Tolkien on Time and Eternity: A Post for Tolkien Week

Today, it is my turn to contribute to the Grey Havens Group’s post-a-day Tolkien Week project. Below is an excerpt from a presentation titled “A Glory Reflected Backwards: The Inklings on Time and Eternity.”  In it, I attempt to place J.R.R. Tolkien and his friends within the western philosophical tradition as described by philosopher Pierre Hadot in What Is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life. Central to the paper’s argument is the idea that philosophy in the west began as a contemplative practice, a way of life, with the goal of bringing about freedom from worry and fear through the death of the ego. 


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In his famous essay, “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien presents his nuanced take on myth or what he calls “fairy-stories.” Fairy-stories are not necessarily (in fact, hardly ever) stories that contain fairies but stories that take place in “the realm or state” called Faerie, also referred to as the “Perilous Realm.” The Perilous Realm is not a safe place for mortals. It is almost never what you expect but what you most stand to lose is your cozy idea of yourself and the world. It is a place that can cause the death of the ego.

Fairy-stories are always astonishing but need not be novel. Elements from what Tolkien calls The Cauldron of Story are combined and recombined but, to make a good fairy story, they must be combined in a way that is internally consistent within the world of the story. It is one thing to make a green sun but quite another to make a world in which such a thing would plausibly exist. The world of the story must, though it seems fantastic, accord with the laws of nature. To make something that accords with the laws of nature but has never, outside the imagination, been manifest within the temporal world requires that the maker possess, not only a discursive understanding of nature, but so deep an intimacy with nature that he is able to create in the mode in which nature, herself, creates.

In his long poem, “Mythopoeia,” quoted in “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien introduces the concept of subcreation, a process by which “living shapes move from mind to mind.” We make, he writes, because we are made in the image of a creator. The making of fantasy or myth is both a god-given right and a primordial human need. God is the creator and we the subcreators, assisting in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. The act of subcreation is a philosophical practice that can be understood by likening it to a similar practice developed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Exact sensorial imagination was Goethe’s attempt to sink his consciousness into the phenomena he observed. The practice of exact sensorial imagination involves observing a phenomenon, let’s say a tree, very, very closely over a period of time and with a relaxed and receptive mind. The idea is to come to intimately know the phenomenon in front of you without imposing any of your own notions or expectations on the phenomenon. In his novella, Night Operation, Owen Barfield depicts the beginning of the practice when he describes how his three protagonists, Peet and his friends, are getting to know the world after a lifetime spent living underground. They are looking at flowers:

…as Peet pointed out, amid all variety that same particular blossom with its own particular shape could be seen recurring over and over again. He made them concentrate on one of these to begin with, until they could recognize it when they saw it in another place. ‘We haven’t got a name for it,’ he said, ‘but that doesn’t matter. Perhaps it is all the better. The point is we must become able to say to ourselves, ‘This is this flower and not another.’ After which they went on and did the same with a few more.

I have a friend who teaches drawing and painting to adult beginners. She says that the first thing she has to teach her students is that the human eye is not shaped like a football. Before she can teach them to subcreate, she has to teach them to really see. Goethe discovered that once you really see the tree, it begins to grow in your mind. This happens because nature operates according to laws, because that is how the Maker makes. Once the image of the tree has implanted itself in the mind, those laws continue to operate so that the observer is able to accurately imagine every stage of the tree’s development, from acorn to oak, whether or not he witnessed these stages. The image “possesses truth and necessity.” It appears the way it does in the mind because that is how it must appear according to the laws of nature. (In fact Goethe was able to use this technique to discover the intermaxillary bone in humans. He did not see it with, as the saying goes, his “naked eye;” he simply knew it had to be there.)

What can properly be called the magic of exact sensorial imagination is that the observer is able to imagine, not only the ways in which a phenomenon manifests itself in the temporal plane, but how it could manifest if liberated from these conditions. Tolkien alludes to this in “On Fairy-stories” when he describes the power of the adjective: “We may put a deadly green on a man’s face,” he writes, “we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of a cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy,’ as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a subcreator.”

Subcreation works in just the same way as exact sensorial imagination. The subcreative mythmaker is able to produce a world that, while fantastic, is also perceived as utterly plausible, inviting belief, at least while the reader is immersed in it. This is possible because the imagination is able to grasp and employ the laws of nature more perfectly and completely than if those laws were laid out in a treatise or described in a model. Myth is not a model of the Cosmos; it is an expression of it. The imagination does not dwell in and is not constrained by time in the way our bodies are. Because of this, Tolkien is able to write truthfully (and, I believe from experience) that myth opens a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, if only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside of Time, itself maybe. From this vantage, we attain direct experience of how the world comes to be as it is through the laws of nature. We become privy to what Pierre Hadot calls “the hidden correspondence in things.”

Tolkien wrote that the advantage of myth is its “arresting strangeness.” Myth is not all green suns and red dragons. Most of the contents of Faerie are things that exist in our world as well–bread, wine, roads, trees and even things like humor, happiness, worries and pain. When we see these things in a fantastic setting, it causes us to stop and pay attention, to really see them. Myth teaches us to be fully present in each moment. Tolkien calls this Recovery. It is a “regaining of a clear view” in which we learn to see the contents of the world “as things apart from ourselves.” Myth begins and ends with attention–with the attention that the mythmaker must pay to the world in order to internalize the laws of nature and with the attention that it teaches its audience.

It is through attention that ego death comes about. Most of the time, we meet the world through what Tolkien calls “appropriation.” Tolkien thought that we tend to see everything in terms of ourselves rather than as things in themselves. He thought that we see things in possessive terms. We see what we want or expect to see rather than what is really there. When we pay attention, however, we can begin to set aside our wants and expectations so that we see the world as we are meant to see it. To paraphrase Hadot, we will see the world for itself, rather than for ourselves.

What Goethe discovered when, through practice, he learned to see the world for itself was that each moment is pregnant. According to Goethe, each instant is a symbol of an entire past and an entire future. It is “the living, instantaneous revelation of eternity.” Every moment in a myth is dripping with significance. Nothing is expendable. Every moment of the story conspires to bring about the ending. We stand outside of it in a way that teaches us to step back and survey our own lives and the life of our world.

When, on the stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam achieve the revelation that they are part of an ancient and endless story, they are given a profound glimpse of their place in time but it is nowhere near as complete as the view we are afforded because we know that the story will have a happy ending. As a Christian, Tolkien knew that all stories will have a happy ending or eucatastrophe. He wrote, “I am a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ’history’ to be anything but a ’long defeat’ — though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” The happy ending in every story comes to us, not from time, but from eternity. As Tolkien wrote, “…it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal, final defeat and in so far is evangelium [good news], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy. Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Tolkien says that the happy ending “reflects a glory backwards.” Even the dark places in the story shine with some of its light. When Frodo and Sam realize that they are part of a great story, they begin to see everything in a new light, realizing that even the perpetual annoyance and threat, Gollum, would be “good in a tale.” To begin to see your own life and the world in this way is to attain the cosmic view the ancient philosopher’s sought. It lifts the veil of our petty concerns to show us a story that has already been written, a perfection already accomplished. In the face of this revelation, particularly when it is directly experienced through a conscious, careful receptivity to myth, it makes little sense for us to be afraid.

2 thoughts on “Tolkien on Time and Eternity: A Post for Tolkien Week

  1. This Is written so well that even I can understand it! I understand On Fairy Stories much better than I did when I read it in the past. Thank you for the rich and beautiful explanation. I also finally understand the statement “Glory reflected backwards.”

    • Thank you, Donna! Thanks for letting me paraphrase your words, too. P.S. You can understand anything but I wasn’t completely confident in the way I expressed my argument so I am glad that it is understandable.

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