Friday, February 01, 2008

Tolkien: A Panorama

by Anthony Cooney



Tolkien warns us in the Foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, that it is not an allegory, for he "dislikes allegory in all its manifestations". He accepts that it might have applicability to our time and our world, but "applicability is not to be confused with "allegory" for the"one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." He also says, "I much prefer history, true or feigned".

The Lord of the Rings, is a history. A feigned history true, but a history nevertheless, a history drawn from Nordic legend and folktale, a panorama of sweeping scenes, desolate landscapes, massed armies and raging battles. It is also a history shaped by individual initiatives and personal courage and resolve, acts which change the course of events and the unfolding of time, a history bedded in Belloc's dictum that "History must be effectively caused." A history which justifies Karl Popper's insistence that "all collective phnomena is due to the actions, interactions, aims, hopes and thoughts of individual men and is due to traditions created and preserved by individual men". (Emphasis added).

It may seem odd to ask of a novel, but how much of Tolkien's vast canvass is "true" and how much is "feigned" history? His saga opens with dark hints of former Ages, a time of war and devastation, of battles between light and darkness, good and evil, in which the power of Sauron is partially triumphant so that the shadow of the past spreads slowly over the unconquered parts of the "Middle Earth" , casting angst over the lives of elves, dwarves and men, strengthening the power of goblins, trolls and wolves. But where and what is "Middle Earth"? Is it "middle" in time or in place? Are there lands beyond the great mountains and wasted plains? There are hints, but no more, that this is so. Of one thing Tolkien gives certainty, "Middle Earth" is our earth. It existed in an Age long gone and a place unknown. Its history is the thousand legends, fears and hopes woven into the great tapestry of the folk memory. Tolkien is ambiguous, his time-scale spreads over three Ages and heralds a fourth, but his territory, geographically, is restricted.

The core of the saga is the story of the rings, forged by Sauron as "gifts" to the Elven Kings, the Dwarf Lords and Mortal Men, with one ring to bind the wearer to the Dark Lord who possesses it. But the master ring is lost in battle. It must be found again, by Sauron to yield him absolute power, or by allies of light, to destroy it by casting it into the volcanic furnace in which it was forged. In Tolkien's saga it is the least and smallest folk, scarcely aware of the great struggle, who carry out this task; the Hobbits.

Tokien happily adds to the folklore which is ancestral memory and invents entities of his own. Whilst his "Orcs" can be identified as a form of goblin, the maggot brood of the giant Ymir, his tree people, "Ents", are entirely his own invention. His saga expands the horizons of the folklore, he creates new legends. Hobbits, the subject of the prelude to The Lord of the Rings do not exist in the sense in which Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Goblins exist; these exist in our folklore, the Hobbits do not, they exist, two steps removed from reality, as it were solely in Tolkien's saga.

There is nothing entirely original in literary invention, only a re-assembling of divers elements, and we may find in the Hobbits traces of the "Brownies", the small, dark Neolithic people who went to ground in long barrows, the "hollow hills", dwelling in remote places and keeping out of sight of the tall strangers who arrived to dispossess them. We may also find in the description of the Hobbit hole echoes of Badger's underground home in The Wind in the Willows. The Hobbits are a peacable, prosperous people, fond of good food, good beer, good company, good tobacco and well-stocked larders and fuel stores. There is no poverty amonst them, though there might be frugality. Neither are there great landlords to reap rent from the harvest. The Hobbits do not like machinery more complex than the water mill, the handloom and the forge, they see no use in anything not made by craftsmen to last, a heritage through generations. They are zealous for land and property, and too eager to claim inheritance, as we learn in the last chapter of The Hobbit. A grandmother's rocking chair or a grandfather's axe or saw, we may divine being causes of controversy between cousins. They prefer fair fields and hedges, stands of timber and trim gardens to the wild and the waste, for which they see no great use. They are in fact our memory of the English yeomanry of the end of the Middle Ages. Hobbit society is Distributist.

On the adventures of the Hobbits I will not dwell, for they are all recorded in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The first Hobbit we meet, Bilbo Baggins, is reluctantly sent by the Wizard Gandalf, on a quest to recover the dwarf hoard of gold and silver stolen by the dragon Smaug. It is upon this quest that he finds the ring of power, lost centuries ago. he keeps his discovery secret from his fellow Hobbits. However the servants of the Dark Lord are on his trail and he decides to leave "The Shire" (the heartland of the Hobbits) revelaing the secret of the ring to Gandalf and passing it to his young cousin Frodo. Gandalf decrees that Frodo must take the ring to Mordor, where it was forged, and destroy it. Frodo and a party of Hobbits, dwarves, elves and humans set out upon this perilous journey and their adventures, set-backs and final success, are related in The Lord of the Rings.

The destruction of the ring however is not the end of the story. Returned to The Shire, Frodo and his friends find that it has been bought up, field by field and house by house, by the evil Wizard Saruman, acting through the agency of a vain and foolish Hobbit, Lotho. he has imported humans into The Shire, thugs to terrorise the Hobbits into obedience, settling groups of them strategically about the land. He has banned beer and closed down all inns. Food is rationed, tobacco almost unobtainable. No one may travel without a licence nor stay away from home overnight. The water mill has been replaced by a mill which pours poison into the river. The greater part of the harvest is seized "for fair distribution", but is exported, along with beer, tobacco and timber, Noble trees are felled for no purpose, the Hobbit holes have been smashed and replaced by mean houses. The Distributist society of The Shire has been overthrown by a capitalist revolution. The Hobbits, having lived in peace for centuries with neither invaders nor planters to fear, are too disorganised to resist. Frodo and his friends, fresh from battle and hardship, determine to raise The Shire. Frodo sounds his horn and the Hobbits pour out of their houses and worksheds to do battle. Victorious, they restore the Distributist society.

And so ends the Third Age of Middle Earth and its Fourth Age commences. Meanwhile we must wait he who will come and give the blast on the horn which will rouse the Nation.

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