Breathing a Lie through Silver Jan08

Breathing a Lie through Silver...

A philosophic argument is one of the best things that can happen to a friendship. Verbose disagreement with a healthy dose of name calling between jolly friends as they enjoy a choice drink: this is an ideal evening, in my opinion. It is in such a setting, at any rate, that I imagine the conflict between Lewis and Tolkien, a debate in which their philosophic understanding of myth stood at polar opposites. It was September of 1931 at Magdalen College in Oxford when Lewis told Tolkien that myth and fairy story were “breathing a lie through silver.” Tolkien strongly disagreed. He believed his “kind and confused friend” committed a grave error in saying this. Tolkien would later capture the essence of this error in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien felt strongly that myth creation, whatever it was, was something more than a lie, even poetically laced with silver. A lie is generally a negative thing. Tolkien maintained that the power to create myth and story was not negative but something positive, and even more. It was not only a human right, but a divine right. In the essay, he argued that humanity creates because our image mirrors the creator. A whole world is created with doors to new vistas that tell me about the world I live in. This perspective of myth making was important to Tolkien as it brought a legitimacy to creating myths in a time when fairies and their tales was left primarily to children. Tolkien’s idea was both important and relevant to the criticisms of that day, and it still applies in this century. I would even apply his principle in broader strokes. When I enter a land of someone else’s creation—whether it’s a book, a movie, a video game—I have a chance at...

Letters from Father Christmas Dec23

Letters from Father Christmas...

When Tolkien’s children were growing up, he wrote them letters as Father Christmas. Between the years of 1920 and 1943, they would receive letters in which Father Christmas told them stories about his life in the North Pole, his chief assistant the North Polar Bear, and the wars between the goblins and the Red Gnomes of Norway—all written in shaky handwriting (because it’s so cold in the North Pole). Father Christmas would include drawings and sometimes the North Polar Bear would add his own comments. Over the years, the list of characters grew to include Pasku and Valkotukka, the North Polar Bear’s mischievous nephews, and an elf named Ilbereth, who Father Christmas employed as his secretary and who would sometimes write the letters if Father Christmas was too tired. These letters started when Tolkien’s first child, John, was just three years old, and continued until his fourth and last child, Priscilla, was thirteen. In one letter, Father Christmas asks Michael, the second eldest, to give his love to John, even though he knows that John is too old to believe in him. In another, Father Christmas asks after Christopher, who is away at school. In the final letter, written in 1943, Father Christmas tells Priscilla that he’ll have to say good bye, but that he won’t forget her.Tolkien chose to indulge in the myth of Father Christmas in order to create some magic for his children. I can only imagine the joy and excitement Tolkien’s children would have felt upon receiving that first letter, and the anticipation of getting one every year after that. I can also imagine Tolkien’s own joy at writing them, knowing how much his children loved them. I think these letters, first and foremost, were gifts. It seems to me...

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...

The faith of a princess Apr28

The faith of a princess...

Though The Princess and the Goblin is very much an allegory where the grandmother represents God and makes a distinct point about the importance of believing without seeing, the story is not simply a sermon. The princess leads her new friend Curdie out of a tough situation by following a golden thread that’s been given to her by her grandmother. Curdie cannot see the thread, but is impressed nonetheless by their escape. Afterwards he agrees to meet this grandmother she’s been talking about. The princess leads him to a far room in a castle, where she begins talking to someone who he can’t see or hear. He feels the princess is making fun of him, and rudely tells her as much when she won’t admit her grandmother is make-believe. He leaves abruptly and the princess is distressed at his reaction. I find myself marveling at the faith of a Princess. When the princess asks her grandmother why he couldn’t see her, the grandmother replies, “Curdie is not yet able to believe some things. Seeing is not believing—it is only seeing… you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary… to understand other people.” I have always loved George MacDonald. His books have delighted and filled my spirit for years now and I return to them again and again, always appreciating them and learning from them as I lose myself in the pages of another world. I came across a quote the other day from Tolkien in reference to MacDonald that gave me pause. Tolkien said MacDonald was “an old grandmother who preached instead of wrote.” Tolkien said...

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...