Hobbits: non-mediating mediators

Christopher Tolkien opens The Book of Lost Tales: Part 1 with the well-known and intractable problem of The Silmarillion, namely what many readers have discovered to be its comparative impenetrability. To Tolkien’s credit, two of the main challenges with The Silmarillion noted by Christopher were ones already anticipated by his father. The first problem is, as Christopher puts it, that there “is in The Silmarillion no ‘mediation’ of the kind provided by the hobbits.” With no comic, familiar creatures to lighten the levity and seriousness of mood and theme, in other words, the “draught” of The Silmarillion is “pure and unmixed.” A second source of The Silmarillion’s comparative lack of appeal is that The Lord of the Rings, similar to the Beowulf poem (at least as Tolkien interprets it), gives us a profound “impression of depth” through its subtle allusions to a vast backcloth of “untold stories,” whereas The Silmarillion inevitably must spoil this effect or break the spell somewhat by telling the untold stories themselves, of making the implicit explicit. As Tolkien posed the problem in his own words,

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

Although Christopher doesn’t make the point expressly, his discussion points to a sense in which these two “problems” with The Silmarillion are really one and the same problem. Just as the hobbits help “mediate” for the reader the epic, mythical, and faerie dimensions of Middle-earth at large, referencing them to the more familiar, prosaic framework of the Shire, so likewise does The Lord of the Rings as a whole, through its narrative immediacy, function as a kind of “hobbitization” of the remote yet expansive, mythical backcloth of Tolkien’s legendarium. We see the coincidence of these two themes, I think, in a passage which Christopher himself discusses. After Gimli’s song about Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam responds with “I like that! … I should like to learn it. In Moria, in Khazad-dûm. But it makes the darkness seem heavier, thinking of all those lamps.” Christopher comments that by means of “his enthusiastic ‘I like that!’ Sam not only ‘mediates’ (and engagingly ‘Gamgifies’) the ‘high’, the mighty kings of Nargothrond and Gondolin, Durin on his carven throne, but places them at once at an even remoter distance, a magical distance that it might well seem (at that moment) destructive to traverse.”

Part of the irony of the hobbits, accordingly, is that their “mediation” is in fact a kind of non-mediation: in providing the reader with a way of access into the remote (to us) realities they experience, the hobbits at the same time draw attention to and thus accentuate that very remoteness, and in that very process (paradoxically) serve to further displace or distance the reader from the world they are helping to mediate. Put more succinctly, in pulling the reader into the wide realm of Middle-earth, the hobbits also help ensure (to the great aesthetic satisfaction of the reader) that that realm never becomes entirely immanentized, realized, or experienced. (To adapt Wittgenstein’s famous distinction, the hobbits help “say” what Middle-earth is without ever really “showing” it.) In this way the hobbits serve to elicit in the reader a profound desire for the world into which they themselves have been thrust, and yet by always intervening between the reader and that world, they also help sustain that desire by ensuring that it remains perpetually unsatiated.

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One thought on “Hobbits: non-mediating mediators

  1. Pingback: Why Only Theology Can Save “The Silmarillion” | The Flame Imperishable

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