Archive for June 16th, 2009

June 16, 2009

Unnecessarily long and disjointed thoughts on Tolkien (part 1)

(I cannot guarantee that I will subscribe entirely to this post tomorrow)

China Mieville on Omnivoracious provides us with some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien:

For some of us, there’s always been something about this tradition–and it’s hard to put your finger on–vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were ‘as cold as their marble’.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies–Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.

(Unrelated: Mieville is a Garner fan. *squee*)

A few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien’s work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And he’s right up to a point – that line from Gorbag opens up a whole new set of possibilities. I want that story, I want to know what life is like in inner city Mordor, I want to know what it means to be an orc, and ugly, and evil (but not with free will, or presumably some orcs would choose not to be evil – and if you don’t have free will can you be evil?). Tolkien chooses not to tell it.

There are other stories he chooses not to tell. The blue wizards, Alatar and Pallando – I could have done with a bit more about them. The East in general. What was happening to the less-Caucasian men while the Numenoreans were busy enacting the Atlantis myth. Haleth (who is kickass). Maybe some more actual soldiers in the war – that dead guy from Harad who Sam feels sorry for for a few minutes. He did actually start writing one story I wanted to read – “Tal-elmar”, set in Middle-earth when the Numenoreans begin to return. It is quite possible that if he’d gone on with it he’d have screwed it up and been hopelessly racist (more than the story already is, I mean) and I’d be very annoyed. It’s unfinished, though, and so certain possibilities are left open.

I actually subscribe to most criticisms of Tolkien. Including this one, also by Mieville. And bits of this one by Moorcock. And of course I did not know the man personally, have no real access to his mind, and cannot know what he was aiming for when he wrote what he wrote.

But more and more I find myself seeing him as a man who was really into structure. The Silmarillion is an obvious example of this. It’s not the history of a race, it’s a mythology. It is told in exactly the way such a mythology would be told. The minute you come to that conclusion, you’re asking who the “teller” of the Silmarillion is. And it’s no longer how Tolkien envisioned the history of the elves, it’s how Tolkien thinks the elves would tell their own history. This is probably obvious to many of you, but it took me about 10 years to figure out.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Morgan says, about “the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh – and guess who wins)” (and at the risk of being attracting his contempt I’m willing to admit that I find that stirring and often moving) because that’s the sort of text it is. That’s the structure it’s modelling itself upon. Very rarely do I feel any deep interest in all these noble people, because it’s not really about them. And things like realworld racial issues, realworld gender issues, realworld class issues; those things that affect so many actual people may have no place in this grand Good vs Evil narrative, and black and white as colours for your characters can be Archetypes if you’re willing to not think about their implications for actual people of colour. So when he leaves out the stuff that’s actually happening in the world he’s living in, I’m not sure if it’s because he’s “in full, panic-stricken flight from it”. You could criticise Tolkien’s choice of this form - it’s probably easier to choose a literary form that allows you to ignore this stuff if you’re a white dude in Britain. But having chosen it, you would hardly expect the books to offer any deep insight into the human condition.

What interests me is actually how much he allows to slip through the cracks.

Take the battle in The Two Towers, between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings. Saruman has fired up the Dunlendings by reminding them that the Rohirrim took their land centuries ago (The movie version shows this bit rather well, incidentally). Tolkien never addresses this or tries to prove that the Rohirrim were justified, or that Gondor had a perfect right to take land from one group of people and give it to another. Now you could assume that this is because it’s self-evident within the text that Gondor and Rohan have a right to do whatever they like (also the Dunlendings are kind of swarthy). But it’s open; an accusation has been made and not disproved, the Rohirrim are no longer unstained, and the Dunlendings might actually have a point.* That’s pretty big.

And there’s that bit Morgan points to, where the Orcs turn human, just for a moment. And (however much he may fail at women in general) Gandalf explaining to Eomer that Eowyn’s life was actually not that much fun. And the deliberate use of Merry and Pippin who, when they’re not being the comic relief, are the most human things about the text. It’s not enough, but that it’s there at all frequently fascinates me.

Which would probably be a good reason for me (an adult) to read “something like that” even if it didn’t move me as much as it so often does.

(Part 2 will follow, containing my own list of things to love Tolkien for and insightful insights into the trouble with literary criticism about the man! Eventually.)

* I’m not going to talk about Tolkien and colonialism here. Mainly because I recently wrote a 7000 word paper on it, and anything less than 7000 words would seem simplistic and not really what I want to say. But I do recommend that you read (if you can) Elizabeth Massa Hoiem’s “World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in “Aldarion and Erendis”” in Tolkien Studies Vol.2. It’s rather excellent.