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    The PloughCast 80: The Technology of Middle-Earth

    By Sebastian Milbank, Matthew Scarince and Susannah Black Roberts

    April 3, 2024

    About This Episode

    Matthew Scarince and Sebastian Milbank discuss Tolkien and technology. Susannah chimes in.

    Is J. R. R. Tolkien anti-technology? What is the relationship between magic and technology in the world of the Lord of the Rings, and in ours? What do the elves have to do with that? What can we tell by looking at the rings, the palantíri, the silmarils?

    Should the Lord of the Rings be read as a straightforward critique of industrial society? How can the categories of mending and preservation be used to understand how the various heroes and heroines of Middle-earth go about shepherding this world into its next age, and how can those categories help us to do the same in our age?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to The PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. I’m speaking today with Matthew Scarince and Sebastian Milbank. Matthew is a freelance writer and Sebastian is executive editor of The Critic.

    We are here today to talk about J. R. R. Tolkien and his mythopoetic masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, and all associated texts, which are many, and specifically, Tolkien’s vision and the question of technology. So I’m going to start us off by noting that Tolkien said that though his books seem to be largely about power and the corruption of power, there were other issues more strongly in his mind. The quote was, “Anyway, all this stuff is mainly concerned with the Fall, Mortality, and the Machine, and with power only as it relates to those three large themes.”

    So I guess one way in is, what did he mean by “the machine”? And I’m going to just let you guys go at this.

    Matthew Scarince: So I guess I can I can go first because I actually pulled this quote for this discussion. And really, he kind of goes into depth on that in letter 96 and letter 131. And actually, they just published last year a revised edition of his letters, which has quite a lot of detail that wasn’t in there previously, but not much that touches on this particular topic. But you can see in his writings on the machine, he actually equates the machine to magic. And he says the machine is our more obvious modern form, though more closely related to magic than is usually recognized.

    It’s this idea of anything that really can help man, these devices that can help man dominate the real world or change the real world in this pursuit of immortality, which is the running theme throughout much of the Silmarillion and throughout parts of the Lord of the Rings. I would say it’s much less prominent in the Lord of the Rings than it is in these other works.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So Lewis actually talks a good bit about that similarity between technology and the machine as well. This is – I can’t remember, I forgot where this is from. But I remember the quote when we were sort of brainstorming about this. Lewis wrote “the serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins. One was sickly and died, the other strong and throve.” He’s in the same position. And he said “science is no doubt contrasted in our minds with the work of magicians, but contrasted only in the light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. The event was then” – so he’s talking about the seventeenth century basically – “still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see it once that [he mentioned Sir Francis] Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity, nor would Bacon himself deny the affinity. He thought the aim of the magicians was noble.”

    So this idea of manipulating reality, not through bringing forward or bringing out the inherent powers or talents of a created being, but by imposing technique, imposing sort of external ends and imposing your will on those beings. That’s kind of the commonality. Is that right?

    Matthew Scarince: Yeah, I’d say there’s definitely an affinity there between Tolkien and Lewis and that actually is another point that we don’t have to touch on right away, but I did want to eventually talk about their friendly competition to write a series of novels which ended up in Lewis publishing the Space Trilogy, sometimes called the Ransom Trilogy, and Tolkien failing to publish several versions of the same story, The Lost Road or sometimes The Notion Club Papers, which he actually investigates and interrogates what that means.

    And he’s far more positive towards the science than and towards the scientific aspect than you would first expect because I think he does recognize in magic, in this duality of magic, that it does have this beneficial and this aesthetic quality that you see manifested in the elves and particularly in the Noldor, the High Elves in the Lord of the Rings, that is beneficial to mankind, but also this corrupting element, this idea of trying to go too far, of trying to escape the limitations of nature and of mortality.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, that makes sense. Sebastian, can you – where do we see this?

    Sebastian Milbank: I’m interested in this idea of the equation of magic and technology because, of course, magic is not a monolith either for Tolkien or historically. So obviously both Lewis and Tolkien, their sort of lodestar is sort of a kind of pre-modern Catholic medieval universe. That’s both of them. That’s a shared reference point. And of course, magic, there are different kinds of magic, and magic is seen in very different terms based on what sort of it.

    So I mean, the most obvious distinction is between the kind of magic that Matthew talks about, which is about manipulation, language, perhaps invoking beings, spirits, angels. But then there’s also a very different magic that’s more inherent to the nature of ordinary processes, which is, you know, alchemy somewhere in the middle of this.

    But I’d say that the type of magic I’m talking about is what’s often called sympathetic magic. This is the idea that essentially, for example, if I have, say, a stone from a mountain, it’s somehow still attached to the mountain. So all that there might be kind of sympathies between different substances, between different plants.

    So an awful lot of the ideas of medicine, of astronomy. So the idea, for example, that if you’re born in a particular star symbol, that affects your life, this is all to do with so-called sympathetic magic. And this is not necessarily a breach of the natural order, but rather simply an understanding of its hidden, but no less natural processes.

    So to give a good example of this textually in Lord of the Rings, I think we might compare, for example, the warping of nature that you see with the manipulations of the Ring or the creation of the Uruk-Hai. And then you can compare that with, for example, the mallorn seed that’s given to Sam Gamgee. So in the end, he uses this to revive the Shire, and it produces this superabundance of growth – and the soil and the seed produce this.

    And essentially, it’s the magic of the elves. The magic of the elves is not, as you say, to assert your will on something, but simply to bring it to its highest possible teleological end. So that it’s much more to do with sustaining life and maximizing its potential rather than imposing your own purpose on it and warping it.

    And another, I think, very good example of this is the rope that is given by the elves to Sam and Frodo in expedition, the one that unties itself. So again, the rope is not doing something a rope isn’t supposed to do. It’s just a rope that’s being more ropey than anything, if you put it that way, than any other rope that can be imagined.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean, the other sort of distinction that I’ve heard talked about and that I think I heard this from Lewis first, is the distinction between Magia and Goetia. And that would, so Magia is kind of, it’s high magic, it’s also called Theurgy. And that idea that like, it’s basically doing, it’s using the inbuilt potential, you know, in a technical sense, potential of things, just encouraging them to be more themselves.

    And Lewis actually kind of talks about Christ turning water into wine in this way. He says, basically, this is like, this is what happens very slowly, normally, you know, that water gets sucked up by grape vines. And then, you know, with the sun, turns into grapes, as I’m told, I’m not a countrywoman. And then you take the grapes off, and then you step on them, I guess, and then other things happen. And then finally, you have wine. And so Lewis just says that Jesus, basically, when he was turning water into wine, he was just doing what God normally does, but doing it faster.

    Sebastian Milbank: Yeah. And yeah, I think just that kind of idea that we sort of introduced, the sort of almost Arthur C. Clarke idea, which is – he says “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” if you’re not advanced enough. And I think that kind of idea is sort of – Bacon comes along natural science and engineering comes along, I mean, it produces all the things that magic promised to do, but never did.

    But I think that’s a misunderstanding because an awful lot of things that worked were understood in magical or quasi magical ways. But that doesn’t mean that people thought they were rational or didn’t have a cause.

    So I think a good example of this is something like brewing. So fermentation, the production of, you know, of whether it’s cheese, or beer, is – it was all, you know, there are all sorts of strange rituals attached to it. And there was an understanding that this was a kind of magical process, that you were changing one thing into another, you know, lead into gold. But, you know, and so this idea of sort of the hidden potentiality of things being discovered by human reason has always been understood in a sort of magical way. But and I think the sort of the distinction that we kind of now impose between magic as if magic is this thing without cause, without reason, this sort of out-of-nowhere breach of the natural order, I think that belongs much more to a kind of later Gothic imaginary.

    Matthew Scarince: Now, it’s interesting you bring up the terms Magia and Goetia, because I’m going to be quoting a lot from Tolkien’s letters. It’s what I’ve been doing recently. He actually touches on this distinction in letter 155. And he says that when Galadriel speaks of the deceits of the enemy well enough, but Magia could be – was held good per se, and Goetia bad, neither is in this tale good or bad per se, but only by motive purpose or use. Both sides use both but with different motives. So I think that trying to draw a strong distinction between these two kinds of operations, or indeed between good and bad technology, is to kind of miss the point that he’s making. In this letter, he makes this point. It really it comes back to what is the use, what is the effect, and how much are you using it?

    Because later on he talks about the evil of the multiplication table, the idea that anything in insufficient quantities, even what we would consider like the good magic, can have this sort of corruption.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The poison is in the dose. I mean, this is sort of the idea of, you know, root cuttings as being you know, the small dose can cure and the large dose can kill. There is a kind of distinction, though. I feel like we’ll get to more technology stuff soon, but there’s so many rabbit trails here that I feel are incredibly valuable.

    One is that, so in addition to, like, brewing and baking being sort of alchemical processes, there’s also this old understanding of smithing being something magical and in a kind of sketchier way, like a kind of scarier way. And I wonder what that’s, I wonder whether the distinction is like . . . because smithing seems more technological and brewing and baking seem more sort of homemaky. Is there . . . and clearly it seems to me that Tolkien was drawing on the idea of smiths as magical in, you know, in thinking about this, the forging of the ring as, you know, Wagner did. I mean, this is what’s just where he got it from.

    Matthew Scarince: I mean, I think there’s a sense which it feels like a more pure sort of purely technological thing. So when it comes to if you’re doing brewing or baking, you’re dealing with a living thing. So you can push it so far, but no further. And you’re basically bringing something out that’s already there. But I think there’s much more of this sense of imposing your will on something, making it plastic, melting it down and then forming it into machinery.

    And even something as simple as a sword is a machine, you know, a machine that kills. And I think that sort of ability, that kind of, and at the same time, smiths are also people who are very much associated with language. So, you know, and of course, in the Norse tradition with, you know, smiths, well, often also people who were involved in rune magic, and they were believed to impart powers to weapons and armor. And I think that idea, you know, the local smith is often one of the few people who is literate or semi-literate. There’s something similar with masons as well, that people who are seen as having command of hidden powers, but specifically hidden powers over things that are nonliving. And I think that’s where the distinction comes in. Oh, I definitely would agree with that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Your original piece that we discussed, Sebastian, was actually specifically about repair. And there is something, obviously in Tolkien, again, it’s not a simple question of, you know, smith-like magic being bad and bread baking-like magic being good, because, first of all, it is it is good that the swords are made. But your point was that there’s something very poignant and beautiful about re-forging and mending in Tolkien. And obviously, that is a smithy thing to do.

    Sebastian Milbank: Yeah, I might just read out the wonderful because that’s because, you know, as people who love the book know it’s full of poetry. That always was my favorite thing. It is full of songs and poems. And there’s one in particular – I’ll just read a few lines.

    All that is gold does not glitter
    Not all those who wander are lost.
    The old that is strong does not wither.
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
    From the ashes of fire shall be woken.
    A light from the shadows shall spring.
    Renewed shall be blade that was broken
    The crownless again shall be king.

    And of course, that’s, of course, a sort of it’s both a poem and a riddle. And is at the same time a prophecy about the return of the last of the line of Númenor – of Aragorn. And it refers to the sword Narsil that will be re-forged, and the return of the kingdom of Gondor. So that the idea of kind of political repair, literal repair and cosmic repair are all kind of one.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like we should probably turn at this point to the ring itself. Which is often thought to be like the most obvious sort of technological object or object of the power of the will, which inherently corrupts by its very nature. And obviously that’s true. But also Galadriel has a ring, and a ring built Rivendell. And so what is going on there?

    Matthew Scarince: Yeah, there’s definitely a sense in which this is a, if we could say, if we can put in these terms, a good technology that’s been corrupted. Tolkien even talks about how – let me find the actual quote here. Oh yeah, so you know, in a letter to Lewis, he talks about “there’s a specific kind of horror at seeing good machines ruined by misuse.” And what we have though, in this, the misuse isn’t necessarily all on Sauron’s end, because the goal of the elves is to preserve a kind of world, a state of the world, a particular state of the world in which they are the most powerful, when the fate of the world is to trend in a direction away from that power. towards the coming domination and dominion of men.

    So this theme of use and misuse, of what is this, what is good about this technology, what is evil, it’s baked into the very beginning, very core of that story.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right.

    Matthew Scarince: It’s Sauron who gives them the crafts that they need to make this ring.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right. So even Rivendell is not innocent in that sense. And that there’s something really – the mood, at least of the Lord of the Rings – I have not read The Silmarillion, but the overwhelming mood of Lord of the Rings is a kind of like . . . it’s not, it’s not just that like grasping after power is bad. It’s that nostalgia is kind of bad. So OK, obviously, there is an intense sense of nostalgia throughout the Lord of the Rings, which is, you know, very appealing and beautiful. But this sense of, as Matthew was describing, like, the world is going in a direction and has a sort of natural process to itself, there’s there are ages that succeed one another. And even if you’re basically good, holding on to an age that is passing, and not allowing yourself to, you know, go into the West, is itself a wrong. Even if the age that is passing was a good age. Is that – OK, now tell me why I’m wrong.

    Sebastian Milbank: Well, no, I think that that that is, you know, that it’s an available interpretation. And it’s tempting because it’s in so much of our own, it’s in so much of our kind of cultural DNA, this message, don’t hang on to the past, let things pass when they have to, even amongst conservatives. But the curious thing is that if you if you look carefully, you know, and I’m not just talking about the Silmarillion, but even just in the Lord of the Rings, it’s not quite the message at all.

    So the curious thing is that the elves, at least the ones who were good, accept that their age is passing, but they also see it as their duty to basically steward and sustain things as long as possible. So the point about the elves is really that they sustain things that they know are going to die, but they do it anyway. And that’s, I think, that I said above a subtly different point to just the one that you have to let things pass and go on.

    Because the thing that’s interesting is that the elves are so – I mean, again, there’s an awful lot of things that Tolkien wrote about, as it were, metaphysics in the background that you can see inform the book. And one of those [things] is that the elves don’t outlive the world. So basically, there is a kind of said that there is the idea of the immortal soul, people go to the halls of their fathers, as they say in Lord of the Rings. So that’s there is an idea of an afterlife. But the interesting thing is that – and this is implicit in the books, but it’s made explicit in his writing elsewhere – Tolkien clearly conceives of the elves as being at one with the world.

    So the nature of the elves is though they are immortal, they’re actually in a kind of cosmic sense strangely like the ancient pagans or something, they don’t expect to outlive the world in which they live. They think – so the elves think that at some point, the world itself will end. And it’s believed that human beings really are immortal in a grander sense: they will go on. And the human beings perhaps even pass beyond Arda.

    And this idea is quite interesting, because it kind of invests the elves of a kind of fatalism. They’re a bit like fairies or something, they’re much – they’re not– we have this whole idea of elves as beings that was being built up subsequently, but we forget how much Tolkien’s merging it with the ideas around fairies and third things beyond humans or angels.

    And the elves really belong to nature and to the world and to growing things in a very strong way. And there’s a sense of which human beings are in a more complicated, you know, there’s this idea that you get, as in Augustine, we’re sojourners, we’re pilgrims on the earth, we’re not really at home here. And there’s a strange way in which the elves are almost fatalistic, equally at home in a world that they’re fated to see die around them. And human beings are fated perpetually, sort of fail and fall to sin and corruption, and yet, they’ll continually renew themselves. So there’s a line where Legolas and Gimli talk about human beings. And they say, you know, “the seed of men is always failing its potential, but it’s also always renewing itself.”

    Matthew Scarince: Yeah, and there’s a lot of language of progress around Mordor and around Saruman and the coming of the new order of New Age. The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory for World War II. But there are resonant themes with the kind of progress of World War Two and the war of the machines that we can also talk about.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What we’ve been doing is like, complicating the story before we’ve told the story to a certain degree. No, no, no, no, it’s good. Because I feel like a lot of people who will be, at least the kind of nerds who will be turning in tuning into this particular podcast will know the kind of standard critique or a standard understanding of Lord of the Rings as a critique of industrialization, which I think it also is. Like, we’ve been complicating it, but I think it also is that. So let’s talk about that. What is that?

    Matthew Scarince: Well, I’m gonna go back to my theme of it’s about the multiplication tables.

    It’s about the untrammeled expansion of industrialization rather than necessarily the progress of that technology. And there’s a fascinating interview that the BBC did with Tolkien all the way back in 1968. There’s a documentary that they made out of it called Tolkien in Oxford. It’s great. I would highly recommend anybody watch it. It shows you him in his kind of natural habitat.

    But there’s a lot of stuff that was cut because the interview was too long and they had only a short time slot on the BBC. So he talks, he’s asked by this interviewer what he thinks of industry. And he replies, “I have no objection to it as such.” And what he thought of factories: “they might be better than they are. It depends on what you mean by factory. And factory might be very big, very small.” He gets asked what do you think of cars? He loves them. He loves riding them and driving them. But there’s too many of them. There’s this evil of the multiplication table. And this multiplication of a thing, it becomes the process by whereby everything becomes a resource. Everything becomes something that can be utilized, harvested, formed to meet the ever-expanding needs of artificial consumption. Rhetification.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He did own a car, as I understand, but then he sold it at the beginning of World War Two. And he also did not like eating refrigerated food, which is, that’s extreme. I mean, I guess if you have an ice box, it’s fine.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I feel like we need to talk about palantíri for various reasons. The technology that was rattling and reaving Tolkien’s world was something like the technology of Mordor. I’m podcasting right now from Stoke on Trent, which during Tolkien’s life was absolutely hideously industrialized. You couldn’t see across the street for the smoke. It’s now sort of been incredibly beautifully reclaimed. And there are all these gorgeous parks that have been kind of made on top of old coal slag heaps.

    But so what he was seeing was a kind of Mordorian vision of industrial society. And I feel like what we’re seeing is a maybe is a Sarumanian vision, it’s something more palantírish. And I think that that’s interesting. And I would like to know what you guys think.

    Matthew Scarince: Well, the palantíri are built by the art, constructed, formed by the elves, supposedly by Fëanor, the greatest of the elven smiths. And they’re given originally as gifts to the Noldor, or I’m sorry, to the Númenóreans, to the men, to the best men to make the best use of them. And over time, they too fall prey to this desire of circumventing the limitations of nature. They use them to see further and further to see what can be known that’s beyond the scope of natural human sight, even in the sense of human communication.

    And there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking out this knowledge, but it becomes a means by which the enemy can trap them. Saruman acquires a palantír. You can use that desire for information, that desire for this complete comprehensive knowledge to trap them by presenting them with this image of his own unconquerable light.

    This is very much propaganda, the Nazi use of cinema, you know, Triumph of the Will. It’s again this kind of theme of what is this, what can this thing do? What can this technology do? What are the limitations that it’s trying to transcend? And should we actually be trying to transcend them? You know, the internet can find so much knowledge, but so much of it is crafted by these agendas.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you describe, OK, what a palantír is and how it was intended to be used? Because I’m not actually totally clear how it was meant to be used.

    Matthew Scarince: So it’s a globe, basically a crystal ball, but it’s a fashioned globe that allows you to speak mentally and to mentally kind of see images with projected in it with the possessor, any possessor of these other ball, other palantír crystal balls, or to see things that – there’s certain limitations to it. It’s not entirely clear, but to see things far away, basically. The name palantír comes from Tolkien’s Elvish languages meaning far-seer.

    And the original meaning of it, the original use of it was for communication among the Númenóreans, these guys going out on ships, exploring the vast wide world of Middle-earth. And we can talk about the Númenóreans and kind of also their tragedy of going from this kind of exploration of Middle-earth to the colonization and exploitation of Middle-earth as well.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Why don’t we talk about that? Just before we get into that, it just reminds me so much – the whole paradigm here reminds me of this phrase about the dwarves digging too greedily and too deep. Like, yeah, they’re dwarves, they should be digging. That’s what they do. You know, you’re a dwarf, you dig, but they dug too greedily and too deep. And I just wonder if that’s kind of like a paradigm for how to think about what, how Tolkien thought about these things.

    Sebastian Milbank: One of the reasons I raised this question about the difference between men and elves is I know it can feel like a very kind of Tolkien nerd inside baseball sort of concern. But I think it actually has a lot of significance for our question, because, you know, obviously Tolkien was wary of allegory. But I think there’s a clear sense in which, you know, the kind of the reason Tolkien doesn’t just make it a historical fantasy, you know, why is it why? Why have elves and dwarves at all? Are they there just to be colorful? I think the kind of parts of the purpose that serves is that elves almost represent an older, more different sort of more kind of mythic sort of way of thinking about the world. So it’s interesting that elves, they’re almost, you know, they’re their own thing, of course, in Tolkien with their own significance.

    But if there’s an analogy, it’s almost between something like a Homeric or kind of ancient Celtic or Norse way of being. So if you think about the way human beings are corrupted versus the way elves are being corrupted, it’s really interesting, because I think it speaks to totally different ways of thinking about technology.

    So, you know, I think the example of, you know, Fëanor, you know, invents stuff like the Palantir, but if you think about how Fëanor and the sons of Fëanor were corrupted, it’s in a totally different way. It’s through honor culture, basically. They swear this elf saying that only they can possess the Silmarils. It’s not that they have ambitions to dominate the whole world with them. It’s that they have a much more kind of archaic vision of kind of pride and honor and the sense of their own status. It’s much more kind of linguistic and about your kind of relative status in the eyes of your fellows.

    Whereas it’s not that human beings don’t have those ideas. But you can see that all these other things being layered on top of them so that the Númenóreans are trying to establish an empire. They want control of matter. They have abstraction. They have organized religion, I should say, you know, there’s far more of this idea of sort of what we think of as kind of modern science, technology, systems of domination. Actually, I have to mention that at one point Tolkien was considering giving the Númenóreans airships. And this was later cut.

    Matthew Scarince: But I think it plays back into that, like what you’re talking about, Sebastian, because the there’s this great point in his poem, Mythopoeia, where he talks about great powers they slowly brought out of themselves, referring to men, and looking backwards, they beheld the elves that wrought in cunning forges in the mines.

    So there is the sense in which the elves represent this older conception of humanity, or humanity conceiving of itself in this heroic age, compared to the current age, the iron age where things are dominated by matter to a certain extent.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, it’s so hard not to just maybe just because I’ve been kind of in rereading or thinking about Nietzsche lately, it’s very hard not to see this in terms of either Nietzschean or Barfieldian way of understanding like, OK, we are people who are separate from the world. And that’s given us great power. But what we miss is the original participation that Barfield describes.) We miss that sense of immediacy, being bound up with the natural world, even though in a certain sense, men are more powerful than elves.

    Sebastian Milbank: There’s also a sense in which there’s definitely a theme of ecological conservation in Tolkien. But there is a sense in which one can take this too far, one can invert the kind of natural order: place the material world, the world of the elves and ents and dwarves, above the world of men.

    Whereas in another unfinished work, Tolkien’s unfinished sequel to the Lord of the Rings, The New Shadow, there’s a conversation between two characters about what it means for this stewardship, this conservation of nature for man.

    “You spoke of the judgment of trees in these matters, but trees are not judges. The children of the One are the masters. If the smallest child of a woodsman feels the cold of winter, the proudest tree is not wronged if it is bidden to surrender its flesh to warm the child with the fire. But the child must not mar the tree in play or spite or rip its bark or its branches. The good husbandman will first use, if he can, deadwood or an old tree. He will not fell a young tree and leave it to rot for no better reason than his pleasure in axe-play.”

    So we are at the sense, the pinnacle of creation. We are the masters, the judges of the material world, but we’re limited like a good judge by what we owe injustice to this world. And so much of our technology, so much of our quest for this mastery over nature leads us to ignore those constraints.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, this speaks so closely to the podcast we just did with Ross Douthat about worshiping nature. One has to care for nature, but one can’t worship it. And worshiping nature can come in the form of the natural world, or it can come in the sense of worshiping imminent forces in the world. So like the gods of the gods of trees, the gods of streams, as opposed to worshiping the High God, forgetting our place as stewards, as beings who are not as imminent as elves and ents are in the world.

    But there’s a reverse temptation. On the one hand, there’s a temptation to sort of polytheistically worship every rock or tree. But the opposite temptation, which we’re sort of discovering at the moment, is if you desacralize and disenchant every rock and tree, if you don’t believe there’s a kind of intelligence and a spirit that lives in things, and one that knows and worships God, you start worshiping human beings themselves, because human beings are the only thing in that case, that are made in the image of God. They’re the only things that worship God, and the world has been given to us as our kind of victim. And you start going into the kind of dark, Baconian territory of, you know, we’ll discover the secrets of nature via torture, like a recalcitrant mute prisoner that can’t be trusted to give its own account.

    Matthew Scarince: Right. And there’s that sense in which you also, you fall into the orc play of cutting up trees. Because you can. It becomes a manifestation of power.

    Susannah Black Roberts: If That Hideous Strength is Lewis’s Charles Williams novel, then Peralandra really seems to me to be his Tolkien novel. Was it Peralandra or was it Out of the Silent Planet where what Weston, when he is fully possessed is just like going around ripping the backbones out of frogs?

    Matthew Scarince: That’s Peralandra. And that one also has some oblique and some more obvious references to the Silmarillion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Tell me more about that.

    Sebastian Milbank: Yeah, tell me.

    Matthew Scarince: For example, the names of the the two main beings, I don’t want to give too much away, but like the Adam and Eve, were Tor and Tinidril, and of course it’s Tuor and Idril of the Silmarillion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Um, what is a Silmaril? Just because I have not read it. I haven’t read it. I’m sorry.

    Matthew Scarince: Wow. Yeah. That’s practically the entire plot of The Silmarillion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Don’t tell me. I’m serious. I take it back. Don’t tell me. Because I don’t want to spoil the book. Alastair’s read them all in detail: I’ve only read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’m sorry. I know.

    Matthew Scarince: I mean, we should probably talk about the silmarils actually, because they do cast a very interesting light on the Lord of the Rings. So again, in some ways it’s sort of similar to Lord of the Rings. The silmarils basically are kind of holders of the kind of inner essence of a beautiful thing that would otherwise be lost. So they’re an attempt to kind of like sustain and can, and sort of control something that would otherwise be dying.

    Just to try to give it really briefly, basically in the cosmic history of Lord of the Rings, there are these two trees that light the world before the sun and the moon. The trees are destroyed, um, through the actions of Melkor who’s sort of the kind of Satan of this universe. But the light of the trees leaves the world. but The only place they continue to exist is where, through the actions of Fëanor, who’s this kind of genius, elven smith who lives out in the West with the gods. It contains the light of the two trees in these Silmarils.

    You’ve got to imagine something like the first light of creation, you know, something almost like the Logos or something. And the creative, we were trying to create an analogy, you know, something that – sort of the original beauty of reality is captured in these objects. So they don’t have a practical value. They’re just almost like these objects that somehow embody beauty and meaning and significance and everything that’s been lost.

    And the Silmarils are the great treasures the Valar, the gods, or the angels, if you prefer, of this cosmos. And they’re lost, they’re stolen, and Fëanor’s sons swear their oath to recapture them. And then they pursue the Silmarils and Melkor into Middle-earth.

    I won’t give the whole rest of it. And of course, most of them are eventually lost. Um, except of course, for one that’s recovered and is eventually made into a staff. I’m not going to give too much more of it. It very involved, but basically they do come into the books, though generally allusive, in a kind of indirect way.

    So that, for example, I don’t know if you remember the jewel that Frodo is given that he uses to get rid of Shelob – That’s basically the reflected light of a Silmaril.

    So you get lots of these things, these kinds of reflections. And Tolkien even says of Fëanor, of the creation of the Silmarils, that this particular branch of the High Elves was concerned and always on the side of science and technology, as we should call it. So there’s a sense of, of the three elves that go to the west, that see the light of the trees before they’re destroyed. They represent almost like these three aspects of human civilization, The Vanyar, the highest of the High Elves, they represent the nobility of order, the nobility of rule. The Noldor, of science and technology, of knowledge and making, smithing. And the Teleri are lovers of the sea, lovers of boats and travel on the sea.

    And these are all things that only come with human civilization, that only come with the progress of man out of survival conditions, out of primitive survival existence, which is, I think falsely, called the state of nature So there’s nothing, inherently evil about them, but it’s the elves of technology. It’s the elves of science that are the ones to fall. And that is, I think, a warning.

    It’s interesting though, because of course, that it’s only because of the elves of technology, the Noldor, that the light of the two trees is preserved. So that’s sort of the paradox that the act of repair and preservation relies on this kind of technology, but it’s also the potential source for possession and corruption. So it’s possessed, so once the light is something that can be possessed, that it becomes dangerous, but it’s only because it’s made into an object that it survives at all.

    Sebastian Milbank: Yeah, and I think I was too hard on the preservation side earlier. I think I do agree with you. There is this nobility and this, this beauty in preservation, which I also think there’s a beauty and nobility in progress. I think Tolkien recognized that with his, his love of motor cars, but not in untrammeled progress, not in turning everything into a resource and into an object.

    Well, the thing that’s very interesting, of course, is that, is that the light is translated into an object that causes war and destruction and tears apart families. And it causes almost like the fall of these kind of rebel angels in the form of the Noldor. But at the same time, it’s then re-translated into a star so that it goes back to being a part of the natural.

    And so actually, I should say, it’s more literal than that. One of them goes into the water, one of them goes down into the earth, into the fire, and one of them goes into the sky. So effectively, the light goes back into the natural world, so that there’s a kind of dialectical process in which, you know, the light of the trees is rescued by this act of making. But then it’s re-purified and redeemed by this act of – I mean, unmaking, maybe it’s not the right word, but certainly of sacrifice.

    So you have to embody, you have to make, but then there’s a second act of making, which is purifying, which is giving away, so it’s gift. There’s a very, very strong gift economy behind it all, that if you make an object, then you have to give it away. It’s when you try to possess the thing that you make, that it becomes corrupted, so that objects have to be eventually redeemed by the act of gift. And it’s when it becomes subject to exchange and competition, that they become dangerous.

    Matthew Scarince: Yeah, I did want to note too, that the Silmaril that becomes a star, becomes a star by means of a spaceship. It’s literally true, it’s amazing. Eärendil the messenger, his ship is transformed into a ship of mithril and elven glass, so metal and glass, a kind of spaceship to travel in the sky.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Wow. I mean, it’s this approach to the complexity of technology and progress that just feels entirely Old Testament and then Book of Revelation. We’re intended to do the creation mandate, to build and to make and form and to fill. But then we screwed up. And then the first person who actually starts to do that is Cain, who builds a city for his son and names it after his son. Which is like a pure act of ego. It’s not, you know, a gift to his son. It’s just sort of like, I have made this boy. And then I am also making a city and I’m naming after naming him both because they’re both acts of my will. But then there’s Bezalel, the craftsman who, you know, in obedience to God is making beautiful things for the temple. And then there’s a vision at the end of, you know, in the Book of Revelation of, you know, of the nations of the earth and the kings of the earth, bringing their glory, bringing the things that they have made that are glorious to God. Like, so all of, all of those, you know, all of that ambition is redeemed through a gift economy.

    Matthew Scarince: Yeah. Now you could almost map – you can have your Silmarillion Old Testament and your Lord of the Rings New Testament, because there’s that redemption of of Númenor in Aragorn’s restoration of the kingdoms of the west of Arnor and Gondor. There’s the elevation of the city in Minas Tirith, originally this fortress and originally a colony, a kind of a thing that was planted to control the surrounding areas to exercise domination, becomes instead a symbol of a bastion of freedom against the tyranny of Sauron and a symbol of hope for the rebuilding of Middle-earth.

    It’s very hard. Yeah. Minas Tirith – I think Tolkien said it was roughly on the same latitude as Florence. So maybe that’s the real Second Rome.

    And there’s some, there’s some interesting similarities in the rough layout of Minas Tirith and Vienna. And you can see the siege of Vienna is also another nice parallel.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my goodness.

    Matthew Scarince: Well, and of course the armies of the east do turn up in, you know, problematic orientalist fashion.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m unfortunately going to have to link my very ridiculous Venice and Vienna piece in the show notes of this, because now I’m re-experiencing the last month and a half of my life through this new information, this new wisdom that I’m receiving from you guys if our listeners have, if their appetites have been whetted by this conversation, other than just reading The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, what would you recommend? What are good ways in to the rest of this world?

    Matthew Scarince: Well, if they haven’t already, I think everyone should read On Fairy-Stories. Because this touches on the themes that we’ve talked about in this episode regarding magic and technology and some of the stuff that I thought maybe we could get into, but maybe for another time, about Tolkien on science fiction, because that’s such a fascinating topic.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, no, no, I’m sorry. You have to tell me. Even if I have to cut this, I need to do this.

    Matthew Scarince: It’s, it’s interesting that he has this kind of ambivalent relationship with science fiction. He’s a great reader of science fiction. He notes Asimov as one of his favorite authors. And in The Notion Club Papers, there’s pages and pages of a digression, it’s basically like a fictionalized version of the Inklings, though none of the members correspond to any of the real life members exactly, just discussing whether or not science fiction stories or stories on other planets and other world should include spaceships or whether that’s not believable.

    But he touches on fairy stories, this idea that part of the problem is in this genre that is the most fantastical, in the genre where like you can see futures and distant worlds and all these things that are so beyond our ordinary experience, we just imagine the same kind of progress that we’ve seen up to this point in the twentieth century. Part of our problem is that we can no longer imagine that anything will change in a way. We’ll still have factories the same way we have in the future. We’ll still have cars and machine guns and things in the future: these are natural and inevitable, even though they’re the most artificial things about our present day. They’re the things that we choose to incorporate into the world.

    And so I think that’s this, all of these themes come together in On Fairy-Stories, and all of this. It’s a very readable format. It was originally a lecture he gave that got incorporated into various books, but it really gets to the heart of this discussion.

    And I’ll just add a sort of small addendum to that. Of course Tolkien did consider writing a sequel to Lord of the Rings, and he chose not to, in part precisely because of what you’re saying, because he felt that once the elves had gone, that he would basically just be writing a bad political drama. And that is interesting that the risk of the more fantastical you try to get, the more you just circle back to what you know, because you have so few other points of reference.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It would have become Game of Thrones-y. It would have just been like the history of the men in Middle-earth.

    There’s something, there’s a question that I have for you guys just because I’ve been thinking about it for some random reason lately, which is – so the idea of a genre of story or speculation or thought that is what will happen in the future and how will the future be different, I mean, I guess it starts with Thomas More’s Utopia, or something like that, or The New Atlantis, I guess.

    But why, what happened to our brains in like the seventeenth century and then eighteenth and nineteenth century that we started to think about the future as a different place to visit and tell stories about? Like, what was that?

    Matthew Scarince: Part of it, I think, because the primary author I’m familiar with who does that kind of thing is H. G. Wells, right? He not only writes stories like The Time Machine where characters travel into the future, he wrote a whole fake textbook called The Shape of Things to Come, which is basically, it’s like a history textbook of stuff that hasn’t happened. It’s this, it is the fact that to a certain extent, our technology and our understanding of the world is cumulative. It is something that builds throughout the ages. We know more now about certain things, certain processes and have the ability to make bigger machines than we did in previous ages. And that excitement at that prospect really starts to unfold in the nineteenth century. You see these rapid technological changes because we’ve reached a point where all of that accumulated knowledge could be built upon and could be experimented upon and tested and produce actual results. If you think about the amount of time it took for us to get, to go from the first motor car to landing on the moon, in historical terms, is an incredibly short amount of time because it’s building on all this knowledge of the past ages.

    And so seeing that change that I think naturally propelled these kinds of stories, but there’s a kind of optimism in these stories too that I think can tend to gloss over the, like, you know, we’ve seen the positive effects. We’ve yet to fully understand the negative effects, although we’re starting to really kind of understand that now, I think a lot more and more people are starting to understand that. But yeah, there’s an intoxication to progress that makes us want to talk about it and imagine.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In the face of a world where that is the primary imaginative space, I guess, the future is the kind of primary imaginative space that we live in, even, you know, our contemporary sort of Palantir wielding overlords – What would Tolkien say to us?

    Matthew Scarince: You get the sense from On Fairy-Stories and from other works of Tolkien – “Mythopoeia,” especially, the poem that he composed defending mythology to Lewis – we do need to look backwards. We do need to look back on the previous ages and see the elves. We need to see the ennoblement and the enchantment of our history, before we can look forwards and see, OK, where are we going to take this? What are we going to bring with us into this future? What are we going to preserve? Like Sebastian was saying, this art of preservation. What are we going to bring forward with us to guide us?

    The Silmaril becomes a star, a literal guiding star to the protagonists of the Lord of the Rings. That continuity, that sense of allowing the noble elements of the past to bring us into the future – I think that’s a really strong theme in the Lord of the Rings.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, and maybe what are we going to re-forge?

    Matthew Scarince: And I think it’s that precise theme of nobility in the face of often traumatic, irreversible change that’s so powerful in Tolkien. And I think that’s what makes him a modern author rather than just a kind of Edwardian romantic. Because there’s a sense of it, because we’re so familiar with Tolkien, it’s hard to stand back and kind of look at it. But again, this is a fantasy novel in which industrial technology shows up halfway through. Like, I don’t think you can kind of understate that it’s a confrontation between utterly different kind of worlds and realities that are kind of spinning apart.

    And, you know, in one way, it’s an innately conservative novel, but not in the simple sense of, you know, sort of small-mindedness or attachment to the past. But I think it’s much more in its ability to almost revive some deep Anglo-Saxon infused tragic sense of reality. It’s full of this sense of, you know, beauty slipping away and the necessity of a kind of heroic, almost irrationally hopeful courage, even in the face of the complete collapse of entire ways of life and civilizations. So it’s sort of a manual for how to keep human nature, you know, the highest pellets of human nature going in an age of sort of massive technological change.

    And I will say it’s, I think what distinguishes it from that, from that past Anglo-Saxon tragedy is that it’s not ultimately a tragedy. It’s getting us through the tragedy to the restoration on the other side, to the, to the kind of reversal that doesn’t undo the past, like the stuff happens and the stuff that happens is incorporated into that future.

    But, you know, you have at the end of the Lord of the Rings the scouring of the Shire. It leaves, it leaves marks on the Shire, but ultimately what comes out is not only a restoration of the Shire, but an ennoblement and beautification of it through these powerful gifts, like the gift of the mallon tree.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, on that note, you guys, I think it’s probably time to wrap. Thank you both so much.

    Matthew Scarince: Oh, thank you so much.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m really delighted by this. All right. Bye, guys.

    Sebastian Milbank: Bye!

    Matthew Scarince: Bye!

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Contributed By SebastianMilbank Sebastian Milbank

    Sebastian Milbank is executive editor of The Critic.

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    Contributed By MatthewScarince Matthew Scarince

    Matthew Scarince is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher working in New Jersey.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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