Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Nature of Middle-earth

One side effect of the Internet is the realization that you can't be the "most" of anything. Growing up I thought of myself as a huge Tolkien fan, devouring not only his popular books but also the posthumous Silmarillion and other unfinished tales and fragments. Then I got online, and found that there are many many people who know far more about the legendarium than I ever will. I've mostly been content with my love of Tolkien and haven't felt the need to prove my devotion by, say, buying ever volume in The History of Middle-earth or something. I revisit the main books every few years, and have enjoyed popping in recently with the novelistic updates of The Children of Hurin, The Fall of Gondolin and so on.

Recently, though I did decide to pick up one of the more fragmentary books, The Nature of Middle-earth. Nearly all of the posthumous Tolkien publications of the last fifty years has come from his son Christopher, who made it his life's work to sort through and bring sense to the vast body of work his dad left behind: some typescript manuscripts, but also lots of essays scribbled into the margins of exam papers, little tales written on the back of publication catalogs, mostly undated scraps that represented different ways of thinking at different decades of his life. Christopher himself passed not too long ago, and this is the first Tolkien book published since then. Carl Hostetter had worked with Christopher going back to the 90s, had previously published some primarily linguistic essays in Tolkien journals, and had received the green light for putting this particular publication together.


As he explains in the introduction, there is a fair amount of unpublished stuff from JRR that is interesting but that hasn't fit well into earlier books. He and Christopher agreed on the title of "Nature" for this entry, which kind of takes on two meanings in the two halves of this book. The first part is mostly about the lives of the Elves: how they are conceived, born, mature, age, and what exactly happens at the end of their lives. It delves further into the fëar and hröar (roughly "spirit" and "body") philosophy that's previously been explored in HoME. Like pretty much all Tolkien's writings, these are ideas that evolved over time, and we can see how Tolkien's conception of things changed. The second half of the book is more focused on the physical makeup of Middle-earth, most specifically on the island of Númenor. He describes the coasts, the hills, the indigenous and imported fauna and flora on the island.

It's surprising and very interesting to read Tolkien writing about the sex lives of elves. It isn't prurient, but also isn't strictly clinical. He writes about the joy of union, the different forms of love, the delight they find in one another. In some ways you can see Tolkien's Catholic orientation: romantic love, marriage, sex and child-bearing are all very closely tied together. But this account also differs from Tolkien's own experiences in notable ways; he writes emphatically about how elf women marry at a younger age than men, but Tolkien himself married an older woman.

The book mostly consists of documents Tolkien that wrote for himself: they're more advanced than notes, but not intended for publication. Reading these reminds me a lot of how, when I'm working on a creative project, I'll often make a new Google Doc and just write through some problem I'm considering; almost like talking to myself to try and understand the situation and come to a conclusion. The output ultimately informs the creative project while the document itself can be discarded. Or maybe it's a little like these blog posts, where again I'm just expressing some thoughts and kind of figuring stuff out as I write. Of course, Tolkien is a much better writer than me, and even when writing for himself there's a high degree of art to it.

I think of Tolkien as being all about language, and that's definitely his primary passion, but this book seems even more interested in math. He's in a situation where he had published Lord of the Rings, along with the appendices, laying out the timeline of Middle-earth. He also has large amounts of unpublished-but-intended-for-publication manuscripts that fill out more detail in the world, and he has become aware that the timelines don't line up. So he's trying to figure out how to reconcile things. It's a complex situation, because there are different scales of time described in the Silmarillion. The sun doesn't exist for a really long time, so there are different time scales before: years of the trees, years of the lamps, and so on. And elvish ages are different, so a year in Aman is much longer than a year in Middle-earth. Elves "age" more quickly in absolute time on Middle-earth. This all makes things hard to track, but also gives some flexibility: he can adjust the scales or adjust the dates to make things work. Here's a representative sample of his mathematical musings:

 A better solution is 3) The Rate of Growth of those born in Beleriand was 10 = 1. But of those born in Aman it was 50 = 1 in Beleriand. But it began to increase as soon as they left Valinor, say after the Doom of Mandos. The Valian Year spent reaching Beleriand via the ice aged all the Exiles about 2 years (it took 144 Sun-years) = 72 (but Fëanor reached Beleriand in one half the time = Bel. 50 and so only aged 1 year). As soon as they reached Beleriand the rate quickened to 50 = 1. Thus Finduilas, 12 in 1495, was 13 at 1496 and needed 7 years to become 20. This took her 7 x 50 = 350 years. She was therefore 20 in Bel. 350. In Bel. 472 she was however only 122 Sun-years older, only just over 21, and in 490 only 140 Sun-years older: nearly 21½. She was the youngest Exile.

There are also lots of tables, in some cases filling out details, in other cases running different scenarios to calculate the implications of certain decisions. One big case is determining how the Elvish population increased from the initial group of 144 to the tens of thousands that would be needed for the later events of the Silmarillion. He experiments with different family sizes, marriage rates, birth rates, and life spans to try and come up with a plausible and grounded anthropology for his story.

This level of detail reminds me of Tolkien's process of writing The Lord of the Rings. He finished the story, but publication was delayed for several months while he want back to review all of the dates in the books and make sure they made sense: he calculated the distance they traveled, the amount of time that would take on foot or horseback, whether people could actually be in the right place at the right time, that the weather was appropriate for the season, that the phases of the moon were consistent, and so on. All that work isn't immediately obvious in the final text: those months he spent checking and re-checking just resulted in a few dates and spans of time being updated. But, I think that this care and attention to detail is one of the things that makes Lord of the Rings so wonderful. You're seeing the tip of the iceberg, but below it is this vast body of work that underlies and supports it, and... there's a weight, a sense of reality, that it otherwise wouldn't have.

I get the impression that even the editor of this book was a bit bemused that Tolkien devoted so much time in his life wrestling with these details, and I doubt that many other authors would similarly spin their wheels over these sort of "technical" issues. After all, this is a fantasy world, and there are plenty of convenient hand-wave-y excuses easily available. Just say "Elves are immortal!" and readers will go along with whatever you say as long as the story is entertaining. But it's this wrestling with contradictions that, in my opinion, gives Tolkien's work so much depth and flavor. It reminds me of the difference between ancient religions and modern religions. Older religions have holy tests that were written by a variety of people over a long span of time, and so they have apparent contradictions. Those religions then spent considerable thought in attempting to resolve this contradictions, which in turn leads to rich theologies. In contrast, modern religions are usually created wholesale by a single leader, with a single text or no text at all. They're generally free of contradiction, which makes them a lot less interesting to explore and reason about.

Tolkien explicitly started this project to create a mythology for Britain, and while I imagine he felt great frustration at writing himself into corners, reconciling those corners lead to still more great inventions, adding more layers of meaning and delight to his myth. It ends up feeling kind of like the result of a millennia-long religious tradition, even though it all came from the pen of one single guy!

I've previously read about Tolkien grappling with the nature of evil, such as the problem of where Orcs come from: Can Melkor create new things? Can he corrupt Eru's creations? This book has some similar grappling with the nature of good: If Eru is all-powerful, why is there so much misery in Middle-earth? I don't think this is a definitive answer, but one idea that he considers looks like this: Eru has a plan for the world, but he gave free will to his creations, and when they choose to stray from his plan then evil occurs. This straying is often rooted in good desires! As one example, it wasn't Eru's plan that the Valar create Valinor and call the Elves to the west. The Valar were motivated by a desire to protect Eru's children, and to create a safe space where the children could thrive. But the Valar should have remained in Middle-earth, keeping up a constant fight against Melkor, and trusted in Eru that the elves would be taken care of. If the Valar had remained, then Melkor would not have had free reign to corrupt Men, and much later misery would have been avoided. I'm not an expert, but to me this feels like a very Catholic philosophy: God is all-powerful, but when something goes wrong, it's our fault and not His.

Speaking of Catholicism, there's some good discussion about religion in this book, including an appendix that glosses several concepts and phrases that may be unfamiliar to non-Catholic or non-Christian readers. Carl Hostetter particularly highlights one of Tolkien's letters that has perplexed many readers, in which he states that The Lord of the Rings is a "fundamentally religious and Catholic work". This is odd because there's no visible religion in his world: no priests, no temples, no scripture, no rituals. Perhaps the occasional call for intercession to a higher power, but that's about it. In Hostetter's reading, the key word in that sentence is "fundamentally"; in other words, the basic metaphysics underlying Middle-earth are the same fundamental principles as in Catholic thought. Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic theologians thought a great deal about the dualism of the body and the soul, rejecting both gnostic mysticism and hedonistic sensationalism. They view the person as the union of the flesh and the spirit, both sacred and an essential part of the whole human. The body isn't merely the vessel for the spirit. In the same way, Tolkien's characters are beings with a divine purpose, an eternal fëa that was made for and inseperable from one hröa.

Later in the book there's a lot of stuff on Númenor, including descriptions of native and imported fauna and flora. As usual, Tolkien is pretty precise, working out the exact size of the landmass, the initial population of Númenoreans, how they increased over time, by making rough calculations on birth rates and lifespans. This seems like it would be dry, but I devoured this section. It probably helps that it's tied in to discussions of the culture of Númenor: in discussing the shape of the coastline he segues into describing the evolution of their ship design, their love of seafaring, and (via footnotes) the way this troubled the love lives of marriageable Númenoreans. Similarly, discussion of horses leads to description of roads which leads to vivid imagery of the pleasure they took in getting around. It's a fully-realized vision that feels like a whole world.

Like I said before, this book shows off Tolkien's lesser-known math chops, and not his more famous linguistic skills. That said, he is still Tolkien, and particularly in the middle portion of the book there's a lot of linguistic stuff. One of the most striking things for me was this digression on the language of time perception, critiquing English and drawing a contrast between it and Elvish:

Our language is confused, using after or before both (in certain circumstances) of the future. We sometimes think and speak of the future as what lies before us, we look ahead, are pro-vident, forward-looking, yet our ancestors preceded us and are our fore-fathers; and any event in time is before the one that is later. We speak as if events and the succession of human lives were an endless column moving forward into the unknown, and those born later are behind us, will follow us; yet also as if though facing the future we were walking backwards or being driven backwards, and our children and heirs (posterity!) were ahead of us and will in each generation go further forwards into the future than we. A widow is a relict, one left behind, by a husband who goes on.

As in so many things, realizing the amount of thought and deliberation that went into using a single word is really impressive, and renews my lifelong admiration of Tolkien as a writer, artist and (sub-)creator.

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