Tolkiens of My Affection

By Strate, Lance | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Tolkiens of My Affection


Strate, Lance, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


The title that I have taken for this paper is something of a pun, as the name Tolkien is frequently mispronounced as Tolkehn, and when written out looks like the word token. No doubt Professor J. R. R. Tolkien would have been able to explain the linguistic origins of this mispronunciation. He was, after all, a renowned philologist who held, first, the Rawlinson and Bos-worth Chair of Anglo-Saxon and, later, the Merton Chair of English Language at Oxford University. And perhaps, as an expert in linguistics, he would not have been too insulted to have his name conflated with the term token, given that token can be defined as a symbol or sign. And my intention is to present this paper as a symbol or sign of my affection for the author and his works. I suspect that affection is a term that is not used very frequently in serious scholarship, as we academics tend to traffic in thoughts, rather than emotions, in arguments and propositions rather than feelings and intuitions. But I take as my authority Susanne K. Langer, who in works such as Philosophy in a New Key (1957), Feeling and Form (1953), and Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967, 1972, 1982) has championed the study of emotion in cognition and symbolic form. And when it comes to books like The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1965a, 1965c, 1965d), there is no denying the powerful feelings that the novel evokes in so many readers.

Tolkien lovers exhibit the fervor of the spiritual convert, not the objectively distanced appreciation of the critical reader. This, too, can be disturbing to the serious scholar, unless The Lord of the Rings is framed as a religious narrative. And Tolkien did confess that the novel is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision" (quoted in Shippey, 2000, p. 175). Now, I should also mention that he wrote this in a letter to a Jesuit priest, but what is particularly interesting is what he went on to write:

  That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all
  references to anything like "religion," to cults or practices, in the
  imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story
  and the symbolism. (p. 175)

The result is something quite different than the religious fiction of Tolkien's fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis. The Lord of the Rings does not point to any specific institution, belief-system, or practice. Rather, it presents us with a narrative that represents religious experience as a symbolic form, a narrative that evokes the general conception of religious experience in all of its varieties, as William James would have it. Along with The Hobbit (Tolkien, 1965b), we have a set of stories that take us from the familiar and profane world of the Shire, to alien landscapes and sacred spaces inhabited by wizards, elves, dwarves, nature spirits, dragons, wraiths, and demons. We have a hero's journey, but in place of Joseph Campbell's (1968) monomyth, we have Tolkien's multimyth, one for each member of the fellowship of the ring.

Frodo's quest is necessitated by Bilbo's earlier travels "there and back again," but in place of an adventure we have the solemn enactment of the scapegoat myth, as discussed by Kenneth Burke (1950). Sam's journey begins in service to his master, but ends with his mastering of himself. Merry and Pippin both go through a rite of passage from playful youth to mature leadership. Legolas and Gimli begin by championing their own races, but go on to transcend the limitations of species loyalty to become defenders of all life. Gandalf falls and rises, moving from life to death and back to life again, while Boromir's is the failed hero's journey, a failure of virtue followed by death and the final return and cremation of his body. And Aragorn's is the most traditional hero's journey, as he separates himself from his mundane existence as a ranger, faces many trials as his initiation, and returns as the king, triumphant.

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