Musings on Tolkien: Art, Myth and Religiosity

The books of J. R. R. Tolkien comprise one of my fondest literary experiences during the time I have spent outside India. I have come at the works in a sequence that the venerable professor would probably not approve of, reading first The Lord of the Rings, followed by The Hobbit, and now The Silmarillion. Over the years, I have often wondered why I love the books, and the movies and most of the art that derives from Tolkien’s works so much. I have often put this fascination down to a love of language of a certain musical kind, and an attraction to myth and story. Indeed, it is impossible not to admire JRRT’s dedication and artistic drive in creating multiple languages, landscapes and cultures to hold together a mythology of such intricate detail that it was never complete and was being refined to the very end of his life.

Many of us, especially readers of fiction, also identify with the attraction to story and myth. In the telling, Tolkien’s stories flow in the manner of tales handed down the ages, not so much in written form, but in the form of song and verse. This quality of his prose first became tangible to me when I was reading The Fellowship of the Ring, specifically the part in which the company journeys into Lothlorien after losing Gandalf to the Balrog of Morgoth. In my mind, that attraction of song-lore extends outward from the books and into derivative artwork, including the beautiful and distinctive styles of Alan Lee and John Howe, and the blockbuster movies that – some would hasten to point out – changed the book far too much. I do not mean to say that I like everything in the movies, but even with the ridiculously extended movie adaptation of The Hobbit, my fascination with the original work does not yet brook snobbery at the mercenary imagination of film-makers.

Now, as I read The Silmarillion, I become even more conscious of the incongruence of my fondness for Tolkien’s work. The professor was a devoutly religious man and the influence extends to the fictional world that he created, with  God (Illuvatar), the angelic powers (the Valar), and creation of Arda (Earth) as an expression of the music of Illuvatar. I don’t subscribe to any supernatural creationist view in real life, and am extremely uncomfortable in religious settings, or when asked to perform any religious activity [1]. Yet, I am enthralled by Tolkien’s descriptions of the creation of Arda, the music of the Valar, the discordant notes of Melkor. The only obvious explanation I have for this is that I compartmentalize Tolkien’s world as being distinct from reality, and that within it, these unscientific things not only make sense, but do so beautifully, musically, and bravely.

Embedded in these tales is Tolkien’s love for simplicity and goodness that most of us aspire to. What exactly constitutes simplicity and goodness is admittedly a tough question, but it is fair to say that we find those ideals more difficult to attain in our technologically augmented world. There seems to be in Tolkien’s work, a component of the moral fable, such as that found in Aesop’s stories or The Panchtantra [1]. And like the great religious epics of Europe and Asia, there is a more or less clear demarkation of good and evil, instances in which good turns to evil, and few (if any) cases in which an evil entity redeems itself; In day-to-day existence, I am quick to repudiate such a black-and-white characterization of human personality and human activity. Yet inside the pages of the Silmarillion, compartmentalization happens effortlessly as I read – sometimes aloud as if I am reciting the words to someone else – of the doom of the Elves and the proliferating darkness of Morgoth and his hordes.

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[1] I recall reading that Tolkien did not consider The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit as moralistic fables, so he would not have liked the above characterization, despite the parallels with the other myths of our time. He was creating an alternative world, as consistently and meticulously as he could and that, it appears, may have been more important to him than any allegorical interpretations.

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