As a race, the British are considered neither the most intellectual nor the most artistic, Britain’s role in the invention of modern physics (Newton) and modern painting (Turner) notwithstanding. Yet their ability to make cultural icons of near-universal appeal is second to none. Quite apart from the philosophical contributions of Locke and Burke and Hume and Mill, apart from the breakthroughs of Faraday and Jenner and Rutherford, apart from the human liberation presaged by Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution and Wilberforce, the British people have shown a genius for touching and stirring the hearts of millions in a way no other nation has managed since the impact of Greek and Roman imagery on the then (much smaller) known world. A perfectly delightful whimsy, an eccentricity that concentrates the mind wonderfully, and a deep-archetypal imagination combine to make them the world’s premier storytellers, masters of the common touch.
Of course, English-speakers do not seem to care about the provenance of our imaginative fare so long as it be succulent, and, in our insatiable appetite for a good story, we have scoured the globe for centuries in quest of translatable delicacies. Still, other peoples have not added to the global store of fantasy nearly as voluminously as have the British.
The power of the British imagination plays a major role in the hegemony of English today as the global language: To savor that imagination, to get lost in that movie, to get down with that rock ’n’ roll, one is lured into learning English. For instance, the bait of Anne of Green Gables (written by a very British Canadian) created such a cult in Japan that a virtual tourist invasion of Prince Edward Island ensued, at least until the yen faltered against the Canadian dollar.
For all their supposed reserve, the British have never been loath to tout their language and culture. Of course, they are fond of deprecating their knack for self-marketing, but this, too, is part of their genius: To “make the whole world England” has always meant conquest, not just of territory but of fancy. They also have a genius for reinventing themselves as needed: the New Rome; the New Jerusalem; Her Majesty’s Empire on its “civilizing mission”; the brave besieged little Shire; Angry Young Men; Licensed to Kill; Swinging London; “Cool Britannia.”
In light of all this British brilliance, then, it is curious that J.R.R. Tolkien was moved to write his fantasy masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, because
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story which I could dedicate simply: to England, to my country.
“No stories of its own”: So much for Beowulf and Grendel, Arthur and Guine-vere, Robin and Marian, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Ploughman, and the Bard of Avon. Britain’s rich fusion of the Celtic, Viking, Germanic, and Norman/Romance, which occurred in post-epic historical time, apparently robbed the island nation of its own mythic identity. But Tolkien was reacting above all to the heightened and desperately competitive nationalism of the interwar period. In particular, he was distressed by the hijacking, as he saw it, of European mythology in the service of totalitarian states. In Germany, the process had begun before Wagner and had only intensified; the National Socialists drew fervently upon the Friedrich Barbarossa, Ring, Gral-quest, and other legends. As for France, the 15th-century Maid of Orleans was only canonized in 1920. The Soviets resurrected Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. And what was the pageantry of Mussolini’s Italy but a desire to bask in Rome’s ancient pagan glow?
The question of how to define England in contradistinction to these rival states absorbed not only Tolkien but such cultural warriors as George Orwell. These two, looking with their hearts, came up with strikingly similar portraits of the English people. Orwell’s 1944 essay sounds much like Tolkien describing hobbits:
[T]he working classes, as [a] rule, are rather small, with short limbs and brisk movements. . . . The masses still more or less assume that “against the law” means “wrong.” . . . [T]hey will refuse even to sample a foreign dish, they regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust, life is unliveable to them unless they have tea and puddings. . . . Traditionally the Englishman is phlegmatic, unimaginative, not easily rattled. . . . One of the basic folk-tales of the English-speaking peoples is Jack the Giant-Killer—the little man against the big man. . . . Not merely a hatred of bullying, but a tendency to support the weaker side merely because it is weaker, are almost general in England. . . . The motto of the English people might be . . . “A little of what you fancy does you good.” They are not vicious, not even lazy, but they will have their bit of fun, whatever the higher-ups may say. . . . The outstanding and—by contemporary standards—highly original quality of the English is their habit of not killing one another. . . . The English are great lovers of flowers, gardening and “nature” . . . The English will always prefer instinct to logic, and character to intelligence. . . . The world is sick of chaos and it is sick of dictatorship. Of all peoples the English are likeliest to find a way of avoiding both. They have known for forty years . . . something that the Russians and the Americans have yet to learn: they know that it is not possible for any one nation to rule the earth.
The Hobbit and its epic sequel are set in Iron Age, pre-Christian Europe, a time when the ring myths of many cultures were born. During this crucial period, revolutionized by the discovery of metallurgy and the spread of edged weapons, the forging of a “ring of power” or a “magic sword” symbolized jealously guarded chemical—virtually alchemical—knowledge. As David Day writes in Tolkien’s Ring, iron smelting “was the atomic secret of its day . . . Those who possessed the secret conquered and often exterminated those who did not.”
Yet the ring quest that Tolkien depicts is the exact opposite of most other myths that treat of heroes seeking a magical ring to assure their peoples’ ascendancy. Tolkien’s is a universe informed by the terrible abuses of power mankind has endured in the millennia since knights first rode out in symbolic quest of it. The wizard Saruman, seduced by a vision of possessing the One Ring “for that good which only the Wise can see,” is doomed to “the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power.” The wizard Gandalf refuses to let himself be tempted, for, although “pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good” would be his motives initially, he knows well he would end “like the Dark Lord himself.” The hobbits, on the other hand, with their simple, robust good sense and love of creature comforts are, of course, practically immune to temptation by the Ring.
Orwell said the English had learned “that it is not possible for any one nation to rule the earth.” Yet one nation may well colonize the earth’s fantasy life. Tolkien’s saga is for the modern world a distillate of what he called “the noble northern spirit.” As the Fox counseled the Little Prince, one sees clearly only with the heart. Self-worship makes a people strong. To believe in God is to believe in yourself and in your kind: God, for the English, truly is an Englishman. And when they cease believing that, they effectively cease belief in any higher form of Being. Losing one’s god not only makes a people worse than they should be but demoralizes and saps their very will to survive.
“I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind,” wrote J.M. Barrie.
[T]he Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. . . . On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.
But we have been to the Neverland, and now we shall always believe. The world speaks many languages, but it dreams in English.