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Middle-earth: The Thing In Itself

If you should ever wish to confuse and confound your friends (or enemies), challenge them to identify and explain the five main sub-plots in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”.  It’s a very complex movie that was widely criticized for being too simple.  Such is the way of fiction.

In order to be successful and popular every story, no matter how short, must include some complexity.  Complexity is a good word to describe what we cannot describe succinctly.  It is also a smokescreen word we use to hide our distaste for things.  A story is too complex if we don’t like it and it is not complex enough if we don’t like it.

Writing for TIME in 2005 Lev Grossman complained that The Lord of the Rings “has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go elsewhere for moral complexity”.  These simplistic digs at Tolkien among people who want to contrast his work with some point they wish to make, or some author they want to applaud, are legion and should be discounted as prattling hyperbole.

A popular Web marketing trick is to stimulate outrage by denigrating some popular idea, supplanting it with a less likely and less popular idea.  The hope is to “earn a link” and maybe “start a conversation”.  It’s almost impossible for me to read anything critical on the Web any more without asking myself if whatever rant I have stumbled across is sincere or just seeking attention.

We do rant sincerely, constantly, but the moment you commit to writing something for a Website your motives become suspect, especially if you dribble out some nonsense that is easily rebutted by someone who is more learned in the minutiae than you.  And as Qui-Gon Jinn said, “There is always a bigger fish.”  Someone can always nail you on the details.

The “Humpty-Dumpty” rhyme is a classic example of complexity.  Although we teach it to children without explaining its meaning we teach our adult selves that it means poor King Charlemagne could not restore the old Roman Empire.  But wait.  Isn’t Humpty Dumpty supposed to be an egg that rolls off a wall?  Or is it that Humpty Dumpty is supposed to represent events from English history?  How on Earth did Charlemagne get into an English riddle?

People obviously read complexity into stories if they don’t find enough to satisfy their needs.  By the same token we also render tales overly simplistic to satisfy our selfish demands.  Complexity and Simplicity are the two swords of Duplicity in the hands of Critical Disclaim.

We must clench our fists and bite our tongues lest we wrap ourselves in endless controversies over the constant digs meant to annoy us (a task not so easily done, as the Internet has taught us well).  Meanwhile, back at the story, we turn each tale into an ogre-like onion, adding layer upon layer.  In doing so we move farther away from and create the impetus for new generations of pseudo-fundamentalism.

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “Tolkien fundamentalist” but it’s certainly a title I have applied to myself (and one others would strip me of for daring to stray into the realms of speculation and extrapolation on even so much as one occasion).  It’s such an ironic title, though, a self-appealing appeal to an appellation of mythology for how can one be fundamental in any way in one’s examination of Tolkien?

At what layer of complexity or simplicity does the Tolkien fundamentalist work or justify the assertion of self-styled fundamentalism?  Even in his philological jests Tolkien poked fun at both himself and his fellow lovers of language.  Tolkien’s gests are jests in themselves, composed to articulate mythological ideas and themes in the guise of mere fiction.  But the mythology itself is a mythology of itself, for in truth there is no mythology.

A classicist understands that mythology is the result of story-telling.  We devise the myth in the form of a story meant to explain something, but what exactly is Tolkien trying to explain in his mythology?  Middle-earth is not so much a mythology as a parable of a mythology, barely more than a parody of mythology, for its inner tales seek to explain a world that never was and never could be and its outer tales seek to create a world that seems as if it should have been.

A myth like Middle-earth is something like Heidegger’s “thing inside itself”.  It is a “thing inside itself” because it names itself a myth of Middle-earth, not because it consists of this or that mythical story.  The thing itself is vague and ambiguous, almost morphous in its own image for it cannot be seen except as it presents itself and yet it itself can only be seen by comparison with other things.

In this vagueness or mere lack of acuteness we find ourselves mired in the excesses of definitions and appellations.  One can make of Middle-earth anything complex or simple merely because it is not defined as either, nor defined as neither.  Middle-earth is easy enough to explain and yet hard enough to understand that it is a philologist’s dream of circular subtlety of logic.

The myth of Middle-earth is almost a syllogism, extrapolating from itself its own roots and devising its own evolutions.  It is this aspect of the fiction’s nature that lends itself to such disparate comparisons and classifications.  We all return to the roots we see and proceed from there toward whatever goals we seek.  We never truly behold the entire evolutionary tree of thought.  I’m not sure Tolkien did.  I’m not sure he could.

And if by now you are minded of “Leaf by Niggle” I suppose that is a completely applicable allegorical description of Tolkien’s relationship with his work.  We pare and winnow down the details until we are left with the leaves we seek, be they complex or simple.  Complexity and simplicity are themselves unspoken destinations for the journey of discovery in Middle-earth.

You want to understand it, and in so doing it becomes a thing simplified enough to understand.  And yet you also want to dig up its deepest secrets, study all its details, and discover its roots; in doing so it becomes a thing too complicated to comprehend.  Hence, it is at once both simple and complex for we see it from different points of view.

In an extrapolative or rudely composed Quenya expression we might classify Tolkien’s Middle-earth as an example of Tanwë mi imma, “(a) device within itself”.  It is self-contained by its own boundaries and identifies itself.  Such a descriptive, built from one of the languages of Middle-earth, seems appropriate for the syllogistic approach is to devise a name from within the mythology itself for itself.  This adds a layer of complexity that introduces a formative simplification, a necessary evolution for in this way we can talk about Middle-earth in both its own terms and ours.

In other words, we are already adding layers to the mythical body of the composition.  We have devised multiple philosophical routes toward enlightenment in Tolkien’s world.  Maybe it is time to think in terms how we might apply its own elements to itself.  That doesn’t pretend to make Middle-earth more real; rather, it simply accepts the reality of the fictional Middle-earth.

Such a construction might serve as a useful shibboleth, for those who do not acknowledge the idea of the Tanwë mi imma (even if only to dismiss it) shear themselves of the veneer of knowledgeable authority.  They identify themselves as smaller fish waiting to be eaten, if eaten they should be.  The idea is not to adopt pseudo-Elvish nomenclature for every little point to be made about Middle-earth; rather, it is to acknowledge that it does indeed define itself, even when you feel there is no need for self-definition.

You will be far less likely to mistake Middle-earth for something as simple as a metaphor for “good versus evil” if you accept that Tanwë mi imma is relevant; better yet, you’ll have a tool to use in furthering the conversation with people who only think in those simplistic terms because they will struggle to contain the thing within itself by labeling it as merely simple or complex.  Think of it as a riddle, the answer to which is simple (for now), although the future may devise many solutions for it.

And maybe all the media pundits will be more inclined to take on the five plotlines of “The Phantom Menace” instead of reducing Middle-earth to a mere battle between unalterable good and evil.

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.


  • sanch

    I think the layering of the themes is what makes Tolkien’s work as timeless. It is highly philosophical value and like all myths it is incredibly complex not for the sake of being complex.

  • Jesse Meriwether

    That was brilliant, Michael.

  • David Bratman

    I don’t recall “The Phantom Menace” being criticized as too simple. Stupid, boring, pointless, all of those things. Even “needlessly complex.” But not simple.

    In general, though, you’re right. The kind of casual dismissal of Tolkien’s moral complexity that you quote appears often in puffs about “Game of Thrones”, as if one work cannot be praised without slamming another. What Tolkien has that’s mistaken for moral simplicity is a moral compass. But abiding by that moral compass is not easy, as Boromir and Denethor are there to show, as well as just about everybody in the Silmarillion (which I suspect most of these detractors have never read). Nor is choosing the best moral course always an easy one. Aragorn at Parth Galen finds it difficult; Samwise at the Morgul gates finds it almost impossible. And there are moral debates in the Silmarillion papers that are almost intractable.

    • For what it’s worth, since you’re not the first person to mention my use of “The Phantom Menace”, I wanted to mention a movie that had sparked a lot of debate about simplicity/complexity that people could relate to. In my own experience many people complained it was too simple; the five plot lines are at least something I have often discussed, and even Wikipedia mentions them in passing. I thought it would help to contrast Tolkien’s multilayered work with something else, specifically something other than “Game of Thrones” (which I have never read or watched).

      Anyway, “Phantom Menace” was the first thing that came to mind. I probably could have used “The Lord of the Flies” just as easily.