Thursday, December 18, 2003

Quick news: NPR Today

I'll be on NPR's Talk of the Nation today in a segment that runs from 3:00-4:00 p.m. So you can hear me talk about JRRT. More importantly, Ursula Le Guin will also be on the show!!!!!!
I'm feeling a little star-struck...

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Beowulf and Christianity (and by extension, JRRT and same)
Andrea Harris in this entry points out a number of flaws in some superficial 'Christian' readings of Tolkien. She also mentions that she wrote a paper on Christian themes in Beowulf, and one of her commenters mentions a hostile reception by Anglo-Saxonists of a Christian-focused Beowulf translation.

I thought it might be useful to mention what exactly we do know about the Christianity of Beowulf and what Tolkien thought about it, since I've read more than a few things on the web that are, well, confused.

Beowulf the poem, as we have it (i.e., in its manuscript form, not some postulated earlier version), is definitely written by a Christian. However, there is not a single reference to Christ, the Trinity, the resurrection, or the New Testament, which is very strange for an Anglo-Saxon Christian poem. The only real proof of a Christian (as opposed to a general monotheistic) poet is the inclusion of Cain and Abel (and, strangely enough, "Cain" is spelled wrong both times the word appears in the manuscript. More on that in some other post).

As Tolkien points out, the references to God aren't to Christ or specifically the Christian God, but to The Ruler, The Lord, The Measurer, etc. Why would a Christian poet, who knew about Cain and Abel, do this?

Tolkien's explanation has never been bettered: the poet was a Christian, but he was setting his story back in the pre-Christian past. He knew that the people in his story weren't Christian, but he also believed that Christian truths explained the way the universe worked. So he can say that The Ruler determined the outcome of a battle even if he knows that Beowulf wasn't Christian himself.

Now part of the brilliance of this interpretation is that it can't really be disproved by any one example. Tolkien even notes a few places he thinks that the poet has failed in tone (when pagan Hrethel is said to have "chosen God's light", i.e., died, Tolkien says that the phrase has "escaped from Christian poetry). And Tolkien thought that lines 175-188, which sound, to the ear familiar with Anglo-Saxon poetry, much more like a Christian homiletic piece than do any other lines in Beowulf, had been added to the poem at a later date. So the idea of a poet who is deliberately writing a kind of 'historical fantasy' is still preserved.

Now I think it's not a great stretch to suggest that Tolkien was doing much of the same thing in his work. If you look at the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, which is in Morgoth's Ring in the History of Middle-earth, you see Tolkien suggesting that men, back in the First Age, had a kind of prophesy that one day the creator would enter his own creation for the purpose of healing it. That day hadn't happened yet, so Tolkien was setting his Middle-earth stories before the incarnation. Thus he doesn't mention Christ, etc. Just like the Beowulf poet.

Andrea mentions Christian themes in Beowulf, which is a slightly different kettle of fish. I think Tolkien, and many scholars, would argue that the poet put those Christian themes there, but you actually don't need that hypothesis if you're a Christian who truly believes: since in the Christian worldview, the world works in a certain way, you'd expect to see those workings be universal. Similarly, physics is universal, so someone who knows no physics could describe, say, the behavior of a spring and we'd recognize the phenonemon. Thus if someone described, say, mercy, 'sapientia and fortitudo,' forgiveness, etc., a believing Christian could say that these fit into the way the world works.

As for the Beowulf poet, I think that he was a Christian looking back on the pagan past. Actually, I think he was a tenth-century monk revising an old and received poem, but that's the kind of assertion that starts bar-fights (or at least beer-throwing) among Anglo-Saxonists. And as for Tolkien, I think that his Christianity could not help but influence the world he created, but that looking for a didactic Christian message that was somehow hidden in the Lord of the Rings is perhaps not the most critically useful approach.

Also: Tolkien discovered Finnish in college and he never became fluent in the language, though he used its phonology as a basis for Quenya.

Also: I'm going to be talking about Tolkien and WWI on National Public Radio's "The Talk of the Nation;" we're taping tomorrow, so I'm guessing it'll be broadcast on Friday. I was on WBUR today; link when I find one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

GOTF in Toronto

Just got back from the Gathering of the Fellowship in Toronto. Over 2000 people, about 75% of them in full costume, attended. Over 100 showed up one afternoon to hear me talk about Beowulf. It was a great experience, more professionally run than all but the ISAS-level conferences, in a beautiful location and with wonderful people. I wish I'd been able to stay longer. Anthony and Jessica -- thank you for inviting me. I got to meet some great people, including my favorite Tolkien illustrator of all time, Ted Nasmith, and I was able to bring the importance and beauty of Beowulf to a whole new audience. Great, exciting stuff.

After the reaction to the OE reading, I definitely need to do the recording of the Beowulf MP3 sometime soon (my idea is to record the entire poem and then allow it to be dowloaded in sections; I'll be talking to the college radio station.

Did some interviews with Christian Science Monitor, WBUR, and a few others today and have an NPR interview on Talk of the Nation tomorrow between 2 and 3. Will post more later when I dig out from under the avalanche of email and pre-Christmas (and pre- seminar students over for dinner) work I have to do. And I have to figure out how a baby grand piano makes its way up to the second floor tomorrow....

Friday, December 12, 2003

Tedious Topic: Tolkien and Race
I normally try not to feed the trolls, and there's more trolling going on over here, but I'll take one more swing at this annoying, shallow topic.

I've previously shown, in this post, that the charge that Tolkien was personally a racist is completely contradicted by biography and published writing.

But there are actually three different charges mixed in with the tiresome 'Tolkien is a racist' attack. The first is the intentional, discussed in the links above. The second is only a little harder to counter: it's that the work itself is racist because readers can make links between, say, orcs and African Americans (my African-American wife and daughter have, well, strong feelings that this comparison is not polite or accurate). I think it's pretty simple to show the origins of the orcs as tortured elves, their lack of humanity, and, most importantly, this distinction from the Southrons, who could be matched up with people of African descent, shows that the case for orcs=black people is pretty weak.

Likewise the foolishness about the blond, blue-eyed overlords doesn't quite work if you actually read the books. Almost all the elves are supposed to be dark-haired and gray eyed (Galadriel is a major exception due to her ancestry; more on her later). Likewise the "high men" of Gondor. It's the "middle men" of Rohan who are Nordic blonds. [n.b.: there are some complexities here that I'll deal with in a moment].

But there is a third thread in the racism charge that is harder to deal with only because it is cast an an irrefutable charge: Tolkien is racist because he posits entire races of creatures that can only be dealt with by genocide (orcs; trolls). Q.E.D., Tolkien is promoting the genocide of 'inferior' or 'evil' races.

I think Tolkien obviates this problem by making the evil 'races' exist without true free will. That is, they came about either via the torture of elves or, and this is the latter, more developed explanation in the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, they proceeded from Morgoth like icebergs calving from a glacier. The amount of evil in the world remained the same, but Morgoth reduced himself by breaking off dragons, orcs, trolls, etc.

The real source of new evil in Middle-earth, then, is from Men who can be converted to evil through the mis-use of their free will. Since they are Men, the same 'race' as the other men, racial genocide isn't an option.

There are still problems here, because Tolkien ended up, through the power of literature, giving the orcs more "personality" than their metaphysical natures warranted (see Shippey, "Orcs, Wraiths and Wights" for the best discussion). All of a sudden it's not so clear cut that exterminating them is morally unproblematic. But that's a good thing about literature: as Iris Murdoch said, it forces you to admit that other people really exist. Frodo says that he pities even Sauron's slaves, and he is right to. But that doesn't mean that they don't have to be killed when they are a threat.

Thus I would say that if you want to read the Lord of the Rings as advocating genocide, I can't stop you. But I think your reading is shallow and uninformed, and I wonder at the kind of experiences of life and literature had by people who seem so intent on applying theories (political or otherwise) that they miss the great and beautiful individuality of the works that they are not really reading.

[*the complexities of the blond overlord class in elves comes because while 90% of the Noldor and Sindar in Middle-earth are dark-haired, the golden-haired strain of the House of Finwe comes from the Vanyar, the "higher" kindred of the elves. Feanor is jealous of Fingolfin, his younger half-brother, in part because half of Fingolfin's blood is from the "higher" caste among the elves. Thus, while there aren't any real "blond overlords" in the Lord of the Rings, you can find them in the Silmarillion (though the Vanyar pretty much just sit at the feet of the gods and sing; not much overlording for them...).]

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The Wisdom of Students

In the final meeting of my senior seminar on Tolkien and Le Guin, I asked students to make some kind of judgment about the value of fantasy literature, particularly these two authors. Now these students are senior English majors; they don't just read fantasy by any means; they've had a full complement of courses in the traditional canon and beyond.

Yet to a one, they thought that Tolkien belonged right in with all of the other great writers they had studied. "He's trying to do different sorts of things than they are," one said. "So he set himself some major aesthetic goals, and met them. Isn't that the definition of a great writer?"

Another student talked about Tolkien's heroes: "We've got all of these books, hundreds of books, with anti-heroes or failed heroes: Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom! Beloved, Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye... but can the anti-hero even work when you haven't had a regular hero? And is there even a regular hero in Tolkien? Aragorn, maybe, but Frodo and Gandalf really save the world (one directly, one through inspiration), and neither of them fits the hero template. If Normal Mailer is a genius for coming up with an anti-hero, isn't Tolkien more of a genius for coming up with a hero without supernatual powers who also isn't an anti-social, violent, destructive, self-involved jerk?

I love my students.

Friday, December 05, 2003

English Professors, Tolkien and Genres

(or, why do so many people think English professors are full of crap, part II)

Here is Part I

At the end of the previous post I put the suggestion that simply rejecting PoMo theory folks as being full of it was possibly not the most productive intellectual stance one can take. As Gary Farber notes, it's really easy to take a quick step from thinking that the disparagement of Tolkien by "high culture" literary people is stupid to arguing that the only good writing is genre fiction or that all literary judgments are just bogus snobbery. I don't think that's right.

First, I categorically reject the idea that genre fiction can't be good literature. Such a stance is akin to saying that sestinas can't be good poetry because that form is inferior/dated/impossible. Almost any chosen form, I think, could produce great literature and it would be great in part because of the ways that it interacted with the conventions of the genre (and there are just as many conventions -- and those just as unreal -- in 'standard' literature as there are in fantasy).

So the real question is, how does one go about recognizing good literature in fantasy? You can go with the gut instinct approach, or you can develop detailed sets of rules and definitions and see if a work fits them, or you can say "who are you to judge?" But whatever approach you take, you will be judging the literature, if only in the sense that you'll choose to ration some of your 2 billion seconds of life to reading the work.

The approach taken by mainstream critics could be summed up as: 'the best fantasy literature is that which is closest to mainstream literature in as many particulars as possible,' and this would explain the favorable treatment given to 'magical realism' of Borges, Garcia-Marquez, Llosa, Calvino, Rushdie, etc.

Another approach might be to try to determine which works within the genre create the most powerful aesthetic effects. One can do this simply by solipsistic reporting (it gave me goosebumps) or by sociological survey (x number of people felt this way -- often oversimplifed as x number of people bought this book). Or you can take some kind of aesthetic theory and figure out how the book fits with it.

Finally, you could determine how closely the book fits in with other books in the genre and how influential it has been on other authors.

Tolkien enthusiasts who've stuck with me this far will see that each of the approaches has been applied to Tolkien. He's like a bunch of mid-century authors (Golding, T.H. White) who used fantasy to argue big issues of good and evil; he makes medievalists get goosebumps when he tackles cruces from Beowulf; many nerdy people like me and other super smart folks love/buy Tolkien, therefore he's great; a work of fantasy should say X, and Tolkien says X....

I think in fact just about everyone who is a good critic ends up going with the gut feeling and then constructing an ex post facto explanation for it along the other lines. Only really tedious, programmatic people approach the texts with the theory in hand, waiting to see how it fits (the theory might be unconscious in everyone, but when it's right out there, you're setting up for a boring article).

If English professors better explained that many of us are trying desperately to give some kind of logical, rational, and perhaps even scientific explanation for our gut instincts and prejudices, I think we'd get more sympathy from normal readers who haven't had their brains damaged by grad school. But, sadly, the approaches that I've been reading toward Tolkien by non-Tolkienists (who have every right and responsibility to comment) have tended to sound like pronouncements on high from the Gods of Good Literature. Those Gods are dead. In the age of the internet, I think you have to convince people rather than trying to bully them into doing what you think is right (that's the purpose of syllabi, captive audience classes, and students who desperately need your class to graduate... heh heh heh).

Follow up post will try to get to some specifics of Tolkien's work that, IMHO, substantiate the idea that LotR is great literature.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Return of the King: More Thoughts

It's hard to comment in detail without spoiling the movie for others. But there's an interesting literary question raised by the fact that so many Tolkien enthusiasts among my students immediately wanted spoilers. If you know the books well, wouldn't spoilers be the last things you'd want? You already know how the story will turn out, after all, so the only real suspense would be how the director has adapted the story.

Unfortunately for me, I think that's how I watched the film: constantly thinking about what and why Jackson cut or added what he did. I don't think this is a particularly good way to watch a film, and I'm glad that, for whatever reason, I did it less with RoK than with FoR or TT and thus enjoyed RoK much more (and I think many Tolkienophiles will feel the same way).

But I wonder how important 'suspense' is in LotR, anyway. I first had the books read to me when I was about five years old, so I can't really remember whether I was terrified, say, at the Tower of Cirith Ungol (though I'd guess I was), but the 40 or so times I've read LotR since then seem to prove that, for me, the great value of the book isn't in surprises in the plot (or, Tolkien's illusion is so perfect that one re-lives the story again and thus gets all the old feelings even though the twists are known).

Since so many people do re-read Tolkien frequently (an amazing fact, given the length of the book), it's clear that there is something about Tolkien's work quite significantly different from most literature. It would be useful to figure out why this is so, and I have a guess at a partial explanation for the phenomenon.

Tolkien very skillfully withholds information in LotR so that the reader experiences the story (in terms of information) much in the same way as the mediating characters--the hobbits (except for the brief shift to the point of view, in 3rd person associated pov, of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli). For example, Strider appears out of nowhere and slowly develops as a character; even after Weathertop Sam isn't 100% sure of him. The hobbits are surprised by the landscapes they enter and the characters they meet. They don't have all the background until the Council of Elrond, and even then the whole history of the Ring is really only sketched in. The hobbits almost never know more than the reader, and thus the reader's consciousness must be, in some way, similar to the imagined consciousnesses of the hobbits: both are confused at the same times, startled at the same times, etc.

The delivery of information is one aspect of the films that I disliked a lot: everybody knows everybody else before they've met. Aragorn is famous; everyone is clear on the map, and when things aren't perfectly clear, Gandalf spells them out in somewhat tedious detail. Obviously in the films Jackson couldn't spent lots of time on introductions, getting to know characters, etc., but that one aspect of the presentation makes the films a lot more like your classic, cliched Conan-type fantasy ('the treasure is in the cave of Gror guarded by the beast of Snirga behind the mountain of Ploth, etc.' speech that cliched fantasy characters always give).

Critics have written a lot about the 'illusion of depth' in LotR (and now that we have Silm, UT and History of Middle-earth, it's clear that the depth wasn't really that much of an illusion!), but lots of subsequent fantasy has elaborate backgrounds. The difference is, Tolkien had the ability to hoard his information, to release just enough that the reader could follow things without being overwhelmed by characters who know everything (and those characters, like Gandalf, Elrond, and to some degree Aragorn, who do know everything are rather taciturn about it). This deft touch with information is one of the many things that make Tolkien so much better than his immitators, and make the job of a film-maker so much more difficult. [update: fixed stupid typos].

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Return of the King

I saw Return of the King today thanks to some very generous support from a Wheaton alum. I won't give a full review, because I don't want to spoil things for people who have to wait until the middle of the month, but let me say that as a movie this one manage easily to top the other two. I could come up with all kind of picky criticisms (and I have some larger ones, as well), but on the whole this just blew me away--and I actually quite disliked Two Towers. The sheer spectacle, the visuals, the landscape, the special effects (seamlessly integrated)...

The audience was made up of jaded film critics and theater owners, and had only about 50 people in attendance. But spontaneous applause and cheering broke out three times and I myself got misty in more than one place. That might be the film just reminding me of the great scene in the novel, but I still give Jackson some props for getting the emotions right.

Ok, you probably want me to wear my Tolkien-critic hat: the treatment of Denethor is even worse than that of Faramir and shows that the critique of Tolkien for having 'black and white' characters is incredibly off the mark. Tolkien treats Denethor with great subtlety; Jackson does not -- it's over the top, in fact. The editing of the movie is odd: some things are very rushed, while we get image after image of catapults firing, many slow motion scenes, etc. On the other hand, no one is paying me 300 million dollars to have a deft hand in building tension, so perhaps there are reasons.

My critique about Middle-earth seeming too small is even more accurately applied to this movie, but it is already 3 hours and 15 minutes long, so I don't think more travelling scenes would have worked. At times I felt that the pace was breakneck and yet Jackson was leaving so much out, and I realized that it's probably impossible to do justice to LotR in less than, say, 24 hours of film.

Tomorrow I'll try to talk about why I think that the movies--whether you like or hate them -- really won't do much to Tolkien's legacy of work. But today, fresh out of the movie, I'll end with a few comments about it that hopefully won't spoil anything:

I said that I didn't think the scale of the battle of the Pelennor Fields being ten times larger than Helm's Deep would really make that much of a difference. I was really wrong.

Gimli's comic relief wasn't heavy-handed and worked in this film.

You've never seen such an amazing volcanic eruption.

And, finally, and most importantly to my students, I think: