Externality in Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien

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If we find the Principle of Externality in Middle-earth, we should not disbelieve our eyes, for we know on other grounds that Tolkien accepts the PE. But “On Fairy Stories” actually lets us go even further: we should expect to find the PE in Middle-earth. The reason is that on Tolkien’s view, “…fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.”36 If Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to be a good fairy story (and surely he did!), he could be expected to leave untouched such fundamental things as the nature of good and evil and the character of creaturely fulfillment. Tolkien adds, “Fairy-stories may invent monsters that fly in the air or dwell in the deep, but at least they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea.”37

And indeed The Lord of the Rings is faithful to this rule. The geography is invented, but the geological formations are familiar; the languages are foreign, but they are susceptible of translation into “natural” languages; there are races which are sub-created, but psychologically they are kindred to us. The fundamental things are all in place; the ethics and metaphysics are the same as in the primary world (our world). There is but one uncreated being, and all else depends on Him for existence. The Hierarchical conception is in place. And creaturely fulfillment involves (as a necessary condition) activity that is an end in itself and that has some external good as its contemplated object.

The race of beings whose fulfillment is most conspicuous (though perhaps not of the highest degree or quality) in The Lord of the Rings is the race of Hobbits. The first scene of Book I is a grand Hobbit party with food and dancing and pipe-weed and merriment, and in the last scene but one of Book VI, the Shire (now put back in order) is flowing with fine beer—‘proper fourteen-twenty’—and the Hobbits are sprawled on the grass savoring strawberries and cream. Hobbits do not normally contemplate weighty matters; they do not ‘live long on the heights’ as do Elrond and Galadriel and Aragorn and Gandalf. There is a striking scene in Book VI, however, when Frodo and Sam, nearing Mount Doom, have stopped to rest for the night. Sam crawls out of their hiding place and is watching the clouded night sky.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him.38

This self-forgetful awe should be seen in contradistinction to the grasping, clawing hands of Gollum, and the dreadful monosyllable “Mine!” of the bearers of the One Ring (or “Ours!” in the case of Sméagol-Gollum). But it is not appropriation as such that Tolkien condemns. Aragorn has the right to take and use a palantir; Denethor does not. Here enters the last clause of the PE. Externality is not enough; the metaethics of The Lord of the Rings also involves the assumption that one cannot be fulfilled by activity which one does not have the right to engage in. True, Gollum might seek and possess the One Ring as an end in itself; true, there might be some measure of externality to the activity (since the Ring is at least not physically part of Gollum, or vice versa—though possession might be thought to compromise distinctness of identity to some degree). But it is clear that possession of the Ring will not bring fulfillment to Gollum, only misery. And this is because Gollum does not have the authority to possess the Ring (not even Gandalf has that authority). It seems clear that Tolkien accepts the PE in every detail: the creatures he sub-creates are fulfilled by activity directed toward external goods, but not if the activity is of a kind which is illicit for those creatures.

We have dealt now with three writers and one idea held in common between them. Each contributes original insights to the discussion; each approaches the matter with his own distinctive personality and charm. But there is here a genuine meeting of the minds and a fundamental agreement. Each values the otherness of the external; each holds that it is good to become small so that one’s world can become large. Each desires to see every being for the being that it is. But one thing further must be noticed: each of these three men went beyond cool consideration or heated defense of the Principle of Externality. Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien seem, by all accounts, to have put the Principle to the test. Each (if I may put it in these terms) became the ‘guinea pig’ in his own experiment to verify the Principle. And in each of these three test cases, the Principle of Externality seems to have fared rather well.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.