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Last Updated: Wednesday, December 22, 1999
J.R.R. Tolkien-Bilbo and Frodo
Lewis Rockwelllinks to this great site for Tolkien material: Tolkein Archive
Purpose in a person life and meaning in the world at large are two profound human needs. Tolkien defined fantasy as 'imagination used to free people to feel capable and in control of their life'. For fantasy I substitute the word myth. Tolkien used the literary traditions of the past wisely, using the inheritance to build eternally meaningful stories, not to escape reality, but to change it. Tolkien is interested in power, which I always substitute the word 'control' except when describing someone of evil nature. When someone wishes to control others, in order to derive pleasure from their suffering, and misery, even though they know such use of control is causing this anguish then the person is excited and living for power: control for evil purposes.
Tolkien was a teacher of English, especially early English, and studied the languages which profoundingly contributed to early English: The Teutonic variants like Angle, Saxon, Friscan, and Jute, and also Old Norse, Latin, Celt, and a little Greek. He was aware of many of the myths from these cultures. He particular studied Beowulf, and knew of the classical Roman, and Greek myths, as well as the rich Norse myths. Most of all Tolkien perceived how liberating adjectives and adverbs are to human imagination. The word 'boy' is allows a certain amount of imagination, as does the word 'tree leaf' but consider the greater imagination allowed by the adjective 'green' when freed from a specific object and applied to any object, abstract or not. A 'green boy', and a 'fading green tree leaf' are implying very different pictures, and increases the imaginative possibilities greatly. A 'green boy' could be a boy with odd (perhaps sickly) colored skin, or it could mean a young, inexperienced boy, using the analogy of 'green' when associated with wood which has been cut, but is old enough to have dried out to use for most purposes. The richness of imagination is well served by adjectives and adverbs freed of bondage to specific nouns.
Bilbo and Frodo are ordinary in every sense of the word. Yet usually by ordinary actions, and using the attributes of perserverance, honesty, integrity, and speaking forthrightly they manage to appear heroic. But they know better. Unlike Beowulf, they do not glory in turning to rage to offset fear, although the end result of that turning is likely a quicker and not quiet death. Beowulf can accept death, because his actions seek it. The Hobbits do not want to die except quietly in their beds. Tolkien sees that moral and emotional truths are in every decent person, attenuated by their community. Unlike many in our time who sees no use to morality, as if it is to be lead instead of leading. Others say there are too many different moralities so it is 'reasonable' that there be none. Tolkien disagreed.
Legends from the cultures influencing southern England 1400 years ago was one source of inspiration for Tolkien. Christianity was another. From that mythology he derived a human truth: faith is greater than the current reality. As St. Augustine said, a person could only be a Christian if 'they believed without question in the transmorgification of Jesus: that he was a spirit made into a body; a body later killed, and resurrected as a spirit'. Tolkien gave the readers the profoundly liberating message that people must follow their 'primal [inner] desires' lying 'near the heart of Faerie [spirit]', one of those desires being 'to hold communion with other living creatures, the animals and the trees as examples.' Tolkien saw these myths well made are constructive, and inspiring and liberating. All the best myths show that everything is connected; that there is no need to destroy without need, nor to destroy without respecting the living things murdered. He saw that myths well made can cause a person to see things in a new way, a way so profound that their whole life is changed , like Saul on the road to Damascus.
R ing legends was the last source of inspirations for Tolkien that I will mention. Ring legends existed well before history. They are prominent in the Urgatic people of Siberia (whose people are also the Lapps and the Sami as far west as Scandanavia, and are the many native people from north Canada south to Terra del Feugo). The Ring is the concrete representation of cyclic nature of everything that people see. They see personally birth, life, death repeating generation after generation. They see the sun rising, and setting over and over. They see the seasons come, then go, and repeat their life cycle time and time again. The see the stars rise in places in repetitive patterns unique to everyone. They see that what can control a cycle can control all they need, fear or desire. The Ring is a concrete representation of those observations and those emotions. And if it is lost... then it must be found again. If it falls into the hands which wish to use it for evil, then it must be taken and given to those who are not or even better, placed where none can obtain it. There can too much control, just as there is often too little.
Myths for Tolkien are a vehicle for exposing profound human truths. It is not reason which exposes truth, or turns wishes into reality, but it is the imagination which saves the day, completes the cycle. So 'Fantasy is a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth, exposing and confirms universal truths which are usually called morals.' It is the power of words that give humans the healthy ability to see the underlying reality and to evoke faith. We remember the poem, a painting, a song, or a story precisely because when we first experienced them, they chahnged our way of perceiving the world, and our feelings about life. The imaginative experience modifies our sense of reality, and satisfies our deep need for mythology.'