John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had an unremarkable birth. He was born
in South Africa, and lived his first few uneventful years there. He
then took an unexciting trip back to England where he was to stay. As
a man, Tolkien was quite unremarkable in appearance, wore generally
unremarkable clothes, and led what some would suspect was an unremarkable
life. He in fact seemed to be the archtypical Oxford don
gazing off into nothingness and mumbling about this or that. There
are a few things about this man, however, that are quite remarkable.
Somewhere along the way he developed an intense sense of perfectionism.
This was perhaps the single most important trait that Tolkien held in
relation to his work and writing.
It would not be right to say that Tolkien led an uneventful
life. His mother and father died when he was quite young, his mothers
death being quite a blow. He served in the Great War, and many of his
friends were killed. He saw much of what is wrong with us during the war.
He married and had children, certainly an important aspect in Tolkiens
life. And, of course, he wrote one of the most popular and acclaimed series
of books that has ever been written.
It was Tolkiens perfectionism that whittled and worked at a
great mass of manuscript to produce The Hobbit and The Lord of
the Rings, though this perfectionism also showed in his exhaustive
treatises on philology that was his chosen lifes work. His avowed
love, however, lay with what became published as The Silmarillion.
So why did not Tolkien work first and foremost on this great volume? It
seems that his perfectionism would not allow it to go to press with any
misconceptions, mistakes, or malapropisms.
It is easier to understand Tolkiens obsession with perfecting
this body of myth (for myth it is) when one considers his goal. He wanted a
mythology "for England;" one with the scope of human emotion and
thought that would rival and surpass the fragments of any earlier mythology
such as the Kalevala or the Eddas. Tolkien felt that mythology
is very much tied up in the identity of a culture, and that the loss of such
a cultural trait can only bring disillusionment and a kind of cultural identity
crisis that would result in the loss of any "national spirit." He saw
myth as a way to defend, perhaps, his beloved trees and countryside, for if
everyone read myth and knew myth as he did, would they not grow to love the
countryside as reminiscent of the great stories?
The Silmarillion was an attempt to create a secondary world in
which truths Tolkien believed and lived by could be couched in a universal manner.
That is to say, Tolkien believed that his myths must be imbued with a Christian
ethic, though any obvious or direct intrusion from this world would destroy the
"willing suspension of disbelief" that was necessary for the effect.
The Myth, then, must be comprehensive in its morals and very, very internally
consistent. This is what held up the creation of this volume. Tolkien reworked
it, rewrote it, rephrased it, and did everything he could, constantly, to
perfect his epic. He was such a perfectionist that it never was published in
his lifetime (though he thought he would live longer than he did).
The Silmarillion became a fluid, changing group of stories that
represented the core ideals of Tolkiens mythology. Perhaps this is the
crux of the matter. The earlier fragments of the ancient mythologies Tolkien
used as references to a more complete one were simply written down forms of an
oral tradition. A tradition that changed constantly as one poet would interpret
the same story in his own unique way. So Tolkien constantly changed his own
stories, never satisfied with any one "version" as the "correct"
one, for in truth there could not be a single "correct" version.
Rather, the ideals and morals involved were what was central, and any "fi
xing" of the stories into one form would take something from this
for then you leave it open to examination on baser levels.
Like his own literary creation Mr. Niggle, Tolkien started by creating a
story around a moral a myth, his "leaf." He then began to
trace this myth back to imaginary origins and created a few more on the way.
As this work continued, the myths grew into a mythology, but a static one,
without the motion and verve that was desired, without the bending limbs and
rustling leaves. So he kept at it, changing and amending so that in his own
mind the stories had some motion a changing from earlier to later and
back again. The mythology evolved within his own creative aura. It could
not, however, be written down this way, and so the work of choosing the best
of a line of stories began, but was not finished by him. This is the
perfectionism that stalled The Silmarillion and kept The Lord of the
Rings for seventeen years in the making. The written word cannot convey,
perhaps, the spoken and translated myth.
Luckily for us, our Niggle had a son that could complete his work. The
entire vision, of course, is left for Tolkien to contemplate in heaven as his
creation Mr. Niggle does, and for us to yearn toward as we catch our glimpses
here and there.
"Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree
that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the
wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to
catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them
wide. Its a gift! he said."