The Spirit of Tolkien

Drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien and published
in the first impression of The Hobbit,
in Chapter 4 (Over Hill and Under Hill).
The Heraldic Device of the
House of Hador,
as drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien

What I believe to be the guiding principle behind and purpose of the Fantasy genre at its best, the Spirit of Tolkien is the optimistic spirit and integrity which the books try to impart upon the reader; a sense of moral high-minded optimistic realism. Characters like Gandalf[1] all show the value of deep knowledge and wisdom along with the fact that such lofty things are not exclusive to the old but may be attained with experience and general cleverness; the Hobbits, after all, along with Harry Potter, Eragon, and so many others grew into wisdom probably without realizing it by the end of it all. Most importantly though, the Spirit of Tolkien teaches selflessness in the face of evil and that virtue can and often will be victorious in the end. It stands for the idea that it is the everyday deeds of ordinary folk which keeps the Dark at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love and a refusal to give in and abandon personal integrity when there is an easy but amoral solution to various kinds of trouble.

On this vein, I think that among the most vital lessons Fantasy literature has to offer is the value of friendship. Think about it – the protagonist, if indeed there even is only one, always relies on her/his friends and allies for support both personal and military; the lesson being that, in the immortals words of Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender, that "there is nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you."

Gandalf the Grey
In short, friendship and the ability to make friends is more valuable than any magic sword. If you do not believe me then just ask Gandalf, who is without question one of (if not the) greatest wizard in Fantasy literature. In his Book of Unfinished Tales more properly called the Unfinished Tales of NĂșmenor and Middle-earth Tolkien describes him as such:
"The Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within. Merry he could be, and kindly to the young and simple, yet quick at times to sharp speech and the rebuking of folly; but he was not proud, and beloved among those who were not themselves proud. Mostly he journeyed unwearingly on foot, leaning on a staff; and so he was called among Men of the North Gandalf, 'the Elf of the Wand'. For they deemed him (though in error, as has been said) to be of Elven-kind, since he would at times works wonders among them, loving especially the beauty of fire; and yet such marvels he wrought mostly for mirth and delight, and desired not that any should hold him in awe or take his counsels out of fear."

This being the case, and as is known from the mostly accurate movies, Gandalf Greyhame is a wellspring of wise quotes and his counsel quite literally saved Middle-earth. Still, I have recently come to the conclusion that possibly the most important thing he whom the Elves call Mithrandir ever did was set Samwise Gamgee to be Frodo's companion on the road. Then Gildor Inglorion's Elves said "Don’t you leave him."
That simple line, coupled with his love for Frodo, kept Sam with the Ringbearer through fire and fear, darkness and death, and a giant spider whom  – though a black terror to all  – he bested per the strength of overpowering friendship. A friendship and companionship that Frodo needed and would have ultimately failed without; hence, by extension, making it the quote that saved Middle-earth from a second darkness. Yet, interesting, Gandalf himself did not appear to fully recognize the power of Sam's loyalty.

"Then you know about Frodo!' said Gimli. "How do things go with him?"
"I cannot say. He was saved from a great peril, but many lie before him still. He resolved to go alone to Mordor, and he set out: that is all that I can say."
"Not alone," said Legolas. "We think that Sam went with him."
"Did he!" said Gandalf, and there was a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. "Did he indeed? It is news to me, yet it does not surprise me. Good! Very good! You lighten my heart. You must tell me more. Now sit by me and tell me the tale of your journey."
Well, perhaps in typical Gandalf manner he knew and did not know simultaneously. I certainly cannot truly fathom the mind of the White Rider. Still, I think the consequences of his binding Sam to Frodo proved true another of his sayings, this time and poetically applied directly back to himself: "Even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Another one of the beauties of the High Fantasy is that it teaches critical real-world lessons in totally out of this world ways. For example, take the age old question of: What does one's race have to do with friendship?
None that I can see. Take Legolas and Gimli, Elf and Dwarf and about as different as different can be, as another and arguably the most famous instance. One loves gems and mountains, the other woodlands and flowers, and there is a long history of distrust, scorn, and even war between their races. Yet between them blossoms a friendship based on battle-born trust, a hugely funny love of slaying orcs, and a whole host of shared experiences coupled with being the sole representatives of their races in the War of the Ring as fought in Gondor and Rohan. Not enough? Well, who can explain why people become friends? Sometimes it just works and, in my experience, the strange friendships often turn out to be the best. The point though is that racial differences were overcome to the degree that, long after the Sauron's fall and the death of Aragorn, when they were last two living members of the Fellowship in Middle Earth, Legolas took Gimli to the Undying Lands with him.

Hence Fantasy is about compassion, courage, curiosity, and a refusal to give up hope even when all seems lost and world is burning up around you. It is about the fact that, deep down, there is more Good in the world than Evil and that even the smallest candle can keep the Dark at bay. It is the spirit that teaches us to seek to make the world a better place, to value the simply joys in life and not seek power for ourselves. It is the spirit that recognizes evil and foulness, but retains optimism about and with the world at large and fights for the best and brightest future possible. It is the spirit which reminds us that true and greatest heroes are the small, everyday people who overcome the challenges thrown at them and continue onward.
It is the spirit of the idealistic realist.

Thus the Spirit of Tolkien is what I believe Fantasy is all about – it’s clear and bright purpose – and the man himself describes it best of all:

“Fairy tale does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final a fleeting glimpse of Joy; Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” – J.R.R. Tolkien 

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” – J.R.R. Tolkien 

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” – J.R.R. Tolkien 

"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter." – J.R.R. Tolkien 

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – J.R.R. Tolkien 

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Great War that forged a Great Writer 

 (I believe now is a good time to engrave what I posted on the important day of Sunday, November 11, 2018)


Tolkien as a second lieutenant in the
Lancashire Fusiliers (in 1916, aged 24)
I have always abstained from commenting on current real-world events here on Stars Uncounted but, today, I think I can make an exception. For a hundred years ago this day all quiet fell upon the western front as the armistice that ended the World War I was declared.

A war that saw the service of a man who expressed admiration for his wife's willingness to marry a man with no job, little money, and no prospects except the likelihood of being killed in it. A man whose relatives were shocked when he elected not to immediately volunteer for the British Army, and who later recalled that "in those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage." But he did join, later writing that "Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then ... it was like a death."
Today I pay tribute to the end of the First World War the only way possible on a Fantasy blog: by recognizing and paying homage to the particular service of the man I have described above. A man who fought in the trenches on the Western Front, most notably in the Battle of the Somme. A second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien who, while recovering from an injury, began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin.

One has heard (at length) my praises of the author of The Lord of the Rings before, so today I will simply leave one to contemplate on how Tolkien's experiences of the true horror of war influenced his writings. With that in mind, let us look at these now familiar quotes of his again.
  • "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?...If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!"
  • “I do not love the bright sword for it's sharpness, nor the arrow for it's swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
  • “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

And here are three that are new, the last perhaps the most poignant: 
  • "The most improper job of any man ... is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity."
  • "The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism."
  • "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." 

J. R. R. Tolkien ("Beren", 1892–1973), author and academic, together with his wife Edith ("LĂșthien", 1889–1971)

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still round the corner there may wait  
A new road or a secret gate,  
And though I oft have passed them by,  
A day will come at last when I  
Shall take the hidden paths that run  
West of the Moon, East of the Sun."

[1] Dumbledore, Allanon, Obi-Wan Kenobi & Yoda, Aslan, Halt the Ranger, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Brom & Oromis, Merriman Lyon, Cadvan of Lirigon, Belgarath the Sorcerer, and Luthe.

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