The Tolkien Tarot Spread I: the Function of Fiction

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.

Profound Lies


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.

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.


34 responses to “The Tolkien Tarot Spread I: the Function of Fiction”

  1. Jeff,

    I love Tolkien, and I completely agree that fiction is often underrated by most people. I even remember one time when a school teacher of mine dismissed Tolkien’s work as “children’s books”. He obviously didn’t get the point.

    Can’t wait for the next part.



  2. I definitely agree with Vitor on this… Fiction is vastly underrated.

    There are three authors who have had the most influence on my way of thinking… Spider Robinson, Piers Anthony, and Robert A. Heinlein. In different ways, each of these three have set up the filters through which I view reality.

    Robinson’s contribution can be summed up in both the short story God is an Iron, as well as the running theme of his Callahan stories, that shared joy is increase, shared pain is diminished.

    Anthony taught that not all of our thoughts are purely subjective, and not all of the physical world is purely objective… There is a true mixing of the two. Also, artificial consciousness is more than possible, it is inevitable.

    Heinlein taught that to laugh is to be human, and to be human is to laugh… Also, while a lot of people talk about honor, courage, and selfless service, you must build your own foundation before you can build anybody else’s… All of his heroes took care of themselves first, before saving the universe.


  3. Vitor: a school teacher of yours thought Tolkien was for children?? Obviously he’d never picked up The Silmarillion

    Something I’ve always wondered is how Tolkien’s names sound to non-English speakers. He created his languages with an ear to his own personal linguistic taste, and, purposefully or not, Elvish names in particular echo English words in subtle ways. Mordor, for example, suggests murder; and orn, one of the Sindarin words for ‘tree’ (found in mallorn and Celeborn), suggests acorn. These correspondences aren’t usually obvious, and they operate subconsciously. Vitor, what kind of effect does it have for you?


  4. Adam, it’s neat to hear you list out what your favorite authors taught you about life! I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only read a very little by the three authors you’ve mentioned — in fact I don’t think I’ve picked up any Spider Robinson at all… As for Piers Anthony, I loved reading his Apprentice Adept series, but that’s all I ever read by him. And Heinlein… I tried reading Stranger in a Strange Land once, but had a hard time getting into it. But I have a collection of his short stories that I adore; particularly All You Zombies and And He Built a Crooked House.


  5. Jeff,

    What impresses me the most about Tolkien’s lingustic feats is that he made each word truly fit its meaning – Phonosemantically, as you would say. There is a certain emotional weight to each syllable, drawing you deeper into the storyworld of middle-earth. Also, the distinct identities given to each fictional language represent the traits of the race corresponding to it beautifully.

    I never liked reading Tolkien in german or spanish, and I think that it may be because the common language, westron (in which the books are supposedly written), is represented by english, and substituting it with another language just breaks the entire linguistic puzzle Tolkien put together.


  6. One of these days, Vitor, I’m going to write a big huge article on Tolkien’s phonosemantics. It’s daunting to think of the research involved… But one of these days!


  7. When reading Heinlein, you really have to work up to the end… Especially in Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, and The Cat that Walks Through Walls, three of his greatest books…

    The problem with the three of them, though, is it takes willpower to get to that one point in the story where you feel you absolutely must read the rest… Before that point, if you set the book down too long, you wouldn’t be able to pick it back up, although the endings are more than well worth the beginning… and also rely on the slow beginnings, in a sense.


  8. When I was a child growing up in an abusive home, my escape was in books. I couldn’t possibly pick out any one book or author who influenced my life the most. I loved mythology in all forms—Roman, Greek, it didn’t matter. Maybe those are where I got my values from. Science fiction in any kind was wonderful because they not only took me out of my life but most often into outerspace and to other planets. Fiction was my book of choice back then because it could help me forget and take me places that I would never go except in my mind. Like, Vitor, I look forward to your next article.


  9. Patricia, thanks for reminding us of another function of fiction! The escapist function of fiction is so often denigraded and sneered at by literary critics that it’s easy to forget that escape can be a vital service to the reader. My wife and I use Pratchett for this at the end of every day, to help us forget things so that we can sleep. 🙂 As for mythology, ever since the Solstice, I’ve been reading it to the kids before they go to bed. They adore it!


  10. I don’t know about how underrated fiction really is. Even by “most people.” I’m not sure that most people are all that reflective about it, but i think most people do have a story or two that is extremely meaningful to them, whether it be from film, written literature, whatever. i think a lot of people have been moved or touched or had their thinking changed by a story.

    Plus, have you ever talked to a literature professor?


  11. Oh yes. 🙂 Kullervo, replace the word “fiction” with “popular fiction” and I think what’s been said makes more sense — i.e. popular fiction (bestsellers like Clancy, King, and Rice, and genre fiction) is frequently viewed as being of lesser merit than literary fiction (Joyce, Updike, Hemingway).


  12. This is an interesting topic. I’ve thought about how fiction can change people’s minds much more effectively than non-fiction, but I haven’t been able to quite express why that is. You have hit the nail on the head. It’s because fiction connects with our hearts, whereas non-fiction connects with our minds. And it’s in the heart where beliefs live.

    I look forward to the future installments on this topic.


  13. Glad you found it helpful, Morninghawk! I’ve struggled with this myself for quite a while. My parents sort of brought me up to believe that fiction was basically useless entertainment, so I really had to work with this issue. This whole thing has been quite a revelation for me.

    Awesome name you’ve got, by the way. 🙂 How did you come by it?


  14. Thanks. I came up with it with help from my Gods during meditation sessions for my ordination. I’m glad you like it.


  15. Cripes, I hate Heinlein. Radical feminist me just could not get past the blatent sexism of Stranger in a Strange Land. What a tool.

    I will avoid Niven, too, thanks for the warning.

    I do love Tolkien, though. (Have you noticed my last name?) As for his philosophy, I’d say that’s pretty run of the mill Catholic, actually, as limited as my understanding of Catholicism is, that is. Power and knowledge corrupting, faith in a hierarchy, loyalty, free will vs. fate, the world was once pure but isn’t now (and that “purity” is something to be valued). With some hard-core Norse attitude thrown in, of course. Alas, the older I get the less it fits with my own philosophy, which is definitely turning towards the left hand path of luscious immersion in the world instead of a desire to escape from it. But I still love Tolkien, and the clarity of his visions. First loves, you know.

    And the more I learn about Greek (the language) and Indo-European roots the more I find parallels in Tolkien’s languages. So he’s (certainly) not just drawing on English there.

    Oh, I thought of an example: in Greek myth, the name of the nymphs of the mountains are Orodemniades or Oreiades, from mountain, oros. And in Quenya the word is oron, in Sindarin orod. Seriously, I’ll be looking up something in Greek (a word here and there, not like I actually read the language) and I’ll think, oh, that’s related to the Sindarin word. And then I’ll go, no, that’s not quite the right way round! 🙂


  16. Thalia, nice insights. I don’t know much about Catholicism, so I didn’t want to say outright that Tolkien’s philosophy was straight-up Catholic, but I’m sure you’re right — I doubt he strayed far from it. And it’s definitely true that you can enjoy his fiction without buying the whole set of background assumptions. A blatant one I forgot is Divine Right of Kings… You’ll never catch me picking up a sword for God and King. 🙂

    And of course I noticed your last name!! I’ve never worked up the courage to ask if it’s your birth name or one you chose… Or maybe I should say, was it one you chose before you were born, or afterward? 😉

    Fascinating what you say about Greek. I’m sure Tolkien had more than a passing acquaintance with it, but I’ve never heard it mentioned as one of his primary influences. I heard that Quenya is most inspired by Finnish, and Sindarin by Welsh. Greek… One of those languages I just have to learn before I die!


  17. You say about Tolkien:

    >>And it’s definitely true that you can enjoy his fiction without buying the whole set of background assumptions.

    I wish I could do that for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stuff. Because he does really, really well at capturing the true feel of a vision, that whole “further up and further in” journey to the Source; but it just wasn’t compatable with my Paganism after all and it ended up making me very angry.

    And yes, I legally changed my name some years back. One of the most ridiculous and wisest things I’ve ever done. It still makes me laugh.


  18. For whatever reason, I can still enjoy Lewis; but my wife feels just the same as you do. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe made her angry, and she definitely does NOT want to read any others. Maybe if he had more gods floating around… But my wife’s big problem with Lewis is that the heavily patriarchal, fight-gloriously-for-your-King ethos somehow weighs much more heavily than in Tolkien’s stuff. After all, Aslan himself tells Lucy that a woman’s place is not on the battlefield, while Tolkien has Eowyn kill the Witch-King… But Tolkien also has a number of women in very powerful leadership positions, especially in the more enlightened societies (e.g. Galadriel). The only really powerful female character in Narnia is the White Witch herself — not exactly sympathetic.

    At some point I want to do a piece on Lewis and paganism. According to what I’ve read, he did not set out to make Narina a Christian story (at least not at first), but he simply began with a jumble of images — a faun carrying packages, a lamp-post… And a number of Christians dislike the stories because they’re not Christian enough. There’s a lot to think about there, a lot to untangle.


  19. For me it actually wasn’t his treatment of women and the expected roles he had for them (though who knows what I’d think now that I’m more consciously a feminist), it was that he had co-opted Pagan themes and characters and Gods to serve an overtly Christian purpose. It felt really disingenuous and dishonest to me, like he was simultaneously celebrating and mocking the old ways of Paganism. Like if a Christian philosopher incorporated the works of say Aristotle into his philosophy, but was still careful to point out he was burning in Hell.

    Though now that I say that, his role for Jadis (the White Witch) as a powerful woman really did make me angry, in that I felt it was a perversion of the role of the Goddess in the whole wheel of the year seasonal cycle.


  20. Ok, so now I REALLY have to write a post about this. Thank you! I will do it in a couple of weeks and we’ll continue this then!!


  21. […] even got some direct information about the function of fiction — I found out what fiction is for. (I wrote about that here.) Once I learned that, it was a lot easier to justify spending time on it. 🙂 Maybe, Steve, one […]


  22. I found you via the Steve Pavlina forums where you were discussing how you found value in fiction recently. I’ve been writing fiction for a long time and have always worried about its lack of value (possibly a sign of insecurity!).

    I’ve found in some of the most nonsensical fiction wisdom of some kind or another. It’s a phrase, a line that jumps out at you that you just needed to read.


  23. Joely, thanks for dropping by! It’s certainly true that even bad fiction can have gems that sparkle for you, if you’re primed and ready to see them. When you’re writing fiction, of course, you HOPE that your effect will be a lot more profound than that! 🙂 Let me know how your fiction goes!


  24. Dear Jeff Lilly,

    1) Like -Joely Black- (February 25th, 2008 at 8:45 am), thank you for linking to us, via glimpsing your ‘boundless wisdom’ (humorous, yes, once smiley included!) in Steve Pavlina’s forum, on Learning to play chess.

    I currently feel that where Steve appeals much to logic, your writing appeals to the emotions.

    2) JRR Tolkien was not my initial influence to a lifelong love so far, with myth, ‘fantasy’ and fiction.
    I think Greek myth stories were, back in primary school when I was born a bookworm.

    But I understand Tolkien was deeply behind the original Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) roleplaying game, which triggered my next flowering of interest in secondary school.
    I noted that the Halfling (unflattering term) was their take on Hobbit.
    Back then I deepened my liking for their portrayal of the Druid character.
    I loved the self-sufficiency and versatility, but disliked the hierarchy and non-nature limitations imposed upon, in the D&D version.

    That fiction knows no bounds, is testimony to its universality.
    Being Southeast Asian and Chinese, I’ve had no difficulties with ‘Western’ fiction, and equally rich Indo-European culture past and present.

    3) Today, I’m still in love with both mythical and ‘science’ fiction.
    My long-time username here, on the Web and in my email, in alternative spelling, salutes an immortal creature, possibly my totem.
    My other current blog website, spelt closely to the one given here, keeps my core fiction world in wiki form.

    4) All the best for your endeavours on Druid Journal, and beyond!
    Thank you too, for letting us sample of your well-crafted Alamanc 2008.
    May the oak tree of your efforts fruit bountily, and saplings spead far and wide from their acorns!


  25. Hi Fynfx, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    1. I’m not consciously trying to appeal to emotions or logic; I’m just trying to appeal. 🙂 But it’s interesting that you mention that, because I just took the Myers-Briggs personality test yesterday, and it appears that I’m INFJ — intuitive introspective feeling judgment…
    2. It’s interesting to hear about your reaction to ‘Western’ fiction. I used to enjoy D&D myself, although I didn’t get into it until after I’d already read Tolkien. I always shied away from taking on the mantle of Druid or Paladin; like you, I felt like there were too many restrictions on the characters.

    Thanks for your good wishes! And I wish you all success with your fiction, and everything else you do. 🙂


  26. […] the first writer who really pulled me in deep. Speaking of which, Jeff has put up a great series on Tolkien, fiction and divination, a combo which you definitely don’t want to […]


  27. My two favourite mediums of storytelling is film and Japanese Rpgs, in particular Final Fantasy.

    There are times in a story, which for me are sacred moments that evoke the response of simultaneous desire and loss. This I think is what C.S. Lewis means by the term joy that he associated with the German Sehnsucht, meaning longing. It is a desire for something ‘other’ that is triggered through the beauty of a particular experience (evoking joy), yet defies attainment (loss). For Lewis, this experience was triggered by Wagner’s Ring cycle.

    Moments in film that evoke Sehnsucht for me, include various scenes from The Shawshank Redemption after Andy Dufresne escapes through the sewage tunnel and stands naked in the river in the pouring rain with his hands outstretched, looking upward at the sky. Also the ending of the movie when Andy and Red are reunited on the beach in Mexico.

    Ending of movies I find especially evocative, even the ending of Star Trek: First Contact, when the Vulcan ship lands and the hooded figure emerges from the ship to reveal that he is a Vulcan. At the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest , when the Chief suffocates McMurphy and lifts the marble water fountain, smashing the window and walks off into the night. That last example is very poignant. It evokes within myself a desire to be truly free, I have caught a glimpse of freedom and for a fleeting moment I have tasted it, but then the magic is gone, and I no longer know where true freedom is to be found.


  28. I think I know exactly what you mean, Mahud. Your description reminds me of these Welsh lines:

    Tell me, men of learning, what is Longing made from?
    What cloth was put in it that it does not wear out with me?
    Gold wears out, silver wears out, velvet wears out, silk wears out,
    Every ample garment wears out — yet Longing does not wear out.
    Great Longing, cruel Longing, is breaking my heart every day;
    When I sleep most sound at night, Longing comes and wakes me.

    For me, just about anywhere in the southwestern desert of North America evokes this reaction.


  29. That’s a wonderful quote!

    It is part of the human condition. Everything changes. We may experience a powerful sense of loss, such as the death of loved one, and all these experiences whether on a conscious or subconscious level can be triggered in moments of fiction.

    But is everything ever really truly lost, I wonder?

    I’m kind of rambling now. Ignore this comment if you want 😉


  30. I don’t mind you rambling if you don’t mind me rambling back at you. 🙂

    The last day or so I feel like I’ve been in a waking dream. I had a direct conversation with Loki, and it was very odd… He was conniving and scheming and clever and he mainly sneered and laughed at me the whole time. And yet, through the whole interview, I was filled with the same high-vibration joy and delight that I always get when I talk to gods. He was obviously having the time of his life, and it was amazingly infectious — even when the joke was on me! In any case, he basically called me a whiner, and said if I really knew what I wanted, I would have no trouble getting it. Thinking about it afterwards, the intuition I got was that the world really does reflect back at you exactly what is inside you; and if you can’t reach your goals, it’s just because some part of you isn’t ready or willing to achieve them yet.

    So one answer to your rambling musing is: anything may be lost, but only if you want it to be.


  31. […] over at Druid Journal recently wrote a series of posts titled The Tolkien Tarot Spread (the Function of Fiction: part one, Patterns of Action: part two and Fiction and Divination: part three), that took a look at the […]


  32. […] a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and […]


  33. […] a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and what’s […]


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