Rekindle a New Light: Tolkien and Historical Change
What is Tolkien’s attitude to change – to crisis, historical development, and the passing of time in general?
It is worth posing this question at the beginning of a new year of ‘the Covid era’, because the issue of historical change is relevant to all of us facing, as we are, dramas similar to those faced by Tolkien: the sudden and traumatic collapse of a world, the challenges of change and insecurity, and the beginning of a new era, for better or worse. As Tolkien put it in a beautiful, dramatic letter:
“Imagine the experience of those born (as I) between the Golden and the Diamond Jubilee of Victoria. Both senses and imaginations of security have been progressively stripped away from us. Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time. ‘Back to normal’ – political and Christian predicaments – as a Catholic professor once said to me, when I bemoaned the collapse of all my world that began just after I achieved 21” (Letter 306).
In this article, I want to focus on Tolkien the man: A father, a friend, and a great Christian, completely rooted within his own historical period (the first half of the 20th century) with all its crises, pain, and challenges. He was a man deeply wounded by his history, and yet not defeated by it, not because of some sort of naïve fatalism or fideism, but because of the awareness that there is always something good germinating under the frost of history. That the “wheels of the world” are not turned by the strong and the powerful, but rather by the simple, powerful ‘yes’ of humble, powerless individuals.
A conservative Tolkien?
According to many, Tolkien had a ‘conservative’ attitude towards history, culture and politics, as well as to Christianity and life in general. People highlight for instance his supposed idealisation of the Shire, as a model of a rural, traditionalist, a technological and autarchic community. Or, the idea of a ‘return of the King’, construed as a restoration of a legitimate order against chaos. Tolkien has also been described as a man in love with the myth of Old England, a nostalgic of the Middle Ages and its Christian framework, a defender of the West and its values, in sum a ‘conservative’ in a broad sense, “not usually liking or trusting change, especially sudden change” (Cambridge Dictionary).
Leaving aside the political implications, Tolkien’s ‘conservatism’ seems to be confirmed by his fondness for a ‘narrative of decline’, a vision of history that posits a gradual degradation (ontological, moral, social, and aesthetic) from an idealised Golden Age, going hand-in- hand with a detachment of God(s) from mortals and vice versa. We can trace this narrative in Tolkien’s division of his world into ages, from an idealised First Age filled with Joy and Light, to a Third Age, described as “the first of the broken and changed world” (Letters 131); or in his notorious perception of history as a “long defeat” (cf. Letters 195), related to that “heart-racking sense of the vanished past” and longing for a lost Eden (cf. Letters 96), which pervades Tolkien’s works, and which he described as the emotion which moved him “supremely” and he found “small difficulty in evoking” (cf. Letters 91).
The Design of God
Narratives of decline are certainly present in Tolkien, together with a ‘conservative’ position: if history is a decline, creatures only try to preserve or restore the past, to delay or impede change. Novelties, and change in general, are perceived as evil, and related to an inescapable ‘catastrophic’ tendency of history, and related moral corruption. This negative outlook on change is present in Tolkien, and is probably close to his wounded sensitivity, but, crucially, it
is not his only outlook. Rather, this ‘conservatism’ is presented as a ‘partial’ position, in the sense of both ‘incomplete’ and ‘belonging to a part’. The part I am referring to is that of the Elves, whose main “motive” is “the prevention or slowing of decay (i.e., ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance” (Letters 131). Despite his own fondness for the Elves (cf. e.g., Letters 96), Tolkien is honest enough to admit that “the Elves are not wholly good or in the right (…) They wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle earth because they had become fond of it (…) and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth. (Letters 154). For Tolkien, the Elves’ refusal of change, however understandable, is not right. Rather, it is an obsession: [the Elves] became obsessed with ‘fading’, the mode in which the changes of time (the law of the world under the sun) was perceived by them. (Letters 131). In fact, “mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter. (Letters 181).
For Tolkien, the changes of time, however dramatic and traumatic, are not catastrophes to avoid or bemoan, but rather “the law of the world under the sun”, that is the mysterious unfolding of the history of Creation, to be embraced with hope and courage.
To try to arrest this unfolding, to refuse to engage with change, is a temptation to overcome; and this is why in the Lord of the Rings the Elves’ redemption follows their acceptance to give up the power of their Rings and accept the development of history under God’s guidance.
Tolkien’s way: development, maturation, renewal
‘Conservatism’ is thus for Tolkien a wrong attitude; but this should not lead anyone to affiliate Tolkien with the opposite party and consider him as a sort of ‘progressist’ or ‘reformer’, as someone seeking or invoking change as a means of power, in order to ‘improve’ the real world. As he loudly declared: I am not an ‘embalmer’ [but I am not] a reformer [either]! I am not a ‘reformer’ (by exercise of power) since it seems doomed to Sarumanism. (Letters 154). In fact, for Tolkien the error of the ‘reformer’ (epitomised in the wizard Saruman) is founded on the same temptation of the ‘embalmer’, consisting in the refusal to accept the ‘inherent development’ of reality: (…) the desire for Power (…) all use of external plans or devices (…) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills” (Letters 131). What is thus the correct attitude according to Tolkien? The via media, or rather ‘the Straight Way’, between these two errors?
The unfolding of the seed
Since Tolkien was an artist, and not a theologian, I will respond to this question with three images, and not an argument. These images are different and yet similar, all implying a vision of history as ‘development’ and requiring the same attitude.
The first image is the seed developing into a tree, which Tolkien uses to describe any individual human life: I think that comparison with a seed is more illuminating: a seed with its innate vitality and heredity, its capacity to grow and develop. A great part of the ‘changes’ in a man are no doubt unfoldings of the patterns hidden in the seed. (Letters 183). The change which Tolkien calls to embrace is not thus the revolution or subversion of a pre-existing entity, nor the introduction into it of external elements. Rather, it is a natural “unfolding” of the “patterns hidden in the seed”. Tolkien uses the same image in another letter, this time to describe the history and life of the Church: ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history – the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. (Letters 305)
This is a key passage, from a letter which would deserve a longer treatment, in which Tolkien offers a prophetic hermeneutic with which to interpret the Second Vatican Council. Here I only highlight that for Tolkien there cannot be any external similarity between the seed and the tree, even though they are the same entity. In fact, to prevent the historical development of a seed into a tree is a mistake, which results in the loss of both. One can also note that in both passages Tolkien talks of (biological) ‘heredity’: the Church, just as any human life, is a living organism, which is bound to develop (if it is alive); but at the same time it has an inherited history, and thus a necessary link with the past. Change, in a living organism, is not a break with the past, but a development of/from it
The renewal of the lineage
This introduces the second image, of the (botanical) lineage renewed after centuries of apparent extinction. As the eagle announces to the city of Minas Tirith, after the fall of Sauron: the Tree that was withered shall be renewed, and he shall plant it in the high places, and the City shall be blessed. The verb ‘to renew’ is a buzzword in Tolkien, and is especially associated with the character of Aragorn, whose key epithet is that of ‘renewer’ (LotR 170) and whose blade will be “renewed” (cf. LotR 170), just like the “dignity of the kings of old” (LotR 1044) and the “kingship” in general (LotR 1057). The renewal of the tree of Gondor is analogical to that of its kingship, as Gandalf explains to Aragorn in a key scene of the novel, when a new sapling of the ancient Tree is providentially found under the snow of the sacred mountain: “Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair (…) though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake. (…). Here it has lain hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. (LotR 971). The renewal of the lineage, which is an expected, mysterious event, is not a conservation or restauration: with Aragorn’s return, the old, dead tree and is replaced by the new sapling, and it is removed and is “laid to rest in the silence” together with the graves of the ancient kings (cf. LotR 972). It is a new tree that is born, a new story that begins, which yet belongs to, and renews an old story, an ancient lineage.
The blossoming of the Tree
The third, and final image is the great Tree blossoming with infinite and evernew leaves, which symbolises the artistic work of God, the Story of Creation. In Tolkien’s story ‘Smith of Wootton Major’ the eponymous hero Smith, symbol of the artist entering by Grace into the depths of reality, sees at a certain point “the King’s Tree springing up, tower upon tower, into the sky, and its light was like the sun at noon; and it bore at once leaves and flowers and fruits uncounted, and not one was the same as any other that grew on the Tree.”
The idea of Creation as an organic ensemble of infinite individualities is key in Tolkien and is developed especially in the cosmogonic myth of the Silmarillion:
this tells of a primigenial concert of angelic beings, who “like unto countless choirs singing with words” fashion the single theme of God, “with endless interchanging melodies”. Another important quality of this Creation is its never ending newness: Tolkien’s God has not revealed “all that he has in store, and in every age there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling”. Among these ‘new elements’ introduced by God there are the Elves, the Children of God, new individualities in which one could see “the mind of [God] reflected anew”.
Newness and variety are necessary qualities of artistic creation, divine but also human, as Tolkien explains in On Fairy Stories, pointing out that the main aim of (human) art is to create “something new”, and to pay tribute “to the infinity of [God’s] potential variety”. At the same time, this ever new variety is not autonomous or self-referential; rather, all individual stories, past, present, and future, are in relationship with each other, and all contribute to the same polyphonic music of Creation, which transcends Time and Space. There are infinite leaves, but they all belong to the same Tree, and as such they share the same archetypical pattern; just like all leaves of an oak tree are somehow similar, and yet none of them is identical to the other, because each one is called to blossom according to its own particular story, in springs that are ever new, as an “unique embodiment of the pattern” (cf. On Fairy Stories 66).
The ongoing embracing of one’s tale
These images (the seed developing into a tree, the renewal of the lineage, and the Tree blossoming with infinite leaves) help clarify Tolkien’s attitude to historical change. Tolkien has an essentially ‘organic’ and ‘dynamic’ vision of (divine) history, which develops through infinite, individual stories, embedded in ever changing circumstances; new, individual, ever different stories, yet in continuity with the ones that precede them, in a narrative chain which ultimately has its ‘master Ring’ in the Gospel story, the ‘Primary Story’ to which all human lives are called to conform. Historical change is thus inevitable and in fact positive and necessary, if construed and embraced as a providential development of the past – a past that is not to be preserved nor reformed (neither with the Elves nor Saruman), but renewed, through fully embracing one’s own tale, in the present and everchanging circumstances. This is why Tolkien could write to the friends of his youth, after the horror of the Somme: “[we have] been granted some spark of fire (…) that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; (…) to testify for God and Truth” (Letters 5).
The path that has been laid
From a narrative point of view, this ‘positive’ position towards historical change is reflected in a character’s availability (fiat) to discover and tread the path that has been laid for them (as Galadriel says to the Fellows of the Ring), even when it leads to dark roads. To walk the path of one’s history, with the courage and humility of a hobbit and under the guide of Grace (Gandalf), is the truest and most authentic way to rekindle a new light, and “testify for God and Truth”. All this is possible for those who know that there is a loving Author behind their story, an Author who simply needs our availability “never to turn back”, as Sam says to Frodo on the stairs of Cirth Ungol, in one of the most beautiful scenes of the Lord of the Rings. To tread one’s given path means to live fully in the times which are given to us, with its lockdowns, Zoom calls, and Covid bulletins because, as Gandalf famously says, it is not for us to decide the time that is given us. The ability to engage with the changes of the times allows God to bring our story to fulfilment, and eventually to integrate it into His own great Story, the Great Story of the Great Author, a story which started 2000 years ago with the ‘yes’ of the most powerless, and yet most powerful, woman of all and continues through our own, simple powerful ‘yeses’.
Discover, protest and nourish
A final note: To tread one’s own path and thereby rekindle a new light in a changing world is only possible because “we have been granted (…) some spark of fire”. The renewal and blossoming of the Tree, in evernew circumstances, is not the product of a human effort, but rather an unexpected gift; it is not the result of a human project (even a Christian one) but a seed that germinates in unexpected places, which we are simply called to discover, protect, and nourish (like Aragorn with the new sapling). As Tolkien wrote in one of the darkest moments of modern history: “the future is impenetrable especially to the wise; for what is really important is always hid from contemporaries, and the seeds of what is to be are quietly germinating in the dark in some forgotten corner, while everyone is looking at Stalin or Hitler” (Letter 79).
Where does Tolkien’s perspective come from, a perspective that is so relevant in this particular historical moment? There are many answers, but the most accurate one includes the name of John Henry Newman, whose story was intertwined with that of Tolkien. Newman, the author of the Development of Christian Doctrine, but above all Newman, the convert who had the courage to fully embrace change in his life under the lead of the Kindly Light, was convinced that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. The relationship between Newman and Tolkien, however, is another great and fascinating story…
Giuseppe Pezzini is senior lecturer in Latin at the University of St Andrews.