Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Tolkien and reincarnation

Although reincarnation is firmly excluded from his devoutly practised Roman Catholic Christianity, as being Not True; Tolkien seems to have had a spontaneous and intuitive belief in the reality of some version of the very-broadly-defined possibility of deceased souls (or significant aspects of them) returning in different bodies.

This seems the likeliest reason for the repeated occurrence of reincarnation - not only in his fictions, but also in remarks he made in private life.

In his fiction; elves are able to reincarnate if killed - although this is only made clear in posthumously published material; Glorfindel being an example. He was himself killed while killing a Balrog at the fall of Gondolin, and he returns to Middle Earth to dwell with Elrond and perform the role of saving Frodo's life at the Fords of Bruinen.

In his posthumously-published writings (The History of Middle Earth sequence, edited by Christopher Tolkien) we find Tolkien grappling with the logistics of elvish reincarnation. But this seems like a surface concern with the logic of the system - underlying which is Tolkiens intuitive conviction that elves do reincarnate. Since elves are a type of human, both being 'children of Illuvatar' and interbreeding, the implications are obvious. 

Among Dwarves, the primal ancestor Durin is known to have reincarnated seven times - although the  details are unclear, it seems that this really was the soul of Durin reappearing after having died. It seems to be implied that Durin is an unique instance among Dwarves; however it establishes the principle of possibility. 

Arwen is also a sort-of reincarnation of Luthien; who had become a Man and died - although Arwen cannot have been a literal reincarnation for that reason (she must have had a different soul). In this respect Arwen resembles several characters among Men who seem to be 'throwbacks' to earlier ages; by a process that is not reincarnation but shares some aspects. For example, Denethor, Faramir and (especially) Aragorn are 'pure' Numenoreans, that have - by some non-genetic heredity - been born in a later age, separated by many generations from similar forbears.

In Real Life, Tolkien sometimes stated profound convictions of a similar kind in relation to modern Men. In particular, he sometimes expressed a belief that each person has an innate real-language, which may differ from any language he had actually encountered (see scattered refs in JRR Tolkien's Letters, 1981. Edited by H Carpenter and C Tolkien). This conviction is given more detail, while being lightly fictionalised, in the discussions of The Notion Club Papers (published in The History of Middle Earth, Volume 9).

Furthermore, in regard to himself (and presumably validated by an inner, intuitive, sense of knowledge) Tolkien stated that he inherited (but he did not seem to mean 'genetically', but by some other mode of inheritance) some very specific traits from his mother's side of the family (the Suffields). These include a special affinity with the West Midlands of England, and the historical languages of its Old- and Middle-English dialects (see Letters).

(Tolkien seems to have regarded his Tolkien and Suffield ancestors rather analogously to Bilbo's Baggins and Took ancestors - in both cases the surname was misleading, and the maternal line was primary.) 

There are other example; but I think there is enough here to conclude that Tolkien was fascinated by the mysterious, spiritual ways in which personal characteristics were transmitted down generations. And that he probably believed that it was possible - even if it did not happen often, or 'nowadays' - for a soul to be reborn with a new body.

And further, that Tolkien found this to be a fascinating and attractive possibility - so much so, that he risked - and attracted (Letters 153) criticism from his co-religionists by expressing these beliefs.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I did a double take when you mentioned that Lúthien had become a Man!

Bruce Charlton said...

It was not unintentional, a jokelet...

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much Tolkien is playing with 'fairy tale' motifs (as in, e.g., De la Motte Fouqué's Undine - that story admired by MacDonald, if I recall aright) of intramundane humanoid interbreedable creatures acquiring an 'immortal' soul such as Men have? And how much he is playing with things like Jewish demonology and Muslim jinn lore, in terms of humanoid interbreedable creatures - including Maiar?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - My distinct feeling is that Tolkien's references to reincarnation etc were 'heartfelt' rather than playful.

Anonymous said...

My sense - and (unexplained!) intended use - of 'play' includes earnest matter and attention - and the sort of mythopoeic philosophical reflection and exploration he talks about in writing (during WWII) to Christopher about the Great War and the origins of his 'Middle-earth' work.

It is fascinating to see what he writes about elves, and human thinking about elves and 'faerie', in the draft material in the expanded edition of On Fairy-stories.

I finally got around to reading Johan Huizinga's Homo ludens not so very long ago, and found it strikingly 'Inklings compatible' - which left me wondering whether any of them knew any version of it (or, say, Huizinga's son's translation of a slightly earlier book of his as In the Shadow of Tomorrow).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I don't know about Huizinga and the Inklings - but as a teen I was a major fan of his The waning of the Middle Ages. However, when I went back to look at it more recently, I found it very cynical and anti-Christian - quite a nasty book in its tendency, albeit beautifully written/ translated. I looked into Homo Ludens and found it relativistic/ postmodern in feel. In sum, I don't suppose he would have appealed to either Lewis or Tolkien, although maybe Barfield would have found something interesting.

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Totally different experience of Huizinga! The Waning of the Middle Ages was, I think, my first, and that's a while ago (though within the last couple decades), and I've only dipped into it, since... But I've gone on reading more and more, and can't say anything ever struck me as cynical or anti-Christian - though what his exact relation to Christianity is, is one of the things I want to know more about - e.g., I've heard interesting things about a devout Catholic second wife after the death of his first wife, and prayerful late writings... but I should probably tackle the three-volume set of his letters I got second-hand...

One thing that stands boldly in my memory of Homo Ludens is the discussion of riddles, which seems very Hobbit-compatible! (And I can well imagine Barfield would be interested - though I've still read too little of him...)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...


I felt that The Waning missed all of what was most positive about the late middle ages, although perhaps this was due to a European perspective. A Briton's sensibility is dominated by Chaucer backed-up by Piers Plowman, Dunbar, Henryson and Gawain-poet - so that there is not much sense of 'waning'!

I am not much of a medievalist in aspiration, but it seems a far better world to my mind than the 'early modern' - i.e. the Tudors, with their appalling triad of Henry VIII, Edward and Mary... Elizabeth was a great Queen, but (Shakespeare's towering achievement aside) I find her society repellant... the fashions, the foppishness etc.

For me the seventeeth century had more seriousness and worth to it than the Tudor; it was when the best aspects of Englishness recovered to something nearer the fourteenth century ('Middle English') peak.

Anonymous said...

Among other shorter works, I enjoyed two long essays by him, one on mediaeval Burgundy as a sort of proto-Dutch Republic, and another on Dutch and English interrelations in the Age of Shakespeare - sadly, neither of them seem to be in Men and Ideas: History, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance - Essays, translated by James S. Holmes and Hans van Marle (1959) - which is in the Internet Archive in some 'borrowable' way I do not understand... (and which the "Limited Book Preview" shows me has interesting-looking essays unknown to me!).

I also really enjoyed his Erasmus biography (commissioned by an American publisher!) - which is scanned in the Internet Archive and transcribed at Project Gutenberg, and his Dutch Civilisation in the Seventeenth Century - though I see from the "Limited Book Preview" of the scan 'borrowable' in the Internet Archive that the English translation also includes other interesting-sounding essays unknown to me!

I just lately finished my third contribution to the OHEL, that younger Inkling, J.A. W. Bennett's volume on Middle English Literature, which was completed after his death by Douglas Gray and published in 1986 - and would heartily recommend it. My other two are Lewis on the 16th, and Douglas Bush's English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660 (2d ed. 1962) - all three were so good, I probably should try nibbling my way through the whole series!

On the strength of those 3 OHEL volumes, I find it hard choose between Late Mediaeval, Tudor, and 17th-c. - though I don't know I'd last long as a 'time-traveller' to any of 'em!

David Llewellyn Dodds