There are no hieroglyphs or bas-reliefs in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. That’s a curious omission from a pseudo-historical narrative of the ancient world, don’t you think? And when it comes to statues the Elves do trees and the Gondorians do kings, but how many real examples of statues can you find in The Lord of the Rings? Nonetheless, there is little to no evidence of actual writing carved in stone. I can think of Balin’s tombstone, but everything else is just an ambiguously “carven pillar”.
Perhaps the most interesting statue-like representation in the story has earned almost no discussion at all: “At last they came out of shadow to the seventh gate … and the great arch with keystone carven in the likeness of a crowned and kingly head.” I guess it was easier for stone-masons to carve giant kingly heads and statues than to cut a few runes into the walls.
In the Appendix, of course, Tolkien excused the dearth of runic inscriptions by explaining “the Cirth were devised first in Beleriand by the Sindar, and were long used only for inscribing names and brief memorials upon wood or stone.” Still, that sounds to me like someone must have used them for something else eventually; we just never get to see any good examples.
Hieroglyphs (originally “sacred carvings”) might seem out of place in Middle-earth, which only barely touches upon matters of religion. Perhaps Sauron did not permit his slaves to write sacred things about him (or Morgoth), but they certainly knew how to use the Cirth. So what did they use Cirth for besides graffiti on fallen Gondorian statues?
There is nothing like a Rosetta Stone in Middle-earth, either. King Sargon’s Laws do not appear in any metaphorical borrowing. For some reason, Tolkien omitted interesting archaeological side trips from the story lines. No one ever stumbles across an ancient monument or stone-carved mural that depicts past events in a relevant, timely manner.
I suspect that the elaborate adornments in Elvish cities may have represented bas-relief sculpting. Imagine Elvish parents taking their children up to the images of the Two Trees and explaining how the Valar brought light to the world and sheltered the Elves.
Faramir provides an interesting overview of Gondor’s archives while talking with Frodo: “`But I stray. We in the house of Denethor know much ancient lore by long tradition, and there are moreover in our treasuries many things preserved: books and tablets writ on withered parchments, yea, and on stone, and on leaves of silver and of gold, in divers characters. Some none can now read; and for the rest, few ever unlock them. I can read a little in them, for I have had teaching. It was these records that brought the Grey Pilgrim to us. I first saw him when I was a child, and he has been twice or thrice since then.'”
Of what were those tablets made? Stone? Might they have used clay? There are few mentions of clay in the stories. The hobbits smoked clay pipes, and Thorin insulted them by telling Gandalf the Shire-folk “drink out of clay”. I hope it was baked clay, obviously. But he seems to imply that clay was of little value to the stone-loving dwarves.
The lack of significant stone carvings in the story denies Tolkien one of the major tropes of fantasy fiction: the all-important archive, often containing prophecies that must be fulfilled. Tolkien did not ignore prophecy but he did not exactly use it to drive the story forward the way later fantasy authors have. For example, we hear that Aragorn’s name “Elessar” was foretold for him but there is barely any significance attached to the name. We hear that the Sword of Elendil shall be reforged when the One Ring is found again, but the story is not about swords and green jewels; nor do they determine the fate of Middle-earth.
These minutiae are the foundation of numerous fan questions and debate. The familiar rite of passage for every Tolkien enthusiast is to scour the appendices, then to take notes of details in the stories, and then to read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, where he answers questions from other readers. For the truly obsessive after we graduate from reading every book with the name of “Tolkien” attached to it we begin to scour the dusty archives of fandom for rare copies of old newsletters that publish snippets of once widely-read interviews. One fan even compiled an ebook of (previously) unpublished letters (and fragments of letters) by J.R.R. Tolkien.
We have neither clay tablets nor engraved stone memorials guiding us on this path of discovery. It is a path strewn with the detritus of wars and quests that elevate the metaphor of the personal journey of discovery into an elaborate scheme for rationalizing the fiction of Middle-earth into a field worthy of study. One cannot help but study it for it is so compelling. And yet it is merely fiction, a mere fiction emanating from the hand of a mere man,who himself was humble enough to align himself with hobbitry even though we cast him in figurative Fëanorian statuary.
I began writing this article several weeks ago, thinking I might use it to question why a review left for my latest ebook (Mindfaring through Middle-earth) on Amazon claims that it was fan fiction. The reviewer, perhaps, does not understand that you cannot legally sell fan fiction. But the review is less important to me now than the expectation among people for justification of any opinion, interpretation, or proposition regarding the works of Tolkien (or anything else, for that matter).
Last year when I learned that the various producers of Web browsers were considering a proposal to demonize (in my opinion) all Websites that do not use encryption I pointed out in an email discussion that HTTPS was not a very secure mechanism, insofar as it fails to protect your privacy or data. Someone immediately demanded “citations” to back up my points. You may feel that is a reasonable demand, but stop and consider that I was discussing Website security on a mailing list subscribed to by hundreds, perhaps thousands of security specialists (well, people with an interest in security on the Internet). My first thought was, “If you know so much about security, how can you not have read the same news stories and research papers I have?”
In my experience people who demand citations do so because you (I) have said something that shocks them out of their state of belief. That is, we each create for ourselves a world-view that consists of the explanations we understand and through which we interpret everything that happens to us. A psychologist once explained to me that we all create our own mythologies. You cannot NOT create a mythology. Hence, when someone says something you fundamentally believe to be untrue, your immediate reaction is to defend your world-view. You may politely ask for proofs but then the question becomes who will accept such proofs as are offered?
Citations prove nothing and I detest all such requests for them; and yet if you enter into a discussion where the world-view is built upon assumptions that exclude certain facts, is it not incumbent upon you to shore up your silly declarations with at least a few appeals to authority? Or must we say that it is everyone’s responsibility to be an equally insufferable know-it-all?
Middle-earth is not carved in stone, and any stone carvings we could find today would be dismissed as mere fan fluffery. That makes it doubly hard, triply difficult, quadruply challenging to sustain any assertion on any aspect of Tolkien’s fiction. The point came home again as I responded over the past few days to a discussion on Quora about the source(s) for the story of Turin. A very knowledgeable reader stated with full confidence that Turin’s tale is based on the tale of Kullervo from “The Kalevala”.
We’ve many of us heard this before. If you forced me to lay odds right now I would wager most of you believe this. Turin is based on Kullervo, but how true is that? In my usual self-mighty fashion I dashed this dream to pieces and said that is not rightly so. The story of Kullervo is too short to have provided a complete source for Turin. And there I left it, though I knew fully well what should come next.
Of what good are citations, though, if when you quote J.R.R. Tolkien himself no one wants to believe you? Should I drop my own mythology and accept yours just because you have a citation ready to defend your point of view? What if, by some odd chance, there is an undiscovered Tolkien text somewhere that tells us most of the Turin story was based on Aesop’s fable about the dog in the manger? I can see it now, Turin is trying to defend a lifestyle that is not his own, and he denies the love of his sister to the only man worthy of her (because he has a lame leg, but that is no justification). It gives a whole new meaning to the expression, “You sly dog”.
For those who are paralyzed with curiosity about my implication that Tolkien may have supported what I said, I will spare you further delay — look to Letter No. 131, wherein he wrote: “There is the Children of Húrin, the tragic tale of Túrin Turambar and his sister Níniel – of which Turin is the hero: a figure that might be said (by people who like that sort of thing, though it is not very useful) to be derived from elements in Sigurd the Volsung, Oedipus, and the Finnish Kullervo.” Well, we all knew about the Volsung saga’s influence on The Silmarillion but why does poor Oedipus get left out so often?
I myself often compare Greek myths to Tolkien’s stories, but it’s not enough to show there are resemblances and the occasional reference to “Homeric” things in Tolkien’s letters. No one shall be persuaded by a citation that does not fit into their own mythology, shall they? Nor should they be, for if it were that simple we would have no use for personal mythologies. Indeed, I think we would be incapable of making sense of the whole world without sustainable personal mythologies.
You cannot take mythologization out of a Tolkien analysis any more than you can send Frodo home with the Ring. It is a necessary part of the process that we each retell the story in our own terms, for we receive the story in our own terms. A friend recently mentioned to me that he had all but memorized one of his favorite authors’ books. In fact, he can quote all sorts of chapters and verses at me from any number of movies and books. I do a rather poor job of reciprocating.
“I should think you have The Lord of the Rings memorized,” he said. In fact, if one person has said that to me a hundred people have. So fearsome a thing is my knowledge of Tolkien’s words that I am forbidden by universal decree from ever participating in a Tolkien trivia contest again (not that I can recall ever having won any such contests). But the happy truth (for me, in my world) is that I do not have The Lord of the Rings memorized. I can barely remember what comes after “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.
Oh, there are the random bits of words and phrases that come to mind (although I cannot think of anything as I write this sentence), but in general I prefer to NOT memorize the Tolkien books. I read through them so often when answering questions (or defending my thunderous pronouncements) that I would find no pleasure in the reading if I knew exactly what comes next in the stories. I intentionally forget the details while remembering the most obscure of facts. For example, I know there are references to many unnamed roads in The Lord of the Rings, and yet many people believe there are hardly any roads in Middle-earth at all. Tolkien threw roads in all over the place. You can hardly find a scene where the characters are not using or avoiding some road or path; and yet most people ask why there are almost no roads in Middle-earth.
Are we reading the same books?
For me the journey is most perilous because when I do raise my hand and ask, “Excuse me. But why does God need a starship?” someone inevitably fires a Shock Bolt of Rejection at me. You are not permitted to disagree with the other person’s worldview, at least not in a challenging manner. So there I am, crisped and smoking from the inevitable “can you back that up?” response, and I haven’t the vaguest idea of how to do so. I just know I am right (and justified) in some way, or close to the truth, or merely more correct than the other guy, or that I have seen something somewhere and should say that I have so as to enlighten the unwashed masses who stand before the altar of perfidious personal mythologies.
And so I find myself spending an hour, two hours, hours on end sifting through the texts, looking for that one obscure little footnote that I once read somewhere and which would prove my case if I could only find it. And failing to extract 15-30 words from the millions that have been printed in the name of Middle-earth, I risk being soundly labeled wrong for all time (or until the next discussion I interrupt, when I come better prepared to explain myself).
It’s infuriating, frustrating, and not a very productive use of my time to be constantly sifting through all those words for that one obscure citation that would save my credibility and extend my personal mythology into the living rooms of millions of Tolkien readers. In short, I should have memorized the books but I wanted to be able to enjoy reading them again, especially as I go blasting my way through the fanverse destroying other people’s joy in the stories.
Tolkien could have prevented all this had he only set down a canon, carved things in stone, and given us final, definitive declarations about all the things that are, should be, and cannot be in his version of Middle-earth. But he didn’t do anything to help the situation at all. In fact, he encouraged readers to use their imagination (as when he wrote: “The Rohirrim were not ‘mediaeval’, in our sense. The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in England) fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chainmail of small rings.”)
How often has this passage been cited to justify the comparison of Rohirrim armor with medieval armor? The Rohirrim must be medieval, must they not, because they wear “chainmail”? And when I bravely speak up and say, “Excuse me, but have you ever heard of Marius, the Roman Consul who led an army of chainmail-wearing legionaires in the 1st century BCE?” I must brace myself for the passion that surely will follow, for chainmail as we all know is a product of the middle ages. It must be, for we have no proof that Tolkien meant anything else.
There is no bitterness in my words, dear friends. If you feel that is the way I am leaning then I have completely missed the mark. For it is not that we must be correct about anything in Tolkien’s work; it is that we must seek the common ground, and there will never be enough of that to assure us of our thorough understanding of the tale. Someone, somewhere, is going to disagree with you about something in Middle-earth. You may be the one asking why God needs a starship, or you may be the one claiming without any citation to support you that there is more to the story of Fëanor than the Silmarils, the murder of his father, his quarrel with his (half-)brother, and the loss of his mother.
Nonetheless, Fëanor is one of the less complicated characters in Tolkien because he was never tempted (or confronted) by the One Ring. You don’t have to try to explain to people what the gleam in his eye as he glints through the Ring is supposed to mean. It’s just darned inconvenient that to explain Frodo’s inability to destroy the One Ring you have to start with Fëanor (or circle back to him) because why did Fëanor refuse to destroy the Silmarils in order to recreate the Two Trees? I should think if he had two more trees to work with he could create the Silmarils again, and this time he could make a spare set just in case Melkor came back for more.
That’s plausible, right?
You know you are tempted to argue with me on the plausibility of Fëanor being able to create more Silmarils. Some of you will say “why not?” but most of you have, by the time you finish reading this sentence, already formulated well-crafted rationalizations explaining why Fëanor was incapable of reproducing his greatest achievement. We’ll never all agree on the answer to the question, and Tolkien in his madness to tell us more stories never thought to write this all out and explain it once and for all so that we could keep it straight.
The essence of Tolkien fandom is to offer correction without citation, citation without context, and context without canon. How can you be right in a world where no one is wrong? How can anyone be proven wrong when it is so hard to be proven right? The sources and meanings of the stories are plain and clear and standing before us in broad daylight, unobscured by anything other than our own personal experiences and beliefs. The whole discussion should be completely transparent from start to finish.
And yet it always hinges on the one simple thing that can never be less complicated: irrefutable proof that Tolkien actually meant any one thing over another. There will be no memorials to those who have labored long and hard in the wars of the passages for there will be no victors. And if there are no victors there can be no final, definitive answers. It won’t matter if the issue is settled by who is standing last for then no one else will follow who can appreciate the brutal victory of the most enduring point of view.
The battle for Middle-earth rages on but we have already lost it, and as we all know so well, those who lose the war cannot write its history. Hence, nothing will ever be carved in stone. Or as Tolkien himself so aptly put it (if you will indulge me one last citation): “What happens to the Ents I don’t yet know. It will probably work out very differently from this plan when it really gets written, as the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch. ….”
I hope you see how that passage explains everything perfectly. If not, I blame the Illuminati for diverting your thoughts with ephemeral references to Macbeth.
Oh. And don’t worry about the battle over HTTPS and encryption. That will all be rendered moot when the Web is running exclusively on IPv6. Well, according to some.
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.