Saturday, April 09, 2016

Tolkien's Time Periods

This is another example of the fatuity of the idea that we only learn by listening.  I learned a lot from this essay that I never would have seen had I not started writing and working it out. Talking and writing are not merely expressions of what we have learned.  They are methods of learning.  I will hazard a guess that this is true in the sciences as well, that one only sees some things after one has started to put them in a form to explain to others.  We learn by explaining.

Jumping off Elizabeth Crain's comments under Food In The Hobbit, I long ago wondered what mix of time periods LOTR actually was, and what Tolkien thought about it as he began to edit and the whole mess of chronology likely became clear to him.  The presence of butter in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe bothered CS Lewis when someone pointed out that its presence in perpetual winter was agriculturally impossible - but really, Mrs. Beaver having a sewing machine is much worse. I don't think we know what bothered Tolkien. It really is an impossible hash, partly because he goes out of his way to insist that Middle-Earth is our own world in some earlier time, with climate and landscape similar to Europe. (If the Shire is in the position of a West Midlands England connected to the continent, then Mordor is just about Transylvania - which seems about right in the imagination of an Englishman born around 1890.)

The theology must certainly be pre-Christian and even pre-Abrahamic - yes, I agree.  Yet we can get around this with a predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture that simply hasn't encountered Biblical cultures yet.  There are side difficulties that Tolkien thought of Gondor as rather like Egypt, and the presence of people like wizards and elves wandering widely without encountering Jerusalem, but that sort of willing suspension of disbelief is pretty average for all readers, not just fantasy/sci-fi types. Which actual centuries we are talking about are not an obstacle.

Well, except for the fact that the philosophy, the ideas of honor and duty, the interplay between fate and free will, the portrayal of saintly magical women, and much of the warfare and horsemanship, all bear strongly resemblance of early medieval Catholicism. The events of the Third Age seem to occur in a world a little after Beowulf.  That's not really reconcilable in logic, we can only accept that artistically.  Frankly, that works completely, probably better than if Tolkien tried to tie it any closer to a single era. There are contradictions, but they are largely the same contradictions Chesterton suggests are part of reality. Reason versus revelation, free will versus fate, the contradictory meanings of honor, science and magic.

No, it's the Hobbits who are really the problem.  They really are19th C rural England. Perhaps in imagination we might isolate them enough to avoid much knowledge of canals, gunpowder, railroads, and sea-trade. Or similarly, we can follow Tolkien's lead when he writes about languages, where he explains that what they spoke in Rohan was not really Old English, but he is only using that for an English-speaking audience so that we get the feeling of it.  That would logically get us past our pork-pies and seed-cakes if Tolkien were to defensively trot it out, but I'm not sure we or he would believe it. You can push Hobbits back a few hundred years at most.  He likes them smoking pipes because it just fits.  So then you have to back-create someone who grows the pipe-weed (which they actually did in Worcestershire), and as Tolkien adores hobbits, suddenly that becomes a whole important characteristic and subplot.  So too, with the mill and the miller.  That's a 19th C problem and attitude.  They drink beer, not mead or wine.  You can't imagine a Hobbit with a rifle or a handgun, though you might just barely imagine some fool of a Took playing around with a blunderbuss or a primitive cannon (with unfortunate results that convinces the Thain of Buckland to forbid any further such nonsense for another hundred years).  But the point is, you actually can imagine that.  Hobbits are not really of the theological age of 1000 AD, nor the technological age 1000 BC.  They don't fit, except they fit brilliantly.  They are portrayed in LOTR as these rather backward, not-up-with-the-times halflings who seem to like it that way, yet if you pin it down, they are easily the most modern group.  They just happen to be the culture that was considered backward and unfashionable in the 1930-50's, when Tolkien was writing.

When JRRT was working out the vast ages of Middle-Earth, halflings did not come in until the late 20's, and were rather an afterthought.  He fell in love with them, and told stories about them to his children.  When he wanted to tell a larger story about them and put it on paper, he set them in Middle-Earth and began to call them Hobbits. Halflings were already present in M-E, but Hobbits were rather grafted in.  The great theme of much fairy-story - of the little guy... the third son... the youngest princess... the poor farmer... thrust into the huge, uncanny events of the larger world, suddenly burst on the scene of the Third Age. In a way, they were a testimony to how complete the vague outline of Tolkien's universe already was.  It already had kings, minor deities, mythologies, languages, and great wars and migrations.  Middle-Earth lacked local legends, old-wives' tales, children's stories. There were no homely touches - not solid ones - until he starts writing The Hobbit. But it is the homely touches that made us immigrants to Middle-Earth.  Who would care about the Silmarils if she had not met Frodo?

It is a great irony, that the great advocate of the importance of fairy-stories in our culture against all the fashion of his age did not intentionally include them in his own subcreated world until he was well in, and seems to have provided that service to his artificial world only accidentally. Sam Gamgee and all of the Shire are not so much citizens of Eriador as of Warwickshire, set down in a similar place and suddenly called upon to go East (not only the East of Nazis and Bolsheviks of the 20th C imagination, as moderns are quick to note, but the East of Danes and Jutes, of Attilla the Hun and Genghis Khan and even the Celts and Indo-Europeans long before, that permeated the English view of where danger came from) as reluctant heroes.  The comparison would be a Yorkshireman who finds himself suddenly dropped into the Peloponnesian Wars. Rather like poor Tolkien or Lewis dropped into WWI, charged with the great affairs of the world.

Long conversations of hobbit-talk, you may remember, was where Tolkien kept wanting to go until Lewis convinced him that Bagginses were only interesting in non-Baggins situations. The Hobbits and the Numenoreans really come from separate universes.  Tolkien found a corner in which the former could live among the latter, and then they were caught up unwilling in the last events of the Third Age. When one reads the history of their co-creation, it would seem that this was pure chance, merest accident, with miraculously fortuitous result.

I choose to believe it was not accident, though it may have been no purpose of Tolkien's.  The number of people who have come to Christ along the trail of Tolkien to Lewis to Jesus suggests otherwise. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.


Galen said...

Excellent essay. I have nothing to add except that it seemed a shame to have garnered no comments.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. I think it fits the facts well, but you are right, it will probably languish here.

james said...

As suggested earlier, all the cultures are abstracted away from their technological environment. In particular, off the top of my head I only remember one line about farms outside the Shire, and that was in Mordor.