I have been reading Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, by Dimitra Fimi, in an attempt to get a broader insight into some of the background of Tolkien’s world-building and the ideas underlying it, and it has been presenting some interesting and I think new ideas about how Tolkien’s world developed, some of the reasons for some of the ideas in the world, and some of the challenges he faced in putting it all together. One interesting challenge that Fimi describes in some detail in the book, with perhaps more emphasis than I think it deserves, is the importance of the shape of the world to Tolkien’s thinking, and the extent to which the world’s physical structure troubled Tolkien. Reading the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, it never occurred to me that this mattered, but apparently it did. The world changed during its construction from a flat earth to a round world, and Tolkien appears to have been uncomfortable with the change.

Dr. Fimi gives a rough creation timeline to Tolkien’s ideas, in which the stories of Middle Earth played a role as a kind of reimagining of an ancient history of England, which as it solidifies over time becomes harder and harder to reconcile with actual England. By the time of writing the Lord of the Rings, the fall of Numenor and the associated flood have become a kind of cataclysm that delineates a sense of mythical history from a more concrete prehistory of the actual world. In this interpretation of his creative process, western Middle Earth’s shape is not accidental – it is representative of our modern world, in some pre-historic sense. For Tolkien, the cataclysm that destroyed Numenor served to separate a mythic time of fairies from a more prosaic era more closely connected with modern history (though still preceding it and unknown to its modern observers).

One strange consequence of the importance of switching from a pre-historic mythic world to one closer to our own is the need to switch from a pre-historic physics to a modern physics, and somehow in all of this the world went from being flat to being a normal sphere, with heavens and stars. There are apparently maps and notes which explicitly show this transformation, and Tolkien himself wrote of it in a letter to a friend:

A transition from a flat world (or at least an [Greek word] with borders all about it) to a globe: an inevitable transition, I suppose, to a modern “myth-maker” with a mind subjected to the same “appearances” as ancient men, and partly fed on their myths, but taught that the Earth was round from the earliest years. So deep was the impression made by “astronomy” on me that I do not think I could deal with or imaginatively conceive a flat world, though a world of static Earth with a Sun going round it seems easier (to fancy if not to reason)

Here Tolkien expresses directly the difficulty he has in writing a plausible world based on genuinely mythical precepts – he needs to ground his magical world in some basic reality, even though he puts the science of that reality in scare-quotes and wishes to believe that he has a similar sense to the ancients. Fimi links this to the placement of the stories in the timeline of the real earth; early versions of his stories (in the Book of Lost Tales) are imagined as only being a few hundred years in the past but as he thinks more about the structure and cosmology of his world the timeline changes, so that the same stories are suddenly before the last Ice Age.

Tolkien’s letters on this topic are notable for the use of many scare-quotes: in another letter he puts the words “spherical” and “space” in scare-quotes. I don’t think this is an indication that he sees the science of heliocentrism or astronomy as incorrect, but indicate that when he writes about his stories, Tolkien places himself (at least partially) inside the framework of his world. Fimi reports from an interview in 1963 in which the interviewer (Anthony Curtis) felt that Tolkien spoke about his own world as if it were a true and real place – he had been building it so long, he no longer spoke as if he were not in it. I think this is the provenance of the scare quotes in the above passage: for Tolkien astronomy is real, but when he speaks of cosmology from within the perspective of his imagined world, astronomy becomes “astronomy” and the structure of the earth becomes a matter of conjecture: once it was flat, and lit by trees, but then there was a cataclysm and now it is round. What of it?

Perhaps this is part of the source of the power of Tolkien’s creation. He placed himself inside his myth as if it were real, and tried to create it as if there were nothing outside of the knowledge contained in that world. Modern myth-makers see a world as an interesting prop for a story – an interesting setting is essential to fantasy, after all, and every author needs to make a setting – but Tolkien saw the stories as useful ways of explaining the mythical world that he had created, and lived inside when he was writing those stories. This world that he created was originally tied quite closely to his  idealistic political goals, conceived of both personally (the creation of a “mythology for England”) and in conjunction with the political goals of the society he and his friends created and dominated (the Tea Club/Barrovian Society), and part of these goals was the promulgation of certain ideas about how England was and should be; so it was inevitable that the stories would take on uses other than just the expression of Tolkien’s own mythical vision, and it is almost certainly the case that his mythical vision was influenced by and not inseparable from his political vision (which did not seem to include any racial elements, incidentally). But it appears that as time passed (and the Great War destroyed his and his friends’ idealism) these original political visions faded from his mythmaking, and it became a more personal aesthetic quest (for example, obviously Catholic language disappeared from his dictionaries of Quenya). However, no matter how deeply involved in this quest he became, it appears that he was still tied to a basic need to keep his stories accessible to a broader readership. Making his earth round appears to have been an explicit part of this process.

In the development of Tolkien’s myths we see his transition from boy to man, idealist to cynic, and embarrassed philologist to accomplished story-teller. It also appears that we see his journey from (mythical) flat-earther to reluctant heliocentrist. We will see though that there is one element of his world that does not change across all this time: the racial heirarchies of his world. I will come back to this in a later post on Fimi’s work, which I haven’t yet finished but am finding a very engaging and insightful perspective on Tolkien and his legacy. I strongly recommend it to those who are interested in the details of the development of Tolkien’s world, and I think I can say that it serves only to deepen the respect with which one views Tolkien’s creative achievements, and will not leave one disappointed with Tolkien or his legacy.