The Pacifist of Wootton Major

From J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, Smith of Wootton Major:

“he soon became wise and understood that the marvels of Faery cannot be approached without danger, and that many of the Evils cannot be challenged without weapons of power too great for any mortal to wield. He remained a learner and explorer, not a warrior; and though in time he could have forged weapons that in his own world would have had power enough to become the matter of great tales and be worth a king’s ransom, he knew that in Faery they would have been of small account. So among all the things that he made it is not remembered that he ever forged a sword or a spear or an arrow-head.”

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Judge not lest ye be judged: Tolkien on fairy-stories

In the opening paragraph of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien characterizes his exercise in literary criticism of this genre as itself a kind of fairy story:

“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.”

Studying fairy stories properly, in other words, is itself a kind of Faërian adventure, and like such adventures, it is one that does not come without its own set of warnings: it is possible to get such stories wrong, to ask the wrong sorts of questions, or even to ask the right sorts of questions in a wrong sort of way. As in fairy stories themselves, so in the study of fairy stories, making mistakes can be dangerous, even to the point of being deadly. In the second paragraph, he continues:

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”

For Tolkien, clearly, even the study of fairy stories is a serious business, as he effectively denies one the ability to approach them in a dry, objective, or disinterested light. More than a mere object of literary study, fairy stories are for Tolkien a fundamental reflection of what it means to be human, and if this is so, then they are also a fundamental reflection of all that humans do, including what they do in their capacity as literary critics, even of fairy stories. The literary evaluation of fairy stories, accordingly, is an evaluation of that genre which, to Tolkien’s mind, is ultimately about the evaluation (and enchantment!) of ourselves. For this reason, he issues his readers a caution that they take care, for when it comes to the kingdom of Faërie, like the kingdom of Heaven, “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Tolkien class for high schoolers

If you know a high school student who’d be interested in taking either a semester or year-long, online Tolkien course, beginning this fall, I’m offering one through the good folks at Roman Roads Media. (College credit is also available for juniors and seniors through New Saint Andrews College.) Check it out here:

https://romanroadsmedia.com/courses/tolkien/

Aragorn vs. Saruman

Aragorn the Libertarian King: “[O]nly of your free will would I have you come, for you will find both toil and greater fear, and maybe worse.” And a little later: “for I go on a path appointed. But those who follow me do so of their free will; and if they wish now to remain and ride with the Rohirrim, they may do so. But I shall take the Paths of the Dead, alone, if needs be.” (“Passing of the Grey Company”)

Saruman, Keeper of the Common Good: “[O]ur time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.” (“Council of Elrond”)

Saruman’s philosophy of war

Saruman to Éomer: “To every man his part. Valour in arms is yours, and you win high honour thereby. Slay whom your lord names as enemies, and be content. Meddle not in policies which you do not understand.”  –“The Voice of Saruman,” Two Towers 

Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Tom Bombadil’s rescue of the hobbits from the Barrow-wights contains a great image (and somewhat humorous interpretation) of a classic scene in Christian history and theology, Christ’s “harrowing of hell” of his saints (as well as of the future resurrection of the dead):

There was a loud rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and suddenly light streamed in, real light, the plain light of day. A low door-like opening appeared at the end of the chamber beyond Frodo’s feet; and there was Tom’s head (hat, feather, and all) framed against the light of the sun rising red behind him. The light fell upon the floor, and upon the faces of the three hobbits lying beside Frodo. They did not stir, but the sickly hue had left them. They looked now as if they were only very deeply asleep.

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness,

Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

At these words there was a cry and part of the inner end of the chamber fell in with a crash. Then there was a long trailing shriek, fading away into an unguessable distance; and after that silence.

‘Come, friend Frodo!’ said Tom. ‘Let us get out on to clean grass! You must help me bear them.’

The Metaphysics of Coercion in Tolkien’s Angelology

Despite their status as fictional and mythical beings, there is a certain metaphysical seriousness and consistency with which Tolkien treats angelic or spiritual creatures in his Middle-earth legendarium. For example, although the “Valar” and their subordinates, the “Maiar,” are very much attached to and involved in the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship in one place between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body.  For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is the resultant temptation or proclivity they have towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

“But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not.” (L 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (L 202, emphasis added).  Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels whom he says cannot directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2).  Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, it is possible to see Tolkien as recognizing a sense in which the incarnate angels as a consequence necessarily have a much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic relationship to their bodies than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity.  As the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.