The day of the printed journal of imagination—dealing with ideas, literature, and poetry—seems to be fading. To be sure, it has been fading rather dramatically ever since the Second World War. Political and ideologically-oriented magazines, specialized academic journals packed full of discipline-specific jargon, and even the so-called best sellers have replaced the journals of imagination. As many of our most prominent scholars have declared since the advent of the Cold War and beyond, everything has become political. The literature of imagination and poetry seems, therefore, passé and merely romantic. Certainly, most would argue, such journals have nothing to do with the everyday reality of Wall Street or of the post-9-11 international scene.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s day, especially in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, journals of the imagination abounded. In England, one could read, to name just a few: T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion, Bernard Wall’s Colosseum, Tom Burns’s Order, or Christopher Dawson’s Dublin Review. These reviews contained poetry, short stories, and learned articles on politics, history, literature, economic, law, and everything else under the sun. Tolkien even wrote for the Dublin Review, publishing his inspired short story about purgatory, “Leaf by Niggle,” in the January-February-March issue of 1945. Christopher Dawson, the editor of the Dublin Review during World War II, and a fellow parishioner of Tolkien at St. Aloysius’s Church in Oxford, had recorded in his personal notebook that he would include anything in his journal written by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Charles Williams. And, while Tolkien only published “Leaf by Niggle” in the Dublin Review, Charles Williams published an article or book review in almost every issue under Dawson’s tenure. Lewis never did, but he was a friend of Dawson’s. And, to look at the January-February-March issue of 1945 of the Dublin Review reveals much about the nature of such journals. In addition to Tolkien’s short story, scholarly articles on Sir Thomas More, the Roman Empire, the Christian Tradition in England, John Henry Newman, and Czechoslovakia also appeared.
The editors and the writers for these reviews, for the most part, were not academics in the strict modern sense. Rather than specializing in one or two minor subjects within a larger specialty, focusing on minutia, and drowning in one’s own subjective reality, the men and women who wrote for such journals were well rounded and broadly educated in the Liberal Arts. They believed, in general, that culture and literature preceded politics, economics, and legal systems. The latter, indeed, grew out of the former. To change society dramatically and permanently, one must first change the culture and the ideas that shape and mold that culture, then later turn to the dry subjects of law, politics, and economics. Passing a new law or a new subsidy or developing a new bureaucracy might provide a short-term solution to whatever problem might arise, but one would do better to change the culture first, thus permanently influencing the way in which people thought about their world. These broadly educated editors and writers were simply known as Men and Women of Letters.
Tolkien was a Man of Letters. Though, of course, he was an expert in his own subjects of the Anglo-Saxon world and Beowulf, he also read thoroughly and deeply in the classics and especially in mythology. It be would impossible to read any of Tolkien’s works without feeling the depth of learning and conviction that went into each character, each situation, each idea, each battle, each evening, each morning, and each day of his Legendarium. Tolkien brought his general, classical learning—as well as his specialized linguistic and historical training and his own philosophical and metaphysical beliefs—to fruition and culmination in the sub-created world of Middle-earth. And, in his own letters, Tolkien invites others to join in his sub-created world. “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” Then in a moment of humility, Tolkien concluded the thought in a word: “Absurd.” And, yet it is not absurd. What Tolkien described in the early 1950s is at the essence of the Liberal Arts and the culture and understanding of the Men and Women of Letters of the inter-war period: A structure of reality exists, too large for any one of us flawed and finite beings to comprehend fully, and we—each unique in time and space—fill in our little (but vital) parts. In this one passage, Tolkien could also be describing creation, time, and space and each individual’s place within it. Such is the obvious brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Though very few printed journals of imagination exist anymore, the web has provided a whole new generation of readers, writers, and editors with a forum for the Liberal Arts, properly understood, and the culture of the imagination. You are reading one such journal right now, of course, The Imaginative Conservative, and Green Books is yet another.* The women and men who write for it—Anwyn, Tehanu, Turgon, and Quickbeams—are the new Women and Men of Letters. Green Books is the twenty-first century equivalent of the great journals of culture and imagination of Tolkien’s day: The Criterion, The Dublin Review, and Colosseum. The writers of Green Books take Tolkien’s “majestic whole” and serve as the “minds and hands, wielding” the pen and the keyboard, manifesting the will of the soul and the imagination.
As Plato first taught us, the imagination comes from outside of one’s self as a form of divine madness—“a mind beside itself.” And, as Tolkien most recently taught us, one’s imagination is a gift to be used for enchantment, that is, the bettering of the created order. Our gifts are not for us, but for others. Magic, though, is the desire to have power over the created world, the “domination of things and wills” (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”). It is the old story and struggle of grace and will. The former helps order the world properly, the latter disorders the soul and, consequently, the world. In the long run, we know, the imagination, properly understood, will conquer politics, legal systems, economics, and all other such dreary and calculated things of modernity and post-modernity. The graciousness and sacrifice of the Frodos, Gandalfs, and Aragorns will overturn the pride of the ever-returning Sarumans and Saurons of the world.
Therefore, to these new Men and Women of Letters of Green Books, I offer a hearty and soul-filled congratulations on this second success. May there be many more. Long live their imaginations and the imaginations of others.
Or, as Tolkien best said it in 1958, “I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron; but I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentlehobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”
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This essay, which is republished here with gracious permission of the author, originally appeared in slightly different form in 2004 as the Introduction in More People’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien.