I think no other author has fascinated me as much as Prof Tolkien did. I enjoyed many Blyton’s books in my childhood, yet it did not make me eager to know about their author. I smiled everytime I read Erich Segal’s novels, I enthusiastically searched for more of his novels, and sighed when I realized I have read all his published novels. Yet my curiosity about Dr Segal stops with reading his page in Wikipedia. Now for Tolkien, after reading the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbits, instead of craving for his other books, I turned to the man himself. I read his Letters and his biography. As I noticed how he treasured his writings on Middle-earth, I picked up The Silmarillion. I plan to continue my reading with his lecture on fairy tale. From all those Tolkien-related books, the one I enjoyed the most is still The Lord of the Rings. But The Silmarillion and his Letters inspired me the most. Below is a summary of my impressions of Professor Tolkien.
1. Tolkien did not present us a story. He presented a full mythology, complete with the account of creation, the history of different races of people, the wars and battles, the heroic tale, the stories of loyalty as well as treachery, and love stories (*reading his love stories will make you look at those chicklits with contempt and disgust*). Recall to mind the mythology that we know (be it Greek mythology, Chinese mythology, or Mahabharata), with its great gods and goddesses, wars, kingdoms, and hundreds of story woven beautifully into one compilation… that is what Tolkien endeavoured to present in his books. With much success, I must say. For if many fairy tales ask us to be content with their pretty fairies, complete with wings and magic wands, ever ready to succour the damsels in their distress; Professor Tolkien introduced as to Feanor and Galadriel, fair beyond words yet terrible, elder and wiser than mankind. And he did not stop at that. He gave us the account on how these elder and fairer folks, which he called Elves for the lack of better word, were created and came to our world, and why they no longer dwell here in our present day. And after reading The Silmarillion, I am sure that this Oxford don possessed imagination far greater than most of us. He explained to us how the Sun and Moon came to be, and even why the eclipse occurs (*a personal note: I was tempted to name my daughter Arien*). And all these explanations are consistent with his mythology. And most wonderful is the way he told us how the earth was flat in the beginning and then made round by the Creator to subdue the pride of Men.
2. All those being said, Tolkien is far from being the day-dreaming, detached- from-reality fool some people seem to accuse him of. From his biography and letters, one cannot but get the impression of an ordinary man, father, husband, professor. He was very much involved and performed well in other aspects of life. As a young student, he enjoyed rugby. He fought as a soldier in World War I. As an Oxford professor in philology, he published several academic works apart from his Middle-earth books. And earned an honorary doctorate for those. In his capacity as a philologist, he contributes in the translation of the Jerusalem Bible. As for his mythology, he conceived it (or in his own expression, he found it) due to his love of languages, which is very fitting for a professor in philology.
3. His love of languages was really remarkable. Since very young, he was fascinated with languages: with the sounds of words, with how languages are developed, “why they were what they were”. He had been familiar with Latin, Greek, French, German, and even Old English, Welsh, and Finnish, since his teenage days. In addition to this, he invented his own private language, complete with the grammars, and wrote his diary in this language. In his high school, King Edward’s, this love of languages flourished. According to his biography:
In the Lent term of 1910 he delivered to the First Class at King Edward’s a lecture with the weighty title: ‘The Modern Languages of Europe – Derivation and Capabilities’, which took three one-hour lessons to read, and even then he is stopped before he could reach the ‘Capabilities’. There was also a custom at King Edward’s of holding a debate entirely in Latin, but that was almost too easy for Tolkien, and in one debate when taking the role of Greek Ambassador to the Senate he spoke entirely in Greek. On another occasion he astonished his schoolfellows when, in the character of a barbarian envoy, he broke into fluent Gothic; and on a third occasion he spoke in Anglo-Saxon.
All those was accomplished by an 18 years old young man, in the midst of preparation for the Oxford scholarship examination.
Side note: what amazed me more is the fact that in King Edward’s, students were able to debate in Latin. This makes me wonder, is that the norm of English schools? That students are taught those beautiful languages? How I envy them!
4. As many people noted, Tolkien is a devout Catholic and his faith is very much visible in his life and in his books. Visible in a subtle way, as is the custom of the Church, I guess. His books never mentioned ‘God’, let alone ‘Christ’, yet they are unmistakably products of a man of faith. His view on the creation, his beautiful way of seeing death as a Gift, his account on how Men are given free will, his almost cruel way of dealing with proud persons (such as Feanor and the Numenoreans), his insistence that Men should not question the designs of the Creator: all these sound so very in tune with the Christian faith. Tolkien himself noted that his works, his creation are closely related to his faith.
Side note: Tolkien spent few years of his youth in the Birmingham Oratory, a Catholic school and church founded by John Henry Cardinal Newman, another great author whose writings I treasure. I wrote about him here and here.
5. As mentioned above, Tolkien considered his legendarium as an integral part of his life and his faith. He did not consider fantasy as mere lies or childish folly. He conceived the idea of ‘sub-creation’: that it is Man’s right (and duty?) to create, but this sub-creation has to be in line with the true Creation. Or in his own words:
…we make still by the law in which we’re made.
…Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of the Maker.
In a discussion with C.S. Lewis, he further explained how he see his mythologies linked to his faith:
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 aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.
And it is his conviction that the Gospel is the True Story, which works on us in the same way as other mythologies he so loved, with the clear distinction that This Story really happened.
6. Perhaps related to his notion on sub-creation and the inherent truth of mythologies, there are parts of his writings which makes me think that Tolkien believed and hoped that his creation comes to reality. In The Silmarillion we read of Aule, one of the Valar which Iluvatar entrusted with the creation of the world (in Tolkien’s legendarium, the Valar is perhaps an equivalent of archangels or gods while Iluvatar is clearly the Creator God). Aule greatly desired the coming of the people to inhabit the world, but Iluvatar had yet created them. So Aule made the Dwarves and began to instruct them. Though at first Iluvatar questioned Aule, remarking that he had attempted a thing which he know is beyond his power and authority, later Iluvatar accepted Aule’s explanation and granted life to the Dwarves. And what was Aule’s explanation? We can almost hear the voice of the professor himself:
Then Aule answered: ‘… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. … As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made…’
In another story written by Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle, he told the story of a painter named Niggle who painted a tree. And like Tolkien, Niggle left this world before he finished his tree. But the story told us how in another and brighter place Niggle finds his tree finished, and learns that it is indeed a real tree, a true part of creation.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said.
I was so touched at how someone can be so involved in his works that he hoped for his works, the things he created to be true. And I know that for Our Lord, who is more merciful than Iluvatar, such things are not impossible. As for me, I do hope that I will also treasure my works and unite them to the Creation as much as Tolkien did. And who knows? Perhaps when I see my King, I would find out that those mathematics and theories I hold dear are somehow true.