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Letter 156

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| subject=Response to comments on ''[[The Lord of the Rings]]'' and [[Gandalf]], with a summary of the mythology of Middle-earth
 
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Latest revision as of 10:28, 11 June 2011

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 156
RecipientRobert Murray, S.J. (draft)
Date4 November 1954
Subject(s)Response to comments on The Lord of the Rings and Gandalf, with a summary of the mythology of Middle-earth

Letter 156 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

[edit] Summary

Tolkien thanked Murray for his letter that contained comments on The Lord of the Rings. One of the reasons he could answer at once[notes 1] was because he had finished ordering all the minutes and resolutions of a long and argumentative College-meeting. It had made him feel like an observer at a meeting of Hobbit-notables advising the Mayor on the precedence and choice of dishes at a Shire-banquet.

Sméagol had not been fully envisaged at first but had an implicit character that just needed some attention. As for Murray’s comments concerning Gandalf, Murray was not joining Peter Hastings just by voicing any criticism.[notes 2] Tolkien pointed out that there are always defects in large-scale works of art, especially in literary forms founded on earlier matter. How Gandalf returned Tolkien viewed as a defect. Both Murray and another critic had called it "cheating". Tolkien explained that at the point when he returned the narrative was proceeding urgently so it was necessary to severely cut Gandalf's account of the matter. Tolkien purposely had kept all allusions to the highest matters down to mere hints. God and the "angelic" gods only peep through here and there.

Gandalf really "died" and was changed. The only real cheating was representing anything called "death" as making no difference. Tolkien could have said more but it would be an elucidation of his "mythological" ideas and would not undo the fact that how Gandalf’s return was presented was a "defect". However, Gandalf was not a man or a hobbit; there are no accurate modern terms to describe him. He was an incarnate "angel", who with the other Istari had physical bodies capable of pain, weariness, fear, and "death".

Why the Istari took physical form is bound up with the "mythology". At the time of the War of the Ring their purpose was to limit and hinder any exhibition of their "power" in Middle-earth and instead to train, advise, instruct, and arose hearts and minds of others to oppose Sauron, and not do the job for them. Thus they came as "old" sages. However, in his "mythology" all "angels" were capable of many degrees of error, especially the incarnated ones. Gandalf alone passed all moral tests while sometimes committing mistakes of judgment. When he fell it was both less of a sacrifice than for a Man or a Hobbit (since he had greater inner power) and more because he was humbling himself in conformity to "the Rules" (giving up hope for personal success).

What Gandalf did was what the Authority wished. The "wizards" were failures as they had been and needed enhancement to match the gravity of the crisis. Gandalf's sacrifice was accepted so he was returned in an enhanced state (more power and wisdom). The old Gandalf could not have dealt with Théoden or Saruman as he was able after his enhancement. He still concealed his power except when the Enemy's power was too great: He rescued Faramir twice and barred the entrance of the Lord of the Nazgûl into Minas Tirith. When he was sent to Middle-earth it was a mere prudent plan by the Valar, but the Authority had taken the plan and enlarged it at the moment of its failure. He was not sent back by the "gods"; he had passed "out of thought and time" and was re-clothed by the Authority. Galadriel's healing of Gandalf in Lórien was only physical healing since she had no divine power.

Although Gandalf had been enhanced he was still embodied and still suffered care, anxiety, and needs of the flesh. No "angelic" person could know the future and so they were constantly tempted to do what for them was disastrously wrong: to force lesser wills by power. Elves and Men had a part in the major mythology that was separate from the "angelic" powers. Thus the gods either loved or hated them especially since they had a relation to the Creator equal to their own, if different.

Men were "fallen" (Tolkien stressed that any legends located in our actual world must accept this fact) but the Men of the West are Re-formed. They descended from Men who fled the domination of the Prime Dark Lord and his false worship. They had escaped paganism and were monotheists, acknowledging as worshipful only the immensely remote One. The High Elves had no religious practices for those had been in the hands of the gods, who did the praising and adoring of the One in Aman.

The highest Men were of the Three Houses who fought the Dark Lord and received Númenor as their reward, along with a triple lifespan (but not elvish "immortality", which was tied to the duration of the Earth). The mortality of Men and immortality of Elves was part of their nature and could not be altered by anyone except the One, who only did so for one of those strange exceptions to all rules that show the Finger of God (the exception was the story of Beren and Lúthien, which put "Elvishness" into human history).

The Númenóreans began as monotheists with only one centre of worship on the Meneltarma. But they "fell" too when they sailed west trying to be "immortal". The closeness of Aman, their increased lifespan, and increasing delight in life all developed in them a yearning for "immortality". Begrudging the Ban they sailed east, first beneficently, then proudly, and finally disastrously. Ar-Pharazôn the 13th[notes 3] challenged Sauron. Sauron submitted and became a prisoner, but being a "divine" person he was too powerful to control. He corrupted many of the Númenóreans, including the king, with a Satanist religion. He finally induced the aging Ar-Pharazôn to go to war against the Blessed Realm itself to wrest "immortality" into his own hands.

Tolkien explained that going to the Blessed Realm to obtain immortality was a Satanic lie. Emissaries from the Valar clearly informed Ar-Pharazôn that the land did not confer immortality. The king dismissed this as a diplomatic argument to ward off his power. Tolkien emphasized that death is not a punishment for the Fall; it is an integrated biological and spiritual condition which is wicked to attempt to escape. A good Númenórean died of his own free will at the proper time.

The Valar, having no jurisdiction over Men – being forbidden to destroy them or coerce them with a display of their power – had to appeal to God, which caused a catastrophic "change of plan". When Ar-Pharazôn entered Aman a rift appeared, he and his armada was swallowed, Númenor was sunk, and the Blessed Realm removed from the physical world.

In a kind of Noachian situation, nine ships of the Faithful escaped, led by Elendil, Isildur, and Anárion. They established kingdoms in exile, inheriting hatred of Sauron, friendship with elves, knowledge of the True God, and (unfortunately) yearning for longevity. However, they had no worship or hallowed place. They had a negative truth: the refusal to worship any "creature" and above all no "dark lord". They had no petitionary prayers to God and but a vestige of thanksgiving. There was a "hallow" on Mindolluin for the king alone but it had been long forgotten until Gandalf led Aragorn there to find a sapling of the White Tree. With the return of a priest king it would be expected that the worship of God would be renewed but still without a temple.

But the story ended at the point where "myth" passed into History. Of course the Shadow would arise again in a sense (as foretold by Gandalf) but never again with an evil daemon incarnated. New evils could be seen arising during the War of the Ring, which was not so clear cut as some critics have averred. But at the time with Evil in a physical form, physical resistance to it was a major act of loyalty to God.

Tolkien’s "wizards" were in no sense "shady"; the problem was finding a good English name for a mythological creature, rather than a string of Elvish names. His dwarfs were not Germanic and he called them "dwarves" to thus distinguish them. They were not evil, or hostile, or maggot-folk of stone, but incarnate rational beings. Istari is translated as "wizards" to connect with wise and "witting" and knowing.

Christopher Tolkien noted that the draft continued to discuss the istari and Gandalf, largely repeating the earlier part of this draft.

[edit] Notes

  1. Actually this was a draft and never sent.
  2. In the preface to Letter 153, Peter Hastings had written to Tolkien criticizing many metaphysical matters in The Lord of the Rings.
  3. Originally Tolkien conceived Ar-pharazôn as the thirteenth ruler of Númenor.