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I recently came across this on Twitter:

yesterday, student's & i realized there is no fiction in middle-earth. prbly no art. every story = story of something that actually happened

— Ben Robertson (@BenRobertson) November 22, 2014

Is there any evidence in Tolkien's writings of purely artistic works (fiction, etc...) that is not based in a historical event?

I am primarily thinking significant works of art, not crafts. Certainly, there is evidence of non-historical decoration in Bilbo's house etc... (at least I think).

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    It is worth comparing to our own art history. Stories and art being primarily about things that aren't myths or fables is a relatively recent phenomenon. Was all Greek art merely utilitarian? The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, merely the work of a utilitarian illustrator? Beware unrealistic standards for fiction that don't even apply to the real world. :) – SevenSidedDie Nov 22 '14 at 19:36
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    @DarthSatan true and the reason my question asks for evidence and not if there is. This whole site is basically founded on the interpretation of textual evidence about fictional worlds that vastly exceed the scope of the texts that describe them. – KennyPeanuts Nov 22 '14 at 21:44
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    @KennyPeanuts Shakespeare is quite recent in the scale of art history and postdates the invention of fiction that we make despite knowing it's fiction. Middle Earth is supposed to be English mythic prehistory; so the comparison to ancient Greece and Renaissance Rome is much closer to being relevant. – SevenSidedDie Nov 22 '14 at 21:58
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    "my question asks for evidence and not if there is" - true; I was commenting on the Twitter statement that prompted your question (which flat-out states that there isn't). – user8719 Nov 22 '14 at 23:56
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    @Richard - compare with the second paragraph of the Hobbit which states that the rooms on the left-hand side (going in) were the only ones to have windows, and that the windows were round - it's a painting for sure. – user8719 Nov 23 '14 at 9:31
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I think this is a good question, and one we might ask of a lot of works of fiction written on a grand world-building scale.

Unfinished Tales also notes that the story of Queen Berúthiel's cats (and how sure they are to find their ways home on a dark inclement night) referenced by Aragorn in LotR is possibly unique within Tolkien's work as a secondary sub-creation (i.e. a story understood as fictional by characters who are themselves fictional).

One might examine the architectural ornamentation (e.g. repeated use of the two trees motifs in elven work) as representational artwork within Tolkien's world also.

EDIT: It occurs to me that some of the stories within poems and songs might be understood as fictional. For example, Frodo's song in the Prancing Pony about the cow, moon, dish and spoon, is probably not understood by those present as an historical narrative. :) There's a poem about a troll slurping on the thighbone of a hobbit's uncle that probably fits this bill also. I never quite figured whether the poem The Mewlips was in Middle Earth or not, but if so, that is also likely fiction.

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    The story of Berúthiel's cats is an excellent find given that it was a wholly fictional work invented within the Middle-Earth universe. – Valorum Nov 22 '14 at 19:09
  • @Richard No - see Unfinished Tales. Queen Beruthiel does have a fragmentary reference within the corpus of stories about Numenor; she wasn't conceived of as entirely fictional in Middle-earth. – Matt Gutting Nov 22 '14 at 22:29
  • @MattGutting But her cats were... – Lexible Nov 22 '14 at 22:32
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    @MattGutting Afraid so... per Tolkien Sr. "There is hardly any reference in The Lord of the Rings to things that do not actually exist, on its own plane (of secondary or sub-creational reality)... the cats of Queen Berúthiel and the names of the two other wizards (five minus Saruman, Gandalf and Radagast) are all that I recollect." Unfinished Tales p419. – Lexible Nov 22 '14 at 22:48
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    @Lexible - the story of the cats of Queen Beruthiel didn't exist when Tolkien made that comment but he subsequently wrote it and it's described in footnote 7 to the Istari material in Unfinished Tales. – user8719 Nov 22 '14 at 23:58
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Artwork

Tolkien drew a number of pencil sketches of the various settings in the Hobbit and LOTR.

In his sketch of Bag End there's what appears to be a landscape painting

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Writings

There's at least one reference to purely ornamental artwork in "Unfinished Tales" regarding the Drúedain. Note that some of this art is functional (e.g. to serve as crude scarecrows to ward off orc attacks) with other pieces described as fantastical.

But when in Beleriand by association with the Eldar and in traffic with the Dwarves of Ered Lindon these things became more common, the Drúedain showed great talent for carving in wood or stone. They already had a knowledge of pigments, derived chiefly from plants, and they drew pictures and patterns on wood or flat surfaces of stone; and sometimes they would scrape knobs of wood into faces that could be painted. But with sharper and stronger tools they delighted in carving figures of men and beasts, whether toys and ornaments or large images, to which the most skilled among them could give vivid semblance of life.

Sometimes these images were strange and fantastic, or even fearful: among the grim jests to which they put their skill was the making of Orc-figures which they set at the borders of the land, shaped as if fleeing from it, shrieking in terror. They made also images of themselves and placed them at the entrances to tracks or at turnings of woodland paths. These they called ‘watch-stones’ of which the most notable were set near the Crossings of Teiglin, each representing a Drúadan, larger than the life, squatting heavily upon a dead Orc.

And in an earlier version of LOTR, Gandalf described Bilbo as possessing ornaments of gold (e.g. objects that served no practical purposes)

None of them are wealthy as your forefathers reckoned it, but you will find some of their dwellings have fairer things in them than you can boast here, Thorin. The Hobbit that I have in mind has ornaments of gold, and eats with silver tools, and drinks wine out of shapely crystal.”

  • There is a word for this kind of function in art (wrt the Drúedain work): apotropaism – Lexible Nov 22 '14 at 19:00
  • @Lexible - I did consider the term but rejected it (in favour of 'scarecrow') since the intent was not to "ward off" of the Orcs but to scare them away in a very real sense. – Valorum Nov 22 '14 at 19:02
  • Ward of: to chase away. :) I think that is a pretty fine hair to split. :D but I wasn't trying to suggest an alternate wording but draw your and reader's attention to a cool concept in art. :) – Lexible Nov 22 '14 at 19:05
  • @Lexible - Splitting fine hairs is precisely what this site is all about :-))) You'll get on well here. – Valorum Nov 22 '14 at 19:10
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    Landscape painting? Looks more like someone doing a jump on a skateboard; pretty prescient on Tolkein's part if true. – Wayfaring Stranger Nov 23 '14 at 12:08
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The Silmarillion chapter 1 (of the Beginning of Days) includes the following description of the Noldor:

Aule it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days, and they are the most skilled of the Elves; and in their own fashion, according to the gifts which Iluvatar gave to them, they added much to his teaching, delighting to tongues and in scripts, and in the figures of broidery, of drawing, and of carving.

While some of these could be argued to be crafts, the definition of others could really go either way.

There is other evidence elsewhere; letter 156 for example has the following to say about the Númenoreans:

While obedient, people from the Blessed Realm often visited them, and so their knowledge and arts reached almost an Elvish height.

The distinction of knowledge from art, and the lack of capitalization of "art", are both significant. Contrast letter 131:

Their 'magic' is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations...

Here Tolkien used capitalized "Art" to represent magic, power, etc; the lack of capitalization when describing the Númenoreans strongly suggests that something else is being described here, and there is no reason to suppose that it's anything other than artistic works.

We also see the following description of Meduseld (in the Two Towers, King of the Golden Hall):

As their eyes changed, the travellers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. They saw now that the pillars were richly carved, gleaming dully with gold and half-seen colours.

This in turn contrasts with a description of woven cloths containing figures from legend immediately following it, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the colouring and decoration described here was purely artistic.

In Return of the King, Minas Tirith, we also have the throne room described:

Monoliths of black marble, they rose to great capitals carved in many strange figures of beasts and leaves; and far above in shadow the wide vaulting gleamed with dull gold, inset with flowing traceries of many colours.

And once more this description is purely decorative.

So there are descriptions of artistic works present in Tolkien, but they are incidental to the main themes of Tolkien's interest (which were history and linguistics), and while Tolkien may not say anything about other possibilities, that doesn't mean that they don't exist.

I'll leave you with a quote from letter 181:

The Elves represent, as it were, the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men. That is: they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as 'other' – sc. as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves – not as a material for use or as a power-platform. They also possess a 'subcreational' or artistic faculty of great excellence.

Again, Tolkien doesn't describe the kind of art that the Elves do, but it most certainly does exist.

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Could you not argue that all the songs, while perhaps representing true events in some way are also expressions of that character's take on an event and therefore filtered through an artistic lens? 'Errantry' for instance is a heavily romanticized recount of Earendil's travels as he desperately attempt to find Aman and beg for the Valar's aid.

Most narrative songs and folk-tales in our world work much the same way and I doubt anyone would argue they lack genuine artistic merit.

Some readers and commentators - although STRONGLY not my reading - even take this a step further. They argue that ALL the related history is at best diluted folklore. A kind of tale told muddily from tale told from badly-remember tale until it gets down to the narrative which IS direct history - ie LoTR and the non clearly-humerous parts of TH. It is an interesting take and one Tolkien himself seems to have played with from time to time. For instance there is even a letter he writes where he affirms that Ea was a planet by our modern standards orbitting a star just as we do; he says something along the lines that modern astronomy has taken too tight a grip on him and it seems 'silly' to base things around the sun-ship or Arien and moon-ship of Tillien and so forth. The very oldest stories that are puiblished in the book of lost tales work along these lines - Aelfwine is told stories which he hazily re-tells to the reader.

In some ways I find this way of looking at the stories refreshing and new - but equally I reject it totally. For me - and I think most readers - the tale of years and the events in the Silmarillion and unfinished tales and so on ARE concrete 'history' and 'what really happened'. Anything else is subtle and a very clever way to subvert the narrative form, but not how I personally view things.

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Well, there's "Leaf by Niggle", a short story about a painter in a world that doesn't value art. But I don't know if it's part of Middle Earth.

  • This particular work by Tolkien isn't considered to be set in Middle-Earth. Note that the eponymous hero owns a bicycle, modern paint set and travels by steam train. – Valorum Nov 22 '14 at 18:54
  • @Richard It's never said in what era. – SQB Nov 22 '14 at 20:56
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    Well, we do know that Tolkien envisioned Middle-Earth as the being the same as our Earth; scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/22034/… but now we need to jump two hurdles - (Middle Earth = Our Earth = the same world as Leaf by Niggle) – Valorum Nov 22 '14 at 20:59
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    'Leaf by Niggle' is such a strange story it is hard to take it on any level. It is the 'one attempt at allegory' that tolkien mentioned in the foreword to LoTR and as such probably occupies an even more rarefied narrative position. It isn't what is being told that matters directly but what it illustrates by comparison to the real world... A real case of mental gymnastics and I think led to a major rift between J.R.R. and CS Lewis as it was not very coplimentary in its referential way on the life of his best friend! – user38114 Dec 13 '14 at 3:42

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