Lectio Tolkiena: Recovered Seeing and Hoarding

I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves.

On Fairy-stories

I’ve written about this quote before, and it continues, in my mind, to be one of Tolkien’s key philosophical statements, a magical little manifesto of sorts. Whereas the literary world has been generally obsessed with “realism” for around 150 years or so, Tolkien takes the modernist idea of the “real” – meaning the thing just as it is in a materialist sense – and transforms it into something new.

the-light-of-the-silmarils-elegaer
“The Light of the Silmarils” © elegaer 2007-2016

“As we are meant to see them” – of course, this begs the question: “Meant by whom or what?” It’s an obviously supernatural statement, for it implies an intelligibility that stands outside of nature, a will to communicate something to us.

Our problem is that we are all taught to be good “realists”. Tolkien’s response to this is almost Chestertonian: “The real is not what you think it is.” The modernist mind tends to assess the “real” as being that which is right in front of me. It’s a way of taking things at “face value”, and thus, as Tolkien says, “appropriating” or “hoarding” them into our other piles of junk, facts conquered and tucked away.

But seeing things as they are meant to be seen – this requires not hoarding, but wonder leading to contemplation, a belief that it’s not just an empty bundle of atoms with some energy thrown in, but a gift imbued with intelligibility, a sacrament of sorts drawing us toward a greater reality.

When we see this way, it becomes harder to simply tuck things away as if we know everything about them. We are liberated from the grave danger of possession and greed, and thus free to understand that things as they are right now, at this moment, are not as they will always be. Indeed, the thing is given to call us to a hopeful realization of the greater, invisible reality.

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That beautiful piece of Tolkien-inspired artwork you see above is from elegaer, my Tolkien Artist-of-the-Month for September 2016. Of course you love it, because it’s awesome, so go check out the rest of their work!

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“Fantasy Incarnate” by Simon Cook (Guest Post)


The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.

– Tolkien, ‘On Fairy Stories’, lecture delivered in 1939


On the surface, the meaning of the above quotation appears straightforward: humans have always used language to tell stories to one another. But why, in the expression of this idea, do we find the noun ‘mind’ modified by the unexpected adjective ‘incarnate’? My attempt to answer this question generated the following reflections on the foundations of Middle-earth.

© 2016 Evan Palmer

First, the adjective itself. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of incarnate: (1) a god or a spirit in human form, and (2) a quality in physical form. The OED also provides general and particular definitions of the corresponding noun: the lower case incarnation: the living embodiment of a god, spirit, or quality; and the upper case Incarnation: the Christian belief that God the Son was embodied in human flesh as Jesus.

As a devout Catholic, the Incarnation (upper case) was for Tolkien an article of faith, a profound historical fact of the primary world. This provides an initial answer: Tolkien’s reference to the human mind as ‘incarnate’ invokes the idea that humans, as embodied souls, are made in the image of the Incarnate Divinity. As such, Tolkien can be seen pointing to the bold conclusion arrived at by the end of the passage in which our quotation appears, namely, that in making-up fairy stories humans imitate the creative activity of God:

But how powerful… was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent… When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power… in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Such imitation, it is important to note, occurs in means as well as ends: language is the instrument of both (divine) creation and (human) sub-creation.

And God said: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 3, 5).

Yet the role of language in sub-creation as explained by Tolkien does not exactly mirror the linguistic dimension of God’s creative work as described in Genesis. In creating first light and then time, God employs no adjectives. In emphasizing the adjective as the key to sub-creation, Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ reveals what we might call an ‘incarnationalist theory of language’.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things… but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. (‘OFS’ 41)

For sure, abstracting and remixing adjectival qualities is not an exercise in incarnation. The projecting of a novel quality (say, blue) onto a noun (say, the moon) to form an image (of a blue moon) occurs on a purely mental and linguistic level – a “new form is made”, as Tolkien puts it, not a new thing, let alone the embodiment of spirit in living flesh.

Nevertheless, the making of imaginary form is structurally similar to the Divine act of incarnation. This is because the objects given to us by language possess the same dual nature as the incarnate spirit: a concrete object (noun) possesses abstract qualities (adjectives). The speakers of human language engage in fantasy by putting novel qualities into different linguistic objects. Put another way, the ‘incarnate mind’ is an actual instance in the world of the same dual form – the fusion of concrete and abstract – that is given to us generally in language. Indeed, it is tempting to see the incarnate mind as the anchor in reality of our linguistic practice.

We can now answer our original question. Invoking the ‘incarnate mind’ at the start of his explanation of fantasy, Tolkien points not only to the maker of fantasy but also to its very nature: a linguistic process whereby an embodied soul creates a secondary world by embodying unexpected qualities in imaginary objects.

* * *

A careful reading of the quotations from this single passage in ‘On Fairy Stories’ suggests a further, complementary train of reflection. Our initial sentence identified stories and language as coeval. But Tolkien goes on to speak of the invention of the adjective, suggesting that such modifiers were a later discovery of the human mind. Could it be that this invention was of more than linguistic significance? Did the discovery of the dual nature of linguistic objects also provide illumination into the mysterious nature of reality?

In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (circa 1951), Tolkien wrote:

I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear (Letters, letter 131).

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is generally absent from Arda (although it is clearly alluded to as an ‘Old Hope’ of mortal men in Tolkien’s late dialogue, the ‘Athrabeth’). Yet the general idea of the embodiment of spiritual power in material objects is a recurring theme in Tolkien’s mythology.

In the very first pages of The Silmarillion we are told how the world was first made by music, then appeared as a vision, and then came into being with the speaking of a word. Yet this created world only “came alive” when some of the Ainur descend into it: “so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World”.

This incarnation of the Valar in the world is not some incidental detail of Tolkien’s creation story. It is the reason why Arda – in contrast to the mechanistic world envisaged by Newtonian science – is alive, enchanting, and purposeful.

Incidentally, I suspect that we here discern the reason why Saruman’s ambitions are bound to fail. Of this treacherous wizard, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:

He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels…

In our modern world, machines are purely physical means of generating and utilizing power. But a true Power in Middle-earth draws on a spiritual force that Saruman loses even as he builds in Isengard the superficial appearance of industrial and military power.

Further acts of incarnation – or, at least, the embodiment of the spiritual within a material object – provide the defining moments of Tolkien’s mythology. Fëanor embodies the spiritual light of the Valar in physical form – the Silmarils. And long ages later, Galadriel places the light from one of these Silmarils in a phial that she gives to Frodo, who, together with Sam, carries it all the way to Mordor.

Again, Sauron puts much of his own power into the Ring – a seemingly inanimate object with a will of its own. Here is a useful reminder that not all incarnations in Arda are good. Morgoth was one of the Valar incarnated in the world, which is why more than one power strives to shape the fate of Middle-earth.

There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master… I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker…

* * *

Our reflections upon Tolkien’s reference to the ‘incarnate mind’ in his 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’ have led us to the following tentative conclusions concerning the foundations of Middle-earth.

The central fact of Tolkien’s worldview was, undoubtedly, the Incarnation: the Christian doctrine that the Word was made flesh. This fact has no direct bearing on either the form or the content of Tolkien’s mythology, which concerns a world that has not received the Gospels.

Indirectly, however, it is of cardinal importance.

Arda is a mythological world that does not know the Incarnation, but which is largely made of the discovered ‘truth’ of incarnation.

* * *

Simon J. Cook is an independent scholar. His essay on Tolkien’s lost English mythology is published by Rounded Globe and may be downloaded from the Rounded Globe website. Links to his other publications may be found on his personal website, Ye Machine.

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.

silmarillion-cover-cr2

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.

Concerning Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham”


‘A bargain’s a bargain,’ said Giles. ‘Can’t I keep just a ring or two, and a mite of gold, in consideration of cash payment?’ said [the dragon]. (149)


Just what is “Farmer Giles of Ham“? Is it a comedic recasting of The Hobbit? Is it a send-up of academic attitudes toward Beowulf?  Is it a satirical jab at money hungry politicians? Was it Tolkien’s first attempt to cash in on the success of The Hobbit?

Continue reading “Concerning Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham””

Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and “True Myths”


The heart of man is not compound of lies
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise…

– “Mythopoeia”


J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, close friends and fellow fantasy trailblazers, shared a lifelong love of ancient mythology. In fact, this shared love of mythology happened to serve as a turning point in Lewis’ life. Furthermore, it reveals something about the idea of mythology that might strike most of us as very strange, and even lead some to dismiss Tolkien as a lunatic. Yet not only is this very point foundational to the name of this site, it is undeniably foundational to Tolkien’s entire canon of work.

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading “Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and “True Myths””

Concerning “Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics” – Pt 3


We look down as if from a visionary height upon the house of man in the valley of the world. A light starts . . . and there is a sound of music; but the outer darkness and its hostile offspring lie ever in wait for the torches to fail and the voices to cease. (33)


This is the third part in a series on Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” You can find all of my posts about this essay under Concerning Tolkien’s Works here.

Continue reading “Concerning “Beowulf: The Monsters & the Critics” – Pt 3”

Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 4


Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head.  (90)


This is part of a series on Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” You can find the rest of the posts in this series here under Concerning Tolkien’s Works.

“Mythopoeia” is a response to Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, who contended that myths are “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien sought to develop the idea that the ancient myths are NOT lies, but are instead hints of a greater reality to which human beings are called. In doing so, he led Lewis to a deeper understanding of the role of myth in the lives of human beings, and opened up the possibility of Christianity being the “true myth,” that is, the myth that actually happened in human history.

Continue reading “Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 4”

Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 3


They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
And yet they would not in despair retreat… (88)


This is part of a series on Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia.” You can find the rest of the posts in this series here under Concerning Tolkien’s Works.

“Mythopoeia” is a response to Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, who contended that myths are “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien sought to develop the idea that the ancient myths are NOT lies, but are instead hints of a greater reality to which human beings are called. In doing so, he led Lewis to a deeper understanding of the role of myth in the lives of human beings, and opened up the possibility of Christianity being the “true myth,” that is, the myth that actually happened in human history.

Eärendil the Mariner Image © 2013 Jenny Dolfen 

Continue reading “Concerning Mythopoeia – Part 3”

Tolkien’s Spiritual Wisdom 5: In the life of Christ, legend and history have met and joined…


The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. . . Legend and History have met and fused.  

– J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories (Tree and Leaf 73)


What if we chose to see our lives as a great legend rather than a bucket list?

Image © 2012 Jef Murray Studios. “Scatha the Wyrm.”

Continue reading “Tolkien’s Spiritual Wisdom 5: In the life of Christ, legend and history have met and joined…”