Tolkien’s Time Machine: When Literary worlds Collide – Michael Martinez’ J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth

by Jul 23, 2001Other News

“Although The Hobbit was little more than a light-hearted romp through fairy-tale cliches, Tolkien blended elements from Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature which revealed his love for the northern world’s old traditions. Hence, Bilbo and the dragon Smaug lift a cup-theft from “Beowulf”, and Gandalf and the Dwarves peek out from the name lists of the Elder Edda. And yet, Bard the Bowman’s lake-town is still influenced by a French Celtic lake village. Even while honing his ability to utilize Anglo-Saxon literature and imagery, Tolkien still found himself looking beyond England to France. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet, so to speak.”
In his July 22 Suite101 article, Michael notes that most readers agree that The Lord of the Rings is a unique book. And though J.R.R. Tolkien is credited with helping launch the modern fantasy literary enre, there are no other books which approach LoTR in quality and perfection. Why? Could it be that Tolkien was pursuing a goal which no one else has yet attempted?

Here is an excerpt:

Although it may seem obvious that Middle-earth is “the world in which J.R.R. Tolkien sets his Elf and Hobbit stories”, that is not precisely the case. There are Elf stories which are not part of the world of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. I speak of the Elves in The Father Christmas Letters and Smith of Wootton Major. Of course, there are similarities between these worlds. Like a run on bad puns, Tolkien kept resurrecting old ideas and giving them new form. Hence, the Elves help Father Christmas fight off the goblins, and Smith sees Elven warriors returning from strange and foreign wars when he is visiting Faerie. Middle-earth, which Tolkien said is our world in some imaginary time in the past, is distinct from the other worlds.

But Middle-earth itself is a hodge-podge of literary worlds, borrowing extensively from the original Hobbit (which Tolkien drew into the Middle-earth canon by proposing a second edition for the book in 1947) and a bit from the 1937 “Silmarillion” text, which itself was a rewrite of an earlier “Silmarilion” which in turn was a complete rewrite of the themes Tolkien had used for The Book of Lost Tales. Númenor came straight out of a science fiction time travel story, “The Drowning of Anadune”. And then The Lord of the Rings itself produced new terrain and peoples: Rohan and the Ents, Gondor and Arnor, and the mysterious Eregion whose Elven people only the stones could recall.

And, of course, behind these stories lay the older, non-Tolkienien myths and folklore which inspired him to create his own myths and folklore in the first place. Tolkien grew up on stories of Greek gods and heroes, and he discovered the primal beauty of Gothic and Anglo Saxon verse and poetry. His devotion to Catholicism and Christianity ensured he would absorb Biblical traditions, and his curiosity led him to explore the traditions and sciences of Finland, Egypt, Babylon, and other sources of western civilization.

A recurring theme in Tolkien seems to be the clash between civilization and barbarism. The Elves’ civilization collides with the barbarous Mannish tribes, and the tribes eventually replace the Elves. The Numenoreans’ civilization returns to Middle-earth, where it becomes mingled with the barbarism of the Numenoreans’ Edainic cousins. And in the end, the high civilization of Arnor descends into a semi-barbarism which reaches out to the remnants of high civilization in Gondor far to the south.

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