A new expertly edited collection of JRR Tolkien’s writings on his elaborate mythology reminds us of his greatness.
Wchicken JRR Tolkien (b.1892) died in 1973, he left behind an immense amount of unpublished writings – much of which consisted of his own personal mythology of Middle-earth, known as the legendary, started just before the First World War. After the death of his dead father, Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher (1924-2020) became his literary heir, publishing his father’s book The Silmarillion in 1977, Unfinished tales in 1980, the twelve volumes History of Middle-earth (1983-1996), the three great tales of the First Age, as well as several books on various mythologies unrelated to Middle-earth, such as the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf and King Arthur.
Surprisingly, however, even with Tolkien’s writings taking two adult professional lives to publish, Tolkien’s body of work is still not fully accessible to the public in book form. This month, a year and a half after the death of Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin published another volume of Tolkien’s mythological writings. Title The nature of Middle-earth, it is beautifully and skillfully compiled and edited by one of our greatest living Tolkien scholars, Carl F. Hostetter.
This new volume confirms that Tolkien was the greatest mythmaker of the 20th century, and that his mythology – if there is justice in the world – will one day line up with that of Homer, Virgil and Dante. Just as Homer gave us a deep insight into the Greek world, Virgil the Roman world, and Dante the medieval world, Tolkien gave us great insights into the modern world. Everything Tolkien wrote counts. Tolkien counts. National exam, in particular, recognized it in the 1960s and 1970s.
Even though Christopher Tolkien died of this land, he clearly – although not legally or contractually – regarded Hostetter as his own literary heir, sending him over the years dozens of essays and unpublished notes from his father.
Taking its title from nature (as in the natural world as well as in the Aristotelian sense of purpose), The nature of Middle-earth consists of four parts: (1) Tolkien’s essays on “Time and Aging”; (2) his writings on “body, mind and spirit”; (3) his plays on “The world, its land and its inhabitants”; and, perhaps, best of all, (4) Hostetter’s appendix to the book, on “Metaphysical and Theological Themes” in Tolkien’s writings.
The first part, “Time and Aging”, reveals the considerable efforts Tolkien was willing to go to for logical and mathematical consistency in his mythology. If anything, the stats are so accurate, it feels like this is Tolkien’s “Dungeon Master Guide” to the universe. In this section, Tolkien discusses many timelines, but he also gives us demographics – for example, how many children a particular Middle-earth race might have as well as the ages of typical parents, rates aging (as the title of the section suggests), vital dates in mythology (such as the arrival of wizards), population increase, generation lengths, etc. Some of this information has appeared in other writings, but most of it is new to the Nature of Middle-earth.
Additionally, Tolkien comments extensively on his larger mythology and the significance of certain peoples, individuals, ideas, and events. In this first part of the book, as an example, we learn that the Elves never fell like Adam and Eve did:
The Quendi never “fell” as a race – not in the sense that they and the Men themselves believed that the Second Children had “fallen”. Being “tainted” with Marring (which affected all the “flesh of Arda” hence their hröar [body] were derived and were fed), and also having passed under the Shadow of Melkor [Satan] before their discovery and rescue, they could individually do harm. But they never (not even the bad guys) rejected Eru [God the Father], nor worshiped Melkor or Sauron as a god – neither individually nor as a people. Their lives, therefore, suffered no general curse or curtailment; and their primitive and natural lifespan, as a race, by co-extensive “retribution” with the rest of the Life of Arda, has remained unchanged in all their varieties.
Additionally, we learn about the early Elven speakers, as well as why speech mattered so much to them, how the Elves envisioned the movement of time and history, and how predestined early Elven couples were. .
In part II of Nature of Middle Earth, “Body, Spirit and Spirit”, Tolkien explores the complexities of the relationship between soul and physicality as well as the relationship of the Valar, the angelic powers of mythology, with their followers.
In this section, it is discovered that the Orcs, the malevolent shock troops of the dark forces of Middle-earth, were vampiric. “The last adjective ‘bloodthirsty’ (serkilixa) was also literal: Orks actually drank the blood of their victims. We also learn who had and did not have facial hair (neither Aragorn nor Borormir had facial hair, and Radagast the brown wizard only had curly hair), how much royal blood Denethor, the last steward of Gondor, really possessed, how the Valar communicated with each other and with their followers, and why Melkor became so hideous in appearance. Importantly, the reader also finds out how Manwë, king of the Valar, avoided falling like Melkor did.
Who can say with confidence that if Melkor had been bound less harm would have followed? Even in its decrease, the power of Melkor is beyond our calculation. Yet a ruinous explosion of his despair is not the worst that could have happened. The release was in accordance with Manwë’s promise. If Manwë had broken this promise for his own ends, even though he still intended to ‘good’, he would have stepped in the paths of Melkor. It is a perilous step. At this hour and at this act, he would have ceased to be the vice-manager of the One, to become only a king who takes advantage of a rival whom he has conquered by force. Would we then have the sorrows that actually happened; or would we cause the elder king to lose his honor and thus go, perhaps, to a world rift between two proud lords fighting for the throne? We can be sure of this, we children of little strength: any Valar could have taken the paths of Melkor and become like him: one was enough (216).
Finally, we discover what Tolkien means by “luck” and fate, especially in the wearing of the ring by Bilbo and Frodo, and why the Elves could benefit from reincarnation.
Part Three, “The World, Its Land and Its Inhabitants,” addresses the problems of Middle-earth creatures, especially eagles and bears. But we also learn about the making of the Eucharistic Lembas bread (its composition as well as its cooking), anecdotes on the hunting of the ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Númenorean marriage customs, the Númenorean love of dancing, why the wood elves (the people of Legolas) were different from other elves, and the prayers that the remnants of the Númenoreans said.
But this is not the simple arcane of an unholy fantasy. As Hostetter brilliantly notes in the fourth and most intriguing part of the book, his appendix, Tolkien, at his best and most consistent, was a serious Thomist, a devout Roman Catholic whose faith permeates his entire Middle-earth mythology. :
Tolkien’s assertion that “The lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work ”intrigued many critics, because both The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s larger legendarium are virtually devoid of any reference to any religion. worship (not to mention a Catholic system of rites and worship). And as I suggest, I think this statement puzzles many critics because they overlooked what I believe is the most important word in the statement: sc. fundamentally. I take this word literally, and not just as a disposable rhetorical intensifier; that is, I guess Tolkien says that The Lord of the Rings and, by extension, its larger legendarium (including the L / D is a deliberate part, and its long coda), is at its base and its foundation, or as one might say in its essential nature, founded on religious beliefs and thought, and specifically Catholic. Tolkien says the same in the third passage (rarely cited) of the Letters above: “a tale, which is built on or from certain “religious” ideas ”(emphasis added). (p. 401-402)
While others – such as Joseph Pearce, Michael Jahosky, and Jonathan S. McIntosh – have made a similar argument about Tolkien, Hostetter is the first Tolkien scholar officially sanctioned by the Tolkien Estate to present such an argument in such detail. and with such force. His views carry with them a great deal of gravity.
Without question, The nature of Middle-earth is amazing work, adding even more purpose to Tolkien’s world. He is extraordinary not only for what he tells us in so much detail about Tolkien’s own mythology of Middle-earth and the lengths, depths and breadth of his sheer creativity, but, thanks to the editing and to Hostetter’s expert comments, he also provides us with a model of the Tolkien scholarship. Given its primacy and vast influence in modern culture – through books, movies, Dungeons & Dragons, video games and just about every aspect of popular culture – Tolkien counts. Now, of course, Hostetter is doing it too.