Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Nietzschean Tragedy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 39

Tolkien’s critique of the dream-device in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” might be further compared with Nietzsche’s similar critique in The Birth of Tragedy of the dramatic prologue introduced by Euripides into ancient Greek tragedy. Similar to Tolkien’s remarks on the Dream, Nietzsche speaks of the Euripidean prologue as depriving man of the exercise of an human emotion or experience which he believes to be foundational to man’s being. For Nietzsche, of course, it is not the experience that Tolkien hungers for, namely the desire or hope that the imaginatively and marvelous worlds of Faërie should be made real, a hope that ends in joy in the metaphysical event of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Rather, Nietzsche speaks of the tragic prologue as “interfering” with the audience’s pathos, passion, and “pleasurable absorption” in the tragic, Dionysian scenes being represented on the stage. With the introduction of the Euripidean prologue, “[s]o long as the spectator has to figure out the meaning of this or that person, or the presuppositions of this or that conflict of inclinations and purposes, he cannot become completely absorbed in the activities and sufferings of the chief characters or feel breathless pity and fear” (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Kaufmann, 84). For both Tolkien and Nietzsche, the artistic experience is ultimately about man being reminded of and reconciled to the ultimate nature of things, of allowing ultimate reality, however conceived, to break into man’s routine existence and to revisit and revivify the ordinary with a sense of the extraordinary. It is this fundamental openness to a transcendent (in Tolkien’s case) or immanent/subterranean (in Nietzche’s) reality that the dream-device for Tolkien and the Euripidean prologue for Nietzsche work to impede.

Tolkien’s subversion of Nietzsche

Metaphysics of the Music, part 7

One figure who has been discussed by commentators in connection with Tolkien but not where his music imagery is concerned is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose subversion of the classical and medieval ontology of peace and harmony Tolkien’s own creation-myth serves to undermine. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, an early work that ended his career as a philologist while confirming his calling as a philosopher, Nietzsche argues that the fundamental being of things, so far from constituting a universal harmony, instead embodies an original, violent, and terrifying discord and chaos, one that the Greeks symbolized (Nietzsche argues) through the originally Asiatic god Dionysus. Pitted against the annihilating abyss underlying reality, human existence and experience are a “terror and horror,” an ultimate futility and suffering in which consolation may nevertheless be found through a heroic effort of self-assertion and the artistic creation of meaning, value, and order. This is accomplished by imposing on the Dionysian disorder the pleasing veil of “Apollinian” cultural order and constraint. One way to read the Ainulindalë, accordingly, is to see Tolkien as offering an implicit narrative polemic against his fellow philologist, in which the violent, discordant music introduced by the aspiring Dionysian figure, Melkor, represents not, as Nietzsche would have it, an authentic form of reality, but rather the parasitic and pathetic existence of a nihilistic and ressentiment-filled negation of those beautiful harmonies and peaceful rhythms which flow from the Creator himself.