Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’
Happy New Year to you. In this season we think about time, which “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” That makes this a good day, I aver, to discuss the question of time in The Lord of the Rings. At least some aspects I’ve noticed.
I’ve been looking for hints of Norse influences in The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’m still reading (almost done now). One such element seems to be the runestone that Gimli visits, shortly after the escape from Moria (excerpt above).
But the stone is illegible, thanks to time and weather. And that got me thinking about time and the concept of ancient things in the Trilogy.
One element I like in these books is that “old” is not confused with evil. As you may recall, I do not love H. P. Lovecraft and his nest of unspeakably evil eldritch gods. There is ancient evil in Tolkien, to be sure, but there’s no hint that wickedness has some kind of precedence over goodness. (This, it seems to me, is an imaginative infection within evolutionism.) Rather, in Tolkien, there’s a sense of a lost golden age, of glories and wonders that shall be seen no more, because the world has declined. This view is much more in harmony with classical mythology, and with the mythologies of many other cultures as well.
C. S. Lewis, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, famously noted the fact that, in Beowulf, it is assumed that an old sword is better than a new sword.
I’m not sure if he knew the proximate reason for this fact, which I’ve picked up in my own research. Sword making was state of the art technology in the Dark Ages. But the forging of a sword was as much art as science. Many variables challenged the swordsmith. The bog iron he might be using was capable of producing very fine steel, but impurities were many. The iron contained mineral inclusions which had to be roasted and hammered out, and that process was never perfect. Such inclusions weakened the steel. The forging itself was regulated by eye, by the smith’s judgment of color. If his judgment was off today, the steel might be too brittle, or too soft. Finishing any sword was a gamble, and you never knew until it was completed – and tried in battle – whether the gamble had succeeded or not. That’s why the Norse poem Havamal includes a line saying, “Praise no sword until it is tested.” A fine-looking new weapon might break or permanently bend. An old sword, on the other hand, would have been through many tests and was probably reliable.
But beyond that, Lewis is right that there was a sense – easily understandable in a world that looked back on the glories of Rome – that the present age was an impoverished one, and that we are inferior to our ancestors.
It’s one of Tolkien’s virtues that he recreates that historical frame of mind so well. And it adds atmosphere to the story. The narrative seems all the more realistic, because the characters move in a world equipped with a dimly remembered past.