There is no question that Tolkien has had an amazing effect on my life, perhaps more than any other single person, including my parents. I am a linguist today because of The Hobbit. The runes absolutely fascinated me. And then — The Lord of the Rings! Can you imagine the thrill that shot through me when I read the inscription on the One Ring:
Ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatuluk, agh burzum ishi krimpatul.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness, bind them.
…and I realized that ash must mean “one”, and nazg must mean “ring” — and suddenly the name Nazgul — “ring ghoul” — Ringwraith — made perfect sense! There was no turning back after that.
And then of course there’s this whole druidism thing. Of course, there are no druids per se in Tolkien’s mythology, but the atmosphere, the moral values (e.g. the reverence for trees), and the character of magic throughout the works are unmistakable. I didn’t realize I was a druid until twenty-odd years after I read the books, but they set me on the path.
I think it’s pretty common for works of fiction to have profound effects on peoples’ lives. Think of all the libertarians spawned by Ayn Rand, for example. But if you take a step back and think about it, it’s a strange thing. After all, fiction is just a pack of lies, right? And not just lies — lies that everyone knows are false. Tolkien wasn’t fooling anybody, or trying to. Objectively speaking, how could known falsehoods have any kind of influence on someone’s life?
In this article, I’m going to try to tease out what fiction is for — why humanity creates fiction, and how it works — and I think you’ll see that a Tarot spread, or any other divination system, actually serves a closely related function. From there it’s a short step to a Tolkien Tarot Spread, based on a core theme/pattern found in Tolkien’s fiction.
The Roots of Belief
Where does belief come from? When you’re presented with new information, how do you decide whether to believe it?
Do you check things out in a purely logical manner? Maybe you compare it with beliefs that you already have, see if the new information is consistent with them? Research the source of the information — the author, the newspaper, whatever — and see if they have a reputation for telling the truth? Verify by experiment — try it yourself?
Most people gauge truth by a much simpler system: they use their gut. If the new information triggers an emotional response, that response almost completely determines their belief. When you read something you disagree with, and you have a powerful negative emotional reaction, you immediately start trying to think of ways to disprove or discount what you’ve read. On the other hand, if you have a powerful positive emotional reaction, you immediately start trying to think of evidence that supports your belief.
For example, I believe quite strongly that racism (or any kind of ‘groupism’) is wrong, and that there is no substantive genetic difference between groups of people. I believe this partly because of my own experience with African Americans, but mostly because (honestly) I want to believe it. I’ll be quite blunt here: if I read a story or a study on some web site that purported to show that African Americans had lower IQ or whatever, I would have a powerful negative emotional response, and I would immediately think of ways that the study might be faulty — poorly designed, poorly executed, funded by people I don’t like, etc. It would be very, very, very hard to convince me of such a thing. Conversely, if I read a story or study that shows that African Americans have equal IQ, I would have a positive response and I wouldn’t question it at all. I would believe it immediately, without question.
According to neurolinguistic programming, belief really arises out of emotion. NLP actually teaches techniques for generating beliefs out of emotional responses: you train yourself to believe what you want to believe (e.g. ‘I am self-confident’) by linking certain beliefs to certain emotions, and then triggering those emotions again and again. You will find yourself looking for reasons to believe in your self-confidence, looking for supporting evidence again and again… And eventually you’ll find (or create) some.
Is this good or bad? Well, if we live in an objective world, with no spiritual component, and no Law of Attraction, it’s definitely a design flaw in the human brain. After all, if belief is just a kind of emotional response, our beliefs are essentially random, and hardly tied to the real world at all. It’s amazing we survived this long as a species.
However, if we live in a spiritual world, with working magic and the Law of Attraction, then it’s a wonderful thing. Since beliefs create reality, it means that you can really change the world in accord with your emotional force. And since you ultimately have control over your emotional responses, then you have control over your world.
The Scope of Fiction’s Power
So — back to fiction. Now we have an answer to why good fiction can be so powerfully life-changing: it elicits emotional responses. Therefore it can, and it will, affect your belief structures. But not your beliefs about the facts of the story: you know that there was never any such person as Frodo Baggins, for example. Regardless of how strongly moved you are by Tolkien’s fiction, you will never really believe that Frodo existed.
Instead, fiction instills belief in the background assumptions of the work. The background assumptions are things like human nature, spiritual nature, character, morality, and ethics.
For example, Larry Niven, one of my very favorite SF (speculative fiction) authors, is a pretty libertarian guy. Many heroes of his works are adventurers, entrepreneurs, or other individuals who seek their personal fortunes without worrying about whether they’re being too greedy or doing their duty to the government. Furthermore, he portrays a future universe where pretty much everyone is wealthy, because there are very few governmental constraints on economic activity. He never says this blatantly; he shows it — his characters simply move through a society full of rich, comfortable people, and he shows them using all kinds of creative ways to explore, trade and increase their personal wealth and happiness. Unrealistic? Well, he’s a great writer, and he makes it realistic. Read enough of his stuff, and you start to take on a libertarian mindset yourself, totally subconsciously. (I guess you could take that as a warning or a temptation…)
Tolkien’s philosophy is harder to pin down — we don’t have a label for him, like we do for libertarians. It’s a complex web, too, so even when you see it, it’s hard to describe concisely. But it’s there, and it’s unavoidable. Here are some aspects of it:
- There is a guiding force to events, which works indirectly through seeming ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’ (e.g. Bilbo’s finding the Ring; the manner of the Ring’s destruction).
- Despite this, people have free will, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
- Loyalty to one’s king and country is a great virtue, as is military service when necessary.
- Greed for power (and knowledge!) corrupts.
- The world was once much more beautiful and pure than it is now.
- Not all wrongs can be righted, but even tragedy can be beautiful.
Orson Scott Card (another of my favorite SF authors) put it best:
Non-fiction is about what happened once. Fiction is about what happens.
If the fiction moves you, if it triggers the right emotional responses, then your beliefs about what happens can change. And that’s a much more powerful effect than simply changing your beliefs about what happened once.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the crucial role of plot in fiction, and how it reflects and creates beliefs about the patterns of events in life — which of course is the very crux of divination.
Click here for the next post in this series: Patterns of Action.