Few would argue against the formative role played by the fictional writings of J.R.R. Tolkien in the genre of contemporary fantasy. The success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy among Western audiences sparked a conflagration of inspired fantasy authors ever after, writing their own modest tales for decades thence, spun around seemingly-alien or once-upon-a-time worlds peopled with elves, dwarves, dark lords, wraiths, goblins, trolls, wizards, on and on, the likes of which had little part in modern literature up until Tolkien’s intervention. A few such common staples to the genre today — orcs and hobbits/halflings, for instance — were entirely the original creation of Tolkien, whereas many other tropes, while not originating in his work, often resemble his iteration more than they do anything described in their source material of folk legend (elves as wise and immortal/long-lived humanoids, or dwarves as a similar racial — rather than spiritual — species of clever, diminutive, subterranean artificers).
There is, however, less agreement as to the exact quality that has granted Tolkien’s work such initial and enduring appeal. Why should his tales of a sundry band of men, halflings, and other mythical races, out to vanquish a dragon or topple a daemonic despot, be any better-remembered and widely-appreciated than the hundreds of stories since which follow the same fantastical premise, of which many of the latter reach no further renown than as titillating penny dreadfuls for an adolescent’s momentary, consumptive pleasure? The question of originality aside, some would point to Tolkien’s masterful and aesthetic use of English prose and poem as part of his work’s longevity — though those without proclivity for technical and artistic word-smithing have been known to discount his style as “dry” or “boring.” His ability in “worldbuilding” has otherwise been examined and praised as masterful on this subject. It is a rare bird, and especially in a world of shrinking attention spans, who could devote themselves to their art from a young age and persist in it up until one’s dying days, and Tolkien was one such a dedicated and impassioned artist. His art just so happened to largely centre around a hidden world, a vast and complex phantasmagoria, for which he dedicated all of his intellectual capacities in bringing to light and life, ranging from his lesser-known paintings to his impressively-constructed languages laced throughout his written works that drew upon his professional skill as a philologist of Northern European languages. In terms of sheer profundity of detail, then, Tolkien’s “Middle-Earth” is a far richer world, and by consequence more engrossing, than what can be found in many of the more-forgettable works of the genre.
The immortality of Tolkien’s legendarium, however, does not derive either exclusively from any perceived beauty of his style or the exquisite architecture upholding his imaginary world, though both play a tributary part to it. The true distinguishing power residing in the tales concerning Middle-Earth is that of the myth.
Whereas the concept of the myth has had its phenomenological minutiae defined and redefined a number of diverse ways, timelessness is often at the core of what distinguishes a myth from contemporary tales/works of fiction. The myth does not concern itself with the particularities of a given epoch, of the banal and ephemeral details of day-to-day human life and interaction within the endless and ever-varying rhythm of history, even if the myth’s characters may clothe themselves in the raiment of a specific culture and speak the current lingo of a people. Instead, the myth speaks of the “ultimate,” the universal qualities of human nature, life as a whole, or the entirety of the cosmos and existence itself. When dealing with questions of “genesis”/beginnings, the myth will often take place in a peculiar “land before time” — before human thought or human beings themselves came into existence, when man was yet part of nature, one of the animals, or yet of unshaped materia, perceived of variously as a time of perfection, where all things were whole and apparent, including knowledge; or of perfect imperfection, wherein said-unified state is regarded with some degree of undesirability, what with the flourishing of life or the once-diverse kindreds of man having not yet been given their birth and freedom. In keeping with the myth’s transcendent nature, however, that mythic era, where all things are revealed, often is conceived of as “living on” in some fashion, accessible in perception on occasion, be it during ritual or in the final destination of death, and/or only exceptionally to the most gifted, be they wise men or shamans. Whether cosmological or occurring a bit further along in the mythic era, the myth is “fable” on the grandiose scale: for in delving into the arcane knowledge of the nature of the world, one purposes to be answered with “truth,” and, as far as man is concerned, those truths in turn may instruct on how best to live and conduct one’s life, and the purpose of myth is to structure the ontology of nature/being in a way readily comprehensible and transmissible to and between most human minds via symbols.
Through this conceptual schema, one discerns the importance of culture to the construction of a myth — while not focusing on the minutiae of everyday individuals, the myth yet illustrates the ultimate via the proximal in order to strike a chord of recognition or enlightenment amongst the ones who hear it. Thus, not only does myth “reduce” truth into the characteristic language and symbolic/representational thought of humankind in order for it to be comprehensible to such, but it further takes on some of the cultural accourtrements of a given people to arrange itself with further intelligibility. Timelessness is bounded by the infinitesimal time and place of man — yet again, it is the especial quality of the myth that despite the cultural constraints, it still carries with it transcendence of thought and feeling. It does not take much of a stretch of the imagination — for those who still have some level of cognitive and emotional intelligence, anyways — to be able to recognise and share in something of the sheer exuberant triumph of life over death, good over evil, human will against all adversity, when Heracles vanquishes the Hydra, or when Cú Chulainn stomps upon the ribs of the avaricious goddess of war, the Mórrigan. Neither does the appreciation demand an extensive knowledge in either of those myths’ mother cultures, of the ancient Greek or the Celtic, just as it does not require an in-depth knowledge of the cultures Tolkien variously borrowed from to marvel at the age-old struggle of good versus evil present in his work, of a Dark Lord against the “free peoples” of the world. However, knowledge of such cultural forms can certainly help to deepen one’s appreciation and refine one’s scope of the truth enmeshed in the myth, just as improving one’s grasp of a language would make any ideas conveyed with it more coherent to the non-native speaker.
As any mythological body, then, we can enhance our insight of Tolkien’s legendarium by contemplating some of its cultural particularities, and ultimately evaluate how well his cultural vehicles of choice conveyed the ontological purpose of the myth. To do so to the exhaustion, or near-enough, of its various symbolic components would be a work of an immensity not yet seen except when the various, piecemeal analyses from “Tolkien scholars” over the years are considered as a whole, and so only a few choice mentions shall be made herein for the sake of example. It is worth, to begin with, to point out that from early on in Tolkien’s career, he had expressed in no uncertain terms his interest to construct a mythology. A poem of his dating from the 1930s, Mythopoeia (“Myth-Making”), is one of the clearest expressions of his fervent belief in the power of myth as a vessel for illustrating truth and of his prior and continuing devotion to constructing a house — the mythology — of profound lore. In that vein as well, Tolkien had a passion for what he considered the “racial” character (what would today be referred to, more politically, as “cultural” instead) of mythology — the “particulars”/proximality that colour a myth with the cultural insignias of a given people. The symbolic repertoires that most fascinated Tolkien were those of the ancient and mediaeval traditions of Northern Europe, and in particular the Germanic/Anglo-Saxon and the Scandinavian, for they were the closest/most direct ancestors to his own people, the modern English, who, as Tolkien was noted to bemoan, were notably “mythless” by his era. One such expression of his interest in thus can be found in a letter to his friend and almost-editor, Milton Waldman, where he states:
“I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.”
With the “ultimate” truth of the mythic patterning the “proximate” cultural life and vice versa, to be without a mythology is to be essentially cultureless as well. To be mythless is a sociocultural state similar to what is expressed in Nietzsche’s famous parable mourning that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” — “truth,” be it illustrated in the mythical figure of a god or the eponymous ancestor-hero, is abandoned when one thoroughly disenchants the world and the psyche of man, severing him from the mythic web that reliably ties him to it, and out with it goes the old moral order that was founded, to a greater or lesser degree, upon the natural/universal wisdom woven in the myth, to be replaced with one further from said truth. The net effect is that man drifts further from nature, from common, animalian sense and spontaneity, further from the “dreamtime,” the time before time expressed in the mythic regions of the psyche, when “man and animals were yet one and the same” — and ultimately, as he becomes more “rational,” more machine-like, constrained and automated by clockwork, he drifts further from “truth” and the ostensibly-resulting “good life” for it.
To remedy some of that ill, the author then set himself up to the Nietzschean endeavour — one which was unfortunately not finished in his lifetime — of creating a mythology for himself and his people, of revealing truth via the cultural forms most intelligible to them, whether to the academic bourgeois of his day who were yet in a frenzy of collecting, analysing, or otherwise romanticising the vanishing folklore and myths of the British Isles, or to the humble peasant folk who clung to and preserved remnants of folk tradition up until the progressive hell of two world wars finally sapped the remaining lifeblood from the idyllic, rural hamlet. The descent/development of Tolkien’s mythos is yet another subject in and of itself of a breadth too vast to adequately traverse here — and it is by dint of that same complexity and vastness that Tolkien was unable to settle upon and finish a definitive version of the legendarium beyond the fragments deposited in the works he published in his lifetime. A hoard of notebooks and typescript were used to cobble together the various posthumous works that constitute the rest of his mythology, with the most familiar to the casual Tolkien reader being The Silmarillion. In it, the mythological aspect to Tolkien’s work becomes much more conspicuous than in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — rather than being swept along amongst a band of gregarious dwarves or trudging through the deathly Mines of Moria in the third person, one is greeted by a biblical and impersonal account of the creation of Arda — the world — by the god-like Valar at the behest of the one, “true” god, Ilúvatar.
Through the figure of Ilúvatar, we see something of Tolkien’s fidelity to Christianity shining through, though the “pagan gods” are given a kindly treatment by situating them, as the Valar, as both angelic entities who sprang from the “thought” and will of Ilúvatar and who subsequently abide in and uphold the natural order of the world through their elemental powers imbued within it. The tumultuous movement of this mythical history is set into motion by the rebellious Valar, Melkor (later named “Morgoth,” the Dark Enemy), a Paradise Lost-sort of Satan who, in his arrogance and lust to be the supreme ruler of Arda, clashes with the other Valar for ages and descends further into darkness and depravity the while. We are told of the awakening of the “Children of Ilúvatar,” for whom the world was made — elves and then, later, humans — and who in time also come to evil and great suffering by Morgoth’s machinations. We find an Atlantean tale in the land of Númenor, the greatest realm of men to have ever existed, being destroyed by the Valar for their descent into overweening pride, barbarity against the other races of men and their own, and finally armed rebellion against the gods, all at the influence of Morgoth’s lingering evil via his most trusted follower, Sauron. The world is remade utterly in the aftermath of this Atlantis’ destruction, with the abode of the Valar being removed from the reaches of men and ultimately forming the shape of Middle-Earth as it came to be known ere after in the later events recounted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is to summarise but a few of the many events, and not all of the critical ones either, which are recounted in The Silmaillion’s mythological text.
From this mythic anthology, the first-time reader of Tolkien’s work may be surprised to discover in reading The Silmarillion that Middle-Earth is not some remote, imaginary land set in a parallel universe or the like, as so many other worlds in the genre of contemporary fantasy — it is our own world, once upon time, in the magical landscape of myth when “stones still could speak,” when “elves still fared abroad,” and when man still lived close to the “Powers” of nature, in the good graces of the gods (or “Valar”). The term Middle-Earth itself was lifted directly from the common name for Earth as given by Germanic peoples like the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse in their cosmologies: one need only glance through the likes of the Eddas (Nordic) or the epic of Beowulf (Old English) to find reference to Midgard or Middangeard (“Middle-Earth”) respectively as the name of our world.
Beowulf was especially influential in the genesis of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, unsurprisingly so given its place as one of the only mythic epics passed down and preserved as pertains to the cultural inheritance of the “English people.” Of all the Northern European epics recorded in the mediaeval era, the poem certainly vies for the status of containing the most symbolic semblance with Tolkien’s mythos. At the most superficial, a reader familiar with The Lord of the Rings should have their attention drawn to the frequent occurrence of “ring-giver” or “giver of rings” as a flattering epithet for noble men and lords within the Old English poem. Rings in the Anglo-Saxon world were generally a sign of status and power, what with their being relatively useless but constructed with lavishly expensive materials — thus, in the vaguely-potlatch manner of the old tribal feudalism of such peoples, a lord would regularly give out rings and similar baubles to his knights/earls/thanes as gifts to boast of his wealth. But, as any gift, some expectation of reciprocity would be expected, and in this case, loyalty and service would be demanded in return for these tokens of prosperity handed out by the lord/king. The recipients of the “Rings of Power” in The Lord of the Rings would have done well to recall that contractual arrangement associated with the gift, what with the ring-giver in this instance — Morgoth’s scion, Sauron — implicitly vaunting his status over those who accepted them, as the “Lord of Gifts” and his aspirationally boundless wealth and dominion, and in the end, he exacts a costly servitude from the most unwitting of the recipients.
In both the old epic and Tolkien’s tales, we additionally find the pagan “redeemed”/reinterpreted by the interjections and redactions of Christianity — whether the originally-pagan figures themselves would have appreciated it or not. As mentioned briefly, however, Tolkien was much kinder in his treatment of the “heathen” than some of his earlier forebearers: as an exemplary case, as regards the mythical, non-human creatures that the Germanic/Scandinavian cosmos — elves, dwarves, giants, etc. — are peopled with, the recorder of the Beowulf myth fits them into the imported Christian cosmology by claiming them of mortal stock, a part of God’s creation, but as the children of one of the first primordial humans in Semitic myth, Cain. Cast out from the ranks and warmth of humanity for his crime of killing his own brother, we are told that from Cain was fathered “all kinds of misbegotten — ogres and elves and evil shades — as also the Giants,” many of whom, if not all, were fated to woe and damnation like Beowulf’s adversaries, Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Similarly, rather than their origin being left to mysterious or otherwise divinely-spontaneous generation as amongst the pagan cosmology, Tolkien refits the elves, dwarves, and sundry others as part of the creation/plan by the stand-in for the Christian god, Ilúvatar.
In the case of the elves, specifically, who in the original Nordic lore (or what is known of it) emerged from one of the primordial beings/forces, on par with the race of the gods, Tolkien makes of them one of the “Children of Ilúvatar” as has been referred to above, the same as humankind, only they are the elder of the two lineages, having “awakened” upon the earth long before men came into being. That being as it is, they are not the damnable and accursed form of aborted humanity as proposed by the thinker responsible for the redacted Beowulf, nor are they, in a similar vein, “fallen angels” or demons as latter day folkloric explanations would sometimes attribute to the origins of the fae or elves — they are entities of grace, and of generally greater wisdom than that of men, due to their ageless nature and elder presence in the halls of the world. It is through the alliance and discourse with the elven peoples that mankind, in their infancy, came to their full growth in kenning and refinement, up to the point of the creation of the people that once inhabited the aforementioned doomed Númenor/Atlantis, who were blessed with beauty, wisdom, and longevity for their loyalty to (and in some instances, intercourse with) the elves.
It is from this last point that there springs the defamatory (and ill-informed) charge of racism against Tolkien’s work, for it so happens that those races of men who are the most “elven-wise,” and the most dignified and righteous for it, are the “men of the west” — whereas many of those races of men who never came into contact with, or outright reviled the elves, are those dwelling in the geographic east and south of Middle-Earth. For their lack of elven friendship and fosterage, the latter are portrayed, when they enter into the mythology at all, often as barbarous, cruel, fearful of the elves, and in allegiance to Morgoth or Sauron. The most naive interpretation of this (and the one which garners the outcry of racism or white/Western supremacy) would be to take the elven-wise men of the west as analogues for the modern-day British and/or “Europeans” as a whole — and indeed, certain far-right groups with a penchant for mythology have favoured this naive reading alongside the ignorant critics — whereas the likes of the cruel and barbaric “Easterlings” and “Haradrim” are asserted as stand-ins for the non-Western world and their peoples. To read the legendarium as such, however, is to utterly misread it, with the most evident challenge being that, again, as myth, the races and actions — the proximal elements — that occur within the tales of the mythic Middle-Earth have long since faded away. The Ents have all gone tree-ish and silent — dwarves have diminished to a husk of their former glory and profusion and haunt forgotten caverns and deeps — the elves have passed entirely out of the world of men and into the Undying Lands, ostensibly never to return — and so on. The time of myth and all the things in it diminished into the historic era, leaving only the pattern and precedents of nature, of truth, that was set within it as a lesson to men of the present — and of those lessons, a crude and arrogant support for the modern, fleeting “European” is certainly not one of the transcendent principles being taught.
HOW FARE THE ELVES?
In understanding this misunderstood element to the mythos, it is critical that one learn just who or what the elves are, for it is the exchange and amity with them that granted certain peoples their grace and exceptionality in the stories. We have mentioned as much so far that in the latest form of Tolkien’s mythology, the elves are portrayed as an ageless and elder race compared to that of mankind. They are further divided into a number of their own “ethnicities,” if you will, which are dependent primarily upon their relation to the Valar in the early ages of the world and their subsequent cultural developments. The first divisions occurred when the elves were summoned to live in the land of the Valar/gods, Aman, in order that the gods could better protect them from the depredations of Morgoth — some were entirely unwilling to make the journey and stayed in the “Great Lands” of their awakening (synonymous to Middle-Earth), while others embarked but became lost or turned aside along the way. Still others finally arrived in Aman in successive waves, and those elves who settled in Aman were further divided in culture and language by order of their arrival, their place of abode, and/or their tutelage under a given Valar that they had the most affinity for. These are: the Vanyar, who dwelt nigh the “chief” of the Valar, Manwë, Lord of the Airs, and were given mostly to poesy and song, works of the breath/air, as such; the Noldor, whose chief abode was in the city of Tirion which they did much to build, and who were great craftsmen, smiths, and makers of gems due to their instruction under Aulë, the Valar of the earth and crafting/smithing; and the Teleri, last to arrive, some of whom are counted as those who were willing to make the journey to Aman but were lost/turned aside on the way (and are referred to as the Sindarin) and those who did come at last to Aman but primarily dwelt on the shores and on the Lonely Isle just off the coast, being skilled boatsmen and pearl-hunters due to their friendship with Ossë, a minour god of the seas.
Having beheld and learned from the Valar in person, these three races of elves were portrayed as wiser than those who never went to the Undying Lands. After the theft of a treasure of the Noldorin race (the Silmarils) by Morgoth, many of the Noldor are led to abandon the realm of the gods, against the counsel of most of the Valar, returning to Middle-Earth in pursuit of their antagonist, and for their crime of spilling blood in these sacred lands in the process of their exit, the Valar bar the ways of return from them. Through ages of strife thence against the rebel Valar, these elven exiles play a crucial role in the advancement of the mythological history, not least of which is their aforementioned cultural exchange with the newcome mortal race of man (though men also had much interaction from the waylaid elves of Middle-Earth, the Sindarin). By their various interactions and alliance with humans, leading up to the half-elven man of myth, Eärendil, making his way to the hidden land of the gods to beg of them forgiveness on behalf of the Noldorin exiles and succour against the tyranny of Morgoth, the Valar are at last urged to sally forth and overthrow Morgoth’s hold over Middle-Earth, thrusting him out of the world entirely. The elven exiles, and those unwilling and waylaid natives of Middle-Earth besides, are then granted the right to journey to the Undying Lands, but it is only after the defeat of Morgoth’s remaining emissary in the world — Sauron — in the events of The Lord of the Rings, for which elves again played a role in vanquishing, do most of the elves finally depart Middle-Earth, seemingly forever, to dwell with the Valar, leaving the world/Middle-Earth to mankind and marking the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the mythical era of the world.
Though having a number of creative interjections, Tolkien’s elves, as has been noted, take primarily after the elves of Germanic/Scandinavian paganism. In the mediaeval literature, when the elves are mentioned at all, they are often referred to in conjunction with the race(s) of the gods (the Æsir and Vanir in Scandinavian myth), whether in a couplet (“the Æsir and the Alfar”) or questioning of their whereabouts (“How fare the gods? How fare the elves?”), suggestive of equal or similar weight/metaphysical significance. Whereas any sort of definitive/canonical placement for the elves in pre-Christian cosmology is largely lacking, one can fairly assume from these sorts of “hints” that the elves were either perceived of as the same as one of the races of the gods or else a separate, divine race of equal pre-eminence to the gods, such as with the “dwarves” (some of whom are referred to or appear in alliance with “dark elves”) or the titanesque “giants.” Though not on par to the gods as the elves of Nordic antiquity seemed to be, due to their being the work of a god’s creation, the elves of Tolkien’s mythos are comparable in as much as they are cited as “most like unto the gods [Valar],” and not only because some of their peoples had dwelt in the Undying Lands and learned from the folk of the Valar.
One will recall as summarily recounted here that the Valar, as Tolkien’s redeemed equivalent of the pre-Christian gods, are entities originally birthed/brought into being from the mind of Ilúvatar, as embodiments of specific parts or elements to his primal conscience. At the creation of the world, these beings worked all of their thought and interest into “singing” the theme of Ilúvatar’s design that would become the blueprint for Arda, and then subsequently descended into the void to vest their power into actualising and upholding the world. The airs, the waters, earth, light, plants, animals — these elementals, non-human lifeforms, and even dispositions are all the works of the various Valar/gods, their power made manifest in nature and the cosmos as a whole. Even the many tumultuous, eldritch, or otherwise “harmful” aspects of nature are supported by the vested power and influence of a Valar, in the case of Melkor/Morgoth. The Valar, in short are the “Powers” of the world, of nature, and who as such are bound up in it until the murky event of the Dagor Dagorath, Sindarin for the “Last Battle,” the ending of the world which, while never given a final, definite form by Tolkien, bears some semblance to the Norse Ragnarök (though, rather than the gods perishing in that final fateful fight that remakes the world, Tolkien’s Valar have a “happy” ending of being made “young” again).
Though not as intrinsically bound up to the world and its physical properties as the Valar, the elves as conceived of by Tolkien were yet inextricably tied to it and its fate. This differs from the lot of humans, who, in the latter versions of the legendarium, were said to remain only the span of their life within the world, and upon death, their souls departed entirely, to where the elves knew not. The souls of the elves, on the other hand, should their ageless lives be cut short by despair or a violent death, would depart to a Hades-like respite at the end of the Undying Lands, the Halls of Mandos, where they would abide until they were granted a body like unto their old form by the Valar in a kind of reincarnation. In such a way, the elves, unlike men, are tied to the world indefinitely, their love for it thereby cultured to a depth unfathomable to the short lives and limited perception of men. Situated thusly, Tolkien’s elves are a creative parallel to the elves of pre-Christian paganism and the remnant peasant folklore: they are permanent residents and stewards of the world, intimately tied to its natural order and the grace of the gods therein, similar to how the elves of Germanic folklore were thought to often inhabit many of the wild and natural features of our world; both are considered closer to the gods than men, though whereas in the case of Tolkien’s work, it is more figurative, the Germanic mythology suggests a more literal and preeminent comparison, for all that the peasant folk of those regions, down to our time, would leave out tithes or sacrifices to the elves even when the gods themselves were wholly forgotten; and, following from that, either are portrayed as friends to man, from whom extraordinary gifts can be obtained should they be approached with all due respect, though Tolkien’s mythology chronicles these approaches in grand exchanges within a political-moral theatre of elves and men, rather than the odd, humble offerings or charms made by the country peasant to attract or show good will to the elves. It may then be said, on the symbolic level, that the men of the west in Tolkien’s legendarium were as such so blessed because their friendship with the elves is, at least indirectly, an amity for the natural world that Tolkien himself so loved, and for its inherent good, via the abundance and freedom it provisions, as the collective will and presence of the Valar/gods.
This connection of the elves to a good, natural order, however, and their role as mythical instructors of man, becomes even more explicit in the earliest versions of the constructed mythology — ironically so, on a number of grounds. The Book of Lost Tales (parts 1 and 2), another post-humous work compiled by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, is one of the sources for the author’s earliest attempts at myth-building, and it reveals a mythology that was quite markedly different from the form it later evolved into and was left at with The Silmarillion. In his commentary on his father’s work within these tomes, Christopher quite aptly characterises these early versions of the mythos as “primitive.” A student of primitive mythology and religion would feel quite at home reading these “lost tales,” as there are many elements since excised in them — such as the monstrous “Prince of Cats” and his castle filled with cruel, talking felines who make of elves and men their slaves, or the great pine tree which Melko(r) is chased up by Tulkas’ son, where he for awhile makes a nuisance of himself by batting down the stars from the sky, to name a few — that seemed akin to any number of the playful, self-deprecating myths of numerous indigenous people.
It is also more comparable to the sorts of Celtic “fairy tales” — typified as “primitive” in quality by numerous folklorists — which, as a culture, Tolkien had been known to make some disparaging remarks towards at the same time of this early phase of his legendarium’s development. The irony is not lost there — nor is it lost in that, in spite of this mild disdain, the tales in their earliest forms contained many Celtic elements beyond the particular savour/style of the myths. The language of the elves, for example, particularly of the influential Noldor (here, the Noldoli or the Gnomes), originally had many more Celtic elements of the Brythonic variety, something that would later be more removed to, as if in demotion, the language of the Sindarin elves who never went to Aman in its early days. Most conspicuous, though, is Tolkien’s use of the term “fairies” as interchangeable with or instead of “elves” for his mythic people — which, while latterly used scholastically at times to classify any and all elfin spirits of nature found in various cultures the worldover, generally calls to mind the Anglophone Celtic vision of such spirits. This usage was likewise downplayed to the point of nigh-on-complete elimination from Tolkien’s later revisions of the tales, giving one the speculative impression of, whatever the author’s declared reasoning, another manifestation of the desire to distance his work from the Celtic influences.
This original, primitive “Silmarillion,” if the account of Tolkien’s mythic era can be called such, is recorded by one Eriol, a seafaring man and an eponymous ancestor to the English/Angles people (through “Angol,” a moniker of his referring to the “Black Cliffs” of his homeland). By fateful accident, Eriol comes to the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressëa, though we find it in a radically different placement from its later assignment as an island anchored off the coast of Aman. In The Book of Lost Tales, we find it situated somewhere further afield, between the realm of the gods/Aman and the Great Lands of men/Middle-Earth — and rather than it being the abode of the Teleri kindred of elves, we find it is the chief domain and dwelling of all the fairies: the Noldor/Gnome exiles; the Teleri, here Solosimpi (“Shoreland Pipers”); the Vanyar, confusingly called Teleri instead; and what remains of the various Sindarin kindred. Besides the presence of the fairies themselves, we are met with one of our first fairy tale-like elements in the latter-abandoned feature of the “Cottage of Lost Play” on the Lonely Isle, to which human children were said to occasionally come of yore, reaching the fairy isle through the Ollórë Mallë, “Path of Dreams,” accessible through slumber, and for which some remained as permanent guests, free from the sorrows of the world of men.
Here Eriol arrives and is made a guest of the elven hosts of the house, and by attending the daily recounting of tales there, and by his converse with other fairies about the island, he learns of: the creation of the world by Ilúvatar and the Valar — here often simply referred to as the “gods” rather than Valar — and their subsequent strife with Melko; the awakening and history of the elves/fairies; the coming of men into the world and their dealings with the elves; and ultimately how the fairies came to dwell on the Lonely Isle. Numerous parts of these stories differ dramatically from their later incarnations, when they were completed beyond a rough sketch at all, and one of the starkest differences concerns the fate of the fairies themselves. For all its comparative gaeity or levity compared to the more sombre/serious tellings in The Silmarillion, the tales in this early mythology reveal a decisively darker or more disturbing destiny for the Eldar. When Melko’s conquest of Middle-Earth is solidified with the vanquishing of the fairy hosts and men by the treachery of mankind’s cowardice, resulting in the thraldom of the Gnome exiles and the eventual destruction of most of the Sindarin kingdoms, the Valar do not come to their eventual aid, as they later would in The Silmarillion — instead, the gods refuse the exiles and the hapless elves of the Great Lands all aid, abiding in stony obeisance to the “doom”/curse laid on them by the god Mandos. That being as it is, it is the fairies who remained behind in Aman who choose to go to the aid of their kin themselves in a “March of Liberation,” embarking on the Lonely Isle as a vessel to the Great Lands, for which the gods shut the Undying Lands against their return as well. Only a few of the race of the gods aid them, among them being the Herculean Tulkas, and together they eventually rescue the Gnomish elves from their toil, and Melko is finally thrust out of the world for the time being (after the aforementioned escapade on the gargantuan pine tree).
There is peace for awhile in Middle-Earth, but then war begins between mankind and the fairies, for although Melko is cast out of the world, his corrupting influence — of pettiness, self-indulgence, a lust for conquest just for the sake of conquest, and a contempt of all things that does not serve oneself — remains. Whereas we are told fairies are impervious to his corruption, men are easily turned to this mood (to the point of there being made mention that some of the elves were distrustful of men because they seemed most alike in nature to Melko). This results in the eventual withdrawal of many of the elves from Middle-Earth for a time, retreating to the Lonely Isle and its protective magics about it, partially-divorced, as it was in those days, from the “gross,” solid world of men, existing as it seemed in a dream-like, fairy state — the timeless and dreamy quality of the mythic era itself — for which few of the denser and disenchanted denizens of the Great Lands could access. Those elves/fairies left behind in the Great Lands suffer an unsettling fate — we are told that eventually, as men and their crude, mundane activities grow more numerous, the fairies themselves diminish, both in their power and physical form, with the most coherent reason given for this being another fairy-tale logic, of the elves being unable to breathe and dwell in the same air as men, at least when mortals have grown so numerous, without their forms atrophying so. They as such eventually become as the diminutive fairies of later British and Irish peasant lore — having previously been “of a size” to men (“though always smaller”), the faded elves we are told have become small, “waxen,” translucent or transparent, and ethereal in form, for which men can scarcely perceive them and as such increasingly do not believe in their existence.
Only the fairies of Tol Eressëa remain “unfaded” as Eriol finds them, being partly-removed as the fairyland is from the more-oppressive airs of the world of men. We learn as well, however, via Eriol’s witnessing, of a prophecy of the Lonely Isle fairies, one which would mostly vanish from the mythology in its later form, of the “Faring Forth of the Fairies” and the “Rekindling of the Magic Sun.” Melko, we are told, in his final days up the great pine tree of the Lonely Isle, committed the crime of upsetting the sun in its course, causing the divine driver, a lesser spirit known as Urwendi, to fall from it and perish, and with the loss of the sun’s spirit (its soul, if you will), the sun’s “magic” was also lost. The moon remained manned, though (prompting another brief, “primitive,” but ultimately abandoned mythical reference to the folkloric “Man in the Moon”), and as such remains “magical” — and this, we are told at one point, is why the elves reverence the moon more (quite different from The Silmarillion‘s later explanation for the elves’ love of the night sky), and the faded elves are denser/stronger under its light (as an explanation for how fairy sightings in folklore were often recounted as occurring at night). It may also speak to the ascendancy of men, that, being not nearly as affected as the elder children of Ilúvatar by the waxing and waning of the world’s powers and the magical imbuements in natural phenomena, the sun’s loss of magic did little in the way of affecting their growth and strength.
Such being the state of affairs, these elven prophecies speak of an idyllic end time to redress it, in which the fairies shall “fare forth” to the Great Lands via the vessel of the Lonely Isle to gather up and rescue the remaining, faded elves of the world. They would then travel through the world to come by Aman and Valinor “through the Southern Lands,” a route never given much further elucidation by the author. They will only be able to do this if mankind, who now people much of the Great Lands, aid them or at least will not hinder them. Should humanity aid the fairies in their Faring Forth, they would successfully return to the Undying Lands and lead men thence as well. A final battle would evidently be fought with Melko there, involving one Fionwë, a son of the god Manwë, in vengeance for his love Urwendi, and the ill-fated man, Túrin, who we are told was in death, extraordinarily, “purified” and made one of the gods/Valar, and who will as such deal the death blow to Melko, the one who had caused such suffering to his lineage, and thereby redeem and avenge all of mankind. At Melko’s final vanquishing, the world would then be renewed, “the gods made young again,” with the fruits of this apocalypse further cited as the restoration of the elves to their former glory and “youth,” the resurrection of Urwendi and the relighting of the Magic Sun, the rekindling of the Two Trees, and the ability of men to pass into and live in the Undying Lands with the gods.
Should men “oppose them and aid Melko,” however, we are told, cryptically, of a different and seemingly-darker end — the “Wrack of the Gods and the ending of the fairies will result — and maybe the Great End.” Who such a “wrack” (i.e. destruction/ruin) would be against is not clear — whether the destruction of the gods or the gods wrecking ruin on others — though the other fragments that remain of Tolkien’s apocalypse at its original phases of development suggest it is the ruin or further decay of the gods/Valar, to Melko’s advantage. The gods already sit outside of/aloof from the world of their devising, which we are given hints or outright declarations in either the Lost Tales and the later Silmarillion may not have been ideal for the history of the world, and is likened to an advancing eld or senescence of the gods, in all their detachment and wearied indolence. With the concept of the Magic Sun and the fading of the elves before the crudity of wicked men, we are given a further reinforcement of the elves’ intimate tie to the world and its natural rhythms — which are ultimately the pulse of the Powers/gods themselves — and so one might reasonably glean that with the “ending of the fairies,” the Powers of nature themselves would also correspondingly diminish, the one bound as they are to the other: gods, elves, the world. What “the Great End” here referred to other than the Last Battle and the renewal of Arda already entailed, should men play their fair part, is left wholly obscure — in the latter days of the mythology’s development, the idea of the Faring Forth and the crucial role men would play in deciding its fate was lost, and any and all references to the end of the world became solely associated with an inevitable (rather than conditional) confrontation with Morgoth and the consequent renewal/remaking of the world.
All that is known of this “Great End” is its “negative” precursors, and, perhaps unexpectedly for the fairy tale-esque quality of the early legendarium, this lesser of the possible futures is what comes to fulfillment: though Eriol becomes as one of the Eldar by the drinking of a (later-excised) divine elixir known as limpë, and dwells on the Lonely Isle for a time, his heart eventually yearns inconsolably for the familiar places of his homeland, and so he returns to the world of men, where he begins to preach of the Faring Forth in order that he might better prepare men and facilitate the fairies’ success. One version of these early tales notes how this may have somehow contributed to the Faring Forth’s outcome, with a singular mention of how “a man of good will, yet through longing after the things of Men,” would “bring the Faring Forth to nought;” though how or why exactly is not given any further comment, other than his now being of the kindred of the Eldar, his own “faring forth” from the Lonely Isle ahead of time irresistibly compelled the rest of his adopted kin to shortly follow after him, whatever the consequences. However it may have happened, the Faring Forth came about too soon or at the improper time — moving the island like a ship to moor off the coast of the Great Lands, the fairies were met with hostile men when they attempted to disembark, and it resulted in their ruinous defeat at the hands of men. The fairies were turned back as such and took shelter on their island, but “wicked men,” accompanied by the creatures of Melko, the “orcs and gongs,” eventually followed them, invading Tol Eressëa. Eriol’s whereabouts during the failed Faring changed radically through a number of revisions, yet in one, we are told that, fulfilling his destiny as being joined to the kindred of the Eldar and as such charged to fight for them, he returns to Tol Eressëa and takes part in the “Battle of the Heath of the Sky-Roof” on the side of the elves, the last stand of the fairies against the invasion of man on their last safe bastion in Arda. From this, the fairies are routed utterly, with those who survive fleeing into the wilderness of the island and otherwise the “wide, unfriendly pathways of the world,” while the invading men and creatures of Melko proceed to sack, defile, or burn down the various paradisaical gardens and greens once curated by the fairies.
Thus came the end of the mythic era in the “original” working of Tolkien’s mythology — “now is the end of the fair times,” we are told in the account of Eriol, the witness to this end, and “all the beauty that was yet on earth — fragments of the unimagined loveliness of Valinor whence came the folk of the Elves long long ago — now goeth up in smoke.” The wicked men burnt the fairy heath and cut down the elven forests in “sacrifice to Melko.” The Magic Sun is not and never will be rekindled while the world lasts. And the last of the fairies, fallen on the “Autumn of their days,” suffer the same fate as those already left in the Great Lands among men, withering away to diminutive and wisp-like creatures hardly noticed by men. “What shall the dreamers of the earth be like when their winter comes,” despairs Eriol, and ends with the cynical prediction that even his recorded words on the nature of the fairies, before and after their fall, shall come to nothing, fading away and being lost to time.
All of this — the fairies’ end and their history as learned by Eriol — we are told is bound in a particular book, the “Golden Book,” and though we do not know the fate of the man-turned-Eldar in his capacity as the final witness to the end of fairydom, we are told that the book is eventually recovered by the mortal sons he sired before he had first come to Tol Eressëa, Hengest and Horsa. These names are significant beyond just Tolkien’s constructed myths — Hengest and Horsa are cited as first among the chiefs of the Anglo-Saxon peoples who invaded Britain in the early mediaeval period. And so we step from the mythical era, where magic still permeated the land and the fairies or spirits walked abroad, into the historic era: the Lonely Isle, when anchored off the coast of Middle-Earth after the ill-fated Faring Forth, became the actual British Isles, and the wicked men who wrought the ruin of fairydom there, when named at all, are connected to the Celts, and the Romans ostensibly following in a strangely-condensed timeline. While conveniently indulging Tolkien’s already-illustrated disdain for the Celtic, one can give him some credit in that he did not much contradict the testament of Celtic mythology itself in this, for which, in the main surviving account of its mythological cycles, we are told that the invasion of at least Ireland by the Celts resulted in the diminishment of the previous mythical inhabitants, the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were later equated to the fairy folk. Reaping their evident just rewards for their destruction of the fairies, the Celts of Britain are then subsequently invaded by the descendents of Eriol and his people, the Anglo-Saxons, and the book of lore discovered — and hence, we are told, not without a touch of vanity, the Anglican peoples inherited the “true tradition of the fairies,” one more accurate in describing their nature and that of the gods than the “garbled things” recounted by the Irish or the Welsh.
Thus goes the most coherent account of Tolkien’s legendarium in its infancy. There were many elements, characters, and tales that were radically changed or abandoned as has been given some exemplification already, for many different and at times purely-speculative reasons on the part of the author. The Faring Forth and the fading of the elves/fairies was almost entirely abandoned in the final versions of the tales, and it is unclear as to why other than one may speculate it was in part a necessary result of the author’s desire to shed the more-primitive air to the early mythology, excise or otherwise hide more of the Celtic elements, restructure the lore in such a way as to be able to fit in his latter concepts and stories (like The Lord of the Rings), and/or to otherwise provide an “ending” that would not be quite so bleak for the elves. Rather than fading away to ghostly entities due to the depredations of men and the gods’ immovable adherence to fate, the elves in the “canonical” publications are welcomed back to the Undying Lands where most of them go to live out the remainder of the world’s endurance in a bliss removed from the world of men — and while they are still subject to fading even in the Undying Lands, it is explained simply as a natural process inherent to them, in which their immortal spirit somehow becomes too strong for their bodies to contain, and they henceforth exist as disembodied entities.
The apocalyptic events described in the Faring Forth as a condition of its success — the final confrontation with Morgoth and the restoration/remaking of Arda — are in the later versions presented with a mien of inevitability, something that is fated to come about whatever the actions of the Children in the meantime. In this, we see something of the shift of the cultural inspiration for the proximal elements of the mythology on certain but related grounds. There is for one the shift from the Celtic to the Germanic and Scandinavian, though more specifically to that of the “high”/elite cosmological views as expressed in the likes of the Eddas and other mediaeval literature. In the daily lives of the Celtic commoner as pertained to the fairies, the fairies were seen as being largely “this-worldly,” their powers being intimately tied to natural phenomena, and therefore being largely accessible to regular interaction and interference in the lives of men, though with their own particular restrictions as pertained to superstitions and their (sometimes) diminutive forms. Such a status was what Tolkien clearly aimed to provide a mythical explanation to in his tales regarding the Faring Forth and the fading of the fairies/elves, in which the elves abide, even to this day, in our world, but greatly-diminished in power and shy of contact due to the vagaries of men on their natural demesnes. By removing the elves entirely from the world of men, or otherwise having men play no part in their fading, however, Tolkien aligned the latter versions of the mythology more with the cosmological and scholarly accounts of the mediaeval literature, in which, when commented on to any depth at all, the elves are said to have their primary abode in a world apart from Middle-Earth known as Alfheim, from which they presumably will make the odd visit to our world from.
The other shift in cultural accoutrements is demonstrated in the change of the nature of the “apocalypse,” which went from what might be best described as more “primitive” in character to occidentally Christian. Many indigenous hunter-gatherer, horticulturist, or early-pastoralist mythologies do not have a myth concerning the ending of the world: to combine assertions made by Daniel Quinn (author of The Story of B) and Pierre Clastres (Archaeology of Violence), the apocalypse, just like the notion of “salvation” by a messiah, belongs to a later epoch of human thought and society that has created a mass of disenfranchised/powerless people — slaves and the later, functional equivalent of proletariat — whose lives tend to be steeped in misery and wracked by frequent misfortune, often outside of their individual control, due to the many woes of civil living and its inequity. The myths of such societies of misery, striving yet for some form of ultimate truth communicated from the laws of nature to remedy their proximal woes, foments and hyper-concentrates on the ideas of salvation — the freeing of oneself from the shackles of the tyranny and poverty forced upon one, through the grace of the gods — and of an apocalyptic event that will reckon a final salvation for the suffering by unmaking the world they are so desperate to escape for its artificial cruelty. By contrast, the myths of the primitive reveal a sociopsychology that, whatever the menial difficulties of a “natural” lifeway, is still quite content to reside in the world in perpetuity. In other major mythological events in the primitive mythos, or where the indigenous society begins to take its first steps away from the peace of nature and thence prophecy of an event or a divinely-wise individual to bring them back to grace, we find many conditionalities — events were or are not fated to be so, but are the result of the quite-fallible actions and reactions of gods, men, and/or fae-like beings, most of whom, if they were omniscient or secretly the masters of fate, often do not act as such. In such a mythological schema, man is an agent of destiny often on par with the non-human powers, and this would be so, in accepting that myth, in clothing itself in culture, reflects some of the cultural reality of such societies — where every individual is chiefly or mainly responsible for winning his subsistence from the world, without ban or regulation besides the bonds of kinship and friendly (or unfriendly) ties with the neighbours — and, simultaneously, the ultimate reality/truth of nature — that he who lives in accordance to his nature is and must be master of himself, his own destiny, before the rest of the world.
In the original conception of the end-times, we find something not far removed from this “primitive” agency and conditionality — except for the enigmatic “Great End,” the Faring Forth and the Rekindling of the Magic Sun was an ending that hinged largely on the actions/choices of men. Because the most of men involved chose to side with Melko or otherwise remain under his influence — his hatred for the elves and the works of the rival Valar — the apocalypse of the Faring Forth is diverted, but with it, all hopes of the world being returned to a paradise while it continues to endure is forfeited. The latter, “advanced” version of Arda’s remaking, on the other hand, gives no indication that these events can be prevented or altered by any mortal effort, as a part of Ilúvatar’s grand design — the most mankind may be able to do is throw their lot in with the losing forces of evil out of ignorance. Thus, we pass from the deliberate vagueness and “maybes” of the primitive mythology, where fate is more in the hands of man to make or break, to the definitive and lofty prophecy of a more “civil” social conscience, wherein mortals are much less influential in the department of destiny, and fate largely rests even outside the control of the gods (similar to the Nordic case as recounted in the mediaeval cosmological texts) and instead is beheld in its entirety and determined in the mind of Ilúvatar alone (as per the Christian influence).
It may be said in both of these creative choices that the mythology in its later development was shifted away from the commoner’s cosmological imagination — constituting “superstitions” and cruder, more hilarious, and otherwise “primitive” fairy and folk tales — to that of a learned elite, the authors of the eloquent (redacted) pagan legends and biblical mythology alike being thus. In doing so, though, Tolkien commits a violation against the purpose of myth — to reveal the truths of objective nature via subjective, symbolic elements that will be as coherent as possible to the listener — in adopting the style and theological dispositions of those societies and cultures (or a particular segment thereof) that are the most removed from nature. We should recall, for a moment, the conspicuous lack of cataclysmic escapism in the most primitive of mythologies, and the proposed reasoning being the satisfaction with which the culture of such peoples are settled in, with their own human nature and in living as a regenerative/sustainable part of a local ecosystem. Thus such peoples already live close in accord with “truth,” by a sound natural sense, and, in drawing off the symbols and then communicating with such a culture, a primitive mythology has comparatively little in the way to embellish or instruct in giving people the “good life.” Up until the advent of industrialism, the peasant/common folk were often derided as “primitive” by the upper classes, and the Victorian scholarship just antecedent to Tolkien’s day made frequent remarks in comparing them to the Native American or African “savage” — not entirely devoid of accuracy, given the (former) competency in the procurement of their own sustenance, and having to work with nature and its powers for it, of the rural peasantry, and the consequent reflection in the “primitive” character of fairy/folklore. The learned elite who penned the mythological/biblical lore that Tolkien sought to emulate more in the later iterations of his work are, by comparison, the most divorced from nature, the most cushioned from objective reality and its lessons — ironically, the furthest from the truth, for all of their academic study (see “Know Thyself” for further comment). The mythology of such an echelon tends to be rigid rather than fluid — the difference between detailing all the nit-picky details of the hierarchy of heaven and simply attributing all manner of miracles and transformative capacities to the “fairies.” The ability/powers of man in it are markedly decreased before the divine, as well, due in part to such recorded tales being used to control and manipulate (acting as “authoritative”) in the long-running intimacy of “church” and statecraft over the masses, and also due to civil sociocultural structure — the proximal elements which the mythology must clothe itself in — being highly-inflexible and dire, compared to “primitive” simplicity and levity.
Overall, when any ulterior motive is not consciously at work, the academician’s mythology, written as it is in the proverbial Ivory Tower, begins to turn what was once sense into nonsense, obfuscating the truth by dint of their removal/insulation from the “cold, hard” fount of natural fact. The abandonment of the ill-fated, faded fairies in favour of the equanimous elves exemplifies some of the metaphysical “nonsense” introduced into Tolkien’s work when he abandoned these “primitive” elements. As conceived of by the “little people” — the peasants living closer to idyllic nature in the cultures he borrowed from — the fairies or elves both were thought of as being intimately tied to, if not inseparable, from the natural phenomena and powers of the world, and thence their importance to the lives of the commoners over that even of the gods. As part of the natural order of the world, the fate of the fairies in the original mythos drives home with much greater potency the “truth” they are mythologically-assigned to convey: that man grows wiser and lives in greater grace when he learns from nature as a whole, when he becomes the friend of fairies and “elven-wise;” and that conversely, the intellect and dignity of man diminishes when he is turned from the wisdom of nature, when he no longer regards it in friendship, and instead wantonly destroys it, fairy gardens and all, out of a Morgothian desire for power for power’s sake, and a contempt for all things that do not slavishly serve his avarice.
One only gets the equivalent of a curt bob of the head as far as this message is embodied in the Eldar in the later tales — though they still reside eternally in Arda unto its end, they are no longer as bound to the condition of their environs and the magical/natural powers imbued in it. Rather than being left to atrophy in the world as the strength and number of men grows at the expense of all other life and magic, including their own, they merely depart Middle-Earth entirely, returning to another, exceptional plane of existence where the Valar had removed their lands to, and there they sit on the periphery, detached and remote from the mundane world of men. Their fading is not a condition of the quality of their environment so much as a kind of senescence, entirely internal, wherein their spirits outgrow their body, and while that yet provides an explanation for the elusive nature of those who live yet in our world, it does not instruct on much, i.e. it is as such more nonsensical in the mythical purview. For such reasons, it seems easier to conceptualise the elves as a superior, alien-like race in the latter mythology, rather than as the embodied anima of nature and goodness, the folk of the gods — and indeed, their popular image in the fantasy genre since as influenced by Tolkien continues to make use of that more-absurdist — fantastical — portrayal. By the same token, the latter conception of the Eriol story declined in mythological impact/significance at this withdrawal of the elves and their lands from the world: rather than being adopted into their kinship and their once-domains becoming the inheritance of his descendants, Eriol in the last worked-on version was transformed into Ælfwine (“Elf-Friend” in old English), a man who already lives in Britain of the mediaeval era, now entirely separate from Tol Eressëa. His connection to and gaining of the fairy lore comes merely from his sojourn to the more remote/imaginary location nearer the Undying Lands and befriending the elves there — and so, rather than partaking in the trials and tribulations of the elves and witnessing the fading of the fairies and the wreck of enchanted Britain, Eriol/Ælfwine becomes more the passive saint, the hero of an immram sort of tale, blessed with visions of an otherworldly paradise and charged with writing down its revelations to carry back to our world. Phrased another way: by turning the legendarium in such aspects towards the influence of the more “lofty” and abstract mythologies as interpreted by a civil elite, the author steered dangerously closer to a realm of nonsense and fantasy, a realm that obstructs and distracts from, rather than conducting and revealing, the beauty, enchantment, and wisdom of the world in its natural, unfettered state.
“I BOW NOT YET BEFORE THE IRON CROWN”
Even with such asserted mishaps, though, the myth remains in Tolkien’s work, even if further removed and more muddled/esoteric from some of what it was meant to convey. And so we may come back to the contentious charge of racism or Western supremacy hurled at Tolkien’s mythology: in either stage of the mythology’s development, we are meant to understand that superiority is given to those that remained a friend to nature and its flourishing, to those who are elven-wise and friendly to fairy folk. It is no one race of men as such who were or are inherently superior to another — it is only by one’s conduct, as an individual or as a culture, towards the gods, the fairies, and all that is vital and good in the world, that one will then be exalted. If we are to assign any meaning to the directionality of where many “bad people” chiefly resided in the latter mythology (as, in the former, per the naughty Celts, this was not so emphatic), it is in Tolkien rightfully placing the whole beginning of the mess of civilisation, in all of its Morgothian features, in those regions — the near-east and Northern Africa — and so, whereas wisdom and beauty comes from the unknown West, as the elves from Aman, the horrors of Melkor, in the patterning from his mind of despotic civilisation and empire, comes from the East/South. Through the example of the likes of Númenor, however, one sees that even the most exalted of men who were ever supposed to exist can lose all grace, and much faster and easier than one gained it.
We are shown as much in the case of the English themselves as conceived in the original mythos, for, even though they were professed as the true inheritors of the wisdom of the fairies and the gods, and were purportedly kind to the fairies for a time, that was not to last, as the historical era has shown us. They, like many other peoples in our present world, are thoroughly ensnared in the legacy of Morgoth, the Lord of Hate and the Destroyer of the works of the gods and elves. An urban-bound population that exists only at the pleasure of their voraciously greedy masters, slaving, orc-like and base, out of fear and self-loathing cruelty at their dark lords’ bidding to turn all that is green and peaceful in the world into product and profit, now exists and dominates in both the east and the west — and the world now stands devoid of enchantment, whether by the departure of the elves or their dwindling away with the razed forests and the poisoned waterways. The noxious fumes, fetters, and iron bars of thralldom fill this vacancy, what with the advancing industrialism of society demanding all men to be catalogued and fitted as disposable gears into the modern machine of endless war and “productivity.”
The legendarium of Middle-Earth and the lands-without, as such, presents us with a singularly unique opportunity of examining the function and characteristics of the myth while also allowing us, within the span of single author’s life, to explore the evolution of myth as pertains to society — be it “primitive” or “civil.” It is its primitive state, however, that we must turn to in order to most-readily draw its moral lessons relevant to our own lives — the elder Children of Ilúvatar, the “dreamers of the earth,” the fairies, are the geniuses of nature, the perfectability of man or all creatures who wisely live within the garden and grace of the gods, who seek first and foremost for beauty and contentment, and were wealthy and wise for it. But the balance and beauty of nature is all too fragile before the inimical face of ruthless power, greed, and wilful malice — evil, in a word. Man’s nature was corrupted by such, Morgoth’s legacy, and then all of nature was at the last defiled and corrupted in turn by him. The gods grow older and ever more distant as the world is ground down under the denatured man’s heel, without respite or much chance for renewal as long as his reign endures, and the fairies are all faded, clinging to the scraps of remnant magic that still linger before their final winter. Whether named as fairies or the goodness/rectitude of nature itself, both are now equally scoffed at, in contemptuous disbelief, by the goblin-like men of the modern world and the machine.
Not all hope is lost, however, nor Morgoth’s victory made sure to the ending of the world. Some drop of limpë, of elvenesse and enchantment, may yet be found in the woods and quiet places, and under the moon when the most of mankind grows quiet — and in striving to help and be joined to nature, to fairydom, we should be as that mythical mariner, Eriol, the last witness to the true glory of the fairies. By drinking that draught of nature’s wisdom — by seeking beauty in all things — and for it, by casting off the chains of Morgoth, we shall become kindred of the Eldar, renewing our friendship with them, and the great work of the Faring Forth shall at last be completed, with the rejuvenation of the gods and the world, and the final destruction of Melkor and his works. The myths, whether that created by Tolkien or of peoples now long gone, demand that we become elven-wise and friends to fairies, that we do not yield to the Iron Crown of artifice made by avarice for the sake of dark lords, or yield to any other’s authority but the bonds of family and fellowship, nor cast our own “small golden sceptre(s) down” of magic — our ability to see the world as enchanted, mythical, and worthy of wonder thereof — and respect for our own agency. Then and only then shall the magic of the world be rekindled, and mankind’s travails at least be ended.