Beyond Middle-earth: the least of these Aug04

Beyond Middle-earth: the least of these...

“And last came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff.” “And being sent back from death for a brief while he was clothed then in white, and became a radiant flame.” ‒ Unfinished Tales Even the smallest can change the course of the world. This theme of “the last shall become first” is central to The Lord of the Rings. Usually it’s the Hobbits who come to mind—those humble creatures who took on the great evil of Sauron (and, in Frodo’s case, the literal burden of the Ring). But there is another, perhaps less obvious, character who embodies this theme: Gandalf the Grey. Gandalf was the last of the Order of the Istari, Maiar spirits who were sent from Valinor to aid in the fight against Sauron. There were five of them: Saruman the White, the head of the Order, Radagast the Brown, the two Blue wizards, and Gandalf. They appeared in Middle-earth around year 1000 of the Third Age. Though Sauron had been defeated at the end of the Second Age, the Valar realized that he would one day rise again. So, they sent emissaries with the sole purpose to “advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt,” (UT, 503). Without Gandalf acting as the humble adviser, there would have been no victory. The Valar intended the Istari to take the form of old men so that they would be seen as equals among Elves and Men. Their bodies were mortal, and so they were capable of feeling pain and emotion, and of being...

Beyond Middle-earth: Come merry doll Jul02

Beyond Middle-earth: Come merry doll...

The question of Tom Bombadil may just be Middle-earth’s greatest mystery—with, perhaps, the exception of the Blue wizards—and it’s not difficult to find the many theories that speculate his origins. Some think he is some form of a Valar spirit, or a Maiar spirit, or just a spirit of nature. One theory I found poses Tom as the physical embodiment of the music of the Ainur (which created Middle-earth). But, whatever the case may be, Tom Bombadil is a riddle to which there is no easy answer. I too once felt the itch to know exactly who Tom Bombadil is. I too wished that I could flip through the appendixes at the end of The Return of the King and read his origin story. Now, however, I am less interested in who he is as a being of Middle-earth, and more in who he is as a character in relation to the narrative of The Lord of the Rings. As a character he doesn’t serve much purpose to the narrative, other than offering a brief repose to Frodo and company on their journey through the Old Forest. He comes out of nowhere to save Merry and Pippin from the clutches of Old Man Willow and doesn’t appear again after the hobbits leave his house, except to save them from the Barrow-wights. Here is Tolkien himself purposefully creating mystery.I like Goldberry’s explanation, when Frodo asks about him: “He is” (FR, 164). Tom later describes himself as “Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn,” (FR, 173). As far as Middle-earth is concerned, Tom Bombadil is quite probably the oldest creature to live there, even older...

Beyond Middle-Earth: Fangorn and Fimbrethil Jun03

Beyond Middle-Earth: Fangorn and Fimbrethil...

“Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also… and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared…. In the forests shall walk the Shepherds of the Trees.” — “Of Aulë and Yavanna,” The Silmarillion It’s difficult to imagine Ents being vulnerable. These tree-giants (the word “ent” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for “giant”) are strong creatures and, though they avoid doing anything in haste, their anger is swift and terrible. It’s interesting to me, then, that Ents were born out of a perceived vulnerability. Before any peoples walked Middle-earth, the Valar sang the world into being and Ilúvatar created Elves and Men. Aulë, the great smith, wanted his own creations and so gave life to the Dwarves. However, his wife Yavanna, the grower of all plant life, recognized that the Dwarves would learn from her husband and would, therefore, have no love for her works: “My heart is anxious, thinking of the days to come… Shall nothing that I have devised be free from the dominion of others?” (S, 40). What does a world without Ents look like? Very much like ours, I think. Thus, the Ents were created from Yavanna’s desire to defend her creation. They awoke in Middle-earth at the same time as the Elves. But, while Ents feature prominently in The Two Towers, we don’t see any Entwives. Anything we know about them is what Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin when they seek refuge in Fangorn forest: “When the world was young and the woods were wide and wild, the Ents and Entwives… they walked together and they housed together. But our hearts did not go on growing in the same way: the Ents gave their love to things that they met in...

Beyond Middle-earth: Blessed are the Legend-makers May05

Beyond Middle-earth: Blessed are the Legend-makers...

I‘ve always been drawn to myths, especially Arthurian, Greek, and Norse. For instance, the story of Echo, the nymph who fell in love with Narcissus but was doomed to waste away until nothing was left but her voice. Even if early story-tellers were just trying to come up with an explanation for a phenomenon they didn’t understand, I’m drawn to the idea of creating a story for it; the scientific explanation for echos may be interesting, but the story brings them to life. C.S. Lewis once said that “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.” Tolkien disagreed and wrote his poem “Mythopoeia” as a response. I’ll offer a brief explanation here, but I would recommend reading the poem for yourself. We cling to stories when we have nothing left because they give us hope. “Mythopoeia” is Tolkien’s case for the value of myth and story-making; it is an argument from “Philomythus to Misomythus,” which means “Myth-lover to Myth-hater,” and the title itself means “myth-making.” Something I’ve encountered in Christian circles is a general distrust of myth, which I think echos Lewis’s statement; there is no truth in anything not in the Bible. Tolkien disagrees and argues that, in fact, there is truth in myth, and that it is actually our right to make up stories. Our proclivity for myth-making is something that comes from God—“Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues…”—and when we create, we catch a glimpse of God himself. Tolkien uses my favourite poetic device in this poem: the caesura, which is a break in the middle of the line that causes the reader to slow down. The purpose of a caesura is to emphasize something for...

Beyond Middle-earth: Roverandom Apr07

Beyond Middle-earth: Roverandom...

Rover is a little white dog with black spots and a penchant for getting in trouble. One day he’s playing outside with his yellow ball when an old man comes by and takes it. So Rover bites the man’s trouser leg and suddenly finds himself turned into a toy, for this man is a wizard named Artaxexes. What follows is Rover’s quest to become a real dog again. Rover is found in the grass, sold for sixpence at a shop and brought home to Little Boy Two, who is especially fond of dogs. The next day, Two puts him in his pocket and runs down to the beach. Rover falls out of Two’s pocket and into the sand where he is eventually found by Psamathos, the sand wizard. Some of the Artaxexes’ magic wears off because Rover is close to another wizard’s home, and he regains mobility, but remains small. He loses his name and is given a new one. Here is where Rover’s journey really begins. Rover travels to two fascinating places: the moon, where he meets the Man-in-the-Moon, and the bottom of the sea. In both places live two other dogs who are also called Rover and claim to be the first. They both insist that Rover change his name to Roverandom because there cannot be two Rovers, and they’re older than him so he has to do what they say. During his stay on the moon, the Man-in-the-Moon takes Roverandom to the dark side where he discovers children playing. The Man-in-the-Moon explains that this is where children come when they dream, and that he makes the dreams for them. Roverandom finds Two there and they spend the entire night playing together. On the walk back to the light side, Roverandom asks...

Beyond Middle-earth: No idle fancy Mar03

Beyond Middle-earth: No idle fancy...

“A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins… the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow of gold.” ‒ J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” If there is one thing that makes a hero, it is slaying a dragon. One of the greatest dragon-slayers, and one of Tolkien’s greatest influences, was Beowulf, whose story is chronicled in the Old English poem of the same name. In his life, Beowulf faced three foes. He fought the first and second, the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother, as a young man in defence the Danes, a group of people who were strangers to him. He defeated both enemies and left the Danes a hero. His third battle was against the dragon, which he faced as an old man. At this point in his life, Beowulf was king of his own people, the Geats, and the dragon was terrorizing his realm. He followed the dragon to its lair and killed it, but not before becoming mortally wounded. He died and was buried by the sea. A hero needs to be worthy of the dragon. Tolkien said of Beowulf, “Already there it had these two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes.” Tolkien wrote about two dragon-slayers who demonstrated this: Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit, and Farmer Giles in the medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham. Both men were made king as a reward for their actions. But there was a third dragon-slayer who was not rewarded, whose life and death were nothing short of tragic: Túrin Turambar, whose story can be found in The Silmarillion. Túrin’s family was cursed by Morgoth. He lived as...

Beyond Middle-earth: Coming Home Feb03

Beyond Middle-earth: Coming Home...

It’s hard to imagine an aspect of the fantasy genre that hasn’t been influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien. Elves and orcs seem to be commonplace races in many fantasy novels. Reluctant kings, unlikely heroes, shieldmaidens and wise, elderly mentors appear over and over again, not to mention swords and other inanimate objects possessing incredible power. Tolkien wrote so much more than his Middle-earth stories.Even though he is sometimes referred to as the father of fantasy, Tolkien was not the first person to write in the genre; George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin and mentor to Lewis Carroll, is one such writer. But, there is a reason why Tolkien’s works are so revered. His sheer imagination and dedication to his life’s work established what we now call epic fantasy and made it possible for others to embrace the genre. He made fantasy something to be enjoyed by the masses. The fact that he built such a rich and complex world, including developing languages, paved the way for other writers to build their own worlds. Middle-earth is the most in depth fantasy world we will ever see. For me, one other reason why Tolkien is so important not just to fantasy, but to literature in general, is the themes he explores in his writing. Think of his critique of Industrialism in the way Isengard expands itself out of fire and iron but is ultimately reclaimed by Treebeard and the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Think of his portrayal of the simple life in the Shire as ideal living. The Hobbits are not a people concerned with expanding their lands, but instead prize community, good food and good, tilled earth above all else; after all, isn’t it Sam’s love of his own garden that helps him...