Notes on Entries - The meaning of the East-West divide in Tolkien.
Text in italics is squire's commentary
Splintered Light, by Verlyn Flieger, revised edition, Kent State U. Press, Ohio, 2002.
Chapter 14 "Light out of Darkness", p. 119
She conceives of West and East as representing Light and Darkness according to her central thesis that Light and its Breaking is a unifying image throughout Tolkien’s work. In this chapter, she explores the meaning of the movement of the Elves following the loss of the Silmarils, away from the light of Valinor, toward the darkness; and the simultaneous appearance in the tale of a second race of Children, the Men.
"Another value obtrudes here, for at the metaphorical level both darkness and light acquire directional value, beginning with the westward source of light in Valinor and developing as Morgoth flees eastward into darkness, followed by the Noldor. Two great tides of movement surge and countersurge across the landscape. These are, in broadest terms, the movement of Elves from west to east, and the corresponding movement of Men from east to west." (p. 121)
She cites the Germanic folk concept of "widdershins": to go in the opposite direction. It connotes splitting, separation in the context of a journey. Folk belief is that this is bad luck.
In detail, she cites the contrary moves of Maeglin, the half-light, half-dark elf who was born in the far East. He is the son of Eöl, the "Dark Elf" of the Sindar of Doriath and Aredhel the "White Lady" of the Noldor of Gondolin. Maeglin is fated to love Idril in vain, and then betray Gondolin to Morgoth. "Maeglin’s example is the most negative, least hopeful outcome of the elven impulse toward the east." (p. 124)
She contrasts to this the tale of Finrod, who wanders east on a hunting trip and first discovers the Atani (Men) moving west over the mountains led by Bëor. Unlike the Elves, who were summoned, the Men are drawn by their hearts to the Light in the West. They are fleeing the blackness of Morgoth who has corrupted most of their kind at the time of their awakening. Finrod instructs them, and guides them back west. (p. 124)
Finally she cites the journey of the man Tuor in search of Gondolin to the west. The elf Gelmir discovers him, and instructs him that "‘through darkness one may come to the light.’" Flieger comments, "With the primary light removed [the death of the Trees], the only way to the light is through the darkness – a darkness at once physical, mental, and spiritual." (p. 125)
She concludes of these encounters: "both together are as explicit a statement as can be found in his fiction of Tolkien’s intended use of the two races. Elves moving counter to the light meet Men making their way toward it." She shows that the addition of direction (east and west) to the basic split between the races of Elf and Man help highlight Tolkien’s presentation of the contrast between two "powerful forces" in the human spirit: seeking the light and turning away from it. (p. 126)
Tolkien and the Rhetoric of Childhood, by Lois R. Kuznets, in "Tolkien: New Critical Perspectives", Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A Zimbardo, eds., U. Press of Kentucky, 1981. (Quote taken from excerpt published in "Readings on J. R. R. Tolkien", ed. Katie de Koster, San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000, "Literary Companion to British Authors" series for young adults.)
Again in contrast to the trilogy, Tolkien’s landscape in The Hobbit is a circumscribed bifurcated one with lowlands to the west and forested lands to the east of the central and longitudinal mountains and river. This spatial representation quite neatly divides the world into safe and dangerous sides. Grahame’s geography in The Wind in the Willows is roughly similar, if less graphic; there the safe field and rich river cultures oppose the Wild Wood, which lies on the other side of The River. Such simple geography not only emblematically indicates outside good and evil but also represents inner states and relative psychic disturbances. (Kuznets, p. 33)
The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle-earth, Timothy O’Neil, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
The Numenoreans’ conquests and colonies in Middle-earth are a Drang nach Osten. (pp. 47-48) -- This is an ironic comment by O’Neil comparing the Numenoreans to Hitler’s Germany. The bad joke is that since Sauron was so much a worse tyrant, as was Stalin, the folk of the coasts of Middle-earth, like the small nations of Eastern Europe in the 1930s, are "hardly in a position to complain" of domination by their betters to the West.
The original name for Minas Tirith was Minas Anor, Tower of the Sun; for it stood in the West, where the sun set, and was the stronghold of Anárion. Balancing it in the East was Minas Ithil, Tower of the Moon, which was raised by the heirs of Elendil on the far borders of Ithilien, on the very slopes of the Mountains of Shadow; it was occupied by Isildur. This was an arrangement which made elegant psychological sense: the sun (conscious) counterbalancing the moon (unconscious). (p. 78)
Cirdan is the guardian of the Grey Havens, the port of entry and exit in Middle-earth for those privileged to visit the Undying Lands. He is the boatman and guide of souls, the link (like Hermes, Anubis, and Charon) between life and death, West and East. (p. 92)
Faërie itself is the embodiment of the creative aspects of both conscious and unconscious. The wholesome unconscious parts of Man lie to the West; the destructive, moribund beast of the unconscious lurks in the East. The one refreshes, binds together; the other tears asunder, decays. And both aspects, alas, are seen in the behavior of Man. (pp. 94-95)
If we organize the whole of Tolkien’s world, including hints of the physical geography of the Undying Lands, and reduce them to a very general map, we begin to glimpse – as we might expect – an odd and compelling symmetry. It is reminiscent of the Taoist concept of reintegration of the soul’s disparate parts after death. The spirit of Man divides into yin and yang, the male and female principles. They are personified as "Mistress of the West" [Varda] and "Lord of the East" [Sauron] (the latter identified with the "Dark City"). (p. 105)
[At the end] Indeed, Doom is near at hand, and the fate of East and West hangs in the balance. (p. 135)
[regarding Frodo’s song at the end] The metaphorical reference "West of the Moon, East of the Sun" refers to two concepts at once: centrality in the sense of movement to the midpoint, and balance and compensation by the opposition of symbols (albedo and negredo, conscious + unconscious). This is a pretty unambiguous reference to the Self. (p. 137)
A glance at the map will disclose the Silvertine occupying the geographic center of the known world, a vantage from which Gandalf could hear "the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone." (p. 145)
Jung writes: "The quaternity is an archetype of almost universal occurrence. It forms the logical basis for any whole judgement. . . . Three is not a natural coefficient of order, but an artificial one. There are always four elements, four prime qualities, four colors, four castes, four ways of spiritual development, etc. So, too, there are four aspects of the psychological orientation . . . "
And Aniela Jaffe clarifies: "A quaternity or quaternion often has a 3+1 structure, in that one of the terms composing it occupies an exceptional position or has a nature unlike the others . . . This is the "Fourth", which, added to the other three, makes them "One", symbolizing totality." (pp. 148-149)
The northern myths have only an antiquarian fascination for most readers, little of the marvelous potency that once resided in their telling beside the hearth or under the stars. For one thing, sources such as the Eddic sagas sprang from a mentality quite different from the modern one which so readily embraces Middle-earth; Midgard would not be so appealing. The heroes struggle against a grim, contradictory fate, which finally gobbles them up on the day of Ragnarokk. Had the War of the Ring followed that line of imagery, East and West would have fought to the death, resulting in the devastation of the world, the annihilation of the Valar and the minions of Sauron, and the rebirth of Middle-earth under the gentle ministrations of the One. Tolkien’s mythology, in short, borrows from the past, from the psychological heritage of Northern Europe; but the telling is a far cry from the those sources." (pp. 158-59)
England and Always: Tolkien’s World of the Rings, Jared Lobdell, Grand Rapids, Mi: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981
The whole world of The Lord of the Rings as we know perceive it is an English world, indeed a medieval English world, where Elves are Welsh and Dwarves are Norse, both being proper neighbors for this England. (It is true that the Elvish language has Finnish analogues as well, and Dwarvish sounds middle eastern, but the point holds nonetheless.) Professor Tolkien himself, as we have noted, referred to The Lord of the Rings as a work in which he had incorporated much of what he had personally learned from the study of things Welsh: this "Welshness" of the Elves, like the "Northernness" of the Dwarves and the "Old Englishness" of the Rohirrim, is not imaginary. The Northwest of the Old World in the Third Age is clearly the Northwest of the Old World today – the British Isles.
But much of this, according to the author, is a matter of translation . . . We may be reading about England, if by England we mean a geographic area, but it is not England in any other sense: the illusion that this is "really" England, as we know it now or in our history, is an illusion of translation, as I noted. But as I also noted, the illusion is more real than what underlies it, or is feigned to underlie it.
There is an explanation for this – indeed, two explanations. One is found in the passage I quoted from Sjera Tomas Saemundsson: "Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples." The language, that is, defines the nature of its speakers. Thus the "Welshness" of the Elvish language means that the Elves themselves take on Welsh characteristics. The fact that the names of the Dwarves are taken from the Elder Edda provides a Northernness for the character of the Dwarves. . . . In short, the use of Old English, or Welsh, or Norse necessarily gives an Old English or Welsh or Norse character to the people involved.
This is, however, only one answer, or one part of the answer: it explains the appeal of the world-in-translation (so to speak), but it does not justify it. The other – or justifying – part of the answer has to do, I believe, with the fact that languages behave in the same ways, whatever the language, whatever the time—and with one other point . . . .There is, in a sense, nothing new under the sun in even a new language. It is thus perfectly within keeping for a philologist, conscious of all this, to use one language in a given state of its development to represent another language at the same state, and to have the connotations of the one carry over quite properly into the other. This is what Tolkien has done, as he himself noted. If we assume that there resides some kind of genius in a land—a hardness in the Northern spirit, a kind of sanctity perhaps in the West—then we could expect, as languages rise and fall within that land, that the peoples who speak them will be not unlike each other. There will always—under whatever guise and in whatever time—be an England. (pp. 32-33)
Lewis writes in pictures. Indeed, most of his books begin with pictures, and his approach is essentially visual. Tolkien’s is not. One can draw pictures from his words, but the pictures are one’s own, not his. That is, of course, part of the use of language as a correlative for action, which is one of the four ways in which the world of The Lord of the Rings is a philologist’s world . . . .
[In his description of the conclusion of the Pelennor battle], Not only do the auditory images precede the visual, but the visual images are of a particular and unusual kind. Tolkien is not always describing so much as "connoting." It is the approach of an author peculiarly conscious of words as words. It is also an approach that virtually precludes the description of anything outside the reader’s experience (whether actual or, perhaps, Jungian), which means that Middle Earth in the Third Age cannot be much different from middle-earth in the second millennium A.D. (p. 45)
Perhaps another way in which the East and the South are made to evoke our Asia and Africa without any actual points of geographic identity? Tolkien’s visual images of the tribes and soldiers replace any actual descriptions of the lands themselves. The Easterlings and the Southrons are Rhun and Harad in LotR
Here we should pause to consider what is "middle" about Middle Earth.
Heaven and Hell, according to the medieval English lyric, are eating into merry middle-earth—Heaven from above, Hell from below. Middle-earth is not permanent in its present incarnation, neither in Tolkien’s world nor in ours. We can expect, some day, a new heaven and a new earth . . . [quote Galadriel and Fangorn’s conversation about reincarnation].
In fact, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not three-tiered so much as three-directional. If the West is Heaven (or Paradise), then the East in some sense approaches Hell, even though the symmetry is incomplete, and Middle Earth is middle because betwixt West and East. This reading fits in with the land under the wave and Middle Earth as separate entities: by it, the Undying Lands remain forever beyond the circles of the world, reachable only by the Old Straight Track. By it, Numenor (or, rather, the Isle of Elenna) will be raised up, the world—Middle Earth included—will be changed, and the dead will be raised (III, 428). The distinction between Elenna and Middle Earth holds (III, 303, 390), and we may, provisionally, accept the view that Tolkien has shifted the "middleness" from a three-tiered to a three-directional universe.
At this point we are confronted with another theological question. If we put Tolkien’s Uttermost West and all his West-Middle-East cosmogony into the same figurative category as the three-tiered universe, with the same kind of mythological truth, can we reconcile the truths behind (or within) the two? The myth—the cosmogony—is different, but the truth should be the same. (pp. 54-55)
Lobdell goes on to speculate on the nature of original sin, God, and Eden in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbits seem thus to be without original sin as they are without God. By our own standards, their theological status is very odd—as odd as the idea of a yet unfallen world, upon which, indeed, that theological status is based . . . .The progress of the Hobbits . . . can be seen as a progress toward spiritual awareness, toward the gift of knowledge if you will, indeed toward the gifts of the Holy Spirit generally. (p. 56)
Lobdell posits that some in LotR are destined to be saved, and some, such as Boromir, are not, despite his high rank and status. He says that only Christ, who has not yet come to Middle-earth, is the great leveler who can save everyone.
It is only the knowledge of Christ (and therefore of the Holy Spirit) that does not exist in pre-Christian times. But Christ exists, and the Spirit also.
This lack of knowledge . . . has led some observers to think The Lord of the Rings an irreligious book. It is not irreligious: it merely, and necessarily, portrays a world in which religion is not practiced as we practice it. Let me now return to a different and more debatable characteristic of the world: the fact that it is (or may be) prelapsarian, that there is not inherent tendency toward evil.
Granted, this seems to be the case—but there is no inherent tendency toward good, either, at least in most places. . . . There are Easterlings and Southrons deep and long in evil servitude (III, 280), but there are those who are not. In short, so far as outward appearances are concerned, it is a world much like ours (these Easterlings and Southrons might even worship pagan gods in the way discussed above). But the closer we look . . . there is a kind of epic certainty about, and epic gulf between, good and evil . . . .If this is a fallen world, the fall is assuredly incomplete.
What then? Is this an unfallen world? With Morgoth in its history . . . that too seems questionable. I am driven to conclude that this turns out to be in keeping with a three-directional universe. Middle-earth [the real-world Medieval model] betwixt Heaven and Hell can be fallen, to all the round world’s four corners. But when Middle Earth is middle betwixt West and East, the whole round world cannot be fallen (and in any case, we have noted there is no Uttermost East, no Hell on earth). Moreover, we cannot draw a simple progression from West (Heaven) to East across the map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Lothlórien is, after all, east of the Barrow Downs. (pp. 59-60)
Lobdell concludes that with Paradise on earth in the West, and its opposite area the East also on earth, that is not actually a Hell, it is impossible to condemn Middle-earth to a pre-Christian state of original sin – rather it is the site of a constant battle between those who have fallen and those who have not.
This captures some of Flieger’s argument about Light and Shadow, but by applying medieval cosmic geography instead.
In both Arguments, the East represents a state of relative sin, not absolute sin; and all creatures in Middle-earth must choose how to respond to its presence in their world.
The Hobbit: A Journey into Maturity, William H. Green (New York: Twayne, 1995)
To mature, Bilbo must leave his ancestral home, the womblike hobbit-hole, and pass uncorrupted through the tomblike dragon lair, the mountain tomb that becomes the womb of heroic rebirth. This is, by the way, his third dangerous underground journey from east to west, the night sea journey of the archetypal solar hero, and in each case Bilbo must make important parts of the journey alone and in darkness. (p. 43)
Green is making a strong contrast between the beginning and ending places of Bilbo’s journey, drawing on Jungian archetypes and the "solar hero" theme for good measure. I believe the "solar hero" interpretation is somewhat discredited, but here it has a resonance due to Tolkien’s orientation of the quest along east-west lines.
Given Tolkien’s professional specialization in Old Norse and northern English literature, giant trolls are obvious folks to encounter on a perilous road east. Snorri Sturlson’s Old Norse Edda tells of two occasions when Thor is away from Asgard because he has gone to the east to fight trolls; and in an older poem, Loki teases Thor about his encounter with a giant "on the East-road." At the end of the world, the giants will attack from the east.3 (p. 50) [3. Henry Adams Bellows trans., The Poetic Edda, (London: Oxford U. Press, 1923), 170, 21.]
This is the only reference I have seen so far linking the East to danger in Norse sources.
The same basic structural elements are here [in the Goblin adventure as in the Troll adventure], but doubled or tripled . . . .There is water again at crucial points of the story—the lake just before Bilbo meets Gollum and the Great River at the Carrock just before Beorn’s hall. Again Bilbo and the others are trapped and bound, if not bagged. And here, for the first time, we have a solar night-sea journey, a passage through darkness under the earth from west to east, symbol of the cosmic cycle of death and rebirth at a higher plane. (p. 65)
We need only recall themes of death and rebirth in Christian Baptism to glimpse the powerful symbolism that Tolkien invokes in Bilbo’s watery underground escape into the sunrise. (p. 93)
Escape into the sunrise is used at the end of the Barrow-wight adventure in LotR, but how often is sunrise used compared to sunset in Tolkien?
Naming by capitalization immerses us in a worldview where home is the center of the universe, and we are ignorant of larger landscapes that would require our hill to be anything but The Hill. This is Bilbo’s initial worldview, an Edenic one to which we can all return in imagination. (p. 109)
Noted because of Tolkien’s use of the East, the South, etc. Interesting connection to the idea of the Shire as Eden in Lobdell.
"In the Far Northwest of the Old World", by Jared Lobdell, in The World of the Rings: Language, Religion and Adventure in Tolkien, Chicago: Open Court, 2004; rev. ed. from England and Always (1981), but this chapter is new.
We should begin with the dominant myth of the West . . . If the West is Heaven (or Paradise), then the East in some sense approaches Hell, even though the symmetry is incomplete, and Middle-earth is middle because betwixt West and East . . . We are introduced to this, as to much else in the background of The Lord of the Rings, by hints and slight mentions, over the three volumes. It is certainly part of Tolkien’s mythology for England, and his desire for the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic. It is unquestionably based on the Celtic Islands of the Blest, on Hy Bréasail, on the drowned lands of Lyonesse, on all the westering motion of the sacred in Celtic lore, on the imramm (and he himself published an "Imram" in 1955). But he does not here tell much of the myth (until he gets to the appendices): it is almost as though, by knowing the myth (if we do), we discover it here, underlying and informing the story, until we reach the appendices. (p. 72-73)
When we get into book 4 we can expect fewer references to the West or the west, for this is Sam and Frodo going into the Land of Mordor. But we can expect references to the East (or east), which may, after all, be taken as implicit references to the West (or west). (p. 76)
After the storm has passed, clear sky "was growing in the East once more" (II, 273). What that clear sky presages just then we do not know, but even in the East there may be a signal of hope. (p. 76)
If this is indeed the mythology for England of which Tolkien spoke—and it is—then the Celtic ambiguity by which the land of death is the land of youth, by which one voyages West in a stone coffin or a coracle or a ship of the sun, by which the immortal Elven ships and cloaks are grey with invisibility, is at its heart. (p. 91)
It is at the great set pieces in the narrative of the Great Days, the coming of Aragorn (III, 150), the overthrow of Sauron (III, 279-80), the coming of Arwen on Midsummer Eve (III, 309-10), that we see North and East and South and West laid out before us, in full—I might even say almost heraldic—significance. And we know that they are not accidental directions, but inherent in the very nature of the world’s four corners. Perhaps from the boat that sailed the sun, perhaps from the ice of the north, perhaps from the hot blood of the south, but from whatever root, each has its sacral, if not its sacred, value. We need not go further into that—except perhaps to say that we who are the English-speaking inheritors of the World of the Rings will find our West going westward from England (and Ireland), our South going southward from England, our East going eastward from England. For the mind of this world is an English mind, the tongue our English tongue, the tale an English tale, and the trees are English trees. (p. 93)
Trees? WTF? This conclusion just says: The four directions in LotR each have a sacral value, and are perceived from an English center point.
A large amount of Lobdell’s essay is simply various citations of the occurrence of the words "West" and "west", etc., without analysis!