Originally published here.
by Dan Cruver
People love Tolkien because his writing elicits wonder. We love Middle-earth, in large part, because we long to enjoy its wonders in our daily Present-earth experience.
Consider Peter Kreeft’s perspective on the wonder-eliciting power of Tolkien’sThe Silmarillion:
“The Silmarillion is a Great Book. I deduce this from two premises: the first is C. S. Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism, which defines a Great Book as one that invites the response of Great Reading rather than vice versa; the other is the definition of Great Reading as reading that includes the most precious human experiences. One of these is Wonder.The Silmarillion is a Great Book because it elicits Wonder. It is a magician, a conjurer: simply by uttering its magic words it conjures up the rabbit of Wonder out of the hat of the reader’s consciousness. …It is a bottomless well of Wonder.”1
The wonder which Kreeft arguesThe Silmarillion elicits resonates with me deeply, and I believe Kreeft’s words here apply to all of Tolkien’s books.
By the beauty, power, and careful selection of his words, Tolkien is a conjurer of wonder. Ponder these two captivating clauses:
“…until their hearts, wounded with sweets words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords…”2
“…the beauty of [the white twinkling star] smote [Sam’s] heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land…”3
Tolkien wonder-fully conjures wonder within us.
Two profound quotations lead us into such an experience of wonder when reading Tolkien. The first is one with which you are all very familiar: “Not all those who wander are lost.” It comes from a poem that Bilbo wrote after having met Aragorn, and the poem appears twice inThe Lord of the Rings. And contra Peter Jackson, Aragorn didn’t wander throughout Middle-earth because he was trying to flee his destiny and was struggling with a personal identity crisis.
No, Aragorn was actually trying to protect his kingly lineage, of which he was the last living heir. And in doing so, he was also covertly protecting Middle-earth and its free peoples, keeping watch over the North (which included protecting the borders of the Shire). Aragorn did not wander as one who was lost. I like to say, “Aragorn was wandering in wonder, taking in all the wonders of Middle-earth, all the while protecting its free peoples so that they could continue to enjoy the wonder-eliciting powers of Middle-earth.”
[Side note: In light of what I just wrote, what I want you to do, as you explore Middle-earth in this July bundle, is “wander in wonder.”]
The second quotation is not as familiar as the first, and it’s also not from Tolkien. It does come, though, from a universally recognized classic piece of literature that’s long passed the test of time. First published in 1926, it contains a Niagara of profound insight. It reads:
‘I’m scared,’ said Piglet.[Yes, I do intend for my use of this non-Tolkien quotation to make you smile.]
‘A story will help,’ said Pooh.
‘Oh. Don’t you know? Stories make your heart grow.’
We read a quotation like the one above by A. A. Milne and something within us goes, “That’s true! Stories indeed make our hearts grow, at least the great ones do.”
I woke up discouraged the morning I began to write this article. Although my morning was filled with a crisp blue sky and a gentle cool breeze, strangely enough, it only added weight to the heaviness of my heart. So, I made some coffee and sat down in my favorite chair with a few books, one of which was The Silmarillion. (By the way, I am one of those people who takes a highlighter to Tolkien’s books whenever I read them. Some may consider that an act of sacrilege, but highlighting text is what I do when a passage, sentence, or phrase elicits wonder within me.)
I flipped through the passages of The Silmarillion until a highlighted text caught my eye. I was specifically looking for the first two pages of text that only had one highlighted portion. It wasn’t until page 209 that I found it. These are the words I read:
“There Gwindor spoke to Túrin, saying: ‘Awake, Túrin son of Húrin Thalion! On Irvin’s lake is endless laughter. She is fed from crystal fountains unfailing, and guarded from defilement by Ulmo, Lord of Waters, who wrought her beauty in ancient days.’ Then Túrin knelt and drank from that water; and suddenly he cast himself down, and his tears were unloosed at last, and he was healed of his madness” (emphasis mine).
Even in middle of the tragic story of Túrin, Tolkien’s words—especially the words I emphasized (“On Irvin’s lake is endless laughter… and suddenly [Túrin] cast him down, and his tears were loosed at last, and he was healed of his madness”)—elicited wonder within me. It was almost as if I myself were drinking from the waters of Ivrin as I read those words. As my mind drank in “On Irvin’s lake is endless laughter,” the heaviness that was weighing my heart down begin to lift. Similar to what Sam experienced (to a much lesser degree, of course) when “he looked up out of the forsaken land” to see a “white star twinkle” (RotK, 199), hope returned to me. To borrow from Winnie the Pooh’s insightful words, Tolkien’s word-wizardry “made my heart grow.” Wonder grows the heart, enabling us to become more content within our circumstances, challenging though they are.
In Tolkien’s thought, there is a close correlation between wonder and beauty. When the Elves, the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, first awoke, Tolkien writes that “their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight.4 …The first sound that was heard by the Elves was the sound of water flowing, and the sound of water falling over stone. Long they dwelt in their first home by the waters under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder” (emphasis mine).5 When the Elves saw or heard beauty, they responded in wonder. Tolkien teaches us that beauty, rightly seen and appreciated—to borrow and tweak Peter Kreeft’s words — “conjures up the rabbit of Wonder out of the hat of our hearts and minds.” As Lisa Coutras writes, “A love for creation is a primary quality of [the Elves’] being, and their wonder is inexhaustible… Elves do not grow bored of the world… Though the years are countless for the Elves, their love of the world does not diminish; their wonder remains continually new. The Elvish experience of wonder is one of a close communion with the whole of reality.”6
In contrast to Elves in Tolkien’s Legendarium, Men, on the other hand, do not experience wonder in the same way nor as frequently as the Elves do. Yes, Men do experience wonder, but they experience it as those who live as exiles on Arda (i.e., Earth), as those who do not know Arda as their true home. Although Men may love Arda as deeply as the Elves do, Men and Elves “[perceive] Arda differently, and [appraise] its beauties in different mode and degree.”7
So, what is one great reason to read Tolkien’s epic story? He writes in such a way as to help us “bridge the gap” between the way we (i.e., Present-earth men, women, and children) perceive and appraise the beauties of Present-earth and the way Elves do. In other words, if we read them carefully and thoughtfully, Tolkien’s books will teach us how to more fully and frequently experience wonder as we go about our daily lives. Tolkien gives us Middle-earth’s wonders in such a way as to increase our Present-earth enjoyment.