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100 Years of the Tree and the Broken Light

John Garth’s revelation that “The Notion Club Papers” contains a secret message from J.R.R. Tolkien (so I see it) is an interesting find. I could not help but be a failed Thief of Baghdad by leaving the path to the True Treasure to turn aside and reach for glistening little gems. In other words, once I read the Tolkien Society article and John’s blog about the connections Tolkien drew to the “Earendel” poem I could not help myself. I had to start thinking about related and distracting things.

Somewhere in-between the fact that Tolkien mentions Gollum eating a baby Orc in one draft of The Hobbit and the fact that Arundel is a village name of debatable etymology (one fabulous story suggests its name may originate from that of a horse) I have managed to stumble toward an oft-cited quote from The Lord of the Rings: “He that breaks a thing to learn what it is has left the path of wisdom”.

It is almost as if Tolkien was speaking to his readers, warning us not to dig deeper into his stories. But we have done just that, dug deep and learned much of what they are. Was he subtly teasing his learned audience among his friends and acquaintances in the Inklings? For I can imagine the debate between Gandalf and Saruman concerning the One Ring as following upon many esoteric disagreements Tolkien would have heard and participated in during his scholarly work.

It is ever the way of the Wise and Learned to reach conclusions that must be brought forth and presented as wisdom. And if our audiences are receptive then our power and influence must grow. But if there is a voice in the crowd that challenges what we present then we must fall back upon the well-prepared arguments, oft-rehearsed in preparation for expected skepticism. This probably falls into the area that Tolkien would have called “applicability”. After all, he as a writer must draw upon his experiences as a person and so many moments in his stories would be rooted in innocent things never marked for satiric or metaphoric prose.

But ever the warning comes back to me: “He that breaks a thing to see what it is has left the path of wisdom”. What is the path of wisdom when you read a story? Is the path itself nothing more than the story? I think in this case Tolkien may indeed have been injecting some subtle philological jest into the narrative. In fact, much scientific knowledge has been gleaned from breaking things to see what they are and though the Bible says that the wisdom of men is foolishness to God, I’m not sure the scientific method is what the Biblical writer had in mind (after all, Jesus himself reportedly said “you will know the tree by its fruit”, which is a rather scientific approach to understanding things).

Evidence-based thinking is hardly under attack in The Lord of the Rings, although we might find a few passages that challenge the reader to question what seems obvious (and which turns out to be something else). For example, when Frodo, Sam, and Pippin leave Maggot’s farm in the foggy dark they come upon the clip-clop of shod hooves upon the road. The reader is falsely led to believe that a Black Rider may be approaching, and then it turns out only to be Merry on a pony. He just happens to be cloaked and asking for Mister Baggins like the Riders are.

These things are seeds, seeds which sprout and later bear fruit of an interesting and sometimes odd sort. Tolkien uses the transition from vagueness to clarity (as in Merry’s approach on the road) throughout the story. It is an effect that serves the author well. I sometimes wish they had tried to adapt this technique to the movies (although I’m not sure how many dark silhouettes the audience would have put up with). Transitions are important to Tolkien because he can use them to give readers an idea of the feelings of his characters. By withholding the reveal until the very last possible moment Tolkien heightens the tension of the story without falsifying it.

A less capable writer would have someone enter the room with a gun, only to reveal in the next chapter that it was just Tom looking for some oil. Transitions make poor cliffhangers, in my opinion, but I digress (so, again, I have left the Path to the True Treasure). The ideas that Tolkien presented in “The Notion CLub Papers” are self-reflecting, almost recursive. The characters must decipher hidden truths from old stories. My, my. Here we are in 2014 deciphering hidden truths from old stories. Was “The Notion Club Papers” Tolkien’s way of defusing the temptation to think that people would read hidden meanings into his books?

After all, he is famous for denouncing any attempt to present The Lord of the Rings as a work of allegory. The allegory may only be false imagery but there is no mistaking the numerous linguistic jokes Tolkien seeded throughout the story. Whether in a discussion of calendars or in character names, Tolkien found ways to put the love of words into his words. Those among us who have been trained in the ways of the word have pointed to these distinctive glimpses into the mind (and sense of humor) of a philologist. I would never have known these things had someone not broken the story apart for me to show me what it is.

It is now commonplace for Tolkien fandom and scholars to speak of “the Legendarium”, a word Tolkien himself devised (or adapted) to describe the body of stories he was never quite able to fully tell (or tell properly). Our Legendarium is not quite his, but it is a Legendarium. I think, however, it would be better to describe it as a Tree: a Tree of Tales, of Knowledge, and of Hidden Thoughts.

Until someone comes along with a better explanation it would seem that John Garth has shown us the Seed that became the Tree. His logic seems impeccable and I feel no compulsion to challenge it. It is much like watching a master chef slice a bushel of vegetables with the finest of precision. I wish I could do that. I feel I never shall.

The Tree has many branches, and both strong roots and weak roots. What makes it fun and challenging and frustrating is that when we study the Tree we find its roots and branches intermingled with those of other Trees. The Tree itself may not have grown directly from a Seed, but perhaps rather from a Shoot, spliced from an older Tree (or Trees) and planted in fertile ground where it took root and grew into a massive thing.

And the beauty of the Tree is that it shines with a light of its own. It is the Tree of Tolkien’s Legendaria, not of Middle-earth nor even of the legends that Tolkien wove together to create the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings. It is the Tree that inspired Tolkien to create his Silmarils, and it is the Tree that enlightened his own quest for knowledge of Faerie.

We might give it the name Arbor Legendarius, a metaphor for the thing that grows from a seed (or shoot) into a body of literature that is constantly branching away from itself; although Tolkien’s stories inevitably return to the Tree and intertwine themselves in some. This Tree is self-illuminating that way. We almost need no other light by which to study it for the Tree itself sheds sufficient light to lead us on the path.

The Tree is the path we must follow, and like the Thief of Baghdad we must not leave the safe path to pursue any of those shiny golden trinkets we find along the way. For if we do we become caught in the snare of distraction. And yet this Tree seems designed to do just that. The story leads us astray on purpose, almost as if to challenge us to dig deeper and find the hidden gems.

On the one hand The Lord of the Rings was clearly written for a public eagerly clamoring for more about hobbits. But on the other hand it seems to have been written for a gifted sub-set of readers who know just enough to put the clues together. But I honestly don’t know how best to enjoy this thing: either as the story that is told or as the stories that are found, for they are legion and the quest to find them all seems as hopeless as Frodo’s own quest to destroy the One Ring.

Perhaps one day we will have sorted out every branch and root, and the Tree will be fully documented and known. That day, far off though it may be, will be a sad day, for only then will we finally understand that we have broken the one thing that can never be put back together. Knowing too well the sources and the seeds deprives us of at least a little bit of the sense of wonder we feel each time we venture into this story. On that day we shall behold the Tree as it truly is and see that it is just one more tree in a forest.

May that day never come, for if it does then we will surely have left the path of wisdom indeed.

About the Author: Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.


  • Guest

    He who oft wanders with a kindly heart is the wisdom on paths yet unstrayed, seeking not glory, and holding in worth above all gold the treasure of understanding, and a life humbled by the will to endure all suffering. Here I see not a thing being broken, only explored, and a quote I find to be of more importance is: ‘It is against the rule. Laws are commands upon the will and are binding. Rules are conditions; they may have exceptions.’