Tolkien: On Fairy Stories

First let us raise a toast to “the Professor” on this his 121st birthday.

I have been thinking a lot about Tolkien recently. Partly it was watching The Hobbit (verdict: quite good), partly it was finding myself in the environs of his boyhood home in Birmingham on a visit to family. I have also been reading The Silmarillion as an antidote to the hi-tech brew that is Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth. I would like to consider the genre of fantasy fiction for a moment, with Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” serving as inspiration.

By “fairy stories” we mean of course Märchen — not something frivolous or childish — and for Tolkien it is essential that they be presented as if they are “true.” It is this verisimilitude that is so striking about The Silmarillion — the author’s voice is barely Tolkien’s; the whole thing reads exactly like some ancient Norse tale. Of course, this does not mean that the reader will believe in elves or ents, but that is not the point. Rather, it is the seeming authenticity of the myth that draws us beyond the author and into a realm of truth. To illustrate: I do not believe in Ilúvatar — at least not as so named and phenomenised by Tolkien — but in reading the Ainulindalë (his creation myth) my thoughts went far beyond Tolkien’s words and to my own inklings of cosmogony and the divine. That it is read as myth is key.

There is much that is of good report in fairy stories, it seems. I wonder if scripture can be read in the same way. I suspect not, though I somehow wish it more easily could be. The Old Testament is the best candidate, I think, given the mythological nature of many of the stories and the deeper truths they contain (mythological meant here in its positive, truth-bearing sense). Not that that is how we tend to read it, of course. Mormon scripture is even less mythological, going far beyond verisimilitude: it is all verum and not just verum + similis. Readers of the Book of Mormon, both friend and foe, have tended to obsess about its historicity and very little else. If Joseph Smith had presented The Lord of Rings as scripture we would barely get beyond quarrels about whether Hobbits had ever really lived in England. Had Tolkien done so, he would be ranked with L. Ron Hubbard.

That is the curse of the Book of Mormon and scripture in general: if it is literally true, then it makes all the difference in the world, but because of this weight that it carries, few really read it for its “fairy stories.” And it is because it is free of that weight that the story of Middle-earth (and similar tales) can often be a much more interesting and enlightening read. This is a problem that goes beyond Mormonism, of course: I will admit that my own approach to the Bhagavad Gita has been hampered by a worm that refuses to leave my head — did Arjuna and Krishna really have this conversation? — and might partially explain why the pages of Tolkien are worn and those of the Gita are not. The reason has less to do with the entertainment offered by the narrative — have you read The Silmarillion?! — and more to do with exactly the power of “fairy stories” that Tolkien described.

Let us, then, ask this: is scripture spoiled by being called scripture?

Comments

  1. Of course, Tolkien seemed to think that Christianity was the true true myth, so I suppose he thought there was a place for both.

  2. I was re-reading the LOTR Appendix (A) after watching the Hobbit; to see if I could find some of the extra stuff Peter Jackson had used to further fill out the Hobbit story. I read a portion that struck me though not relating to the Hobbit story, but rather talking about Arwens experience at the deathbed of Aragorn. He being a Numenorean, was able to choose the moment of his own passing. She witnessed the change in his countenance, and the description as written by Tolkien I think is quite moving if you relate it to our view of the resurrection and the change that will take place in each of us.

    “Estel, Estel!” she cried, and with that even as he took her hand and kissed it, he fell into sleep. Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him in wonder; for they saw that the grace of his youth, and the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”

  3. Thanks for quoting that Chris, it’s incredibly awesome.

    Ronan, this is such a great post, not just because I’m a hopeless Tolkein geek but because I have thought the same question that you ask many times, and the similar question of how I read The Book of Mormon differently than The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, and how I read The Silmarillion differently than the Bible. I have come to the conclusion that, in some cases, I don’t. I have the same reverence for Tolkein’s words in some cases because I don’t really believe that Tolkein worked alone in bringing them to us.

    Artists (and that’s what Tolkein was) are sometimes inspired by the Spirit of God, I think, in almost precisely the same way as a prophet is. Does that mean I think that Tolkein’s stories are literally true? No, but in some cases, I don’t think the stories in the scriptures are either. But they are similar in that they are both inspired by the Spirit of God, convey the beauty of Him and His greatest creations, and teach true principles.

    I don’t know how much literal truth to ascribe to the Book of Mormon (for the record, I personally choose to ascribe a lot to it). But I’m not sure it matters as much as we act like it does. Is the story of Turin Turambar less powerful than the story of Mahonri Moriancumer, just because we think Turin probably never actually lived whereas we think Mahonri probably did? I don’t think so.

  4. That is a great quote, Chris.

    Mark — “But they are similar in that they are both inspired by the Spirit of God, convey the beauty of Him and His greatest creations, and teach true principles.”

    I guess my question is whether “fairy stories” end up doing that more powerfully because they are not encumbered with the baggage of a kind of positivism that is the conservative reading of scripture.

  5. Or in other words, is a story that leads you to hear the word of God better than a story that claims to be the word of God?

  6. To answer my own question, I suppose Tolkien would say that Faerie, properly told, point to the “underlying reality” (On Fairy Stories), which, for him was the Christian (Catholic) Gospel. That we believe that such underlying reality exists beyond the fictional world depends, in the first place, on our faith in holy writ. The Bible records the literal eucatastrophe to which Faerie is a “far-off gleam or echo.”

    I still prefer The Silmarillion to Genesis though!

  7. Me too! But then, The Ainulindale has much more in common with the Book of Moses than it does with Genesis, so we may have a built in bias.

  8. Right, but then with Moses, I suspect we too often stumble over issues such as God=Jesus (or not), the historicity of the Flood, and the relationship of the text to some lost ur text.

  9. “is a story that leads you to hear the word of God better than a story that claims to be the word of God?”

    Well the only answer to that is that it depends very much on the story. Mormon and Moroni complained that they weren’t much when it came to writing, so maybe the reason we like Tolkien better is because writing was, in fact, one of his strengths, and not a weakness. But I’m not sure. I think Peter Beagle nailed long ago in his intro to LOTR:

    “For in the end it is Middle-Earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”

  10. “Right, but then with Moses, I suspect we too often stumble over issues such as God=Jesus (or not), the historicity of the Flood, and the relationship of the text to some lost ur text.”

    And that’s the mistake, I guess. I’m not sure that when God commands us to “search the scriptures” and “feast upon the word” that we’re really understanding what he’s asking us to do. I don’t think he’s talking about red-lining and cross-referencing and making archeological expeditions to Ixtapa.

  11. Yes, sometimes scripture might be spoiled by being called scripture. But at the same time I think we do read scriptures as fairy stories sometimes. For example, not all Mormons accept the historicity of the story of Adam and Eve, and still those members do find value and usefulness in it. When we read Moses we might get stuck with such questions you posed, but I personally try not to think issues like those while reading scriptures. I like reading scriptures as stories and I doubt I’m alone.
    On the another hand, scriptures are more important than other stories for me, exactly because I don’t consider them to be fiction. I don’t claim them to be accurate history either, they are, well, scriptures.
    You asked an excellent question, and I don’t know what to answer.

  12. I meant to say ” I like reading scriptures as stories and I doubt I’m NOT alone.”
    I think for many personal scripture study is more in line of reading stories than pondering deeper connections and meanings. Especially because BOM really has a narrative to follow pretty much trough the whole book. Bible has bigger parts of sermons/prophecies/poetry. That might be the reason why it is so hard to read for many Mormons. We want stories!

  13. There is a great similiar essay by CS Lewis that I’m trying to find and link later.
    Thanks for this article!

  14. I’ve enjoyed Tolkien for most of my life, from fifth grade, when my teacher blackmailed me with the books (I only got to read them if I otherwise studied and did homework), to now that I’m 57 and just saw the movie.

    The entire Tolkien mythos is colored by the fact that he, C.S. Lewis and others (and don’t forget Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity) met together in the back room of a bar every week to work on novels. Tolkien wrote what he wrote to have a novel (or novels) to share so he could participate. It is intentionally religious work.

    You have really captured what I think he would have wanted.

  15. Kevin Christensen says:

    In Journal of Book of Mormon Stories, 6/2, Tod Harris offered an essay on “The Journey of the Hero: Archetypes of Earthly Adventure and Spiritual Passage in 1 Nephi.” Throughout, he freely compares the scriptural account with Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, which involves, if you’ve read Campbell, lots of fairy tales and myths. This is one of my favorite Book of Mormon essays. And it seems to me a mode of comparison encouraged by the Book of Mormon itself, where Nephi says, “All things which have been of God… are the typifying of Christ.” And that to me means Frodo and Harry Potter as well as Isaiah 53. On the other hand, another of my favorite essays, is Hawkins and Thomasson’s “Survivor Witness in the Book of Mormon” which compares the personalities of Mormon and Moroni with a pattern that Terence Des Pres found among certain survivor witnesses of Nazi and Soviet death camps. Both modes of reading lead me to converge on the same question asked in Alma 32. After experimenting on a portion of the word, and finding the successful results of a challenging experiment, I find my mind expanded, and my soul enlarged. I savor the delicious taste, and back in the increased immediacy of the future promise embodied in the text, and I respond deeply to Alma’s pointed question: “Is this not real?”

    The thing that gives powerful fairie stories their power is that despite all the of the Elves, Orcs, Goblins, and Dragons, there is something in them that corresponds to what is real. And certain historical accounts can have a tremendous power because they seem to embody mythic archetypes. That is, they become more than just a specific historical moment, but point beyond the moment into eternity.

    While there are some texts that are clearly dramatic (Job), some allegorical (the allegory of the Olive Tree), some originally ritual texts (the Creation accounts), some make specific historical claims that must be read in a specific historical context to fully appreciate them (see the account of Limhi’s explorers against Larry Poulson’s geographic corrolation. And there is also some deliberate patterning going on. See, for instance the famous essay on The Dark Way to the Tree by Bruce Jorgenson, or various things by Alan Goff, or Hardy or Rust). If the scriptures involve multiple genres, and very often, multiple layers of meaning, both historical and symbolic, temperal and spiritual, why not embrace multiple approaches to reading?

    FWIW

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  16. I suppose Tolkien would say that Faerie, properly told, point to the “underlying reality” (On Fairy Stories), which, for him was the Christian (Catholic) Gospel. That we believe that such underlying reality exists beyond the fictional world depends, in the first place, on our faith in holy writ. The Bible records the literal eucatastrophe to which Faerie is a “far-off gleam or echo.”

    That’s an interesting way of putting it (in additional to a very interesting original post; thanks for it!). A possible wrinkle, though, is that Tolkien himself, as the years went by, increasingly attempted to reworked his decades of legendary “sub-creation” into something more “scriptural.” The Silmarillion which you read, Ronan, was very likely the version published in 1977 after having been thrown together somewhat hurriedly by Christopher Tolkien; in the decades since, as Tolkien’s hundreds of thousands papers have slowly but surely been organized, it’s become clear that Tolkien wanted to make his sub-creation more Catholic and less mythological. We get the Prophecy of Mandos and Dagor Dagorath taking the form of the battle of Armageddon with the releasing of Melkor and the end of the world; the Flame Imperishable pretty explicitly gets identified as the Holy Spirit; etc. It might be just a deep tendency of all forms of faith which any of us fallen mortal might happen to hold to want to increase the verum and decrease the similis as time goes by.

  17. Cheers, Prof. T! That essential term you reference in #6 “eucatastrophe” had been one of Tolkien’s own touchstones (along with “sub-creation”) when summing up his Middle Earth project. The word describes totally unexpected_good_fortune, of the kind which culminates Frodo’s ring quest–and helps illustrate the paradox between faith and works in Christian theology, eg, how we’re saved by grace after all we can do. As for the Gita: I never considered before how alike the Arjuna-Krishna is to the Gandalf-Frodo relationship, echoing similar teachings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Thanks RJH for making this Tolkien geek’s day.

  18. it's a series of tubes says:

    Best thread on BCC in quite some time. Prompted me to pull down my first edition Silmarillion off the bokshelf and dive in again – ended up only sleeping for 90 minutes last night…

  19. This will be the first of many Tolkien posts. It will be a veritable History of Middle-Earth in size and scope.

  20. it's a series of tubes says:

    Best. Series. Ever. (opens up photo album and fondly gazes at picture of myself sitting at CS Lewis’s writing desk in his house, pondering the copy of the Silmarillion I took down from the adjacent bookshelf).

    And also, I nominate #2 for COTY.

  21. Good Ronan, you have warmed my heart and brought back sweet remembrances. I first came upon Tolkien in 9th grade. My brother’s teacher was reading the Hobbit to them (and this was back in the days when Tolkien was not as popular as he is now and he was mostly esteemed in the realm of the blacklight poster crowd). In the back of another fantasy book I was reading, I found an advertisement from Ballentine Books for the Hobbit and the Trilogy and having saved my allowance for some books, I ordered it. About a month later it arrived. It was like magic. I entered a world as real to me as anywhere near my home. Since then I have read the trilogy seventeen times (yes you heard that right). Sadly the Silmarillion only once, but you are making me rethink that.

    I expected to hate the Hobbit Movie, fearful that Jackson would dish out another ‘King Kong’ rather than ‘Lord of the Rings.’ But against my expectations I loved it.

    I have said to many people, and I believe it true with all my heart (often surprising and annoying students). There is more truth in fiction than in history or science. As you imply, the arguments from the scriptural literalists squeeze truth out of the scriptures with their wrangling at imagining they understand scripture as a scientific rendering of sorts.

    Happy Birthday dear Tolkien. You have made my life rich and changed it in unexpected and magical ways.

  22. After seeing “The Hobbit,” my son and I were discussing the Tolkien universe, and mused that the Silmarillion was to the LOTR/Hobbit books as the Bible was to Shakespeare. I remember reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy first time in high school back in the 1960s, and a second time in college in the early 1970s. Sadly, I have only reread it once, I think, since then. I should push myself and reread it and the Hobbit again before the second Hobbit movie comes out.

  23. Chris Gordon says:

    Ronan, I’m very intrigued by what you’re almost proposing: how would our missionary work look under the premise of the Book of Mormon as a faerie story? In inviting others to read, would we testify of the truth of the Book of Mormon or merely of the value in having and reading it?

    For my part, I’m not ready to lay aside my own feelings that a conviction of the veracity of the Book of Mormon as scripture is very important to conversion. However, I think there is much merit in laying aside some of our “take it or leave it” attitude that is a side effect of that conviction.

    Perhaps a “next best thing” approach would be good across the board in how we share the Book of Mormon specifically and the restored gospel generally. When an individual is unwilling to commit to a full-blown truth exploration, we could do much better at leaving a warm invitation to sample and see the value in our practice, our scripture, and even our culture without full commitment.

    I don’t know how to strike that balance, though.

  24. Chris, the Mormon Church would not survive in its current form if it were to see the BoM as faerie. The literal truth claim of Mormonism is central to its identity. That much is clear.

    I’m just saying that because of that fact, the BoM is read badly and thinly by most. It is a Macguffin . . . perhaps necessarily so.

  25. I still haven’t made it to the theater to see The Hobbit. It’s really a bit of a mystery to me why I simply don’t feel anything like the obsessive pull to see this film the way I did all of Jackson’s LOTR movies. Part of it surely has to do with the reviews and numerous criticisms which have been lodged by a lot of folks, but that doesn’t explain all of it. Maybe most of it is simply that I treasure Tolkien’s The Hobbit as a book–a tremendous children’s novel, really, one of the very best of the genre. Whereas none of the LOTR books were ever, really, all that great as books. I mean, they included fantastic adventures and great scenes and powerful characterizations, but they weren’t primarily works of literature; they were works of world-creation, of myth-making. So while I think Jackson & Co. fundamentally misunderstood or rejected some of thematic basics of that myth in their adaptations of LOTR (primarily, making the overarching story more about Aragorn and the triumph of men rather than about Frodo and the end of an age), they couldn’t really do any harm to it, any more than the movie The Avengers can do any harm to the grand myths of Thor and Loki. And moreover, they brought much of it to brilliant visual life, and along the way elaborated upon or extended the myth in important ways (replacing Glorfindel with Arwen in the film adaption of Fellowship, building up an important dynamic between Aragorn, Eowyn, and Wormtongue in their adaption of The Two Towers, etc.). So even when the movies dragged (and heavens, did the adaption of Return of the King ever drag, until Jackson plugged the holes and polished it up in the extended edition), I still loved them. But with The Hobbit, all I can see is a wonderful work a literature–a real and genuine story, not a myth but a novel–being blown up and transformed and hooked up to a myth it has no narrative business being a part of. I’m sure I’ll eventually see the film–all three of them, in all likelihood!–and maybe I’ll repent of this judgment entirely. Maybe Jackson & Co. pulled off some wonderful alchemy in making their film adaption. But from the trailers I’ve seen, the reviews I’ve read, and really all the news going all the way back to the earliest development of the movie, I just can’t shake the feeling The Hobbit is just doing it wrong, in the same way that damned horrible Robert Duvall/Demi Moore adaption of The Scarlet Letter got it totally wrong.

  26. I’m not a Tolkein fan, so I’ll have to use a different universe to attempt to explain my thoughts. I love Star Trek because it inspires me. I appreciate the footage of the Apollo 11 landing because it humbles me. Though there is value in faerie stories – they teach lessons, communicate culture, facilitate community, etc. – there is a potential danger in them in that they are more flexible than our lived reality. This is the best thing about them because they stretch our imagination and motivate us, but it is also the worst thing about them because untrue principles can be communicated as clearly and wholly as true ones. When I write a computer program, no matter how well it works in my mind, the ultimate test occurs when the physical machine actually compiles it and attempts to execute. If I have not written it based on principles that are literally true, it will fail, and this constraint of actual failure serves as a valuable bumper to push me toward true principles. Faerie stories lack this constraint, and so, like Star Trek, if I engage with them on the same level as historical stories, I very much risk creating a convincing mental model of a principle completely at odds with reality AND I do so without a solid mechanism for error-checking.

  27. it's a series of tubes says:

    they weren’t primarily works of literature

    Wait, what? Books where multi-page poems are inserted inline for the reader to appreciate, and where characters frequently break into complex songs based on obscure Norse meters aren’t primarily works of literature? When I first came across the Song of Durin I had to stop, savor the awesomeness, and memorize it immediately.

  28. Maybe what you are getting at here with the Fairy Story is similar to what many artists have used variations on, but I recall it being said by Picasso as: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

    So while the scriptures tell us a lot about atonement, redemption, and mercy, for many those values are often easier to get at through reading or watching/listening to Les Miserables. To that extent, we often see and hear passages from the Book of Mormon and Bible retold as standalone stories. I also appreciate that Grant Hardy, Royal Skousen, and Brant Gardner have helped me reread the Book of Mormon this last year in a new light, with more appreciation for the original authors, and the role that translation plays in how we approach scripture. It is still about truths, but in particular I find that Nephi and Mormon, in particular, seem to have been much more aware of the literary art of writing than we previously have given them credit for. Your Fairy Story analogy seems to provide some additional insights into how we read scripture. Looking forward to more Tolken-based posts.

  29. IASOT,

    Wait, what? Books where multi-page poems are inserted inline for the reader to appreciate, and where characters frequently break into complex songs based on obscure Norse meters aren’t primarily works of literature?

    Fair point. “Literature” was the wrong word to use. But you get my point, don’t you? The Elder Edda is “literature,” certainly, but it isn’t a novel, or even a coherent narrative. The Lord of the Rings surely had a coherent narrative, but its whole style and rhythm borrowed far more from those more mythological tropes than novelistic ones.

  30. In addition to her fantasy books, Madeleine L”Engle authored the much neglected book “Walking on Water” which contains several essays that address the ideas of “real” vs. “true”. A great admirer of both Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, she had keen insights into these ideas.

  31. it's a series of tubes says:

    RAF, your point was well taken. I was just being a bit pedantic – tends to happen when people discuss topics they are passionate about.

  32. Brian #26: “I do so without a solid mechanism for error-checking”

    I’m not sure that is the case at all. First of all, it’s not about ‘facts,’ I think you’re really worried about ‘truth’ in the sense of true principles. But that’s the whole point. If a fairy story or a star trek episode teaches false principles, it doesn’t resonate with us the way others do. What’s that resonance? Isn’t it the Spirit of God, which we are told testifies of all truth? Isn’t that the ultimate “mechanism for error checking”?

  33. MCQ # 32 – perhaps you are better at sensing the Spirit than I am. When the Lord told Oliver “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” I take it to mean that the Lord expects me to really put my mind to the grindstone before He’ll indicate anything, and that often that indication comes in the simple form of something making sense. Trouble is, many things have made sense to me that turned out to be simply untrue. Professional mathematicians sometimes refer to this phenomenon as “training your intuition.” Others may be smarter or more in tune than I am, but I’ve fallen hook, line, and sinker for convincing falsehoods far too often, and felt unambiguous inspiration far too rarely, for me to trust wholly to “resonance.”

  34. That’s a good quote Brian, but the Lord wasn’t talking to Oliver about true principles, he was talking about revealing specific words of a specific book. Yes, that does require study. But I’m not sure you’re interpreting that quote correctly.

    “I take it to mean that the Lord expects me to really put my mind to the grindstone before He’ll indicate anything, and that often that indication comes in the simple form of something making sense.”

    Where does it say that? I think “your bosom shall burn within you and you shall feel that it is right” is a whole lot different than simply “something making sense.” In fact. I would say that the two have almost nothing to do with each other.

    There’s a more relevant quote you might have heard:

    “13 But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.

    14 Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.

    15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.

    16 For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”

    -Moroni 7

    But even if you can’t always sense the spirit, what’s the danger? Are you worried you’ll start believing in the existence of unicorns? The books we’re talking about, specifically Tolkien’s oevre, are based on universaly accepted principles that we already know to be true. They aren’t advocating that you take up arms and follow Jim Jones. They’re just stories about faithfulness, loyalty, sacrifice, honor, love and good triumphing over evil. Is there a danger in believing these stories are inspired by God?

  35. Thanks for this post, Ronan. The Silmarillion is by far my favorite of Tolkien’s writings, and rings “truest” to me in the sense we’re using in this comment thread. When Joseph Smith says “This is good doctrine. It tastes good. I can taste the principles of eternal life, and so can you,” I think that’s what he’s describing.

    Anyway, I wish Jackson would have beeb content to make a couple Hobbit movies and then dive into the tales and legends in The Silmarillion, for which he could take as much artistic license as he’d like.

  36. I’m late to the game, but one of the things that annoyed me about the Book of Mormon musical was its assertion that ALL religion – and particularly Mormonism, with the Book of Mormon itself – is people structuring their lives around nice fairy stories (or, perhaps better said, morality tales – Parker and Stone, in order to not defame religion, can’t allow it to have the peril inherent in Faerie). I kept thinking, “But something in religion, deep down, has to be True, right?” In the end, I’m not sure quite what separates the “trueness” of Tolkien (or LeGuin, or Star Trek) from the “trueness” of Genesis if it isn’t, say, the divine authority of the authors or some reflection of historicity. Still trying to puzzle that one out.

  37. Little addendum: when I discovered LOTR at age 13, I memorized Galadriel’s Lament, which is the Elvish cited in the OP. In Quenya. And then tried creating my own language :)

  38. MCQ – # 34: You may be right about the quote I used, but I think you are underestimating the danger that a seemingly innocuous false principe can precipitate. In the generic, a faerie story may connect a Godly end with ungodly means and it is usually quite difficult to separate the two. Here’s a more specific example: One of the reasons I like Star Trek is that it depicts a future I would like to live in. People act out of professional interest, everyone’s basic needs are cared for, there is widespread equality amongst genders, races, etc. However, it is not at all clear whether the methods by which that futuristic society is supported – intense reliance on technology, hierarchical command structure, the prime directive, etc. – would in actuality lead to the end portrayed in the show. I suppose I have not been very clear before, but what I am worried about is not that I (or anyone else) will believe in someTHING absurd, but rather that we might believe in a false chain of causality. To extend the argument to the extreme: A gifted author could write a novel where a Utopian society was obtained primarily through a practice of public orgies, but that doesn’t mean instituting public orgies in the real world would make our society better. Most of the time, the causalities are more subtle and so more difficult to discern, and we risk real harm to our future if we confuse a desirable outcome built on a false premise with true principles.

    I’m sure Moroni was much more spiritually discerning than I am, but I can’t recall feeling the Spirit testify strongly to me about underlying truth while examining tables of Pearson’s correlation coefficients.

  39. it's a series of tubes says:

    I can’t recall feeling the Spirit testify strongly to me about underlying truth while examining tables of Pearson’s correlation coefficients.

    Fair enough – my experience has been that occasionally, down in the depths of the equations that reflect the laws that govern the physical world, I catch glimpses of truth and feel the confirmation of the spirit.

    #36 – there’s lots of Trueness in LeGuin. Particularly in “Another Story”.

  40. haycock – I also tried creating my own language, inspired by Elvish, although I think it was really more of a code . I distinctly recall creating three different characters for e, since I had read that e is the most commonly used letter in English, and I wanted my code uncrackable.

    I’m finding the discussion of “truth” here fascinating, and agree this is a great post. I’ve been wrestling with what I believe about the BoM for quite some time. To put it baldly, I love the theology of the BoM but just cannot accept it as a genuine historical work. My understanding of “truth” has had to undergo a metamorphosis. Truth vs. Truth – a thing can be full of truths, truths that lead one to God, truths that edify and uplift and beautify, but that thing may not necessarily BE true as a whole.

  41. Excellent post, RJH.

  42. In part two I shall discuss why I think the BoM treads the borderlands of Faerie.

  43. Looking forward to part 2, then. I resisted Tolkien until well after my college years. Then one time I was going to a conference to deliver some speech on something or other and I found the Hobbit tucked into my luggage by a clever wife. Instead of enjoying the winter in California, I picked up the book and became enchanted after the first two pages. I read it through that night. I was utterly fascinated by this book, clearly directed to children, but full of adult depth at one turn and another. I craved some kind of salve for the loss when I arrived at the last page. I’ve wondered from time to time if Parley Pratt didn’t feel the same way about the Book of Mormon.

  44. Thanks for this contemplation. It is something I have often considered when reading great literature — especially literature from the 18th and 19th centuries.

  45. Another way to put it is that Tolkien was able to tap into the sublime using the same vehicle that had been used by many cultures to tap into the same sense of the sublime in their inspirational works. The same sublime reality underlies the scriptures. In the end analysis, the prophets who wrote the scriptures were using their perspective and skills to describe those aspects of the underlying sublime that they had glimpsed through revelation or spiritual insight. They did so with varying levels of literary skill, some expressing religious truths very poetically and some through fiction (e.g. Potentially Job)

  46. “I can’t recall feeling the Spirit testify strongly to me about underlying truth while examining tables of Pearson’s correlation coefficients.”

    Wow. Can’t believe you just admitted that. You really are spiritually dead, aren’t you?

  47. “In the end, I’m not sure quite what separates the “trueness” of Tolkien (or LeGuin, or Star Trek) from the “trueness” of Genesis if it isn’t, say, the divine authority of the authors or some reflection of historicity. Still trying to puzzle that one out.”

    With respect to Genesis, I’m not sure there is anything that separates them. Middle Earth and Earthsea are just as real to me as Eden. In my view, the fact that Adam may have actually lived while Manwe and Segoy did not, doesn’t necessarily change anything about the meaning of any of those stories.

  48. MCQ # 46 – Tables of correlation coefficients tend to deaden you, I think. As the saying goes, if you have only 1 hour left to live, spend it in Statistics class. It will feel so much longer that way.

    Seriously though, if there weren’t an important distinction between realitiy and stories, God could have just regaled us all with plot and character instead of sending us here. Believing in a literal Eden, if only an allegorical one was created cannot, in my thinking, ultimately be good for the soul. I am admittedly in the minority for believing this (see the continued widespread propogation of the Santa Claus myth). I’m not a positivist, by any means, but there is potential danger in substituting an imagined universe (however inspired) for an ontological one. We all need to be skeptical of lessons from sitcoms (which, of course, I learned on The Simpsons…)

  49. or Tolkien actually was channeling some divine myth of sorts as he later suspected

  50. Well since I believe in a literal Santa Claus, I’m probably not the best person with whom to have this discussion. But while you may be right in the end, it’s unlikely we will know for certain anytime soon whether Eden actually existed or not. So in the meantime I will continue to find truth in all of these stories and not much care which ones are historical and which ones are fictional.

  51. “or Tolkien actually was channeling some divine myth of sorts as he later suspected”

    I am convinced of that. The similarities between the Ainulindale and the Book of Moses are too close for coincidence in my estimation.

  52. By “quite good,” do you mean not to bother with it?

  53. Tardy shameless excursive plug: Tolkien, Lewis, Williams = nothing, without their mutual (and ever recognized!) dependence on George MacDonald for both Christian doctrine and fantasy literature vision. Let’s not forget that the first story titled “There and Back” was published in 1891–one year before Tolkien’s birth.

  54. Let’s just regard Tolkien’s stuff the same way D&C 91 addresses the apocrypha…

    If I recall correctly, Leaf By Niggle is Tolkien’s allegory for his ‘experience’ in Middle-earth. Essentially his creation is a representation of visions that were given to him….

    There exist true types, symbols, representations etc in Tolkien’s works that speak to us. Many stories in The Silmarillion are various iterations of the pride cycle and the failings of power/arm of flesh. Eucatastrophic events occur to individuals and nations; redemption follows calamity. The world is re-made and cycles begin anew for others to experience.

    Re-read The Hobbit after seeing the film. Currently re-reading FOTR, and feeling the pull of the three bright gems of Feanor, dreaming of Gondolin and Menegroth……

    Not enough time to get to them all.

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