Thursday, February 28, 2019

II. Can the Singer Enter the Tale? Tolkien and the Sacraments, Part 1

In this series of posts, I am working towards trying to articulate what might be called a "language of beauty." In the previous post I laid out a core thesis which might be expressed as follows: The classical Christian approach to art, poetics, and wonder must be understood in light of the Incarnation. The great Christian artists have possessed something I have called the "sacramental imagination" that was born out of the basic confidence that the world (created or sub-created) could be a real means of communion with God. In other words, if there is a Christian "language" of beauty, the sacraments are its grammar.

Over the course of the next few posts I want to explore how this works itself out in art--both in the liturgical arts, but also in poetry and storytelling. The next two or three posts will be dedicated to examining the sacramental imagination in the works of the 20th century Christian sub-creator par excellence, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The following thoughts on Tolkien were first developed in a talk I gave at the Eighth Day Institute in October of 2018. This is the first time they have appeared in Print, digital or otherwise.


I want to begin with a quote from Tolkien’s famous (and famously difficult) essay On Fairy Stories. This essay is usually the first stop along the way for any Tolkien fan who wants to read beyond the Finarfins and Fingolfins and Finrods and Finduilas’s of The Silmarillion and tries to understand just how Tolkien’s art succeeded so supremely where the vast majority of his many imitators have failed. It’s one of the three primary attempts Tolkien makes to work out his philosophy and theology of “sub-creation,” the idea that as humans made in the Image of God, who is first a Creator, to make things—and most of all to make stories—is not just our God-given prerogative, it is our God-given right. This essay is not about On Fairy Stories per se, but since I’ll be referencing the essay a few times it might help to give a very high-level overview.

The essay is divided into three basic parts: The first part tries to answer what a “fairy story” is and why people have made them for longer than we have recorded history. This is the hardest part of the essay, mainly because in it Tolkien makes many oblique references to a variety of mythographical theories which were then in circulation. These references can be difficult to track.

The second part of the essay tries to argue for why making fairy-stories is both necessary and “useful.” Tolkien identifies three main things which fairy-stories can accomplish better than other kinds of stories: Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. By Escape, Tolkien means the escape of the prisoner from his cell, not the escape of the deserter from the front lines. Real Escape allows us to confront evil in the world rather than be imprisoned by it. By Recovery, Tolkien means “regaining a clear view” of reality, something we’ll come back to more in a moment. By Consolation, Tolkien has in mind the all-important idea of Eucatastrophe, the sudden breaking-in of Grace or Joy into an otherwise hopeless situation, which culminates in the “happy ending.”

The third part of the essay is neglected in every academic presentation I have ever heard given on On Fairy Stories. It’s the Epilogue, in which Tolkien explicitly ties these ideas to the Christian experience of “True Myth” through the Incarnation and the Resurrection, by which means the human vocation of storytelling is given not just a “Christened,” but a salvific role. That’s where I’d like to end this series of reflections. But to get there we’ll have to go the only way we could possibly go with Tolkien: the long way.


The quote with which I want to begin is usually cited as, “the mind, the tongue, and the tale are coeval” has been popularized within Tolkien studies by Verlyn Flieger’s “bumper-sticker” formulation found in an earlier draft of the essay: “mythology is language, language is mythology.” What both quotes mean to say is simply this: literature and language cannot, should not be divorced. If we don’t understand the words people use to make stories, we won’t be able to come to an understanding of the stories themselves even if we study them in translation. That’s an audacious claim (though one I agree with) but it isn’t what I want to focus on. Instead, I’d like to point out that the quotation is usually misquoted. In fact, in context it reads like this:
The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent.
According to Tolkien, stories aren’t created apart from language. But they’re also not created apart from matter. According to Tolkien, the “incarnate” mind is the mind that produces language and story. It is only a mind incarnate in matter which can see green-grass for being green as well as being grass, only a mind bound to a world which has the faculty to imagine other worlds. It is difficult to avoid hearing in this echoes of the Gospel of St John: Christ the Word, Christ the Logos—by whom all things are made and upheld—became incarnate to dwell among us. God, who exists always and forever outside of time, actively participates in His own creation.

The Incarnation underwrites all of Tolkien’s sub-creative activities. Tolkien’s thesis about sub-creation is best summed up in a single line from Mythopoeia, a poem which states clearly in verse what is sometimes buried in Tolkien’s prose: “We still make by the law in which we’re made.” In other words, we are incarnate minds made in the image of a Mind who became incarnate. We are sub-creators made in the image of a Creator. God can make something out of nothing, and as His image-bearers we rightly make something out of something. Our sub-creation must use the tools of reality: green grass, cold iron, bread and wine.

In fact, Tolkien would argue, doing so is the only way to reclaim and redeem reality. In the second half of On Fairy Stories, he suggests that there are three things which imaginative literature accomplishes: Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. By Escape, Tolkien means not the escape of the deserter from the front lines, but rather that of the prisoner from his cell. By Consolation, Tolkien means the absolutely crucial idea of Eucatastrophe, the sudden breaking in of grace, the happy ending. These two ideas, and especially the latter, are so important that I think Recovery is often overlooked. Here’s what Tolkien says about it:
Recovery… is a re-gaining… of a clear view… I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves… Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory… It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
Like any child I climbed trees; in my teens I occasionally worked at a horse camp during the summers; but I did not really see trees until I met Treebeard. I did not really see horses until I met Fledge the Flying Horse, and Bree the Talking Horse, and Jewel the Unicorn. It was the bread and wine at Coriakin’s table that was my first glimpse of the truth of the Christian sacrament. That is what Fantasy does for us. That is what sub-creation does for us, as both writers and readers. It takes the familiar things which we think we know, we think we possesses, and so we have “written off,” and it sets them free.

We could formulate Tolkien’s idea of Recovery this way: An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. Tolkien’s classic example of this is the idea of the “Green Sun,” an image he returns to again and again throughout his essays. The basic idea is this: if you could imagine a world with a green sun, and then work out all of the possible implications of a sun where the world is green, you’d have recovered something about the sun and something about greenness which you would have otherwise taken for granted.

Perhaps we can think of other examples from our own experience and reading: It’s Aslan, awakening the trees to dance. It’s the song of the elves when they first wandered in the starlight of the primeval world, teaching the trees and rocks and pools and valleys to speak and to sing.


Following the elves is always a good strategy when you are trying to understand Tolkien, and particularly when you are trying to grasp his philosophy of sub-creation. For although he is often meandering and obtuse as an essayist, he is a master myth-maker, and nowhere is he more at home than when he tells stories about the sub-creators of Middle-earth. There are the Valar, of course, and there are the sub-creative activities of humans in his mythology (which we shall come to in a moment), but it’s in the activities of the elves, the Incarnate Minds to whom the greatest artistic gifts have been given of all the children of Eru, that we see his ideas most clearly.

One of the real problems for Tolkien—which would probably not have occurred to a less detail-oriented person—was Elvish linguistic development. Human linguistic change happens for lots of reasons—we hear things imperfectly, we remember things imperfectly, we repeat things imperfectly. Over time these changes lead, by small developments to their own idiolects, then dialects, then languages, then language families. Tracing these developments by regular and irregular sound shifts—particularly within the Germanic and to a lesser extent the Celtic language of families—was part Tolkien’s day-job as a Germanic Philologist. And Tolkien enjoyed using that same skillset to create not merely dialogue for a few TV episodes, but entire families of languages for which he could demonstrate the “family-tree” of regular sound shifts which resulted in a single proto-language becoming the Quenya and Sindarin (or Noldorin) languages which we readers encounter in The Lord of the Rings.

[He was actually much more interested in this sort of development than he ever was in publishing a dictionary of conversational Elvish, which is why you can’t really pull together dialogue in Elvish for a film without mashing up vocabulary and grammar from several different stages of his linguistic development. But I digress.]

The problem with all of this is that Tolkien established that elves don’t have the same reasons for language change that humans do. For one thing, Elves have perfect recall, or at least something approximating to it in human terms. When Legolas stops midway through the Lay of Nimrodel, he is lying, or at least not telling the whole truth when he says he does not remember the rest (actually, Elves don’t even experience time the same way we do, but that’s another essay). Why then does Elvish language change? The answer seems to be that the Elves need to change their words the same reason you and I need to make new words and languages and stories: to recover enchantment.

Tolkien explores this idea in the Dangweth Pengoloð, a short story he wrote in the early 1950s. In it, Pengolod—an elven philologist and author in the Dangweth's narrative frame—answers this question in a way which sheds important light not only on why Elvish languages change, but on Tolkien’s thoughts about language change in general:
Weak indeed may be the memories of Men, but I say to you, Ælfwine, that even were your memory of your own being as clear as that of the wisest of the Eldar... your speech would change.... For Men change both their old words for new...and this change comes above all from the very changefullness of Eä; or if you will, from the nature of speech, which is fully living only when it is born, but when the union of the thought and the sound is fallen into old custom, and the two are no longer perceived apart, then already the word is dying and joyless...and the thought eager for some new-patterned raiment of sound. (PME 397)
According to Pengolod, the motivation for creating new words is the same for both races: when the union of sound and sense falls into “old custom,” the word and sound are no longer perceived as separate things. The word becomes “dying and joyless,” and a new sound is needed. The primary difference between human and elven language change lies in the latter’s skill. The elves consciously change whole sound patterns instead of individual words, in a manner reminiscent of how Christopher Tolkien described his father’s language invention process. (LR 378-9)

So the “tongues of the Quendi [the elves] change in a manner like to the changes of mortal tongues” albeit more artfully and deliberately. (PME 398, 400) This is in fact an echo of an idea Tolkien developed much earlier in his Secret Vice lecture and essay, which is the clearest he ever states his philosophy of language development. It is the first appearance of the “green sun” motif we mentioned earlier. In this essay, Tolkien develops what one scholar has called his “linguistic heresies,” two of which are: that human language change is often deliberate, not accidental, and that we do it for a specific reason (even if that reason is not always known to us):
And with the phonetic pleasure we have blended the more elusive delight of establishing novel relations between symbol and significance, and in contemplating them... as soon as you have fixed even a vague general sense for your words, many of the less subtle but most moving and permanently important of the strokes of poetry are open to you. For you are the heir of the ages. You have not to grope after the dazzling brilliance of invention of the free adjective, to which all human language has not fully attained. You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping. 
Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind? (Monsters and the Critics 218-19)
Earlier, we defined Tolkien’s idea of Recovery as An Incarnate Mind, working with the materials of Primary Reality, creates a work of Fantasy, by which Primary reality is restored to is proper place. I would argue that if Tolkien’s philosophy of language invention is the purest development of this idea, his actual glossopoeic activities are among its most successful applications. I can still remember as a young boy, thrilling at the sound of the name “Gondolin” and the teasing references to the Elven wars of old, long before I knew that Gondolin was a “real” place (go on, tell me it isn’t!) with a history which predated The Hobbit not just in the fiction, but in the real world. Tolkien’s kings and wars and swords and lineages and names and languages “baptized” my imagination in a way that has always made me love the real world—with its histories and kings and wars and lineages and names and languages—much more than I would have otherwise. And the cosmic struggle, the frequent losses, the heartache and pain which evil causes in Middle-earth has helped me to understand the sin which is at the root of all of our pain and suffering in this World Under the Sun.

In my next post, I'll continue my examination of how Tolkien's sacramental imagination works itself out, this time specifically in his treatment within the legendarium of the problem of pain.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

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