Windows on a vanished world
The hobbits sat still before him, enchanted; and it seemed as if, under the spell of his words, the wind had gone, and the clouds had dried up, and the day had been withdrawn, and darkness had come from East and West, and all the sky was filled with the light of white stars. Whether the morning and evening of one day or of many days had passed Frodo could not tell. He did not feel either hungry or tired, only filled with wonder.
(The Lord of the Rings, In the House of Tom Bombadil).
During the first stage of their adventure, the Hobbits meet a mysterious but important character. Tom Bombadil is a sort of incognito angel, a divine spirit who has chosen to live in a fossilized corner of the world. The Hobbits’ encounter with Tom Bombadil is like a temporary return to a lost Eden, and generates, in them, the ‘recovery’ of an attitude dominated by wonder, thanks to the ‘spell of his words’. Frodo will have this same experience in Lórien, home of Queen Galadriel, and, later, so will Merry and Pippin in the forest of Fangorn; these are two analogous ancestral places, two ‘windows on a vanished world’.
The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful.
(The Lord of the Rings, Lothlórien)
He led the way in under the huge branches of the trees. Old beyond guessing, they seemed. Great trailing beards of lichen hung from them, blowing and swaying in the breeze. Out of the shadows the hobbits peeped, gazing back down the slope: little furtive figures that in the dim light looked like elf-children in the deeps of time peering out of the Wild Wood in wonder at their first Dawn.
(The Lord of the Rings, The Uruk-hai)
Wonder in front of creation, which is closely linked to the creation of language and poetry (‘new and wonderful names’), is thus the original position of the creature. This is indeed the position of the elves, God’s firstborn, during the early days of their history:
Long they dwelt in their first home by the water under stars, and they walked the Earth in wonder; and they began to make speech and to give names to all things that they perceived. (…) Long and slow was the march of the Eldar into the west, for the leagues of Middle-earth were uncounted, and weary and pathless. Nor did the Eldar desire to hasten, for they were filled with wonder at all that they saw, and by many lands and rivers they wished to abide.
Wonder, however, is not just the characteristic attitude of a lost golden age, but more generally, according to Tolkien, it is the only true attitude towards creation (Eä), whose sole nature and purpose are indeed to ‘attract’ the creature to the Creator. For this reason, wonder is also the attitude of the Valar, the angelic powers to whom God, in Tolkien’s vision, entrusted the authority of the world. This is how Tolkien recounts the Valars’ first encounter with the elves:
Oromë wondered and sat silent, and it seemed to him that in the quiet of the land under the stars he heard afar off many voices singing. Thus it was that the Valar found at last, as it were by chance, those whom they had so long awaited. And Oromë looking upon the Elves was filled with wonder, as though they were beings sudden and marvellous and unforeseen; for so it shall ever be with the Valar. From without the World, though all things may be forethought in music or foreshown in vision from afar, to those who enter verily into Eä each in its time shall be met at unawares as something new and unforetold. (The Silmarillion)
Wonder in front of the unexpectedness of creation is an original position, in both a historical and an existential sense, but for humans and, specifically, for Tolkien’s (post-) modern contemporaries, it is no longer a natural and spontaneous attitude: it must be recovered, redeemed.
As Tolkien himself explained, in a lecture given at the University of St Andrews, exactly 80 years ago:
We need recovery. (…) Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining – regaining of a clear view (…) ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’ – as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (On Fairy Stories)
This ‘rediscovery of wonder’ results in the liberation from the slavery of appearances, and from the ‘tedious opacity of the banal’. But how does one recover wonder in front of the otherness of reality? With humility, first of all (says Tolkien), but also thanks to ‘creative fantasy’, which is one of the most important gifts that God has given to men, and the instrument with which He continues his creative work within the history of the world.
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. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish. (…) Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new),may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you. (ibidem)
For Tolkien, artistic creation, and, more generally, any aesthetic commitment of language and human imagination, are (divine) gifts that help recover an attitude of wonder in front of creation. This is the discovery at the heart of Tolkien’s work, that all humans are called to collaborate with their own desires and thoughts to a greater design, to contribute with their own individuality to the great polyphony of creation, and thus to graft their own particular story into the great ‘Tree of Tales’.