Real and Imaginary History in
The Lord of the Rings1
Reading and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I feel immersed in a world which differs from that of my normal daily experience. This would in some measure be true, of course, for any interesting novel: the events are experienced by other people (the characters) and theirs are the decisions, the joys and the perils. Furthermore, in The Lord of the Rings I feel immersed in the Middle Ages. When I read books about medieval history, though, my mind resists this sensation; if I were to be transported in my imagination to any century of the Middle Ages, it would never be the same as the world of LotR, which is much wider than the medieval period, more complex, more idealized and closer to me and my experience (although not, of course, the greater part of it).
Tolkien wanted to talk about our world, and to do so he used that which he loved and which constituted his work: archaeological and philological evidence concerning the Middle Ages, especially the early medieval period.2 Tolkien said that the events recounted in LotR took place in Middle-earth – at latitudes corresponding to the Atlantic coast of Europe, down to the northern Mediterranean lands - in an epoch which resembles that which saw the struggles between late-Roman/barbarian kingdoms which led to the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire with Rome as its capital. Hobbiton and Rivendell are at the same latitude as Oxford, and Minas Tirith is at that of Florence. The mouth of the Anduin and the city of Pelargir are at the latitude of ancient Troy.3 That in the passage Tolkien refers to Troy and Florence, the first an important city in classical antiquity and the second during the Renaissance, is an indication that Tolkien, though fascinated by the early medieval period (he studied Gothic, old Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf etc.), was in fact fascinated by history in general.
An interest in history may be motivated by nostalgia (which Tolkien certainly felt) or the desire to understand the genesis of the present and thus to understand the present in greater depth than would be afforded by a mere examination of the results, with no consideration of the causes. Tolkien also possessed this, I think more important, motivation. His world – as we shall see below in greater detail – is like a millefeuille cake which has been cut, so that one can see how it is made. The reader can see the layers from twin perspectives because of two literary techniques used by Tolkien: vertically, giving the effect of depth, or horizontally, in greater complexity.
The first viewpoint is more evident and was spoken of explicitly by Tolkien himself;4 it has been rigorously demonstrated by the critic Tom Shippey5 (and so I will pass over it rapidly): LotR recounts events which occurred, over the space of about a year, at the end of the Third Age. But here and there, in fact fairly frequently, reference is made to historical episodes from all three ages. This involves reference to tales, poems, songs, monuments, inscriptions, natural landscapes and ancient artefacts. These past events are never expounded fully, but only glimpsed partially. This technique creates an “effect of depth” which gradually augments the appearance of reality in the imaginary world which is described. In fact, every real world has its own structured past, which is never presented in its completeness to anyone, but limited portions of which are investigated when an external event or internal motivation acts as a stimulus. An important reason for which LotR is considerably more absorbing than Silmarillion is due to the fact that it contains temporal backdrops which give rise to a realistic effect of depth, whilst the Silmarillion does not, for it constitutes them itself. And this is also the principal reason why Tolkien preferred not to publish Silmarillion, as he himself admitted and as Shippey underlines.6
The second perspective, more elusive, although abundantly present in LotR, has not (to my knowledge) received explicit critical attention, although several points are made in an article by Christina Scull.7 This is the "horizontal" or synchronic viewpoint, in which the various historical layers are present at the same time and “spatialized”, that is transformed into territories of Middle-earth.
The Barrow-downs represent the late Stone Age to early Bronze Age (c. 3000 BC).8
Numenor, with its gigantic funerary constructions and embalming of the dead, is ancient Egypt. And also ancient Israel which, at the time of the monarchy (c. 900 BC), forsook the iconless cult of Yahweh (Eru on Meneltarma) for idolatry, and Israel of the Exodus, with the flight of Elendil/Moses and the remaining faithful. Then again, the human sacrifices demanded by Sauron in the temple at Melkor bring to mind the customs of the ancient Carthaginians and the Aztecs; and the conquest for plunder and slave-taking, the markedly different foreign policy of imperial with respect to republican Rome.9
Arnor represents the Western Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th century, with internal struggles between the imperatores, as well as the complicated wars between barbarian tribes and barbarian/Roman kingdoms, in particular the Anglo-Saxons and the Merovingians’ realm.10
The Wainriders and Easterlings represent nomadic and semi-nomadic Slavs, Magyars, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Mongols, Tartars and Turks in their continual incursions into Europe from the East during late-classical and early medieval times.
The Dwarf races, with their age-old feuding are the 5th – 8th century Germanic kings, as recounted, for example, in Paul the Deacon’s Historia Langobardorum.
Gondor is - in Tolkien’s own words - a sort of proud and venerable (but ever more impotent) Byzantium, which reaches the peak of its power (10th century) only to unravel in a decadent medieval period (11th – 15th century).11 Tolkien also relates that the Numenoreans in Gondor were proud, strange and archaic, just like the ultra-traditionalist ancient Egyptians, who resemble them in their love of gigantic edifices and interest in tombs and ancestors, although in their theology they are more like the Hebrews.12 In general, the Fall of Numenor signifies for Tolkien the end of the Classical Epoch and the beginning of the Middle Ages.13
The Rohirrim represent the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th to 11th centuries14 and their relations with Gondor those between the Romans/barbarians and Byzantium.15 But the Rohirrim also stand for the North American natives, with their horses, prairies and their ingenuous and strict sense of honour.16
Mordor in general represents the despotism of the ancient eastern empires (Eygptian, Chaldean, Mesopotamian, Persian), who deported entire peoples and made widespread use of slavery (but also suggests the despotism of our own time: the "racial" experiments and the attempt to introduce a new paganism on the part of the Nazis of the Governorship of the Reich and in the Eastern Territories; whereas Saruman, who aspires to install himself in Isengard, resembles the Vichy, Bratislava and Budapest governments).
The Isengard of Saruman is also the lair of powerful medieval to 18th-century pirates, like Saracen Algeria or the Caribbean island of Tortuga.
The City of the Lake (in the Hobbit) is like a European Bronze Age lake settlement17 combined with a lagoon or riverside city, such as mercantile Venice or Amsterdam in late medieval times (14th-15th centuries).
Lorien and Rivendell are a mixture of the medieval (12th-13th century) baronial courts of Provence, with their troubadours, and early medieval Benedictine – in particular Cluniac – abbeys.18
The Druedain are a blend of Neolithic and nineteenth-century third world peoples at the time of their first contacts with European colonizers.
Not only, then is Middle-earth in its entirety a mixture of different historical periods, each one referred to a geographical region, a sort of “synchronized diachrony” (in which events separated in time are made contemporary), but also in some individual areas a certain degree of combination occurs, as we have seen in several examples.
The most evident example is the Shire. So as to make it compatible with the other parts of Middle-earth which will be visited by the Hobbits, it manifests certain generalized medieval (plumed headgear, bows and arrows, travel on foot or on horseback, the existence of the Thain, and so on) or Ancien Règime qualities (extended rather than nuclear families; no electricity; little travel occurs: most people are born, live and die in one place; the economy is almost exclusively agricultural). Thus it exhibits numerous aspects of the past which lasted for millennia and are compatible with the various geographically (not temporally) expressed “pasts” to be found elsewhere in Middle-earth.
But, exceptionally, it also contains (blended with the ingredients outlined above) modern and contemporary elements:19 there are American plants, potatoes and tobacco (“pipe-weed” was called tobacco in the first drafts of LotR); a well organized postal service exists for everyone (not just for the aristocracy); there is a civic museum; neither vassalage nor a rural nobility exist;20 there are smials or comfortable Hobbit houses; Lobelia uses an umbrella; middle class houses have clocks hanging on the wall;21 Sharkey introduces the accumulation of state wealth, industrial pollution of rivers, prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, and smokestacks.
As Emilia Lodigiani has observed, the Shire represents "everyday life”,22 which cannot exist or sustain itself in isolation from a much wider cultural, political and military background: the Hobbits as a race were relatives of Men,23 who themselves had received language, writing and science from the Elves; in particular, there was peace in the Shire only because the Elves and Men (the last of which were the Rangers) had curbed the forces of evil. Similarly, the Shire symbolizes the actual present, with which the reader identifies (the Hobbit and LotR are written – in “The Red Book of Westmarch” - from the point of view of the Hobbits). And the present cannot exist without the past, or survive without a “sense of history” (or historia magistra vitae, which is developed for the Hobbit population by a few selected individuals, especially Bilbo and Frodo).
If we enter into the intimate life of the Shire, we find a well-fed Hobbit (Bilbo, or Frodo before his voyage) in his comfortable home, Bag End, seated in a comfortable armchair, smoking a pipe, whilst the clock on the wall and the crackling of the fire mark the passing of time spent waiting for the scones and sponge cake which is being baked for afternoon tea; outside, the gardener is attending to the lawn and flowerbeds. This authentic personal life of the Shire is very childish and celibate24 (psychologically), very petit-bourgeois (socially), very countrified (from a geographical point of view) and very 20th-century (temporally). It portrays, in other words, a style of life disconnected from an awareness of great historical events. We know that Bilbo and Frodo have "Tookish blood", take part in important adventures and meet Elves and Wizards, but these facts are what make them different, and distinguish them from – rather than making them fit into – the Shire.
It seems then, that when Tolkien speaks of Hobbits, he makes reference to his readers (as well as to a part of himself),25 towards whom he feels both sympathy and critical doubt. When he speaks of the Elves, Aragorn, Treebeard and, especially, of Gandalf,26 he is talking about that minority of people (as well as about another part of himself) who fulfil the vital role of “eye-openers”27 and, in particular, curators of that sense of history which is essential for the defence and promotion of everyday life. (Though this knowledge of history may be necessary for the defence and encouragement of “normal” existence, it is certainly not sufficient to guarantee it: Saruman is a scholar expert in the tradition of the Rings and many other historical matters, but this knowledge does not enable him to avoid becoming a great deceiver and master of self-deception).
If the Hobbits represent 20th-century readers, the regions of Middle-earth are a historical atlas and characters such as Gandalf, Elrond and Aragorn are history professors, why did Tolkien state more than once that the events recounted in his saga are episodes that took place in our world, in particular in Europe, but in the distant past?28 Tolkien was, in fact, quite detailed: his present, and that of LotR’s readers (the second half of the 20th century) corresponds to the end of the Sixth Age or the beginning of the seventh. Since an Age lasts for about 2000 years, between the end of the Third Age – and the happenings chronicled in LotR – and the publication of the book, 6000 years would have passed.29
What sense could it have though, to construct a Shire which somewhat resembles the home of Wodehouse’s Jeeves, and then say that this land – with its clocks, umbrella-carrying widows, well-tended lawns and five-o’clock tea - existed 6000 years ago, between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age?
The most plausible explanation is, I think, the following: it is because neither the twentieth-century Shire, nor Byzantine Gondor, nor indeed any other component of the Middle-earth tableau historique are real; all are “idealized”. In the Shire there are no weapons, no murders, no cases of incest or rape, no robberies, no social conflicts, no epidemics, no infant mortality, hunger or cancer; everyone is long-lived and the only deaths described (such as that of Otho Sackville Baggins) are due to "old age". Gondorian Byzantium, unlike the real Byzantium,30 seems to have a sort of feudal system (manifested in Prince Imrahil and the other Lords who gathered to defend Minas Tirith in its hour of need), but there are not the continuous feudal wars which were present in chronic form wherever the presence of the feudal system may be historically recognised, such as in medieval western Europe31 and in Japan from the 12th to 16th centuries.32 Considerations of space prevent me from citing other examples, which are numerous.
It is true that few of the LotR’s readers would be able, or interested, to recognize the marked incongruities that exist between Tolkien’s imaginary medieval worlds and the actual Middle Ages; but nearly all of these readers, whether they like it or not, cannot avoid accepting the rural England of the Shire as real. Indeed, that “Shire” is too idealized! Thus, by pushing the “modernity” of the Shire (together with the surrounding “medieval” regions) back to 6000 years ago, Tolkien is able to make the two things compatible: readers identify with the Shire’s twentieth-century features, but this identification is not ruined by unsustainable comparisons.
On the other hand, shifting the time of the War of the Ring to 6000 years ago has the result that the First Age commenced 12000 years ago, and this happens – as every reader of LotR and Silmarillion knows – without transforming the "medieval" status of the Elf, Men’s and Dwarf civilizations (without considering the Hobbits of the Shire, whose recorded history begins no earlier than the Third Age). In all three ages we find a single and unchanging level of civilization, the "medieval".
This brings us to consider two further problems of Tolkien’s use of history in his works of fiction. The first is that, in one sense, time passes (kingdoms are born and destroyed; continents change; characters are born, perform actions and then die), but in a second sense it seems not to pass (scientific, technological, artistic, literary, jurisprudential and religious notions do not change). It is as though civilization was immobile, as though only brief events (battles, adventures, deaths etc.) occurred, and not long-term processes.33
The second problem is that this immobility sustains the "medieval": the same type of armour, castles, hereditary monarchy and the same absence of industrialization are found both at the onset of the First Age and at the end of the Third, as is the lack of widespread slavery.
Why this immobility? Why does it maintain "medieval" ways? I will consider the second question first.
It should be made clear at the outset that this "medieval" character is expressed between inverted commas for several reasons: it includes elements of antiquity, such as the deification of Sauron and slavery in Mordor and, generally, the extreme slowness of change (in the 4000 years of the ancient civilized world, cultural and social changes were much slower than in the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, from late classical to Renaissance). Then there are ingredients from the modern age, such as the presence of national rather than feudal monarchies; the presence of armies composed largely of foot-soldiers; and the ideology noted by Shippey, who refers to Lord Acton’s aphorism that power always corrupts and therefore that someone who seeks power cannot remain untainted.34 Furthermore, the scenario of an alliance of many peoples (the "Free Peoples of Middle-earth") who, in the name of freedom and other values which go beyond the mere politics of state power, fight against a common enemy which aims to conquer and enslave the whole world, is an idea not to be found in the Middle Ages or the Ancien Règime, but appears in European alliances only at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon I Bonaparte. In addition, as mentioned above, there is neither clear-cut vassalage (the word is used only with regard to Gwaihir and his eagles), nor serfdom. In particular, there is no organized church with related customs rooted in the life of the populace.
Perhaps Tolkien chose the medieval period because the classical civilizations had aspects too different from ours (human sacrifice, polytheism, gladiatorial contests, deification of rulers, sexual licence, slavery), which would have created obstacles to reader's identification. On the other hand, the modern age did not easily lend itself to the landscapes and characters Tolkien had in mind; bureaucracy, industrialization, mass culture etc. would have resembled hard, un-fantasized reality a bit too much.
The Middle Ages also lend themselves well to the expression of the "Germanic" ideals of Beowulf, according to which "heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose, more proud the spirit as our power lessens". Tolkien, however wanted this ideal in the following form (as he says explicitly in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son):35 desperate courage is a moral value only if uncorrupted by a desire for glory, for personal recognition, but motivated only by the loyalty of a subordinate to his superiors.36 And this adjustment could only have widespread social approval in a Christian society such as in the medieval epoch, in contrast to ancient pagan societies.
Other motives: medieval times are fascinating because of the stratification of previous cultures (Theodoric’s keeping of the Roman senate; Frederick II, who mixed elements of ancient Roman with Byzantine, Norman, Arab and Frankish feudal in his Palermo palace),37 a stratification which also existed in the ancient world but about which we, from our greater distance in time, know much less. In medieval, but not ancient, times an original English civilization and language were born (from a synthesis of British Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons). Pre-Reformation medieval England was still Catholic, not yet become insular, but with deep linguistic, cultural and dynastic ties with the Continent – and so different from in the modern age. Lastly, in the Middle Ages Tolkien could make appropriate use of a series of languages of his own invention, based on the Germanic and Celtic tongues which he loved.38
If one reads a serious book on medieval history,39 one immediately makes the (predictable) discovery that all medieval kings were – in varying proportions, of course - both good and bad, and there is never a moment during these 1000 years when an alliance which clearly aims at conquest, enslavement and massacre is opposed by an alliance which proposes to defend liberty and promote justice. Such groupings – either in practice or, at least, in theory – may be found from the time of the French Revolution onwards and, especially, from the time of World War II.
Following Tom Shippey’s analysis, it seems to me that Tolkien also wants (it is not his principal aim) to talk about the mid-20th century and its particular political problems. But, like other British fantasy writers of the same period (T.H. White, G. Orwell, C.S. Lewis and W. Golding) he could not do so using a form of literary realism. None of these authors addressed politics and social problems directly, because they felt that beneath them lay other more important issues (for example, the investigation of the nature of evil) that many "realist" writers were tempted to avoid or completely ignore.40 Tolkien elected to use medieval fantasy, like T.H. White, whereas Orwell chose the near future, Golding a mid-oceanic desert island and Lewis an interplanetary voyage.
In order to reply to the second question posed above (why does Tolkien “immobilize" history?), let us begin by noting that the Middle Ages – as commonly perceived – seem to embody the idea of immobility; we do not find it easy to distinguish the various subdivisions of western medieval history (e.g. the phases of feudalism).41 We clearly perceive the differences between the 18th and 20th centuries, but not those between the 7th and 9th or 11th and 13th centuries; it seems to us as though each generation of medieval peasants, monks, nuns, housewifes and warriors absorbed entirely and without additions the heritage of ideas and habits bequeathed by the preceding generation. Whether this might really be due to the existence of an objective medieval “slowness” (which was still more pronounced in antiquity), or alternatively to our subjective obtuseness in discriminating, is a complex problem which I will not discuss here. The fact, though, remains.
Certainly, medieval historians were not aware of important historical changes; they recorded bundles of events, but did not notice fundamental changes: and Tolkien in Silmarillion and the retrospective passages of LotR does not describe past centuries and millennia after the fashion of a modern historian, but rather he recounts them as might have Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum.42
To a certain extent Tolkien accepts, as a philosophical basis for this immobility, the Platonic theory: for Plato all knowledge is pre-existent to history, it exists from the birth of the heavens, and during life it is remembered, but either augmented nor modified; progress does not exist.43 Thus for Tolkien some knowledge is innate or “natural” (given by Iluvatar ?), such as that concerning family organization44 whilst all other knowledge (astronomical, artistic, military, linguistic etc.) was taught by the Valar to the Elves at the beginning of their history: more to the Eldar and less to the Moriquendi, but at the beginning a body of knowledge was transmitted and afterwards basically conserved without change (there were some specific developments, such as the art of precious metalwork in Feanor and Celembribor, but these had no general significance for the Elves’ social practices). The circumstances of Men during the first three Ages are little different, except that for them the Valar’s role is played by the Elves.
It is true that in the Fourth Age the Men break away from the tutelage of the Elves and the Istari (and, in the final analysis, the Valar) and develop a "Time of Men" which leads to our actual history, and up to our present, which is no longer "medieval", and therefore presupposes that historical change had been “set in motion”. But the Fourth Age is not described by Tolkien: he eliminated the Epilogue of LotR45 and aborted the sequel set after the death of Aragorn.46
As Shippey has rightly observed,47 the dialogue between Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith has a particular importance in LotR: the representatives of the two main non-human races of Middle-earth discuss history and the role of Men in it: the latter are described as the new protagonists who will replace the old, with the principal defect of inconstancy and the principal merit of being enterprising.48 This is a prophecy whose meaning is ambiguous: Legolas – arguing against Gimli who plays the part of detractor – emphasizes the human qualities which will guarantee – according to the Elf’s prophecy – their survival after the disappearance of Elves and Dwarves. But what is the value of this vitality if what Gimli says – that Men are unable to complete the projects they undertake or to conserve what is good from the past – is true (and the allegation is not contradicted by Legolas)?
Aragorn Elfstone, although the first king of the Fourth Age – the Age of Men – does not seem to fit the descriptions of Legolas and Gimli: certainly not that of Gimli, because he is constancy personified, able to live anonymously at length, carrying out an unrecognised service for which he postpones political action and marriage until he is able to complete, at the right moment, his mission. But neither does he correspond to Legolas’s description: he re-forges the broken sword, reunites the divided kingdom, replants the withered tree, but sows no “new seeds", takes no new initiatives. He conserves tradition; he sets off the Fourth Age not because he interprets its special destiny, but simply because he presides over the passage from the Third Age. He saves the freedom of the peoples of Middle-earth, but does not use that freedom to create anything new.
What does he conserve? In accordance with the name he is known by (Elessar = Elf-stone), he (who grew up in the house of Elrond and his son-in-law, was a descendant of the Numenoreans of Elendil, that is those faithful both to the Elves of Tol Eressea and the Middle-earth Elves) is the human who conserves the tradition of the Elves.
Now Tolkien did not intend to narrate the events of the Time of Men (the 4th, 5th and 6th Ages), whereas he recounted in great detail the three eras of the Time of the Elves (see Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and the 12-volume History of Middle-earth). The three eras of Men are those of our actual history and therefore are full of historical changes, as Tolkien well understood (and his readers at least approximately). The three Elvish ages, in contrast, do not have anything analogous to our Renaissance or Protestant Reforms, the conversion of entire populations to Christianity, feudalization of societies, birth of city-states or bourgeois power, constitution of nation-states, the English liberal revolution, democratic revolution in the United States, liberal-democratic and partly socialist revolution in France; or to the Copernican, Galilean, Newtonian, Darwinian, Einsteinian or Freudian scientific revolutions; the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Positivism; the discovery of the New World, colonization, decolonization; the agricultural, industrial, transport, telecommunications or information technology revolutions; the demographic boom or the advent of mass culture, bureaucratization, constitution of the welfare state or the growth of the division of labour in a complex society.
The Time of the Elves is a “frozen” history, filled with happenings, but without changes. Except for one.
Although from the First to Third Ages the Elves do not develop new knowledge or modify their social organization, they still experience a real, though isolated, historical change during this period. This transformation is essentially internal, notwithstanding its important external results, and cannot correctly be called intellectual, political or social; it is really a moral change.
The Elves whose history Tolkien narrates are not the Vanyar or Teleri of Valinor, but rather those of Middle-earth: the Moriquendi who refused to leave and the Noldor who wished to return. Elf lineages who loved Middle-earth, because of its beauty, because they could found there a dominion independently of the Valar, enough to stay there for thousands of years, even though they knew it was inhabited by Melkor and his servants.
These Middle-earth Elves, though, change greatly between the First Age and the end of the Third: at first they are founders of kingdoms, builders of cities, makers of rings, teachers of peoples and generals in great wars. At the end of the Third Age they are elusive woodland dwellers, reduced to giving shelter, curing and giving advice in the “monasteries” of Rivendell and Lorien, progressively disillusioned with Middle-earth and on the point of leaving for somewhere beyond the sea or “fading away”.
The Elf who most typifies the First Age is Feanor, with his great bravery, but also his overweening pride (and thus, though to a less marked extent, are also Finrod, Thingol and Turgon). The most typical Third Age Elf is Elrond (A Half-elven who has chose the destiny of the Firstborn): with no earthly ambition, "abbot" of Rivendell and with his heart already beyond the Sea.
The only Elves living in Middle-earth in both the First and Third Ages are Glorfindel and, in particular, Galadriel. Glorfindel in the First Age is the heroic warrior who falls defending what is left of his homeland, Gondolin.49 Glorfindel reborn50 at the end of the Third Age is a messenger and scout for individuals from other peoples, Aragorn and Frodo, in whose campaigns he takes no part.51
Galadriel in the First Age is a proud Noldor princess who goes to Middle-earth against the wishes of the Valar, neither to recover the Silmarils like Feanor, nor to influence their leadership, like Fingolfin. She seeks in Middle-earth a "dominion of her own”.52 Galadriel at the end of the Third Age is the woman who stays close to her husband Celeborn,53 who secretly keeps the Nenya Ring, who keeps an eye on the movements of the enemy, who gives shelter to and encourages the Fellowship of the Ring, who refuses – in a memorable scene with Frodo – any prospect of independence, who goes with Elrond and Gandalf to the Grey Havens and leaves Middle-earth for ever.
Historical immobility, we can begin to understand, makes sense because it applies to the Time of Elves. A history of mankind without cultural and social change would make no sense and would result in theological scepticism and desperation: why should innumerable generations of individuals be born and die if this served no purpose for future generations, if no journey was undertaken, no mission fulfilled? Real antiquity certainly had its historical changes, but ancient historiography was not aware of them; human nature was held immutable and time cyclical; this fed a profound scepticism towards the traditional gods and a pitiful sense of desperation which – like a karstic stream – re-emerge, despite their best intentions, in Thucydides and Tacitus.
But Tolkien’s Elves live for thousands of years and can therefore experience personally the passage of time: individual experiences which, during the course of their lives, slowly and painfully, lead to a moral maturation.
This, then, seems to me the answer to the question that I posed above (why is there immobility in Tolkien’s imaginary history?): Tolkien, by means of the Elves, wants to talk about an aspect of human experience.54 Not humanity’s collective experience, that which we call “history”, but the personal experience of individuals, which we simply call “life”. In fact, that which happens to the Elves collectively during the three Ages – there are no important cultural and social changes – occurs during the life of each single human being: the “character” does not change, because the cultural and social factors in the world which led to its formation are unchangeable: a thirteenth-century man, be he Dante Alighieri or the humblest serf, could never think, feel and act like an eighteenth or twentieth-century man, as is well understood by the historians of human mentality.55
Even if character cannot change, the life of a person makes sense because he changes his own “response” to that character. Free will does not consist of trying to be a different person or living an external or internal life different from that which destiny has bestowed; it consists of trying to understand ("know thyself") and thus make a critical analysis – which are the good points, and which the bad – and to behave accordingly. This is moral maturity, which is the only change recorded in Tolkien’s history of the Elves, inasmuch, I believe, as this history was not really about history, but about life.
Using a literary technique not the least bit "medieval" or "traditional", but instead similar to Samuel Beckett’s in Waiting for Godot (as Delle Rupi has observed), Tolkien makes Frodo and Sam realize, when they are near Cirith Ungol, that they are fictitious characters: "characters become legends, narrators become characters and listeners become narrators”.56 The three authors of the Red Book of Westmark - Bilbo, Frodo and Sam - are protagonists of the events which are recounted and are aware that these serve as material for a narration. They serve, that is, the hearer or reader who will receive a message, a teaching, that will help them to understand that they now are the actor who must continue the story. De te fabula docet: the story speaks of your own life.
History From the Valar and Iluvatar Perspectives
Apart from Melkor, the Ainur were content with the first Music of Iluvatar: their attitude was conservative. When Melkor introduced dissonance, the Ainur would have preferred to eliminate it. Iluvatar maintained it, though, and incorporated it into a new music, more glorious than the old. When shaping Arda, the Ainur (who then became the Valar) wanted to perform the first music, and then wished to conserve the result. After the coming of the Firstborn, the Valar aimed to take them away from Middle-earth - where, clearly not by chance, Iluvatar had placed them – and have them live in Valinor so that they could share together the contemplation of unchanging beauty.
When the Noldor decide to return to Middle-earth, they are influenced by the false accusations against the Valar spread by Melkor ("the Valar want you to stay in Valinor in order to rule over you") and shaken by the violent arguments between Feanor and his half-brothers, motivated, at least partially, by the prospect of vindictive greed (the reconquest of the Silmarils), and the killing of the related Teleri race. There are all the ingredients here of the biblical account of the Fall in Genesis 3: the falsehoods recounted by the Serpent-Satan against Yahweh, the advent of the incomprehension and reciprocal accusations between Adam and Eve, the desire for the forbidden fruit and the slaying of Abel by Cain. The Valar condemn the Noldors’ emigration, gathered in council and influenced by the first prophecy of Mandos.
However, even if it is true that the emigration of the Noldor took place in practice against a background of wrong-doing, might not it have been possible in theory for it to occur righteously? And would not the Valar, beside the fact that they condemned it on grounds of sinfulness, have opposed it anyway, at least in their hearts – even if it had been conducted in exemplary fashion?
Although one cannot be certain of the answer to the first of these questions, there is no doubt of that to the second, as may seen from the Valar’s behaviour prior to the Noldor’s misdeeds. According to the conservative historical perspective of the Valar, it would have been preferable for the Elves to live out their time in Valinor, rather than going to Middle-earth (which was probably unforeseen on the part of the Valar).
I have argued above that the imaginary history Tolkien recounts is not really history, but principally a metaphor for the life of the individual. I would now like to suggest that the meaning of life embodied in LotR does not follow exclusively the Valar conservative viewpoint, but also partially the "creative" perspective of Iluvatar.
The point of view of the Valar follows the Platonic model of "emanation" and "return" (mimesis and metexis): the temporal world is an emanation of the eternal world, and returns to it. This emanation is an imperfect copy of the perfect archetype and represents an infelicitous descent, in the cycle of rebirth, from the state of beatitude. The primordial condition is restored by the process of return, compared to which the intervening time adds nothing new or significant. Thus the Elves, after their errors in Middle-earth, return to Valinor: some go to the Halls of Mandos (the killed ones), others to Eldamar (those who chose to sail the Great Sea).
When Bilbo, in the Hobbit (which is subtitled “There and Back Again”), returns to the Shire after his adventure, he is essentially unchanged: Tolkien ends the work with "and he lived happy and content", underlining the resumption of that interrupted “bourgeois” and “infantile” state of beatitude in his comfortable house, Bag End, which was described at the beginning of this essay. It is true that now Bilbo is not merely well-to-do, but has become decidedly prosperous. And it is also true that he has managed to avoid forgetting his "Tookish part", but instead has put it to the test and found in himself great reserves of courage, sagacity and generosity. But all this, in 1937, was a theme still undeveloped (the book was, after all, expressly aimed at children), and the Hobbit concludes with the Platonic model: the return to an individualistic and infantile life of good square meals, friendly jokes, pipe-smoking and dozing.
In LotR – which opens with abundant meals and friendly joking – something of this perspective remains: Frodo and Sam do not die on Mount Doom, but are saved by the (Deus ex machina) eagles and return to the Shire, which in the meantime has become corrupt and polluted, but which is rapidly restored and cleaned up. Flowers and lawns once more surround the house at Bag End and – at least for Sam – the cycle of peaceful days restarts. He says, in fact, in the book’s last line, “Well, I’m back”.
Together with this perspective, though, there is another, which predominates in LotR: Frodo cannot remain in the Shire, some wounds cannot be healed, he must leave for the sea and death. Sam, too, knows that he cannot expect to see again Galadriel in Lorien, Elrond in Rivendell, Gildor Inglorion in the woods of the Shire or Gandalf in Bag End. They have gone for ever. Sam himself will go to the Grey Havens (as is recounted in the Appendix).
As Middle-earth is our Earth, once magical, but now no longer magical, so life, as it progresses, leaves behind childhood, which can be remembered but cannot – and must not – be returned to.57 Fiorenzo Delle Rupi rightly observes, in his essay on the modernity of LotR, that in this work – in contrast to the Hobbit – return is denied from the very beginning.58 Life has a meaning because Iluvatar suffers no restrictions, and continually creates a realistic context in which our existential adventures - which necessarily include knowledge, pain and death – are not just wanderings or errors, but become an integral part of a future music of unimagined beauty.
This is obviously a Christian point of view. Whereas in certain Greek thought "it is best for a man not to be born, or to die at an early age", for a Christian, despite the knowledge that a child as it grows will suffer and commit many sins, it is not to be desired that children should die so as to return immediately to heaven and the angels.
For Christianity, temporal events are opportunities to be saved; there is no return for the soul to a heaven or an earthly paradise; human nature is not unchangeable, but is called to transform itself into a divine super-nature;59 suffering gives privileged access to this transformation; death is not cancellation, but fulfilment. It is, however, the death of all the person, body and soul, and not just of the body – as for Plato or the Elves (while the body is mortal, the soul is immortal and ready for reincarnation) – and sin is in fact a "felix culpa”.60
The abundant use of elements taken from real history in LotR does not mean, I would suggest, that Tolkien’s primary aim was to talk of real history, long past or recent.
Tolkien disapproved of the use of allegory, in which there is a one-to-one relationship between a signifying element X and a signified element Y, a relation which leaves freedom to neither the sender of the message nor its receiver. He explained that his work contained "large symbolism", in which the relations between signifier and signified are manifold, rather than unambiguous and predetermined.61
In this free and unconstrained manner, the presence of history in Tolkien’s works symbolizes diverse aspects of the meaning of human life:
openness to the complexity and dramatic nature of the world, of which an important precondition is historical awareness;
the immobility of individual characters, over and above the multiplicity of events;
the possibility of moral maturation as an unconstrained response to immobility of character;
acceptance of unforeseen innovations, of the confluence of individual paths into a vast Way with no return, which presupposes, at least implicitly, the acceptance of the creative role of Iluvatar with respect to evil (amongst other things).
The idealization of isolated historical elements, the spatialization of time which makes later and earlier historical components contemporary, and the assimilation of all historical ingredients into a generalized medieval period are all literary techniques which serve to achieve the philosophical aims (outlined above) of Tolkien’s historical symbolism.
The effect of depth created by the detailed construction of a long-past imaginary history predating the epoch in which the LotR’s events are set constitutes a literary stratagem which serves a different purpose, the aesthetic need to give the work "the intimate consistence of reality", to make of it a "subcreation" in which readers could imagine living.
Direct references to recent history or contemporary events (for example Sauron’s totalitarian experiments and Saruman’s bureaucratic and anti-ecological administration of the Shire) are also certainly present62 and are important, but occupy a secondary role with regard to the author’s intentions.
[translated into English by Jimmy Bishop]
1 Thanks to Patrick Curry and Tom Shippey, who read this paper, found several mistakes, made some remarks to improve it and encouraged me to published it.
2 The medieval period or Middle Ages, according to Western historical convention, refers to events in the West from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476) until the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453) or the discovery of America (1492). The early part of the period (also known as the Dark Ages) extends from the 5th century until the 10th century (end of the Carolingian Empire).
3 JRRT, Letters (London : Allen & Unwin, 1981), n.294, p.376.
4 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.247, pp.333-334.
5 The Road to Middle Earth (London : Harper Collins, 1992), pp.272-281.
6 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.182, p.237, n.247, pp.333-334; Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.203-204, 273-274.
7 Which discusses the "feeling that some readers have that Tolkien's writings recover a lost part of actual history". C. Scull, The Influence of Archaeology and History on Tolkien's World, in K.J. Battarbee (editor), Scholarship and Fantasy: proceedings of the Tolkien Phaenomenon (Turku: University of Turku, 1993), p.34.
8 Scull, The Influence, cit, p.39.
9 Ibidem, p.41.
10 Ibidem, pp.41-43.
11 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.131, p.157.
12 Ibidem, n.211, p.281.
13 Ibidem, n.131, p.154.
14 Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.111-119.
15 Georg Ostrogorsky, Storia dell'impero bizantino [Geschichte des Byzantinischen Staates] (Torino: Einaudi, 1968), pp. 39-12.
16 Shippey, The Road, cit, p.115.
17 Scull, cit, p.40.
18 Edmond Pognon, La vita quotidiana nell'Anno Mille [La vie quotidienne en l’an Mille] (Milano: Rizzoli, 1989), pp. 115-132.
19 According to the generally-accepted conventions amongst Western historians, the Modern Age begins in 1492 and ends in 1789 (French Revolution), 1815 (Congress of Vienna), 1870 (end of the constitution of nation-states and beginning of imperialism) or 1918 (end of First World War and European world domination). There follows the Contemporary Age, which lasts from one of these dates until the present.
20 Cf. Marc Bloch, La società feudale [La société féodale (1939)] ( Torino: Einaudi, 1987), pp. 171-315.
21 JRRT, The Return of the Shadow. History of Middle Earth, Vol. VI (London: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 15.
22 Invito alla lettura di Tolkien (Milano: Mursia, 1982), p. 95.
23 JRRT, The Lord of the Rings [LotR, 1954-1955] (London: Unwin Paperback,1983) : “It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours : far nearer to us than the Elves, or even the Dwarves. Of old they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion, and liked and disliked much the same things as Men did.”, p. 14.
24 The married-couple version , after criticism from others and personal doubts, was excised from the definitive version of LotR: cf. The Epilogue in JRRT, Sauron Defeated. History of Middle Earth, Vol. IX (London: Harper Collins, 1992), pp.114-135.
25 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.213, pp. 288-289.
26 Gandalf, more than Elrond or Aragorn, was an expert scholar and effective transmitter of historical awareness. This may be seen in many parts of the work, especially in the chapters The Shadow of the Past and The Council of Elrond.
27 JRRT, LotR, cit, p. 316.
28 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.211 p.283, n.294 p.376, n.183 p.244.
29 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.211 p.283. The idea of living at the end of the Sixth Age of the world ,or at the beginning of the Seventh, is not original to Tolkien, but may be found in the writings of an eighth-century English monk, the Venerable Bede: De temporum Ratione (cf. Pognon, La vita quotidiana, cit., pp.71-73).
Since Tolkien defined the ends of the First, Second and Third Ages to coincide with important events in Middle-earth, when the forces of good conquer those of evil (respectively, the War of Wrath and Melkor’s expulsion; the war of Elendil and Gil-Galaad against Sauron and Isildur’s control of the One Ring; the War of the Ring and the destruction of Sauron),it is interesting to wonder which events might have marked the following divisions. As pure speculation, I propose: the Fourth Age finished in about 2000 BC at the onset of the Bronze Age, when the Indo-European Elamite people defeated and extinguished the Semitic civilization of Sumer, when the unified Middle Kingdom (with capital at Thebes) began, bringing to a close a period of anarchy in the Egyptian Empire, when the Rigveda, the oldest Hindu text, was written (Hinduism is the oldest religion which survives today).
The Fifth Age finished around the year zero and the Sixth Age started: when Octavian Augustus defeated Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 BC), impeding Eastern domination of the West; when the second manifestation of the Christian god was born as Jesus of Nazareth (3 BC); when Jesus Christ was crucified on the Cross initiating universal redemption (AD 30).
The Sixth Age ended with the defeat of Hitler’s project to conquer the planet and impose Nazi ideology and methods (AD 1945); when decolonization occurred and the peoples of the Third World were freed from European domination; when, with the death of Stalin and the 20th CPSU Congress, the irreversible de-totalitarianization of the USSR started, together with the disintegration of the Third Communist Internationale (1953). We should remember that JRRT’s letter referred to above was written in 1958.
30 A difference between the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires was that the former did not experience feudalism, judged by some historians (e.g. Ostrogorsky, Storia, cit) as a positive feature, but by others (such as Kazhdan, Bisanzio e la sua civiltà [Vizantijskaja kul’tura], Laterza, Bari, 1995) as a negative one.
31 Cf. M. Bloch, cit, pp.333-339, 457-470; Pognon, cit, pp.303-315.
32 Cf. Edwin O. Reischauer, Storia del Giappone [Japan. The Story of a Nation] (Milano: Bompiani, 1994), pp. 37-67.
33 Examples of tong-term processes: the spread of feudalism; the passage from the extended family to the nuclear family; industrialization; the spread of Christianity; the growth of liberalism, democracy etc.
34 Lord Acton (a late nineteenth-century English historian) famously said: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Tom Shippey (The Road, cit, p.125) discusses this notion, central to LotR, and correctly notes that the idea is not present in antiquity or the Middle Ages, but is specifically modern; neither Plato nor Thomas Aquinas would have had it, because they thought that those who managed to gain power could use it for both good and evil purposes.
35 JRRT, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth (1953) reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966).
36 At the first glance, it could seem that Tolkien did not realize that this identical position was adopted by the defence of Nazis accused at the Nuremberg trials.
37 Ebherard Horst, Federico II [Friederich der staufer.Eine biographie] (Milano: Rizzoli, 1995), pp. 169-215.
38 Cf. Shippey, Tolkien as a Postwar Writer, in Scholarship and Fantasy, cit., p.217.
39 M. Bloch, La società feudale, cit; Henri Pirenne, Storia d’Europa dalle invasioni al XVI secolo [Histoire de l’Europe des invasions au XVI siècle (1937)] (Milano: Garzanti, 1967); Johann Huizinga, L'autunno del Medioevo [Herfsttij der middeleeuwen (1919)] (Firenze: Sansoni, 1966).
40 T. Shippey, Tolkien as a Postwar Writer, cit., pp. 217-236. Shippey observes that all 5 of these British writers had had direct experience of the tragedies of war, and that Britain was the only Western country (apart from its enemies, Austria and Germany) at war for 10 out of 31 years: 1914–1918 and 1939–1945.
41 Cf. Bloch, La società feudale, cit, pp. 171-270, 363-375, 442-455, 471-489.
42 "History of the Langobards” ; an English translation is available on this website : http://www.northvegr.org/lore/langobard/index.php
43 Plato, Phaedo, Phaedrus; Republic.
44 Cf.JRRT, Laws and Customs among the Eldars, in Morgoth's Ring. History of Middle Earth, Vol. X (London: Harper Collins, 1994), pp.207-217.
45 JRRT, Sauron Defeated, cit., pp.132-133.
46 JRRT, The New Shadow, in The Peoples of Middle-earth. History of Middle Earth, Vol XII (London: Harper Collins, 1996), pp. 409-421.
47 The Road, cit,p.199.
48 JRRT, LotR, cit, pp. 906-907.
49 JRRT, The Silmarillion [2nd edition, 1977] (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 292 ; see also The Fall of Gondolin in The Book of Lost Tales – part II . History of Middle Earth, Vol. II (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984).
50 JRRT, The Return of the Shadow, cit, pp. 214-215.
51 JRRT, LotR, cit, pp.225-230.
52 JRRT, The Silmarillion, cit: "But Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. No oaths she swore, but the words of Feanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will"( p. 90)
53 In contrast to earlier times: cf. JRRT, The History of Galadriel and Celeborn in Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle- earth (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980).
54 JRRT, Letters, cit, n.153, p.189: "Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires".
55 “Mentality "is defined as that group of notions which accumulate in all people of a certain historical and geographical, independently of their level of education, personal ability, gender, profession, wealth or age:
see, e.g., Michel Vovelle, Ideologies and Mentalities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).
56 Fiorenzo Delle Rupi , The Lord of the Rings come romanzo moderno, "Terra di Mezzo" n. 1 (nuova serie) , April 1995, pp. 37-39, reprinted in : Franco Manni (editor), Introduzione a Tolkien (Milano: Simonelli, 2002), pp. 168-175. Cf. JRRT, LotR, cit, pp. 739-740.
57 Cf. F. Delle Rupi, The Lord of the Rings come romanzo moderno., cit, p.38.
58 Ibidem, pp. 30-31.
59 As happened, by means of a diametrically opposed pathway (humiliation rather than pride), with respect to Satan’s prophetic lie to Adam and Eva in Genesis 3: "eritis sicut Dii". Cf. Louis Ladaria s.j., Antropologia teologica (Roma: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 1983), p.214.
60 As sung in Roman liturgy, in the Easter vigil Exultet.
61 JRRT, Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings; see also: Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.150-152.
62 Cf. Shippey, The Road, cit, pp.152-156.