January 6, 2004


Letter To Milton Waldman (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1951)

My dear Milton,

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. I shall inflict some of this on you; but I will append a mere resume of its contents: which is (may be) all that you want or will have use or time for.

In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me - though I do not suppose that that is of much interest to anyone but myself. I mean, I do not remember a time when I was not building it. Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write. But I have never stopped, and of course, as a professional philologist (especially interested in linguistic aesthetics), I have changed in taste, improved in theory, and probably in craft. Behind my stories is now a nexus of languages (mostly only structurally sketched). But to those creatures which in English I call misleadingly Elves* are assigned two related languages more nearly completed, whose history is written, and whose forms (representing two different sides of my own linguistic taste) are deduced scientifically from a common origin. Out of these languages are made nearly all the names that appear in my legends. This gives a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity) to the nomenclature, or so I believe, that is markedly lacking in other comparable things. Not all will feel this as important as I do, since I am cursed by acute sensibility in such matters.

But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite. I was an undergraduate before thought and experience revealed to me that these were not divergent interests - opposite poles of science and romance - but integrally related. I am not 'learned'* in the matters of myth and fairy-story, however, for in such things (as far as known to me) I have always been seeking material, things of a certain tone and air, and not simple know- ledge. Also - and here I hope I shall not sound absurd - I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its 'faerie' is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read.) [...]

I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional allegory - yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more 'life' a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.) Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary bio- logical life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of 'Fall'. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as 'its own', the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator - especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

I have not used 'magic' consistently, and indeed the Elven-queen Galadriel is obliged to remonstrate with the Hobbits on their confused use of the word both for the devices and operations of the Enemy, and for those of the Elves. I have not, because there is not a word for the latter (since all human stories have suffered the same confusion). But the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The 'Elves' are 'immortal', at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. The Enemy in successive forms is always 'naturally' concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others* - speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans - is a recurrent motive.

The cycles begin with a cosmogonical myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar (or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making). They are 'divine', that is, were originally ‘outside’ and existed 'before' the making of the world. Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a 'reality'. On the side of mere narrative device, this is, of course, meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the 'gods' of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted - well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.

It moves then swiftly to the History of the Elves, or the Silmarillion proper; to the world as we perceive it, but of course transfigured in a still half-mythical mode: that is it deals with rational incarnate creatures of more or less comparable stature with our own. The Knowledge of the Creation Drama was incomplete: incomplete in each individual ‘god’, and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled. For (partly to redress the evil of the rebel Melkor, partly for the completion of all in an ultimate finesse of detail) the Creator had not revealed all. The making, and nature, of the Children of God, were the two chief secrets. All that the gods knew was that they would come, at appointed times. The Children of God are thus primevally related and akin, and primevally different. Since also they are something wholly ‘other’ to the gods, in the making of which the gods played no part, they are the object of the special desire and love of the gods. These are the First-born, the Elves; and the Followers Men. The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning - and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. ‘Me Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.

As I say, the legendary Silmarillion is peculiar, and differs from all similar things that I know in not being anthropocentric. Its centre of view and interest is not Men but 'Elves'. Men came in inevitably: after all the author is a man, and if he has an audience they will be Men and Men must come in to our tales, as such, and not merely transfigured or partially represented as Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits, etc. But they remain peripheral - late comers, and however growingly important, not principals.

In the cosmogony there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall - all stories are ultimately about the fall - at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.

So, proceeding, the Elves have a fall, before their ‘history’ can become storial. (The first fall of Man, for reasons explained, nowhere appears - Men do not come on the stage until all that is long past, and there is only a rumour that for a while they fell under the domination of the Enemy and that some repented.) The main body of the tale, the Silmarillion proper, is about the fall of the most gifted kindred of the Elves, their exile from Valinor (a kind of Paradise, the home of the Gods) in the furthest West, their re-entry into Middle-earth, the land of their birth but long under the rule of the Enemy, and their strife with him, the power of Evil still visibly incarnate. It receives its name because the events are all threaded upon the fate and significance of the Silmarilli (‘radiance of pure light’) or Primeval Jewels. By the making of gems the sub-creative function of the Elves is chiefly symbolized, but the Silmarilli were more than just beautiful things as such. There was Light. There was the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold. * These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor was darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon. (A marked difference here between these legends and most others is that the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world, and a dislocated imperfect vision). [...]

I wonder if (even if legible) you will ever read this??

Unless you've ever done something similar, the following will certainly sound terribly odd, but I've put off reading The Silmarillion for twenty-five or so years. The reason, perhaps deranged, being precisely that it was certain to be so (literally) wonderful. The Lord of the Rings, after all, possesses that rarest of qualities in literature, that you both wish it would never end and that you'd never started it, so that you could experience it afresh all over again (another would be the novels of Dumas or of Henryk Sienkiewiecz). When you're a kid, these are the books you read over and over again, compulsively, obsessively. Later in life, the better strategy seem to be to set them aside for a few years and count on failing memory to restore their freshness. But with an artifact like The Silmarillion you are afforded the unusual opportunity to hold in abeyance a moment of discovery that you know will be immensely pleasurable.

At any rate, enough of these uninteresting personal psychoses; the salient point is that the Second Edition of The Silmarillion opens with this extraordinary letter from Tolkien to his publisher, pleading for the inclusion of these tales in the original publication of The Ring. The notion here that the "doom" of the Elves is to be immortal has never seemed more pertinent nor more profound than today, when so many hope that biotechnology, genetic engineering, cybernetics, and the like will hasten us towards this post-human doom.

Spengler treats of some of the implications of all this in his latest essay, Tolkien's Ring: When immortality is not enough (Spengler, 1/05/04, Asia Times)

Declining population and crumbling empire is a theme as old as Rome, of course. Nor is it only Latin. In Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon sources, the extinction of the nation lurks behind every setback. The old woman's lament at Beowulf's funeral pyre, for example, foresees the destruction of his Geats after the death of its hero and protector. From the vantage-point of the trenches of the Great War, though, this echo of the Dark Ages took on a new and terrible meaning. The peoples of Europe came out to fight for their predominance and nearly annihilated each other.

Today's Europeans are willing themselves out of existence. The two world wars of the 20th century destroyed the national illusions of the European peoples, their pretension to strut and swagger upon the world stage. France was the first nation to misidentify its national interests with the fate of Christendom (The sacred heart of darkness, Feb 11, '03), emulated in far more horrible form first by Russia ("the God-bearing nation" in Dostoyevsky's words) and then by Germany. Why is it that radical Islam yet may defeat the West? Migrants from North Africa and the Middle East may overwhelm the shrinking population of Western Europe, without ever assimilating into Western European culture. Collapsing birth rates in formerly Catholic strongholds (including Quebec) coincide with negligible church attendance, and demoralization within the Church itself. [...]

A tragic flaw was set in Europe's foundations, in the form of its Faustian bargain with paganism. Christianity offered salvation in another world; the Europeans wanted a taste of immortality in this one. By allowing the pagans to syncretically adopt their old gods into the new religion, Christianity left the Europeans forever torn between Jesus and Siegfried. Richard Wagner returned to the old pagan sources and found in them a foretaste of the Nihilism that would ravage Europe during its Second Thirty Years' War of 1914-1944. Repudiating Wagner, Tolkien hoped to link an ennobling pagan past and the Christian present. In this respect he failed utterly. He is reduced to elegaic yearning for a lost agrarian past. He is a reactionary looking backwards, for his vision is too clear to allow false hopes for the European future.

Tolkien kept faith with the original Christian message. Man must accept not only his own mortality, but the mortality of his nation, the extinction of his culture, the silencing of his mother-tongue, and look instead toward salvation beyond all mortal hope. That is what Christianity offered the pagans during the Great Extinction of Peoples after the collapse of Rome. [...]

But the European nations threw off the bonds of universal Christian empire and, through Wagnerian nationalism, sought immortality within the mortal realm - the tragic flaw of Feanor, Galadriel and the rebel Eldar. The Great Wars and the fall of Europe were the consequence. Except in the imagination, there was no going back.

It's especially interesting to consider the prescience with which Tolkien made his immortal race barren and inner-focused. Today's Europeans then resemble the Elves, but without beauty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2004 11:39 AM

Europe more closely resembles the decline of Gondar under the reign of the Stewards. Denethor was a nihilist, and the White Tree is dead.

Posted by: Gideon at January 6, 2004 1:53 PM

I don't think Denethor was a nihilist. Using the [i]palantir[/i] repeatedley was the equivalent of having the NYT or the Guardian serve as his sole news source.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at January 6, 2004 2:42 PM

The elves were not barren - some had more than 1 child - but remember, their concern was with the undying lands (except those who chose to fight an unwinnable war). They did not worry about many 'temporal' trivialities.

And they were noble, not just beautiful. They were not celebrities. In all of the depictions of Middle-Earth, the elves have been maligned. Hugo Weaving made Elrond look like an refugee from an early 70s rock band, with Indian chief undertones. Way too petty and condescending. It is probably impossible to portray them onscreen, although Orlando Bloom was very good.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 7, 2004 4:13 AM

About Fukuyama's post-human future: We will still be human without the fear of death or the weakness of sin.

If lack of fear of mortality makes one "post"-human, than that is I, for I have no emotional or philosophical fear of death.
I do, however, have physical reactions to the threat of imminent harm or death, so perhaps, after all, I am human.

As to the capacity to sin, I fail to see how one can retain free will without the capacity to do evil. God can do evil, but does not. Thus, we'd merely be more like God, which is, after all, the point of being human.

There are plenty of things to fear without death, after all, how often are some situations described as "Worse than death" ?
There are also plenty of legitimate conflicts to wrangle over once everyone stops sinning; Lack of evil doesn't necessarily mean a consensus on what good is, or how it should be accomplished.
They even had the same argument among those who created us.

Posted by: THX 1138 at January 7, 2004 8:43 AM


You're normal, 65, and you need a kidney. The guy in the next bed is transhuman and nearly immortal, 65, and needs one too. Who do you think gets the kidney?

Here's a hint: he's superior to you.

Posted by: oj at January 7, 2004 8:54 AM

But won't the 'transhumans' have evolved past the need for kidneys?

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 7, 2004 1:32 PM


If we really do get to the point where people are near-immortal, then jim's right, he won't need any kidney that I'd be getting, they'd just grow one for him from his own cells.
Just as they'd grow mine.

But, in a larger sense, assuming that there WAS some resource that humans and metahumans competed for, the policies that you espouse are likely to make things WORSE, rather than better.
Rather than future tech being applied, or available, in an egalitarian manner, only the rich would benefit, thus further widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Posted by: THX 1138 at January 9, 2004 6:45 PM


You're kidding, right? We don't provide people with basic health care but you think we'll pay to transhumanize them? There will be a system where the rich buy this stuff and the rest of us can't and then it's species war. Which I look forward to--I'll take a couple trannie scalps.

Posted by: oj at January 9, 2004 6:58 PM