John Elton Pletcher loves storytelling, all-things-Tolkien, and literary analysis (with a special eye for everyday applicability). Speaker, author, pastor, and curator of @GandalfTheGuide, John lives in Lancaster, PA with his wonderful wife, Nancy, and three high-energy, creative sons.
Though they never met, I am quite confident that J.R.R. Tolkien would have loved my grandfather, Everett C. Hall. These two men shared two unique passions. First, they both enjoyed smoking pipes. My grandfather was a splendid fan of Mixture No. 79, manufactured by H. Sutliff (est. 1849), a sweet-smelling, aromatic blend. But I do not recall Grandpa ever trying Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, or Southern Star. Although in retrospect, I do believe he might have enjoyed Middle-earth pipe-weed.
I will tell of their second shared passion. But first, consider how we benefit when we “inhale” one of Tolkien’s most pervasive smoke-rings. Go without it, and we grow devastatingly dull to life’s marvelous colors and characters. We struggle to see everyday miracles and tantalizing textures.
Reading with watchful eyes, we discover an oh-so-prominent “puff” from the Professor’s pipe. A pervasively fragrant, recurring smoke-ring is the term wonder. Intriguing faces, curious places, captivating characters, and remarkable traces are sketched as wonder-full. Throughout his story-scenes, Tolkien employs these “wonder words” and accompanying “wonder scenes.” They prove to be awe-inspiring.
Upon our first encounter with Bilbo and Gandalf in The Hobbit, Tolkien transports us into their meeting:
By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes (neatly brushed)—Gandalf came by. Gandalf!
Gandalf comically banters with Bilbo over his use of Good morning. He chides him for attempting to get rid of him and for not remembering that he belongs to the name, Gandalf. Suddenly, Bilbo remembers:
“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid!”
Tolkien very deliberately attached this word wonderful to Gandalf’s storytelling at parties. It was a most strategic verbal linkage by our Professor, himself the great lore-master. As Michael Stanton discusses the hobbits and Gandalf smoking pipe-weed, he stresses a vital principle: “(almost) nothing in this book is wasted.” When readers grow in watchfulness, we discover this principle might be extended to all Tolkien’s writing. His vivid portrayal of scenery and his engaging interchange of characters deliver the wonder of colorful description, artful cadence, and playful dialog. Tolkien captures our imaginations.
Recurrences of wonder are woven throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes Tolkien uses the term as an overt noun, very personal. Notice Tolkien’s introduction of Bilbo in Chapter 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring:
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years…
At other times, wonder is not overtly named. Instead, a wonder-filled response springs up for the story’s characters. We as readers then enter the experience and sense the wonder. Gandalf’s fireworks at Bilbo’s long-expected party supply such a scene:
They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces . . .
Bilbo’s partygoers were in awe of Gandalf’s craft. The grand finale goes like this:
And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon—not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces.
Sometimes the precise terms wonder and wonderful are employed. Other times, we simply encounter a strong sense of awe. Tolkien’s poetic artistry and the response of characters give evidence that wonder has been evoked in both emotion and action.
This recurring smoke-ring of wonder is not exclusive to Tolkien’s hobbits and other Lord of the Rings scenes. Such an aroma also fills the air in the Professor’s magnificent backstory for all things Middle-earth. On the opening page of AINULINDALË in The Silmarillion, we read:
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
In Chapter III, “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor,” Tolkien tells of the starlit awakening of the Firstborn of Ilúvatar:
Long they dwelt in their first home by the water under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder; and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived.
This small sampling reveals that Tolkien’s earliest stories include the marvelous idea of wonder. His leading characters experience it, and then we his readers benefit. Wonder is prolific throughout The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s entire Legendarium.
Such puffs of this wonder smoke-ring carried long-standing intentionality. In Tolkien’s foundational essay of 1939, On Fairy-stories, he aimed to answer the question, What is the use of fairy-stories? Along with other values, Tolkien included this explanation of the beneficial outcome of recovery:
We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses—and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make.
For fun, carefully read again the Tolkien passages above, playing word search for how many times Tolkien mentions green. With fairy-story and the intended benefit of recovery, he is calling us to more intentionally look, to be startled anew. He urges us to behold creatures again, both the fantastic ones of Middle-earth and those all-too-familiar in our own Present-earth. Tolkien invites us to embrace and appreciate the marvelous colors and critters of our own ordinary, everyday, humdrum, overly familiar existence. He further elaborates:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say, ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.
Tolkien beckons us to see anew, to see as we were originally designed to see and then respond accordingly.
Here is the second passion shared by both our pipe-puffing Professor and my own beloved Everett C. Hall. Before a two-hour summertime drive to go fishing, Grandpa would hand me a bottle of spray cleaner and a roll of paper towels. He would say, “It will make our journey so much better, Grandson, if you clean the windshield.” He would grin and pack some fresh No. 79 into the stump of his pipe. I would go to work, clearing the smeared bugs, dust, and other grime from the glass.
Tolkien continues his explanation of how fairy-stories and their wonder benefit us with recovery:
We need in any case to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.
I must confess. I too readily grumble to myself over having to walk the dog in the frozen darkness of ten o’clock on a wintry night. I forget to look up and revel in the wondrous stars displayed onstage above me. Tolkien’s wonder retrains me to “clean my windows” and see anew. And there are times I am weary of my umpteenth drive to the baseball field to deliver my son to ball practice. I stare out the windshield in self-consumed silence. Or worse, I turn up the radio. In Tolkien’s diagnosis, I have grown overly familiar. I have allowed such potentially marvelous moments and my son’s precious face to become trite, even mundane to my vision. I have appropriated the twelve-year-old in the seat next to me as “mine” and safely locked him in my hoard. I fail to truly look, to ask him questions about his day, to chuckle over his stories, and to deeply listen. I too numbly forget that someday too soon, providence will lead him into even greener fields. I assume I possess him and the drive time too. How foolish of me. I need to join Tolkien and Grandpa for fresh puffs of wonder.
With watchful eyes, what is wondrous in Tolkien’s fairy-stories may reawaken us. We can behold anew our daily places and faces. Everyday colors (like green) will come to life once again. After all, there are wonder-filled scenes all around us. We can “clean our windows” and “be startled anew” by the everyday things we too often take for granted.
For unique insights on the “art of leaf,” see Tolkien’s Prologue in the Ballantine Books Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring (1965, 1973, 1982).
Michael N. Stanton. Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards (Palgrave, 2001), 22.