“Art no longer imitates visible things,” wrote the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “it makes things visible. It is the blueprint of the genesis of things. Paintings show how things become things and how the world becomes a world…how mountains become in our view mountains.” This is perhaps even more true in the worlds painted for us in fantasy literature in which mountains have the freedom to become something both beyond and more essential to our mundane idea of a mountain. The peaks and slopes of the mountains of Tolkien’s Middle-earth have minds and personalities of their own which, if we pay attention, can awaken us to the minds and personalities of the peaks and slopes which in our own world we might otherwise have had a mind to conquer.
Tolkien believed in two kinds of Magic. The first is the Magic of the Elves. Though they were often tragically guilty of clinging too tightly to what they had made, the Elves’ Magic is “product and vision in unflawed correspondence […] And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous reforming of Creation.” Tolkien spoke of the other, darker kind of Magic as “the Machine.” Though we are more than merely antennae and much of who we are mingles with what moves through us when we create, any effort to use rather than receive what comes to us implicates us in the workings of the Machine. Using something, or thinking of it “for ourselves” rather than “for itself,” leads to our becoming used to it. We cease to see it as something whole, idiosyncratic and alive. Fantasy literature allows us to see things in an Elven light which means seeing things anew. It gives us the gift of “Recovery” or “the regaining of a clear view […] seeing things as we are meant to see them—as things apart from ourselves.”
Think of Sauron’s searching eye. It saw only what it perceived as important so, with some help, two hobbits were able to slip past its gaze. Our own gaze can be just as relentlessly blind. Perhaps we adored the painting on the living room wall the first time we saw it but, now, we hardly even look at it. Perhaps we rolled our eyes in pleasure at the first dish of mushrooms we ever tasted but, now that we know how we feel about mushrooms, they no longer delight in the way they once did. Yet, when amidst all the terror of fleeing from alien and malevolent Black Riders, Frodo has a chance at last to rest and savor Farmer Maggot’s mushrooms, the mushrooms he dangerously coveted in his youth, well, we would be cold-hearted indeed if we did not at least for a time remember to think of fresh, tasty mushrooms as the miracle that they are.
Neither is it just seeing through the eyes of another that brings about Recovery. When we picture in our minds what the marvelous trees of Lothlorien or even the Two Trees of Valinor must have been like to have taken root in such fine lands, there is for each of us necessarily something in the vision of the details of that first tree that ever thrilled us when we were young. It was through this first tree that nature in its fullness was most able to reach us, before what C.S. Lewis called “the veil of familiarity” had descended to dampen our wonder.