This’ll Generate Some Hate Mail
With that out of the way, I do admit that there’s something appealing about delving into the backstory of his fantasy world. It’s like examining the H-O scale trainset of an obsessive old crank. While I have no interest in sitting in his basement to watch the train go round-and-round for hours, it’s pretty cool to lean in and see how he painted the wee trees and houses.
When the movies came out, I got interested in the world and poked around the web to learn the backstory of Middle Earth. As you might expect, it didn’t take long to hit giant troves of the stuff. I learned about Balrogs and Numenor and Dunlendings and whatall.
Through the thousands of years of history of Tolkien’s fictional world, one powerful motif seems to underline it all: “mommy, mommy, please don’t go.”
Tolkien split the history of Middle Earth into “years” and “ages.” At the end of each era, the most powerful beings in the world at that time depart, leaving the world progressively more barren of magic and the touch of the divine. This happens a couple of times. First the demigods leave, then the angels, and in the end of the Lord of the Rings, the elves pack up and go. Whoever’s on top of the “mystical pecking order” gets up and leaves.
Granted, the motif of decay from a golden age is a common one in mythology. Beyond the Abrahamic tradition of the fall from Eden, there’s the Hindu and Buddhist idea of the cyclical rise and decline of the world (we’re on a downslide now, of course) and the traditional trope of Chinese historiography: relentless decay (“The Shang dynasty was pure, not like the corrupt T’ang court of today,” etc.).
What makes Tolkien’s mythology of perpetual decay different is the motif of abandonment. The world isn’t just sliding into the crapper, he says, we’re being left behind by the divine. The world grows filthier, and the uppermost beings of the world choose to leave it, and us. As time advances, the world of the spirit moves farther and farther away from the world of matter.
The dimestore Freud in me links this to his upbringing. The American in me, brought up to believe that history is the story of progress rather than decay, finds it silly.
I was never much for Lost Golden Ages and the Irreversible Decline of Man.