Wonder surrounds us everywhere if we care to look carefully. It can be hidden in the smallest details which seem ordinary and which we tend to take for granted as time passes, but which are still wonderful in their own right. “Invoking Wonder” was the topic of Mythmoot IV held at the beginning of June by Mythgard Academy. Unfortunately, I was not present at the conference, but these invoked-wonder posts by Tom and Joe inspired me to do a similar essay.
There is a great number of things that invoke wonder in me. They range from a tiny flower to breathtaking sunsets, from listening to my favourite music soaring to the skies at open-air festivals to finally listening to a long-expected album from that very special band, from the freshness of discovering new books to the home-coming to the well-known ones. As my blog is concerned with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, I would like to dwell on one of the aspects of his work that never fails to fascinate me. It is complete plausibility of Professor’s fiction.
In a letter to Milton Waldman Tolkien described how he wrote his stories:
They [stories] arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.
(Letter 131; emphasis added)
This is a spectacular approach and also one of the reasons why, I believe, Tolkien’s books come across as authentic historical accounts, not the works of fiction. The author here works as a narrator telling his readers the stories that he heard from someone and is eager to share them. Interestingly, keeping in mind the vast collection of The History of Middle-earth and the answers these volumes can provide, Tolkien is not an omniscient narrator. There are a lot of mysteries in the tales that the Professor never explained or left intentionally unexplained, and it is these blank spots that make the stories even more believable, not vice versa: out story-teller was not told everything, after all.
In the same letter to Waldman the Professor stated that he wanted to “make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic …. – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country” (Letter 131) To achieve this plausibility of mythology Tolkien positioned his main stories, i.e. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as originating from the Red Book of Westmarch – the account of Bilbo’s and Frodo’s adventures written by the Hobbits themselves and also containing Bilbo’s translation of the legends from the Elder Days from Elvish as well as Hobbit poetry and background information on certain kingdoms and other matters. The books itself did not survive but several copies of it were made and preserved.
References to different characters compiling the book or Bilbo’s doing translations from Elvish, detailed information on kingdoms or Hobbit customs, notes on everyday life and particular dates assigned to certain events create an aura of historicism around all of the books. In Tolkien’s execution the world of Middle-earth is not flat, but a real, physically palpable, three-dimensional universe where every little detail matters and occupies its own place, just like it does in the world we live in.
Historical authenticity is also achieved by connections between different times and ages in the form of poems, verses and references to the objects, days, characters or events of old. Thus, when we read that Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves find the swords of the High Elves made in Gondolin or when Elrond recollects the events of the War of the Last Alliance, when Strider and the four Hobbits see the now-stone Trolls that Bilbo and the Dwarves encountered in their quest or when Sauron turns out to be the servant of the Dark Lord Morgoth who terrorized Middle-earth in the First Age, we feel the immeasurable depths of these stories. Ages pass, and characters and events change, but the big tale remains the same, because, as Sam is right in noticing, great tales never end. Such references to the past times never pass unnoticed: in those familiar with the stories these mentions can cause a thrill of remembering something familiar or desire to dive once more into the stories of old. But first-time readers are likely to get a thrill of a different kind – the one of curiosity to learn more which can take them straight to the nearest bookshop.
Apart from historical references and poems, which create a sense of continuity between ages, another vital element of Middle-earth’s plausibility is languages. Tolkien’s Elvish languages are so detailed, elaborate and well-structured that it is perfectly possible to learn both Quenya and Sindarin and speak them at a basic level. They do not come down to just a few words created for the false and shallow effect of otherworldliness, but are actual languages that develop, change and evolve just like ours do. Tolkien was a talented philologist, so he was perfectly aware of how words work. The creation of Elvish tongues was the point where Middle-earth started: it was the language that gave rise to the world where it could live, evolve and be spoken.
In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien said:
Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He 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.
Tolkien himself was a very successful sub-creator. By thinking out the world down to the tiniest details, having considered many things that constitute this world and by giving life to it, the Professor created Middle-earth which many people find appealing, relatable and easy to believe in. This, to me, is the greatest wonder of literature.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Tree and Leaf; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.