Authors: Adam Roberts
There are riddles in Christianity too, although communicants usually refer to them by the less trivial-sounding term ‘mysteries’. I discuss some of those below as well; but for the moment I am interested in the pre-Christian, or early-Christian, ground upon which Tolkien’s fantasies erect their eventual moments of consolation.
Not everybody shares Tolkien’s view of the Anglo-Saxons. John M. Hill deplores (though courteously) the sense of Old English culture found in the work of scholars such as Ker, Raymond Wilson Chambers (a friend of Tolkien) and Tolkien himself, with their stress upon ‘the angst of Germanic heroes caught in the chains of circumstance or their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall’. These perspectives, Hill suggests,
‘endure without apparent half-life … well into the last decades of the twentieth-century’, and quotes Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson by way of illustration:
A pagan warrior brought up in this tradition would show a reckless disregard for his life. When he was doomed or not, courage was best, for the brave man could win
[‘glory’] whilst the coward might die before his time. This is the spirit which inspired the code of the
. While his lord lived, the warrior owed him loyalty unto death. If his lord were killed, the warrior had to avenge him or die in the attempt (and in extreme cases, perhaps, die with him). The lord had in his turn the duty of protecting his warriors. He had to be a great fighter to attract men, a man of noble character and a generous giver of feasts and treasures to hold them.
Hill’s point is not that this view is false, but that there is more ‘artful variation’ and ‘situational irony’ in the way it actually manifested; that the Anglo-Saxon warrior lived through the riddle of matching pagan belligerence with Christian pacifism in a way more than merely self-contradictory. This strikes me as right; but it also strikes me that Tolkien’s own fiction advances a much more ironic ethos than is sometimes thought.
The Anglo-Saxon view of life is that it is a riddle not because it can be in some sense ‘solved’, but because there is an ironic relationship between what is presented and what is meant—between what is to-hand and how things really are. ‘Riddling’ is the best way to apprehend this irony, because the mismatch is something to be encountered playfully, joyfully, not surlily or resentfully. When you have fought bravely in battle and still lost, when your army is smashed and your lord killed beside you, the obvious (we might say: the
) thing to do would be to concede defeat and surrender oneself to grief and despair. But the Anglo-Saxon response to such a situation is to
, to fight harder. At the end of ‘The Battle of Maldon’, Byrhtwold addresses his exhausted comrades in some of the most famous words in the entire Anglo-Saxon canon (words Tolkien adapted for the speech of Theoden before the battle of Minas Tirith, in
The Return of the King
The will shall be harder, the courage shall be keener
Spirit shall grow great, as our strength falls away.
a cosmic scale, this exultant irony, this counter-intuitive, riddling manner of being-in-the-world, finds expression in the Norse myth of
—the twilight of the gods. According to this story the impending end of the world will not be a righteous last judgement that shall reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, as in Christian traditions, but rather a glorious defeat in the battle between the gods and the forces of chaos. W. P. Ker thought
a kind of answer, proposed by the Anglo-Saxons to themselves, to the riddle of existence: ‘their last independent guess at the secret of the universe’.
As far as it goes, and as a working theory, it is absolutely impregnable. It is the assertion of the individual freedom against all the terrors and temptations of the world. It is absolutely resistance, perfect because without hope. The Northern gods are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason; but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat is not refutation.
‘What is a defeat that is not a refutation?’ takes the form of a riddle; and it has more than one answer. For Christians, like Tolkien himself, it is a description of the death of Christ, an individual extinction that is paradoxically eternal life for him and all his followers. Many critics have discussed the way Tolkien reconciled his own devoutly-held Catholic beliefs with this pre-Christian, very different answer to the puzzle. What is a defeat but not a refutation for the northmen?
, ‘an allegory’ (to quote Ker again) ‘of the Teutonic self-will, carried to its noblest terms, deified by men for whom all religion was coming to be meaningless except “trust in one’s own might and main”—the creed of Kjartan Olafson (from the
) and Sigmundur Brestisson (in the
) before they accepted Christianity.’
I suppose the danger is that this hefty, belligerent self-will may strike modern sensibilities as merely lunkish; or worse, as quasi-fascistic. What redeems it, I think, is the wit with which it is carried off: very far removed from the ponderous, deadening seriousness of those repellent twentieth-century political ideologies that styled themselves ‘Nordic’ in order to terrorise the world and destroy millions. A large part of the difference has precisely to do with the relationship of this ideology to truth. Truth for the fascist is
something linear, forceful and strong. Truth in the sense this book discusses it is something more fundamentally oblique. Truth is not a swordstroke. Truth is a riddle.
‘The riddle’ also solves one of the problems of storytelling, what we could call the problem of fiction itself. It has occurred to many readers, as it certainly occurred to Tolkien—indeed, it has been one of the great ethical debates surrounding the novel in English since at least the eighteenth-century—that fiction is not true. I hardly need remind you that telling untruths, which we call ‘lying’, is a moral wrong. Storytelling is a special kind of lie, of course. It is marked, quite apart from anything else, by the reluctance of its auditors to call the teller on his or her mendacity. When a storyteller starts a story with ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome clever and rich … ’ we do not immediately shout out ‘there never was such a person! You just made her up!’
A news report (assuming it be truthful) or a person relating the day’s events to a friend (assuming she has no desire to distort or mislead) are both stories that have a straightforward relationship to the reality they describe. Critics call this ‘mimetic’, a word with an rather complex semantic field, but which is the basis of the English words ‘imitation’, ‘mimic’ and ‘mimeograph’. It means that the stories copy reality, in much the way that a mimic copies somebody else, or a mimeograph copies whatever is written on a piece of paper. Mimesis does not mean that we are liable to confuse the imitation
reality. We are usually clever enough to tell that a mimic is only imitating somebody, not actually becoming that person; and we are almost always clever enough to know that we are hearing a story about the world, rather than somehow seeing the world itself through a magic casement. Irony, though, is different. An ironic story does not seek to reproduce or mimic the reality it represents; it goes about the business of representing reality in a more complicated, even a more twisted, manner. This, though, does not make the ironic worldview
. On the contrary, and for the reasons I discuss above, I tend to consider it a truer mode of art than simple mimesis.
There are various sorts of ironic storytelling. One goes by the name Postmodernism, something with which I personally have a great deal of sympathy, but which we can be fairly sure that Tolkien himself (had he lived long enough to see its coming into vogue in the 1980s and 1990s) would have cordially disliked to an even greater degree than he disliked allegory. Then again there is another
mode of ‘ironic’ art, more elegant and more widely celebrated than Postmodernism, although we might think equally removed from Tolkien’s own storytelling instincts. This is embodied in the novels of writers such as Jane Austen or Henry James, both of whom were fascinated by the ironies life throws up, and who framed their stories via a series of beautifully judged formal and stylistic ironic moves. Tolkien’s irony is of a different sort to this. His Catholicism was a genuine, deep part of his being. That meant that he thought of the world as simultaneously mundane
divine; as a realm in which all the ordinary obviousnesses obtain but also as an arena in which the sometimes puzzling grace of God works itself out.
Readers often note that Middle-earth, although rendered in extraordinarily vivid detail and breadth, contains no temples or churches, no priests or holy men. This was a deliberate choice by Tolkien, not because he wanted to repudiate his religious beliefs in his writing, but for exactly the opposite reason—because the whole world was intended to embody the religion. Tolkien wrote to a Jesuit friend in 1953 ‘
The Lord of the Rings
is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work … that is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’
To read Tolkien’s published letters is to be struck, time and again, how deeply he meditated the incarnation as the central mystery of Christianity. That God became man, that the immortal died (to be born again), that the divine realm and the material realm intersected in this unique occurrence—all this, for Tolkien, is a riddle of the profoundest and most reverent sort.
I want to dilate upon this point for a moment by pointing to a particular riddle of incarnation that occurs in
The Lord of the Rings
. The ents, who appear in
The Lord of the Rings
, are one of many strange beings that populate Tolkien’s landscape, but they are also a riddle. ‘Ent’ is an Anglo-Saxon word. It occurs, for instance, several times in
where it means ‘giant’ in the particular sense of malign, pagan creatures stalking the wilds, a menace to men. Indeed, the Beowulf-poet suggests that ‘ents’ are descendants of the Biblical Cain—like Grendl himself:
From Cain’s bloodline all wickedness was woken,
all ents and elves and all of the orcs too,
those giants that grappled with God
for a long time; but at last they were paid off!
Tolkien takes orcs to be wicked creatures, of course; but he has different ideas regarding the moral alignment of elves and ents. And, although Tolkien appropriated the name ‘ent’, there is nothing in Old English or Norse culture to approximate walking, slow-talking trees of deep wisdom and majestic virtue. This, it seems, is Tolkien’s own invention, one that perhaps elaborates the important role trees played in Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, from specific holy trees to the great cosmic Yggdrasil tree that structured the universe.
Nonetheless, Tolkien’s ents
What are the ents? Commentators, wondering whence the idea might have come, sometimes pick up a clue from Tolkien’s own correspondence and cite Shakespeare’s
as a source. The wicked Macbeth is abandoned by his army but is safe in his tower (like Saruman in Orthanc). He falls back upon the magic charm that he believes will keep him safe. He cannot fall until Birnam wood should march against him. As Malcolm’s army passes through the forest, each man takes up a branch or sprig as a ruse to hide their numbers. Watching from the battlements, Macbeth can see the forest begin to come towards him. Speaking for myself, I have never been entirely happy with this turn of events, howsoever dramatically effective it is (and it is, of course, a famously effective
coup de théâtre
). The problem is its vagueness. One feature of magic spells and charms in old culture is how
their terms are. The fact that a crowd of men have chopped the branches from a number of trees and carried them a certain distance does not mean that Birnam forest has moved. The trunk and roots of the trees, as well as such boughs and branches as remain, are still where they ever were—a mapmaker (say) would surely still put Birnam wood in the same place.
If supernatural magic guaranteed me life until a forest actually came to my castle, then I should insist upon the terms of the agreement until the forest actually came.
So, here we have one possible solution to the ‘riddle’ of Tolkien ents, a solution that contextualises them in terms of Macbeth’s famous charm. Like Macbeth, Saruman from his tower sees a forest literally moving against him, and his downfall is assured. But actually
I want to argue that Tolkien’s ents literalise a deeper, older riddle than Shakespeare’s. I want to suggest their solution is to be found in the New Testament:
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. (Mark 8:23–4)
Commentary upon this passage tends to stress its mimesis, its closeness to our sense of the way the world actually works. Cures for impaired sight take time to work. The blind man’s sight does not return immediately, but rather by a process of indistinct strengthening and gradual improvement (the next verse is: ‘once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.’) In other words the passage might mean ‘I see men; for I see [them] as trees [except that, unlike trees, they are] walking’. The man miraculously cured could distinguish them from trees only by their motion. On the other hand it is clear enough that a typological reading is available to us here too. For Christ is the tree of life; the dead wood of his cross, and his own dead body, become vivid and full of motion again at the resurrection, to spread across the world. It is characteristic of Tolkien’s literalising creative imagination—what we might think of as his mode of sub-incarnating—that he feeds this miraculous moment into his own writing as
walking tree creatures. The passage in Mark is all about blindness and sight, about visibility and invisibility. It is about (to be a little more theologically specific) the way we can only
truly through Christ. It is easy to imagine that Tolkien, arbophile as he was, found peculiar resonance in the notion that the new sight of divine grace magically transforms ordinary men into fantastical walking trees. The destruction of Sauron’s ring, at the end of
The Lord of the Rings
, is a way of destroying invisibility itself; in terms of a Christian logic, it is the global overcoming of ‘blindness’, of not-seeing; the making plain of God’s grace in the world. It is in this, I think, that a solution to ‘the ents’ is to be found.