Back to Essay series: Tolkien at Oxford
A bit of Exeter College with a special effect applied.
A parallel Oxford set in a darker world?
You wouldn't expect to run into a lot of Pullman fans at a Tolkien conference, but I did sit across the table from one at dinner one evening. Not that this person would take Pullman over Tolkien as a whole, but he did say there were some things in the set-up of Pullman's subcreation (in His Dark Materials) that he liked better than the way Tolkien approached his. One of these was Pullman's use of parallel worlds, rather than Tolkien's use of our own world at a distant time in history; this allows Pullman to set his fiction in something resembling our present day situation, and even visit our own world as part of the story. [Side note that Tolkien and Pullman were both students at Exeter College - where this conference was held - and according to our Exeter host, part of the movie version of The Golden Compass (the first volume of His Dark Materials) will be filmed there, using it as the setting for the parallel world's version of Oxford. I'm not sure how Tolkien would feel about that, but it will bring his old college some welcome income.]
This led me to think about why Tolkien made the choice he did, and what effect it had on his writing. One reason (perhaps the main reason) he started out to set his secondary creation on our earth is that he was attempting to create a "mythology for England," as he felt that England didn't truly have a mythological past that it could claim as its own. Much of what it has is actually Scandinavian, and Tolkien felt the French usurped the Arthurian material; a lot of work has been done on the ancient history of the Arthurian saga since Tolkien died, and he might see that differently now as some of the pre-Norman sources are being recovered (and I can imagine him being fully engaged in the translation process). At any rate, if you're going to create a mythological past for a civilization that actually exists in our current world, it stands to reason that you'll have to use the far past of that area of our world as your setting. Given his purpose, Tolkien didn't really have much of a decision to make in that regard. I'd guess the main reason Pullman chose otherwise is what was stated by my dinner companion: he wanted to (and definitely did!) comment on our contemporary world through his fantasy one.
The conversation also got me thinking about how rare Tolkien's choice is among contemporary fantasy authors (as opposed to the people who were creating the stories that have become myths and legends over time). Some do use the Arthurian material and other ancient settings, but even that is different from what Tolkien did in creating a history that stands on its own. Generally, if a fantasy author wants to show characters from our world interacting with an imaginary creation, we get parallel worlds, a story device that allows passage between two different realities, or some state of altered consciousness. In many pre-technological fantasies being written today, there are no characters from our primary creation at all; our world is simply ignored and the entire story takes place completely within the imaginary one, with no hint that our earth at any point in its history is meant to be the setting. Each method has its own advantages and challenges for the author. Writers of other kinds of speculative fiction, e.g., urban fantasy, science fiction and alternate history, have their own ways of creating societies that are commentary on our own.
Tolkien, on the other hand, didn't need to have characters from "our world" interacting with his created cosmos, because his characters are very much of our world already. They're affected by the same seasons as we are, the same laws of biology and psychology, and the same stars, moon and sun. If there are any characters who are our "stand-ins" in the world of Middle-earth, it's the hobbits, whose society isn't much more ancient than our own even though it existed thousands of years ago (see "Hobbits as Cultural Outsiders" for more on this). Our ultimate eyes and ears are those of Tolkien, as he retells the history and legends he's discovered which have been, coincidentally or not, left to us by hobbits: through the Red Book and Translations from the Elvish. I think it's especially interesting that Tolkien was discovering the legends for years before he realized they had been translated by a hobbit.
This same-world setting makes it more possible for Tolkien's written descriptions to elicit the sights, sounds, textures and smells the characters experience. I can't think of Ithilien without "remembering" the herbal-scented air of the place. All the colors and flowers in Bilbo's garden are known to us, so we can see its brightness almost as well as Gandalf does. I can look up at Venus and see it as the silmaril on Eärendil's brow at least as easily as I can see the sun and imagine Apollo's chariot. In fact, whenever I do see Venus/Eärendil's star I experience the thrill of realization that "we're in the same tale still," something that wouldn't be possible if Middle-earth had existed elsewhere, which is also true of JRRT's tantalizing hint that it might still be possible to catch a glimpse of a hobbit.
The biggest challenge of writing fantasy Tolkien's way is its restrictions. Things have to make sense not only within the secondary creation but also within the primary creation behind it. As Tolkien said of the Ring, he had to show what "...would happen, if such a thing existed"* in the world as we know it, not in some place where life follows other rules. Although this limits the author's choices, I believe it's a major reason we recognize Middle-earth as more deeply true than other fantasy creations.
Remarks are often made about the relative lack of magic in Tolkien's subcreation when compared with most fantasy settings. "Elf-magic" is made possible through the Elves' unique bond with the natural world; Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron act with the spiritual power intrinsic to being Maia. Magic doesn't break any natural laws (although it might seem that way to those unfamiliar with it, such as hobbits), and isn't something that can be learned.
Tolkien also tried to make his world geographically compatible with ours. Beleriand was no longer in existence at the time of LotR, and land has shifted again since the end of the Third Age. But those kinds of changes also occur in primary creation, and our ancestors often used mythology to explain them. Some time after writing LotR, JRRT said that if he'd had a better understanding of geology he wouldn't have walled Mordor with mountain chains that ran at right angles to each other. Until I read that statement, I'd assumed the puzzling arrangement was something Sauron himself had developed, but it would certainly be much more true to Tolkien's subcreation if the Dark Lord's fortress of hills was in a formation that could have occurred naturally.
Over the centuries, many imaginary places have been used to comment on our primary reality, from Thomas More's invented and far-off Utopia to Pullman's dystopian parallel version of earth that is his main setting in His Dark Materials. But instead of commenting on our reality through Middle-earth and its history and characters, Tolkien shows us our world with a clarity that illuminates it - and us - in ways that are new and yet totally recognizable.
*From a letter written to Sir Stanley Unwin on 31 July 1947.
Also see the essay "What Is Truth?"
Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw
In an effort to have a "topical" background for this page, it's made from the shirt of the Pullman fan (and Tolkien scholar) mentioned in the essay. He happened to get included in a photo I took of the Eagle and Child.