Turn over a New “Tree and Leaf” this New Year with J.R.R. Tolkien!

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

Happy New Year to all my followers! Today, I continue my series on J.R.R. Tolkien with a tribute to Tree and Leaf, one of his lesser known works–a book that contains an implicit New Year’s message.


What’s your New Year’s resolution? Chances are, if you’ve made one at all, you’ve made a decision regarding finances, health, personal addiction, or a general commitment to becoming a better person. But we all know how difficult resolutions are to keep. Often we ask ourselves to end an entrenched habit or develop a new, more constructive one.  But has anyone ever adopted a resolution to commit to do one thing only, in a one-shot deal? Maybe for you it’s “I swear that I will visit my parents at Easter” or “I swear to get through the latest season of How I Met Your Mother.” Why not make it “I swear to read an obscure work by J.R.R. Tolkien?” Specifically, make it Tree and Leaf.

Tree and LeafThere are actually two texts in this slim book. One, which refers to the “Tree,” is Tolkien’s famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” in which he lays out his theory of fantasy literature. The second is “Leaf by Niggle,” a short story about a painter who must suffer for his art at the hands of his utilitarian neighbours and gets sent on a journey through purgatory. Both essay and story comment on each other, illuminating the themes they hold in common.

I discuss “On Fairy Stories” a little bit in my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay here, but let me explain in particular the significance of the “Tree of Tales” and the idea of renewal.

The image of this Tree unites Tree and Leaf. Tolkien views every story in the world as belonging to one immense “Tree of Tales.” Storytellers do not draw from their own lives or from history so much as they “take” stories down from this tree, rather like Plato draws his ideas down from the higher, ideal realm. There is one Tree with a unified trunk that exists for all humanity and the roots of those branches stretch down into the earth and depths of human (un)consciousness.

The Tree of Tales recalls the two Trees in The Silmarillion which casts brilliant light of supreme beauty in the land of Valinor, before Morgoth’s corruption necessitates their preservation in the form of the silmarils. Just as no object can become as beautiful as the Trees ever again, no single story can encompass the entire Tree of Tales.

This metaphor describes how Tolkien conceived of mythology and fairy stories. Each leaf, or story, can be told in such a way that it calls to mind the larger Tree. By imagining this unifying image, reader and teller become aware of the universality of narrative, renewing their perceptions of the world.

Renewal not only comes as a result of seeing the universal connection that draws all the nations together into one mythic reality. It is also, in Tolkien’s words, a cleaning of our windows, a refusal to accept the “reality” of everyday ennui as inexorable. Furthermore, it is one of the chief functions of fairy stories, or fantasy literature. Every fantacist, whether a reader or storyteller, is engaged in a mission to make the world a better place by showing others how to see the world differently. Yes, I mean you too, readers: you may see that you have a responsibility to recommend your favourite books to those you love or care about, in the interest of sharing your new visions with others.

We all seek renewal in the New Year. Do we not also make resolutions precisely to change ourselves, our habits, and our perspective on our lives? Tolkien hints that one way to do this is by reading, writing, telling, or even listening to the tales of the Tree. So this New Year, before holidays end, why not pick up a work by Tolkien or a fantasy novel–or practically any other piece of literature–and get in contact with the mythic reality of your unconscious.

We can all build a better world, one story at a time.

The Trees of Valinor
The Trees of Valinor


Photo Credits:

JRR Tolkien: http://www.nndb.com/people/511/000022445/

Trees of Valinor: http://www.elfwood.com/~jrpatch/The-Two-Trees-of-Valinor.2870605.html

Tree and Leaf: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Tree_and_Leaf

7 Ways in which Saruman is like John Dee

SarumanJohn Dee http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF
The Vinciolo Journal turns 1 year old January 5th, two days after J.R.R. Tolkien’s Birthday, so in celebration of both events, I am making a series of Tolkien-related posts. This is the first of several … 7 ways Saruman resembles Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer and geographer John Dee.


In comparing these two figures (the visual similarities are themselves suggestive), I am in no way trying to slander John Dee or imply that he was a maniacal, power-crazed wizard. He was a humble, lonely man–as lonely as any man favoured of the Queen could possibly be, although his intellectual influence had enormous implications, not least with regard to the colonization of the New World. However, there are so many similarities between these two magicians that it cannot be easily ignored.

So, without further ado, here is my list:


1. Physical resemblance to Christopher Lee

Not only is John Dee a magician, but he looks like a wizard himself–and Christophe Lee portrayed the wizard Saruman with exquisite tact in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The flat gaze and the white beard are the chief forms of resemblance between the actor and wizard. Although Dee’s hair is not as long Lee’s Saruman, his hair may still be white, provided he is not bald beneath the black bonnet he’s wearing in his portrait. Set Saruman in black robes and attach a starched ruff around his throat and, after a haircut, you basically have John Dee.

2. Crystal balls

Saruman has his palantír while John Dee has his shewstone. Both are crystal balls they use for magically surveying the land. Made by Fëanor, greatest of the Noldor and maker of the Silmarils, the palantír stones were mostly lost in Middle Earth, except for a few. The stone seen in the film is at Orthanc in Isengard, the same stone Saruman uses to communicate with Sauron and keep track of the progress of the Fellowship of the Ring.  There is another stone in that the steward of Gondor controls at Minas Tirith. As for the shewstone, or “seeing stone,” of John Dee, it is displayed currently at the British Museum. You can see it if you like. Rumour has it that it is a sacred Aztec polished obsidian stone taken from Mexico during the Spanish conquest.

John Dee's Shewstone at the British Museum
John Dee’s shewstone at the British Museum
Saruman and the Palantir of Orthanc

3. Spoke with ‘angels’

The warning Gandalf gave Saruman about the palantír, that “you never know who else might be watching,” is also applicable to Dee’s shewstone. Both crystal balls give you the power to speak with spirits–but also for the spirits to talk to you. Dee and Edward Kelley used the shewstone to communicate with angels, who gave Dee revelations from the world of the dead. Supposedly, the angelic language Dee developed called Enochian came as a result from such spiritual meetings.

In a similar way, Saruman uses his palantír to speak with a fallen ‘angel,’ Sauron. Indeed, The Silmarillion reveals that Sauron is a god-like or at least angelic being. He is one of the Maiar, the spirits who serve the Valar, though one who became corrupted by evil in his service to the Great Enemy Morgoth. When Saruman begins to peer into his palantír in search of knowledge, he discovers the Ring of Power, which he comes to desire for himself. However, he becomes twisted, desiring power above all else. In the end, he betrays the forces of the West and captures Gandalf in his tower, committing “the treason of Isengard.”

4. Consorted with a necromancer

This one was implied in #3. Edward Kelley was a necromancer who communed with angels and the dead. On the other hand, Saruman communicates with “the Necromancer,” which is a name given to the vague, evil presence that lurks in the shadows of Mirkwood in The Hobbit and later is revealed to be Sauron himself. Supposedly, Sauron was into demon summoning and raising the dead back to life at this time, instead of leading orcs to war against Gondor.

Sauron the Necromancer
Sauron the Necromancer
Edward Kelley the Necromancer

5. Polymath Wizards

Saruman and John Dee were both wizards of great learning and were capable (or thought they were capable) of using magic. Furthermore, both wizards possessed plenty of non-magical knowledge. Dee was a mathematician, cartographer, and mechanic, once in his younger years designing a bird with artificial wings that could fly. Saruman was something of a chemist as well, designing the gunpowder which his uruk-hai use to demolish the walls of Helm’s Deep.

6. Spy Network

Astonishingly, both John Dee and Saruman had spy networks. Frodo and company must worry about spies from the White Wizard as much as they worry about Sauron’s own Black Riders. In addition to the ruffians Sauron employs to infiltrate and scourge the Shire in The Return of the King, he has a swarm of crows called Crebain, which he uses to spy on the Fellowship. John Dee’s spy network consisted of a network of foreign agents abroad, many probably on the lookout for Catholics plotting in France to return to England and kill the Queen. He may also have used spirits and the magic of his shewstone to spy on enemies abroad.

7. Similarity to John Faust

John Faust

At last, Saruman and John Dee are both so attracted by mysterious power that they make deals with the devil they later severely regret. They have what I call a Faust complex. Doctor John Faust was a historical scholar in Germany who is said to have made a deal with the devil, whom he summons at a crossroads at midnight in a necromantic ritual, in order to attain forbidden knowledge of magic. In the end, after squandering his time, Faust is dragged to hell by demons. His story has been adopted innumerable times: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Faust Parts I and II by Goethe being the two chief examples. The Godfather is another takeoff on this archetypical story: Michael Corleone makes a “deal with the devil” to enter the mob and then remains locked in, becoming supremely powerful at the price of his soul.

Saruman’s deal with Sauron is a similar complex. “There is only one Lord of the Rings,” warns Gandalf, “and he does not share power.” Saruman learns how to breed uruk-hai from Sauron and plans to ravage Middle-Earth for his new master, planning to find the One Ring for himself and become master of all. But in the end, his designs fall flat. When nature rebels and the Ents take over Isengard, a powerless Saruman is force to flee to the Shire, where he avenges himself by desolating the land. Finally (spoilers here), his longtime servant Gríma Wormtongue stabs him in the back, frustrated by his own master’s cruelty.

John Dee’s Faustian narrative is a little less extreme. Of course, his story is not fantasy, but historical. Nonetheless, Dee makes a deal with Edward Kelley to speak with angels and becomes mystified. Actually, scholars now believe Kelley created an elaborate hoax: Dee never spoke to angels directly, but through Kelley, who they supposedly possessed. Kelley may well have faked the whole thing, however. Upon his return to England, he became unable to acquire aristocratic patronage, probably because many could not see the value in his knowledge, or because they were frightened by his connections to the occult. When he died, it was of natural causes and in poverty. Real life often doesn’t follow the contours of archetypical plots. Nonetheless, Dee’s gradual isolation and loneliness as a result of his ties to the occult might have seemed damnation enough to him.

John Faustwoodcut.

Photo Credits

Faustus woodcut: http://en205uaakersfall2010.blogspot.ca/2010/09/marlowe-dr-faustus.html

John Faust: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Georg_Faust

Palantir: http://www.tin-god.com/newswatcher-team-america-world-assassins/palantir/

Dee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

Shewstone: http://www.flickr.com/photos/james_hastings/4429958552/


Saruman: http://www.ilsolco.com/la-sindrome-di-saruman-e-pietrangelo-buttafuoco/

Sauron: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Sauron