By Giovanni Agnoloni
This article is about the lectures that, in April 2009, I had the pleasure to give in three American Universities: in chronological order, the Penn State University (Campus of Mont Alto, PA), the Mount St. Mary’s University (Emmitsburg, MD) and the College of Charleston (GA).
The subject-matter: my Tolkien-focused researches, starting from my Italian book Letteratura del fantastico (“Fantastic Liteature”, Spazio Tre, 2004) and from my article Tolkien as a Benchmark of Comparative Literature – Middle-earth in Our World (my contribution to the August 2005 Convention for the fiftieth anniversary of The Lord of the Rings, held in Birmingham, UK), which is included in the collection The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the Tolkien 2005 Conference (edited by Sarah Wells, The Tolkien Society, 2008).
I’m also taking this opportunity to re-publish this article here, followed by some video-clips of my American lectures. I hope they will offer a clear idea of my emotion-driven approach to comparative literature, in which the works of J.R.R. Tolkien play a key-role, along with the Greek, Latin and classical Italian authors (most of all, Homer and Dante Alighieri), but the perspective may also extend to international contemporary authors. The Italian version of the piece is also available here.
I would like to thank the Professors who invited me: Steven White, a Professor of Contemporary History and International Studies (see here) at the Mount St. Mary’s University, his wife Alica White, Head of the Penn State Mont Alto Campus’s Library, and the writer and expert on Italian Studies Massimo Maggiari, a Professor at the College of Charleston. They also appear in these clips.
All the meetings I had with the teaching staffs and the students of these universities were extremely rewarding, as they gave me the opportunity to share my ideas and reflect on the current stage of my researches on Tolkien, dealt with in a novel comparative literature approach. Moreover, they let me appreciate the enthusiasm arising from such an opportunity to discuss and compare different but converging points of view. So, thanks also to all who intervened and gave their contribution to the success of these lectures. All this has resulted in an important spur for me to carry on with my researches: now I’m already writing a new book in English on these matters, going deeper than I thought I’d ever do, before speaking in the United States.
Apart from Dr. Steven White, I want to specially thank Dr. John Bardi, an expert on religious studies and an Instructor in Philosophy at Penn State – Mont Alto, who also encouraged me to pursue my project with determination.
I hope you will be interested in reading or hearing more about my researches.
Thank you very much for your attention.
(Author of the clips: Agnieszka Moroz, who accompanied me in this journey and shares with me the walk of life)
LECTURE AT THE PENN STATE UNIVERSITY – MONT ALTO CAMPUS:
My Tolkien-based approach to Comparative Literature:
A comparison between Tolkien and Virgil:
(there’s a short quotation from The Lord of the Rings, here, already included in the official publication by the Tolkien Society, mentioned above – I’m persuaded it’s not long enough to infringe any copyright, also because the lecture had an educational nature, but in case any legitimate copyright owner of Tolkien’s texts disagreed, I would immediately remove it)
LECTURE AT THE MOUNT ST. MARY’S UNIVERSITY:
Darkness and Light in Tolkien:
The concept of Subcreation (please, forgive here the wrong use of the term “relief”, instead of “Recovery”, due to the ambiguity of the Italian translation “ristoro”).
The Ring and its symbolic and spiritual implications:
North, South, East and West as symbols:
LECTURE AT THE COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON:
One more reflection on the ideal points of the compass:
TOLKIEN AS A BENCHMARK OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE – MIDDLE EARTH IN OUR WORLD
by Giovanni Agnoloni
“But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”
(J.R.R. Tolkien: “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics”, 1936)
Few works of universal literature have raised so many different interpretations as The Lord of the Rings, and more in general all Tolkien’s books. Likewise, very few have become such a cultural and spiritual point of reference for entire generations of readers of all ages. When I first discovered Tolkien, I couldn’t help perceiving all this background of emotions and sensations, lingering just behind the curtain of the words written by the author. The immediateness of feelings that one can find in Tolkien’s lines is something that comes to us as an invisible curtain, that can possibly be, not even pierced or removed, but just gone through and felt in depth, so as to reach, almost unwillingly, a dimension of pure energy, that is tightly connected to the inmost part of the human soul. No more, no less, it has been from the very beginning my firm conviction that this was the secret of Tolkien’s literature, and in particular of his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Not by chance, I had hardly read three hundred pages of the novel, when I started to notice certain assonances, or however similarities, between passages and atmospheres of it, and numerous points of works of literature from other times, cultures and genres. I realized that it couldn’t be just a coincidence, and decided that, from that point on, I would always read his books with an eye to this sort of hidden music, intertwined with the text. And my experience as a writer, and also as a Tolkienist, began like this.
The first peculiarities that I noticed, in fact, were those that I then developed in my first essay, Letteratura del fantastico (1), which primarily concerned authors from the Classical Literatures (Greek and Latin), apart from many Italian writers and poets and also some taken from the Twentieth Century’s literary production. The sense of this kind of approach was at first not very clear even to me, as I was conscious that locating passages from very different authors, with unsure relations of derivation, or anyway of reciprocal reading, could possibly have no sense at all. But I was deeply convinced it was not so, because the affinity that I could detect in so many cases was something subtler and at the same time stronger than any possible cultural influence of one author upon the other. By considering passages from Homer, Virgil, Dante, Ariosto, and so on, and by comparing them to situations presented by Tolkien in The Lord of Rings, I felt that I was somehow describing a circularity of ideas and perceptions that had been present throughout the centuries, and which could only in part be explained by referring to Tolkien’s classical cultural basis, because it didn’t just consist of plain reproductions of moments of past literature – or even of clear quotations from them –, but it developed into a wholly new creation (although imbued with substances coming from the past), as The Lord of the Rings. In other words, it sounded to me as if Tolkien had distilled the pure essences of the natural scenery and the human soul – from his personal experience as a human being, as well as from almost 3000 years of literary production, that he had had the opportunity to study and reflect over – and used them to create something completely new, but at the same time closely resembling them. Therefore, it was not simply a matter of similarity, but, more correctly, of brotherhood. Tolkien’s masterwork could then appear as a benchmark for a comparative literature analysis, because it possessed and expressed the secret energy of the highest masterworks of universal literature.
In other words, this was my gateway to comparative literature, dealt with in a completely new way, as it didn’t have necessarily to do with philology or with technical similarities (and differences) between passages by authors that belonged to different cultural traditions, but more with natural essences and human feelings. The principle that I could then read behind all this was: man, despite all his cultural transformations through centuries of history, has always remained the same, in his basic emotions. Therefore, it is a legitimate operation to take each possible feeling as a theme on which to start a research, among various authors, aimed at finding all those who have pictured it in the same manner, or anyway in consonant ways. Tolkien, more than others, perfectly works as a point of reference for this type of analysis, since he has been able to picture the human multi-sided soul in all its “naked” expressions. I am saying naked, for the mere reason that his tales take place in a parallel dimension, in a world that does not exist, but is also extremely similar to ours, from an emotional viewpoint. In fact, this is the very aspect of Tolkien’s fantasy that makes it possible to use his pages as a benchmark for a comparative literature itinerary that proceeds through centuries of history and thousands of miles of our world. I am talking about the subcreative value of his fiction. Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy Stories (2), clearly explains the mechanisms of the true fantasy stories. They make usescape into a dimension that is not real, but is intimately coherent, to such an extent that we can’t help momentarily forgetting ours to plunge into it and feel part of it. Then, Recovery happens, because the strict resemblance of feelings and atmospheres between that world and the one we come from makes us feel deeply comforted, as we recognise that we are moving in a universe that does not deny, but, on the contrary, re-confirms ours. In other words, we have left our world to then re-discover it in a place that exists only in Tolkien’s – and then, in our – imagination. At this point, an intense sensation of joy explodes inside us, and that is Consolation. The result of all this is that we can newly appreciate the intense beauty of the colours, the perceptions and all the living things of the real world, as
We need (…) to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.
Tolkien’s works, in summary, can be looked at as a synthesis of a thousand years of human history and literature, as well as a possible tool for re-discovering the beauty of real life. In other words, they are the purest expression – better, the very archetype – of fantasy literature as a powerful means of study and analysis for realistic literature. Ultimately, this is the outcome of my way to look at comparative literature by taking Tolkien as a benchmark: considering fantasy not as a literary genre, but as an approach to life, in the very sense that I have specified above. The real difference, in this sense, is not that between fantasy and non-fantasy works, but only that between good and bad literature, the criterion for distinguishing them being the richness of human soul expressed by artistic means (i.e. by means of beauty and harmony). Works – of any genre – that respond to such requisites can be considered good literature, while the other ones can at most be considered commercial books, but not definitely pieces of art. This is why, to me, there are many more points in common between Tolkien and “authors of the real world” than between him and fantasy writers that have taken much or their inspiration from him, who have written even very interesting and involving stories, but have not created anything artistic.
Now I would like to quote some passages, from Tolkien and other authors, in order to demonstrate what I have been saying until now. I will not follow a rigid chronological order, in this selection of passages, as I prefer to choose the ones that I find more appropriate for what I’m saying. For instance, the following verses, from the Orlando Furioso(“Orlando Enraged”) by Ludovico Ariosto, emphasize an important difference between the typical taste for mind-wandering of the Italian Renaissance author, and the theme of fantastic travel that is coessential to The Lord of the Rings.
Here other river, lake, and rich champaign
Are seen, than those which are below descried;
Here other valley, other hill and plain,
With towns and cities of their own supplied;
Which mansions of such mighty size contain,
Such never he before or after spied.
Here spacious hold and lonely forest lay,
Where nymphs for ever chased the panting prey.
(Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso – Orlando Enraged – canto 34 – ottava 72 – HYPERLINK “http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Orlando/34-35can.html”http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Orlando/34-35can.html )
There is a sense of global breath in these verses, that describe the “World of the Moon”, where Astolfo has gone to recover the lost sense of Orlando. You can perceive a whole variety of possibilities, and the intimate desire of opting for them, instead of the real world (“other… than those which are below descried”). This is the human need for an escape into a parallel dimension, that Tolkien expresses so well in all his works. In them, there is a richness of details of natural and emotional life that make them a real palette of possibilities within a possible world. And its degree of credibility depends not only on its being so rich, but also on its intenseness. As I was saying above, the persuasiveness of Tolkien’s creations derives from the fact that in them there is not only the Escape, but also theRecovery and the Consolation. And this is something that adds to the creative material of the Orlando Furioso, poem in which we find the World of the Moon as well as pieces of real earth, and which therefore is constantly twisting between the two dimensions (real and fantatic), sort of mixing them in a wonderful sarabanda, but without the possibility, for the reader, to live a complete subcreative experience. The latter requires in fact the complete alterity of the fantastic dimension, and the absence of points of contact between it and the real world: only at this point a true Escape can happen, and Recovery and Consolation may follow, while in the Orlando furioso we do find a very intriguing mind-travel across reality and fantasy, but at most an attempt of Escape, yet not a complete subcreative experience, because of the lack of a deep Recovery and a Consolation. These, in Tolkien’s books, come precisely from the deep consonance between the natural atmospheres and the emotional states depicted in the non-existing dimension and those that we experience in the real world, in our life. This is why we feel so much protagonists of the adventures narrated.
Let us think, now, of the sense of man’s wonder in front of nature’s beauty, and the quiet compenetration between its energetic vibrations and those of someone that is surrounded by it. The Latin poet Virgil emphasizes this aspect very well in the first of his Eclogues:
Yet here, this night, you might repose with me,
on green leaves pillowed: apples ripe have I,
soft chestnuts, and of curdled milk enow.
And, see, the farm-roof chimneys smoke afar,
and from the hills the shadows lengthening fall!
(Virgil, Eclogues, I, 79-83 – ed. by Greenough, see HYPERLINK “http://www.perseus.tufts.edu”www.perseus.tufts.edu)
The quiet sensation of nature’s contemplation, the feeling of a day that ends in a glow of comfort and the implicit promise of rest and recovery of energies, which are all characteristics of these lines, came to my mind while I was reading the passage of The Lord of the Rings that describes the supper of Frodo and his companions in Maggot’s house:
Frodo now accepted the invitation gratefully, to the relief of Pippin and Sam. The sun was already behind the western hills, and the light was failing. Two of Maggot’s sons and his three daughters came in, and a generous supper was laid on the large table. The kitchen was lit with candles and the fire was mended. Mrs. Maggot bustled in and out. One or two other hobbits belonging to the farm-household came in. In a short while fourteen sat down to eat. There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare. The dogs lay by the fire and gnawed rinds and cracked bones.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ed. Harper Collins, p.93)
Many will read in this passage from Tolkien’s most famous book a mere assonance with Virgil’s verses, but I believe that, if this is just an exterior similarity of situations, first of all it is not such by chance – I am sure Tolkien had read Virgil’s Eclogues –, but, most relevantly, it means something. And this has deeply to do with the musicality of the language, which is something that goes beyond (and across) different literary genres, different times, languages and cultures, because it is firmly attached to the classical measure of art. The sense of proportions, the rhythm of the words, the careful selection of verbs and adjectives, are characteristics that emerge both from Virgil’s and from Tolkien’s lines. This does not equal to saying that Tolkien has “copied” from Virgil, of course, but it does mean that he has learnt his sense of proportions, his delicate manner to approach nature and to reproduce its harmony in the harmony of his creation. And there’s also the sense of a quiet manner to live life, which describes a sort of invisible bridge between the bucolic picture of life in the Italian countryside of the first century b.C. and the scene of the Hobbits’ supper in Maggot’s house, in the imaginary time and place of the Shire. In other words, two great writers (and poets) have both been able – by different approaches – to describe a situation that is deeply imbued with life in two very dissimilar – though profoundly consonant – contexts. Both of them, moreover, have been able to make us readers feel part of those situations, desiring ourselves to go through that sensation of comfort and relax, and almost longing for the taste of that savoury food. This means that both their creations exert a subcreative action towards the readers, despite being one (Virgil’s) related to the real world, and the other (Tolkien’s) to an imaginary one. The mere circumstance of their being so different does not change the fact that we are kind of pushed inside the authors’ lines, as if their pictures suddenly became 3-dimensional, and we could perceive their intimate truth. What should we deduce, then? That also Virgil’s Eclogues are “fantasy literature”? Not definitely, at least until we consider fantasy as a literary genre. The truth is, in my own view, that the word fantasy, when referred to literary works of imagination, has three possible meanings:
the author’s ability to reproduce life, in a way that does not strictly correspond to reality (in the sense that it does not just reproduce it photographically), but which anyway re-constructs it so as to follow its lines and resemble it, with the consequence that the reader feels there, until the reading lasts (this can be said of Virgil, with reference to the above mentioned verses, but not of Ariosto, because, as already said, he mixes reality and imaginary worlds).
the specific ability of the fantasy writer, of which Tolkien is the modern archetype, that is triggering the subcreative effect of Escape, Recovery and Consolation by creating a parallel dimension that is intimately coherent and fully credible.
more generally (and subtly), the approach to life of any (realistic or fantasy) writer who is able to catch nature’s secret energy, the very one that can be detected just by looking at its sceneries with a less than superficial eye, and can also be noticed in the purest art works, when we are able to consider them not just – and not eminently – as a sum of techniques and philological derivations, but most of all as contributions to the enrichment of the human soul. Art, in fact, is ultimately emotion constructed into a coherent and beautiful work. Beauty is the key-word. After all, it was Tolkien himself who, in his lesson Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, used the wonderful metaphor of the tower, from whose top “the man had been able to look out upon the sea”, in order to explain how a too analytical approach to a literary work implied the risk of losing the sense of its beauty. This, in fact, is the very core of the harmony and the musicality that can be found in all good literature, both realistic and fantastic. Therefore, the boundary between these two “realms” proves to be pointless, as far as the energy that comes from nature, and that expresses itself in realistic literature, is exactly the same that speaks through fantastic literature. This is why – as I will ultimately illustrate better –, in numerous “writers of the real world”, and especially of our time, it is possible to locate various moments that are very similar to the atmospheres of Tolkien’s books. In these cases, we can say that we are in front of a “new fantasy”, although not for the sceneries (that belong with our world), but for the subcreative effect they can trigger.
I believe that these three values of fantasy are all present in Tolkien’s works, mainly in The Lord of the Rings, as well as in the highest moments of universal literature. In these, we can see the pure and neat expressions of man’s soul reproduced within the heart of nature. I am thinking of another moment of natural enchantment, which in this case proves to be the ideal shrine for a feeling of desperate and powerless love. In the Greek lyrist Sappho we read:
she often turned to you in her thought,
and thought of you as a divine creature
and was mostly happy with your songs.
Now she’s like a flower among the Lydian women,
like the rose-fingered moon, sometimes, at sunset,
above all starts, pours
its light equally over the salty sea
and the planes rich of flowers;
and the sweet dew comes down, blossom
the roses, the soft chervils and
and the green shamrocks;
and long wandering in the remembrance of
beloved Atthis, she is devoured by the desire
to return, in her sensitive soul;
and, like guessing her thoughts, the night, that
all perceives, sends us, through the sea,
her wish for you to join her;
it’s not easy, for us, to find one
like her, for the grace of her figure,
among the goddesses.
(Saffo, fr. 98D; trad. Giovanni Agnoloni)
I can’t help, at this point, thinking of the nostalgic words woven into the verses that Legolas songs in remembrance of Nimrodel, when the Fellowship of the Ring reaches the stream that bears the same name:
An Elven-maid there was of old,
A shining star by day:
Her mantle white was hemmed with gold,
Her shoes of silver-grey.
A star was bound upon her brows,
A light was on her hair
As sun upon the golden boughs
In Lórien the fair.
Her hair was long, her limbs were white,
And fair she was and free;
And in the wind she went as light
As leaf of linden-tree.
Beside the falls of Nimrodel,
By the water clear and cool,
Her voice as falling silver fell
Into the shining pool.
Where now she wanders none can tell,
In sunlight or in shade;
For lost of yore was Nimrodel
And in the mountains strayed.
The elven-ship in haven grey
Beneath the mountain-lee
Awaited her for many a day
Beside the roaring see. (…)
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ed. Harper Collins, p.330-331)
Here we face a feeling of loss and of desperate nostalgia for a luminous figure of the past that is lost. It is not only love, or passion, but a more complete state of mind, including affection, beauty and a sense of impossibility to recover a dimension of harmony and perfection that time flow has made pass away irremediably. What, if any, is thetrait d’union between Sappho’s lyric and this Elven song? What, in other words, is the link between the moment of solipsistic contemplation of the ghost of an unreachable love, expressed by a Greek poetess who lived between the 7th and the 6th century b.C. on the Isle of Lesbos, and the remembrance of a past belonging to a far-away sphere of memory, as it is true of Legolas, and so of Tolkien, fantasy writer of the Europe of the 20th century a.C.? Maybe the fact that Tolkien has most probably read and pondered Sappho’s verses, so as to make us think of her, when he pictures Nimrodel as a wonderful creature, shining in the sun, admirable in her figure and in her dress, as if she were a divine creature – the same that Atthis appears to her beloved, in Sappho’s lyric –? No, the very point on which I base my approach to comparative literature is the intimate affinity of feelings and atmospheres that one can detect in both the poetic creations. In fact, both the poems show a sense of rhythm – independent from any metrical observation – and a sense of reciprocal integration between the point of view (or I should say: “of perception”) of the reciting voice and the surrounding nature, which is the fruit of a meditated approach to life. I use the word “meditation”, here, in a trans-cultural sense, which has not strictly to do with the oriental philosophies, or however with the western monastic tradition, but simply as a pregnant synonym of “awareness”. Both Sappho and Tolkien were, in the extremely different historical, geographical and cultural contexts in which they created their verses, deeply aware of the profound interconnection between the feelings their poetry was imbued with and a cosmic intuition of the nature which surrounded them. We can’t think of the desperate passion sung by Sappho without considering the “night”, that – “like guessing her thoughts” – “sends us, through the sea, / her wish for you to join her”. The dark gulf of the night, expanding like a cosmic embrace over the Mediterranean Sea, becomes, in this way, a sort of energetic courier of messages that only sensitive ears can detect. And, likewise, in Tolkien we perceive such sense of distance, a kind of invisible but powerless force of attraction in the sense of useless awaiting that is clear in the image of the elven ship, “in haven grey, (…) beside the roaring see”, presence that calls for the Elves’ attention, as their destiny is not in Middle Earth, but in the West.
It is also possible to find other themes, related to man’s emotional life, which have been depicted in remarkably consonant manners by other great masters of universal literature. I am thinking for instance of Dante Alighieri, in whose Divine Comedy, and especially in the Inferno, we can find an outstanding power of synthesis in offering instant views of terror and anguish, even through the sequence and rhythm of the words. Let’s remember the frightening announcement that is written at the entrance of Hell.
Through me you pass into the city of woe,
Through me you pass into the eternal pain,
Through me among the people lost for aye.
(Dante Alighieri, Inferno, III, 1-3; transl. By H.F. Cary – HYPERLINK “http://www.divinecomedy.org/divine_comedy.html” http://www.divinecomedy.org/divine_comedy.html )
I can feel a deep consonance between the obsessing music of these verses and that of the words carved on the Ring:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ed. Harper Collins, p.248)
The sense of irreparable doom that is impressed in this sentence is of the same sort of that which was expressed by the Hell’s door warning. One might argue about the difference between the Christian vision Dante’s creation is imbued with (which attaches directly to the conception of afterlife implied by the Medieval philosophy) and that which inspires – but does not directly appear in – The Lord of the Rings. Surely, the two reference contexts are different, but the fact that the two threats of evil are so similar to each other, even in the obsessive rhythm that characterizes them, is the direct consequence of the fact that both the authors have had very clear in mind the fundamental contraposition between Good and Evil. Dante, in his peregrination through the realms of afterlife, has expressed the basic contrast between Light and Darkness in a poetic form: in this context, he has depicted fear as a central component of man’s approach to the discovery of the gloomiest part of his soul, inevitable step to commence a walk of redemption. Tolkien, on his hand, has represented the eternal fight between Good and Evil in the context of a travel whose goal is that of destroying the source of the potentially devastating power of the lord of Evil over the free lands of Middle Earth. In such experience, so much of fear is involved. But fear of what? Not only of dying, because this is a risk that all the characters deliberately take, and that courage makes them bravely aware of; more precisely, this is the radical fear of the end of liberty, of the complete oppression of a lord whose aim is just to destroy and submit, with no exception. And, in other forms, also the poet Dante, traveller of the afterlife worlds, in the hell is afraid of the terrible power that the demons have, which can be rightfully compared to that of Sauron. In other words, Dante is trying to free his soul from the stain of evil and the temptation of sin by means of a path of repentance and redemption, and fights the fear that all this implies with the certainty of faith. Frodo and the other characters of The Lord of the Rings attempt to save their lands from the threat of the lord of Evil, so facing multiple fears with multiple acts of courage, inspired by the awareness that there’s no alternative. Dante can’t help entering that door, fear is his companion and faith his hope. Frodo can’t avoid going to Mordor, fear is always upon him, but necessity pushes him on. And the same is true also of Sam, who lives a terrible moment of indecision when, after defeating Shelob, he realizes to be alone, as he thinks that Frodo is dead, but nevertheless knows he has to go ahead.
When at last blackness passed, Sam looked up and shadows were about him; but for how many minutes or hours the world had gone dragging on he could not tell. He was still in the same place, and still his master lay beside him dead. The mountains had not crumbled nor the earth fallen into ruin.
“What shall I do, what shall I do?” he said. “Did I come all this way with him for nothing?” And then he remembered his own voice speaking words that at the time he did not understand himself, at the beginning of their journey: I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ed. Harper Collins, p. 714)
Here the mechanism of fear as a trigger for courage is very clear. Fear derives from the idea that all is finished, and there is no remedy at all (the “blackness” and the “shadows” with which the passage opens). The very sense of time is suspended, as the devastating feeling of loss and solitude has erased everything else. It is the radical despair beyond which one can see nothing. Still, from the question that comes spontaneously out of this situation (“What shall I do?”) stems an interior voice that originates from the past, from a decision long taken, by Frodo and also by him, his loyal servant as well as his friend: to go until very end, to pierce that curtain of terror in order to reach the goal accepted from the very beginning. This is a behaviour that has relevant assonances with that of the epic hero, who responds to ethical principles that imply the constant risk of dying in battle in order to reach the doxa (consideration in the opinion of the others), the èpainos (the praise of his community) and the mneme (the eternal memory of his people, after his glorious death), and so also follows a path that has been traced by someone else, but intimately accepted, and because of this is able to get over even the hardest moments of affliction and fear. The stereotype of the Greek hero, in the Iliad, the Achaean Achilles, does not show this human side, but the Trojan champion Hector does reveal it, when the moment of the decisive duel with Achilles comes:
What, again, if were to lay down my
shield and helmet, lean my spear against the wall and go straight up
to noble Achilles? What if I were to promise to give up Helen, who was
the fountainhead of all this war, and all the treasure that Alexandrus
brought with him in his ships to Troy, aye, and to let the Achaeans
divide the half of everything that the city contains among themselves?
I might make the Trojans, by the mouths of their princes, take a
solemn oath that they would hide nothing, but would divide into two
shares all that is within the city- but why argue with myself in
(Homer, Iliad, XXII, 111-122; trad. Samuel Butler, see HYPERLINK “http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~joelja/iliad.html#b23” http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~joelja/iliad.html#b23 -)
It is evident how Hector formulates all these interior questions without really meaning them. Fear dictates the words that take shape in his mind, and the only thing he can consider, at this moment, is a possible way out of the terrible dark corner in which he sees himself confined by his role and his duty as the strongest among the Trojans. His powerless attempts to find an escape seem to echo the tone of the desperate words of Sam, when he asked himself: “What shall I do?”, but then, and with the same promptness, there comes out a positive solution, although desperate and likely to bring forth death as a consequence: going on, despite everything. Hector, in fact, comes to a point where his sense prevails over his irrational part, and so he says: “why argue with myself in this way?” This is the moment in which the awareness of his own condition of a hero returns alive, and he cannot help joining his way, so solving the dramatic doubt that had threatened to squash him down. We could argue that neither he nor Sam, in their respective dramas, are really free, because none of them really wants what he is called to do, but this is not the point. Free will is involved as much as the outside situation permits it, because the opposed forces are much bigger than the personal wishes of a single individual. Free will, in the context of a war, or anyway of a desperate mission, is that but tiny thread which makes it possible, for the character involved, to accept his own route despite the absurdity of its terribleness.
I’ve here tried to give some quick flashes of my personal comparative literature approach (much more developed, besides, in my first essay and more recent works). To many, it will appear empirical, because not based on philological reasoning or on the consideration of the influence that one author may have had on another; in truth, it has a different premise. This is to consider the literary creations of different times and cultures not only as the expression of their worlds of provenience – which is also important, as it permits to see their specific characteristics –, but also (if not mainly) as bricks of an almost invisible and still undeniable path: that of man through history. Man has actually changed and evolved so relevantly, though the centuries, but we can’t deny that we are often surprised at seeing how many points in common we still have with the behaviours of those who lived almost three thousand years ago. I believe this is not just an anthropologic phenomenon, in other words the sign that we derive from those men and women, as we are all part of the western culture: it is something subtler, that has more strictly to do with the energetic side of the human nature. Feelings, emotions and behaviours, both positive and negative, can in fact be divided into various categories, and somehow laid down into a patchwork of types, which cannot erase the factor of unpredictability of the human nature, and the originality of every individual, but are anyway present in all men, today like in the past. This is the lesson of Dr. Edward Bach, British physician that lived between the 19th and the 20thcentury – he had been born near Birmingham, besides (3) -, and developed, by means of natural research and of his personal sensitivity, a fundamental branch of holistic medicine: that of flower therapy. Each of the remedies that he discovered responded to a specific side of the human nature, and each of them could heal a specific disharmony of the energetic sphere of a person – and, therefore, of his or her character –. Men and women are not only flesh and blood, but also energy, like everything else in nature: mass and energy, as Albert Einstein has taught us, continuously transform into one another, and the dimension of energy is present in our lives through the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and everything else we do or are done. Energy is our way to interact with the world we live in, therefore with nature. Well, my assumption is that art in general, and more specifically literature, is one of the manifestations of such energy: more precisely, it is the beauty which art conveys, which can urge certain aspects of the human soul, soothing its sorrows and offering a leaning point to every suffering soul. In this sense, not very differently from what happens with the Bach Flowers, literature can work as a healing remedy: in other words, it exerts a therapeutic action. In this sense, comparative literature, dealt with in an aesthetical-emotional way, can give a very important contribution. In fact, comparing passages of authors from different times and cultures, but with relevant emotional elements of similarity – despite the differences that it is always necessary to underline –, can lead us to emphasizes different flavours of the same human behaviour, different shades of meaning, and so to create a sort of “map of the human soul”, in which the different lands are the human feelings, and the seas and the oceans are the never-ending flow of history. Comparing authors who have expressed similar feelings in even completely different contexts means to go deeper into the human nature, and perhaps to suggest a way to give comfort to whoever lives a feeling like the one that is the subject matter of the quoted passages.
Tolkien, as I said before, offers an important benchmark in this type of operation, as his creation, taken as a whole, seems to stem from a dark – which only means: potentially luminous – point of his soul – the cave of his interior light, I would say – in order to then expand into an entire universe of lands, characters and feelings. These appear as the natural blossom of such interior light, and however the projection of his mind into a journey that, the day he wrote the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit”, he still didn’t have a definite idea about. The final result of this wonderful creative adventure was a fully coherent world, with its geography and its cosmic history, but most of all with the capacity to catch the readers’ attention to such a degree as to draw them into that parallel dimension, making them feel part of it and then releasing them, freshly renewed and ready to rediscover the real world. The very reason of all this was precisely the fact that every piece of Middle Earth is, I dare to say, the solidification of a human state of mind. This does not mean it is an allegory, as Tolkien was an enemy of allegory, but maybe it is a natural allegory, i.e. the way to show how every part of nature can convey feelings and emotions that plunge deeply into the human soul, where they can touch and make return to life forgotten aspects, sources of energy, passageways we had long neglected, whose contribution to our happiness can be very relevant. They are symbols, in this sense, but symbols that primarily work on the grounds of natural perception, and only secondarily on the level on an intellectual reflection. Yes, because one of the fundamental messages that come from the reading of Tolkien’s works is that man is not only made of brain, but of a whole consisting of mind, body and energy that is important in all its parts. The very demonstration of this is Middle Earth, considered for a moment as a creative halo, a whole creation with its internal coherence, in which all parts play a role that will be important, if not fundamental, for the final outcome. Otherwise, why would the War of the Ring have been finally won thanks to a small and apparently powerless creature like a Hobbit?
Middle Earth, so, proves to be a sort of hidden dimension of our world, with which it has subtle but very strong tidings, consisting of threads of energy, each of which is connected to a specific side of the human nature. I would like to conclude my reflection by quoting a couple of passages by contemporary writers who have been able to produce aesthetical and perceptive effects upon the readers, which are in truth similar to those deriving from the reading of Tolkien. I am thinking for instance of the German author Hermann Hesse, or of the Colombian – also, a Nobel Prize winner – Gabriel García Márquez. Hesse, in his well known novel Narcissus and Goldmund, writes something that is deeply consonant with the very purpose of fantasy literature, for Tolkien. He actually says:
In such a dreamlike world Goldmund lived more than in reality. The real world (…) was but a surface, a thin membrane trembling above the transcendent world of images and dreams. Anything would have sufficed to pierce such a subtle diaphragm: a mysterious note in the sound of a Greek word in the middle of a boring class, a wave of scent from the knapsack in which father Anselm collected herbs for his botanic studies, the view of a stony spray sprouting from the capital of the column of an arched window… such tiny spurs were sufficient to perforate the membrane of reality and stir up, behind its placid aridity, the tumult of abysses, floods and milky ways that agitated that imaginary world of the soul.
(Hermann Hesse, Narciso e Boccadoro (Italian title for Narcissus and Goldmund), ed. Oscar Mondadori, 1989, p.56. Translation by Giovanni Agnoloni – hereinafter, G. A. -)
Here we see very well how every part of the real world can trigger the intuition of natural secrets that lay just behind the curtain of appearance: the very one that good fantasy literature – and, I should say, every piece of good literature – helps to look through. The beyond that is immediately after that curtain is somehow made present, here and now, by the evoking power of the author’s words. Thus, we can’t say anymore if we find ourselves in the true dimension or in an imaginary one, because the only thing that counts is the extreme degree of credibility – or should I say: of truth – of our perceptions. This is, no more, no less, secondary creation, independently from the fact that it happens in the real world or in an imaginary, but profoundly realistic one, like Middle Earth. Hesse, in this passage, seems to have taken a picture of a fragment of a “Middle Earth of our world”, so ideally responding to one of the most important teachings of Tolkien, who, in the essay On Fairy Stories (4), wrote:
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.
The purpose of fantasy literature, therefore, is precisely this. In truth, today it proves to be shared also by that part of realistic literature in which we can more evidently feel the sense of an immersion into the natural dimension of energy as a medium to catch the most delicate and soothing essences of life, for the human soul, as the previous quotation from Hermann Hesse showed. After all, also in Tolkien’s opinion the ultimate goal had to be that ofreturning to the real world, refreshed and renewed, and with the recovered capacity to grasp the beauty of the things that surround us. There is always space for a natural miracle, as long as our eyes are not blurred by boredom or spiritual tiredness.
This is also the sense of the apparently absurd discovery of a Spanish galleon in the heart of the equatorial jungle, in the masterwork of Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude:
The earth became soft and wet, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation grew constantly more insidious and the birds’ trill and the monkeys’ screeches got farther and farther, and the world turned sad forever. The men of the expedition felt oppressed by the silence, anterior to the original sin, where their boots sank in ponds of smoking oils and their machetes cut in pieces bleeding lilies and golden salamanders. For a week, almost without speaking, they worked their way like somnambulists through a universe of affliction, weakly lit up by the tenuous reflection of luminous insects and with their lungs oppressed by a suffocating blood odour. They could not return, because the path that they were opening while walking closed again in little time, with new vegetation that they saw growing almost with their eyes. «It doesn’t matter », said José Arcadio Buendía. «The essential thing is to not get lost». Always relying on his compass, he kept leading his men towards the invisible North, until they finally got out of the enchanted region. It was a deep night, without stars, but darkness was imbued with a new and clean air. Exhausted for the long crossing, they hung their hammocks and slept deeply for the first time after two weeks. When they woke up, with the sun already high, they got stupefied. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palms, white and dusty in the silent morning light, there was a huge Spanish galleon. Slightly inclined on starboard, from its intact masting hung down the squalid rags of the sailage, among shrouds adorned with orchids. The hull, covered by a neat body of petrified remora, and of soft musk, was securely bolted in a ground of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy an ambit of its own, a space of solitude and oblivion, forbidden to the vices of time and to the habits of birds. In the inside, that the expedition explored with cautious fervour, there was nothing but a thick layer of flowers.
(Gabriel García Márquez, Cent’anni di solitudine, ed. Mondadori – Italian edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude – , 1982, pagg.12-13. Translation by G. A.)
This is the ultimate sense of such long peregrination along the thickest nature’s meanders: finding something completely unexpected, and apparently so much lacking sense, as a galleon in the heart of a solid land, filled with flowers, but most of all occupying “an ambit of its own, a space of solitude and oblivion”. It is a sort of natural parenthesis, which cannot be affected by time or weather, by men or nature, as it has its own consistency and dignity, and extreme coherence despite its diversity from the context it is part of. But can’t the same be said of that secret of nature that is enshrined in the Middle Earth invented by Tolkien? Isn’t his creation like a Spanish galleon in the middle of the jungle of modernity, an at least potential point of reference for all the sensitive souls that are daily hurt by vulgarity, violence and the subversion of values that the contemporary world almost imposes on us all? And isn’t it also a milestone for those who do not accept the mind-homologation that the mass-market and the negative side of globalisation too often result in? Therefore, reading his books, and comparing them to the sort of “echoing voices” that are protagonists of nowadays’ literature – as well as of that from the past – can become a way to rediscover the natural essences that are at the roots of the values that we need to revive. In fact, there can’t be any recovery of the deepest part of the world we live in, and of our ability to be mind-independent, if we don’t first recover the beauty of the superficial contact with nature. This is the sense of an intense character of Tolkien’s, Treebeard, able to meditate over life’s mysteries as well as to enjoy the refreshing power of the surface of life, as where we read
One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, ed. Harper Collins, p. 452).
What has just been said is also true of the quoted passages of Hermann Hesse and Gabriel García Márquez, because they have proposed imaginative itineraries along the paths of the real world, aimed at discovering simple but most deep secrets, which lay just beyond the – often thick – curtain of appearance. And this is ultimately the sense of all Tolkien’s literary production, which a newly founded comparative literature approach can today help us perceive as part of the wider world of “good literature”, but most of all of our every-day life.
– J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins
– J.R.R. Tolkien: Lo Hobbit, HarperCollins
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, HarperCollins
– J.R.R. Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, Paperback ed.
– J.R.R. Tolkien: Tree and Leaf, Paperback ed.
– J.R.R. Tolkien: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Paperback ed.
– R. Helms: Myth, Magic and Meaning in Tolkien’s World, Panther ed.
– Homer: Iliad
– Virgil: Eclogues
– D. Alighieri:La Divina Commedia – Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso
– H. Hesse: Narciso e Boccadoro, ed. Mondadori (Narcissus and Goldmund)
– G. G. Márquez: Cent’anni di solitudine, ed. Mondadori (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
– I. Biondi: Grasce et Latine, ed. Spazio Tre
– G. Agnoloni: Letteratura del fantastico, ed. Spazio Tre
– G. Colli: La nascita della filosofia, Adelphi.
– D. Del Corno: Antologia della Letteratura Greca, Principato.
– D. Del Corno: Letteratura Greca, Principato.
– G. Rosati: Scrittori di Grecia (antologia commentata), Sansoni per la Scuola.
– G.B.Conte, E.Pianezzola: Storia e testi della letteratura latina (antologia commentata), Le Monnier.
– M. Pazzaglia: Letteratura Italiana, Zanichelli.
– M. Scheffer: Il grande libro dei fiori di Bach, ed, Corbaccio.
– R. Orozco, Fiori di Bach – Analisi comparata delle essenze – Ed. Centro di Benessere Psicofisico
(1) Giovanni Agnoloni, Letteratura del fantastico – I giardini di Lorien, Spazio Tre, 2004.
(2) J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf¸ George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1964.
(3) More precisely, in Moseley, one of Tolkien’s childhood places, which makes us think that the atmosphere of such environment has something special, as it has probably triggered both the writer’s first dive into the parallel dimension of imagination and the physician’s sensitivity to nature and its healing paths.
(4) See foootnote 2.