J.R.R Tolkien, born this day in 1892, would be 122 if he were alive today, one of the oldest people in the world. Alas, his physical body perished 2 September 1973, even though his textual body lives on, with much thanks to the continued labours of Christopher Tolkien, his son and editor. I would love to celebrate Tolkien’s birthday with a pint at the Eagle and Child Pub, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings used to meet. Being landlocked in Pierrefonds, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec, I cannot, however, and must compensate by posing a question to you all.
Does Tolkien’s spirit live on in 2014?
It would be hard to deny, upon first glance. Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie has hit theatres and a third is on the way. New editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are being produced, while many of his more obscure works appear on shelves at Chapters—including The Fall of Arthur, his Arthurian poem in the style of the Alliterative Morte Darthur. Many people around the globe cling loyally to Tolkien’s legacy. The entire epic fantasy genre claims strong ties to Tolkien’s example.
However, behind such observations lies the assumption that Tolkien’s survival depends on his economic value. They do not tell us how, in specific, people perceive his legacy, aside from the obvious. Such observations can tell us nothing of people’s attitudes towards his ideas, aside from a vague sense that they are willing to temporarily “buy into” his aesthetics, his politics, and philosophy. Do his ideas have any deeper resonance for those who buy his books?
I have never conducted a poll among Tolkien-readers. Perhaps it is for the better, though, since I would be asking strange questions for people who just want to read The Hobbit. “What are your beliefs about mythology?” “Do you believe that the deepest human yearning is the desire for communion with nature?” “Do you believe that the subcreator’s power is the refracted light of the Creator’s primary creativity, imparted to the subcreator by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?”
Chances are these questions never cross our minds when first fingering a Tolkien paperback. We may outright disagree with some of what he believes. Tolkien tied his theory of art closely to his identity as a Catholic and likened the creation of art to an act of communion. Although he draws a beautiful system in “On Fairy Stories” and his poem “Mythopoeia,” the religious imagery might fly over the heads of non-Catholics.
His ideas about mythology might also be described as “essentialist.” Because of his religious convictions, he says he believes that mythology comes from a objective, transcendental source—whether the Tree of Tales, or God Himself. After Lacan and post-structuralism, however, mythology is not viewed as being so much transcendental as born out of sexual drives inherent in all humans. These developments in the theory of mythology place a shadow over Tolkien’s more Victorian conception of fairy tales and myth.
Admittedly, most of us make no account of these ideas. We may read Tolkien for the sheer pleasure of escape. Though we may not be aware of the abstract, theological ideas saturating Tolkien’s philosophy of art, we should not feel that we ought to be aware of those ideas. Each reader reads Tolkien differently and should. But how can we reconcile our investment in Tolkien as a culture to our postmodern (hyper)reality?
How does Tolkien survive today?
Do we still desire old things? Or are we so ingrained in this commodified, throw-away culture that we no longer consider old ways of viewing the world, trees, nature, and birdsong? I feel personally that I spend far too much time dealing with ephemeral trivialities. There is no better time to think about our wasteful society than just after Christmas. It’s sad, but I can’t think of a time of year when our fetishization of the commodity is more evident than late December and early January. As Christianity turned pagan Saturnalia into the Birth of Christ, capitalism has secularized Christmas into a fest of selfishness, line-up rage, and dissatisfaction.
But trees and old songs are free. Nature never goes out of style. “The lilies do not sow,” goes an old Bible verse, “yet Solomon in all his wisdom was not clad as richly as one of these.” Yet, even while faced with the deficiencies of commodity culture, do we still care about these lilies, or is commodity simply too enticing?
Perhaps we need to be refreshed in our understanding of nature. We need to go back and recognize what we have been missing—the simple truths of reality and beauty.
But in our twenty-first century, there is no reality. Or, if there is, it is not reality as Tolkien understood it.
Our age has been called “hyperreal.” Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media sites are rapidly becoming the new definers of “reality.” I mean an entirely new definition of reality: separate from science and theology both. Someone can become world-famous simply by posting pictures of themselves online, never leaving their dark, lonely basement. Nothing is real unless it’s documented. Wedding pictures are not as frequently printed as posted. Your trip to the Louvre can only be said to have happened if you take a picture of the Mona Lisa, a picture you have seen a thousand times before. (Did you hear the Mona Lisa was a fake? The real one’s hidden in a vault.)
Some of us think archaeologists will need these pictures in a hundred years, as absurd as the thought may seem. But if you do not even glance at your own photo documentation after you have saved it on a hard drive—let along print them—why would an archaeologist care about your selfie? Even the things we pretend to treasure today are as disposable as anything else we own.
Our culture is obsessed with the new and with copies of reality rather than reality itself. Where can Tolkien’s idea of Renewal fit into our world? Can we “clean our windows” from triteness and ennui if the windows we look through are themselves copies of other windows? Perhaps we have lost something fundamental to reality itself.
Tolkien’s Elves, constantly aware of the thinning of magic, would not doubt weep its loss—to the sound of harp strings. No wonder they left Middle Earth before it was too late.
Perhaps I am being too rough on postmodernity. The last thing I want is to sound like a nostalgic old man getting angry at these newfangled computers and social media sites. I recognize that there is a danger in glorifying the past. I am not saying we must worship Tolkien. But I am saying there is something profound in his work about the role of fantasy in renewing out perceptions of reality, whenever our workaday, commodified lives threaten to bore us to death.
I’ve encountered a breaking point where this shallow world confines you inside your house and prevents you from going outside and encountering nature. Even if hyperreality suggests that Renewal is impossible in this age devoid of a central reality, Tolkien can still cause us to realize that hyperreality itself is only one way of seeing the world. This is not a denial of reality: it is an opposition to consensus, a force in a struggle.
We may be forevermore influenced by hyperreality, but that does not make resistance futile. Tolkien’s works—and other stories and art inspired by his ideas—argue that fantasy is the best way to clean our windows this new year. Fantasy tells us that the world was not always like it is. In particular, historical fantasy can do this to superb effect (see John Crowley’s Aegypt), but other genres of fantasy can also help us see our daily lives in a different light.
All you have to do is imagine.