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.”

Ilúvatar the Fairy: the Ainur’s Vision as Faërian Drama

I have commented before on how the progression of the Ainulindale, moving from Music to Vision to Eä, “the World that Is,” allegorizes Tolkien’s claim in the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories” that in the real-world, historical eucatastrophes of the Christian Gospel we see “the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” What I hadn’t noticed before, however, was just how fully the Ainulindale illustrates a related point Tolkien makes in his essay, namely the signficance of what he calls “Faërian Drama,” or the art that the fairies themselves exercise within the fairy-stories told by men:

Now “Faërian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men—can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded— whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called….

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art… Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself…. In this world it [the creative desire] is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.

Re-reading the Ainulindale, it occurs to me that this is precisely what the Vision of the Ainur is: Iluvatar’s own “Faërian Drama.” Ilúvatar leads the Ainur into the Void and, like a elvish bard about to begin his tale, tells them to “Behold your Music!” But instead of telling them a tale, “he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing…” And the Ainur are enchanted by what they see, for “as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew.” And as Faërian Drama does for its human audience, Ilúvatar tells the Ainur that in the vision they will see and learn everything to which their own music had (unbeknownst to them at the time) aspired: “each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.” When the Vision is at last taken away, the Ainur are brought out of their enchanted condition back to their state of “primary belief,” for “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before except in thought. But they had become enamoured of the beauty of the vision and engrossed in the unfolding of the World which came there to being, and their minds were filled with it…” The result of this disenchantment is a certain discontentedness, an awakened desire to see the objects of this divine drama made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other.”

In summary, then: (1) Faërian Drama is the art that we–within our own art of fairy-stories–represent the fairies as exercising and to which we aspire ourselves; (2) the Silmarillion is one man’s artistic representation of the fairies’ own art of self-history, at the origins of which is (3) the resplendent Music of the Ainur, the “Ainurian Drama” to which the elves’ own art doubtlessly aspired; (4) however, within this story, finally, we witness the Ainur themselves being treated to the ars divina of Ilúvatar’s Vision, in which the Ainur behold the consummate beauty of being for which their own Music had unwittingly hoped. I said in yesterday’s post that the Ainur are the “elves’ elves.” Here Ilúvatar emerges as the “elves’ elves’ Elf”–the Fairy of Faërie.

Making Things To Be What They are: Aristotle, Stoicism, and Tolkien

What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.

Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:

The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)

According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).

There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,

in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)

According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.” 

In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.

It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)

As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).

Why Only Theology Can Save “The Silmarillion”

Reading The Silmarillion, as Tolkien enthusiasts have long realized, is a very different, difficult, and for many, even disappointing experience compared to reading The Lord of the Rings. In a letter addressing the difference between the two works, Tolkien writes:

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)

The problem with The Silmarillion, in other words, is that it tells the untold stories and visits the unvisited islands of The Lord of the Rings, thereby foreshortening the sense of depth of the latter work and so (at least potentially) “destroy[ing] the magic.” In The Silmarillion, to put the matter differently, what is left remote and in that sense transcendent in The Lord of the Rings is rendered immanently present–one might almost say “familiar” and “appropriated,” to use a couple of important terms from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” This effect must be inevitable, Tolkien goes on to admit, “unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed,” unless, that is, there is some even deeper or more distant reality that can play The Silmarillion to The Silmarillion’The Lord of the Rings, as it were.

Although Tolkien doesn’t go into this in his letter, I submit that, for the perceptive reader, The Silmarillion does in fact offer or reveal such “new unattainable vistas,” namely in the form of the expressly theological vision with which the work opens and then almost immediately (though never wholly) leaves behind. Far from suggesting a form of Enlightenment deism, according to which a divine watchmaker is supposed to have established the world and the left it to run itself of its own accord, as I have argued elsewhere, what Tolkien does in his opening creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, is preface his legendarium with the necessary theological prolegomena for properly interpreting the subsequent, less theologically explicit portions of his Middle-earth mythology. As Tolkien makes clear in a number of places, every instance of eucatastrophe–a device he identifies as a sine qua non of the fairy-story genre–in his own writings is an instance of special divine intervention and deliverance whereby the Creator reveals himself as “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Of course, there are many other qualities in The Silmarillion which make it a great piece of literature in its own right, yet in Tolkien’s own mind there simply was no substitute for that elusive and allusive “impression of depth,” as he put it, whereby something greater–an unreduced and ultimately irreducible surplus of meaning and mystery–might be “glimpsed in the background.”

It is for reasons such as these that The Silmarillion‘s editor, Tolkien’s son Christopher, later regretted his decision not to include his father’s original framing device telling how the early medieval adventurer Eriol discovered fairy-land (the isle of modern day England) and learned the tales contained in The Silmarillion. Had he done so, The Silmarillion would have provided its own means of at once mediating itself to its modern audience while creating the desired sense of an unbridgeable historical distance between the reader and this “book of lost tales.” While I, too, share this regret with Christopher, it should not go unnoticed the way in which the published Silmarillion, beginning (like the Book of Genesis) as it does with the story of God’s loving act of creation and providential ordering of the world, does provide its own form of framing device. It is the divine realities and verities revealed in the opening mythology of the Silmarillion that ultimately provides the work with its own set of “new unattainable vistas” and what, as a consequence, helps “save” its “magic.”

(For a related post, see “Hobbits: Non-Mediating Mediators.”)

Bilbo, Tolkien’s own eucatastrophe

In letter no. 15, on the virtual eve of the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien laments to his publisher hi financial circumstances, and expresses his “hope [that Mr Baggins will eventually come to my rescue—in a moderate way (I do not expect pots of troll-gold).” Ironic, in that Mr. Baggins would come through in spades (Tolkien died a wealthy man). The little hobbit would turn out to be not only the unexpected eucatastrophe of Tolkien’s already existing Middle-earth legendarium: financially (to say nothing of all the other ways) he would turn out to be a very real eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s personal life.

“Lord of the Rings” as Narya, the Ring of Fire

Building on yesterday’s post, here are some more passages linking Tolkien’s youthful sense of responsibility that he and the TCBS were to help “rekindle an old light” of faith and “testify for God and Truth” in the world, and his literary representation of this same theme within his fiction. On the very final page of the Silmarillion, in the chapter “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age,” Cirdan the Shipwright gives to Gandalf Narya, the Ring of Fire, telling him:

“Take now this Ring,” he said; “for thy labours and thy cares will be heavy, but in all it will support thee and defend thee from weariness. For this is the Ring of Fire, and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.”

Tolkien reiterates the association between Cirdan’s ring and Gandalf’s “kindling” mission in a letter in which he even implicates Gandalf’s fireworks in the symbolism, describing them as “part of the representation of Gandalf, bearer of the Ring of Fire, the Kindler” (Letters no. 301). The point I made in yesterday’s post was that the similar language used early by Tolkien to describe his literary ambitions, and later to describe Gandalf’s own policies in Middle-earth, reveal Tolkien to have been something of his own model and inspiration for what he means by being a “servant of the Secret Fire.” I’ve also commented before (“Gimli’s Silmaril, Gimli the Silmaril”) on how the Silmaril jewels themselves, in the way they take in the natural light of creation and refract it in many beautiful “hues,” are meant to symbolize both the sub-creative act and agent. Then there is Tolkien’s statement, in response to W.H. Auden’s review of the The Lord of the Rings, that the latter is “basically… about God, and His sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183), as well as his affirmation of one reader’s description of the work as “creat[ing] a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328). Finally, there is Tolkien’s further statement, though meant in a slightly different, though not unrelated sense, to the one I will be giving it presently, that The Lord of the Rings “is not ‘about’ anything but itself” (Letters no. 165). Stringing all of these points together, I think we are led to the interpretation of Cirdan’s ring, offered to Gandalf as a support and encouragement in “rekindl[ing] hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill,” as an image of the purpose behind Tolkien’s own literary “labours and cares.” What is Narya, the Ring of Fire? It is The Lord of the Rings.