J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, grips readers of all ages in the power of its story and characters. Tolkien leads his audience through a world and a time that is entirely different from that of contemporary society, but he also remains true to the human condition as the morals and conflicts within the story resonate with authentic human emotion. Tolkien allows readers to temporarily escape the present although not to forget reality. Tolkien follows his own “rules” of “fairy-story” in order to present a fantastical tale that represents Truth better than many stories that may not be considered fantasy at all by connecting the contemporary reader with the sense of a historical epic. However, readers may question the brilliance of a man who would spend years making up his own peoples and races, complete with their own histories and languages, simply for a “fairytale”. Why would a man who can write a best-selling epic in three volumes waste years on creating this complex context of make-believe?
Tolkien wrote in an age that was infused with modernism but also approaching the drifting nature of postmodernism. This meant that people were becoming increasingly individualistic at the same time as they were becoming more disconnected from any sense of faith in an authentic real or an absolute. People were replacing an absolute and authentic Real, or Truth, with false distractions for the purpose of this paper delineated as lowercase real, or truth. Enlightenment promises like individuality and scientific advancement failed to produce promised answers but only led to more questions and emptiness. Everything from religion and science to politics and philosophy were affected by the broken system of modernism that took away absolutes and never replaced them, leading to a postmodern era defined by distraction rather than Reality Belief in language also suffered as language theorists like Ferdinand de Saussure and Jean Boudrillard proved that a solid connection between substance and thought was arbitrary. Tolkien, however, remained “safe” from the modern ideal of looking outside history to discover the individual. Tolkien remained rooted in the traditions of Old England and the Christian faith, even providing his own “history” in which he could create a world that still thrived from the presence of absolutes and relevant historical context. Through creating his own world, history, and language, Tolkien tells a story based on his philological interests. However, his work also functions as a pre-modernist text whose author still believes in a transcendent signified, or absolute, and presents this to his audience by structuring a world in which the signifier still represents the signified in the closer relationship of a more primitive age. Tolkien ironically uses a fantasy world to get back to a more stable and authentic real through reconnecting to English history and creating a “fantasy” world in which language is more closely connected with the authentic.
Brady, Hannah, "The Fantasy of the Real: J.R.R. Tolkien, Modernism, and Postmodernism" (2011). English Seminar Capstone Research Papers. 7.
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