Tolkien and 'Final Participation'


According to Owen Barfield, close friend of C. S. Lewis and a member of the Inklings group, as well as being an influence upon Tolkien, the human consciousness was progressing from one based upon an external and unknowable underlying reality, which our senses and unconscious minds organised for us into the world that we perceived and knew, through a stage where these organised elements (or ‘collective representations’ as Barfield called them) were separated out from us through what we call scientific method, eventually arriving, he hoped, at a condition in which the individual human imagination would re-create the world in harmony with the underlying reality - or not, as Barfield pointed out. This ‘final participation’, he hoped, would be the culmination of a long process and would result in a kind of Paradise.

Whether or not Barfield is correct, we can picture this evolution more simply perhaps if we imagine it as a child, growing from an innocent phase of unhindered participation with his or her world - that state of intimacy we know as ‘play’ in children, in which inanimate objects are not quite inanimate - through an adolescent ‘separating out’, into an adult world whereby things are merely 'things', devoid of any quality but a utilitarian function. With some guidance or luck or providence, this adult can then learn to see the world imaginatively again, this time re-uniting it with a deeper reality in a way which is meaningful and lasting.

And we can focus in on this with even more clarity, possibly, if we look at the mental progression of an artist. Because this pattern is what Tolkien went through, emerging from a childhood where he had his fair share or loss and separation - losing both parents at a young age - into a terrible war before he was fully mature. His experiences at the Battle of the Somme and in the First World War generally, summarised in greater detail elsewhere, must surely have served as a divisive onslaught upon whatever sense of unity or innocence he still retained at that age. It was in the trenches of the Western Front that Tolkien, who had of course yet to meet Barfield or Lewis or put together any of his later work, began to pen poems and snippets of fiction based around the invented languages he had been working on since he was a child.

Though the origins of Middle-earth could be said in one sense to lie in his need to find a world in which his made-up words could live, in another sense Tolkien’s sub-creation was his own effort at re-imagining reality, seeking to find a way in which he could not simply ‘make sense’ of what he saw happening around him during the war, but regain a connection with the more innocent, ‘original participation’ (Barfield’s phrase) he had had snatched away from him as a child. He managed this in two broad ways: guided by the ideas of philology, that languages evolved in specific ways through time, he placed his sub-created reality in the distant past, a zone so far removed from anything that was historically ‘known’ that he had room to play with words and even to plant suggestions as to how certain words or ideas evolved.

The second way, emerging from the first, was to locate peoples, events and places in a landscape resembling that of the so-called ‘real world’, but again so removed from it that there would be scope for imaginative sanctity. This would be a world that still retained its sense of ‘original participation’ and was visibly and tangibly blessed. Only much later, Tolkien theorised as he put it all together, would come the ‘Dominion of Men’ in which things would gradually lose their holiness, become corrupt, and decline into the world that he was surrounded with.

We notice then, in Tolkien’s works, a blend of very real geographies and topographies with an increasingly remote but still very present sacred landscape: the hills and fields of Middle-earth are very much like our own, but on the edge of sight are tall white towers built by Elves, looking towards the distant Sea, across which some can still escape to a land totally untouched by corruption and separation. Using Barfield’s scheme of things, Valinor was truly the Blessed Land, in which the underlying spiritual reality shone through ordinary things and was shared by everyone; Sauron’s Mordor is the beginning of the mechanical age in which things have lost all beauty and holiness and are reduced to a purely functionary existence. Tolkien saw this process, the ravagings of the Industrial Revolution as it picked up pace in wartime, overtaking even the faint vestiges that were left of the innocent beauty of the past. Between Valinor and Mordor was ‘Middle’-earth, a place in which innocence and the largely unconscious participation in the blessedness of things were challenged in various ways by the encroaching dysfunction between what a thing 'was' and its wider meaning.

This was philology writ large: words had once possessed a real, spiritual unity and power, according to Barfield and observed by Tolkien. Over the ages, their meanings had been teased out, separated into strands and eventually trimmed so that the word ‘spirit’ (to use Barfield’s famous example) had once meant ‘breath’ and the immortal part of a person and much else besides, but was now reduced to just one, precise, dictionary-defined meaning with the others cast off as historical trivia. Language had shed its own inner power and was in the process of continuing to shrink into itself, as Tolkien must have seen as a specialist in the area. The task of someone who wanted to do more than simply research and record this process was to try in some way to reverse it: to either re-unite words with their original holy wonder, like a poet, or to create a new language which had never lost its soul.

In the end, working late into the night in his cold garage office, Tolkien journeyed down the second road, bringing into being not just one language but several, interlinking them and giving them a context. A language which was still ‘at one with itself’ could only be spoken or written in a world in which the same principle applied. At first, struggling with many inconsistencies which had arisen over time, this construction was a slow and arduous affair and was always a very private one: hardly anyone caught a glimpse of what was being forged in that small garage in an Oxford suburb. But the power and momentum of it spilled over into his tales to his own children in the 1930s, around which congealed the story of The Hobbit. As Tolkien said, in creating Middle-earth

the story was drawn irresistibly towards the older world, and became an account, as it were, of its end and passing away before its beginning and middle had been told. The process had begun in the writing of The Hobbit, in which there were already some references to the older matter: Elrond, Gondolin, the High-elves, and the orcs, as well as glimpses that had arisen unbidden of things higher or deeper or darker than its surface: Durin, Moria, Gandalf, the Necromancer, the Ring. The discovery of the significance of these glimpses and of their relation to the ancient histories revealed the Third Age and its culmination in the War of the Ring.

Two things were taking place, then: the attempt to re-imagine reality, gaining impetus from the savageness of the First World War, which had led to several invented languages and a context for them placed at a distant move from reality in space and time; and then, later, the connecting of that sub-creation with the wider world of readers, so that it was no longer an entirely private or even psychological process but was instead a public and potentially revelatory one.

For much more about Tolkien, visit Tolkien and Lewis World here.

-Grant P. Hudson is the founder of Clarendon House Publications. Download a free catalogue here.

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