Hidden paths that run West of the moon, East of the Sun

Posted: Dec 17, 2003 12:00 AM

In monumental scope, the big screen is introducing many to J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." The movie versions of "The Fellowship of the Ring" (vol. I) and "The Two Towers" (vol. II) were overwhelming, and generous representations of the book. As movies go, they chalked up some of the biggest global box-office sales ever.

Tolkien groupies picked nits about the "Fellowship" and "The Two Towers" (as they will about vol. III "The Return of the King"), but by and large rejoice in the films. Others, some deeming the work science-fiction, won't see the Tolkien movies, let alone read the books, because they are not into fantasy, the unreal, or - darkly - the occult. So the debate goes hotly on, as it has since the book "The Lord of the Rings" first appeared in 1954, as to what the story really is.

Tolkien, of course, knew. Yet others have had great trouble resolving whether it is allegory, myth, fable, heroic legend, creative fantasy or epic religious tale.

A British professor of philology, Tolkien's first love was linguistics, words and the study of cultures through their languages and literatures. His particular area of interest was Anglo-Saxon history. As one who read deeply in fable, legend and myth, Tolkien was well aware of ring-quest tales predating even the pyramids and Babylon. He read Pliny, who wrote of the blood feud over a ring between Drusus and Caepio that led to the Social Wars, which ended in the Roman republic's collapse.

Profoundly religious (he was instrumental in the 1931 conversion of his friend C. S. Lewis from atheism to Christianity), Tolkien was steeped in biblical tales such as, tellingly, Solomon's ring. He read extensively in Norse mythology (Odin, Sigurd, the Volsunga saga), and drew heavily from Arthurian and Carolingian legend and German romance. He understood Wagner's effort to restate the German "Volk" identity through German ring-quest legends (Siegfried), yet resented the distortions in Wagner's linking of art and myth - distorted further by Hitler at about the time (1937) Tolkien began "The Lord of the Rings."

There was something else. As Tolkien authority David Day has noted:

"Although the Celts were the older civilization in Britain, it was the Anglo-Saxons who were the dominant race from whom the British inherited most of their language and consequently most of their culture. ... ([A professor of Anglo-Saxon,) Tolkien frequently expressed his desire to restore the mythology and literature of Anglo-Saxon Britain between the time of the Roman retreat in 419 and the Norman Conquest in 1066. With the notable exception of 'Beowulf' and a handful of poem fragments, the ruthless obliteration of Anglo-Saxon culture by the Norman conquerors was nearly absolute."

So Tolkien set out to capture Britain's lost Anglo-Saxon mythology. He created an epic struggle between good and evil (the dark lord/wizard Sauron vs. the white wizard Gandalf). The story draws from Odin, Arthur, Charlemagne and Sigfried. It hints at the quest for the Holy Grail. It has magic swords, some of them broken - and maybe Christ, and a host of others.

Yet the last are first - in keeping with Tolkien's acknowledgment that "The Lord of the Rings" is, "of course, fundamentally religious." Hobbits (of the Shire - the English) are unlikely heroes, yet they perform most of the heroic acts: Hobbits find the ring, cause (in "The Hobbit") the destruction of a dragon, kill the leader of corrupted men (the Nazgul), defeat a voracious spider (Shelob), and ultimately - through noble purpose and merciful spirit - end the cycle of the one ring's power by delivering it into the volcano where it was forged. Ordinary Hobbits ("the last") do extraordinary things, and render themselves "the first."

Is it allegory? "I think," wrote Tolkien, "that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader and the other in the purposed domination of the author." He preferred applicability.

He also wrote ("On Fairy-Stories") that fairy stories have three faces: "the mystical toward the supernatural, the magical toward nature and the mirror of scorn and pity toward man." And: They offer, "in a peculiar degree or mode, these things: fantasy, recovery, escape, (and) consolation ... (all with) an inner consistency of reality." And finally: "All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know."

"The Lord of the Rings" has it all. Good vs. evil, resolute moral purpose, the single persistent message that power to dominate ever and always corrupts - and, peripherally, that the hunger for power affects least the truly humble (Hobbits, as opposed to men).

Maybe Tolkien has given the Brits their lost Anglo-Saxon legends and thereby recovered their heritage. His stories ring true with a distinct "inner consistency," and who will ever prove they are not real? The Brits may even think so: Several polls in 1997 found the British public deemed the Tolkien trilogy the top novel of the 20th century; in one poll they named it the greatest book of all time.

Tolkien's is an epic tale (indeed, as Day notes, "the most complex and detailed invented world in all literature"), with marvelous words such as Westerness (the place of the last good men) and Rivendell (where weariness falls away and "time doesn't seem to pass, it just is"). With insightful prose: "There is more of good in you than you know, child of the kindly West - some courage and good blended in measure."

And with poetry, and song...

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Where it goes I cannot say,
But I must follow if I can...
Around the corner there may wait,
A new road, or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day may come at last when I
Take the hidden paths that run
West of the moon, east of the sun.