January 3rd is the birth date of J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford don, English scholar, devout Catholic, and beloved creator of a Middle-earth populated with men and women, orcs, elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards, and - of course - hobbits like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Peregrin Took, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Samwise Gamgee. [I had to change my personal calendar. I had January 19th as his birthdate]
In the Called and Gifted workshop we often use Tolkien as an example of someone with a charism of writing. Not only was Tolkien a profuse writer, his literary works disclose a profound love for the power of the written word. That's part of what the charism of writing is about; producing works of great beauty that reveal profound spiritual truths.
For those with the charism of writing, the act of writing itself is a connection to God, who creates with a word, and whose Word Himself becomes flesh. We see a glimpse of this connection in Tolkien in this passage from his work, Fairy-Stories.
The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. . . . [H]ow powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. . . . The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. . . . [I]n such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (Fairy-Stories 10)
Tolkien is expressing the belief that language is a kind of "magic" because it describes things that exist only in the imagination of the author, and takes root in the imagination of the reader. This he calls fantasy, or sub-creation. Sub-creation is (normally) a text describing an imaginary world. Tolkien created two other words to describe the settling of a "fantasy" in the mind of a reader. The sub-creation of the author is a Secondary World that the reader can enter through his or her imagination, and, if so well constructed that it "holds together," may produce a sense of acceptance or "rightness" in the reader. This feeling that if the story were real, things would be just as they were described, Tolkien called Secondary Belief. Tolkien said "anyone can write a book about a world with a green sun, but it takes skill to make it seem credible." (Fairy-Stories 48-49) For this reason, Tolkien considered fantasy to be “a higher form of art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.” (Fairy-Stories 47)
Tolkien did produce a Secondary World. Middle Earth has a very detailed history, its own mythology and geography. He created at least one Dwarvish and two Elvish languages with their own alphabets. He created a world in which we explore not only that history and enthralling story, but also the depth of truly human experience: love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, pity, trust, fortitude, fear, bravery, and hope.
Here's an example of Tolkien's verse from the chapter, "The White Rider" from The Two Towers, the second of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In it Gandalf the wizard describes to Aragorn (a man), Legolas (an elf) and Gimli (a dwarf) what happened to him after he fell from their sight while saving them from a Balrog, an ancient evil creature of great and terrible power. They had presumed him dead, and, indeed, Gandalf the Grey did pass through a kind of death, to return as Gandalf the White, an even more powerful - and humble - wizard. (Celebdil is a mountain peak, by the way).
There upon Celebdil was a lonely window in the snow, and before it lay a narrow space, a dizzy eyrie above the mists of the world. The sun shone fiercely there, but all below was wrapped in cloud. Out he sprang, and even as I came behind, he burst into new flame. There was none to see, or perhaps in after ages songs would still be sung of the Battle of the Peak.’ Suddenly Gandalf laughed. ‘But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my eneymy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.
One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, is that not only is the narrative written in a lovely and lovingly way, the speakers in it, except for the Orcs and other minions of the evil Sauron, speak with an attentiveness to words and sentence construction that makes you certain that they truly care about what they're saying! And in that, they reveal the care with which Tolkien composed their speech. So skillfully did Tolkien create Middle Earth that back in 1976, when I entered his sub-creation, his Secondary World produced such a powerful Secondary Belief in me that I still remember the effect of reading the last words of the trilogy. They are simply "'Well, I'm back.' he said."
‘Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined stair was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered ruomour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone…’
And at that moment I wept, for I would never be able to enter that world for the first time again.