“…[I]t doesn’t take long for the experience of the Numinous to unhinge the mind.”
King Alfred the Great ascended the throne of England in 871. He saw his age as one whose literacy had fallen since the time of Bede (673-735), and his civilization as one that was decaying from within as it fended off Scandinavian attacks from without. He implemented a program of general education throughout the land with the assistance of the clergy.
One of the key works Alfred included in his educational program was his own (Old) English translation of the Consolation* of the Roman consul Boethius. It is a most rigorous defense of the truth and a poetic attack on falsehood’s bliss and thorns. Why, of all things, would this be a cornerstone of Alfred’s rising civilization and defense against the invaders?
The reasons are many, but an important one is this: if you can read the Consolation and comprehend it, you will become an abstract thinker. A nation of abstract thinkers is a nation engaged. King Alfred’s program was a program of vigorous, morale-building engagement. Or, as he put it:
…Keenly he longed
Unto the people to put forth songs
Men to make merry, manifold stories,
Lest a weariness should ward away
The man self-filled, that small heed taketh
Of such in his pride.
J.R.R. Tolkien was intimately familiar with the translation (into Modern English) of King Alfred’s translation of the Latin, and its contexts — both for the old Romans and the old English. I’m sorry, but I can’t point exactly where in The Lord of the Rings this bit of knowledge comes in.
And that’s the point. One of the key difference that I see in great science fiction and fantasy and everything else is that the great works are most undeniably salted by chefs who have done their homework. Tolkien absorbed the civilization-building lesson from Alfred, who took it carefully from Boethius and not only gave it to his people, but encouraged them to do likewise. Good authors who do great work have developed an expertise in something other than prose…and the truth lodged in the expertise just flavors the entire thing.
I call these markers of expertise cellar door details after the perfectly fabricated literary quote in Donnie Darko:
This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, that “cellar door” is the most beautiful.
Now, it is not the truth of the quotation that provides illumination on the heroic themes of the movie. It is the fact that the quote fits (even though there is no real linguist who is known for saying this) as an important detail in that movie, because there are so many carefully constructed texts (chiefly, A Philosophy of Time Travel, by Roberta Sparrow, excerpts of which were written for the movie) in which the writer was an expert.
When you are looking for greatness in your stories, look for expertise in an author, even if that expertise may seem buried in translation.