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 Post subject: Letter 131 Discussion A
PostPosted: Sat Nov 01, 2008 5:07 am 
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This is one of several posts and discussion I would like to have on Letter 131 from Tolkien to Milton Waldman. The Letter is rather long, and has much material in it. The beginning of the letter is focused on the nature of magic and power. Tolkien begins by explaining that this story has for him, existed to the point that he no longer can remember when it begins. As such it has roots in his invented languages as a child and has progressed as his training and knowledge has increased in his professional field. One of the points Tolkien makes here is his names come from his languages (for the most part) and that adds a consistency to his tale unlike other tales.

Tolkien makes a very profound statement to me in beginning of the letter. He discusses how England did not have its own tales tied to its own language and to its own soil, unlike other Northern European cultures. The Arthurian legends he mentions but then states:

Quote:
“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.”


This next statement offers to me one of the key insights into his motivation, and its not just to create a tale tied to England, her language and soil. Tolkien says,

Quote:
“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 form of the primary ‘real’ world."


For me this is one of those insights into Tolkien, that his story contains those religious and temporal truths that exist in our world, but are not in the same or similar form from our ‘real’ world. That is where too many modern fantasy writers miss. They either are for me a rip off of Tolkien and the model he created and used, or there are too many direct references to things in our world. They don’t use myth and legend to truly create a world that is believable, yet connected in these fundamental truths with our world. Tolkien achieved at a master level what few if any since have accomplished, even if for some he is verbose at times.

In his explanation of creation, Tolkien shows how the stories arose or was given, each to its own, and how over time, they became connected. For him, this experience was one where he did not invent, but he recorded. I wonder on this if he felt that these were truly ‘gifts’ from God, and he acted on them, recording them? If so that might explain not only the desire to defend the copyright so hard (for financial and propriety rights), but if these were given of the divine, there must be a strong feeling to protect them because of their uniqueness and origin.

This is where Tolkien makes his statement on Allegory and his dislike for it, and others can pursue that conversation. Now comes a long statement by Tolkien that I feel leads the discussion of the rest of the Letter. It states:

Quote:
“that all of 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 satisfaction of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed 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 either 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 plan or devices (apparatus) instead of development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even these of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern force though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized. “


The next section I'll paraphrase. Tolkien uses the experience of the four hobbits in Lothlórien and their use of the word “magic” and Galadriel's reaction to the term to show the difference between domination and sub-creation. The Elves ‘magic’ is Art, done more quickly and more effectively since the Elves do not have human limitation. The object of this art is just that, Art, or sub-creation, not the domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The Elves as immortals are concerned with the burden of their deathlessness in time and change, than with death or mortality itself. The Enemy, in all of its various forms that are successive, is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines: but the problem: that this frightful evil and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others – especially and according to the benefactor’s own plans – is a recurrent motive.”

For me, these two quotes and the paraphrase are the basis for examining the rest of this Letter, but also provide a way for looking at all of Tolkien’s works. There are plenty of examples starting with the Silmarillion that fulfill this nature of a fall, being linked with a love of Arda, and that love and power of sub-creation leading to the desire to dominate in order to benefit Arda and the children that will live in it. Fëanor would be another example of this, where his acts of sub-creation led to a fall, due to his possessiveness, his desire to become a God or Lord over his own creations. The War of the Jewels and the exile of the Elves who followed Fëanor fit this mode also, as they desired not only revenge, but to have their own kingdoms to rule and control. The Rings of Power and the One Ring are both examples of this. Boromir is another example of someone whose desire or root is good, but his actions were reinforced by desire of domination (wanting to preserve his and his people’s way of life at any cost), yet he is able to overcome with Frodo’s escape and be redeemed.

We see this struggle best I think with Galadrial at the Mirror. She is tempted by the One Ring to take it in order to preserve that which she and others love, and to defeat Sauron, a long and bitter enemy. The root is good, yet evil would be the outcome and she is able to see this based on her very long observance of it. She rejects the temptation, and agrees to fade and go into the West with who she is.

Could this view also be applied to Túrin? I'll have to think on that one. We do see it though with the Kings of Númenor and with the last one, Ar-Pharazôn.

So is one of the messages of Tolkien that man through his own use of sub-creating sows the seeds of his own destruction because our sub-creating is not for art, but for dominance, power to become the Lord of our creations? Is that the danger that we face as a race and in Tolkien's view, could we say that there is no long term escape for us from this movement? Does death play so much into this that all of our advances reach a point where they are done to preserve life and allow us to continue to dominant our sub-creations? Isn't this what happen to the Nine when Sauron gave them their rings of power, and then enslaved them?


This then for me, is what is so powerful about this book. This is something I face over and over again. It is why I am thinking that scene with Galadrial is so critical to the story. I think everyday, every week, every month and every year I have to make decisions about my own sub-creations, and decide how much of me, my ego and my pride are tied into something and whether to let it go because in the end it truly doesn’t matter. I have to find my place in life, and accept that role. The story makes me examine my motives behind what I do, and makes me ponder them, and in the end, that interaction makes me a better person. I’ll pick up the next part of the letter next week sometime. What are your thoughts on the first part of Letter 131?

Edit: I cleaned up the quotes so I hope you can see Tolkien's words from the letter clearly.

_________________
1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


Last edited by ArathornJax on Sat Nov 01, 2008 4:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 01, 2008 3:18 pm 
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Great post, AJ. But there seems to be some confusion in your quoted material, because the quote seems to mix Tolkien's words with someone else's (I'm not sure if they are your words or someone else that you are quoting). You might want to look at that and try to clarify. Meanwhile, I'll be considering the many ideas expressed in the post.

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 03, 2008 3:26 am 
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Thanks for cleaning up the quotes, AJ. That's a lot clearer. I'm still pondering what exactly I want to respond to. There's a lot there!

I agree that Tolkien's comments on the Arthurian legends and the fact that they are so explicitly tied into the Christian religion provide important insights into his own mythology. Tolkien's ability to weave Christian insights into a mythology that is fundamentally pre-Christian is one of his greatest achievements, I believe.

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