Hello! Here’s a little free discourse that I wrote earlier this year on one of my favorite artists of all time – an artist in the sense of a maker of worlds, and in the sense of vision and imagination.
It’s been over a year and a half since I threw myself in wholeheartedly into Arda for the first time. Good ol’ J.R.R. kept me sane and hopeful and eager, and for a small portion of my life, I really leaned upon his creation. Hobbits and elves and dwarves brought my family together too, in a way, and delivered me new friends who also believed in their cause. To that I am very grateful.
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?”
Professor, Professor, if you’re still out there, with any way you can hear me, hear this: thank you.
Any casual Tolkien reader knows that there is much more underneath the surface of The Lord of the Rings than the plot, and that’s saying a lot. As the father of high fantasy literature, J.R.R. Tolkien has constructed theogenies, legends, countries, races, lineages, and languages, and a new world. The three-volume book for which he is most famous is only the tip of the iceberg of his creation. Furthermore, he incorporated his own Catholic worldview and ultimately hopeful outlook on the world, used timeless and the most sweeping themes of good over evil, friendship and love, courage, sacrifice, and hope, and uncannily anticipated the events of World War II. While writing this beloved book, the Professor influenced our favorite Christian author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and answered the popular demand for a sequel of his children’s book The Hobbit, published in 1937.
The story is unsurprisingly about a ring. In fact, we call it the One Ring. It belongs to the Dark Lord Sauron, who has been looking for his ring for centuries since he was last defeated by Isildur, a Numenorean king, because within it lies the power to conquer all the land. But, he does not know that it has ended up in the hands of a hobbit, named Frodo Baggins. Frodo journeys to Rivendell, where a council is held and it is decided that eight others will accompany him to destroy the ring in Mordor, where it was forged. The road is perilous and the mission has little hope, but it is the only and wisest option they have.
Of course, in the end, good triumphs over evil, the Ring is destroyed, and Isildur’s direct heir becomes King of the land once more. It is a great story, but within the entire history of Middle-Earth, it’s only a sliver of the pie. Before Tolkien was an author, he was a philologist and professor who studied the Anglo-Saxon languages and myths. Works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he made standard curriculum. He built his world in his spare time for pleasure. And of course, given his background, he knew that legend and language were married and developed them together.
Tolkien’s legendarium was never realized in its entirety, for it would take greater than a lifetime of work to finish. The closest thing we have for readers now is The Silmarillion, a compilation of his scraps and drafts completed by his son, Christopher Tolkien, of all four ages of Middle-Earth, from the creation of Arda to the Age of Men. Out of the many chapters in this hefty volume, yet only one section is titled, “On the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” This is how the book we are talking about today fits into the grand scheme of its author’s vision.
We could take another essay to list and describe all the ways Tolkien’s faith is characterized in the story, either consciously or not, and in fact they exist, but we believe that the way his faith is most manifest is the nature of the story itself. Coining the term, “sub-creation,” Tolkien refers to the act of creation that imitates the original Creator. In his world, the species (i.e. The Ainur, Dwarves, Elves, Men) begin creating things of their own, which are derivative of those of Eru Iluvatar, of which the true act of creation belongs to alone. Morgoth (Tolkien’s version of a fallen Lucifer) could not bring new beings into existence but could only corrupt what already existed and was originally created by Eru. In the same way, like these beings, Tolkien saw himself as a being emulating the true creationary motion of God through sub-creation. He uses this term to describe his world-building and myth creating.
Because his world has been crafted organically, Middle-Earth is believable. The characters, the races, the language, all feel like they exist, because he has brought them into existence. Therefore, so do the struggles, the despair, and ultimately the hopes of the people of Middle-Earth have a reality. Many a reader has left Tolkien’s world a changed person after experiencing his book, including yours truly. Many a man or woman has been saved from a life of misery or depression by such a rich inner world experience, by having companions that understand what physical and spiritual weariness feels like. I can say that Tolkien was beside me as I went through my final year of high school. While I could see everyone around me feeling tired, stressed, and desperate, I knew I was not making the journey alone, and I never lost hope. Readers return to the series year after year because Middle-Earth feels like home. Yes, because just as homes should be filled with books, a book can be home.
Speaking of home, it is possible to say that Wellesley College accepted me because of the Professor. Because I wrote my application essay about linguistics and the amazing capabilities of language as a living system, perhaps I stood out over the rest of the applicants. Tolkien invented his own languages and wrote poetry and songs in Elvish — each region of elves speaking a different tongue. The Dwarves and Hobbits too — had their own runes, and the “Common Tongue” was the name given to English. How awesome it was to read Tolkien’s poems and to not understand a word of it! Those were the moments where I felt like I had truly stepped into his world.
We have one more person to thank for the actual publication of The Lord of the Rings. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were both members of a group in Oxford called The Inklings, where they became good friends. There is a popular account that the two gentlemen talked one night until that night turned into morning about sub-creation and the reality of myth, leading Lewis to accept the existence of God. Then, voila — we had one of the most important Christian writers of the 19th century. The thing is, Tolkien didn’t think anyone would understand his work or read it, but Lewis pushed him to publish. In the meantime, he was churning out The Chronicles of Narnia with industrial efficiency, one book every year. Returning to the analogy of a book as a home, Narnia is a land of which I am a citizen as well — however, the shallowness of its direct allegory makes it incomparable to the depth that Tolkien achieved over a lifetime of world-building. We have both authors to thank for their works, and the story of their friendship and the connection of one book to another through real-life encounters and influences reminds us that behind the pages there was a man lovingly crafting the story we experience.