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Some things I learned from reading The Nature of Middle-earth

When I was updating the Mythopoeic Society’s Inklings bibliography, I thought about placing this book, not among the works of Tolkien’s fiction, but in the books about Tolkien, under “The Secondary World.” There’s virtually no narrative here. It’s all brief essays and notes about the life-spans of the Elves and Númenóreans, the rules by which the Valar govern Arda, and similar topics. Almost all of it was written after The Lord of the Rings was published, but any assumption that it’s therefore canonical is over-ridden by the sense that in most of these pieces, Tolkien is just thinking on paper to himself, figuring things out rather than laying down the sub-creational facts. At least this shows what he was doing instead of the impossible project of finishing up the Silmarillion.

Some of the contents have already been published, mostly in specialty journals on the Elven-tongues. (The more technical linguistic material is edited out here.) But even that will be new to most readers. Here are some things I learned from reading this book.

1) We’re living in the Seventh Age of the world

We being in 1960 of the 7th Age … (p. 39)
Did you know that Tolkien got the idea of numbered ages of the world from Catholic theology (p. 402-3)? I certainly didn’t, nor do I recall any previously-published writings on Tolkien alluding to this.

2) Who killed off the hobbits? We did.

The much later dwindling of hobbits must be due to a change in their state and way of life; they became a fugitive and secret people, driven as Men, the Big Folk, became more and more numerous, usurping the more fertile and habitable lands, to refuge in forest or wilderness: a wandering and poor folk, forgetful of their arts and living a precarious life absorbed in the search for food and fearful of being seen; for cruel men would shoot them for sport as if they were animals. (p. 195)
This is implied as far back as The Hobbit, where it is said that “they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us,” but here it is laid out in gruesome specificity.

3) The Valar made a big mistake

The invitation given to the Eldar to remove to Valinor and live unendangered by Melkor was not in fact according to the design of Eru. It arose from anxiety, and it might be said from failure in trust of Eru … (p. 234)

4) Tolkien had trouble accepting the concept of reincarnation

The most fatal objetion is that it contradicts the fundamental notion that fëa and hröa [spirit and body] were each fitted to the other. Since hröar have a physical descent, the body of rebirth, having different parents, must be different, and should cause acute discomfort or pain to the reborn fëa. (p. 260) … The notion, which appears in some places in the Silmarillion, as yet unrevised, that Elvish reincarnation was achieved, or was sometimes achieved, by rebirth as a child among their own kindred, must be abandoned – or at least noted as a false notion. (p. 263)
The question of whether a reincarnated person reborn is the original person or a new one doesn’t seem to have caused difficulties to the many other fiction writers who’ve written such stories of reincarnation. This book’s editor, Carl Hostetter, thinks Tolkien’s delicate feelings on the subject were due to Catholic metaphysical philosophy on the relationship of spirit and body (p. 403-5).

4a) And this led to the conclusion that …

The reappearance, at long intervals, of the person of one of the Dwarf-fathers, in the line of their Kings – e.g. especially Durin – is not when examined probably one of re-birth, but of the preservation of the body of a former King Durin (say) to which at intervals his spirit would return. (p. 264-65)
The idea that the line of succession of the kings would be interrupted every once in a while by a zombie-like Durin I knocking on the lid of his coffin and demanding to be let out for a while does not seem to me well thought through. It also contradicts the material on the Dwarves in Appendix A, which states more modestly that “five times an heir was born in his House so like to his Forefather that he received the name of Durin. He was indeed held by the Dwarves to be the Deathless that returned; for they have many strange tales and beliefs concerning themselves and their fate in the world.”

5) Why the Elves aren’t vegetarians
Though some Elves do eschew eating meat,

But even so they must kill and eat olvar [plants] or die; for it is their nature to be fed, as to their hröar, by living things corporeal, and things have a right to live according to their nature. Yet violence is done to the olvar …, and these are denied the fulfilment of their own lives and final shapes. Therefore we must hold that the Incarnate belong by nature to Arda Marred and to a world in which death, and death by the violence of others, is accepted. (p. 271)
I have never previously seen this point raised by anybody discussing the morality of food, even in the primary world.

6) Melkor’s fault was intellectual arrogance

Though his mind was swift and piercing, so that, if he would, he might have surpassed all his brethren in knowledge and understanding of Eä and all that is therein, he was impatient and overweening (believing his powers of mind greater than they were). Too quickly he assumed that he had grasped all the nature of a thing, or all the causes of an event; and his plans and works often went amiss for that reason. But he learned no wisdom from this, and charged his failures ever upon the malice of the Valar, or the jealousy of Eru. (p. 294)
Sauron, when we catch glimpses of his mind, is depicted as even less imaginative or self-aware, and more impetuous.

7) The Númenóreans shared Tolkien’s taste for plain food

They esteemed good food, which was plentiful, and expended care and art in its cooking and serving. But the distinction between a “Feast” and an ordinary meal consisted rather in this: in the adornments of the table, in the music, and in the merriment of many eating together, than in the food. (p. 319)

8) You don’t have to like mushrooms to be a Tolkien fan

The other Atani eschewed them, save in great hunger when astray in the wild, for few among them had the knowledge to distinguish the wholesome from the bad, and the less wise called them ork-plants and supposed them to have been cursed and blighted by Morgoth. (p. 342)
I’m content to be counted among the “less wise” here. “Ork-plants”: I’ll remember that term for when I’m served some against my will. Can I include avocados as well?

9) Tolkien was fascinated by the idea of dancing bears

The bears, the black bears especially, had curious dances of their own; but these seem to have become improved and elaborated by the instruction of Men. At times the bears would perform dances for the entertainment of their human friends. … To those not accustomed to the bears the slow (but dignified) motions of the bears, sometimes as many as 50 or more together, appeared astonishing and comic. But it was understood by all admitted to the spectacle that there should be no open laughter. (p. 335)
Of course I immediately think of The Hobbit: “I have been picking out bear-tracks. There must have been a regular bears’ meeting outside here last night. I soon saw that Beorn could not have made them all: there were far too many of them, and they were of various sizes too. I should say there were little bears, large bears, ordinary bears, and gigantic big bears, all dancing outside from dark to nearly dawn.” And of North Polar Bear in The Father Christmas Letters too.

10) Tolkien was capable of ruining his own mythology

Is Aman “removed” or destroyed at the Catastrophe?
It was physical. Therefore it could not be removed, without remaining visible as part of Arda or as a new satellite! It must either remain as a landmass bereft of its former inhabitants or be destroyed.
I think now that it is best that it should remain a physical landmass (America!) … It would just become an ordinary land, an addition to Middle-earth, the European-African-Asiatic contiguous landmass. The flora and fauna … would become ordinary beasts and plants with usual conditions of mortality. (p. 343)
What? Oh, no, no, no. The rising of the Elven-ships away from the surface of the ocean as they depart on the Straight Road for a destination that cannot be detected by mortal eyes is the most beautiful image Tolkien created. The removal of the Undying Lands from the circles of the world (so says Appendix A, which thus contradicts the above) was done by Eru and not the Valar, and surely He had the power to override mere physicality. Besides, if it’s only America, where then is the “far green country under a swift sunrise” to which Frodo sails? New Jersey, the Garden State?

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.