Last week I wrote about the hobbits as they prepare to return to the Shire after their adventures. In a comment on the post Brenton Dickieson who writes the truly wonderful blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia, https://apilgriminnarnia.com told me that his son Nicolas noted that in returning to the Shire the hobbits re-entered history once more.
When I read this it was one of those revelatory moments that causes you to see a text in an entirely new way. The idea was not entirely new and for that I am grateful to Joe Hoffman who writes as The Idiosopher http://www.idiosophy.com. Joe wrote a fascinating piece in which he noted that different places within Middle-earth exist in different periods of history and that the Shire belongs to the 18th century while Gondor, for example, belongs to the high Middle Ages. My first reaction to this was to concede that Joe had made an excellent point but also to admit a certain disappointment to myself. I had always admired the care with which Tolkien had created his legendarium and it seemed that Joe had discovered a major flaw in Tolkien’s work. Far from being a remarkably consistent creation Middle-earth was full of historical inconsistency. Now in reading Nicolas Dickieson’s comment I realised that far from being inconsistent Tolkien had created a remarkable whole that I had never before fully realised or understood.
It is as Gandalf races away upon Shadowfax towards the Barrow Downs and beyond to his meeting with Tom Bombadil that Merry says, “Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together… We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”
To which Frodo replies, “Not to me… To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”
In just a few brief lines Tolkien has drawn a profound contrast between Faerie and History and yet tells us that the hobbits live in both.
The Inklings, the fellowship of like-minded academics and writers of which Tolkien was a central figure, had long explored this relationship. Perhaps it was most explicitly stated in That Hideous Strength by C.S Lewis in which the history of a research institute is gloriously invaded by mythology, by Faerie, in the figure of Merlin. Later a character by the name of Dimble reflects on this.
“There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeded. Logres was our name for it- it will do as well as another. And then we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”
The haunting is the inbreaking of Faerie, of Myth, and beyond that, the True Myth of the Incarnation to which all other myth points, into History. In Lewis’s story this is íÓby means of Merlin and in Tolkien’s by means of the whole mythical story of the Ring entering the history of the Shire. Frodo and his companions embody the tension between the two. For Merry and Pippin the mythical has a dreamlike quality from which they are awaking. For Frodo it is the myth that is the real. Sam is “torn in two”.
In thinking about this I was drawn to the story of Oisín (pronounce Osheen) and Niamh (pronounce Neeve) and the mythical land of Tír na nÓg, the land of Faerie that feels so much in character like Tolkien’s Beleriand or perhaps Lothlórien. Oisín falls in love with Niamh, the Fairy princess and dwells with her in bliss for three hundred years. Eventually he wishes to visit his home in Ireland but finds that it is now Christian and effectively ruled by St Patrick. In some versions there is a debate between Patrick and Oisín http://www.ricorso.net. I have to say that in the version I read, translated from the Irish by Lady Augusta Gregory in 1904, Patrick comes across as a particularly unattractive character and my natural sympathies were with Oisín. I would like to say that in his breastplate Patrick feels much closer to Oisín’s world than in the debate that I read.
But whatever the nature of that debate I believe that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien achieves a unity between Faerie and History and the relationship between the two. In coming weeks as we read The Scouring of the Shire and The Grey Havens I hope to explore this more closely and to consider Tolkien’s version of the Haunting and to relate it to our own experience. But now we must leave the hobbits at the shut gates of their homeland either awakening or falling asleep.
The artwork this week imagines the encounter between Oisín and St Patrick.