Saturday 26 February 2011

Legolas, Gimli and the key passage of Lord of the Rings


From Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien:


'We will come', said Imrahil; and they parted with courteous words.

'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising'.

'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.'

'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.'

'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf.

'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.


Ever since I began reading the Lord of the Rings way back in 1972, this has struck me as one of the key passages in the book: perhaps the single most important key. 

But my reason for thinking this has changed over the years. 

My understanding of the implications of this passage has, indeed, almost reversed.


This passage is about two aspects of the human condition, seen from two perspectives: fecklessness versus idealism; or, this-worldliness versus other-worldliness.

At first I identified with the elf and dwarf in terms of dismay at the restless distractability of Men - their inability to follow-through and finish any difficult task, the fact that their arts and crafts are always flawed, imperfect; men are always looking for something different, failing to keep their attention on the job. 

Compared with dwarves and elves, men are shallow - almost like children. And the best of men are the Numenoreans like Imrahil, who are ennobled by an infusion of elvish blood and spirituality. 

(Dwarves are conceived as a separate species, while Men and Elves are con-specific - and can interbreed, despite their differences.)

But from an elvish perspective this means that - at best - Men are merely second-rate and mortal elves. The best of Men's work - their arts and crafts - is nearly, but not quite, as good as the elves - and in architecture inferior to the dwarves.


The ultimate reason is Men's psychology: Men cannot stick to a difficult job right through to the end.

From the perspective of dwarves, the works of Men are a sequence of promising starts and disappointing results: 'merely 'might have beens'.

This my younger self perceived, and sadly agreed with. 


But the wiser elf Legloas is not content to leave Gimli with the last word. 

Although he does not understand, he recognises the limit of his understanding - and admits as much. Legolas perceives that the triumph of Men is part of providence, of the divine plan for Middle Earth - and therefore that there must be more to it than the accident of superior fertility.

Gimli and Legolas both perceive that the distractability of Men is a flaw in this world, in terms of what Men can achieve on Middle Earth. 

But the elf seems to recognize that Men's distractability may be a consequence of something higher than either elf or dwarf can perceive - that Men may (in a nutshell) be distracted by something not of this world - that Men are unfitted for Middle earth because their destiny lies elsewhere.


Of course this was precisely what Tolkien believed, and what lies behind this passage and which lends it such depth and fascination. It explains my fascination with this passage, and also it explains why I missed the deeper meaning for so long - until I read and understood the Marring of Men/ Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.


As such this famous passage represents and illustrates the method and secret of LotR - its subtle glimpses of depths and vistas beyond the frame of the story.


Note: the fact that this exchange between Gimli and Legolas was omitted from the movie version of LotR is a strike against the movie, and represents a failure to appreciate the core message of the book. I say this despite being a great admirer of the movies.



Monday 14 February 2011

Death in Tolkien


In LotR and its appendices, Tolkien makes clear how Men must (in this 'fallen' world) accept the inevitability of death, and the severance of soul from body - with the soul leaving this world and uncertainty over what happens next.

Thus the necessity for hope - for Men to believe in the reality and trust in the power and benign nature of The One.


For elves, by contrast, death is not inevitable, and they know that the One is real and powerful and benign; they know too what happens after their death - and that soul and body may be reunited by reincarnation.

Yet elves do not know what happens after the end of the world, which the elves know they will be there to experience - and elves, too, can rest only on hope that The One will - in ways unknown - make this right.


So, Men will suffer severance of soul from body and do not know what will then happen while Elves may suffer severance of soul from body but may have this 'healed' during the life of the world.

And Men go to another place where they may hope for something greater than this world has to offer, while elves will suffer annihilation in this world and may hope for something greater than this world has to offer, after the destruction of the world.

For both Men and elves alike hope is therefore prescribed - although for elves there is no need for faith since they know.

(This may be a point in favor of Men, a chance for them to exercise a higher virtue than that of which elves are capable.)


But in The Marring of Men and the associated material, Tolkien injects what seems like a personal note - the wisdom of a life time of reflection on death, when he acknowledges that Men's dread of death is rational: it is rational for Men to fear the severance of body and soul (even though, in this world, they must accept it, and must not try to avoid it: must not cling to life).

His proposed solution is that before The Fall the body and soul were taken, together, into the next world (in the same way and presumably by the same means as happened with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Tolkien states): that the original plan of The One was that Men's soul never-was severed from their bodies.


So we get a situation in the Silmarillion and LotR which resembles the pre-Christian times when a virtuous and courageous pagan had hope but no real reason for hope beyond death; other than a content-less faith that (somehow) things would (eventually) be made right.


Sunday 13 February 2011

Depth in Tolkien


The main reason that the Lord of the Rings has such depth - so that it feels like real life - is not that it is internally-consistent (plenty of fantasy is that), nor even that it is immensely detailed (although in that respect it is indeed unsurpassed); but that LotR has a sense of depth: of vistas glimpsed, and sometimes opening-out but never quite sufficient to satisfy curiosity.

To put it another way, LotR has a magnificent back-story, which is 'complete', but of which we seldom get more than tantalizing glances.

In a nutshell, Tolkien had a ready made back-story by using the vast and mostly-worked-out Silmarillion Legendarium as the glimpsed background.

Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle Earth, spelled-out how this effect was attained and why Tolkien valued this so much.


But Shippey also describes that this created a big problem when it came to preparing the Silmarillion for publication - since there was no background (because the Silamrillion gave an objective account of everything, right back to the beginning of the world).

Tolkien himself was perfectly aware of the problem, and discussed it explicitly, sought various answers - but never answered the problem to his satisfaction - and the Simarillion was not published during his lifetime.


The result was that - in my opinion - when the single volume Silmarillion of 1977 was published, it was an artistic failure.

It was just dull; a great disappointment. It was consistent and it was complex - but, as well as having no characters with whom the reader could identify (no Hobbits, nor even Men from whose perspective we could perceive things), and as well as the problem of having no 'frame' to define what exactly it purported to be; it was just too consistent.

However, almost by accident, the problem of depth was later solved for the Silmarillion Legendarium over the next couple of decades by the publication of first Unfinished Tales then another twelve volumes of the History of Middle Earth.


What we have now is multiple versions of Silmarillion legends in the form of unfinished drafts and proposed versions, free-standing and finished but inconsistent segments, editorial discussions from both JRR and Christopher Tolkien, prose and poems, notes and appendices... and much else. 

We have, in other words, a vast and implicit depth - so long as we take the stance that these are fragmentary and distorted Annals of lost real history.

In this case depth comes not from a back-story, but from the (spontaneous human) tendency to infer a back-story - or a true and complete version - of which the thirteen volumes (or, perhaps more accurately, the nine-or-so volumes of material which refer to pre-LotR history) are the remaining evidence.

Like 19th century philologists, we must struggle to recover the lost truth behind these 'records' - and it is an endless and fascinating task - tantalizing in just the same kind of way as the scattered references to ancient Silmarillion history embedded in LotR.


Paradoxically, Tolkien's failure to finish the Silmarillion, followed by the indispensable and irreplaceable labours of his son Christopher, has given us exactly what JRRT would have wanted us to have.

(Ignoring the false start of the one volume 1977 Silmarillion - which we might choose to regard from this perspective as merely a 'forgery' by later hands - rather like Macpherson's Ossian!)


Sunday 6 February 2011

JRR Tolkien's theology of The Fall and Resurrection


From The History of Middle Earth Volume 10 - edited by Christopher Tolkien - excerpted from pages 330-333.


With regard to King Finrod, it must be understood that he starts with certain basic beliefs, which he would have said were derived from one or more of these sources: his created nature; angelic instruction; thought; and experience.

1. There exists Eru (The One); that is, the One God Creator, who made (or more strictly designed) the World, but is not Himself the World. This world, or Universe, he calls , an Elvish word that means 'It is', or 'Let It Be'.

2. There are on Earth 'incarnate' creatures, Elves and Men: these are made of a union of hröa and fëa (roughly but not exactly equivalent to 'body' and 'soul'). This, he would say, was a known fact concerning Elvish nature, and could therefore be deduced for human nature from the close kinship of Elves and Men.

3. Hröa and fëa he would say are wholly distinct in kind, and not on the 'same plane of derivation from Eru', but were designed each for the other, to abide in perpetual harmony. The fëa is indestructible, a unique identity which cannot be disintegrated or absorbed into any other identity. The hröa, however, can be destroyed and dissolved: that is a fact of experience. (In such a case he would describe the fëa as 'exiled' or 'houseless'.)

4. The separation of fëa and hröa is 'unnatural', and proceeds not from the original design, but from the 'Marring of Arda', which is due to the operations of Melkor.

5. Elvish 'immortality' is bounded within a part of Time (which he would call the History of Arda [Arda is roughly the earth and solar system]), and is therefore strictly to be called rather 'serial longevity', the utmost limit of which is the length of the existence of Arda. A corollary of this is that the Elvish fëa is also limited to the Time of Arda, or at least held within it and unable to leave it, while it lasts.

6. From this it would follow in thought, if it were not a fact of Elvish experience, that a 'houseless' Elvish fëa must have the power or opportunity to return to incarnate life, if it has the desire or will to do so. (...)

7. Since Men die, without accident, and whether they will to do so or not, their fëar must have a different relation to Time. The Elves believed, though they had no certain information, that the fëar of Men, if disembodied, left Time (sooner or later), and never returned.

* (…)

[Finrod] uncovers a concomitant tradition that the change in the condition of Men from their original design was due to a primeval disaster, about which human lore is unclear, or Andreth is at least unwilling to say much. He remains, nonetheless, in the opinion that the condition of Men before the disaster (or as we might say, of unfallen Man) cannot have been the same as that of the Elves.

That is, their 'immortality' cannot have been the longevity within Arda of the Elves; otherwise they would have been simply Elves, and their separate introduction later into the Drama by Eru would have no function.

He thinks that the notion of Men that, unchanged, they would not have died (in the sense of leaving Arda) is due to human misrepresentation of their own tradition, and possibly to envious comparison of themselves to the Elves.

For one thing, he does not think this fits, as we might say, 'the observable peculiarities of human psychology', as compared with Elvish feelings towards the visible world.

[Tolkien refers here to Finrod's observations that (in these respects, being different from elves) Men seem to feel they are visitors to the earth (Arda), not 'at home', in exile, perpetually dissatisfied, rapidly wearying of things, seeking of novelty, seeking of a satisfaction on earth which they never can achieve... From this he infers that men were not made for this world only.]

* (…)

[Finrod] therefore guesses that it is the fear of death that is the result of the disaster. It is feared because it now is combined with severance of hroa and fea.

But the fear of Men must have been designed to leave Arda willingly or indeed by desire - maybe after a longer time than the present average human life, but still in a time very short compared with Elvish lives.

Then basing his argument on the axiom that severance of hroa and fea is unnatural and contrary to design, he comes (or if you like jumps) to the conclusion that the fea of unfallen Man would have taken with it its hroa into the new mode of existence (free from Time).

In other words, that 'assumption' was the natural end of each human life, though as far as we know it has been the end of the only 'unfallen' member of Mankind.

[Tolkien refers here to Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and the ancient Catholic tradition that she died willingly and was bodily assumed directly to Heaven. However, the Eastern Orthodox Catholic tradition would not agree with Tolkien's Roman Catholic belief that Mary was 'unfallen'.]


My comments:

I regard JRR Tolkien as one of the wisest and most profound of men, and further I take the above discussion seriously as an attempt - within the subcreation of his Legendarium - to grapple with ultimate matters.

Furthermore, I find his reasoning compelling.


Note what he says about the necessary assumptions. In the case of the Elven King Finrod, these assumptions were based on his created nature; angelic instruction; thought; and experience.

In the case of Men (who have not lived among the 'angels' (Valar) as had elven King Finrod; the assumptions would be based on created nature, thought, experience - and any traditions concerning divine 'revelation'.

His conclusion is that the Fall (conceived as a turning away from God, and a worship of the Satanic figure of Melkor/ Morgoth - which is a turning away from love to power) led to fear of death, as a severance of (immortal) soul and (mortal) body which is unnatural and horrible.

Eru's original plan was that this would not have happened, but that Men on willingly accepting death at the end of their time on earth would go (body and soul) to another world (i.e. Heaven) which was out of Time.

Following the fall, and a time of fallen-ness where Men's souls were indeed severed from bodies at death, an alternative plan was devised by Eru whereby he himself would become a Man, and thereby (mystically) enable souls which had left the world without their bodies to be reunited with their proper bodies, using (roughly speaking) the 'memory' of the body which was retained by the soul.


This was (Tolkien explains elsewhere) the mechanism for elven reincarnation - a new body was 'regenerated' from the memory of the soul.

But the souls of Men were not like this (the special elven gift was memory), nor was reincarnation the destiny of Men.

After all, the souls of dead Men had left Arda (whereas elven souls remained in Arda), and were in a domain out of Time.


Only intervention by Eru could heal this situation, and any healing must allow for the free will of Men (which was part of the essence of Men and the 'reason' or purpose of their creation).

Against this was not just the free will of Men to reject any or all of the assumptions or to prefer power to love; but there was also the fact of the presence of evil in the fabric of the world (the tainting of the created world by Morgoth); the purposive evil of Morgoth himself, his allies (Sauron) and his corrupted servants - Balrogs, Dragons, Orcs; and the opposition of free Men who (each, by choice or assent) took Morgoth as their God.

This is Tolkien's indirect description of the Fall and Resurrection; and his explanation of the need for Resurrection. 

Inter alia, Tolkien's description of Finrod's assumptions is also a description of Faith (belief in the reality of Erus and his nature), Hope (called Estel - by which knowledge of Eru implies goodness of divine purpose) - and the distinctive Christian virtue of Charity (Love, Agape) is implied by the contrast with Pride and Power-seeking which are distinctive sins of the two Falls of Men - the primary fall of the worship of Morgoth in the unrecorded history, and the secondary historical fall of Numenor into pride and power - finally capped by the Numenorean King again reinstating the worship of Morgoth - supervised by Morgoth's priest Sauron.


Wednesday 2 February 2011

The elven 'argument from desire'


From JRR Tolkien "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" in Morgoth's Ring: History of Middle Earth volume 10 (edited by Christopher Tolkien) page 343:  



"The Elves insisted that 'desires', especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfilment must lie.

"They distinguished between desire of the [soul] (perception that something right or necessary is not present, leading to desire or hope for it); wish, or personal wish (the feeling of the lack of something, the force of which primarily concerns oneself, and which may have little or no reference to the general fitness of things);
illusion, the refusal to recognize that things are not as they should be, leading to the delusion that they are as one would desire them to be, when they are not so.

"The last might now be called 'wishful thinking', legitimately; but this term, the Elves would say, is quite illegitimate when applied to the first.

"The last can be disproved by reference to facts. The first not so.

"Unless desirability is held to be always delusory, and the sole basis for the hope of amendment.

"But desires of the [soul] may often be shown to be reasonable by arguments quite unconnected with personal wish. The fact that they accord with 'desire', or even with personal wish, does not invalidate them.

"Actually the Elves believed that the 'lightening of the heart' or the 'stirring of joy' (to which they often refer), which may accompany the hearing of a proposition or an argument, is not an indication of its falsity but of the recognition by the [soul] that it is on the path of truth.)"

Comment: Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth may by Tolkien's most explicit statement (or, at least, discussion) of his deepest beliefs, albeit stated in terms of his legendarium. Here, yet again, is the argument from desire, which he shared with C.S Lewis - that when humans desire something deeply that is not of this world, then this may be taken as 'evidence' that something which fully gratifies this desire is to be found in another world, the world that humans are 'made-for', where humans would be 'at home' (which is not this world).  


The pride of Feanor


Being himself a creative genius of a high order, Tolkien felt a temptation of pride which was perhaps greater than for most.

In his depiction of the elf Feanor - he showed how pride can destroy everything which the greatest creative genius can achieve, and more.


Feanor was by far the most gifted among the gifted race of elves: as a scholar he invented the written script, as a craftsman he created many wonders but especially the Silmarils: three indestructible jewels of beauty unequalled by any products of human art, in which the light of the Two Trees was captured.

Gandalf said that, above all else in the world, he would wish to see the incomparable hand and mind of Feanor at work at the height of his powers.

Even the greatest of 'the gods' (except for 'the One' creator God - Eru) - the premier Archangel Melkor (later re-named Morgoth, by Feanor) could not match Feanor's creative genius, and coveted the Silmarils above all.


Yet Feanor's pride, his possessiveness concerning his own creations, was such that it led to many disasters for the elves: failure to restore the light of the Two Trees (after Morgoth had them destroyed), mass disloyalty, dishonesty and disobedience among the Noldor elves for generations, slaughter of the Teleri and destruction of their wonderful ships, betrayal and death of Noldor kindred, fruitless wars in Middle Earth with huge suffering and death for many centuries, exile from the care of the Valar - most of the major tragedies of the Silmarillion stories.

And all stemming back to the pride of Feanor.


Tolkien depicted the same process at many levels, from Melkor himself, to the first and primary Fall of Man into the worship of Morgoth (unpublished in his life but described in the History of Middle Earth Volume X), to the second Fall of the men of Numenor (who developed the most powerful technological civilization ever in Middle Earth), to individual examples such as Sauron and Saruman (minor gods or angelic figures), to Boromir and Denethor.

In Tolkien's world, as in ours, prideful creative genius often leads first to astonishing achievements of power - else there would be no temptation - then to ruin and loss.

For Tolkien, there is no creative achievement so great that it cannot be undone and reversed by pride.


And yet - we live, now, in a society which esteems and promotes pride - indeed depends upon pride for its very sustenance.

Of all the many moral inversions of political correctness - this is the most serious, the most damaging, the most damning.