CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings Saga

Tolkien: An Injection of Reality


2001: no Odissey in space, but an epic year on earth.

In the english-speaking world, Buffy the Vampire-slayer confirms its enormous success, and finally it comes even to Italy. From virtual, the adventures of Lara Croft "take flesh" in the movie-theaters with the cinematographic version of the videogame Tomb Raider, which counts at least one example of an open attempt of serial imitation with the TV episodes of Relic Hunter. While the fascination for the archeological mystery (launched by the Indiana Jones series) continues and deepens, the first of the Harry Potter adventures reaches a few million people more with its cinematographic version, which confirms and renews an already vastly spread passion. In a few months – not in the solar year 2001, but in the school-year 2001-2002, which is relevant in the light of the fact that these events involve directly to adolescents – it will be possible to watch the second episode of the Star Wars prequel, the fifth movie of the series.

And today, 19 December 2001, it comes to theaters that which is, both consciously and unconsciously, perhaps the most awaited film of the whole history of cinema, the movie that some million people have been unaware to be waiting for since years, or even hoped to be finally (and after a few disappointing false starts) brought to life by some director: The Lord of the Rings – now its first episode, The Fellowship of the Ring –, from the J.R.R. Tolkien's saga bearing the same title.

No doubt, this is an annus mirabilis for those who love these both literary and cinematographic genres, united as they are by on-going interaction which is highly revealing. Ma altrettanto indubbiamente un fenomeno – o il ripetersi e il confermarsi di esso – che chiede una riflessione.

Millions of people become fond of reading works like those produced by Joanne Kathleen Rowling and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and these some millions plus more are crowding theaters i order to watch films "escapist", "fantastic", "unreal".

Is this an enormous crisis in rationality, a dangerous loss of the sense of reality? Yes, if by real and rational – maybe coincidental one with the other, as Hegel would wish – one means only whait is factual in a material and event materialistic sense. No, if – as it is happening in popular culture, starting above all from the last quarter of the Twentieth-century – one has a different concept of reality, a concept – even if formulated instinctively, or intuitively – which doesn't offend and on the contrary exalt human reason.

This "different concept" of reality is the core theme of Tolkien's literary work. As he writes in his most famous essay On Fairy-stories,

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were even in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.1

Above all, Tolkien's literary work – even if sometimes misinterpreted in a astonishing as well as false way – present itself as a grand artistic fresco, whose character is also theological, as founded upon that amor, that pietas and that charitas, and on courage and fortitude as well – dedication, abnegation, and heroism of the "little ones" included –, which the philologist admired in classical literatures, in fairy-stories or epic and mythological tales , and in the Bible. In fact, his own tales – which are not necessarily factual, but which are real because true – have been conceived as "subcreation"; that is, as examples of the poietic – productive and poetic – ability of the human being who creates by participating to the most important capacity of his own Creator, after whose image and resemblance he has benne made. Then a human being for whom literary creation – creativity itself – is eventually a grand examples of imitatio Dei.

If one reflects upon that fact that Tolkien reached his worldwide fame in those decades during which youth was marked by the dream of an "alternative", by psychedelics, "flight from reality" and by the idea of challenging the existing order, all of which eventually ended up in dull conformism, perhaps it is possible to start interpreting his work not as the latest escape, but in the contrary as a great injection of realism. A realism of which the world which is at the end of the modern age and at the dawn of the post-modern era show and demonstrate to be enormously thirsty, absolutely unsatisfied as this world is with all those surrogates which, denouncing imagination as dangerous, ends up solely with dealing in cheap cynicism.

At the end of a now classic book, which in passing is absolutely not friendly to Tolkien, the English literary scholar Colin N. Manlove summarizes all this in a sentence which could have been easily written by the author of The Lord of the Rings:

The moral would seem to be that only unprejudiced realists can write fully immaginative fantasy: only those who know one world thoroughly can make another with the inner consistency of reality. 2

The present worldwide popularity of Tolkien, and today the great expectation that almost everywhere surrounds the movie taken form his best known work – be this said beyond all the frailties that the movie itself could reveal –, seems then to answer to a demand different from the repudiation of reality; rather, to its opposite. The fact that millions of people answer positively, though unconsciously, to the call of works which propose a full immersion in reality though obtained through tools which recur to the powers of art, beauty and charm say something about the present state of world popular culture which one cannot easily dismiss.

In fact reality, even factual reality, can be described and communicated through suggestions, allusions and images, which are often more powerful of plain allegory. From Homer on, man has never been scandalized by this, nor judged it a "dangerous deviation". And in the Gospels Jesus has made in to a "genre" fit for preaching…

Rather than an aswer to the extraordinary success of Tolkien, these few introductory reflections wish then to be above all the correct setting out of a question. An open question, of course; but an undeniable one. The Rohirrim's ride begins from here…

Marco Respinti

1 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), On Fairy-Stories (1st ed., with minor differences, 1947), in Idem, Tree and Leaf including the poem "Mythopoeia", with an Introduction by Christopher Tolkien. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 2nd enlarged ed., 1988 (1st ed., without the poem Mythopoeia, 1964), p. 51. See also Idem, On Fairy-Stories in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays (1983), edited by C. Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1997, p. 144.

2 Colin N. Manlove, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 260.

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