Well, not to Niggle it over much, but perhaps Tolkien fashioned a
considerable branch and engrafted it onto (it might be more accurate to
say 'discovered it was a part of') what he called the Tree of Tales,
although when he was in the early stages of the first draft of /The Lord
of the Rings/, he said:
It is easy for the student to feel that with all his labour he is
collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decayed,
from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the
Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who
can design a new leaf?
-- J. R. R. Tolkien in /On Fairy-stories/
He always thought of himself as a student in this field. He never
claimed to have 'designed a new leaf.' If anything, he was a planter.
The seed of the tree can be replanted in almost any
soil, even in one so smoke-ridden (as Lang said) as
that of England. Spring is, of course, not really
less beautiful because we have seen or heard of
other like events: like events, never from world's
beginning to world's end the same event. Each leaf,
of oak and ash and thorn, is a unique embodiment of
the pattern, and for some this very year may be the
embodiment, the first ever seen and recognized,
though oaks have put forth leaves for countless
generations of men.
I don't know when he wrote "I sit beside the fire and think" so I can't
say that in this quote from 1939 we have the seed for that song.
Certainly, though, the closer one looks at a man who can say such things
and then bring into being such a leaf, the closer one gets to the Tree
itself: we are in no danger here of a rude awakening into the cold, gray
Where to begin our discussion and what to cover in it, though -- that's
the question (all right, it‘s two questions). I have read the
biography, but only once and don't have it available now. I have
/Letters/, but still haven't finished it. Even with that meager
preparation, something comes to mind: Carpenter was correct to call /The
Lord of the Rings/ a prose song. When one combines that view of the
work with JRRT's pride, expressed in a letter, that he had married a
musician, new vistas unfold regarding Edith's influence on the /The Lord
of the Rings/that are not explored in the biography or elsewhere, as far
as I know.
Many people here are much more familiar with /Letters/, the biography,
and other information about JRRT than I am; thus many more insights and
views will appear as we look at JRRT, his letters and his life.
To get things rolling, the biography should be summarized, but I will
leave that to someone else and focus here on the indices to /Letters/.
Carpenter gives us two: the first index covers principal references to
persons, places, objects, languages, etc. in /The Hobbit/, /The Lord of
the Rings/, and /The Silmarillion/. We've covered much of this already,
it would seem, but there is always more (closer, closer to the Tree we
get...), with entries like:
hobbits, family names 31; language of 31; appearance 35; 'really...a
branch of the .../human/ race' 158n; children of 179; 'not a Utopian
vision' 197; not an allegory 233; Tolkien's own resemblance to 288-9;
birthday customs of 189-96; significance of 365; disliked by C.S.
Lewis 376; dictionary definition of 404-5; invention of word 'hobbit'
orcs, as 'real' 82, 90; origin of word 177-8; creation of 178, 190-1,
195; appearance 174; irredeemable wickedness 375
The numbers are page references in the hardcover edition. The Tooks are
with us in force: not only Peregrine, but also Lalia and Pearl.
The second, General Index, contains many references, but the largest
entry is for Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (1892-1973) and is divided into
Character and Interests; Works--Principal Writings, /The Hobbit/, /The
Lord of the Rings/, and /The Silmarillion/; and Other Writings. This
might be a useful system for structuring our own discussion of the man
and his work in /The Lord of the Rings/. Keep in mind that these
references are not what others have written about the matter and the
man, but are indeed the words of JRRT himself to many different people;
it's primary source material, in other words, and revealing as well as
informative. Who here will be the first to dive into these rich waters?
The next longest entry is for Lewis, C.S. I am not very familiar with
Lewis or with his works and so will leave that for others to describe,
but the letters reveal something of the complex intellectual and
emotional relationship between the two men.
There are many more entries, including the Inklings, the institutions
JRRT was affiliated with during his long career, Christopher (I found
his father's letters to him while C. was stationed overseas to be very
moving -- in the beautiful prose descriptions of ordinary life in some
of them it was as though JRRT was trying to send his son a bit of
England), languages in Earth and in Middle-earth, and much, much more.
True, at times it all seems quite removed from the works we enjoy so
much, but then when one looks at roots and sprouts and seedlings, it's
difficult, if not impossible, to see the whole tree. Yet the Tree is
there all the time, as it was long before we ourselves arrived on this
little planet, and it will continue to grow and thrive long after we are
Well, this has gone on long enough, and it's only the first, small step.
Ah, to try to see clearly through the mists of time ...
> Do we really want to? Won't that destroy the magic and leave us
> back in the world we escaped from when we entered Arda?
I know you answered the question yourself, but still, 'not for a
I've always felt that the deeper I got to know the man, Tolkien,
through his forewords, letters, essays etc., the deeper an
understanding I got of Middle-earth -- Tolkien is the mediator, our
guide to Middle-earth, and it is through him that we come to this
world, so understanding Tolkien is understanding Middle-earth.
> Well, not to Niggle it over much, but perhaps Tolkien fashioned a
> considerable branch and engrafted it onto (it might be more
> accurate to say 'discovered it was a part of') what he called the
> Tree of Tales,
I'm snipping most of what you say about Tolkien adding to the Tree of
Tales, not that I disagree, but I cannot improve on it ;-)
Tolkien showed forth how to create a wonderful new dish from the big
soup, and, IMO, invented at least a couple of new spices to use with
other dishes served from that Cauldron, though I think he can also be
said to have added new ingredients (or re-introduced old, in some
cases) to the Pot of Soup.
> I don't know when he wrote "I sit beside the fire and think" so I
> can't say that in this quote from 1939 we have the seed for that
I know precisely what you mean. I don't think it really matters what
came first -- the two, the in-story song and the ex-story essay -- stem
from the same sentiment within their author, surely.
One area which I think might, with some profit, be investigated in
further detail is the field between the two extremes Tolkien outlines
in the foreword.
But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestat-
ions, and always have done so since I grew old and wary
enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history,
true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the
thought and experience of readers. I think that many con-
fuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides
in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the pur-
posed domination of the author.
I have long felt that this dichotomy isn't entirely fair -- there is
surely a zone in between that includes that which is the un-purposed
domination of the author.
And in /letters/ Tolkien does seem to admit as much. I started out
looking for all relevant quotations, but that would be more than 200
lines, so I won't quote everything ;-)
The first quotations from /Letters/, however, seem to explain the point
But in spite of this, do not let Rayner suspect
'Allegory'. There is a 'moral', I suppose, in any tale
worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the
struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not
me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one
example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and
the actors are individuals - they each, of course, contain
universals, or they would not live at all, but they never
represent them as such.
Of course, Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere
in Truth. So that the only perfectly consistent allegory is
a real life; and the only fully intelligible story is an
allegory. And one finds, even in imperfect human
'literature', that the better and more consistent an
allegory is the more easily can it be read 'just as a
story'; and the better and more closely woven a story is
the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it.
But the two start out from opposite ends. You can make the
Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: an
allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts
to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all
power magical or mechanical does always so work. You cannot
write a story about an apparently simple magic ring without
that bursting in, if you really take the ring seriously,
and make things happen that would happen, if such a thing
[Letter #109 To Sir Stanley Unwin, 31 July 1947]
Here Tolkien is, as I read it, less uncompromising -- 'allegory and
story converge' he says. I don't know if he would say that it is
particularly true for the fairy tale, or the mythological tale, but at
least he knew that the stories had to use 'allegorical language'
I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional
allegory - yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth
or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of
course, the more 'life' a story has the more readily will
it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the
better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will
it be acceptable just as a story.) Anyway all this stuff is
mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.
[Letter #131, To Milton Waldman (probably written late in 1951)]
I don't know that I would have used the same phrase -- the myth or the
fairy tale is irrelevant to the reader (or, perhaps more appropriately,
the listener) if it doesn't in some way reflect the situation (in real
life) of the reader. The strength of the fairy tale -- or indeed (IMO)
of any story set in a 'fantastical' setting (I include, for this
purpose, the otherworldly settings, or the technological magic of
Science Fiction) -- is precisely that the 'alien-ness' of the setting
allows the reader to see the reflected parts that much more clearly.
This again allows the story to touch on more fundamental aspects of our
situation -- aspects which are too easily lost in a more familiar
setting (where the actual complexity of reality obscures the underlying
basic questions). I see the fantastic setting and the realistic setting
not as contradictory, but rather as complementary.
But Tolkien also recognised that his book was 'about' something -- that
it was 'concerned' with certain matters pertaining to our normal life,
and even if much of it was only realised in retrospect, he was, at the
time of publishing, aware of the moral basis of his book.
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally
religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but
consciously in the revision.
[Letter #142 To Robert Murray, SJ, December 1953]
I think the transition described here applies for other aspects as well
-- not that they necessarily got incorporated in any of the revisions,
but the transition from unconciously writing a moral question or
position into the text, and then later recognising its occurrence
there, Possibly this insight into his own work later led to some of the
problems that prevented him from ever finalising the Silmarillion -- he
seems to have bogged down in the concious questions (both moral and of
credibility [here I think of the flat-world vs. round-world basis for
That Tolkien by slow discovery became aware of the essential themes and
positions in his book is certainly true also for the theme of death.
As for 'message': I have none really, if by that is meant
the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of
preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth
specially revealed to me! I was primarily writing an
exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I
find personally attractive. But in such a process
inevitably one's own taste, ideas, and beliefs get taken
up. Though it is only in reading the work myself (with
criticisms in mind) that I become aware of the dominance of
the theme of Death. (Not that there is any original
'message' in that: most of human art & thought is similarly
preoccupied.) But certainly Death is not an Enemy! I said,
or meant to say, that the 'message' was the hideous peril
of confusing true 'immortality' with limitless serial
[Letter #208 From a letter to C. Ouboter, April 1958]
Interestingly this is another place where the book is 'fundamentally
religious' -- that Death is not an enemy implies that it is a promised
transition into something better, which again (to me, at least) implies
In the end of this post, I give references to other letters pertaining
to this, but it is quite clear that Tolkien wasn't opposed to the idea
that his book had moral themes, and that his own position in these
influenced the book.
On the other hand he also disliked the 'contemporary trend in
criticism' with its attempt to 'unravel the real relationship between
personal facts and an author's works' -- something that he claimed that
only God would be able to, not even the author himself, 'and certainly
not so-called 'psychologists'.' (Wonderful, isn't it <G> -- from letter
#213, October 1958.)
Perhaps some of this is expressed in Gandalf's admonishment:
And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left
the path of wisdom.
But even between just leaving things alone and taking the book apart to
attempt a divine unravelling of the connection between the author and
his work, there is room for some investigation.
This is the area where we investigate not /why/ the themes and
questions are presented as they are, but just how precisely they are
presented in the book.
An example is the role of pity and mercy in LotR. The fantastical
setting allows the author to bend the rules a bit, and one of these
bendings is in this. Pity and mercy can become an important theme, and
the rules can be bended to show the value of this virtue by always (or
at least far more often than in real life) allowing the exercise of it
to put the virtuous in an improved situation. The clearest example is
of course Frodo's (and later also Sam's) pity and mercy for Gollum, but
other examples can be found.
So, we should, I think, be able to speak of the 'message' of LotR
without confining ourselves to the allegory vs. applicability
dichotomy, which is not only too simplistic, but which Tolkien also,
implicitly, abandons in the letters. What phrase can we use for that
which is not what Tolkien defines as allegory or message ('the purposed
domination of the author' and 'the conscious purpose in writing
[LotR]'), but which is still put in the book by its author
(unconciously, un-purposed etc.) -- that which is still deriving from
Tolkien rather than the individual reader.
There are, as I've said, other passages in /The Letters of J.R.R.
Tolkien/ (edited by Humphrey Carpenter), but for those I shall merely
indicate the passages I noted, leaving it to others (those with access
to Tolkien's letters) to look up the full quotations:
The particular 'desire' of the Eregion Elves -- an
'allegory' if you like of a love of machinery, and
technical devices -- is also symbolised by their special
friendship with the Dwarves of Moria.
(About the 'meaning' of Tom Bombadil:)
I do not mean him to be an allegory [...] knowledge of
other things, [...]
[Letter #153, To Peter Hastings (draft) (September 1954)]
/The Lord of the Rings/ as a story was finished
universal truth and everlasting life.
[Letter #163, To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955]
Thank you for your letter.
exemplify general principles; but we do not represent them.
[Letter #181, To Michael Straight [drafts] (prob. early 1956)]
Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power,
but of /Power/ (exerted for Domination).
[Letter #186 From a letter to Joanna de Bortadano (drafts), April
There is no 'symbolism' or conscious allegory in my
Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by
[Letter #203 From a letter to Herbert Schiro1 17 1957]
I hope 'comment on the world' does not sound too solemn.
indicating feelings and opinions about one's material.
[Letter #215 To Walter Allen, New Statesman (drafts), April 1959]
Valid e-mail is <t.forch(a)email.dk>
as simply fun
shows how thouroughly
of the two
- Piet Hein, /The Eternal Twins/
>Interestingly this is another place where the book is 'fundamentally
>religious' -- that Death is not an enemy implies that it is a promised
>transition into something better, which again (to me, at least) implies
Bah! It provides an ending; without death there would never be any form
of security in the happiness of one's life or certainty of release from
one's unhappiness. As an ending, it is a fine thing. It is when one
cannot conceive of oneself as not existing, when the ego surpasses the
imagination, that religion must come into it. It is only when one starts
assuming questions like "What happens to me when I die?" aren't answered
by "You decompose." that religion is needed to approach death.
R. Dan Henry
Every discussion in Tolkien's works about the Fate of Men after death seems
to imply that they do not cease to exist, but continue on in some form or
other. Aside from some very early writings (involving Mandos, some kind of
Ship of the Dead, and other strangeness), Tolkien never seems to give any
kind of specifics about the afterlife for Men. Aragorn's blurb to Arwen on
his deathbed is representative. He doesn't claim to know what happens after
death but seems to have faith (Faith?) that it's a good thing, or at least
not a bad thing. After all, it's often referred to as the Gift of Eru, so it
MUST be a good thing, right? Well, if one has faith that it IS in fact the
Gift of Eru and that Eru is generally a nice guy.