August 2018 Bundle

Tolkien Time Travel

Encounter Silmarillion Wonder

by John Pletcher

Ever dreamed of being able to time travel? Perhaps you think such a phenomenon is impossible. I have good news! J.R.R. Tolkien would love to help fulfill your dream.

Amidst readers’ fantastic enthusiasm for Tolkien’s writing, there is an oh-so-sad tragedy. And it has everything to do with time travel.

For everyday, ordinary Tolkien fans (and that includes most of us), the full potency of certain scenes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be largely lost. We love the marvelous push and pull of the stories. Adventure and rapid dialog compel us, so we continue quickly reading. We rush forward, propelled in our thirst for more scintillating action. Here is the oh-so-sad part. We often miss the extra poignancy of very marvelous story moments. One example will demonstrate what often happens:

Following his coronation in The Return of the King, Aragorn expressed deep regret to Gandalf. The brevity of his own years—despite his Númenorean lineage—worried him. At the central court in Gondor, a tree served as symbol of longevity and legacy of the royal reign. Aragorn lamented:

‘I too shall grow old. And who then shall govern Gondor . . . ? The Tree in the Court of the Fountain is still withered and barren. When shall I see a sign that it will ever be otherwise?’

‘Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold!’ said Gandalf.

As they turned and descended a snowy slope, Aragorn discovered “a sapling tree no more than three feet high.” Immediate observation revealed telltale characteristics including, “young leaves long and shapely, dark above and silver beneath, and upon its slender crown it bore one small cluster of flowers whose white petals shone like the sunlit snow.”

Aragorn exclaimed:

‘Lo! Here is a scion of the Eldest of Trees! But how comes it here?’

And Gandalf replied, ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telperion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour?’

What is transpiring in such details? Could there be some further significance beyond the events at hand? For adventure-loving, keep-it-moving readers, we are tempted to zoom along for the next action-oriented scene. Instead, Tolkien really wants us to time travel the other direction. He longs for us to slow down enough to join him in journeying deep into the backstory.

In typical Tolkien fashion of world building, just crowning the new king would not be sufficient, not at all. The King’s return during the Third Age needed to be accompanied by the telltale trappings, ancient threads of the elder epic.

It’s important to remember. The Professor was crafting these captivating stories of hobbits, orcs, and wizards from his longstanding dusty treasure trove of tales, the lore of elves, men, dwarves, and the esteemed Valar. Here were characters and scenery from a world he had been building ever since he was a very young man.

Strap into your seat. Hold on as Tolkien time travel whisks you back. In early pages of The Silmarillion, the Professor word-paints a masterful scene. It was the First Age of Middle-earth in the Land of Aman. We behold a green mound called Ezellohar. One of the Queens of the Valar, Yavanna, was the giver of all fruits and lover of all things that grew. She sang a powerful song as the rest of the Valar observed. Tolkien tells:

And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna. Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.[1]

Following beautiful description of each young tree, Tolkien explains: “Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelótē, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Malinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside.”

Our brilliant Professor deliberately crafted this lineage between the trees. Their link spans the generations and the ages of Middle-earth. Such connection signified profound credibility for Aragorn’s reign. Tolkien was both affirming the returned King’s right to rule and building confidence for the longevity of his royal family tree. (And of course we cannot help but be in awe of Tolkien’s impressive literary artistry. Dare we say it? Mad skills indeed in the world-building realm!) Such highly intentional connection between Telperion in the First Age and Aragorn’s sapling of the line of Nimloth in the Third Age engages the reader in the wondrous joy of time traveling.

There are numerous, oft-skipped-over story elements in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are almost always from those Elder Days of The Silmarillion. When he brushes into his later stories such Silmarillion references, he is compelling us to join him in traveling back to encounter characters, places, and creatures.

Returning to the Third Age in The Return of the King, we discover both Aragorn and Gandalf were in awe, wonder-struck. And “Aragorn planted the new tree in the court by the fountain, and swiftly and gladly it began to grow . . .”

By Midsummer, the Elves arrived from Rivendell, including Lady Galadriel, Celeborn, as well as Master Elrond and his daughter, Arwen. These characters, like the tree named Telperion, originated in The Silmarillion. And not an inch of rich detail is lost for either leading characters back then or for attentive readers today. If we watch carefully, a eucatastrophic moment leaps off the page:

And Frodo when he saw her [Arwen] come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!”  [2]

Fresh wonder. Frodo feels it. From age to age and cover to cover, Tolkien’s tales drip with resplendent wonder! Through such fantastic forays from The Lord of the Rings back into The Silmarillion—then back again—Tolkien treats us to time travel. We encounter fresh brushes with wonder that evoke the sudden “good turn” of perspective. We dare to time travel back into The Silmarillion, and we encounter eucatastrophe.

Why would Tolkien do this?

We can postulate numerous points of literary intent, but at the end of the day, it boils down to this: the professor immensely enjoyed what he created. Tolkien found his own Legendarium that compelling. His letters reveal his dogged determination for a publisher to actually give The Silmarillion a chance. (For one example, see Letter 19, to Stanley Unwin.[3]) But this epic backstory was not published until after Tolkien’s death. He knew with all his heart that what he had created was good, very good, long before any of the rest of us could get our hands on it. Naturally, when it came to writing the adventure of The Hobbit as well as the epic quest of The Lord of the Rings, he could not help but travel back into the depths of such rich building material in order to craft his stories for Middle-earth in the Third Age.

Jeff LaSala marvelously summarizes:

And that’s The Silmarillion for you. It’s all shining gems, flashing swords, whips of flame, foul dragon reek, and blood-soaked earth. It has more tragedies than victories, more sorrow than joy, but because it was written by a man of self-conscious faith, it also packs a few eucatastrophic punches. So chin up, good readers: the body count is high, but the payoff is glorious.[4]

A great portion of payoff involves time travel and the resulting wonder. Tolkien knew with confidence that the characters and scenes of the First Age were compelling. He knew that his readers would find them just as compelling. And the Professor was equally convinced we need greater brushes with wonder. We learn how to encounter our own everyday moments of eucatastrophe amidst our own ordinary stories.

Guiding ideas as you embark on Tolkien time travel

Has it been awhile since you read Tolkien’s weighty tome? Why not dive back into The Silmarillion? Perhaps you have never cracked it open. Skip the shame. You’re not alone. At first glance, it looks daunting. Joyfully force yourself to plod and chew. You’ll gradually get swept up in the stunning scenes and characters. Then later, as you revisit the oh-so-familiar territory of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, be even more deliberately watchful for your time travel opportunities. Pay close attention for those characters, locations, and scenes that transport you back into the most ancient of Middle-earth days.

There’s actually an additional payoff. As we practice doing this with Tolkien’s Legendarium, we learn to slow down enough to see our own connections with our own histories. Perhaps we’ll learn to tell more of our own tales and time travel in extra wonderful ways. Personal story realizations can be both short-term and long-term. Many of us have at least some sense of long-time lore passed down from our family and friends across previous decades and centuries. Watching for our own everyday incidents that evoke wonder can enliven our imaginations to see backstory connections with our own rich history.

We might even gain a sense of something—dare we say Someone—at work across our ages of Present-earth. Tolkien embraced such self-conscious faith in divine providence. Recall Gandalf’s words of wonder regarding the sapling: Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? This went beyond mere coincidence. The Wizard saw this as an “appointed hour.” Tolkien loved to plant words of divine wisdom and providential direction in Gandalf’s mouth. Right here, the wise old guide tucked in one such dose of sage insight. In Tolkien’s world building, faith in Providence played a significant role. As we learn to time travel, to see wonder, and to experience our own eucatastrophic moments, we should be ready at times to admit there are people and props that seem to just appear “in the appointed hour.” Perhaps there’s more than coincidence afoot. Might we let our own faith grow?

There is a sense in which stories—whether Tolkien tales or our own stories around the dinner table—actually do transport us into a splendid mode of time travel. Enjoy playing with such a proposition. This is at least part of why Tolkien so deliberately planted The Silmarillion in the hearts and mouths of his Middle-earth characters during the Third Age.

Remember in the wrap-up of The Two Towers, that touching scene between Sam and Frodo? Sam said, ‘I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Then Sam chimed back in, and don’t miss how he went time traveling:

‘No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’ [5]

If we join Frodo and Sam, if we continue courageously traveling back into The Silmarillion, we might just discover that indeed the great tales never really end.

Let’s go time traveling!

[1] The Silmarillion, 31.

[2] The Return of the King, 278-280.

[3] The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 25-26.

[4] “Welcome to the Silmarillion Primer.”

[5] The Two Towers, 379.

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.