I was 35 when I first read The Lord of the Rings. I am not sure why it took so long. When I was a kid some friends must have briefed me on its contents for I have wistful memories of wizards and monstrous creatures momentarily emerging from a landscape of mist and danger, tinged with grandeur and longing. They were dreamy pictures, and I was a dreamy kid. In the end, my Thor comic books must have somehow sufficed, or at least distracted me from a deeper encounter with Tolkien’s Nordic inspired myth. Years later, after having read all of Tolkien’s works a few times over, it was clear to me that my own soulful experience of its imaginative power had not been conjured by mere fantasy. The story had crawled into my soul, gripped the edges and held on like it had a life of its own. I stood in the world differently knowing that this grand imagery existed. I can still step into it now and feel stirred in the same mysterious way I did at the age of 12.
I waded into the growing scholarly and popular commentary on Tolkien, in particular those you attempted to take up the elusive question of what the story means. The perspectives are broad and diverse. One senses a competitive edge amoung the Christians, mythology enthusiasts, and literary scholars for the prize of unearthing the mysterious allure of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It’s understandable. Such an achievement would surely bring validation to their own perspective, theology or beliefs. As I began to see more and more links to anthroposophy I had to periodically remind myself to attend to the details of the story as much as possible.
My search yielded returns. The most notable were Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, as well as the startling and largely overlooked Jungian study by Timothy O’Neill, The Individuated Hobbit. Flieger brilliantly unveils the organizing principle of The Silmarillion (the long labour of Tolkien’s life and prequel to Lord of the Rings) to be anthroposophist Owen Barfield’s notion of the ‘ancient semantic unity’ of language, an idea embedded in Rudolf Steiner’s work on the evolution of consciousness. O’Neill’s work unveils its own skeleton in the tale – a vast, archetypal architecture of coherence within the story. Where many commentators focused on content, O’ Neill showed the relevance of the story’s form. The relationship between these two works led me down new paths.
But it was what Tolkien himself said about mythic imagination that intrigued me the most. Tolkien had not only created something unique and imaginatively powerful. He had also revealed, in quite a confident tone, why he was able to do so. In 1938, during the writing of The Lord of the Rings, he gave an address titled ‘On Fairy Stories’ and declared: “Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.”
Faërie is Tolkien’s term for the mythopoeic imagination, a form of story rapidly vanishing in the days of his youth. ‘Indescribable though not imperceptible’… I had to really consider this when I first read it. Here was that same hint of grandeur and longing as my childhood memory. To perceive what I can’t describe … I tried to imagine the kind of knowing such a statement is alluding to. It seemed to suggest that between the feeling of meaning and its ‘capture’ by analysis, is some kind of sacred place, as if, disarmed of our ‘net of words’ we venture into this realm under its laws, not our own.
In the same essay he delivered the warning again: “The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but it’s very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”It doesn’t feel like he is discussing a literary technique here, nor a statement of his religious faith imposed on his fiction. But if we look closely I think we can ‘see’ what Tolkien is saying. Is this statement a description or a definition? Strangely, it seems to be both. Faërie is image, he seems to be saying, not idea, technique or any fanciful creation. Its very nature is pictorial experience, possible only as long as we maintain the integrity of the whole image. Try and stand outside the image, try to be objective and analyse and look in from without, and the gates are shut. One can’t define the ‘realm of fairy story’ because its definition is image (not imperceptible), not words (indescribable). Rather than define Faerie in concepts, Tolkien simply points to the image.
This approach stands in contrast to Tolkien commentators who seem are all too eager at times to cast a net of words over his work and haul in anything that sticks.
When I reread the above passage it made me think of the value that Rudolf Steiner placed on fairy tales and myth for children. Their inherent morality supports the later emergence of human-centered ethical thinking. The images in the tales undergo a slow digestion and metamorphosis from precept to concept that can be pedagogically free of explanations or analysis.
Tolkien seems to be saying something akin to this. ‘The realm of fairy tale’ isn’t meant to be understood as much as it is meant to be digested, or at least not understood in a way that interrupts our engagement with the image. Tolkien hints at the possibile dramatic narratives that might arise in this realm, but that doesn’t seem to be his point. He seems more interested in declaring its laws, not a backdrop for narratives.
Leaning into Anthroposophy for ideas, it occurred to me that three elements are present in Tolkien’s description-as-definition of Faërie, three elements that, taken together, reflect its wholeness and integrity, and may even be the source of its secretive enchantment: the unity of truth, beauty and goodness.
Truth appears in the presence of both joy and sorrow, for one is meaningless without the other and the presence of only one would lack the realism of life; in the ever-present peril, for this realm does not exist to offer entertainment or diversion. Truth is present also in the indescribable nature of Faërie, for it doesn’t depend on being caught in a net of words to manifest. It is there just beyond the boundaries of language, independent of human concepts.
Beauty is ever-present and indeed the natural state of Faerie. There, beauty is fact, not something of subjective taste or question. It is enchantment, Tolkien states matter-of-factly.
Goodness appears in the familiarity of the realm, its seas, stars, the birds and beasts of its wide, deep and high existence are an expansion of our own connection to life-affirming qualities of our natural world. All that is good about the world is there. The traveller’s time is not one of exploration into the unknown, like a journey to another planet. The ‘strangeness’ of the realm is felt in the unfamiliar experience of the unity of truth, beauty and goodness Enchantment doesn’t come easily to our concept-focused consciousness. We are ‘fortunate’ to have experienced it, Tolkien says. Our modern consciousness no longer freely allows such knowledge of our nature. With the right mythic image and the openness to percept over concept, our nature can become ‘not imperceptible’ to us.
In his lecture, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Steiner correlates each of these with a part of our nature – truth with a feeling of right relationship to our physical being, beauty with a strengthening of our feeling for the etheric body, and goodness with our astral body. If Steiner is correct then Tolkien’s notion of enchantment and the peril found therein begins to make even more sense. Their unity is not just a fanciful literary technique but in fact a reflection of the unity of our very being.
One might see why Tolkien would issue warnings against questions and analysis and focus our attention on pictorial experience. Our concepts are limited when it comes to understanding the unity of truth, beauty and goodness. For though we modern humans may have developed our thinking we haven’t necessarily developed wisdom. I think Steiner might agree with Gandalf when he warns the prideful Saurman, “He who breaks a thing to understand it, has left the path of wisdom.”
Join Mark for one of his presentation/discussions on Anthroposophy in the Lord of the Rings where he goes much farther into the connections between Tolkien’s modern myth and Steiner’s work on the evolution of consciousness, evil and a modern spiritual path.