Friday 17 May 2013

Two ways of being a Tolkien fanatic: pre- and post-Christian


Presumably there are numerous other ways - but I underwent a transition between the way in which I was a Tolkien fan in my youth and pre-Christian adulthood, and what came afterwards - what is now.

The transition was gradual, over several years; and indeed fairly closely related to becoming a Christian - especially to reading and writing about the story The debate of Finrod and Andreth (‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’) - or the writing which I have dubbed "The marring of men":


In my youth, Tolkien's world provided an alternative reality. It was a reality, of some kind, and it was something into which I projected myself.

Of course, at the same time as volitionally-projecting I was also passively absorbed-into this world.

The world of Tolkien in fact provided a thread running through my life - which was realler than most of my life - at least in memory and retrospect.


This gave rise to the question of the status of this reality of Tolkien's world.

On the one hand the reality was not objective, not factual, because the world was imagined; on the other hand the world was solidly-subjective (therefore not just a matter of wishful thinking) and it seemed an error simply to reject the factual objectivity.

More needed to be said than that it was all imagination and fantasy.

But I could not see quite how to say it, short of considering the whole of human experience to be a matter of imagination (which brought other problems: not least relativism and solipsism - then nihilism).

Somehow - to be true to experience - Tolkien's fantasy world had to be real despite being imagined.


When I became a Christian (the processes being gradual rather than instant), all this remained; but the nature of the reality of Tolkien's world was different - because my understanding of the nature of imagination changed.

I began to regard imagination of the kind displayed by Tolkien (that is, subcreation) to have properties akin to the divine revelation  of prophets. So, the Lord of the Rings was in fact true and real because it was divinely inspired: its truths were revelations.

Naturally, this does not make sense if the truths are seen as detachable facts (e.g. as providing information on the history of elves, hobbits, orcs etc.).


So, the situation seems to be that Tolkien's world is in fact true, but not factually true: the truth is not in the facts, which are explicitly imagined but in something else behind the facts, linking the facts, or the form of the imagined world.

I cannot explain - even to myself, leave aside explain to other people - how this works; but I do know that it does work.

Reality - and I mean real-reality, objective - is communicated from God, via Tolkien, by means of imagination and fantasy; therefore, this world is not a delusion, nor wishful thinking, nor an assertion of subjectivity, not (ultimately) invented but instead something given; this is solid: something to build life on.



Samson J. said...

That's been my experience as well. How joyous to love something even *more* than when you were a child!

Jonathan C said...

I have long taken for granted that this is the element separating most great writing from the commonplace...that it is infused with truth given directly by God or his emissaries. Not literal truth, but truth to human nature and the nature of reality. Of course Shakespeare and Aristotle were prophets of a sort, receiving direct divine inspiration, as were Mozart and Beethoven.

I guess what I'm saying is that I agree completely, except that I'm surprised you say you cannot explain it even to yourself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JC "I'm surprised you say you cannot explain it even to yourself."

What I don't seem able to explain is (given that the 'facts' are imagined) exactly *where* in the writing the truth is located - as soon as I come up with a definition or example, it doesn't seem quite right. It is the same for any fiction, or art.

Unknown said...

hello there Bruce,
you said that Tolkien's writings have a prophetic quality, which is really interesting. Do you think that the world of Middle earth somehow correlates to today's Western civilization? I.e it's something precious, being threatened, and have to be saved?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SH - Yes, for sure - although with some qualifications such as that it is not an allegory, and that Tolkien would only wish to save some things (and not what the majority of people would focus upon).