“Wyrd Wonder” – Mystical Integration of the Great Story in Tolkien’s Play

Cynicism, mercilessness, despair, apathy and parody, these are not the way of the Holy Spirit. In Tolkien’s legendarium evil often takes the path down this route and Tolkien’s hero’s struggle relentlessly in the fray of a “sacral play,” so as to overcome these life-sapping abysses. Subsequently hobbits are taken into the tale of such combat against evil, and it is precisely their often virtuous resilience against all odds that sees them resist and overcome the trappings of the enemy. But why are hobbits from a seemingly quasi-modern age thrown into a smorgasbord of disconnected past ages with all the perhaps whimsical dissonance to achieve this end? This is a question that was levelled at me, quite fairly I think by Avellina Ballestri, chief editor of Fellowship and Fairydust. She worded her contention as follows:-

I think I figured out what I don’t like more specifically about the LotR world. If it was about a young farm boy from a Dark Ages village in Rohan whose simple life is overthrown by orc attacks, and he goes on to become a great warrior hero to save his loved ones and small village, and ultimately even the world, that would work for me. Same universe. Same consistency. And the flavor of original Anglo-Saxon lore remain steady across the board. Same concept of the meek inheriting the earth. But the hobbit world is from a totally different era, a totally different compartment of English literature and historical reference, so it just feels jolting.

My response to Avellina, is rooted in my understanding of what I call “Wyrd wonder,” a jolting necessity needed for the artist to breathe life within a living tradition; that allows them to build a future imagined through the wisdom of the past. Wyrd Wonder captivated Shakespeare and also Blake and it was certainly in the heart and mind of the Beowulf-Poet who I will use as my example.

Wyrd: Old English wyrd is a verbal noun formed from the verb weorþan, meaning “to come to pass, to become”. The term developed into the modern English adjective weird. … From the 14th century, to weird was also used as a verb in Scots, in the sense of “to preordain by decree of fate”

Wyrd is the notion of a transcendent narrative that shaped the unfurling of the world, that was grasped by the pre-Christian mind of the Beowulf Poet’s oral tradition sources… as “Fate” rather than the later “Providence of the Creator.” “Wyrd” caused the human mind to wonder at the recurring themes of human nature – allowing an artistic action to embrace a range of historical periods and hold them in unity without dissonance. The Beowulf Poet does just this when he mediated his oral traditions; he is <<bridging the gap>> between the intangible past of an unrecorded oral tradition and the changing world of a new Christian illumination; written on vellum! 

In the Light of a Logos (the Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order, identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ) and it’s revelation for this monk and his scribes, human language takes a transcendence bourne from the notion of a Divine revelation; allowing human words to hold eternal meaning. These eternal notions can now dance between the alterity of the past and the new world that is forming, without any artistic conflict. Consider Grendel’s descent from Cain and the Scop’s (Bard’s) singing regarding the Shaper of the cosmos, here you have the smorgasbord brought together in artistic unity by the skill of the story-teller… Cain is known by omniscient narrator and so we are told of Grendel’s origins, but then more than this jolt, even the bard at Heorot knows of the Creator and his shaping… It is possible to overcome the conflagration of time periods, jumping from Finnsburg fragments to Scyld Scyfing’s arrival; because of the lense of the monastic author’s understanding of “wyrd wonder”; of a fated story where unity is borne from an underlying wondrous principle of the Logos’ shaping. In the light of “Wyrd” become “Logos’ Providence” it is possible to dance and play between intangible alterity, the becoming of the present, and the imagined destiny or telos of the world in the artist’s hope.

From Middle English wonder, wunder, from Old English wundor (“wonder, miracle, marvel”), from Proto-Germanic *wundrą.

The miracle of storytelling is the drawing from the intagible past and bridging the gap with its alterity through the mediatorship of the artist who is caught up or infused with the illumination of “wyrd wonder,” and the slowly shaping story of the rolling of time itself into eternity. There is an urgency then to speak at <<this point in time>> and to continue the story for those who will listen…

In this notion of “wyrd wonder” Tolkien’s smorgasbord of time periods can be argued to be a morally necessary <<unity of art>>. In such a mystical reading, consider then his existential locus; war, the ravaging of the countryside, the loss of the elves at the turning tide of modernity was then even more jarring than for Richard Corbet almost 400 years earlier. In 1591, the English bishop Richard Corbet had penned a poetic farewell to the elves, which included the lines: 

By which wee note the faries

Were of the old Profession.

Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,         

Their dances were Procession.

But now, alas, they all are dead;

  Or gone beyond the seas;

In the light of the Logos which Tolkien loved, there was a moral duty to bring back the elves so that our future may be grafted to their light. This was not a wild escapist fantasy, this was a moral duty of the artist to connect us to our past so that we might become hobbits in our destiny… Incarnating their resilient gentless, as balrogs and orc-foe and wraiths asail all that we would hold dear, within the continually unfurling play of “Middangeard” (Middle Earth):-

Tolkien’s is an exquisitely proleptic art that

takes a pagan, pre-Christian universe and

suffuses it discreetly with a sacramental

holiness stemming implicitly from what

Balthasar makes bold to call the Christ form.

Prolepsis: the assigning of a person, event, etc., to a period earlier than the actual one.

Both Tolkien and the Beowulf are examples of  artists in worlds teetering on the edge of cataclysmic paradigm and cosmological shifts… for the Beowulf poet it is Pagan-Christian… For Tolkien it is the emergence into the mundane modernity of nihilism where elves are no longer a serious business and hobbits have nothing meaningful to fulfil. Tolkien takes the creative attack and sends such thinkers an ancient Balrog to viscerally engage (it’s already on the bridge!), as the Beowulf poet does with his Grendel. Vehemently through an intentional artistry, he typifies and becomes an apotheosis case of the work of a Bard …in his dance between the liminal realm of the past’s Alterity and the present. Why? So that the future can belong to the hobbit’s who can continue a unity with what has come before, a journey and quest which is resilient to its last breath in the Long Defeat, but miraculously suffused by a light that overcomes all evil throws at them… but from where does the light come? Hence the distinct importance of the kneeling to the hobbits in the Return of the King, they are the questers of the light old as dawn, who have become suffused by it. “Wyrd Wonder” was always sensed, and it led to hobbits down ancient pasts into a new a glorious vision of the future, as the Eagle’s arrived true to the seeming “luck” of the Logos’ interplay in Arda… As Finrod noted in his conversation with Andreth, ”For that Arda Healed shall not be Arda Unmarred, but a third thing, and greater and yet the same… To speal according to Time in which they have their being, the Arda Healed, which shall be greater and more fair than the first, because of the Marring: this is the Hope that sustaineth. It cometh not only from the yearning of the Will of Illuvatar the Begetter (which by itself may lead those within Time to more than regret) but also from trust in Eru the Lord Everlasting, that he is good and his works shall all end in good (Morgoth’s Ring, 250)

As Huizinga states:

What this means is that Tolkien’s enchanted world

of faerie is best and most fruitfully considered as an ordered,

thaumaturgic field of play, set up in a sacral mode, we might

almost say, to yield the impression of “distance and a great

abyss of time…In the form and function of play, itself an independent entity which

is senseless and irrational, man’s consciousness that he is embedded

in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression. Gradually the significance of a sacred act permeates the playing. Ritual grafts itself upon it; but the primary thing is and remains play. ( Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, a study of play elements in culture).

Sacramental vision through mythopoesis is the final synthesis of all the yearning of mythos for Absolute truth, with the emergence of the miracle of the Revelation of Christ as the form of “myth become fact” (Tolkien, On Fairy Stories). In the light of Christian illumination, a duty of continuity now exist between the past elves and the restoration of the elves in the future… one that is so deeply important, that art is not sacrificed by bridging the gap, but rather is <<saved>> through the journey to alterity of the past, so that the future can be redeemed through that same wild romance that has brought us to our current and present struggle against timeless evil. Peter Jackson did not include the Scouring of the Shire in his film trilogy, and if I met him I would say… “bro, your trilogy was inspired, but presently I can only say… you past one thing by, in the future let’s make a small inclusion in the films of the Scouring of the Shire and the “Wyrd Wonder” of Tom Bombadil, so that it can indeed be scoured true, for where did Bill the pony run to?.” The scouring of the Shire is the thermataugic field of play for Western culture down to the detail of Bill being taken in by Tom Bombadil through his memory of gentle times. Let us look then through the alterity of the past and the light of this emerging radiance, at our present and becoming, infused by a mystical knowledge that Tolkien’s art sends forth through His understanding that the Logos << shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it>> (John, 1:5) Hobbits are not a jolting smorgasbord mistake, they are an artistic necessity, that we might learn how to be wise in this very precise moment of our lives, and the next one, and the next one and the next one as the “Road goes ever on”…

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