Tolkien: Enchanting the Mind with Truth

Tolkien's fairy tales, far from being fit only for children, are an intellectual gold mine.


Including J.R.R. Tolkien on a list of the greatest authors of the twentieth century might surprise some. Tolkien is widely known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which codified modern fantasy fiction, often considered the province of children and young adults. But though The Hobbit began as a playful story for his children, Tolkien did not write his serious fiction for children, but for adults, especially adults like himself. As he put it, “The prime motive was the desire of a taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving …”


And Tolkien was no child. A highly learned man, he began his career producing entries for the Oxford English Dictionary, and ended it as a respected Oxford professor of English Language and Literature. Tolkien was a lover of great literature, most of which he read in its original languages. He particularly loved mythology, especially that of the Norse gods, and the great body of Germanic and English fairy tales. He had a passion for languages themselves: their sounds, powers of expression, and intricate histories. He loved the wild natural world, from mountain passes to quiet woods and glens; at the same time, he had a deep and abiding affection for his home: the English countryside and the farmers and villagers who dwelt there, simple food and beer, conversations with close friends, and making smoke rings. Above all, he loved his Catholic faith.


Tolkien’s loves impelled him to create. He no doubt felt what he put in the mouth of one of his Elves: “We put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.” He created languages and worlds and characters and histories permeated by his loves, in which he could unlock their power to enchant. But to enchant learned, serious adults, the mind as well as the heart must be satisfied. In his extended essay On Fairy-stories, he explained, “The story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.”

Written by Michael Van Hecke and Dr. Andrew Seeley.

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