Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Shadow of It

Timothy J. Keller once gave a lecture titled "The Significance of Tolkien". He discusses J.R.R. Tolkien's work and the origin of the various names and languages in the books. The following is somewhere between a quote and a paraphrase.

Everybody ... even his best friends (except Lewis) thought the Lord of the Rings was too bizarre. Many of you know, it flew completely against the canons of what you might call "modernist literature". When he wrote it, there was no category for it. Fantasy was essentially invented by Lord of the Rings. Here's my main thesis: he did not really write fantasy. Peter Jackson, the director of the films said, "You have to understand, Tolkien was not writing fantasy. He was writing mythology for the first time in centuries."

The basic inspiration for Tolkien's stuff was linguistic, which means he was not exactly making things up, but he was reconstructing a linguistic and imaginary past that could have existed. A person who is a pure fantasy writer just says "I'm thinking of a story and I'll make stuff up. There's a woman, what will I name her? I'll name her this, or that." That is not how Tolkien worked. He would get a name, and ask, "What does that mean? Where would that name have come from? What kind of person would have that name? What kind of story would that person have been in?" For example, he would be writing and up would come Faramir. He would not say "ok, what kind of character do I want Faramir to be?" he would say, "who is this guy? I need to find out."

He was rediscovering an imaginative world which is the root of all Northern European culture, thinking, and mind. There's reverberations of these words still in our heart. He was trying to ask... what was it that happened way way back, what experience, what being, what kingdom, so that even today we remember the shadow of it?

Tolkien said, there is a kind of very sad and yet very joyous story: you can call it a romance, you can call it an epic, a quest, you can call it even a fairy tale, that modern people said "we're past that now, we don't believe in hope we don't believe in good and evil." And Tolkien said, deep down inside we all need those stories. We need a story that tells us how bad things are, and we need a sudden turn in the story, that snatches victory from death and through suffering overcomes everything.

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