"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, June 18, 2012


"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work...unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. 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"
- Tolkien, from a personal letter

I am probably the last person on Earth who should be a Tolkien admirer. As a skeptical materialist, and what the late Christopher Hitchens called an "anti-theist," Tolkien's Catholic-derived world view is diametrically opposed to mine. It isn't simply that, as a rational person, I find no evidence at all for the claims of the Catholic (or any other religion). It isn't that as someone who spent seven years at university studying various religions I find it remarkable for one person to wholeheartedly embrace the one he was raised in and dismiss the claims of others. Rather, like Hitchens I find the idea of supreme, unquestionable "leader" who makes all the rules and must be followed absolutely repugnant in the extreme. It is an insult to the things that I really do hold dear, such as intellectual freedom, self-determination, and personal liberty. Thus, were I trapped in Tolkien's Middle-earth, I would probably end up in league with Melkor and Sauron. Yet despite all of this, J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favorite writers, and in part due to his religious vision.

The Philologist

The most obvious level where my interests intersect with Tolkien's is in his fascination with words, where they come from, and how their meanings evolve over time. Tolkien was a philologist, which means he was something of a literary archaeologist, digging through layers of language and text to uncover the past. Though this was never quite my area of interest, in my own university work linguistics played a very important part, as a key tool in studying the origins of mythologies and religions and how they develop from earlier ones. But Tolkien was one of the foremost philologists of his day, and even if he had never written The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings his studies of Beowulf or fairy stories would have been achievement enough. And in many ways philology is the engine that drove his literary work.

In some ways, Tolkien didn't see himself as "inventing" Middle-earth so much as "unearthing" it. Most modern fantasists are essentially people who "make shit up." They pull names, places, characters, and races out of thin air. There's nothing wrong with this, and some--like Howard, Moorcock, or these days Martin--do it very, very well. But it is categorically wrong to put Tolkien in the same lot. True, he did "make shit up." He invented two Elven languages and a bit of Dwarvish. But even these were linguistically inspired by Welsh, Finnish, and Hebrew. And in the case of the Elvish tongues, they were wholly consistent. Hell, I've met people who have learned to speak them. But aside from this act of invention, Tolkien was doing something very different. He was trying to answer questions.

For example, it bothered him that fairy tales had things like dwarves running around in them. There are dwarves in the Norse sagas. There are dwarves in King Arthur. There are dwarves in Snow White. But none of these bother to explain to us what the hell a dwarf is. The reader is just assumed to know all about dwarves, which indicated to Tolkien that at the time these stories first appeared, people did know about them. And so he set out to try an make an educated guess what those original dwarves might have been. The same goes for his elves and his dragons, and most of Middle-earth.

One of my favorite examples of his thought processes is the character of Gandalf. As is now well known, Tolkien took the names of his dwarves and the wizard accompanying them in The Hobbit from a fragment of the Old Norse Völuspá called "The Catalogue of the Dwarves." Basically, this is just a list of dwarf names without any context. But what bothered Tolkien, as a philologist, was the one name blatantly standing out in the list. With names like Nori and Bifurr and Bomburr and Fili and Kili, there was a "Gandalf." Gand-alf. "Wand-elf." Now, an elf was certainly not the same thing as a dwarf in Old Norse mythology, so what the hell was an elf doing in a catalogue of dwarves? And what, pray tell, was a "wand elf?" Norse had its Light Elves and Dark Elves and Wood Elves, but "wand elves?" Or was a wand elf something like an elf, immortal and magical, but carrying a wand or a staff? Was it a "wizard?" And if it was a wizard, did these wizards come from the same place the Elves did? Across the Sea? All of this is just one example of how Tolkien's work was to create a mythical origin for the fragments of legend and folklore we have left to us today. (As a side note, there is a great deal of another fragment, "Beowulf," in The Hobbit. The character of Gollum in his cave strongly recalls 'Grendel,' and the man-bear Beorn resembles Beowulf (whose name mean 'bee-wolf,' or 'bear'). And just like the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Hobbit ends with a dragon as well.)

The Believer

As I mentioned though, in part my admiration for Tolkien is because of his faith.

The hallmark of all great fantasy is a strong, overriding world view. All the truly enduring fantasy worlds have a paradigm which informs them, a lens through which the setting understands itself. Perhaps it is because of our sympathy for certain paradigms over others that different people find themselves attracted to different settings; they show us the world the way we choose to believe it really is. In this way, fantastic fiction is a bit like philosophy or religion.

Consider Howard. Howard's Hyborian Age has no absolutes, no good, no truth, and no real evil (its demons may be alien and inhuman, but don't qualify as evil the way Melkor does, because there is no absolute good to be the opposite of). The Hyborian Age is an almost Nietzschean paradigm where strength is the only real virtue. The central tension in the Conan stories is between barbarism and civilization. Michael Moorcock (author of the influential "Elric," "Hawkmoon," and "Corum" sagas, offers a very different paradigm. His work seems to say that any absolute—in his case absolute Law or absolute Chaos—is intrinsically unbearable and that the only wholesome route lies through balance.

But in Tolkien's Middle-earth we have a world which does has an absolute truth. Eru created the world, and those who live in accordance with the “mind of Eru” are good while those who go against it are bad. Goodness, truth, and righteousness are the rewards of those who side with Eru and the Valar. Those who defy Eru, from Melkor and Sauron right down to the Easterlings, fall into error and ultimately suffer. This is the kind of absolutism offered by Tolkien's own devout Catholicism.

I world argue that it is this quality which makes Tolkien's work powerful, largely because it is coherent and flows through all his work (the same could be said for Lovecraft, but from a very different perspective). But in addition to this, it is the striking absence of the trappings of Catholicism which makes Tolkien extraordinary. "God" does not appear in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. There is no "Jesus," no "Church," no depictions of worship of any kind. Instead, Tolkien uses what he believes to be Catholic themes--of hope and compassion and redemption--to express his religious views, and these things are universal enough to touch anyone. He does not, as his friend C.S. Lewis did, simply regurgitate the Gospels under a thin mask of fairy tale. Instead, he took what he felt to be the true core of his beliefs and used it to lead him through his tale.

I could go on. I haven't yet mentioned the man's staggering diversity of styles (The Hobbit reading as a fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings reading as a history, The Silmarillion reading as mythology, The Children of Hurin reading as classical tragedy, etc) nor the brilliant ways he bridges the gap between Semitic religious tradition (Christianity) with Indo-European. For brevity I will omit this. Rather, I will close by saying Tolkien is one of those writers I come back to time and time again, and would place easily in my pantheon of the top ten. And this despite our agreeing to disagree. For while I would describe the telling of tales as a Promethean thing, stealing fire from heaven so to speak and becoming as gods ourselves, Tolkien would say;

"We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall."

And that's really just two ways of saying the same thing.

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