I fell in love with Middle-Earth as a youth (which most people still consider me). At that time what mesmerized my adolescent mind was the infectious idea that the events and stories which spilled from Tolkien's pen could somehow have actually taken place. Could it be that Tolkien had merely recorded history? Oh, I wanted it to be so, and indeed, there was a juvenescent part of me that believed the legend was rooted in reality. "After all," Tolkien says, "I believe legends and myths are largely made of 'truth.'" This 'feeling' of story being real history had a powerful effect on my young person. I found myself longing for my own adventure, my own story. It is an anxiousness which has stayed with me to this day. Far from creating in me an escapist mentality, Tolkien was instrumental in developing my desire to have real adventures and to understand my life as its own story; no, more like a small part in a grand story.
I saw myself on my own quest traveling to far away lands, meeting friends, and overcoming difficulty. Looking back on my own short history, I can see how it has been a tale of its own; looking ahead to my story's closing chapters, I anticipate it with an understanding of how stories work and the things I must go through ere the ink dries on the last line of my life book.
Now that I am older and beyond the point of rationalizing adolescent impossibilities (at least that's what I tell people), the "realness" that Tolkien's literature makes me feel has not diminished, rather it speaks to me in a different way. I don't read Tolkien now with the wishful idea that the events are true, that elves do exist and that I might be able to visit Lothlorien one day. The truth I get from Middle-Earth is not in the history of another world but one about ultimate reality in my world. And herein lies the paradox; in writing fiction Tolkien was actually writing truth. He even felt as though he was "recording what was already 'there'; not of 'inventing.'" As Stratford Caldecott said, "He may have been writing fiction, but he was telling the truth about the world." Indeed, he gives us a truth about the world which he believed, "could only be perceived in this mode," that is in fantasy or fiction.
But how can this be? Fiction by definition is not true, so how can I say that some truths can only be perceived in this mode? There are a myriad of answers to this question. Their truth and adequacy is, I believe, demonstrated by the fact that we have classic literature today; they have stood the test of time because of the timeless truths they convey about human nature and ultimate reality, generation after generation.
The mythology of Middle-Earth portays a view of reality that helps make sense out of my world. It implicitly transmits a truth so basic about our world yet one that is typically forgotten or rejected; that is the undeniable truth that our world is enchanted. Tolkien reminds us that reality is not simply made up of some mythical self-contained, clockish machine with its gears perpetually turning because wheels before them spin, which were set in motion by the spindles before them, which are turned by the gears, ad nausium. This type of modern thought with its materialistic determinism is openly condemned in Treebeard's description of Sauroman as having a "mind of metal and wheels", only caring about those things which can advance his own power. In fact, it is condemned in the basic framework of his mythology since Arda is a world created by the transcendent being Illuvitar.
What Tolkien has done is what Martin Cothran describes as taking "the created order apart and put[ing] it ... together in new and unusual ways, allowing us to be surprised again at the things of this word." When we look up from the pages of fantasy, we see our world in a new way and we ascertain truths about it that we may not be able to any other way. Cothran, in his article, calls this the "rhetoric of amazement."
The truth that our world is enchanted may not be demonstrated better than in its uniformity. That's a strange observation, you may say. Nature's uniformity is quite common. We experience it everyday and rely on it to perform the most basic of tasks, even to get out of bed in the morning. But the spell cast by the uniformity of nature isn't in knowing that it is uniform, rather it is in wondering why it is and why we expect it to be tomorrow. Why is it that I expect to have to physically open the door to my refrigerator to get my favorite beverage and don't think that I can utter the elvish word for open (edro, if you were wondering) and the door open on my command? Past experience tells me I've always had to exert the effort to open the door and that no spell I can conjure would do it for me. But, it is one thing to know that it has always been that way in the past; it is another thing entirely to rely on it being that way in the future. This reliance on the future being like the past involves an assumption which those like Sauroman, with their metal and wheels view of the world, have no rational basis to justify. It is quite clear that one can imagine uttering an incantation in order to open a door; one would only need to read the chapter about the Fellowship trying to make their way into Moria, past the enchanted dwarvish doors. Though we can imagine it, we do not expect it in our world. Why not?
This is exactly the issue David Hume, the 18th century skeptic, encountered. Hume showed, quite rightly, that if you tried to justify reliance on induction (the method of moving what is true about observed cases to all cases, even those unobserved) empirically or with a naturalistic/materialistic explanation then you would find your reasoning so viciously circular that you'd end up with your own tail in your mouth. What past experience tells us is that nature has been uniform in the past; it can't tell us why or if it will be tomorrow. In order to assume the uniformity of nature, and therefore provide the most basic foundation for reality and a coherent worldview, you have to step outside the boundaries of this physical world and into the metaphysical one and cede that the world is amazing, enchanted even. This is what the rhetoric of amazement reminds us of and what we find in works that come from the likes of Tolkien.
G.K. Chesterton argues these points definitively in his essay The Ethics of Elfland. He explains that it is not honest to talk like the scientists about causality as though it were a "law","necessity", "tendency", or "order" of nature. This would imply that "they had found not only a set of marvelous facts, but a truth connecting those facts." He says, "The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in fairy books. 'charm', 'spell', 'enchantment'... A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched."
At its most basic point, our world is enchanted; we couldn't perform the most menial tasks without it being so yet we go about our day as though this were not the case. That is why we need Middle-Earth, not to help us escape from the world (as our ignorant critics might say), but to help us get back in touch with it. John Goldthwaite says that "Every work of make-believe... announces to a credulous audience that the world posses a quality that is beyond empirical knowing." The world is more than metal and wheels. Tolkien believed this and it shines through in his work of fiction which in turn illuminates our world.
The world is more than metal and wheels, but it is also more than enchanted. As Chesterton says, "The repetition in nature may not be mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore... In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought perhaps it involved a magician." The world is more than metal and wheels, it is the "theater of the Divine Magician." It is this truth about ultimate reality Tolkien gives us through his fiction, that the world is held together by God; it is what makes sense out of its enchantment. All the Sauroman's in the world wont be able to show otherwise, and when they try, they end up meddling in a little black magic of their own.