Tolkien and the Internet

by Varda, with responses from Brave Hobbit and Rogorn
It is impossible to know what Tolkien thought of the internet, at least in its present, all-conquering form, because he died before it reached its height. But we can assume a good deal from his life.

Tolkien hated the age of machines. The First World War in which he fought and which he was lucky to survive was not the first conflict with widely mechanised killing; that was the American Civil War. But the First World War, with its factory killing of millions, was the first mechanised war to force itself onto the universal human consciousness.

Tolkien lost all but one of his close friends in the Great War, and it is possible he began to set down his stories as a tribute to the lost generation. The pits and smoke of Mordor that Sam and Frodo endure almost to death are surely a memory of the bomb craters and gas-fouled air of the Western Front. But even more, they echo the ‘dark satanic mills’ that had in the previous century poisoned the green England of Tolkien’s beloved shires. Tolkien felt out of place in the modern, mechanised world, and he put his hatred of it into his Middle Earth. There, the evil have;
‘a mind of metal and wheels’, Isengard is a big war industry and the good are land-loving hobbits or Elves so much absorbed into the woodland that they teach the trees to talk, and have a fundamental oneness with the stars. The ‘spoiling’ of the Shire would today be seen as the ‘modernisation’ of the Shire.

So the internet, being something based on a machine, the computer, might not have been very attractive to Tolkien. Many older people, especially writers, have nothing to do with them and it does not stop them being creative.

But more, the internet is based on a certain type of interchange of information; a lot of data produced impersonally. There is no need for human communication, even if that is possible. There is information overload and low levels of assimilation; much of what is available on the internet is rubbish. Research on it often points to other media.
Like books, you know.

But above all, Tolkien was fascinated by the getting of wisdom, not information. That was why he was so anxious to not just tell a story, but create myth. For myth is instructive on the deepest human levels.

The Lord of The Rings shows Frodo learning, and although much of that is from his own experiences, we also see him learning from the stories and histories of the Elves and other races of Middle Earth. And there is no instant knowledge, no wisdom or friendship on demand for Frodo; he has to live it before he learns it, as with his understanding of what Gollum is.

The quick and easy access of the internet would have had Tolkien puffing on his pipe in disapproval. Tolkien hand-wrote all his fiction, and nothing is quick and easy in Middle Earth. The whole story derives from something told long ago to men by men who knew Elves, or something. No-one hit a button and saw it all on the screen. At best, this is book-learning. Hence the past is gathered into a book, The Red Book, but it is a book which is not over, a file which cannot ever be lost or deleted, or closed.

Tolkien wasn’t a luddite or a technophobe, but he eschewed the inventions of modern life in a search for deeper veins of human meaning, and having seen what a modern world at war could do, he was not convinced that modernity had brought man any good at all.

Deeply immersed in the internet we can forget that only a minority of the world’s population have access to it. Only about 30% of the world’s people have access to a phone, and only about half of those have access to a computer. It might be the highway of the future, but many now living will never use it. At this moment the largest country in Africa, Sudan, is not worried about its internet access but about starving. It puts it into perspective. Even in the Third World great narrative stories of courage, friendship and sacrifice like The Lord of The Rings are immediately comprehensible, you don’t need a computer.

So the Professor would probably have treated the internet with suspicion and have grumbled a bit. Using a pc to write would have saved him paper, but the first (and boy oh boy not the last) time it crashed and took his latest chapter with it he would have quickly minted some term for cyber-orcs.
Uruk-i perhaps

Thanks for listening….   V

Response from Brave Hobbit:

You make many relevant points, Varda -- I'm sure that most people in this world (at least now, anyway...) will not find the need to go internet...higher priorties and competing interests will ensure that....But, there's an upside, too...There are people who feel that literacy was meant only for the elite; the "little" people really weren't all that relevant (I'm speaking of the Dark Agea)...Literacy changes people....they can be exposed to junk, or they can become smarter, better, and even wiser from literacy.

Computers, Internet, and Technology are the "New Literacy" in this world...For good or for ill, access can make a difference....

For someone who's wheelchair-bound, technology can open the world for them, even if it's only fuel for the mind.  Those with physical or mental limitations might find a community that leaves them less alone and 'unimportant' or 'irrelevant' in life.

Further, that technology introduced me to Tolkien and eventually, to your inspiring and jaw-dropping insights...

I agree that the changes we see aren't for the better that many had hoped for, but as with all things new, technology can be used for ill or for good.... I suppose the major concern I have with computers/internet is the immediacy of its potential abuse, and the rising dependence upon it.  I feel my concerns are valid, but I don't know what to do about that, except not to allow it to happen to me.

In the meantime, It (computers/internet) serves a function, even if only a poor substitute, as a connection for those who would otherwise find themselves isolated, even in a world of congested population... Anyone who has ever felt alone in a crowd will understand...

This response is not an opposing view to yours, Varda; I actually agree with most of what you say. I just don't have the answer for those who find themselves not having many other choices than what the quick and easier way that the internet offers.  People's memories and bodies fail them after awhile, and computers/internet can help 'patch' the void left that a stroke, or brain tumor, or Alzheimer's or any other condition can cause.

Thanks for your post,
In Fellowship, BraveHobbit

Response from

About Tolkien and the Internet, there is something in his letters that you might find useful to remember: the airgraphs. They were a method of sending letters to servicemen overseas. The text was photographed by the postal authorities and was delivered to the addressee in a small bromide print which could be read with a magnifying glass. Tolkien used this device to send Christopher several letters and chapters of LOTR to South Africa, where he was stationed during World War II. Without this, Tolkien would have had to either risk sending his original written pages (which then Christopher would have to read, keep, and send back), or write a copy of everything all over again to send to him (which would have doubled Tolkien's writing time or have taxed his pockets by having to pay a typist).

This was a new technology that helped communication, in a lesser way that the internet is now. He used this method a lot during the rest of the war, but he seemed to dislike it. Later he said: 'I have decided to send you another air letter, not an airgraph, in the hope that I may so cheer you up a little more.' He seemed to consider that hand-written letters on paper were more personal and warm than these airgraphs.

If someone thinks that he couldn't have rejected what is widely seen as a useful invention, here's this about communication in his time: 'Only in one way was I better off (than Christopher in war): wireless was not invented. I daresay it had some potential for good, but it has in fact in the main become a weapon for the fool, the savage, and the villain to afflict the minority with, and to destroy thought. Listening in has killed listening.'

However, there are a couple of examples that illustrate the quandaries we all have about machines and new technologies: 'It is full maytime by the trees and grass now, but the heavens are full of roar and riot. You cannot even hold a shouting conversation in the garden now, save about 1 am and 7 pm. How i wish the infernal combustion engine had never been invented. Or (more difficult still, since humanity and engineers in special are both nitwitted and malicious as a rule) that it could have been put to rational uses - if any. Now we can only link with this flimsy bit of paper! But may it speed to you and arrive safely.' Annoyed at the noise of cars or motorbikes? Sure, who hasn't been. So much as to wish they didn't exist? Hrmmm... well, maybe. Then, without combustion engines, how do you want to 'speed' this letter to your loved one? Thorondor himself would take a while to reach South Africa and back.

The other example is: 'Unlike art, which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, machinery attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this world, and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil.'

This followed by: 'Well, I will forgive the Mordor-gadgets some of its sins if they bring this flimsy airletter quickly to you.'

Quod erat demonstrandum: sometimes we may not like machines and technology, but when they are useful to us, we throw ourselves in their arms.

Would Tolkien have used a computer to write and e-mail chapters to the editors? Probably. Maybe not. Until he saw that it was useful to do so, instead of having to write in pencil and then in pen. LOTR may have been a product of long hours of inspiration and perspiration, but no way he meant to take 14 years to see it in print. That situation robbed us all (him the first) of more pieces of his brilliant mind. Maybe a younger person could do it for him in these times of cheap paper and (not so cheap if it's toner) ink, if he wasn't up to it. And probably his publishing company would have insisted on it.

About losing things written, I suppose professional writers all over the world who do word-process their brain-childs have their own defence mechanisms from the Uruk-i (brilliant word, get a patent on it, V): print everything you write so that there is a hard copy, e-mail it to yourself so that if the computer crashes it's still in cyberspace waiting for you, etc. At the end of the day, it was worse in his time: 'I have only the original copy and dare not consign it to the post' was a common problem for him with his editors.

Ultimately it's the same problem my mom has with mobile phones: 'all these modern gadgets, la-di-da...' All whining and complaining, but then she enjoys being able to contact us anywhere. And she does. All the time.

Quod erat Tolkienis demonstrandum: technology is bad for you anyway. Mom's eye can find you anywhere.