Tolkien on Modernity, Part I

Recently it was announced that an old reel-to-reel audio recording of a talk by J.R.R. Tolkien will be restored and released after having been kept from the public for many years. In 1958 Tolkien gave a speech at a dinner given in his honor in Rotterdam, which was attended by about two hundred enthusiasts of his mythology. The entire event was recorded and then forgotten about. Subsequently, the recording was found and then hoarded like part of Smaug’s treasure. Now it has been rescued from the clutches of the dragon and all are about to share in the fortune. It is a wonderful find, especially since it promises to reveal a few new insights about The Lord of the Rings.

It has long been known that a recording was made, but it was lost until 1993 when a collector named René van Rossenberg discovered it in a basement. Only now has he agreed to partner with several Tolkien fan sites to restore and release the recording.

What is extraordinary about the tape is that it contains the entire twenty-minute speech and gives an insightful look at the personality and character of the author. In the speech, Tolkien deals with the serious issues that he is passionate about, but in a playful manner. Tolkien speaks to his listeners as though he were Bilbo giving his farewell speech to the Hobbits of the Shire, though he shows much more insight about the evil of the Ring than Bilbo ever possessed. Indeed, Tolkien has much to say about the evils of modernity. Continue reading

Frodo and the Machine

I have tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.  It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger. Someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

Love, sacrifice and the primacy of the ordinary life, enjoyed as the fruit of freedom, are the beginning and end of The Lord of the Rings.  The story begins with the microcosm of the ordinary, the Shire, among Hobbits who have little knowledge or care for the bigger and darker currents swirling around their little world.  The story ends with a bewildered Sam arriving back at his home, just having concluded a long hero’s journey, bearing all the tragedy and loss that it entailed, saying:  “Well, I’m back.”

Although the conflict arising from the logic of power, symbolized by the Ring, dominates the story, Tolkien said that LOTR is really about love, sacrifice and the struggle for happiness that arises out of the limitations of our mortality.  Frodo is an icon of those limitations.  Small in stature, he was made even smaller in the comparison to his quest, the accomplishment of which Gandalf himself claimed was based only on a “fool’s hope.”  That the Shire might be saved Frodo has to give up everything, including any rational hope of succeeding.  And in the end it is precisely in his failure that he succeeds.  In Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, which some argue had a significant influence on Tolkien, Our Lady tells the Frodo-like figure of King Albert, whom She sends on a fools quest:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Continue reading