One of the aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing which makes him so formidable and, indeed, a great classic writer is his ability to connect his fantasy world with the real world. Undoubtedly, his abilities as a philologist have a great deal to do with it, but so does his own love of history. When he wrote about The Lord of the Rings in the years after its publishing, he avowed his love of history as opposed to allegory.
Today, we think of history in terms of facts. It is a factual event that World War II happened, for example, it’s a fact that William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, it’s a fact the Magna Carta was signed in 1217. We little consider, however, the larger framework in which those facts are set. The fact of the Magna Carta may mean very little in terms of its effectiveness but it’s what that fact led to which makes the Magna Carta the legend and treasure it is today.
For Tolkien, history is first and foremost story. He wrote, of course, very extensively on story, fairy tale, and mythmaking and we can see much of his ideas born out in the many notes his son Christopher so painstakingly put in order. Historical facts were inspiration for the stories which wove them into narrative. The Magna Carta may not have been that significant of a document in the time in which it was written, but the story of the Magna Carta is what we remember–the king brought to his knees, and the ancient document becoming interwoven inextricably with our idea of human rights, freedom, and government.
Tolkien wasn’t the first to see history as a story or to write a history as a story—it was common enough practice in the Medieval Era. The best example of history as story is to read either Geoffrey of Monmouth or Bede, The Venerable. Both men, living in the Medieval Era in Wales and England, respectively, looked at history not necessarily as a blending of facts, but as telling a story. You have to go to Gerald of Wales to get “history” which is more along the lines of what we mean. Even court “historians” such as Polydore Vergil in the court of Henry VIII were more concerned with story than they were with fact. Polydore, of course, is quite rightfully accused of extreme bias in favor of the Tudor dynasty and the same bears out in his writings.
To return to Bede as an example, there is a free interweaving of fact and fiction. We find one of the many mentions of King Arthur and Merlin, for instance, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. We also have the very poignant prophecy at the end when Cadwallader is forced from his throne and the Welsh are beaten back at last. Whether this happened or not is of some debate, but we do know for certain that it was taken seriously enough for Henry Tudor, later Henry VII to fly Cadwallader’s banner we he seeks to usurp Richard III. The story is what mattered and the “moral” behind the story.
This may scandalize us today. We live in a society where realism is the expected norm, not the exception and if something isn’t “realistic” it has to be “escapist.” Even when we put comics and fantasy novels into movies and TV shows, there is an expected element of “realism.” When new facts are discovered, the old “stories” are thrown out as if they are useless. This is partially why I collect old history books—the facts are all largely the same, but the stories are not. “Realism” is, in a historical sense, relative to the one telling the history.
For Tolkien, history is first and foremost story.
To read The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, or even the many appendices of The Lord of the Rings is to catch glimpses of the world we live in. There is something slightly Darwinian in how Middle Earth slowly comes alive. Instead of everything evolving from one or two cells, however, everything is created and then put to sleep until, in due course, it’s time for it to “awake.” It’s a beautiful melding of the Creation story and Darwinian theory. There is a hint of the myth of Atlantis in the story of Numenor as well as the history of Israel as an ancient Kingdom. In the return of Aragorn to the throne of Gondor too there is Arthurian legend as well as flavors of the ancient Roman Empire. The Elves have hints of the Ancient Celts, as mysterious as they were, and their love of trees hints at what we now know as Druidic religion and, in the woods of Lothlorien, we can almost catch a glimpse of the Isle of Anglesey and the ancient groves we know used to stand there.
Samwise Gamgee notes that the “great tales” never really stop—he’s referring to history. He’s not just referring to Middle Earth but he’s speaking to us here in the present world. The stories of Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar, Ghengis Khan, Ramses the Great, Suileman the Great, Charlemagne, Atilla the Hun, even Vlad the Impaler never really end—they are still going on in someway. The stories which mean something don’t ever stop. Superman has a bit of Hercules and Sampson in his tale. Captain America has something of the Age of Chivalry mixed with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
For the modern writer or for the modern reader, the lessen is to not only have an open mind, but to take a more conscientious approach to our reading activity. Today, we like to tout that we’ve read the latest social or political commentary or that we’re up to date with the latest and greatest writers in a particular field. But what stories are these writers continuing? Where are they on the timeline of human experience? If we don’t know that, then we are the lesser for it.
Human beings live stories—the facts of our lives are very dull when taken at face value, but when woven into a story—there’s something that makes people sit up and take notice. We connect with stories more than we do with facts. Take, for instance, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and our experiences. The facts are there, but it’s the telling of them which determines whether the story is one which will end in triumph or in despair. Remember Eowyn? What stories did she tell herself when Wormtongue was heaping his emotional abuse upon her? We know the story she ended up telling herself: she was a noble woman of a great family, a hearty people, and a woman who had the strength and patience to bear with the sick.
The facts are there, but it’s the telling of them which determines whether the story is one which will end in triumph or in despair.
So, I challenge you to find old stories—really old stories—go with ones which resonate with you whether it’s from your own culture or not. Whether it’s the life of a saint, a philosopher, poet, or if it’s a myth or legend from your favorite place to visit. Find something which you feel speaks to you and then go find that story in today’s world. Find it in the next book you read. Find it in every era of history. Find how that one story can be traced everywhere and in everything. You will find at once a larger and a smaller world. Larger in that you connect with other languages, cultures, and stories. Smaller in that you find the human experience does have a lot in common across time, space, and cultural boundaries.
Perhaps even too, you will find yourself a changed person. None of the people in Tolkien’s are the same as when they started. The hobbits especially have grown up from the start of Bilbo’s adventures to the time when Frodo sails away into the West. Can you say the same? Growing up means more than simple awareness of the present world—it’s knowing the world as it was at one time whether that world was progressive, repressive, expansive, or insular. Are you too much in the present? Or have you discovered some of the gems of the past?