises, moving from life to death and back to life again, while Boromir's is the failed hero's journey, a failure of virtue followed by death and the final return and cremation of his body. And Aragorn's is the most traditional hero's journey, as he separates himself from his mundane existence as a ranger, faces many trials as his initiation, and returns as the King triumphant.
These stories represent spiritual journeys, but the journeys also represent our progress through the stages of life. We are all on a one way trip to Mount Doom. And, we all hope for a resting place beyond the sea. We all must live our lives knowing that in the end we will meet death, and in that way as well as in many others we will fail. And we must find the courage to live with this knowledge, and to have faith and do the right thing even if we do not know the way, and the situation seems hopeless. The denial of death, and the discovery of the hero within all of us, is essential to the human psyche according to Ernest Becker (1971, 1973).
It seems to me that these themes speak to us all the more powerfully following 9/11. When Peter Jackson's film of The Fellowship of the Ring was released just three months after the terrorist attacks, I could not help but be deeply moved to hear the exchange between Frodo and Gandalf taken from the book's second chapter, "The Shadow of the Past":
'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' said Frodo.
'So do I,' said Gandalf, 'and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." (Tolkien, 1965a, p. 82).
Jackson rightly highlights these lines which, in the book are immediately followed by discussion of "the Enemy," significant no doubt but obscuring the universal meaning of Gandalf's first few sentences. There is the suggestion of a higher power, in the implication that someone other than ourselves decides about the times we are to live in. And there is the affirmation of free will within the limitations of a divinely ordered universe.
I have been discussing the religious quality of The Lord of the Rings to help to explain the strong emotion that many of us feel towards the book, and therefore its popularity. And if I seem too extreme in this, consider the recent book by Thomas Shippey, who holds the Walter J. Ong Chair in the English Department of Saint Louis University. Published at the end of the 20th century, the book is entitled J. R. R. Tolkien, and subtitled, Author of the Century. Now, if this seems mere hyperbole, here is how Shippey (2000) justifies the claim:
Late in 1996 Waterstone's, the British bookshop chain, and BBC Channel Four's programme Book Choice decided between them to commission a readers' poll to determine 'the five books you consider the greatest of the century'. Some 26,000 readers replied, of whom rather more than 5,000 cast their first place vote for J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Gordon Kerr, the marketing manager for Waterstone's, said that The Lord of the Rings came consistently top in almost every branch in Britain (105 of them), and in every region except Wales, where James Joyce's Ulysses took first place. The result was greeted with horror among professional critics and journalists, and the Daily Telegraph decided accordingly to repeat the exercise among its readers, a rather different group. Their poll produced the same result. The Folio Society then confirmed that during 1996 it had canvassed its entire membership to find out which ten books the members would most like to see in Folio Society editions, and had got 10,000 votes for The Lord of the Rings, which came first once again. 50,000 readers are said to have taken part in a July 1997 poll for the television programme Bookworm, but the result was yet again the same. In 1999 the Daily Telegraph reported that a Mori poll commissioned by the chocolate firm Nestlé had actually managed to get a different result, in which The Lord of the Rings (at last) only came second! But the top spot went to the Bible, a special case, and also ineligible for the twentieth-century competition that had begun the sequence. (pp. xx-xxi)
Of course, Shippey does not rely on popularity alone to argue for Tolkien's place of honor among twentieth century authors, but it is not my intent to discuss the literary merit of The Lord of the Rings here. Instead, I simply stand before you unashamed to declare my feelings of affection towards J. R. R. Tolkien.
But I began with the plural form, "Tolkiens of My Affection," because I also want to include the author's son, Christopher Tolkien, who has worked as a posthumous editor of his father's work, publishing collections such as The Silmarillion (Tolkien, 1977) which provides the history leading up to The Lord of the Rings, Unfinished Tales (Tolkien, 1980), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Tolkien, 1981), and the 12 volume series, The History of Middle Earth (Tolkien, 1983a, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995).
The History of Middle Earth is itself an incredible achievement, not a literary one, but in its own way an amazing work of scholarship. For what Christopher Tolkien has done is to go through all of his father's papers and present us with a vast variety of drafts, revisions, and variations of Tolkien's work, much of it related to The Silmarillion, about a quarter of it to The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's son provides a painstaking and loving account of his father's writing process, down to the level of reporting to us about the erasures on the page, what has been written over the erasure, and whenever possible what appears to have been erased. He presents a remarkable level of detail that can be quite fascinating in its accounting of the mechanics and materiality of his father's writing. It is sobering to consider that wartime paper shortages affected Tolkien's writing process. And it is uplifting, at least for us academics, to remember that he was grading examinations when he came upon a blank page in a student's exam booklet, was relieved to find one less page to read, and was moved to write on that page the sentence that started it all: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" (see Shippey, 2000, pp. 1-2).
But overall, the level of detail that Christopher Tolkien provides can, in all honesty, also be quite overwhelming, and even tedious at times. Still I find myself moved, again, by the emotional undercurrent that I can only imagine is at work in these books. I find myself envying the opportunity he had to go through his father's extensive manuscripts, to follow the marks his father made with his own hand by bringing pen and often pencil to paper and, in so doing, to get to know his father's mind in so incredibly intimate a fashion. For writing, as Christine Nystrom (1987) notes, is about nothing so much as it is pure thought, and pure emotion.
In thinking about the sons of famous writers, I cannot help but notice the parallel between Christopher Tolkien and Eric McLuhan, who edited his father Marshall's work in several collections, and who completed his father's culminating work, Laws of Media (McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988). And this led me to consider the other connections between Tolkien and McLuhan. For example, both men were Catholics, and both the product of conversion, although for Tolkien it was his mother who made the decision to convert when he was a child. Both were influenced by their religion, but refrained from making overt references to Catholicism in their writing. Both came from the colonies of Great Britain, McLuhan was the consummate Canadian, Tolkien was a son of South Africa although he grew up in England. Tolkien was a product of Oxford, while McLuhan came to England to study at Cambridge. There may even have been some social or scholarly network links between the two; for example, Owen Barfield, one of Tolkien's fellow Inklings, influenced McLuhan's ideas about sense perception. Both McLuhan and Tolkien enjoyed great popular success in the United States, particularly during the sixties, but both failed to gain the acceptance of critics and scholars in their lifetimes. Followers of Tolkien and McLuhan both tend to have strong feelings about the authors, as do their detractors, and consequently their tends to be a sharp dividing line between the two. Understanding and appreciating both writers is often described as a kind of gestalt perception, either you "get it" or you don't, and as a kind of epiphany and religious conversion in itself. Moreover, both Tolkien and McLuhan had a particular affinity for the Middle Ages, and a suspicion of modernity. Tolkien, as a philologist, was an expert in languages as they relate to literature and culture. McLuhan began by studying literary theory and criticism, identified himself with grammar and rhetoric of the medieval trivium (and therefore language and literature), and went on to be a leading scholar of culture, communication, and media.
Now, it may be that these connections are simply similar patterns of experience. But I have a particular interest in McLuhan, and in media ecology, the field that he helped to form. And those of us interested in this field sometimes indulge in a form of intellectual play and ask whether a scholar or writer not previously associated with media ecology might be in fact be a media ecologist. And so I raise the question, is Tolkien a media ecologist? That is, did he have an understanding of media and of symbolic form, an understanding of how they might play a leading role in human affairs? You may already have guessed that the answer is yes, or else I would not have posed the question.
One way to understand media, and media ecology, is by understanding language and the study of languages. This was abundantly clear to Louis Forsdale, the Columbia University professor of English Education who championed McLuhan back in the fifties, and who was a mentor to Neil Postman and many other early media ecology scholars. Forsdale (1981) explained that McLuhan's media ecology was an extension of the linguistic theory associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf, Edward Sapir, Dorothy Lee, and others, the hypothesis that the particular language we speak influences and shapes the way we understand and experience the world. During the fifties, McLuhan's colleague, the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter described media as the new languages (Carpenter & McLuhan, 1960), and in Understanding Media (2003) McLuhan devoted a chapter to media as translators, as metaphor, and as language; he also discussed language and speech as a type of medium.
It is true that Tolkien did not concern himself very much with media, even in the broad sense that McLuhan employed, nor was he entirely sympathetic to the field of linguistics, that is the scientific study of language. Philology is an older discipline, a humanistic approach to language research that emphasizes the history of language, and its cultural and literary context, what we might otherwise term the pragmatics of communication (Watzlawick, Bavelas, & Jackson, 1967). Tom Shippey (2000) identifies himself as a proponent of philology within the English curriculum, and in this sense on the same side as Tolkien in battles over academic requirements. Therefore, his insights into Tolkien are of particular relevance for us, and when Shippey declares that "in philology, literary and linguistic study are indissoluble" (p. xvii), I can't help but hear echoes of McLuhan's famous maxim, "the medium is the message." For Tolkien, the study of historical works such as the Elder Edda, the Kalevala, Beowulf (which he delivered a significant scholarly lecture on, see Tolkien, 1983b), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (an edition of which he co-edited, see Tolkien, 1975) was indissoluble from the historical study of languages.
Shippey also places Tolkien in the context of two other twentieth century English authors, James Joyce and George Orwell. McLuhan found in Joyce a major influence and source of inspiration, and he would certainly consider Joyce a media ecologist (see McLuhan, 1969; McLuhan & Fiore, 1968), as would his son, Eric (1997, 1998) and his first graduate student, Donald Theall (1995, 1997). Joyce enjoyed the kind of critical success that eluded Tolkien, but the two held in common a great love of language, and a powerful impulse towards linguistic creativity and play. Orwell also influenced McLuhan, and Postman included him in his earliest list of media ecologists. And while Orwell's attitude towards language lacked the joy found in Joyce and Tolkien, his Appendix to 1984, "The Principles of Newspeak," stands as one of the most interesting fictional applications of the Whorf-Sapir-Lee hypothesis, specifically suggesting that controlling language is tantamount to thought control (Orwell, 1949, pp. 246-256). Newspeak is therefore the modern equivalent of the Black Speech of Mordor. Tolkien's fiction shares the view that there is an intimate connection between language, thought, and culture, but as a scholar, his approach is more sophisticated. Shippey (2000) explains some of Tolkien's more interesting views on language:
He thought that people . . . could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. They knew that names like Ugthorpe and Stainby were Northern without knowing they were Norse; they knew that Winchcombe and Cumrew must be in the West without recognizing that the word cûm is Welsh. They could feel linguistic style in words. Along with this, Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive or intrinsically repulsive. The Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs is repulsive. When Gandalf uses it in 'The Council of Elrond', 'All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears'; Elrond rebukes Gandalf for using the language, not for what he says in it. By contrast Tolkien thought that Welsh and Finnish were intrinsically beautiful; he modelled his invented Elf-languages on their phonetic and grammatical patterns . . . It is a sign of these convictions that again and again in The Lord of the Rings he has characters speak in these languages without bothering to translate them. The point, or a point is made by the sound alone. (p. xiv)Shippey then goes on to write
But Tolkien also thought—and this takes us back to the roots of this invention—that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one's way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist. (p. xiv)
And thus, Shippey concludes that
However fanciful Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing', he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence. (p. xv)
But The Lord of the Rings is not only strongly influenced by Tolkien's scholarly background, it is very much a product of his love of languages. The linguistic medium was Tolkien's message for the very reason that he began by constructing fictional forms of speech, and only after constructing his imaginary tongues did he then go on to create myths and legends as the content of his "Elf Latin" (such as appear in the Silmarillion), and still later the novels we know as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien explained in a letter that appeared in the New York Times that, "I am a philologist, and all my work is philological" (Shippey, 2000, p. xiii). In a subsequent letter to his American publishers, he went on to elaborate,
the remark about 'philology' was intended to allude to what is I think a primary 'fact' about my work, that it is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration . . . The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. (p. xiii)
Tolkien's creation of fictional languages might be construed to be a thought experiment in philology, or simply a form of scholarly play, but it is also a work of extraordinary imagination. Even the humble origin of the hobbit follows this pattern of formal cause, as first Tolkien writes the sentence on the exam paper, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," not knowing its meaning. Afterwards, he analyzes the linguistic roots of hobbit and realizes it actually means hole-dweller. And from this understanding of this one sentence, he then goes on to write all of the remaining sentences that make up the novel known as The Hobbit.
The medium of language, then, is the hidden ground of The Lord of the Rings, one that I believe becomes most visible in The Two Towers, in the chapter entitled "Treebeard". It is there that Merry and Pippin meet the Ents, an ancient race of tree-like giants who guard the forests and herd their trees just as humans may herd sheep. I have always been fond of this part of the novel, even before I understood its significance, but I must also admit that the encounter with the Ents is, in many ways, unnecessary. It is true that it allows Merry and Pippin to make their first independent contribution to the War of the Ring. And it is true that the Ents attack and defeat Saruman, eliminating the second greatest evil, and freeing the riders of Rohan to come to Gondor's rescue. But the important battle against Saruman was fought at Helm's Deep, and Tolkien does not even describe the actual attack of the Ents on Isengard, merely their march and the aftermath of their victory. They therefore are something of a deus ex machina. Moreover, it would have been a simple enough task to describe Isengard as defenseless after Helm's Deep, and have Gandalf dispose of the tower of Orthanc, or to give the role to some other army, say of elves or dwarves.
No wonder, then, that Peter Jackson felt the need to tamper with this part of the story, giving Merry and Pippin a stronger role in the film as the ones who persuade the Ents to go to war, while omitting entirely the extended conversations between the Hobbits and the Ents. This may be attributed to the translation from a verbal medium to an essentially visual one, and in this instance one dominated by special effects. But I also think that this is one of a few instances in which Ralph Bakshi's animated version of the first half of The Lord of the Rings is a better and more faithful adaptation. But it is in the novel alone that we find the full range of Tolkien's philological thought. For example, after Merry and Pippin meet their first Ent, who explains that some call him Fangorn and others call him Treebeard, he goes on to say that he won't give them his true name, explaining
'For one thing, it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I've lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.
'But now . . . what is going on? What are you doing in it all? I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this, from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burúmë. Excuse me, that is part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages; you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world. (pp. 85-86)
A little further on in the chapter, the hobbits suggest the word hill, and Treebeard responds by saying, "Hill? Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped" (p. 87). Later still, Treebeard reveals something about the origins of Old Entish, and with it the Ents' position in the conflicts of Middle-earth:
I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays. Still, I take more kindly to Elves than to others: it was the Elves that cured us of dumbness long ago, and that was a great gift that cannot be forgotten, though our ways have parted since. (p. 95)
The notion of being cured of dumbness is a curious one, unless we recall that Tolkien was in fact a doctor of languages.
Apart from language in general, media ecologists are also concerned with the distinction between oral and written language, and with cultures shaped by literacy and cultures characterized by its absence and the presence of oral tradition. Professor Tolkien could hardly be unaware of these issues himself, as he was a contemporary of Milman Parry (1971), who established the nonliterate origins of the Homeric epics and documented the oral composition characteristic of the singers of tales in early twentieth century Serbo-Croatia. The Ents appear to be an oral culture, which is why their names are so long; in reality, the full name of a member of an oral culture might include the recitation of an entire genealogical line of descent. And when the hobbits first meet Treebeard, he is puzzled as to what they are because they do not fit into the categories he memorized in the form of song. Thus, he says
You do not seem to come in the old lists I learned when I was young. But that was a long, long time ago, and they may have made new lists. Let me see! Let me see! How did it go?
Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver; dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses. (p. 84)
The solution to Treebeard's uncertainty, offered by the hobbits, fits exactly with what Walter Ong (1982) described as the homeostatic nature of oral cultures. Pippin asks, "Why not make a new line?" and then suggests, "Half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers." He then adds, "put us in amongst the four, next to Man (the Big People), and you've got it" (p. 85). Whether this also means changing the number four to five is left up in the air, but after all Tolkien was a philologist, not a mathematician.
Media ecologists such as McLuhan and Ong link the distinction between orality and literacy to the distinction between the two primary sense organs, the ear and the eye. They describe a kind of war between the two over the course of world history, as the ear dominates for most of human history, but the eye gains ascendancy in ancient Greece and Rome, and again in modern Europe and America (until finally overcome by the electronic media's retrieval of acoustic space and secondary orality). This is not a theme that Tolkien emphasizes, and yet he does tend to favor the acoustic over the visual in his treatment of good vs. evil. The Ring is itself an object of visual beauty, associated with possessiveness and greed, and a magic item that acts on the visual sense, both in rendering its user invisible, but at the same time more visible to the the Black Riders and Sauron. For example, at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, in "The Breaking of the Fellowship," Frodo slips on his ring to escape Boromir, and finds himself gifted with a vision of Middle-earth at war that only induces despair in him. Then, Tolkien (1965a) writes
And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leapt towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him. Very soon it would nail him down, know just exactly where he was. . . .
He heard himself crying out: Never, never! Or was it: Verily I come, I come to you? He could not tell. Then as a flash from some other point of power there came to his mind another thought: Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!
The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he writhed, tormented. Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. (p. 519)
The Voice was, of course, Gandalf, who had fallen in Moria, but returned to oppose the Eye of Sauron. And Gandalf opposed the White Hand of Saruman, the image of the hand symbolizing Saruman's identity as a technologist. Moreover, Sauron's Ring is a wonderful example of what McLuhan calls the extensions of man, a media or technology that extends Sauron's reach but amputates (literally) his power when Isildur cuts off both ring and finger. Even the technologies of the free peoples present a Faustian bargain, as Neil Postman (1992) would put it. For example the Palantíri or looking stones of Aragorn's ancestors, Middle-earth's telecommunications system, became a means by which Sauron could gain access to others and corrupt them, as he did with Saruman and Denethor, Steward of Gondor; this sounds an awful lot like television as described by Postman. And the three jewels known as the Silmarils, forged by the Elf Fëanor, become the source of great conflict among the Elves and the higher powers. The light they contain is good and beautiful, but in capturing and containing the light, Fëanor sets the stage for much evil.
In the war between the ear and the eye, Tolkien, like most media ecologists, is on the side of the ear. Thus, sound is prioritized in his fictional account of the beginning of the world, which serves as the first chapter of the Silmarillion and is titled "The Music of the Ainur". It starts with
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. (Tolkien, 1977, p. 3)
The Ainur are angels, although in some respects they more closely resemble the gods of Greek and Norse mythology. At first they are unable to join together in unison to create music, but then Ilúvatar acts:
Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and heights, and the places of the dwellings of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. (pp. 3-4)
As Tolkien continues on with his creation myth, the greatest of the Ainur, Melkor, takes on the role of Lucifer in challenging Ilúvatar's theme, and weaving in discordant notes of his own devising. Ilúvatar asserts himself, and although strife has been introduced in the midst of harmony, he tells Melkor and the rest that "no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined" (p. 4). The Ainur are put in their place, at which point we finally move from the ear to the eye:
Ilúvatar said to them: 'Behold your Music!' And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. (p. 6)
Music is followed by vision here, just as Genesis begins with God's speech act, "Let there be light," and then continues with the actual appearance of light. Tolkien's creation parallels Genesis in certain ways. As a symbolic form, it conveys the feeling of Genesis, and of Western creation myths in general. But it is not consistent with the Biblical account of creation. It is religious, but not specifically Catholic or in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Along the same lines, overt references to Christianity, such as those that appear in the Perelandra trilogy written by his fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, are not present in Tolkien's fiction. There are familiar motifs, for example Gandalf's death and resurrection, and Frodo's self-sacrifice and essential crucifixion—hence the nineteen sixties slogan "Frodo Lives!" But these elements do not by any means add up to an allegory. Moreover, Tolkien wrote in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers." (Tolkien, 1965a, p. xi).
As a philologist, Tolkien is an historian as well as a linguist and literary theorist. And his fiction reflects the historical consciousness that emerged in the nineteenth century, and is reflected in the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, the world histories of Toynbee and Spengler, the media ecology of Lewis Mumford and Harold Innis, and the nonfiction and science fiction of H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov. Moreover, the combination of language and history forms the basis of something more than a narrative. It provides us with an environment, a symbolic environment, a media environment. We become immersed in Tolkien's world, and as in the baptismal ritual, immersion leads to conversion. Today, it has become commonplace to talk about universes, the DC and Marvel Universes in comic books, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes in television and film, and game playing universes such as was pioneered under the name Dungeons and Dragons. Tolkien's act of creation gave us the first of these fictional universes, and remains the model that others still draw upon today.
Tolkien's historical consciousness extends to form as well as content, as The Lord of the Rings incorporates elements of the medieval manuscript. He breaks up the otherwise homogenous text of the novel with poetry and song, some of which is in English, some in Elvish without translation. He mixes into the narrative bit and pieces of his fictional myths, legends, and histories. And he includes illustrations with Elvish writing, maps, genealogical tables, and other appendices. In this, we can draw a parallel to McLuhan's untraditional books, notably The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) which also retrieved elements of scribal manuscript production. In both instances, critics had difficulty understanding the formal innovations as well as the highly original content that these works contained.
By way of conclusion, I would suggest to you that the power of Tolkien's work, his ability to elicit such strong emotion in his readers, has much to do with the fact that he was a media ecologist, that he understood the media of speech, language and symbolic form. And for myself, understanding media has helped me in understanding Tolkien, and served to deepen my affection for the author and his works.
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