With pictures

Towers, and the sea

Tolkien seems to have been fond of towers—as will be clear enough to those who have mused on which of the various contenders should be considered ‘The Two Towers’ after which the second volume of The Lord of the Rings was named. I have nothing to say on that, but permit me instead to quote once more his allegory on the deeds of Beowulf’s critics, and on the meanings of the poem itself:

I would express the whole industry in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did he not restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.

From the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea. The image is impressive, but we wonder what sea, and why the man wanted to look there. Is it merely the appeal of the sea itself, as a body of water? I think that some years later, Tolkien gave us the answer. At the end of Chapter 5, Book 1, he described a dream which Frodo has just before he leaves the Shire on his journey with the Ring:

Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder. Frodo woke suddenly.

Frodo’s dream is a prophecy, of his eventual journey west to the Grey Havens, and of his departure from Middle Earth altogether. Although neither Frodo nor the reader understands at this point how Frodo’s adventures will affect him, the dream looks forward to the time when he finds himself too marked by his experiences--too fród in ferðe (‘wise in his soul’)--to remain in the world which he had saved. The sea over which the tower looks is the path to Valinor, the home of the gods in the West; it is the happy ending; the glimpse of a road to the land where everyone--in Tolkien’s theology--may hope at last to find a home.

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