Most people who love the writing of Tolkien can most likely recall the moment when they first fell under his spell. This happened to me on the bus in the first grade when a group of older boys sitting a few rows back spent their morning ride with an awkwardly large and square-shaped, illustrated edition of The Hobbit. Of course, at six I had no idea that it was The Hobbit because the cover had no writing and, more to the point, I couldn’t yet read.
I think, looking back, that the book jacket must have been removed by some appropriately anal-retentive parents because the faded orange hardcover – splotched with the various stains of school lunches – was all that remained to safeguard the vast treasures within. While it was much later that I would learn “all that is gold does not glitter,” I do remember desiring to look inside this book more than anything else; however, it wasn’t until a few weeks later, when most of the boys’ infatuations had waned, that I mustered the courage to ask the owner if I might borrow the book for just a while and there must have been some hobbit blood in this boy for he freely loaned his precious book to me (although he never asked any riddles). I pored over the pictures of the goblin king and the three trolls, the large spiders in Mirkwood Forest and the great eagles coming to the rescue, dwarves with funny names I would learn one day and Smaug, the large red dragon; without even knowing the story, I had become enchanted with Middle-earth.
When it comes to my love for Middle-earth, I don’t think much has changed since those days of flipping through the illustrations with my greasy six-year-old fingers. Just over twenty years later I have read and reread The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and despite my ever-growing reading lists and real-world responsibilities, I am still inevitably drawn to their place on my bookshelves again and again. But why?
Many people I know could not be bothered with Tolkien’s lifelong project. They begin the stories with the best of intentions, but after reading several pages dedicated to descriptions of the flora and fauna of an imaginary world, they realize (or I should say, imagine) that their time might be better spent reading something “more real,” by which they presumably mean a historical novel or an autobiography or, perhaps, The Washington Post. This reaction is nothing new; in fact, I once heard a story that when Tolkien stood up to read his latest installment of the ring saga to his close friends, someone from another corner of the pub (with several pints in him) shouted: “Oh, come on! Not another story with #$!ing Elves!” There is more than an unwillingness here to believe in the fantasy world, there is an unwillingness to even suspend disbelief. It is a failure of imagination (or, to be more gracious, perhaps a personal preference I will never understand).
Yet despite such naysayers, I would maintain that those who love to wander in Middle-earth are not necessarily lost.
Middle-earth, or midgard, is a term Tolkien borrowed from Norse mythology. In a letter, Tolkien admits that Middle-earth is a “modernization or alteration of an old word for the inhabited world of Men, the oikoumene: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. Old English midan-geard, mediaeval English midden-erd, middle-erd.”
Middle-earth, then, is not like Lewis’ Narnia (to be found in another dimension) or even his Perelandra (to be found on another planet), nor is it a Spenserian Fairyland (although I think that might be closer to the mark); it is the Earth as we know it, or as we might have known it in a previous age. While the place is quite real,the history and inhabitants are not; and this fusion of the real and the imaginary is what makes Tolkien’s work so enticing.
As these maps indicate, there are visible traces of Western European geography underlying much of Middle-earth. Tolkien does this in such a beautifully subtle way in order to make the wary reader feel both at home in Middle-earth, while also being oddly unsettled by its other-worldliness. Of course, traces of European geography in no way means that Middle-earth is a tracing; the two worlds are still quite different (see maps).
This disconnect can be understood if you follow the history of the ages of Middle-earth to see the constant restructuring of geography as time continues its downward-spiral through the ages in an ever-narrowing gyre. At the close of Lord of the Rings, another age is setting and, Tolkien seems to invite the interpretation, perhaps another restructuring will take place which will leave the world in its present form. But this is just speculation.
What is, perhaps, even more interesting about Middle-earth’s history is the music of its creation. The various ages of Middle-earth actually follow a cyclical pattern already established in the great music of the Ainur (this story is found in the Ainulindale). As Eru, father of light, weaves his infinitely complex and beautiful harmonies together, the plans for Middle-earth are made known to the Ainur, but already in the song a note of discord can be heard arising from the mightiest of these, Melkor (whose name means, “one who rises up in might”). Eru allows Melkor to break the harmony for a time, but eventually undoes his music and manages to create a song even more beautiful than before. Once the music stops, the Valar begin the long work of taking up their small parts in this big harmony, and thus begins all the tragedies and comedies of Middle-earth’s history.
I continue to go to Tolkien’s work because it leaves me in the middle of things. Wanderering in Middle-earth, I find myself suspended between visions of a world long gone and visions of a world that could still yet be. I can see the long wisdom behind places like the Shire, Rivendell and Lothlorien, and the quick folly of Mordor and Orthanc. Tolkien’s work awakens the desire I have (and many others share) to see Other-worlds and escape into them. To clarify, lovers of fantasy do not escape like deserters from the army, rather, they escape like prisoners who long to return home. Anyone who has read and loved Tolkien knows the ‘freeing’ effect it can have on you.
As I read, I can journey out only to return and clearly see again how the real earth is the visible stage between the invisible realms of heaven and hell. Fantasy, contrary to popular belief, does not cloud vision; when it is properly done, it restores vision. And it also restores our hearing. As I journey back into the various ages, I can hear the echoes of the Ainulindale as Melkor and Manwe, Feanor and Morgoth, or Aragorn and Sauron bring the music nearer and nearer to its denouement.