4 Ways Tolkien Creates a New Reality

Among the 5 Reasons Tolkien Is My Co-Pilot, the first is that Tolkien created his own world. The way he seems to create an entirely new reality through his Middle-earth works is engrossing from a reader’s perspective and staggering from a fellow artist’s perspective. This verisimilitude – the artistic approximation of reality itself – was, for Tolkien, a primary quality of good storytelling.

map-of-middle-earth

The idea of creating a new universe for a story is one that has really caught on since Tolkien’s time, in large part due to his influence on the post-LOTR generation of storytellers (and filmmakers!). Examples of universe-creating stories include Star Wars, Star Trek and Harry Potter, just to name a few. The Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes certainly owe him a debt of gratitude as well.

Still, in my view, Tolkien’s ability is unparalleled. Here are 4 ways Tolkien is able to create a new reality in his storytelling:

Cartography and Chronology

Tolkien’s works rely on 2 internal maps: a geographical map and a chronological map. Everything that takes place in Middle-earth happens in a place and time that shares existence with other things. When Frodo and company are in Bree, we learn later that Gandalf is simultaneously in some other real place. At the same time, there are blurry edges on the maps. These imply dozens, hundreds, even thousands of stories going on all at the same time. Have you ever wondered what it was like in the lands surrounding the Sea of Rhûn? Ever desired more detail on the decline of the kingdom of Arnor? I could list hundreds of questions like these, all stemming from the maps in the back of The Lord of the Rings.

Visual Description

The maps of Middle-earth may give us a high level view of the look and feel of things, but the detailed verbal descriptions give us the impression of real landscapes that the maps can only hint at. Although it can be easy for a writer to “get on with it” by glossing over detailed descriptions of lands, Tolkien isn’t so hasty. His ”verbal visuals” of the Old Forest, the Barrow-Downs, Emyn Muil, Rohan, Fangorn, and other Middle-earth lands can, if we take the time to close our eyes and imagine them, leave us feeling like we’ve actually stepped foot inside them.

Internal Mythology

As familiar as I am with the story of Beren and Lúthien (ahem), it’s weird to think that once upon a time, all a Tolkien fan could know about that story was the little bit of poetry Aragorn recites in Fellowship of the Ring. That little bit, however, is enough to make us want to know more. And there are dozens of stories of a similar sort when it comes to Middle-earth. Just consider the stories of the Second Age alone! We know a bit about these from various sources, but when it all comes down to it, there are some 20 generations (3000+ years) of Númenor that we have to leave up to the imagination. There is a vastness implied there, a certain historicity. When you add in the stories of the Valar and of Valinor, there is a wonder and a depth that just doesn’t seem to end.

Leaving Well Enough Alone

I’ve seen many stories I otherwise enjoyed flop at the end because they “put a bow on it.” In other words, they try to wrap it up nice and tidy. For as much as Tolkien likes to “dive in” to back stories, he never exhausts the mystery by giving a complete or final word explanation. I was reminded of this when discussing “The White Rider” recently, where Gandalf, in describing his battle with Durin’s Bane, speaks of the places far below the surface of Middle-earth, where “the world is gnawed by nameless things.” Similarly, Tolkien never gives us a full and detailed explanation of Tom Bombadil’s identity, calling him only “Master.” Enigmas and mysteries like this abound in Middle-earth, and Tolkien wisely leaves them as such, knowing that to attempt a full explanation would only rob them of their narrative power.

These are only a few of the ways Tolkien works his literary magic. If you can think of other ways, please post them in the comments below.

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5 Reasons Tolkien Is My Co-Pilot

I’m not sure where the slogan originated, but “[Fill in the blank] is my co-pilot” was a pretty common bumper sticker when I was a kid. In fact, I think the original saying may have been “God is my co-pilot”, but with all due respect to the transcendent ground of all Being itself (Who really deserves just a little more credit than simply being your personal co-pilot anyway), here are 5 reasons I’m so enamored of Tolkien, and proudly call him my co-pilot.

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1. He Made His Own World

This is pretty much a no-brainer. Tolkien not only created what many have called the greatest book of the 20th Century (as well as one of the greatest children’s novels), but he was so bent on verisimilitude (aka the literary approximation of reality) in his works that he created a whole separate world with its own history (what he called a “secondary world”). I like to get “lost” in the books I read, and there’s no better place to get lost than in Middle-earth.

2. He Was True to Himself

I’m a person who is totally driven to create and to get stuff done. I keep insane “to do” lists just so I don’t lose track of everything I’ve got going on in my life. On occasion, I’ve put a little too much pressure on myself to get things done, but then I realize that Tolkien didn’t publish The Hobbit until he was in his mid-40’s and didn’t publish The Lord of the Rings until he was in his early 60’s. I find it consoling that he didn’t get around to publishing his magnum opus until he was nearing retirement age! Heck, his true life’s work, The Silmarillion, didn’t see the light of day until 4 years after his death! Furthermore, he took his time in his creative efforts, and focused more on the story he wanted to tell rather than on the things that others expected of him. While other writers may have seen more works published, Tolkien stayed true to his imagination, and the reward wasn’t success – it was true greatness and timelessness.

3. He Elevated the Creative Impulse to a Spiritual Level

The world likes to tell us that creative stuff is merely for entertainment and pleasure, a trifling matter. What’s really important, the world says, is taking care of business, of stacking up the bills and being responsible. To the world, Tolkien said: “Get your priorities straight.” In his philosophy of “subcreation”, he elevated the creative drive to the spiritual level. For Tolkien, one of the most noble and spiritual tasks we can undertake is the drive to create what we feel called to create. In “Mythopoeia”, he even went so far as to imply that our creative impulses are often inspired from without, glimpses of a greater reality that we are called to fulfill. So the next time someone makes you feel less important or inferior because you’re a “creative” type, rest assured that our creativity is one of the marks of the divine in us, and keep (sub)creating like a boss!

4. He Gives Me Hope

In many ways, Tolkien lived a hard life, especially early on, losing both of his parents by the time he was in his early teens. At the same time, most of his characters have to walk incredibly difficult roads through his stories. Yet somehow, through all of the darkness of his life and of his stories, there’s always a powerful ray of glimmering light that shines through. Is there any more powerful scene than Sam at the pass of Cirith Ungol, fending off the monstrous Shelob with the unexpected supernatural aid that he receives? Tolkien’s works have taught me to hope, even when things seem utterly hopeless, because you never know where help is going to come from. Tolkien even had a word for his theory of hope: “Eucatastrophe”. Simply put, it’s the idea that just when things seem their darkest, some great and unexpected reason for hope will come about.

5. His Works Are A Never-Ending Source of Life-Giving Wisdom

I believe we humans are spiritual beings with the desire of eternity on our souls. From The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion to Leaf By Niggle to his Letters (and the list goes on), there just doesn’t seem to be an end to the treasures of wisdom and insight that Tolkien gave the world in his 81 years on this side of the heavenly sea. I sometimes think of Tolkien not only as one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, but also as one of its greatest philosophers (and maybe even theologians). His works never fail me; I can always go to them to renew my sense of direction in life.

Tolkien gave us so much more than just dwarves, dragons, and a never-ending source of cosplay inspiration. Ultimately, his body of work presents an entirely unique vision of reality and of humanity itself.

Do you consider Tolkien “your co-pilot”? If so, I’d love to hear your reasons in the comments below.

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Meta-Tolkien: The Power of the Dark Lord

“Alas for the folly of these days!” said Legolas. “Here all are enemies of the one Enemy, and yet I must walk blind, while the sun is merry in the woodland under leaves of gold.”

“Folly it may seem,” said Haldir. “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

Legolas and Haldir by DarkButterflyOfNight

The Tolkien Road – Ep. 61 – The Lord of the Rings – B2C2 – The Council of Elrond

Concerning “The Council of Elrond”, Book 2, Chapter 2 of The Lord of the Rings…

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Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. On this episode, we continue through The Lord of the Rings with Book 2, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond.” By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

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©2013-2016 rfcunha

Topics of discussion…

  • Haiku – 4:30
  • Who’s at the Council? – 15:30
  • The Story of the Ring – 21:30
  • Boromir & Aragorn – 30:00
  • Gandalf’s Account – 37:30
  • Saurman’s Treachery – 47:00
  • What To Do With the Ring? – 58:00

Thanks for listening to The Tolkien Road! To see a list of our previous episodes, go here.

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The Tolkien Road – Ep. 60 – The Lord of the Rings – B2C1 – Many Meetings

Concerning “Many Meetings”, Book 2, Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings…

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Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. On this episode, we return to The Lord of the Rings with Book 2, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings.” Although it’s not the most action-packed chapter, there’s plenty to discuss, from Gandalf’s whereabouts to the ways of Rivendell to the song of Eärendil. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!

the-tolkien-road
©2013-2016 rfcunha

Topics of discussion…

  • Favorite Passages – 14:00
  • Frodo Wakes Up – 19:00
  • A Conversation with Gandalf – 22:00
  • Rivendell & the Feast – 33:30
  • Frodo & Bilbo – 44:30
  • The Song of Eärendil – 57:00
  • A Hymn to Elbereth – 1:04:30

Thanks for listening to The Tolkien Road! To see a list of our previous episodes, go here.

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Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 4: Incarnation as Eucatastrophe


The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. – Tolkien


For me, the last section of Tolkien’s On Fairy-Stories makes the slog that is the first half quite worth it. Tolkien’s exposition of eucatastrophe, “the happy turn” in a story, is unforgettable, an idea that has been expounded in countless places by numerous writers. Eucatastrophe is Tolkienian through-and-through. Not only is it a beautiful idea, but it’s a beautiful word as well.

Man’s Destiny

Things get really wonderful when Tolkien speaks of the Birth of Christ – the Incarnation – as “the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.” Why does he say this? Tolkien was obsessed with the hopelessness and darkness of mankind’s case in the ancient world, something he probably picked up from his deep interest in mythology. In the Incarnation, man is re-directed towards his ultimate destiny as the benevolent viceroy of the cosmos, the blessed bridge between the heaven and earth.

incarnation-eucatastrophe-tolkien-faith
Incarnation of Jesus, Piero di Cosimo

The Incarnation is eucatastrophe because it is a surprise; like the appearance of the Eagles in various eucatastrophic moments of the Third Age, Christ first comes amid a desperate situation. Yes, the Jews hoped for a Messiah, but every indication is that they were looking for a great prophet and a warrior-king, one who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its Davidic pinnacle. Who would have thought that God would choose to draw so near to us as to become like us “in every way except sin,” indeed to renounce all of His rights as God in order to show us the beauty and triumph of the way of humility?

Eucatastrophe in Action

It seems that Tolkien was so intent on this idea that he worked it into The Lord of the Rings, for it is on March 25th, the traditional date of the Annunciation [1], that the One Ring is destroyed. And this is important: the One Ring is not finally destroyed by any Man, nor indeed by any hobbit, but by the invisible hand of the storyteller at work behind the scenes. Tolkien sets things up so that none of the three figures present [2] can claim credit for its destruction in the final analysis. No, the creature cannot save himself, not without divine aid, and though the great soul of the lowly hobbit is a sign of the greatness of humility itself, we see here that the hobbit is not even capable of finally putting the greatest of evils to death, of plunging the knife into its very heart.

Thus, we can see how fitting it is that Eagles are frequent instruments of eucatastrophe, for they represent the power and will of Manwë, the greatest of the angelic Valar. Their coming from the clouds is as the descent of a supernatural power.

Ask any Christian you know that has spent time dwelling upon it: the Incarnation is magical as a fairy-tale, and all the more so because we believe it to be as true as the fall of Rome. It is the wondrous event at the heart of everything, and yes, we mean everything. It is a thing wonderful to behold and to ponder. I get all misty-eyed when I think about it, and for good reason, for in it, we glimpse the mysterious ways of God Himself, saving and surprising us despite ourselves, drawing us ever closer to the deepness of a love vast as the cosmos.


FOOTNOTES

1 – Subtract 9 months from December 25th and what do you get? More here.

2 – Frodo, Sam, and Gollum. While Gollum is ultimately responsible on an operative level of destroying the One Ring, he certainly does not will its destruction.

 

Thoughts on a Silmarillion Film Pt 5: The TV Option’s Novel Effect

Having explained why I think 9 movies is the right number for a Silmarillion films series (Quenta only) as well as just what those 9 movies would be, I’ll now explain why I think a TV series would be the BEST way to bring the Silmarillion to life in a visual format.

In the last decade or so, the potential for high quality, multi-season storytelling on TV has emerged with a vengeance. At this point, I see fewer than a handful of movies (in the cinema or otherwise) every year, because most of my viewing is spent digesting the highly engrossing long form storytelling that I consistently see in shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards. I find this sort of visual storytelling to be far more enjoyable because of its immersive nature. With a typical movie, I have about 2 hours to get lost in a world, and as soon as I am, I have to pull myself back out again, usually at about the point that I am just beginning to truly enjoy it. With a show like Breaking Bad, I can come back to the same alternate reality on multiple occasions, and even choose to continue my watching adventure when the credits roll at the simple click of a button.

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A Matter of Escape

Thus, I see one overriding reason why The Silmarillion would be best served by a high-quality TV series: the peculiar ability of that format to allow the viewer to escape into the First Age of Middle-earth. After all, Tolkien named the phenomenon of escape as one of the key attributes of good literary fantasy, explaining how important it is that the reader (or in this case viewer) forget themselves and enter in to the reality of the secondary world. Only the very best movies can help a viewer get past the “willful suspension of disbelief” and into the mindset of “enchantment” in the space of two hours. A TV series, as anyone who has binge-watched Battlestar Galactica can tell you, will leave you captivated and hungry for more and more. [1]

Decompressed Storytelling

I could see The Silmarillion being told well in at least 6 seasons of 10 1-hour episodes. This would amount to 60 hours of visual storytelling. If one compares this to 9 3-hour films (what I suggested here), that’s 33 hours more in which to tell the story of Middle-earth’s First Age. Given that 9 films probably sounds like a whole heck of a lot, and one could theoretically pump out 9 seasons in the same amount of time it would take to rush 9 films, the TV option has the advantage of allowing for protracted instead of compressed  storytelling. In my next post, I will explain exactly how I would break it down by season.

Now, if one simply thinks of this as an opportunity for more swordfights and carnage, then one misses the point. What is needed is character development and the ability to flesh out the glory and bliss of the Blessed Realm (as well as the realities of Doriath, Gondolin, and Nargothrond) in a convincing way. [3] Breaking Bad was the series it was because we were able to witness Walter White’s descent into drug-lord depravity on a step-by-step basis, as the result of many little decisions beginning with the  sort of intentions with which most of us could sympathize. What if we had the time to see Fëanor developed in this way, to see the lack within the motherless child morph into a pride to rival Melkor’s? Indeed, what if we saw more of Sauron’s seduction, or were able to see firsthand the limitations and imperfect decisions of the Valar?

As I’ve said before, The Silmarillion, though unified overall, is not really a normal, straight-ahead story like The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. It’s a compendium of unified legends, and to truly do it justice, one needs to give it the time it takes to develop it properly.

NEXT: How I’d do The Silmarillion as TV series.

What do you think of my assessment? Do you agree that a TV series would be the better way of doing The Silmarillion? I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments below.


FOOTNOTES
1 – Binge-watching is similar to the phenomenon of binge-reading after all. How many people read The Deathly Hallows in a day or two because they just had to know how it all ended?
2 – Quenta Silmarillion only. Should the series be a success, I could of course see a similar TV series being developed for the Second Age. And yes, I would love to see a stab taken at some of the peripheries of the Third Age as well.
3 – Remember, Quenta Silmarillion takes place over the course of uncountable years PLUS an extra four hundred years in the First Age proper. For those who felt Jackson’s Fellowship did the book a disservice by compressing the 17 years into 17 minutes, the re-telling of Valinor’s tales in the space of one movie would be unthinkable.

The Tolkien Road – Ep. 29 – The Lord of the Rings – B1C7 – In the House of Tom Bombadil

Concerning “In the House of Tom Bombadil”, Book 1, Chapter 7 of The Lord of the Ringsin which we ponder all things Bombadil…
©2013-2015 rfcunha

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Lord of the Rings with Book 1, Chapter 7 of Fellowship, “In the House of Tom Bombadil“. As the title of this chapter would suggest, our discussion on this episode consists mainly in attempting to answer the question “Who is Tom Bombadil?” We consider both the evidence contained in this chapter as well as the things Tolkien had to say about Bombadil in his letters. It’s an easy question to get lost in, and we have a lot of fun exploring it. 

Topics of discussion include:

  • Who is Tom Bombadil?
  • Who is Goldberry?
  • What does it mean that Tom is “Master?”
  • How has Tom taken a “vow of poverty?”
  • How can Tom have power over Old Man Willow?
  • Why is Tom unaffected by the Ring?
  • Why did Tolkien include Tom in the story even though he admitted he didn’t do much to advance the plot?
  • And much more!

By the way, to see the Tolkien haiku(s) that didn’t make it onto the podcast, scroll down. And here’s the Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Fonstad that we mentioned on air, as well as the wonderful book on Tolkien’s art by Wayne Hammond and Cristina Scull. Also, here’s an instrumental tune by the bluegrass band Nickel Creek called “In the House of Tom Bombadil” for your listening pleasure.

I hope you enjoy our conversation. And of course, if you haven’t already, please leave us a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of The Tolkien Road. Enjoy the show!

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Haiku submitted but not read on air…

Josh Sosa:

Orthanc bears its fangs,
Olorin the captured freed,
aback the Windlord

Mary Grace:

House of Bombadil
What a merry place it is!
Tom and Goldberry

Bombadil is lord
Of trees, flowers and creatures
In the Old Forest

John:

Even when speaking
Tom seems to sing, like rain, like
Distant memories.

Feel free to add your own haiku for this chapter in the comments below. Keep ’em coming everyone!

The Tolkien Road – Ep. 28 – The Lord of the Rings – B1C6 – The Old Forest

Concerning “The Old Forest”, Book 1, Chapter 6 of The Lord of the Ringsin which Frodo and company enter the perilous realm beyond the borders of Buckland…
©2013-2015 rfcunha

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Lord of the Rings with Book 1, Chapter 6 of Fellowship, “The Old Forest, in which Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin set out on their journey through the Old Forest and encounter a far more dangerous road than they expected. Chapter 6 also introduces the mysterious Tom Bombadil, one of Tolkien’s most enigmatic figures. There’s a lot to talk about, including:

  • Who is Old Man Willow?
  • Why does the Old Forest seem alive?
  • The beauty of the word “Withywindle”
  • Our favorite passages from this chapter
  • The location of Tom Bombadil’s house
  • And much more!

By the way, to see the Tolkien haiku(s) that didn’t make it onto the podcast, scroll down. And here’s the Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Fonstad that we mentioned on air, as well as the wonderful book on Tolkien’s art by Wayne Hammond and Cristina Scull.

I hope you enjoy our conversation. And of course, if you haven’t already, please leave us a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of The Tolkien Road. Enjoy the show!

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Haiku submitted but not read on air…

Josh Sosa:

Slowly creep the roots
Windless forest sways all ways
lo Old Man Willow!

Mary Grace:

Hobbits leave the Shire
The Old Forest leads to Bree
Unknown awaits them

Frodo has the Ring
But Merry leads them onward
Frodo insists so

John:

What ancient anger
Brings the forest to swallow
Hobbits whole and live?

Does the Forest live?
The Withywindle winds through,
The blood in its heart.

Greta:

Entering a spell
Only Sam suspects foul play
A hero again

A tree whisperer
Singing, carrying lilies,
Saving hobbits. Weird.

And here’s the wonderful short ballad-form poem submitted by Trevor the Computational Linguist:

They ride into the forest bleak
Beneath forboding leaves.
Behind the tree-trunks dark things peek,
And winding paths they weave.
The Withywindle bubbles quick
Along it’s Southward track
The Willow stands and plays his trick:
A murderous attack.
Old Bombadil did hap’ thereon,
The tree his voice would heed,
And still the road goes ever on,
Now, from the darkness freed.

Keep ’em coming everyone!