See the interview with Dimitra Fimi in this issue.
“One of the most illuminating books on Tolkien so far to be published”
A review of Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History
The impact of The History of Middle-earth on Tolkien studies has been slow in developing, at least in terms of the number of books which place it at the centre of the discussion. The portrait it reveals of the chronological development of Tolkien’s invented mythology is of self-evident importance, but critics and readers have only begun to mine this rich seam. However, we now consider a discussion of Tolkien’s mythology which not only makes full use of the History but integrates it with much else in the way of Tolkien’s biography and cultural background, and in fact, I believe, is one of the most illuminating books on Tolkien so far to be published (with one qualification, which we shall return to at the end).
Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History is a review of certain important influences on the formation and development of Tolkien’s invented languages and mythology _ and in particular exactly how Tolkien responded to those influences in the formation of many aspects of his invented world. As such it has a strong biographical basis.
Part I, on the beginnings of the mythology, shows how ‘Elf-centred’ it was. The Elves’ contrast to Men in terms of their deathlessness and immortality allows Tolkien to envision the human situation from outside. They carry the weight of Tolkien’s ‘sub-creation’, and yet in their beginnings they were very different from what they later became.
In later years Tolkien despised the images of fairies to be found in Victorian children’s literature (indeed going back to Drayton and Shakespeare) _ tiny beings who lived in flowers and sprouted antennae. Yet his early ‘fairy’ poems reflected exactly that perception. Think of ‘Goblin Feet’. But even here, there is a poignant sense of the fading, of the loss, of these beings from the world, which lasted all Tolkien’s life. The mentions of fairy-folk in the earliest poems of the mythology proper reflect this. The fading of the fairies from the Lonely Isle which later becomes Britain is one of the earliest themes. In the Lost Tales, Men and Elves are of about the same stature, but Men have in the time since grown bigger and more solid, while the fairies have dwindled and become more insubstantial. The one, it seems, is somehow responsible for the other. Thus Tolkien was here attempting to account for the fairies’ contemporary diminutiveness. The diminishment in size was soon lost from the mythology, but the ‘fading’ remained.
Fimi traces the use of elves and fairies not in the mythology but in the stories for his own children that Tolkien wrote. In The Father Christmas Letters they are small. In Roverandom of the mid-20s, we get a glimpse of them. And the elves of The Hobbit are still a bit like that even if not (apparently) diminutive. But of course, although these stories used elements of the developing mythology, they were none of them initially meant to be part of it, so perhaps Tolkien felt that he could retain the ‘childlike’ elves for his young readers. (To be frank, this results in some excruciating elvish dialogue, as in The Hobbit: ‘Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn’t it delicious!’ ‘Most astonishing wonderful!’) Fimi examines the imagery of fairies in Victorian and Edwardian times, i.e., during Tolkien’s early life, when much of his imagination was being formed against that background. The roots of this can be found in the Shakespeare revival of the late eighteenth century, and also the new folklore, with its fairy characters. Tolkien started writing in this period, so naturally he used fairies as they were presented, given his own sentimentality and romanticism. ‘Goblin Feet’ reflects this. (Such terms as ‘goblins’, ‘fairies’, ‘elves’, ‘gnomes’, etc. were used loosely and interchangeably.) When he decided that ‘Qenya’ was the language of the fairies, some of its words reflected the ‘flower-fairies’, e.g. Nardi, a flower fairy, Tetille, a fairy who lived in a poppy. Peter Pan, which powerfully impressed Tolkien when he saw it in 1910, immediately preceded his earliest ‘fairy’ poems (only children see fairies, but as they grow up …). These fairies provided a starting point for Tolkien _ although as his own vision grew he spurned them.
Fimi shows how fairies fitted into three main strands of the young Tolkien’s interests: religion, a lost mythology for England, and language. The early TCBS saw itself as the nucleus of a reforming movement, ‘to drive from life, letters, the stage and society the dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life and nature ...’ Tolkien seems to have envisioned the fairies as ‘higher’ creatures with a moral obligation to humanity. A religious connection might be found in the poetry of Francis Thompson, a Catholic mystic, whose Sister Songs involve fairy beings that could be seen as a manifestation of the God-created spirit of Nature and elemental spirits show up in The Book of Lost Tales, later regularized as the Maiar.
Tolkien decided to create a mythology for his own country (an Anglo-Saxon mythology at least), inspired primarily by the example of the Finnish Kalevala. At this time there was what Fimi calls ‘a moment of pure English nationalism’ in which the pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon period was seen as a lost golden age. The Anglo-Saxons lacked a mythology compared with the Celtic peoples of the British Isles, but the fairies as portrayed in folklore offered a glimpse of a lost mythology, so they naturally came into Tolkien’s creation of one.
When it comes to the invented languages spoken by the fairies/elves, Fimi questions Tolkien’s often stated view that the languages came first and the mythology followed, largely to provide a pseudo-historical matrix within which those languages could evolve. She thinks that fairies/religion, and fairies in the ‘mythology for England’, came first. The earliest example of ‘Qenya’ comes after the earliest written pieces of the mythology proper, The Voyage of Earendil the Evening Star, and Tolkien’s attempt to adapt the tale of Kullervo from the Kalevala (eventually the tale of Túrin). She reasonably concludes that language-invention and myth-making began independently but rapidly became interconnected. But linguistic invention always remained of primary importance to Tolkien, and it was doubtless this creative primacy which came to produce a temporal primacy in his own mind.
Tolkien initially approached language on the purely aesthetic level of the sounds of words independent of their meaning. But the next step in a linguistic evolution is ‘phonetic fitness’, when a word sounds just right for its intended meaning. Later in life, Tolkien developed the idea of ‘inherent linguistic predilections’ which are tied in with one’s ancestry: such a thing is literally inherited as indeed could memory, as shown in The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers. But Fimi thinks that some of Tolkien’s own linguistic predilections, by his associating certain values with them, give glimpses of a lost history, or religious associations.
But language-invention was nothing new when Tolkien first turned his hand to it. The notion of a universal language goes back a long time. The myth of a pre-Babel language (at least in the West) gave rise to attempts to re-create it or at least to construct a language which, going beyond the limitations and imperfections of existing languages, might be considered an ideal original language. Modern times saw a shift to the idea of international languages, to facilitate practical communication between peoples, Esperanto being the obvious example here. According to Fimi, 1880–1914 saw 145 such projects, so, in creating his own languages, Tolkien was very much in touch with his times, rather than being an exception to them. He knew Esperanto at 17. ‘Qenya’ might be seen as an attempt to produce such an ideal language. Noting that the early Qenya language contains a number of overtly religious terms, Fimi comments: ‘Although it is not clear here how these terms and phrases would be integrated in Tolkien’s nascent mythology, it is very tempting to associate them with the romantic plans of the TCBS for a moral cleansing of Britain and the re-establishment of beauty and holiness in the world’ (p. 98). Which might perhaps be as clear a statement of Tolkien’s original ‘project’ as we are ever likely to get.
Then there is the notion of language decay. The ancient Indo-European language was hypothesized as the ancestor of many modern languages of India and Europe, but as no examples survive it has had to be reconstructed, the reconstructed words being denoted by a preceding asterisk, *thus. This concept is linked with the above-mentioned ideal languages in that they both entail a search for perfection. But even a perfect language decays over time with its use by short-lived speakers (a notion that itself goes back two millennia). This is reflected in the evolution of the languages of Middle-earth, especially in the Lhammas (and Lammasethan) of the late 1930s. Here a language is considered the more beautiful the closer it is to the primordial language of the Valar. Linguistic change speeded up after the destruction of the Two Trees. While they grew, change was very slow. But with the time measured by the Sun and Moon, it quickened in pace.
Fimi touches on the way that artificial languages can be written, i.e. imaginary alphabets. Calligraphy ran in Tolkien’s family, and his own invented alphabets go back to his schooldays. Although begun independently of the legendarium, they very quickly became subsumed within it (although he also maintained an interest in an improved English alphabet for most of his life). Again, improved alphabets have a long history, e.g. Francis Lodwick’s ‘Universall Alphabet’ of 1686. Of course, Tolkien’s own aesthetic preferences always played a large part in his created letter-forms.
So much for various of the seminally important matters of the early days of Tolkien’s invented mythology. Fimi goes on to explore certain themes pertinent to how that mythology developed. The Hobbit was not intended initially as a part of that mythology (despite using elements from it as ready-made background). However, when the Silmarillion as it then existed was rejected by Allen & Unwin, Tolkien began to work on the sequel to The Hobbit, which became, of course, The Lord of the Rings. And that indeed became (as did The Hobbit retrospectively) a part of the mythology. The important point here is that all this introduced a new mode of writing: ‘historical’ as opposed to ‘mythological’. (Also, publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings ‘fixed’ elements of the mythology, an approach which later caused problems.)
In fact, writing The Lord of the Rings either initiated, or heightened, a considerable shift in the way that Tolkien understood his own invented mythology: it had, he felt, to be accommodated to accepted reality in order to make it plausible to its readers in the modern world: especially plausible in the physical sense, which raised serious questions about the flat world of the mythology; but also plausible in the religious sense, for it had to be at least consistent with Christianity (or, more so, with Catholicism). These questions were so difficult that Tolkien was never able quite to resolve them. And, importantly, it raised questions about the framework in which the various ‘parts’ of the ‘Silmarillion’ were to be presented. (We might observe that just as the Hobbits are a form of mediation for modern readers of The Lord of the Rings, so the very framework of the ‘Silmarillion’ could be understood to serve as a form of mediation for the invented mythology.) At first they were the writings of Eriol, or Ælfwine, of the 5th (or 11th) century, who voyages West to the Isle of the Fairies/Elves and hears their stories; Britain was, in some degree, part of that mythology in that it was initially the Isle itself (or, rather, what it became). The introduction of the matter of Númenor allowed for a transition from a flat to a round world. Tolkien moved towards making the whole mythology a ‘mannish’ affair: the Elves doubtless had true knowledge, but Men only remembered confused versions which went to make up their own mythology. Doing this, however, put even the Silmarils one of the oldest and most central elements of the mythology into some insignificance. The book of Eriol eventually became (to cut a long story short) the three volumes of material Bilbo had put together in Rivendell, mostly of Númenórean, i.e. mannish, origin. The Elves retained the true knowledge from the Valar, although they don’t, then, seem to have put any great effort into correcting Men’s mistaken ideas. (But Tolkien did not adopt the concept of different, but convergent, pasts that he had explored in The Notion Club Papers, which might, conceivably, have resolved some of these difficulties.) But by this time the presence of the specific geographical connection with Britain had long since been abandoned; now, the tales were set in a vague ‘North-West of the Old World’.
Fimi discusses the sensitive topic of ‘race’ in Tolkien’s world. In his youth, ‘race’ was a fairly established notion; in the 1930s, partly as a response to Nazism, ‘race’ as a scientific concept grew untenable. Tolkien’s very early opinions reflect (alas) the ideology of his time. But he and they changed: his response to the request from the German publisher of a translation of The Hobbit in 1938, for an attestation of his ‘aryan’ ancestry, is well known (‘pernicious and unscientific race doctrine’), and ‘Nordic’ was a term he came especially to dislike: ‘it is associated … with racialist theories’ (see Letters, pp. 37, 375). Yet Tolkien’s own field of philology had helped to confuse language and race. The speakers of a particular language were historically some kind of unity, be it ‘nation’, ‘culture’, or ‘race’. In his classification of the ‘races’ (or kindreds or whatever) of Middle-earth, Tolkien did have a tendency to establish a hierarchy: Elves are at the top, divided by their relationship to the light of the Trees. Then, with Men, the Three Houses of the Edain, whose descendants are given gifts of wisdom and longevity as the Númenóreans, seem to be a ‘high’ group. We recall Faramir’s words: ‘For so we reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West …; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight …; and the Wild, the Men of Darkness ….’ The matter of Orcs is difficult: they bear a disturbing resemblance to John Longdon Downs’ nineteenth-century description of those who suffered from the syndrome that came to bear his name. There is something of a tension between Tolkien’s own private views on ‘race’ and the ideology seemingly found in the mythology where, as Fimi notes, there exists a strict racial hierarchy with Orcs at the bottom yet we see later Middle-earth writings question the latter concept.
Fimi also notes that while Tolkien does much creating of languages and history, there is little in the material culture of Middle-earth that is described in detail: certainly not for the First Age, at least. But that shifted somewhat with the advent of the narrative historical mode. Even so, much details of pottery, domestic implements, economics, architecture isn’t there. But Tolkien certainly conceived the Rohirrim as being very like the ‘ancient English’ (or Anglo-Saxons) in this way. By contrast the Shire, in terms of its material culture, stands out as a glaring anachronism, with its pipe-smoking, umbrellas, kettles, etc. But such anachronism had its origins in The Hobbit, which was hardly conceived as a serious part of the legendarium to begin with, and was only subsequently admitted. (We should note that, in the nineteen-sixties, Tolkien had wanted to rewrite it entirely.) Fimi points out that to the extent that the Shire’s Old Mill is based on Sarehole Mill then perhaps it represented a false nostalgia, as Sarehole Mill was clearly connected to the Industrial Revolution (a dark satanic mill indeed!). Fimi notices some other aspects of material culture, e.g. cremation is used in association with evil characters (reflecting the Catholic Church’s attitude?); and the matter of linguistic consistency, e.g. the ‘Book of Mazarbul’ using English words written in Dwarf-runes. These problems were burdensome for Tolkien. As Christopher Tolkien noted (pointed out by Fimi), it wasn’t that Tolkien couldn’t finish The Silmarillion, it was that he couldn’t finish the post-Lord of the Rings Silmarillion: he was unable to satisfactorily integrate the mythical (old) with the historical (Lord of the Rings) aspects of his invented world. (If only he had had more time and energy!)
Fimi’s book is one of the most interesting and original analyses of Tolkien’s subcreation that has been published for a long time. It is also, lest anyone be put off by any implications of an over-academic tone in the foregoing, very clearly written. It should form part of the reading of any serious student of Tolkien. My only real qualm is that I cannot unreservedly recommend the book in its present form. The text is littered with any number of errata of various sorts, spelling, punctuation, grammar and the like. I do not blame Dr Fimi for these but rather the production processes of a publisher which has decided to forego the usual apparatus of sub-editing and proof-reading and then go on to charge an eye-watering price (the same as the Scull and Hammond Companion & Guide) for the book. Perhaps a reprint (and this book surely deserves to be kept in print) might afford an opportunity for the necessary corrections.
Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Dimitra Fimi. Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2009. 216 pp. (ISBN 978-0-230-21951-9) £50.00.
This review is extracted and adapted, with permission, from a longer review article of several new studies of Tolkien that appeared on Plaza (http://www.lotrplaza.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=234548)
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