TOLKIEN AND CHRIST’S NATIVITY

It’s Christmas Day, a day that brings into high relief the central importance of the Incarnation, i.e. the notion of God becoming man and taking on human flesh, not only in Christian thought but in the history of ideas and Western culture. René Girard, for example–a leading philosopher of the 20th century–sees the Gospels as an unveiling of “things hidden since the foundation of the world” (an arresting phrase used by Jesus in reference to himself in the Gospel of Matthew, an echo of Psalm 78 and also the title of one of Girard’s most groundbreaking works). In literature, one thinks of Milton’s remarkable “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”, where he describes the birth of Jesus in sonorous lines that match the earth-shattering significance of the event:

“This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring…

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty…
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome House of mortal Clay.”

In a contemporary context, today is also a day that brings to mind the haunting, subliminal importance of the Incarnation in the work of JRR Tolkien. This idea is conveyed in depth and with moving persuasiveness by Matthew Dickerson in his recent book, A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the most acutely perceptive of the flood of new books on Tolkien that have been published in response to the movie version of The Hobbit.

Dickerson points out that, much like Beowulf and even more so, The Lord of the Rings is suffused with a Christian understanding of truth and reality, of the values that make us genuinely human, even though it is set in a pre-Christian age and civilization. The work is shot through, in fact, with intimations of the eternal and a deeply evocative nostalgia, a nostalgia so profoundly suggestive of awe and beauty that it is in its essence a vital aspect of Tolkien’s worldview and, I would argue, one of the mainstays of his timeless appeal. We need to remember here that, in English, “nostalgia” is derived from a combination of two ancient Greek words meaning “homecoming” and “pain or ache.” Nostalgia is in other words a pain or ache associated with homecoming, and we all know that Christmas, the day of Christ’s Incarnation, strikes deep and resonant notes of nostalgia.

Which is no small reason why here and there without doubt Tolkien hints rather pregnantly (if I may be pardoned the pun) that Middle-earth awaits with a kind of metaphysical inevitability the entry of Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator, into history and its constraints of time and space. Dickerson does an admirable job of elaborating this idea, showing how it underpins Tolkien’s work and meshes with his worldview. He points out, for example, that in Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of the History of Middle-earth, writings edited posthumously by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, “the great King Finrod Felagund, lord of the realm of Nargothrond (and the brother of Galadriel), is having a conversation with a wise woman named Andreth. Finrod, who is of the race of elves, and Andreth, of the race of men, are trying to understand the differences between their races and what hope each race has separately or together. Andreth mentions an old belief that one day Ilúvatar himself will enter into his creation: ‘They say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.’ Finrod and Andreth then have a discussion about this ancient belief, during which Finrod comments that it seems right to him for an artist to enter his creation, and that if any artist could and would do it, it would be Ilúvatar. Moreover, Finrod believes that such an incarnation is actually the only hope that elves and men have for the healing of the hurts of Morgoth…. Reading this passage reveals one thing at least: Tolkien viewed the incarnation of God, coming to earth as Messiah, as somehow inevitable in Middle-earth.”

Even in The Lord of the Rings itself, there are passages of sublime beauty that carry the allusive suggestion of undying hope and “eucatastrophe”, the term coined by Tolkien in his classic essay “On Fairy Stories” to describe the message of mankind’s saving:

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

It is interesting to compare this with the following passage from the Gospel According to Matthew:

“And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

In the end, Tolkien’s masterpiece offers a message of undampened hope. I like to compare it by way of contrast with a short, achingly poignant line from Virgil’s Aeneid, a classic of the literature of pre-Christian Europe. Aeneas has found himself in Carthage, deep in the throes of his ill-fated love affair with Queen Dido. In a temple dedicated to Juno, he surveys the murals that show the battles of the Trojan War and depict the deaths of his friends and countrymen. The scene moves him to tears and prompts in him a deeply melancholy reflection on the human condition. “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” he says. This translates loosely as: “We live in a vale of tears and the burden of our humanity touches us to our inmost depths.” It is one of the most famous and affecting lines in all of Western literature, and in Latin has a stark, desperately concise beauty that lies beyond translation. It is a sentiment to which only the Incarnation offers an answer that satisfies the human heart.

A Lighthearted, Bluesy Anthem for Christmas From Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson, my co-author, has just released the above on youtube. An Anderson original, he performs it with his son Malcolm. It’s merely a light diversion for Christmas, but showcases just one of Jim’s amazingly varied talents and reminds me to be grateful for Jim as my dear friend, one who has walked with me unconditionally through some incredibly stormy times, as well as sharing in the sub-creation of our unique work, helping to bring it to the highest artistic levels. St. Thomas Aquinas, the mediaeval thinker whose profound synthesis of philosophy and theology remains among the highlights of human intellectual achievement, says that, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” Friendship has many delightful aspects, but in the end it is pure gift and mitigates in a significant way the distressing “aloneness” that lies at the heart of the human condition. Romantic poet William Blake describes the concept beautifully with an elemental, stripped-down simile drawn from nature: “The birds a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.”

KEEPING THINGS DOWN TO EARTH

In his remarkably sensitive review of our work, Harley Sims refers to its aspect of Recovery, the term Tolkien used to describe one of the key hallmarks of the fairy tale. The role of Recovery, Sims notes, is “to refresh the reader’s perspective on and appreciation for the real world.” In the area of speculative fiction, this implies the need for a delicate balancing act between the fantastic and the gritty reality of life as we know it in all its many workaday aspects. I discuss this in the essay that I’ve written for a forthcoming collection that will be appearing in late 2013 under the Tarcher/Penguin imprint and featuring expository exercises on the writer’s craft by various contributors, including well-known novelists like Ursula LeGuin. Here is a preview of my piece:

IN XANADU… GROUNDING THE FANTASTIC

In the realm of folklore, a special, oftentimes sinister, significance is attributed to the in-between places, the earthen boundary between forest and ploughland, for example, or the in-between times like dawn and twilight, which mark the slow-stepping progressions of day and night towards one another. At the same time, these places and times of shape-shifting uncertainty are suggestive of mystery and hopeful possibility. In many ways such boundaries stand as a metaphor for the dangers and ambiguities that mark the frontiers of human experience in all its enigmatic fragility, things like birth and death, sickness and health, loss and gain, wayfaring and homecoming, and so on. Similarly, in an uncanny echo of this vital aspect of our humanness, fantasy as a literary genre occupies the uncertain, frontier area between what’s “true to life” and soaring flights of the imagination that beckon the reader towards the unfamiliar and the strange. For those of us who practise the craft of words, fantasy can pose some serious artistic challenges, precisely because it occupies such perilously unsure ground. Writing speculative fiction can be a tough row to hoe, one that requires the exercise of high standards of good judgment, as we try to negotiate our way through the pitfalls and dangers of the ground that lies between a sturdy realism and the figments conjured by our imagination. Like all writers from time immemorial, what we’re aiming to induce in the reader is a willing suspension of disbelief, a term coined by the 19th century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

According to one school of thought, writers should write about what they know, i.e. their own life experiences.  When it comes to the genre of fantasy, this rule of thumb clearly needs to be revisited and qualified. To give a notable example, elves and orcs did not stem from Tolkien’s practical knowledge of the world.  This is because Tolkien wrote quite properly not only about what he knew, but what he was able to envision by way of his fertile imagination. In so doing, he attracted vast legions of readers. But it wasn’t all about his imagination. In the end, it was about balance. Tolkien succeeded in spectacular fashion because he portrayed perfectly the homey, reassuring realities of everyday life, while setting them in a compelling imaginary world quite out of the ordinary. The key thing about Tolkien’s imagination is that it is not arbitrary, nor is it a faculty untethered from reality. As fantastic and extraordinary as the outpourings of his imagination are, they are marked by an overarching coherence and groundedness. They resonate with the reader because they exhibit a twofold strength. On the one hand, they are placed in a matrix of ordinary life, many of whose aspects we recognize as normal and human. In this respect, Tolkien wrote about what he knew and experienced. On the other hand, his creative approach is steeped in his vast scholarly knowledge of old England and the medieval world of northern Europe, which he embroiders with his own flights of genius and inventiveness. In this respect, Tolkien’s imaginary creations illustrate the proverbial wisdom inherent in the statement that truth is stranger than fiction.

Of all genres, fantasy most requires the touchstone of truth as an aid to the reader in the suspension of disbelief. Just as electrical devices need to be grounded, so too does speculative fiction. Otherwise, it risks becoming literally incredible, a phantasmagoria of the bizarre. In our “Legacy of the Stone Harp” series, my co-author Jim Anderson and I have made it a key principle that our invented world of Ahn Norvys should in vital ways mirror the laws and constraints of the real world. Of course, the actual nature and extent of this grounding in the real varies from work to work and is a matter in the end of artistic judgment and preference. Jim and I are convinced, however, that by pursuing a fairly rigorous exclusion of plot devices that depend on the miraculous we have added plausibility to our portrayal of Ahn Norvys. This is not to say that we have do not have thematic elements that are arrestingly strange, evocatively suggestive, in fact, of the miraculous. The theme of songlines that we use in our series is a good example. It’s an idea that was sparked when I read travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s book on the importance of this concept for Australian aborigines. The concept of ley lines is also very similar to that of songlines, suggesting fresh new, even haunting, ways of regarding the world around us.

For me, travel writing and historical non-fiction have always played an important role as stimulants of my imagination. I’m thinking here in particular of the though-provoking theories of alternative archaeology proposed by a writer like Graham Hancock or the fascinating accounts of ancient Mongol and Chinese civilization tendered by John Man, for example. It’s all wonderful grist for the mill and serves to keep our work within the limits of credibility.

In “Kubla Khan”, one of the most famous poems of the Romantic period, Coleridge provides another excellent illustration of what I mean here. An important commentator on the role of the imagination in literature, Coleridge begins with a lavishly fanciful, indeed fantastic, description of Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol emperor from whom the poem takes its name.  While in the poem Xanadu is actually much more reminiscent of Coleridge’s native Somerset than it is of northern China, we learn that he drew his inspiration for the poem from a passage in the writings of Samuel Purchas, an Elizabethan geographer.

Consider an area of the world that you’re interested in or some place by which you feel intrigued. Then use the internet to go onto a search engine like Google for 20-30 minutes, looking for historical information or travel blogs on the subject. Keep your eyes open for any tidbit that might serve as an example of truth being stranger than fiction and that might be used the keynote of an alternative world. The web being such a vast and wonderful place, odds are you’ll find more than enough material that strikes your fancy. After that, spend 15-20 minutes framing out a one or two paragraph outline that could be used as the basis for a novel.