J.R.R. Tolkien – Not an author after all!

© 2005, Michael Kennedy

“How given little over half a century of work, did one man become the creative equivalent of a people.” (The Guardian - Review of The Silmarillion)
Middle-earth is undeniably one of the most vividly realised ‘imaginary’ worlds ever created. From its history to its languages, to its flora and fauna, it is vast in range yet elaborate in detail, rivaling even the mythologies of actual ancient civilisations. Many readers, fans, critics, and literary experts alike, have tried to pinpoint what that magic quality is that enabled him to achieve this and set his work as the definitive benchmark for fantastic fiction.

There are as many answers as questions, and no doubt there is no single standout factor that can explain it absolutely. However, for many readers, the most pertinent reason of all is that on some level, Middle-earth simply feels real. There is a level of veracity that raises the story beyond mere tale-telling. Tolkien wrote much on this topic, the heart of which is contained in his famous essay "On Fairy Stories", where he argues that no tale can be a true tale without upholding "the inner consistency of reality." A writer, he says,
"makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world.You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed." (Tree and Leaf; J.R.R. Tolkien, 1964)
Tolkien spent almost an entire lifetime endeavoring to bring this level of consistency to his own "sub-created" world. The copious and complex drafts and revisions found in the posthumously published "History of Middle-earth" series reveal Tolkien's life-long effort to perfect his work, but they also make it clear that the process was far from complete and, indeed, a completed mythology would never have attained a final form for the simple reason that he was more a chronicler of history than an author. In fact Tolkien did not see himself as an author, but rather as a scholar, a chronicler, even a speculator of Middle-earth history. He did not create history, rather he transcribed it, filling in the gaps that previous translators had left.  This was his masterstroke.

For instance, the famed word ‘hobbit’, now firmly entrenched in the English vocabulary, came suddenly to Tolkien one sunny afternoon while he was marking exam papers..His first probing thought was: “I better find out what hobbis were like".  It was this investigative technique, this ability to explore and analyse the word like it was real, much like an archeologist would on discovering a dinosaur bone, that enabled him to shake off the shackles of a ‘non-speculative’ author. As a chronicler he then ensured that the history was framed in our own ‘real’ recorded history, filling in the gaps, especially for the ‘barren’ state of English (ie. England) mythology as he saw it.

Furthermore, Tolkien did not perceive Middle-earth as a make-believe place. Tolkien wrote:
“I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd > middle-erd, an ancient name for the ‘oikoumenē’, the abiding place of Men , the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary ... Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’ – which is our habitation.” (‘The Letters of JRR Tolkien’; Letter No. 183)
Very few writers, if any, can rival Tolkien in his ability to portray a world so different from our own and yet so real and alive. One of the unique factors of his subcreation was his unique ability to mesh myth with history, the unreal with the real. By regarding Middle-earth genuinely, as having true existence on not only an artistic level, but an historical one, we come as near as possible to understanding it as Tolkien himself did, as close as we can to sharing his enchantment and unique vision of Middle-earth. 


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