“Oo those awful Orkneys”: Bridging the continuum of time and space

Of all the eminent critics of Tolkien’s masterpiece at the time of its first appearance, it is the Scottish poet and man of letters, Edwin Muir (1887-1959), who most surprises us with his obtuseness and the equivocal burden of his observations.

Muir has long been a writer who has held a deep fascination for me. He mines many of the same themes as Tolkien and sounds many of the same plangent notes in the register of human experience.

In his preface to Muir’s Collected Poems in 1965, no less a figure than T.S. Eliot proffered the opinion that, “Muir will remain among the poets who have added glory to the English language.” Critics have likened the exquisite sensibilities of Muir’s body of verse to that of traditional poets like Vaughan, Blake, and Wordsworth.

Elizabeth Huberman remarks in her study, The Poetry of Edwin Muir: The Field of Good and Ill, that Muir’s themes “are the traditional themes of the great poets, from Homer’s time to the present: the struggle between good and evil in the individual, in society, in the universe; the loss of innocence and the quest for its recovery; the nature of human destiny; the destructiveness of time; the enduring joy and power of love.”

Take, for example, Muir’s sonnet, “Merlin,” where he grapples with the primal malaise of the human condition, making pointed reference to Adam and Eve and the Fall:

“O Merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day,
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger
Across the memory and the wave?
Or a runner who’ll outrun
Man’s long shadow driving on,
Break through the gate of memory
And hang the apple on the tree?
Will your magic ever show
The sleeping bride shut in her bower,
The day wreathed in its mound of snow
and Time locked in his tower?”

Note that the first line is echoed in the title of the first book of Mary Stewart’s richly conceived Arthurian cycle.

For all that, with a curious want of sympathy, Muir complained about the lack of “human discrimination and depth” in Tolkien’s characters. “Yet for myself,” he says, “I could not resist feeling a certain disappointment. Perhaps this was partly due to the style, which is quite unequal to the theme, alternating between the popular novel and the boy’s adventure story.”

Elsewhere, Muir complains of the lack of “human discrimination and depth “ in Tolkien’s characters.

Meanwhile, the highbrow contempt of a critic like Edmund Wilson in the review that appeared in 1956 in The Nation, sarcastically entitled, “Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” is somehow more understandable and less disturbing, the product of a withered, jaded sophistication.

Muir’s criticisms seem all the more unlikely and remarkable, once we come to know the details of his quite extraordinary life story, itself a long meditation grappling with the mysteries of time and space.

Born on a smallholding in the remote Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, “awful” in their unspoiled beauty, he moved with his family to Glasgow at age 14, when his father lost his farm. For Muir this was like an expulsion from Eden, and the experience marked him for life. Here is how he describes it in a diary entry from the late 1930s, using an arrestingly vivid metaphor to express his sense of dislocation:

“I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day’s journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time.”

Not only was Muir’s path one that involved grappling with the challenges of space and time, but it also required him to bridge the gap between the pre-industrial primitivism of Orkney life and the sophistication of high urban culture. Muir himself was one of English literature’s most remarkable autodidacts. His formal education truncated by his family’s poverty in his early teen years, he schooled himself and went on to become one of the most cultured and erudite men of his generation. In fact, towards the end of his life, in 1955, he spent the year at Harvard as Norton Professor of English.

Muir describes his conspicuously unique life journey at length in his autobiography. It’s one of the most luminous and astonishing literary productions of the twentieth century. I remember myself being deeply moved when I first read it.  In essence, Muir spent his life trying to resolve the tension between his acquired cultural sophistication and the simple pre-industrial rhythms that had been imprinted on his soul from growing up in the Orkneys.

In many ways, Muir epitomized for me all the ambiguities of my own psycho-spiritual journey as a child of immigrant parents both of whom had grown up deep in the rural hinterland of old interbellum Europe following an agrarian rhythm of life that more closely resembled the culture of the Middle Ages than it does today’s society. For me, it must have been an inherited, atavistic sense of disconnection that stirred up this commonality of feeling with Muir, as I myself grew up in the urban setting of Toronto, albeit in the 1960s, in the days before urban sprawl, when there were still—unthinkable today—farms and orchards within the confines of the city or within a stone’s throw.

It is this same nostalgic sense of loss and separation that has always drawn me to Tolkien. The Edenic primitivism of Tolkien, his evocation of heroic virtues in an old, quasi-Atlantean Europe is part of the same world as Muir’s pre-industrial Orkney, an artistic vehicle that Tolkien uses to touch on those eternal issues that are a leitmotiv of the human condition. Tolkien’s legendarium is the response of sub-creative genius to a world grown hoary and spent, a world in which, to quote W.B. Yeats, a “rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

There is another quite stunningly beautiful poem by Muir that shows the kinship of his outlook with a key aspect of Tolkien’s worldview and ethos. This poem, “The Incarnate One,” does so with an exquisite concision that only poetry can achieve. Here are the first three stanzas:

“The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.”

Vested with the transcendent logic of poetry, this seems to me the perfect answer to those who wonder what it is that impelled Tolkien as a devout Christian to construct a world bereft of formal religion or worship. That a writer and poet as gifted and perceptive as Muir remained blind to the magnitude of Tolkien’s achievement can only be attributed to what Samuel Johnson, in a richly sonorous turn of phrase, called “the anfractuosities of human nature.”



These days, I’ve been reading The Last of Days, the latest novel by the English writer of historical detective fiction, Paul Doherty. Right near the top of the list of my favourite contemporary writers, Doherty is dauntingly prolific. The Last of Days is in fact his 100th novel. While the main focus of his body of work has been the middle ages, Doherty has ventured into other periods, principally ancient Egypt, but also ancient Rome, for example. For my own tastes, I find Doherty’s medieval novels more engaging, mainly because they are set in a world that in its lineaments is recognizably the ancestor to our own, but at the same time startlingly dissimilar. Like an old family photograph album, where a physical feature or quirk leaps out familiarly across the generations, his painstakingly detailed rendering of Europe, particularly England, in the Middle Ages evokes moments of poignant recognition leavened by a sharp sense of alien strangeness.

The breadth and range of Doherty’s achievement are all the more staggering, when one realizes that he has accomplished all this, while working full-time as Headmaster of an award-winning secondary school near London. On top of all this, with a doctorate in history from Oxford, he is no mean scholar.

The Last of Days chronicles the final days of Henry VIII through the lens of a journal kept by his jester, Will Somers. Like so much of Doherty’s work, it is vividly descriptive and has a haunting, liminal quality that captures the Middle Ages as a rich phantasmagoria of the senses, where the secular and the spiritual are juxtaposed in a starkly compelling tableau of contrasts: beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, opulence and squalor. There is good and there is evil woven together deftly into the narrative with a kind of Dickensian exuberance of humours that manages with a finely tuned skill to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration and caricature.

The uniquely attractive hallmark of Doherty’s world is that, while it is larger than life, it is always deeply grounded in the real, always alive to the “freshness deep down things,” to use a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins. On one level, this is rather ironic, given that his novels have their full, unflinching share of murder and mayhem, bloodshed, and political intrigue. On another level, there is no irony, because Doherty deftly weaves the problem of evil into the context of a larger tapestry. As in Dickens, the reader is never taxed with a sense of deep or oppressive gloom.  Always there is light seeping into Doherty’s fictional settings, suffusing them with an ambient glow, because in the end, it is evident, he acknowledges that this fragile, various, enigmatically poignant thing we call life is what the philosophers would describe as “ontologically good,” which is to say an absolute good in and of itself.

Like Romantic English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu, the realm of Kubla Khan, Doherty’s historical settings have all the earmarks of a uniquely imagined fantasy world, remote and dream-like, but a world that at the same time bears a haunting resemblance to our own.


In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien refers to a humility and freshness of vision that he calls Mooreeffoc, borrowing this insight from that master of visionary, mystical observation, G.K. Chesterton. “Mooreeffoc” is simply the word “Coffee-room,” once a commonplace shop sign in most English towns, seen from the inside through a glass door. As a metaphor, it points to a transformative shift of perspective, an epiphany, that allows us to shed our blinders and see the world anew with eyes of wonder.


As Tolkien goes on to say, “The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.”


A uniquely accomplished practitioner of his craft, Doherty deserves a much wider audience than I suspect he enjoys, and I anticipate each newly published novel of his as a rare treat, a kind of passport affording me free passage into the realm of Mooreefoc, a land of the fantastic whose wonders and beguilements shed light, as does all great art, on perennial aspects of the human condition.


Among the great English poets, Wordsworth has always been one of my favourites. I think it’s because he strikes some of the same chords as Tolkien does. On the face of it, they make for strange bedfellows, and, in many respects, they are. Wordsworth is a poet of inwardness, so much so that he has been described by at least one critic as pre-Freudian for the subtle, modern ways that he delves into the complex workings of the human psyche. In rather stark contrast, Tolkien presents a vivid narrative tableau that is rather sharply focused on outward action. And yet, despite this radical difference of approach, there are great psychological affinities between these two towering figures of English literature in the modern era.


I say “modern” here advisedly. Even though they pre-date Tolkien by more than a century, Wordsworth and his friend, the poet and critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are considered to have inaugurated the revolution in literary sensibilities that heralded our own age, when, in 1798, they jointly published Lyrical Ballads, a collection that included some of the greatest and most memorable poems in all of English literature—poems like Wordsworth’s deeply evocative “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a richly enigmatic work, modern in its ambiguity and full of gothic atmospherics.


There is no small measure of irony here in the linking of Tolkien and Wordsworth, given that Tolkien was a kind of literary throwback, a staunch mediaevalist who viewed even Shakespeare with misgiving and whose own work harks back to pre-Renaissance literary forms of epic and romance.


Wordsworth is often called the poet of memory, and “Tintern Abbey” is a meditative exploration of this faculty, which is so closely linked to the temporal framework of our lives and is perhaps the most poignant dimension of our humanness. In 1804 Wordsworth composed “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” also known as his Great Ode. It’s the poem that Margaret Thatcher had read at her funeral and is quite probably Wordsworth’s signature work. In it he plumbs the depths of the concept of memory, accounting for human nostalgia, our aching desire for an ultimate homecoming, in a startling way that is suggestive more of Plato than Christ. The poem resounds with unforgettable phrases that have passed into our common store of cultural reference points. To explain the radical, underlying sense of unease that attaches to our human journey, Wordsworth implies that our souls were pre-existent and says that, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting… trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy.”


You do not have to be a Platonist, believing in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, to appreciate the deep truths that Wordsworth is exploring here. Even Wordsworth himself may simply have been using this concept as a metaphorical vehicle to give point and emphasis to the sense of dislocation and unease inherent in human life.


Tolkien, I believe, was an explorer in this same realm of nostalgia and drank from the same fountainhead of profound human longing. In Tolkien’s case, however, he transposes the insight he shares with Wordsworth into a framework of deep narrative, using the quasi-historical and philological scaffolding of Middle Earth to achieve the same evocative sense of ultimate realities that lie outside the austere, often stifling, routine of our daily lives.


In his classic essay on fairy stories, Tolkien says that these ancient tales are noteworthy for the appeal of antiquity that they possess even more so than their beauty and horror. He speaks of them as being marked by “distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr.” I’ve always been struck by Tolkien’s beautifully suggestive use of the phrase twe tusend Johr here and the clever way it reinforces his argument and casts a light on his own great masterpiece. A direct borrowing from “The Juniper Tree”, one of two tales in the Pomeranian dialect collected by the Brothers Grimm, the phrase means “two thousand years” and is immediately understandable to anybody with even just a smattering of German. However, it is not standard German and leaps to the eye at first as something familiar, yet strange. In this way, the phrase mirrors Tolkien’s own magisterial artistic transformation of the words, images, and phrases he drew from his wide knowledge of the old dialects of the Saxons, Norsemen, and Celts, in order to build a world that “trails clouds of glory,” while still remaining a world that is recognizable as our own.


Beyond this, I believe that there is a kind of paradox of the “near, yet far” inherent in the timeless appeal of Tolkien’s “distance and a great abyss of time.” It’s a paradox that lies at the heart of nostalgia and is one, indeed, that he balances with the assurance of a master. What I mean is that he bridges the “distance and a great abyss of time” by establishing the intimate homeliness of the shire, a place that engages the reader on familiar ground and serves as a point of entry to the vast, heroic spaces of Middle Earth


This past Monday we celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada, and for several days I’ve found my mind drifting to thoughts of my father, who died in late August. His loss is still fresh, and, of course, as is often the case, loss brings perspective. In my reflective mood, with the uncanny vividness of a hindsight sharpened by the finality of death, I realized how much I owed my father, how deeply and existentially, both literally and metaphorically, the fabric of his life has been woven into mine, how much of my own calling as a father, as well as a writer/artist/scholar, is bound up with him. My musing also evoked in my mind that hoary old debate about nature and nurture. The two seem, in the light of my own experience, an inextricable tangle, a hopelessly confused dialectic, no more likely to be resolved than the perennial question of the chicken and the egg and which came first. By dint of age and, I hope, growing wisdom, I’ve come to recognize many of my own personality traits and attitudes as stemming from him in a strange, alchemical fusion of genetics and upbringing, even though for the longest time in my life I couldn’t imagine how I could be more dissimilar.


My father was 89 years old and his passing was not unexpected. His had been a long life, one of unimaginable turbulence, for he had survived an unhappy childhood in Europe and the horrors of World War II. He had been ill for several months, during which time he lapsed into a state of anxiety and homesickness that rendered him a shadow of his former self.


Nonetheless, ripe though he was in years and dismaying as was his decline, he was deeply mourned by my siblings and myself, as well as his grandchildren, to whom he was a figure of golden benevolence, a kind of archetypal representative of fatherhood.


My father was a man for whom his Christian faith was the bedrock of life. The great Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross, has a striking phrase that cuts right to the heart of the matter for those of us who profess to be followers of Christ. St. John of the Cross says that, “in the evening of our lives we will be judged on love”. There is a rich ambiguity about this brilliant summary of the essence of the Christian message. It means that the extent to which our lives have exemplified love will be the primary measure by which we will be weighed in the balance, once we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a harrowing thought, a sobering jolt to the self-regard that invests so many of us. Happily, this phrase also means that in the evening of our lives we will come before an infinitely merciful judge, one with a loving and intimate awareness of the weaknesses and foibles of the human condition.


My father, I can honestly say, was one of the finest and most honourable men I’ve ever known. Throughout his life he showed a selflessness that makes me convinced that, in such a final accounting based on love, he, of all people, would not have been found wanting. Generous and unreserved in his giving, I don’t believe there was a selfish bone in his body. And this was not just in a material sense. My father was magnanimous, “great-souled,” as this word means literally from its Latin roots. Always quick to forgive, he never harboured grudges. In this respect he was guileless and almost child-like. I mean this in a good way, the way that Jesus says in the gospel of Mark that, unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.


My mother, frail as she is and with her mental faculties failing, summed up who my father was best and most beautifully, when she was told by my sister that her husband of 61 years had passed away. My sister explained to her that dad was now with God. Without missing a beat, in a moment of sublime, preternatural lucidity that burst through the dark fog of her Alzheimer’s, my mom immediately responded, “Dad’s always been with God.”


I loved my father.

Tom Clancy and the Primary Role of Story

Tom Clancy died a few days ago at the age of 66, untimely early by today’s longer-lived standards. As a bestselling author, he was, of course, a towering figure in popular culture. Many of his works made the transition to screen, the most memorable for me being The Hunt for Red October, featuring Sean Connery’s brilliant portrayal of Captain Ramius, the Soviet submarine commander.


The title of an obituary article by Robert Wiersema in Canada’s Globe and Mail sums him up quite perfectly: “Clancy knew that it was all about story.” While Wiersema asserts quite rightly that Clancy’s work is not high literature and even though he approaches it from a left of centre perspective that is the mirror opposite to what Clancy himself stood for, he recognizes that Clancy was a superb storyteller. It’s a magnanimous acknowledgement that, when it comes to fiction, mastery of the art of narrative is the card that trumps all. This goes all the way back to Aristotle, for whom plot was everything, followed in a quite secondary way by the development of character. For Aristotle, critical to plot was the logic of a beginning, middle, and end, in order to create a balanced fabric of story.


With the sea change of modernism, however, and all its corrosive questionings, coupled with the deeper journeys into the human psyche made by Freud, for example, story came to be devalued as an essential mark of good fiction. The literature of narrative languished, at least in the salons and in cultivated society. Figures like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rider Haggard gave way to writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who turned their gaze inward and drew away from the Aristotelian model. This literary cultural shift came with a great impoverishment. In After Virtue, his landmark work of intellectual history, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out that, from time immemorial in the West, story or narrative has played a critical role in providing a matrix within which a moral ethos and standards are transmitted across the generations. In a way, story is meant to hold a mirror to culture, while at the same time being vital to its vigour and  continuity.


Nonetheless, great storytelling endures, and it’s what the reading public instinctively gravitates towards, because we’re creatures who revel in the pattern and cohesion of a tale well told. Like the novels of Tom Clancy, the stories are not always artistically significant, but they do strike a chord. At times, though, even in our own day, just as in the past, there are writers who have achieved a sublime fusion of story and art. Think Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Or even other living masters of narrative like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden, whose work is more likely to be read a century from now than some of the more dreary confections of “literary” fiction.


Like everybody else these days, I find myself forever pressed for time, juggling multiple chores and projects—not least of them is finishing the third novel in our Legacy of the Stone Harp series, which inches its way to completion. A few months ago, I began an audiobooks subscription through audible.com, and it’s proven to be the perfect way to make good use of the time I spend in the car, driving to and from work, driving my children to sports activities, etc. Using my quota of once-monthly audiobook downloads, I began with the superbly presented Tolkien and the West, by Professor Michael Drout, then moved through several of Professor Drout’s other audiobooks, which were no less engagingly narrated. Even my 13 and 15 year old sons, normally decidedly apathetic about their dad’s excitement over matters literary and intellectual, got caught up in the enthusiasm and unpretentious clarity of his approach.

After a most enjoyable stint with Drout, I turned to the audiobook version of Lord of the Rings done by Rob Inglis, who is flawless in his single voice narration, presenting the whole range of characters in the trilogy with an ingeniously fertile subtlety of nuance and elocution. It certainly was a different kind of experience. What a difference mode of presentation makes! It was the first time I had heard Tolkien read aloud rather than reading him on the printed page. What strikes me vividly with this narrated version is the formality of Tolkien’s diction. Its heroic, antique cadences are made evident not just in the latter parts of the trilogy, but also in its opening sections, while the larger story is still germinating in the homely security of the shire and then marching out slowly to the wider world. It’s done with an artful and suggestive delicacy that carries intimations of what is to come, as we move deeper into the narrative and the vast, sonorous spaces of Tolkien’s heroic canvas.

While Tolkien’s shift towards a loftier diction is apparent even to a reader of the printed page, the spoken version elevates this insight, giving it point and emphasis. I think it’s because the audiobook engages the aural sense and changes the very nature of the experience, charging it with a whole new perspective. In other words, listening to the book being read has an altogether different cognitive dimension, lifting Lord of the Rings into a realm that has, it seems to me, no small affinity to music, where rhythm and measure add their vesture to the naked autonomy of the word.

Joining the Middle Earth Network Community

It’s official. My co-author Jim Anderson and I have moved our blog site to the network of sites that constitutes the Middle Earth Network. We’re pleased and honoured to be part of this rich cultural enterprise… and grateful as well to those who made the transition possible, beginning with our dear friend, Ted Nasmith, who first broached the idea and acted as a go-between with the folks at the Network, when we began to pursue this option. Also, thanks go out to Lara, Mark, and Jeff, who certainly made smooth our paths and were unstintingly kind in their help.

It’s wonderfully appropriate that this blog entry—the first to occur under this new arrangement—is being posted on Hobbit Day, the birthday held in common by Bilbo and Frodo. Hobbit Day is relevant here on so many levels both as an allusive image of the creative work that Jim and I have done together in our Legacy of the Stone Harp series, but also in the way it is suggestive of the wider, communitarian scope of Tolkien’s imagination and his dynamic concept of literary tradition—a perfect justification of the need for a venue like the Middle Earth Network, no less important in our own day than the Inklings were in theirs.

Community in its many aspects is central to Tolkien’s vision. Which is why, when it comes to hobbits, birthdays are an occasion for grandly altruistic interaction with friends and family, especially since it is their custom to give gifts rather than receive them. Also, it should be remembered that the Red Book of Westmarch, which tells the great story of the Third Age of Middle-earth and of which The Lord of the Rings is a brilliant fragment, is a collaborative creation, involving the wordcraft of many hands, Bilbo and Frodo not least of them. Communities such as the Middle Earth Network continue this inestimably valuable work of collaboration.

Deeply appreciative of the role that the Inklings played in fostering his imaginative and creative life, in a fanciful echo of Beowulf, Tolkien penned the following words of praise, which are translated here from Old English by Humphrey Carpenter and which could just as easily apply to those in our own day who fulfill the same role:

“Lo! We have heard in old days of the wisdom of the cunning-minded Inklings… how those wise ones sat together in their deliberations, skillfully reciting learning and song-craft, earnestly meditating. That was true joy!”


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.”


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 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.