Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tolkien's Mythology Began in a Need for Beauty During War

First, I would like to say,

Happy Birthday America!!!

Despite our nation's many problems, we who are citizens of the United States of America are incredibly blessed to live in this great nation.

Have you ever seen this particular type of firework? I find them rather enjoyable: An exploding sphere divided evenly into two colors. Imagine a globe. Everything above the equator (one hemisphere) is one color; everything below the equator (the other hemisphere) is another color. Translate this into a typical firework expanding ball of many points of light, and you have what I mean. Perhaps one might refer to such a firework as a "dual-hued orb"! (Thanks to you know who for this idea.)

Back to some thoughts about art . . .

Is there a limit to the amount of ugliness and suffering beyond which a human person immersed in such can no longer conceive of trying to create art that would lift the human spirit and call it upwards to greatness? There may be such a limit. But if there is, it would seem to be very great indeed.

The great British author and professor, J.R.R. Tolkien (who wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other works), was a soldier during World War I. He saw the awful face of war at close hand. It had a significant impact on him as a writer. He worked on his mythology throughout his adult life. But when did he begin creating his enticing mythological world? He began it in a seemingly highly unlikely context.

A few months ago I listened to a very good lecture delivered in 2003 by Bradley J. Birzer, Professor of History at Hillsdale College, on the work of Tolkien. He titled the lecture, "The True King: Tolkien and the Medieval." (Available online here from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute). Accrding to professor Birzer, Tolkien started writing down his mythological creation in the midst of war. In his presentation Birzer made the following remark about the genesis of Tolkien’s mythology, ending with a quote from Tolkien:

[Speaking of The Two Towers] This is when Sam, Frodo, and Gollum are crossing the dead marshes [looking down and peering into dead faces over which they are walking]. And they look down and they see the horror; they see the faces everywhere. And this was Tolkien’s experience during the war—looking down in the trenches, walking on officers, walking on enlisted men who were dead, all of them laid out in the trenches… And so for Tolkien the only way he could survive, the only way—and this was true of many men in his generation—… [was] to create some form of beauty. He had to find some form of beauty. And the only way that he could find it, in the horrible mechanized warfare of WWI, was to make it himself. And this is where the mythology starts.

[Tolkien] wrote: "My mythology was written when I was a poor and undisciplined officer. It was written in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, by candlelight in bell tents, and quite often, even under shellfire in the dugouts."

It is quite amazing the dark context in which a great work of art such as The Lord of the Rings--so adept at capturing the noble aspirations and the great potential of even fallen human hearts--can begin to be created. Even in the midst of terrible ugliness and violence, a sensitive and gifted soul might create an interior place, a hidden refuge, in which he refuses to give up on the potential beauty and nobility of the human person.

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