Tolkien's work: Full of ideas, not ideology ... The steward son of Middle-earth

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EXCERPT: In 1975, Christopher Tolkien left his fellowship at New College, Oxford, to edit his late father’s massive legendarium. The prospect was daunting. The 50-year-old medievalist found himself confronted with 70 boxes of unpublished work. [...] A large portion of the archive concerned the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world, Middle-earth. [...] Christopher took it upon himself to edit that book, which was published in 1977 as "The Silmarillion". He then turned to another project drawn from his father’s papers, then another—ultimately publishing poetry, academic works, fiction, and a 12-volume history of the creation of Middle-earth. "The Fall of Gondolin", published in August, is the 25th posthumous book Christopher Tolkien has produced from his father’s archives.

Now, after more than 40 years, at the age of 94, Christopher Tolkien has laid down his editor’s pen, having completed a great labor of quiet, scholastic commitment to his father’s vision. It is the concluding public act of a gentleman and scholar, the last member of a club that became a pivotal part of 20th-century literature: the Inklings. It is the end of an era.

It is work that has spanned Christopher Tolkien’s life. [...] “As strange as it may seem, I grew up in the world he created,” said Christopher in a rare 2012 interview with Le Monde. “For me, the cities of 'The Silmarillion' are more real than Babylon.”

[...] Poet and scholar Malcolm Guite argues that the Inklings, despite their profound differences [J.R.R.] Tolkien was an English Roman Catholic, Lewis an Ulster Protestant, Williams a hermetic mystic) refined and supported each other in their common literary mission.

“They’re not often noticed by literary historians because . . . in terms of English literature, the self-defining mainstream of 20th-century literature supposedly was high modernism, shaped by Joyce and Eliot,” Guite said in a 2011 lecture. But “there was actually . . . something quite radical going on in that group. Together, they were able to form a profoundly alternative and countercultural vision.” Guite emphasizes, in particular, the Inklings’ shared desire to respond to the materialist, largely atheistic cohort whose voices dominated the world of letters.

Although the Inklings are often accused of escapism, nearly all culture was engaged in a sort of dissociation because of the carnage and devastation of the First World War. Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger writes that Tolkien was “a traveler between worlds,” from his Edwardian youth to his postbellum disillusionment. It was this “oscillation that, paradoxically, makes him a modern writer, for . . . the temporal dislocation of his ‘escape’ mirrored the psychological disjunction and displacement of his century.”

High modernism found that escape in science, creating a stark divide between the material and the spiritual. This technical, technological, atomizing approach turns up in "The Lord of the Rings" with the villainous wizard Saruman, whose materialist philosophy dismisses the transcendent. Early in the book, Saruman changes his robe from white to multicolored. He explains, “White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf replies. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman ignores that his dissection of color has eliminated something greater than the sum of its parts; he has lost view of the transcendent white light. For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation.

[...] “Tolkien was the first,” George R.R. Martin says, “to create a fully realized secondary universe. . . . [I]n contemporary fantasy the setting becomes a character in its own right. It is Tolkien who made it so.”

The books initially attracted a following among the hippie counterculture, then surged in popularity among Catholics, then edged toward the mainstream for a couple of decades until Peter Jackson’s blockbuster films brought the stories to a massive audience. Evangelicals love them, but not for their didactic value: Christ is not present in Tolkien’s stories; there is no Aslan in "The Lord of the Rings". Tolkien wished to create a story shaped by the truths he believed but without explicitly referencing them.

The reason for the broad appeal of Tolkien’s work—for its chameleonic ability to speak to every time and place and people—is that while it is full of ideas, it never becomes ideological. This approach is often a source of frustration in our explicit day (“What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” complained George R. R. Martin), but a great myth cannot lay out its answers plainly, Tolkien believed: It must do so implicitly through storytelling....


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