Making Things Visible: Mountains, Mushrooms and the Magic of the Elves

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“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.

8 thoughts on “Making Things Visible: Mountains, Mushrooms and the Magic of the Elves

  1. An interesting side thought which expands upon the idea of the Machine is the notion that we do not possess things, living in a materialistic age, so much as we are possessed by them. The sense that our worth and the worth of others/or things only lies in how much we have or how grand they are. There is little enjoyment in this type of ownership; it is impulsive and thin…which is much like the sort of ownership seen with regards to the Ring.

    What Tolkien espouses in “recovery” is a realization of the JOY in simple pleasures and the wonder of seeing things for the first time, without necessarily knowing what they are. In this sense there is no ownership, things (and people) are allowed to BE…and therefore be truly appreciated.

    • Very well expressed! I agree completely. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The whole idea of ownership suggests that we are separate from the world and we simply are not. There is also the idea of what it means to know. To paraphrase Lewis, there is knowing in the sense of “savoir,” to know as a fact, and in the sense of “connaitre,” to know with the intimacy we develop with a friend. Thinkers like Goethe, Coleridge and the Inklings encouraged us to develop an intimacy with the world. When people talk about knowing “in the biblical sense,” they are usually being lascivious but what it really means is to know something deeply, an “I-Thou” rather than an “I-It” relationship. The world comes alive in the moments when we are able to do this. Hope I don’t sound too preachy! I can always count on your comments to spark more ideas.

    • Very well expressed! I agree completely. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The whole idea of ownership suggests that we are separate from the world and we simply are not. There is also the idea of what it means to know. To paraphrase Lewis, there is knowing in the sense of “savoir,” to know as a fact, and in the sense of “connaitre,” to know with the intimacy we develop with a friend. Thinkers like Goethe, Coleridge and the Inklings encouraged us to develop an intimacy with the world. When people talk about knowing “in the biblical sense,” they are usually being lascivious but what it really means is to know something deeply, an “I-Thou” rather than an “I-It” relationship. The world comes alive in the moments when we are able to do this. Hope I don’t sound too preachy! I can always count on your comments to spark more ideas.

  2. Usually when I comment on your postings, I feel an impulse to express an appreciation of some kind. But this time I want to do something different. I want to explore a few statements which release a magical resonant chime that is both meaningful and difficult to quantify.

    “…in which mountains have the freedom to become something both beyond and more essential to our mundane idea of a mountain…” The interweaving of the layered experiences that often appear in your observations is something that is as delicate as spider silk, and as impossibly strong as spider silk. Here we become free. Then we become “something” – something “beyond” and yet “essential.” And suddenly we set foot back on earth. That is, we stand suddenly upon “the idea of a mountain.” There is something uplifting about this curious journey, and yet “mundane,” as you put it, as if viewing inner truths from a great height.

    “… much of who we are mingles with what moves through us when we create…” Again we get drawn into a complex fusion of action and concept. This must be read again and again, as if savoring mysteries that we completely understand and yet find almost impossible to define. To look too closely, I sense, is to seek the mechanisms that give rise to insight rather than to experience the insight itself. It is worthwhile to attempt to set forth objective observations about the art of subjectivity, but it is more fun to simply return to the beginning and take the journey again.

    “…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.” Whether we keep hearing the same ancient echo from our youth or whether each new echo more or less completely replaces the past with its own history, I suspect that every tree is constantly changing, both in its specific world and in our minds. We think we can return to the same tree, but it is never the same. The new tree evokes for us an echo against memory; so we know we have “youth” and in that youth there is a “tree,” but what we make of this idea in our storytelling is what matters. Or so I think.

    “It was through this first tree that nature’s gesture 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.” Whether or not I agree with this statement, there are many elements here to contemplate, and to disassemble and assemble. I keep thinking of the dense history of ideas buried inside your use of the term “gesture,” for example, and I feel an urge to look once again at your previous comments before the “veil of familiarity” descends and I find myself in an analytical project rather than on a journey. So I guess I would like to see that word get linked to your previous post “Nature and Imagination: Tolkien and Goethe.”

  3. I think what we should end up with here, is not just the idea of recovery as found in “On Fairy-Stories” but also the idea of the Tower or the Soup, as described in OFS and “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.”

    In recovery, we are meant to find something lost, a newness and freshness that the constant usage and exposure of the everday hides. Yet at the same time, we are meant to see a totally NEW newness of the thing, even greater and beyond the original. This is part of our growth as people in the world. We are meant to take all the ingredients of the soup together and savour each of its parts, and yet at the same time revel in the new delicacy of their combination: ie. the gestalt.

    So too with the tower, we are meant to build up a conception of the world based on experience, history and revelation, but not focus so much on the constituent parts, as the glorious view that is revealed from the top.

    Analysis is all well and good, but it is a dangerous path that must be tread carefully. So too, in recovery, while we may relive or rediscover an original TRUTH once known to us, we find it again, though on each finding it is different…And I would argue, with each new meeting made more wonderous and glorious than ever before.

    ….lol BG, preachy? How’s this for you 😉
    Glad to be the wellspring of further discussion, and to have others with which to share!

  4. I agree completely! Goethe practiced a scientific method (though it can also be regarded as a contemplative practice) that he called “exact sensorial imagination.” Exact sensorial imagination involves observing a phenomenon, let’s say a flowering plant, with such careful attention that one would become able to reproduce it mentally in great detail. Next, came the act of “animating, developing, extending and transforming” the image in the mind. Because he had observed the phenomenon so closely, however, the natural law would have, through this intimate association, already come to express itself in the observer’s consciousness producing “living shapes” that seem to grow of their own accord. Any variation on the phenomenon that the observer then envisioned would, therefore, be in accordance with the natural law.

    “Possessing truth and necessity,” it would be as real an expression of nature as the original specimen under observation. The observer would know the phenomenon so well that the law that causes it to develop and change would become active in the observer’s imagination. Thus, the observer would be able to know the plant as it is, was, will be and even as it could be.

    Art is a way of transcending time. It is also how we see things in new ways, thus, actually bringing new things into being. Williams spoke of this as the “ingodding” of the Universe. It involves seeing holistically– seeing “multiplicity in unity” (all of the phenomena as an expression of fundamental unity) rather than seeing “unity in multiplicity” (seeing things as belonging together in a category, the way we would see things as a unity if we put them together in one basket, but still thinking of separateness as the fundamental reality). The Whole is infinite, thus it expresses itself in infinite ways and it uses human imagination to do this.

    Great discussion!

  5. In your post, “Nature and Imagination: Tolkien and Goethe,” Badgaladriel, you assert that “Imagination is, in fact, a kind of fulfilling gesture in which nature’s potential is realized beyond material manifestation.” This treads in an area that I find particularly challenging and very interesting. Drawing a link between poetic inspiration and natural processes seems to get to the heart of the justification for seeing intent in the universe, and seeing what you would call “Providence” in the outcomes that ensue. In other words, an inherently spiritual mystery – a living gesture of life force (as certain of my ancestors would think of it) – becomes manifest as a kind of empowering link between artistic vision and the natural world. If I have your concept right, I find this idea beautiful and moving, and I love the storytelling that it implies. But I would expand this storytelling – if “expand” is the right word (it sounds more condescending than I feel, sitting here with you in this little Hall of Fire, trying to listen carefully to what you say). I would include the discursive insights of the narratives of science as a useful and even essential component in this project. I guess I would envision a “spiritual” trajectory intersecting in complicated ways with a “scientific” trajectory, and with these paths in mind, an enriched artistic aesthetic realm would result – an infinite universe full of inspirational potential – full of imaginal mystery that we can explore through a scientific lens and through a spiritual lens. So minimizing either trajectory would only serve to unnecessarily impoverish the infinite Whole. I have the impression that this is what you and your colleagues stand for, Badgaladriel. In any narrative project to discern and critique the limits of science, I would argue that any such limits should not be taken as a justification to dismiss the contribution of the poetry of science to aesthetics and imagination. I have the sense that your colleagues would agree with this, even though the narrative they seem to espouse sometimes sounds very tough on science, almost dismissive at times. True balance, I would argue, means finding mutually respectful acknowledgment of the diversity of paths that can take us into an infinite universe. We need every path ready to hand if we are to explore whatever lies beyond the self and within the self. And in this project, all travelers should be made to feel welcome. And I apologize if I have mischaracterized or oversimplified your ideas and positions. I know this little note does not do justice to your years of writing and thinking on these topics.

  6. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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