J. R. R. Tolkien's Creative Ethic and Its Finnish Analogues

By Bardowell, Matthew R. | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

J. R. R. Tolkien's Creative Ethic and Its Finnish Analogues


Bardowell, Matthew R., Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


IN J. R. R. TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM, THERE ARE MANY DIVERSE INSTANCES OF creation: the making of Middle-Earth in his creation myth, "Ainulindale"; Melkor's attempts at creation within Middle-Earth; Aule's creation of the Dwarves; and Saruman's contrivances, to name only a few of such creative acts. In his landmark essay "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien posits that for a story (or a sub-creation) to engender belief it must convey to the reader an "inner consistency of reality" (139). One of the many ways Tolkien achieves this inner consistency is to construct these creative moments around specific principles or ethics that assure their legitimacy within Tolkien's poiesis (a term Tolkien himself employed that combines the ideas of creation/making and of speaking/poetry). Tolkien critics have embarked upon many quests for origins and influences that inform the principles with which Tolkien invests his elaborate sub-creation, and Richard West remarks that the Kalevala, among other sources, was "absorbed into [Tolkien's] imagination" and that it "inform[s] his legendarium, not as imitation or pastiche, but as a natural part of his mindset" (288). This article argues that Tolkien adapts principles derived from the Kalevala specifically to inform Middle-Earth's creative ethic. Just as the creative aesthetic of the Kalevala privileges harmony over dissonance, antiquity over modernity, and remembrance over invention, so, too, does Tolkien invest his poiesis with these values. Understanding the way Tolkien incorporates these dichotomies into the creative acts of Middle-Earth may offer the reader an interpretive method by which to evaluate these various forms of making.

For evidence of the influence the Kalevala (or "Land of Heroes") had over Tolkien, one need look no further than his own words. In a letter to W. H. Auden, Tolkien admits, "I was immensely attracted by something in the air of the Kalevala, even in Kirby's poor translation" (Letters 214). He describes the source of his fascination as "something in the air"--something formless and difficult to grasp. Such imprecision is difficult to avoid when trying to determine exactly what Tolkien gleaned from these tales. One cannot reduce Tolkien's attraction to the Kalevala to a single plot or character; rather, the very atmosphere in which these stories live seems to have impressed him. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien's biographer, quotes him as saying, "the more I read of it, the more I felt at home and enjoyed myself (57). One may surmise from such statements that Tolkien inhabited these ancient stories and felt connected to them on a level deeper than the superficial. Scholars typically credit the Kalevala with inspiring Tolkien to rework some of its material in The Silmarillion. (1) Certainly, Tolkien did "attempt to reorganize" some surface elements of the Kalevala, (2) and he explicitly states the tale of Turin Turambar is "derived from elements in [...] the Finnish Kullervo" (xvii). Tolkien follows this insight by claiming that this information will interest only those "who like that sort of thing" and, soon after, adds that this connection "is not very useful" (xvii). Aside from this lone acknowledged parallel, critics also have postulated that the origin of the Silmarils has its roots in the Finnish artifact called the Sampo (Shippey, Road 242). Beyond that observation, critics discuss, at great length, how Tolkien admired Elias Lonnrot, the nineteenth-century folklorist, linguist, and compiler of the Kalevala. Verlyn Flieger asserts that "Tolkien envisioned himself doing exactly [what Lonnrot did], constructing a world of magic and mystery, creating a heroic age that, although it might never had existed, would give England a storial sense of its own mythic [...] identity" (29). Anne Petty extends this notion, arguing for a connection between Tolkien and Lonnrot based on their intention, their use of language, and the content of their work (70). When Petty addresses the similarities between Lonnrot and Tolkien in the area of content, she keeps with the tradition of established criticism by focusing on Tolkien's adaptations of the Kullervo and the "core epic of the Sampo" (78). …

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