A recent discussion with Carl Lingard on the nature of Tolkien’s “secret grammar” led to the question of whether Plato’s teaching on the soul might be mapped onto what Lingard calls ‘Tolkien’s Dialectic’.1
In Plato’s understanding, the soul is made up of three “parts”; reason, will, and appetite. These correspond respectively to the head, the heart, and the stomach. For various reasons that I hope will be clearer by the end of this article, Lingard and I considered that this tripartite scheme might somehow map onto his model of Tolkien’s “dialectic”, pictured below:
Will and Choice
We, as modern people, perhaps find it easier to understand what “reason” (or intellect) and “appetite” correspond to than we can understand “will”. This is hardly surprising, given that the very idea of will (and free will especially) has been under attack in popular science and philosophy for the past hundred years or so.
A wise man once told me that there is a real distinction between free will and free choice, and I’m beginning to appreciate the significance of this. Free will is about orientation – it’s how a person inclines their will (towards or away from the good) that then determines their behaviour from “above”. Free choice, by contrast, is not actually possible to us in its full extent, because our choices are always determined by the constraints of our environment and personality etc. – these particular constraints come from “below”. Or, in philosophical terms, “above” corresponds to the One (or to higher levels of being like the universals), “below” corresponds to the many (to lower levels of particularity).
I think that Tolkien places great importance on the will, although it can be broken, as it was in Frodo’s case (in his ‘failure’ to destroy the Ring). The modern world, or rather one of the aspects of the modern world that Tolkien disliked, tries to offer more and more choice, which only distracts us from the important question of how we orient our wills.2 That these are really distinct (as our wise man maintained), is evident in Aragorn’s anxieties at the beginning of the Two Towers. It seems almost trivial to point it out, but Aragorn is worried about making a bad choice, even though his will is inclined towards the good. One of the great themes in Tolkien is the apparently evil outcome of some well-intentioned actions.
I would say therefore that the will determines the orientation, and intellect and appetite are perhaps relative to that, as the two wings which need to be brought into harmony by ascending the straight road. So, in a sense the will is the hypotenuse, and in that sense it has the bivalence or dual significance of the hypotenuse which can unite or divide, as the will can be oriented towards good or evil. I’m not entirely sure about that last association, however; suffice it to say that it is the orientation that is key to understanding the will, and I think the intellect and appetite naturally fall into place in the opp. and adj. as a result of that understanding.
This also makes sense of the importance of the heart and of decision-making in Tolkien. The will, as I am talking of it, corresponds to the heart or the seat of conscience, and hence characters like Gandalf have to make judgements based on the promptings of the heart – not the head or the gut (intellect and appetite, respectively). I think this is where Tolkien parts ways with Plato, and ends up siding more with traditional wisdom, funnily enough, because Plato always places intellect on top and gives it the greatest value. Traditionally, however, the centre always enjoys priority over both top and bottom, even if we prioritise the higher principles in most circumstances. The centre of course, corresponds to the Door in Tolkien’s grammar, where the intellect and appetite are not pulling in different directions. (Just to clarify, when I speak of top and bottom or above and below, these correspond to the opp. and adj. in Lingard’s model, somewhat confusingly).
It’s important to locate the will in the centre, I think, because it is subject to influences from “above” and “below”. Although I seem to have been denigrating free choice, I stress that our choices do reflect our will (of course), or rather, our will directs our actions. It is the “mover” of our souls and bodies, although it is not itself unmoved by external factors. In medieval thought, angels, for instance were understood to be a “higher” influence – as cosmic intelligences – and thus they are so often correlated with the planets in astrology.3 Appetites were more associated with the animals and sometimes with demons, the “fallen” angels or “lower,” infernal influences.
There are several points in the Rings where a character is “nudged” in a certain direction by such extrinsic influences, good and bad. The Ring itself is an obvious infernal influence, having been forged in Mount Doom, and it amplifies certain faults as Tom Shippey suggested (in The Author of the Century). On the other hand, there are occasions of positive influences from some higher being, such as when Frodo finds himself speaking Elvish words against Shelob because he calls on Earendil through the phial of Galadriel.
Here it gets fun with the analogical thinking, however, as the pattern of “above” and “below” repeats itself at different levels. Such that the Hobbits, with their big appetites, represent the cooperation of that which is “below” – of the appetite and the particulars/the many – with “above”, with the supreme Will of Ilúvatar, the One. It’s a vision of “bottom-up” and “top-down” cooperation that expresses the Will of Ilúvatar in harmony with the wills of those who are in allegiance with him. He values the freedom of his creatures, as C. S. Lewis said of God, in his Screwtape Letters:
He [God] really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself — creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons.
The ‘miniature scale’ is an expression of the macrocosm-microcosm idea, and the Biblical idea of man being made in God’s ‘Image and Likeness.’ Now, Lewis dedicated this book to Tolkien, but Tolkien found it distasteful. He strongly objected to what he saw as its ‘dualistic’ perspective on good and evil. Screwtape refers to Satan as ‘Our Father Below’, which disturbed Tolkien. I think if we can relate “below” to the adj. line of the dialectic, as I’ve suggested, it makes sense of why Tolkien didn’t want it associated with evil. He didn’t place evil on a level with goodness, because evil was for him an absence. It would be ludicrous to associate evil with the same aspect of the ‘dialectic’ that symbolises potency and the feminine. I don’t think Tolkien is making an arbitrary association, mind you, even if his grammar shows some personal quirks. Hence his objection to Screwtape Letters is not just personal “taste” (there are the appetites again!), but has real intellectual significance as well.
Appetite and Aesthetic “Taste”
Thus I think that references to “taste” in Tolkien’s writings are relating to the appetites – and consciously so. Just as the Hobbits are integral to the success of the quest, the appetites have value for Tolkien. They have their place in the scheme of redemption, as long as they cooperate with the intellect and are governed by the will. Taste in literature is about what appeals aesthetically (to the senses), and Tolkien trusts this as much as he trusts intellectual judgment. To have one without the other is a fault. The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, had intellectual insight, but they were distasteful to Tolkien’s aesthetic sensibilities.
Several statements from Tolkien (as well as some of the allegories he wrote) confirm this relationship between aesthetic taste and appetite. As Priya Seth noted on her blog:
On the analysis of sources and deconstruction of his works the Professor once wittily remarked:
“It seems to me comparable to a man who having eaten anything, from a salad to a complete and well-planned dinner, uses an emetic, and sends the results for chemical analysis”.4
There he is comparing his storytelling to food. There is also his remark in a letter, concerning his legendarium: “As for the rest of the tale it is, … derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story …”.5 I don’t know if it is all that common for authors to refer to their stories as something produced by a process of digestion. It could imply something rather disgusting! But more on that later.
Carl Lingard also cited the following remarks by Tolkien:
“Children have one thing (only) in common: a lack of experience and if not of discrimination at least of the language in which to express their perceptions; they are still usually acquiescent (outwardly) in their acceptance of the food presented to them by adults.”
“I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.”
Lingard also observes that:
Food and sex are related:
“Lewis suggested that if an audience were to watch not a striptease, but a cover being slowly lifted off a dish of bacon, then one would conclude that ‘something had gone wrong with the appetite for food’.”
Food, drink and sex grouped together comes from Plato’s appetites in The Republic. Some useful quotes:
“I used to pinch his books and try to learn it: the only Romance language that gives me the particular pleasure of which I am speaking – it is not quite the same as the mere perception of beauty: I feel the beauty of say Italian or for that matter of modern English (which is very remote from my personal taste): it is more like the appetite for a needed food. Most important, perhaps, after Gothic was the discovery in Exeter College library, when I was supposed to be reading for Honour Mods, of a Finnish Grammar. It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me; and I gave up the attempt to invent an ‘unrecorded’ Germanic language, and my ‘own language’ – or series of invented languages – became heavily Finnicized in phonetic pattern and structure.”’
Again, I must state that I’m in debt to Lingard and my discussions with him when it comes to making this connection between Tolkien’s creative work and Plato’s view of the tripartite soul. Once one notices the connection between food and storytelling, however, it is impossible to “unsee”. Tolkien’s direct allegories include his mention of fairy story as a kind of Soup made out of the Bones of other tropes and stories (in On Fairy Stories), and one of his last, mature allegories described the making of fairy tales as the baking of a great cake (in Smith of Wootton Major).
Of course, focus on Soup and Bones – the final and material causes of storytelling – often omits to mention the efficient and formal causes (the cook, and the form or transcendent truth of the story), to use the Aristotelian terminology. It is quite likely that Tolkien had Aristotle’s four causes in mind when writing this essay, for he seems to reference the philosopher’s summary of Pythagoreanism, when he writes:
We do not, or need not, despair of drawing because all lines must be either curved or straight, nor of painting because there are only three “primary” colours.On Fairy Stories
The reference to ‘curved or straight’ lines recalls the Pythagorean “table of oppositions”, which are listed in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. This might not be a conscious or deliberate reference by Tolkien, but I think we must acknowledge that these classics of Western literature were ingrained in him, having studied them from his schooldays. His customary modesty led him to state that he was ‘no metaphysician’, which is true professionally speaking, but I think he was an able amateur in that field – and more insightful in it than many professionals!
Food and Body
In the last section, I quoted two passages from Tolkien’s writing where he seemed to imply that story had some link to digestion. On source analysis of his work, he said:
“It seems to me comparable to a man who having eaten anything, from a salad to a complete and well-planned dinner, uses an emetic, and sends the results for chemical analysis”.’6
And again, of his legendarium: “As for the rest of the tale it is, … derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story …”.7
Now at first glance, these remarks seem to be quite shockingly self-deprecatory. Is his work simply a pile of excrement? Allow me to be the first to say: certainly not! There is a far more subtle and profound point being made here, I suggest. Tolkien seems to imply that those who focus only on the “bones” of the soup are those who effectively dabble in excrement – what is left over when the soup has been digested. But that is to miss the point of the soup – its “final cause” in Aristotle’s terms – which is that it nourishes the body! The body itself constitutes the “formal cause” – that which the soup is made into. And form, or in German gestalt, is that which is whole and simple; that which forms a unity. As Tolkien wrote:
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story[.]8
Too much source analysis – tearing apart the ‘body of legend’ – would rob it of its form, and it would become only so much waste!
Faery and the Door to Truth
Images of hidden “centres” abound in Tolkien’s legendarium; often they are inaccessible or remote lands or cities (cf. Valinor, Gondolin); in one case there is the “cottage of lost play”. What matters is that these dwellings are remote and often reached only by a circuitous route.
The search for the Lost Road in Tolkien’s legendarium is a similar (perhaps even equivalent) idea to the labyrinths which were symbolically drawn on the walls of ancient cities, designed to keep malevolent influences out (the city being a microcosm, like man). There is one such figurative labyrinth mentioned in the Aenead on the gates of the underworld; and, I would argue, this relates directly to the riddle on the doors of Moria. A riddle is another kind of seal or labyrinth which is intended to keep enemies out.
I am also now convinced that Fëanor and his subtlety is linked to the labyrinth and to his creating the first writing. In Plato’s Philebus the creation of writing is ascribed to Theuth (Thoth) the Egyptian god. Hermes, in other words. But, crucially, Socrates explains that writing was invented to create a middle-term or path between the One and the unlimited (the many). To pass straight from one to the other is dangerous, and some kind of passage or threshold is needed; number or letter in this case. He explains that, since there is an indefinite range of vocal sounds, letters impose quantifiable limits on these, hence their connection with the discovery of number.
When this middle-ground gets out of control, however, it becomes a labyrinth, trapping in the person who is trying to reach the One. The expansion of language, and the rhetoric of characters like Fëanor and Saruman, is a kind of trap. It’s an obfuscation, which stretches out the process from the unlimited to the One. It is also, in sexual terms, like an endless flirtation that never leads to anything. That is why Sauron ‘seduces’ Ar Pharazon, with only his language, in the Akallabeth. The subtlety of the snake is this kind of thing – its twistiness is like the labyrinth which seems to have no beginning or end. It’s the same thing with Fëanor and his ‘subtlety’, which Lingard noted could have been a reference to the ‘subtle’ snake in the King James Bible.
In the off-cuts from 1968 film Tolkien in Oxford, Tolkien says that he ‘loves’ cars and other technology, his only issue is that there are ‘too many’ of them. He repeats that the real cause of evil is the ‘multiplication table’, which is a remarkable comment. The enumeration of letters by Fëanor is the work of the ‘multiplication table’, which is always stretching out the distance between the One and the unlimited.
Morgoth’s attempt to seize both sides of the conversation, as Lingard described it, shows that he doesn’t give a toss about seduction or language. He is, after all, hated by Fëanor although they are both “baddies”. I think Lingard is spot on with noting the significance of Morgoth’s rape (of Arien, the sun), and I would think it has to do with jumping from the One straight to the unlimited. It’s a similar idea to the Nephilim in Genesis, who are the monstrous offspring of angels and human women. There needs to be a proper mediation and a hierarchy for heaven and earth to commune properly.9
In any case, Tolkien seemed to think that to delude people with their consent was a lesser evil than to force them to be good. He valued consent and willingness over the idea that the end justifies the means, which is why he says Gandalf would have been far worse than Sauron if he had got the Ring. Fëanor and Sauron are both seducers, but they aren’t (yet) ravishers like Morgoth.
The subtlety of language is at the core of dialectic itself. The English word ‘riddle’ also seems to be a reference to dialectic.
early 13c., redels, from Old English rædels “riddle; counsel; conjecture; imagination; discussion,” common Germanic (Old Frisian riedsal “riddle,” Old Saxon radisli, Middle Dutch raetsel, Dutch raadsel, Old High German radisle, German Rätsel “riddle”).
The first element is from Proto-Germanic *redaz– (from PIE *re-dh-, from root *re- “to reason, count“). The ending is Old English noun suffix -els, the –s of which later was mistaken for a plural affix and stripped off in early Modern English. The meaning “anything which puzzles or perplexes” is from late 14c.Etymology Online
Tolkien wrote, in a letter to his son Christopher, on apprehending Truth:
‘I remember saying aloud with absolute conviction: ‘But of course! Of course that’s how things really do work’. But I could not reproduce any argument that had led to this, though the sensation was the same as having been convinced by reason (if without reasoning). And I have since thought that one of the reasons why one can’t recapture the wonderful argument or secret when one wakes up is simply because there was not one: but there was (often maybe) a direct appreciation by the mind (sc. reason) but without the chain of argument we know in our time-serial life.’10
Dialectic, in Plato, is the ‘chain of argument’ by which one reasons one’s way towards the One, towards Truth with a capital T. It’s a process of making distinctions, so that the unlimited (potentia) is enumerated and organised, proceeding to the One (actuality).
So at the centre of the labyrinth of dialectic, when one has eliminated all the false turnings by this process of decision-making and argument, you arrive at the Truth. This is what language is supposed to accomplish, but it can end up becoming a snare. It can mis-lead. René Guénon says that the really “Greek” quality of Plato’s dialogues is their ‘playfulness’; it is this playfulness which characterises them, for the truths they arrive at are in fact universal and not particular to the Greek philosophers.
Another great symbol of this process of playfulness taken too far is Shelob, described as like a cat toying with her prey. It’s similar to the idea of flirtation (as Lingard has mentioned), which if overdone becomes an evil – like the striptease for the plate of bacon Lewis mentions(!). Again sex and food are linked by the appetites, as has been pointed out.
Also, there’s much to be said about the idea of Faerian drama and the ‘play’ in this regard. We could say, in brief, that all the world-building and storytelling of the legendarium is the passage or the doorway – the “argument” that is supposed to lead us to the Truth. It’s the passage of ‘escape’ from the labyrinth, provided it doesn’t become another prison. This also explains why Tolkien talks about his ‘taste’ in stories, and uses the metaphors of soup and cake for fairy tales. He doesn’t want us simply to ‘play’ with our food – he wants us to eat and find the Truth through it, to be satisfied.
2 As a philosophical aside: it’s another case of nominalism – where every event and each particular thing is unique and partakes of no essences or forms (except those we attribute to them). If nominalism is true, then our choices are the only measure of morality, because there is no sense in which the good actually transcends the particular choices. Hence we get legalism, because there is no longer a consideration of ‘the good’ which lies beyond appearances; there are only ‘good choices’ and ‘bad choices’, for which we are judged.
4 New Worlds 50, The Realms of Tolkien – p.146, November 1966
5 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25 – early 1938, Edited by H. Carpenter, 1981
6 New Worlds 50, The Realms of Tolkien – p.146, November 1966
7 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #25 – early 1938, Edited by H. Carpenter, 1981
8 Letters, Letter #131 to Milton Waldman, p.144
10 Letters, Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 7-8 November 1944, p.101