Like the Days of the Tree: The Other Voice of Allegory in Tolkien’s Artistic Reflections

So for all of you paying attention to my blog (in other words, for an open letter to myself), you will have noticed that, after finishing The Return of the King, I sort of totally failed to keep up my reading schedule. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is how long it took me to read through the Appendix. (I was also distracted by Terry Brooks’s newest novel and actual, real-life obligations). My plan, laid out here, was to work through the first five History of Middle Earth volumes again and the Unfinished Tales, and then tackle the Silmarillion (my favorite text in the Middle-Earthen corpus). But then, I got a Barnes and Noble Gift Certificate, and I purchased the second edition of The Silmarillion (I have an old, tattered, well-worn copy of the first edition, the only version I know). So the need is upon me for the legend as I know it, and rather than sticking to an artificial plan (useful as it was initially), I’m going to continue in a way that energizes me the most. Specifically, I will provide separate blog posts for each major section of The Silmarillion (the Ainulindale, the Valaquenta, the Quenta Silmarillion, the Akallabeth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). In this post, though, I would like to mull over the letter to Milton Waldman included in the second edition (also in the volume of Tolkien’s letters) where Tolkien gives a conception of his world and literary perspective. Because of my Hawthornian “inveterate love of allegory,” I am fascinated by Tolkien’s attitude towards the concept as laid out in this letter and other places, so I would like to make a few comments here as a prelude to my upcoming posts.

Tolkien’s disparagement of allegory as a literary method is well known to readers of his letters. In his truncated literary biography to Waldman, he writes, “But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!), and for fairy-story” (xi). He is even more explicit as he begins to set out the particular aesthetic behind the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings mythology:

“I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)”

There is much to be said here, but I will contain myself to two observations. First, in the same paragraph and the one that follows, Tolkien labors (as he often does) to distinguish the Power of the Elves from that of the Enemy. The Enemy’s “desire for Power” leads “to the Machine (or Magic)…. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized” (xiii). The Magic and Machine of the Enemy is a Power “concerned with sheer Domination” (xiv). By contrast, of the Elves Tolkien writes, “Their ‘magic’ is Art…. And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation” (xiii). Of course, as I have discussed, these different ways of imagining Power form the crux of the drama of The Return of the King. But it also seems quite clear that the juxtaposition of Tolkien’s preference for the fairy-tale over allegory with his preference for Elvish Art over the Enemy’s Machine is no accident – for Tolkien is nothing if not marked by the scruples of implication. What I think we can draw from this is essentially that Tolkien abhors interpretive tyranny of Story as much as he abhors dominating tyranny over the “wills and minds of others,” for in fact precisely the same reason: Allegory, as it overmasters the Story, seeks to overmaster both the author and the reader, to dominate the mind with an inescapable conclusion about the Story that leaves no freedom to experience its actual power. Elvish reading and Elvish writing is contrasted from the Enemy’s reading and writing by the desire to witness the awe of narrative Power, rather than the desire to wield it.

Second, I must offer some slight criticism of Tolkien here, which I do so in full submission to how impetuous that feels and probably is. It is moreover a philological point, and in that I blush to instruct Minerva, to borrow a phrase from Bernardus Silvestris, one of those allegorical authors Tolkien viewed so askance. As Tolkien well knew, the meaning of allegory is simply “other-speaking,” or “other-voiced.” I think it useful not merely to intellectually note a word’s meaning, but to inhabit it – on this point I know Tolkien would surely agree, for he says as much in several places. So I ask that we apply a Tolkienian principle of the word to this word of which Tolkien appeared to disapprove. Another voice, another speaking – for a text to be allegorical is for it to sound with a voice elsewhere, perhaps unseen, perhaps far off, calling through the voice of one text to let the reader hear another. Such other-speaking we encounter in none other than Frodo himself: “At that moment Frodo threw himself forward on the ground, and he heard himself crying aloud: O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy.” He finds another voice speaking through him – far from being allegorical in the usual sense, this other-speaking is mysterious, enchanting, empowering in a palpably Elvish way, quite literally contrasted with the Machinery of the Enemy (the Nazgul). Now, Tolkien admits the inescapable value of it in articulating the sense of literary meaning he does intend. But this is much like his use of magic, which he both applies to and denies as proper to the articulation of Elvish Art.

Indeed, in a footnote (and I have always been amused by the inexorable nature of scholasticism in Tolkien’s personality that his personal correspondences are rife with adorably pedantic footnotes), Tolkien admits that his “‘elves’ are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking” (xvi). No, quite right – it is precisely the allegorical mode of talking Tolkien had so gruffly professed to dislike (and yet confess its utility in the same grumbling breath). (I do so love the grouchy professorish side of our beloved grouchy professor.) Thus we must say that just as Magic, as a kind of Power, has two manifestations (Art and Machinery), so does Allegory as a kind of reading. So let us say that there is allegory which dominates, and there is allegory which, if I may coin a term, enlegends. Legendary allegory speaks an idea to be more filled with the otherness of Elvish Art, while tyrannical allegory consumes the voice of the text with another speaking Power. It is the difference of the impact of the Nine Rings upon the Wraiths and the names of Elbereth and Gilthoniel upon Frodo and Sam.

So if the Machine is the model of allegory for the Enemy, what is enlegended, Elvish allegory? This question is, I think, actually answered by Tolkien quite directly (as directly as Tolkien gets on the subject, at any rate). It is to be found in “the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold” (xv). No spoilers here for any readers of the Silmarillion (though for those who aren’t, of course): “These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon” (xv-xvi). Of course, the Sun and Moon are merely the more familiar seeds of those ancient trees; the Silmarils, too, are the fruits of the Trees of Valinor, but they are tainted by the malice of Machinery, implicated as Feanor’s craft is in the works of Melkor. Even “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world” (xvi). This is a fascinating departure from the standard sublunary picture given by Neoplatonists and Aristotelians: the changing Moon is often the symbol of worldly fickleness, and the Sun the portrait of divine illumination. But Tolkien intentionally departs from this moon-disparaging lunacy, and dims the sun and the false confidence it creates in mortals, for it is too easily enlisted in the works of the Machinists (if is itself also derived from the Artful trees). It is the Trees of Valinor whose light flows like water that are the picture of legendary allegory in Tolkien. Abstract meaning is not necessarily a means of domination over the imagination, but the soil and the water from which the subcreation of Fantasy can grow in the Tolkienesque fairytale.

Isaiah prophesied God’s promise that “Like the days of the tree shall the days of my people be” (Isaiah 65:22). The psalmist wrote of the blessed man, “And he shall be like the tree planted by rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Psalm 1:3). Hyper-allegorical reading drowns seeds in water, like the Silmaril lost at sea, but the river-rich soil of the land is where the Elvish eye sees a place where trees can grow with room to unfurl their light-thirsty leaves. Like a vast forest interlaced with the rivers of water, The Silmarillion‘s legends are watered by that other voice of allegory, and, if we listen to it very patiently, we can hear a music on the water and glimpse through the fallen daylight the treelike glow of a magic sun.

Meditations on a Christian “Republic”

I originally composed this text in 2014, with the notion of making it a companion piece to a discussion on King Aragorn and Denethor the Steward. As it happens, quite without realizing it, I wrote that companion piece in Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King when I finished rereading The Lord of the Rings. In that sense, the two articles go together, although they can be read in either order.

I should make clear straight away what sort of discussion this is. It is not intended to be an academic or rigorous work, but simply a meditation on an important work of Plato’s. At the risk of narcissism, I must say that I am talking here very much from my own biographical experience of the text, including my biography as a reader. Indeed, given that many of my most beloved writers—especially Boethius, but also Augustine, Anselm, and C.S. Lewis—have Neoplatonic aspects to their thought, it is perhaps no surprise that I am drawn to Plato’s most famous discussion of the order of the soul in The Republic, through the use of the allegory of a city with three classes of people. Taken as straightforward political philosophy the perspective would disturb me, but I have never taken seriously this reading of the text. On the other hand, as a way of contemplating the human individual it compels me a great deal. I have been lead, however, to consider what alterations I might suggest (albeit recognizing the impetuous nature of offering such alterations to Plato) to the jurisdiction of the Platonic city from my perspective as a Christian. To the degree that I am correcting a reading of the Republic, rather than responding to it as a more informed scholar might, I leave for my better readers to judge.

To summarize (with all the necessary caveats of the insufficiency of summarization), Plato imagines a place where philosopher-kings rule over guardians and ordinary workers, and relates this to three components in the human person: Reason, spiritedness (or what might be called gumption or conviction), and the appetites. Reason, as the king, tells the guardians what to fight for, how to protect the city internally and externally, and tells the appetites what to desire. Because Reason is rational, this is not tyranny but a rulership of justice, for Reason as King can see what is truly best for the guardians. It is easy to fall here into seeing Plato as merely articulating Gnosticism or Manichaeism, as Soul versus Body, Mind versus Matter. But Plato sees conviction and the appetites as part of the soul; they have immaterial as well as material value. No, Plato is not dismissing these drives, but only asserting that they have a fitting and proper role. As beings with the ability to contemplate our actions, we must think carefully; we must have the vigor to carry out our conclusions; we must learn crafts to employ that rationally directed energy. This, so far as it goes, seems reasonable to me, and the overreactions to him, whether viewing him as rejecting the value of poets or rhetoric or balking at the mere existence of a hierarchy within his conceptualization, all seem to me to be precisely that – overreactions.

But while I accept the framework, as a Christian I cannot let certain details pass. First, I cannot abide by human kings. How Plato thought of kingship is not my concern; in any case, the term creates obfuscations with our modern, fantasy-literature distorted depiction of sovereignty. I prefer stewardship; perhaps Plato meant something akin to this, perhaps not. No matter. Rather than King Reason, our passion and our desires must be led, shepherded, by a humble Steward Reason, always aware of his own finitude. (This, incidentally, is why Aragorn is more kingly than Denethor – because he is more of a steward – see the blog entry mentioned above  for more on this subject). As a leader, Reason cannot be effective without his compatriots, and he must do more than legislate from down on high to his subjects. For Reason may fail, and in his imperfections ought to hear the reasonable requests of those he stewards, the Energies and the Appetites. Reason cannot conceive of either peaceful diplomacy or just war by means of some pure logic—it is only by knowing the force of a moral argument that a course of action can be taken. Where the mind may freeze in endless debates about the value of life, the Appetites of sexual desire and hunger give Reason direction. Of course, in pacifism or war-mongery, Epicurean lust or Puritanical repression, gluttony or anorexia, convictions and appetites can go astray. So Reason must not become these things, though among them—they are “natural,” so to speak, but Reason must seek to be supernatural in its stewardship. Convictions and appetites are not pests to control, but are like favored pets, or children, or lifelong dependents of some kind who must be acted on for in their best interest. One who trains a dog for his own convenience will never find delight in his dog. One who parents his child only to be sent away and not to make the child an adult will never have parented. One who treats an invalid dependent on him as a nuisance does not appreciate, not only that other person’s humanity, but his own as well.

None of these analogies stands perfectly, but a reason that stands too high, too free and clear from passion and appetite, will never really know what it is shepherding and stewarding. Reason must think on logic itself, as well as the logic suggested by flight or fight responses, and the logic disposed into the need to sleep, a perception of another human being as attractive, or the rumblings of the belly. Reason must not become these things, but rather hear them, serve them, tend to them, train them, direct and guide as dear friends, close relatives, intimate confidants. Reason must honor them both by not allowing the impulses of conviction or pulls of the appetites to take on duties which will harm them—sexual desire or the need for food must not be taken as logic—nor by casting them out or believing that because they are not Reason that they are not, in some sense, rational. Made by God, the full person participates in the Good, and Reason, as Steward, must search both for the good it can see on its own merits and share these with the heart and the soul; it must also see the good which conviction and appetite bring which Reason on its own cannot perceive. A good boat may save a deficient sailor; a good sailor knows how to capitalize upon the properties of a boat of any caliber.

But finitude is not all there is Reason must be aware of. Sin is not only of the heart and the body—sin is also of the mind. When the appetites lead the Steward astray, the Steward has failed.

Reason has a moral duty to the Appetites, and this is why Gnosticism and naïve dualism really fail. It is all too easy to sit back and blame carnal nature for lust—if we repent of the appetite gone wrong but not also of the bad stewardship, we fail. Reason must come kneeling, weeping along with the rest of the soul—it cannot hang back self-righteously as the spiritedness beats its chest and the appetites mourn. Reason, Human Reason, in Christian epistemology, is a Steward and thus not a law unto itself, but stands under the light of divine reason, which knew better than to leave human ratiocination to conclude that we have sinned and that we have been wicked on its own. C.S. Lewis argued that we must not be “men without chests” in The Abolition of Man, for that is, I believe, a large reason why many of us succumb to, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.” The motivating force of conviction and the motivating force of the appetites are trained by Reason, but Reason learns from conviction to yearn after purity and from appetites to hunger after the blood and the flesh of the Son of the Ancient of Days. Reason must burn wicked logic as the eye must be plucked out—not, I must be clear, avoiding thinking critically or assaulting another’s thoughts, but aching and regretting and weeping over how it has nurtured false convictions or allowed appetites to fester and glut themselves. The whole soul must be laid bare, must know its depravity, thorough depravity. I say not total depravity with Calvin, but thorough, for we must not be led to believe that any part of ourselves is too good for repentance, not even Steward Reason. When our higher nature has gone amiss, it must have the humility to see how our lower nature has been ordered by grace, and that without this foundation from the least of ourselves, our loftiest inward places could never soar, could neither triumph nor fail.

The New Testament rarely uses the image of the city to talk of the individual’s role as a Christian—though we are called to be like a city on a hill. More frequently we are compared to the body of Christ, and this visceral understanding of the soul is to me healthier. For if the mind looks to the body as part of knowing itself, it knows it must rid itself of refuse, take in proper nourishment, and know that it has limits and cannot do everything but that strenuous labor to do things which test those limits increases its health. The mind must not reduce itself to the body any more than the body ought to lie down and reduce itself to the dirt, at least not while it is able to strive for something more. For to lie down and reduce the soul to the body is a longer fall than for the body to the surface of the earth. The body, among humans, needs other bodies to live, grow, create, and so does the mind. If we fail to be stewards to one another, we fail to be stewards of ourselves. If we treat others as answers to our appetites or ciphers to play out our convictions, we fail to see them as fellow souls. Each of us, limited and finite, pulses of rational thought governing our passion to protect as guardians and our appetites to move our bodies, interact together like a weave of Christmas lights, where light depends upon light both within the soul itself and the greater community of souls. And these together must order to the greatest Light, steering ourselves and helping others to steer themselves by the revelations of that Light.

The body requires the proper environment to thrive, and the soul does as well. Externally, internally, imminently and transcendentally, thoroughly we must practice stewardship within, around, and above. We must never be kings, nor can we be slaves, over our convictions and our appetites, for we are not our own masters. While the Master appears to be away, the Stewards must serve, and we must, to be reasonable, be full-souled. Reason must ask, chests must heave, bodies must move. Minds as well as hearts must receive sacraments, and the whole person must repent in reason, spirit, and desire. To embrace the neighboring lights we must look to the First of lights, but to pretend as though we can call to God alone when our souls have been disordered in regard to one another is to make believe in an unjust God. Just as we cannot worship God only with our appetites, or only with our passion, or only with reason, so we cannot worship only with our own souls, for we are a Body. And if we have been irrational, too impassioned or excessively appetitive, if we have spoiled our communion with fellow souls, how can Communion with the Father of Souls go untouched?

Alone and together we must tend to our souls as we call upon the One who Heals. Then our city shall be upon a hill, and the darkness will be made into light.

Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King

“Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”

So wrote C.S. Lewis, and I found it to be true as I revisited at long last this concluding volume of Tolkien’s epic imagination. Why does it ache to near the ending of a story I have already read, and which I know I might reread yet again? Anchored in my imagination and prized in my library, why do I feel as if something slips away, or slipped away long before I knew it could be had? Many times I come to a line that I must stop over, set the book down, pick it up again, and read the words, as if they long to be spoken. “It has to be said” is a phrase more mysterious than “I have to say it,” and yet more clearly communicates the weight upon the soul as it longs to hear beautiful truths, however cold or sharp or piercing they may be. When Sam hears Gandalf laugh, he must himself weep before he can laugh:

“and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed” (283).

And when he hears as he had hoped the song of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, “he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: ‘O great glory and splendour! And all my wishes have come true!’ And then he wept” (286).

There is a place, somewhere in the highest of divine imaginations, where all weeping becomes laughter, “regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” (286). Meantime we must deal with the petty evils of Sarumans who wish to set up their aristocracies and their little tyrannies, but we know now that if Sauron’s was a Shadow that could pass, these mimicking Powers cannot touch the wellsprings of our ennobled imaginations. And how different Aragorn’s vision of the world from Sauron’s: where Sauron’s mind worked poison into the very air and water, where even in his dying moment he becomes but a ghost of his desire for domination, Aragorn passes rod and crown back to Faramir, one for Faramir’s keeping and one for Aragorn’s crowning to include Frodo and Gandalf. He calls Eomer his brother; he puts first those who had been least, the Hobbits of his company who had proven foolish the counsels of the wise. He sets free the prisoners of war from Sauron’s fallen empire and gives land and sovereignty to those deserving; he frees Beregond from the wicked law of Denethor’s stewardship and into service of his beloved, recently elevated Faramir, who brings a wizardly quality to his new authority. He dignifies Eowyn’s betrothal to Faramir with grace, and in so doing shows in one point why he is the true King: “I have wished thee joy ever since I first saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.” It is the sympathetic imagination of the King that gives his healing hands and the fragrance of the athelas their sympathetic magic.

If Faramir is the Steward of Aragorn, Sam is of course the Steward of Frodo. I am struck by the moment where Sam loses hope that he will survive the quest; it is this very moment when he becomes the hero he has been the whole story: “But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.” What false hopes to we cling to in our timid imaginations, the small condolences of little steps that collect to burden us from our larger purpose?

I remember now, in this beautiful ache, why I was so slow to go back to Middle-earth – I feel again the sluggishness of directing my sight to other things when this world, so full of meaning, is just one page away. But I am mindful of the moment when Sam “thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed,” where finding some drinkable water and a little natural light is enough to make him exclaim, “If I ever see the Lady again, I will tell her!” Frodo tells Sam that in his imprisonment and despair he tried to remember “the Brandywine, and Woody End, and the Water running through the mill at Hobbiton. But I can’t see them now” (239). The atmosphere of Sauron’s imagination had stolen away Frodo’s memory of those abundant waters at home, and here I am, with bottled water and running taps, and am I still greedy and audacious enough to order an Iced Capp from Tim Horton’s?

As I long for Middle-earth, I learn again the value of reality – the surprising joy of the presence of basic gifts of our own Earth that many in our world lack. Where Sam had once met Elves and longed for he knew not what of their world, he now remembers his own, and it is his perseverance for the simple, wholesome good things that remembers on Frodo’s behalf the basic need to carry on in the Shadow’s illusion that goodness can fail. But even in the land of the Shadow fresh waters run, and in the war-torn Gondor the trees of Elves grow in secret. I remember again  the sanctity of the every day ache, the mud of life from which we gaze on those stars, and that the beauty which pierces Middle-earth flows in the same waters and the same Earth over which Treebeard says, “and all that I hear is good, very good.” Can the grief and the sad, still music of humanity, to say nothing of the apparently pointless every day grind, steps in Saruman’s Shire if not Sauron’s Morder, be conquered by so slender a thing as imagination? Gandalf thinks so:

“Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder. And Aragorn himself waits for a sign.”

King as he is, Aragorn knows that he is in truth yet another Steward. (For a discussion of how I use this term in more explicitly theological terms, see my companion piece discussion of Plato’s Republic from a Christian point of view). Faramir and Sam, in their stewardships of Gondor and the Ring, are heroic in their ability to glimpse beyond the Shadow and see those glimmering lights, and Aragorn in his reflective kingly splendor does not forget that he is not the source of that light. We are the keepers of our own imaginations, and we have a choice between Palantirs and Rings or Hobbits and Kingdoms. Stewards can turn to blessing or to abuse all things; in the wrong hands, even The Lord of the Rings can become a curse. We are beset with dangers, as Gandalf says, for even we ourselves are dangerous, for when the time comes, which of us will cast away our Ring of Power?

As you announce that you have returned from your journey into the imagination, Treebeard asks, “You have proved mightiest, and all you labours have gone well. Where now would you be going? And why do you come here?” (317)


The Abolition of a Hobbit: Rereading The Two Towers

[Alternative Titles: Sympathy for the Slinker; Sticking it to Samwise (with utmost respect of course)]

More so than The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers reads like what one expects from a fantasy novel. It’s exciting, it’s action packed – Hobbits are being kidnapped by Orcs, evil wizards are being sieged by walking trees, Elves are shooting winged beasts from the sky, noble warriors are engaging in fierce struggles for the survival of their people against dark Hordes of the Enemy. Two of our major protagonists, Frodo and Sam, have on their hands the dangerous dilemma of trusting a most untrustworthy and most indispensable guide, the split-personality of Slinker and Stinker, Smeagol and Gollum. The dangerous yet somewhat comical spiders of Mirkwood from The Hobbit are dwarfed (pun entirely intended) by the cunning Shelob. In an essay on stories by C.S. Lewis, creatively titled On Stories, Jack makes a distinction between the excitement of plot and the immersion of atmosphere created by a world. It is the difference between the flight-or-fight fear created by being chased by a giant, man-eating spider, and meditating on the quality of a world where giant, man-eating spiders exist. It’s the difference between Wordsworth feeling the rush of the river Wye and its countryside flow over him, and the discerning meditation upon what that rush means. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to be sure, an exciting story, and one that layers itself intentionally over The Hobbit to fill readers with anticipation of a similar story.

But even in The Fellowship, we begin to understand that we’re in a larger and darker adventure than the one that swept Bilbo from his door. We learn the deeper lore of the Ring, the terror of the Nazgul who serve its master, and the forces of light marshalled against the Enemy. The Fellowship is, in some ways, The Hobbit inside out: the pressure of larger forces at work is felt throughout The Hobbit but never seen clearly (though, we with Tolkien will discover, encountered quite directly in the finding of the Ring), while the legacy of Bilbo’s adventures are the pressures by which Frodo and his comrades find themselves issuing out of the safety of the Shire and into the larger affairs of the Great and the Wise. The excitement of The Fellowship is a texturing excitement; it educates us, carrying us over the thresholds of the Bruinen, Nimrodel, and Kheled-zaram and into the darkening shadow of Mordor, the dark touch of which we feel in the agonizing loss of Gandalf and Boromir.

The sub-creative work of building atmosphere for our imaginations to inhabit is of course not finished, but has reached a certain fulfillment once The Two Towers has begun. As readers, we have been oriented to this world clearly enough that we feel more acutely the disorientation of Merry’s and Pippin’s plight and the weight of the task before Frodo and Sam. The two books of The Two Towers presents two separate journeys of a pair of Hobbits, the intertwining of their plots felt only when we realize that the Nazgul winging menacingly over Frodo and Sam was headed to Saruman thinking that the Hobbit with the Ring might be in his clutches, thanks to the errors of Pippin with the Palantir. This is why Lord of the Rings achieves a deeper effect than much of its literary progeny: the weight of history, the lives of its characters, and the intersection of broad realities with narrow experience makes the momentary excitement of plot resonate with the significance of enduring atmosphere. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” asks Sam.

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.” (407-408)

Something about this exchange between Frodo and Sam has always struck me as powerfully moving, from my first reading of it, to its representation in the film, and my second reading of it earlier today. On the back of my copy, Lewis recommends, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart….good beyond hope.” The Lord of the Rings in general has the peculiar quality of breaking my heart with its portrayal of goodness as well as its portrayal of evil.

Not long after Sam’s own insightful vision into the storied nature of life itself, he snaps at Gollum in a moment when the poor creature might have tipped into goodness once and for all, having seen in the napping Hobbits a lost self he could, in the presence of his Master Frodo, recall, however faintly. “Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway,” Sam had said, and fancifully calls, “Would you like to be the hero—now where’s he got to again?” At that moment, we’ll find, Gollum had been away laying his trap with Shelob, but who knows how Sam would have replied if he’d seen “an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time” (411). Instead of remembering his own musings, Sam falls into the insulting habit of interaction he had with the creature he called Slinker and Stinker – accusing him of sneaking and being an old villain. Not without justification, Gollum is wounded, and coupled with the guilt of his treachery, Slinker retreats and Stinker grows.

In the opening pages of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis rebukes our culture for losing an important part of our “human heritage,” namely, the belief “that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt” (15). Frodo’s reaction to Sam’s musing that his master might be in “songs or tales” some day is to laugh, and Sam’s reaction at being included in those imagined songs and tales is to respond as if his thought were injured, mocked: “Now Frodo,” said Sam, “you shouldn’t make fun, I was serious.” “So was I,” said Frodo.” Sam abolishes his own insight to a fancy when it comes to himself, and if he cannot imagine himself as a hero in a story (with his most heroic actions about to unfold in not too many pages), how could he imagine his fancy about Gollum’s value as anything more than just that, a fancy?

For all of the blame laid in the Ring, the failure of imagination in Sam about a creature of his own kind contributed to Gollum’s doom as surely as the hand of Sauron. This is not to judge Samwise Gamgee too harshly, for there was undeniable sense in his reaction to Gollum, which stemmed as well from his admirable loyalty to Frodo. But if Sam had taken more comfort in Frodo’s pity towards Gollum, as Legolas and Gimli took comfort in each other’s love of forests and caves, perhaps the burden of the One Ring would not have been so heavy to bear. Who can tell, in this time of crisis, how much evil we kindle by laughing at our own ideals? We might be silly hobbits, but let not our laughter be altogether be without dignity, for the sake of the Frodos, Sams, and Gollums among us all.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (The Abolition of Man, 26)

Rivers and Ruins: Rereading The Fellowship of the Ring

In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth’s return to the banks of the River Wye call to memory a boundlessly energetic past self whose passions have been estranged to him by the passage of time:

“I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.–I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion.”

He finds his passions cooled; he cannot feel that level of immersion in the landscape, but he can reflect on those passions, meditate on them more profoundly where once they had possessed him. I am saddened to say that the return to Lord of the Rings is similar in that sense: I no longer have the boundless energy to block out all the world, to regard no concern of my daily life, and plunge with every strength of my soul into the subcreation before me. I wish to be all consumed with the fear of the Nazgul and the wonder of the Elves and the haunting ruins of the ancient Numenoreans as I once was. It is not that the pages of the text have lost any beauty for me; I do not love Middle-earth any less. I am just now too much of the world of experience, as Blake would put it – my days of innocence (I know, it sounds disgustingly nostalgic, but I mean it in a quite specific sense) are gone, and they are properly gone. I lean back from the page rather than into it, and with that comes a longing for the days when I plunged in, but there is something new:

“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.”

Just as Wordsworth turned in his heart to the “Sylvan Wye,” that “wanderer thro’ the words” who mirrored his migrant soul, so have I remembered the harried flight across the Bruinen, dogged by the Nazgul, and the crossing of Nimrodel into Lothlorien. Although I cannot feel the total abandonment to the plot of The Lord of the Rings, I can more deeply appreciate the Nimrodellian powers Tolkien holds over my heart, who makes me feel that, if for only a fleeting moment, “we see into the life of things.”

Despite it being over a decade and a half since my last reading, few words felt unremembered or strange – rarely did Gandalf’s words “I have no memory of this place” spring to mind. Rather, it was as if a layer of dust had collected, and disturbed by a return, rereading was akin to meeting up with a dear, dear Friend whose exact aspect has perhaps grown soft in your memory, but the flow of conversation and comfort in her society returns with such immediacy as if you had only talked yesterday, though it had been years.

My regard for the crossing of the Bruinen when I first read The Fellowship versus my present relish for the crossing of the Nimrodel perhaps best captures the newfound awe which the story holds for me. The strange reaction of Frodo as he confronts the Nazgul on the riverside, to call upon Elbereth and Luthien, as if the tales of the Elves he knew from Bilbo and Rivendell were talismans of power, the shapes of elemental knights on horses in the waves that rise to confront the wraiths and batter them away – the heat of Tolkien’s spell was upon me, and the magic that it portended drew my attention. But I know now that Elrond was a ring-bearer, that Glorfindel a tragic memory of the annals of the Silmarils, and that this meeting of force with force, beautiful as it remains, is a symbol of the desperation that comes with power wielded only to hold power at bay.

The waters of Nimrodel are not so exciting as the waters of Bruinen, though perhaps they might be if threatened by a breach of Ring-wraiths:

“It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and it mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs… At length a silence fell, and they heard the music of the waterfall running sweetly in the shadows. Almost Frodo fancied that he could hear a voice singing, mingled with the sound of the water.

‘Do you hear the voice of Nimrodel?’ asked Legolas. ‘I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel’…” (440)

One should always suspect a sad story in rivers named for maidens; even the sometimes repugnant optimism of Wordsworth admits the “sad, still music of humanity” that echoes over the streams. But Nimrodel is not a mournful river after the manner of Kheled-zaram, the mirror-like pool where Gimli and Frodo stand in stricken grief over the fallen Gandalf. Grief, in its emptying stranglehold, requires we look away from ourselves and see our reflection on the world diminished: “Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen” (434). Kheled-zaram was something I did not appreciate so well, when I first felt the jarring absence of the irascible old wizard, as I do now.

But like crossing the Nimrodel, rereading The Lord of the Rings has reminded me of a cleaner self, a less cynical eye, so that while it may be true that we are in a world where “but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as Keats would have it, the Elf is not deceiving, and the music’s sadness does not take away its stillness. In the real world, you might say that we only hear Elf-songs from Hobbits, but Hobbits are sometimes Fallohides, and there’s more to them than meets the eye (on this point Bilbo and Gandalf are agreed, a formidable alliance to be sure). And Hobbits though we are, we can bear a burden heavier, and for longer, than we might think.

“And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!”