M.J. Downing: Influences #6. Finding a New Home in Middle Earth.

When we grow to love something or someone with all our heart, we face great peril. When loving a person, we face the risk of not being loved in return or perhaps loved in a way with which we cannot live. Love can disappear or be taken away from us. Tragedies are made of such stuff, and while they are good for reading, they make life hard. But love is like that, as much mystery as reality, more guesswork than knowing. However, in Middle Earth, Tolkien gave me something to love that ever embraces me and cannot be taken away. Even if I am called a dreamer because of it, I will take that label willingly in the case of Middle Earth, which, to me, is damned near miraculous. The stories that give it life form the richest gift that Tolkien offered the world, for he opened himself up, gave it his heart’s blood and all the treasures of his capacious learning, his ardent faith, and stellar imagination. So, for me, Middle Earth is nothing short of a miracle, wrought by a man of great faith out of love.
Curiously enough, though, when I first heard of Peter Jackson’s efforts to put The Lord of the Rings on film, I remember saying to Mike Brewer, “They can’t! They must not! I have to find a way to stop them, because IT IS MINE.”
Michael, gentle heart that he is, smiled and said, “Well, so say we all, don’t you think?”
“Look,” I said, “I know that you think you are right, that it’s your’s too—or anyone’s who loves the books, but you are all wrong, terribly wrong. It’s mine. It belongs to me. Mine.”
And, to his credit, Mike saw immediately what I was talking about, maybe even saw how much I needed Middle Earth. All things Tolkien draw me, moth-like to its flame, and it all started with my first exposure to Middle Earth, which, as the photo above indicates, was in the early 1970s.
Of course, it is the most thorough created landscape of any fiction, with its own mythology, language, and culture. Yes, it borrows heavily on Western history and culture, but Tolkien made it over in his own image, and it made sense to me in my very first reading. I fell in love with it because it embodies the themes that Tolkien placed into his stories about its people and ‘history.’ “Hope” and “Sacrifice,” I would name them, and I am in disagreement with others about that, I know. Though I respect the writing ability of George R.R. Martin, that gentleman gets the themes completely wrong. The Lord of the Rings is, in a very limited way about “War” and “Proper Governance,” perhaps, but looking at Middle Earth from the perspective of those themes make it a brutal place, as is evidenced by the work Mr. Martin has produced. Looking at it that way, I think, is like wanting a souvenir One Ring. That just has sorrow written all over it, and while there is sorrow in Middle Earth, there is a great deal more hope.
Middle Earth is a magical landscape, but as Sam Gamgee explains it, this magic is deep down, in the bones of the place, not in acts of power. Indeed, Middle Earth faces a source of doom within the stories based on the need to use the magic of that world as a way to dominate. Sauron isn’t the worst of the evils in that world, but he is certainly evidence of the corruption that comes with looking at the magic of the creation as a source of power.
For me, its magic and the reason that I love it so, resides in its incompleteness, not its completeness. Tolkien’s world can exist side by side with the world into which I was born because, there, the mystical lives in the physical. Eternity resides within the temporality of Middle Earth. Its stories begin and end, its characters live and die in their struggles with the powers of evil, but its heaven is only hidden from physical sight. In essence, the powers that preserve are always present, even if the work that must be done is done with frail hands of flesh and bone, with hearts that are flawed, even if faithful.
It’s true, I think, that in every experience of struggle or wonder—even the mundane getting through the daily grind—Middle Earth offers itself to me as another way of seeing the world I inhabit. It is sometimes sublime, as in Middle Earth’s power to invoke imagery. I listened to Smetena’s “The Moldau,” a piece of classical music about a river in Smetana’s homeland, and for me, I see the Anduin as I imagine it, with our heroes paddling toward their shared destinies. A comfortable inn or roadside coffee shop becomes, in part, the Green Dragon in Bywater, especially if I share it with friends. In short, Middle Earth comes with me wherever I go and helps me see the wonders of the world I inhabit. And all of this comes about because it is unfinished, open-ended, as Tolkien created it and offered it to me—and I suppose others, too, though as Mike knows, I do that grudgingly.
Of all the literary influences that I can name, Tolkien is my strongest, best, because what he offered to me started with that landscape in which Hope and Sacrifice are embodied, fleshed out, made available to me so that I can let them live in me. Someone once told me that Love is, at best, the ability of one person to extend himself-herself for the spiritual welfare of another, and I think this is true. People can make of Middle Earth what they will, I know, and some of that will always be as dark as we are in our sorrows and disappointment, fears and resentments, but when we allow it to, Tolkien’s creation of that landscape is his first gift to us, the reason he penned some of his first stories amidst his struggles to deal with the horror of the Battle of the Somme. His letters show that he imagined other artists working in that landscape, which, or course, copyright and economic gain have removed from our hands—but not from our hearts. I know that the world will not read my plots about other characters from Middle Earth, unless I share them one on one. That day may come, but for now, I think that I do not dare to share them for fear of doing an injustice to something about which I care deeply.
From this point, I will share more of my insights about Middle Earth, its denizens and creator, and I will take up next the necessity of one of his ancillary characters, Tom Bombadil, hoping that what I share will help others see and touch upon the power and worth of Tolkien’s gift to the world. Yes, I still think of it as mine, but I am in the business of sharing stories with the world. I can only hope to impart something of the wonder of this influence and the joy that I receive from it.
Next up, “The Necessity of Bombadil.”

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