Inspiration

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of The Lord of the Rings is familiar with the “found manuscript” concept at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology: the idea that the books of the Middle-earth legendarium were not inventions, but translations of the Red Book of Westmarch, penned by the Hobbits of the stories themselves.  It’s easy to see why this concept would be attractive to Tolkien. The claim, however tongue-in-cheek, that his stories were miraculously preserved firsthand accounts of prehistoric events — not just the flights of fancy of some bloke who taught Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College — lent his work a mysterious air of historicity like that of the most beloved real-world myths, from the Trojan War to the Arthurian cycle. In addition, setting his stories in the distant past of our primary world helped Tolkien in his effort to make “a Secondary World which your mind can enter,” (“On Fairy-Stories,” Tree and Leaf, p. 37) a story which the reader can remain inside as long as they choose to.

But it seems very likely that Tolkien believed his stories truly did come from somewhere beyond himself.  In several of his letters, Tolkien is careful to distinguish his artistic process from mere invention (below are just a few examples):

  • In a 1956 draft letter to an unidentified “Mr Thompson” — “I have long ceased to invent (though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my ‘invention’): I wait till I seem to know what really happened.  Or till it writes itself.” (Letters, p. 231)
  • In the 1951 letter to Milton Waldman (the letter Alan and I have cited on the podcast so often that we’ve both begun to quote it in our sleep, to the chagrin and terror of our wives) — “… always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”  (Letters, p. 145)
  • In a 1954 letter to Peter Hastings — “… it seems to have grown out of hand, so that parts seem (to me) rather revealed through me than by me …” (Letters, p. 189)

Perhaps it’s essential to Tolkien’s view of his own work as a “sub-creation” — a well-intentioned but imperfect imitation of the creation of the universe by a divine creator — that he considered its ultimate origin to be beyond himself. The idea of a divine inspiration for a literary work is one nearly as old as literature itself (a fact revealed in the word’s etymology, from Latin inspirare, “to breathe into,” as in a story breathed into a poet’s mind from beyond). From Homer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, divine inspiration is held to be the source of many great epics. But much closer to home for Tolkien, though, it is cited by a venerable medieval English historian as the origin of the oldest extant poem in Old English, Cædmon’s Hymn.


At the moment when Frodo and Sam’s
road is darkest, the idea “was put into” Tolkien
to insert a reference to
the earliest inspiration for his mythology.


As recorded by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman to whom a hymn of creation was revealed in a dream:

When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: ‘Cædmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ Again he said, he who was speaking with him: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ Then he said: ‘What must I sing?’ Said he: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’ When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard …
     (Eccelesiastical History of the English People, Book IV, Chapter XXIV)

Tolkien’s characters occasionally receive this kind of inspiration in the form of words they’ve never heard before, notably when some kind of divine intervention seems to be at work. In our recent podcast 031 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Alan and I discuss how “it seemed to [Beren] that words were put into his mouth” (The Silmarillion, p. 166), telling him what to say as he stood before Thingol and Melian. But an even clearer echo of Bede’s story of Cædmon can be found in The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Shelob’s Lair”:

Slowly [Frodo’s] hand went to his bosom, and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded from it, until it seemed to shine in the centre of a globe of airy crystal, and the hand that held it sparkled with white fire.

Frodo gazed in wonder at this marvellous gift that he had so long carried, not guessing its full worth and potency. Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light. Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.
     (The Two Towers, p. 704)

The Quenya words that Frodo had never heard (before speaking them) translate to “Hail, Eärendil, brightest of stars.” This is a nearly exact translation of “Éalá Éarendel engla beorhtast” (“Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels”), the line of Old English poetry from Cynewulf’s Crist that inspired Tolkien to start writing “The Voyage of Eärendel the Evening Star” in 1914 — by all appearances, the first sub-creation in what would eventually become the Middle-earth legendarium. It seems that here, at the moment when Frodo and Sam’s road is darkest, the idea “was put into” Tolkien to insert a reference to the earliest inspiration for his mythology.

Why here, I wonder? Why such a literal reference to his own sub-creative process, to show Frodo actually inspired by what’s essentially the same line of poetry that inspired Tolkien? Of course, Eärendil stands throughout the legendarium as “a sign of hope to men” (Letters, p. 385), the Gil-Estel (“Star of Hope”) of the Númenóreans; and hope is something Frodo and Sam need right now. This is the darkest their road has been, the most hopeless — in some ways, the most hopeless their quest will ever be, except at the Cracks of Doom — and hope is inspired or “breathed into” Frodo through the invocation to awaken the light, now at this critical point. But I believe there’s another reason as well.

Eärendil is the shining (forgive the pun, but absolutely intended!) example in the Middle-earth legendarium of the traveler to Faërie, that rare individual with the ability to cross over into “the Perilous Realm itself” and transmit some message for mere mortals who cannot: a plea to the Faërie-race (as in Eärendil’s case) for some boon to be brought back to those of us bound to the mortal shores of the middle-earth. The boon brought back is necessarily an imperfect imitation, a poor substitute for the direct experience of the Faërie realm; so the traveler to Faërie is inherently a sub-creator himself. Tolkien’s non-legendarium story Smith of Wootton Major is a wonderful expression of this concept, which I’d love to explore in another Prancing Pony Pondering … someday.

For now, I’ll content myself with the assertion that the role of the sub-creator (Eärendil, Tolkien) is as a messenger, to bring back these imitations, imperfect as they may be. These “glimpses” of Faërie are all that many of us can get (paraphrasing a sentiment in Smith), because the land of Faërie is too perilous for most mortals to tread. The glimpses he brings back to mortals inspire us with tales of hope (see also: recovery, escape, and consolation!) but also point the way back to Faërie: a guiding light for those few who are worthy to follow on that perilous road.

And there will always be others. So while Eärendil may be the best example of the traveler to Faërie in Middle-earth, he is not the only one. Here in Book IV of The Lord of the Rings, we see him light the way for the latest such travelers. Indeed, Frodo and Sam are following in Eärendil’s footsteps, in a way: the sacrifice, the acceptance of the quest no one else will take, the path too perilous for most; even though their path takes them east before it takes them west. So I find it fascinating that the figure of Eärendel lit the way for Tolkien himself to enter into the Faërie world of his own sub-creation in 1914. For all three of them, Eärendil/Eärendel guides them on their way to become part of the same overarching myth.

Where would any of them — Frodo, Sam, Tolkien — be without that light to guide them on their path, without that inspiration?  Sam knows the answer. He’s already figured out what happens to those who don’t follow the light, who turn back from the perilous road:

‘… with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.’
     (The Two Towers, p. 696)

I don’t believe anyone reading The Lord of the Rings can imagine Frodo or Sam ever turning back and abandoning the quest (except maybe certain scriptwriters), but at the dark point in Shelob’s Lair it certainly seems that they might be defeated and forgotten, with no one ever to tell their story. It is their continuing on, with the aid of the light of Eärendil the Star of Hope, that allows them to go on. To complete their quest. To become part of the story.

But only a part, as Sam well knows:

‘… and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got — you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’
     (The Two Towers, pp. 696-697)

No, Sam. They never do. And that, too, helps us believe.

 

11 thoughts on “Inspiration

  1. This was excellent. My own writing is the same. I feel I have a story or something to say but when I sit down to write the words seem to come out of me in their own, rarely going the way I originally intended them to go. I could never use an outline as something always pulls me away from it in a more interesting and exciting way. This is great truth.

    • Just couldn’t write a post without mentioning Eärendil could you? LOL.

      I loved this the first time I read it and I still love it the second time through. The whole “Secondary World” idea that Tolkien put forth in “On Fairy Stories” is really fascinating and really rings true for me. I do live in Tolkien’s “Secondary World” and submerse myself in the beauty and awe of his written text, and as I read I am inserted into the stories as if I were a character and really there. The whole legendarium does have a realistic feel to it, as if it was ancient history, and that is a credit to Tolkien’s greatness with words and imagination. The quoted letters are quite interesting in how he says that the stories are not really “invented” just proves that he himself was a believer in his own “Secondary World” theory. I get the sense that the stories came naturally and weren’t forced (as so many of modern writers do to crank out one best seller after another), which also gives rise to why “The Silmarillion” was unfinished and had many different revisions. I recently read a few of Tolkien’s non-legendarium stories, and I have to say that the same “SW” theory holds true to those as well. And I saw a lot of similarities to the legendarium.

      • Now, now — let the record show that I didn’t mention Eärendil once in my last Pondering. 🙂

        I think you’re right that the stories came naturally, and that may be why they took so much time to write and why he spent so much time niggling. I believe in another letter, Tolkien said something about waiting to write until he was sure of what had actually happened. I think we’re lucky to have as much as we do.

  2. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read! I love your observation on how Earendel/Eärendil was a messenger and a guide first for Tolkien and then for his characters. Striking!

  3. well done, Shawn, as always. I really like the link you make to Caedmon. You prompted me to think about ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοὖσα, especially since Eärendil had all sorts of adventures like Odysseus and was long separated from his wife and family (although if Penelope had come flying over the sea in the form of a bird and found Odysseus with Circe or Calypso the story might have ended differently). Tolkien would have met inspiration from the Muses before he joined Caedmon to it.

      • Interesting connection between Eärendil and Odysseus, Tom. Knowing Tolkien’s fascination with the sea, it may be that his imagination was first captured by Odysseus as a young man (hey, that was my first introduction to Greek mythology too) and that may have started him down this road long before he first considered reading Cynewulf. I wonder at what point he would have learned about the voyages of St. Brendan?

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