A Light in Dark Places – My Literary Idol, JRR Tolkien
by Amy Van De Casteele
Every writer, whether they are an unpublished novelist, amateur poet or critically acclaimed author, undoubtedly has another writer whom he/she worships and yearns to emulate; perhaps even to eclipse. This literary idol hovers in the background of your writer’s brain, inspiring and luring and perhaps even mocking, spurring you on to develop your own brand of creative genius. Depending on your literary preferences, your idol might be Chekhov, Strindberg, Heaney, Blake, Kerouac or Rimbaud.
My own personal literary demi-god is none other than JRR Tolkien – philologist, university lecturer and (most importantly) creator of Middle Earth, Frodo, Sauron and a certain ‘Ring of Power’. His masterwork and international best-seller, The Lord of the Rings, has occupied pride of place on my bookshelf for the last 10 years and serves, in almost equal measures, as my inspiration, my spiritual healing tonic – and my very own torturous goad, burning holes into my writer’s ego every minute of every day.
You see, although I love Tolkien – and adore Lord of the Rings even more – the bitter fact of the matter is that I am just so incredibly jealous and in awe of that weighty fantasy tome; indeed of his entire creation of Middle Earth, with its diverse peoples, languages and topographies. In fact, if the great professor still inhabited this mortal coil I would probably send him angst-ridden letters venting my frustrations at how he has set both the fantasy and literary bars at such lofty heights that I probably couldn’t clear them even if I was astride Shadowfax himself.
Mind you, I would probably also intersperse these angry missives with other more pleading and sycophantic notes, begging him to let me borrow some of his characters – in particular the beautiful, noble (but unfortunately dead) Beleg, and writing new plots for them (namely one in which Beleg didn’t get stabbed to death by that vicious mortal brute, Turin). Because, as well as daunting my writer’s confidence, Tolkien has also created fully-fleshed out, three-dimensional characters which are so seductive and appealing to me that I am loathe to try and create original, perhaps inferior characters – thus effectively destroying my own latent novel at the very roots.
Because it is undoubtedly Tolkien’s characters that have made his work so far-reaching, so popular and so meaningful. The backdrop of Middle Earth is a crucial aspect, but it is the earthy and noble Sam we remember most vividly, not his little home on Bagshot Row. It is rugged Ranger King Aragorn who stalks through our subconscious… and, thanks partly to Orlando Bloom’s ethereal cheekbones, it is Legolas who looms before the mind’s eye of thousands of women the world over (yes, yes, me included – well, just look at him for goodness sake).
This may be blasphemy but when other people turn to the Bible during trying times, I turn instead to The Lord of the Rings and as I immerse myself in Frodo and Sam’s journey through the bleak and poisoned landscape of Mordor, and listen to Gandalf’s pearls of wisdom, I find my wounds salved and my faith restored. After all, if exhausted, starving Sam can carry Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom, I can surely face whatever problem looms before me. If Aragorn can remain faithful to a woman who is sundered from him by distance, race and immortality, I can believe in true love and fidelity in the real world.
Now all this may seem fanciful, not least because the aforementioned people are fictional characters inhabiting a fictional world. But as Andrew Cowan writes in his excellent guide ‘The Art of Writing Fiction’, “The best novels and stories, the ones we call our favourites and remember the longest, exist in the memory almost as experiences we once had…” Thus, in a part of my mind, the world of the Lord of the Rings exists, lying dormant perhaps, but tangible, until the moment when I pick the book up and lose myself in it again. As for the lessons which Tolkien’s characters impart, these can be applied to anyone’s life, no matter what your nationality, culture, gender or religion. Faith, loyalty, courage, honour – these are not merely literary principles, they should be just as valid and applicable to us in this real world, this modern day and age, as they were to the hobbits, Men, Elves and Dwarves in the pages of Tolkien’s books.
Where did these incredible characters and fantastical races spring from? What fertile soil begat Middle Earth and its inhabitants?
As you will glean from reading any biographical work about him, or even his own letters, Tolkien was, from quite a young age, fascinated by the myths and legends of his European ancestors – and unsurprisingly so. Many years ago his forefathers wove vibrant tapestries of myth to teach society about right and wrong, good and evil. The Celts, the Vikings, the Goths, each had their own folklore, their own reservoir of folk wisdom and knowledge to be passed down from person to person – a reservoir now sadly almost empty, its waters sparingly tasted. What Tolkien did, in a valiant effort to reacquaint us with the beauty and wisdom of these legends, was essentially to author a ‘mythology for England’. As a result, just as our Celtic and Anglo Saxon ancestors learnt about the effects of bravery and recklessness from the exploits of Cuchulain and Beowulf, so too can we learn from the inhabitants of Middle Earth.
But how did Tolkien come to produce such a far-reaching, richly textured piece of work – an entire mythology in fact? What inspired Middle Earth, the Shire, Mordor and their peoples? Why does reading Lord of the Rings make me yearn for an England – and a way of writing – which seems to be vanishing forever?
It is common knowledge that Tolkien drew inspiration for many of his settings and characters from old English, Norse and Finnish legends, including the aforementioned Beowulf and, arguably more importantly, the epic Finnish poem the Kalevala, which Tolkien loved with a fierce passion and wanted to emulate and improve upon – leading to his first forays into Middle Earth.
Though hobbits, the lovable central characters of LOTR, are an entirely original creation, the tall, stately and immensely beautiful Elves are a reflection of the Scandinavian alfar and the dwarves also hail from Norse legend. As for the Ents, the shepherds of the forest, they arose from a fascination with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which a forest supposedly moves to approach the protagonist’s stronghold, thus spelling out his doom. The word ‘ent’ actually means ‘giant’ in Old English as you can see from this Anglo Saxon poetic phrase: eald enta geweorc, which translates as ‘the old works of giants’ and would have been well-known to Tolkien.
In fact, words played a prominent role in Tolkien’s construction of Middle Earth. Being a philologist, words were an endless source of fascination for him. He created his own languages for Middle Earth – among them Quenya and Sindarin, the two Elven tongues – and mined the realms of mythology for character and place names. Gandalf, for instance (who was partially inspired by Norse god Odin, along with the Dark Lord Sauron) means “sorcerer elf” in Old Norse. The word ‘orc’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘hell-demon’, and as for Frodo, that name came from Tolkien’s beloved epic “Beowulf”, which mentions a king called Fródi who “was mightiest of all kings in the Northern lands”.
In short, Middle Earth and its diverse landscapes, characters and symbols grew from the fertile soil of European myth and legend, a field which Tolkien was passionate about. You might ask why he used such broad-reaching inspirations for what is purportedly an “English” mythology; to answer that you need only look at English history. During the course of our turbulent past we have been invaded by the Saxons, the Jutes and the Vikings, among others, who brought with them their myths, legends and folk tales, as well as their language and customs. Thus the English could claim that we have tales of the Norse gods, the elves, the dwarves and dragons in our blood — though such stories have been unfortunately been long forgotten or been given a nauseatingly “Disney-fied” twist. (Tolkien detested Disney, by the by – and he loathed Shakespeare for his ‘unforgivable’ crime of turning the beautiful, mysterious Norse elves into the small, mischievous sprites we more commonly think of today.)
To conclude, one of the reasons I love Tolkien and his work with such a fervent passion is because, though his characters and legends are fictional, they still resound with the echoes of our genuine mythological past, as given to us by the Celts and the Anglo Saxons. He reminds me of the England that once was; a noble, savagely beautiful England – a magic England. The England that we seem to be sadly losing, without even noticing it, as globalisation and technology take over. So too are we losing Tolkien’s elegant, archaic way of writing and speaking, and all of the striking imagery and vocabulary which he was so well-versed in. Words such as ‘helm’ and ‘raiment’, and haunting poetic Lays about beautiful maidens and doughty warriors, are rarer than pink elephants today – and deeply do I mourn their passing.
All this and more Tolkien gave to us – a mythology for a country which had lost its own; spectacular tales of daring, courage and friendship; moral lessons about fidelity, trust, fellowship; and his unique writer’s voice, which has instilled such devotion and passion in millions of readers from all walks of life around the world.
For these reasons and many more personal ones I hold him up as my personal literary hero and idol – and in my eyes he and his mighty Lord of the Rings will always be my “light in dark places…when all other lights go out”.
Note – This article was originally published on the old Winterwind Productions site in September, 2013, prior to our switch to WordPress in 2020.