Writings of a techie wizard
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Tue, 14 Jun 2011

A post at "Stephensplatz" describes Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as "A Notable Work of Children's Fiction" (that's the title of the post). As someone who first read LOTR in seventh grade, and who has re-read it many times since, this naturally got my attention. And since reading Tolkien's writing was, in large part, what made me first think of writing myself, it's fitting that a discussion of his work gets the first "real" post on this blog.

Perhaps surprisingly, I could find almost nothing to disagree with in the post linked to above. However, I was a bit confused by the post's opening question:

Why do Tolkien fans get so touchy when people refer to Lord of the Rings as a children's book?

That statement certainly does not make me "touchy", nor did anything in the post. The author gives reasons for characterizing LOTR this way, and from his point of view, the characterization is reasonable. I have not read a great deal of literary criticism of Tolkien's work, or much of what his "fans" write (for the most part I prefer to read what Tolkien himself wrote, not what others write about him), so perhaps I simply have not seen the sort of touchiness that the post's author has. (I have read a fair number of critics who get touchy when their particular pet interpretations of LOTR are criticized by others, but that's not quite the same thing; I'll come back to this point.)

Some of the post's comments are purely subjective: for example, that "the early parts of LOTR are almost unreadable." They aren't for me, but of course every reader's experience is different. And "the Revised Standard (Catholic) Version" is not an unjustified moniker for the work, though Tolkien does take pains to make the Christianity in it subtle and not overt (for which I, personally, thank him, since it allows me to read the book as an agnostic without continually gritting my teeth, as I did when I tried to read, for example, C. S. Lewis). When, for example, you look in the Appendices and see that the dates of the Fellowship setting out from Rivendell and of the destruction of the Ring are, respectively, December 25 and March 25 (and Tolkien says explicitly in a later Appendix that those particular dates were intentionally chosen by him), of course you understand the reference.

Other comments in the post are not subjective, exactly, but they are perhaps not as important to me as they appear to be to the author. For example, consider this comparison of LOTR to Wagner's Ring cycle, and specifically Siegfried seeing a woman (Brunhilde) for the first time:

...entering the world of love and adult sexuality--that's real white-hot terror, that's what separates the men from the boys. It's a ring of fire Tolkien's fiction is too timid to cross.

Siegfried was a courageous hero, yes, but he was also an idiot (Anna Russell, in her hilarious "condensed" Ring cycle, calls him "a regular Li'l Abner type"), and Wagner himself was not a model I would recommend following in his relations with women. It is true that LOTR has no sex in it, and almost no man-woman relationships of any sort (Aragorn and Eowyn being the obvious "exception that proves the rule"), and that did reflect, at least in part, Tolkien's own combination of innocence and Victorian training in these matters. But it also reflects, I think, a judgment that the kind of sexuality portrayed in, say, the Ring cycle is ultimately rather superficial. (I am reminded of a story about John Randolph, who was in the early US House of Representatives, and was well known to be impotent. When another member made an indirect reference to this disability, his reply was "Sir, you pride yourself on an ability in which any ignorant barbarian is your equal and any jackass immeasurably your superior.") Tolkien simply preferred to concentrate on other aspects of human relations that, to him, offered deeper possibilities. This is probably also a matter of taste, at least to some extent.

The most interesting point in the post about the worldview of LOTR, that it "projects a simplistic Sunday-school good vs. evil worldview", is also not unjustified; and it may account for the touchiness the author has observed, because a good deal of Tolkien criticism that I have read is centered around the morality portrayed in LOTR and how, if at all, it relates to the real world. Critics who defend the position that the morality of LOTR does apply to real life do tend to get touchy when that position is questioned. Years ago I came across a book of critical articles called A Tolkien Compass, and I was struck by the fact that the editor, Jared Lobdell, went so far as to use the word "wrongheaded" to describe the view that "the morality of LOTR cannot be applied volens nolens to real life." (To Lobdell's credit, he did have the integrity to include articles on both sides of the question; the word "wrongheaded" was used to describe his opinion of an article in the same book.)

It is probably not a coincidence that critics who take the position that LOTR's morality can be applied to real life tend to do so from a Christian perspective. That was the case in A Tolkien Compass, and it is also the case in a book a friend lent me recently, Following Gandalf, by Matthew Dickerson. Most of the book is devoted to studying in detail the morality portrayed in LOTR: that good and evil are objective things in the world, and "it is a man's part to discern them" and make the right moral choices. Also, the right choices should be made even if they may lead to defeat; the Wise of Middle-earth all refuse to use the Ring, and instead seek to destroy it, even though that risks total defeat if the Ring-bearer's quest fails. But of course even that would not really be "total" defeat, because ultimately the One is there to judge all choices, good and evil, so this morality is ultimately founded on the belief that what appear to be bad consequences of "right" choices will be made right in the end.

Near the end of his book, Dickerson makes explicit the real-world Christian implications:

But if Tolkien is right--if the Christian story is true, as he (and so many skeptical men) have come to believe is the case--then the victory of salvation is possible.

In other words, human beings can achieve moral victory not just in Middle-earth, but in the real world, by applying the morality that Tolkien's heroes apply in LOTR. Of course this belief, as it is described here (and by Tolkien himself, whose writings Dickerson quotes aptly throughout the book), depends crucially on the belief that "the Christian story is true," and the author of the post I linked to at the start might simply be flatly denying that belief. But that post also describes differences between Middle-earth and our world that are independent of where one stands on that question. For example, in LOTR, "there's never any doubt who the good and bad guys are" as there is in the real world. (A more accurate way to state this objection would be that in LOTR, there's never any doubt what the good or bad actions are. Dickerson in his book takes pains to draw this key distinction, so that persons in LOTR can be morally ambiguous, not completely good or bad. But each individual action in LOTR has a clear moral status, whereas in the real world, we don't even have that much certainty.)

Is this simply an impasse, then? Both the Christian critics and the author of the post above seem to think so, but I'm not sure. The post hints at a deeper issue when it describes LOTR as

...a little-England fantasy...where benevolent lords held sway and servants contentedly knew their place--an ideal which Tolkien must have known was a lie.

This gets at another key difference between Middle-earth and the real world, ethically/morally speaking: in Middle-earth there is such a thing as an objective "right" to power, an objectively "rightful" King or lord, as Aragorn is. In the real world, there is no such thing. But it would be wrong to draw from that, as the post's author does, the conclusion that Middle-earth has nothing to teach us about power and politics. The error here is the flip side of the error made by a number of critics (one example is another article in A Tolkien Compass) who claim that the central theme or message of LOTR is that power corrupts. The "message" of LOTR about power is nowhere near that simple; but that doesn't mean there isn't one. Dickerson, to his credit, avoids both errors in his book, and instead correctly observes that LOTR distinguishes between power wielded justly, rightly, and power wielded unjustly, wrongly, and only the latter kind of power is viewed as corrupting. This is, of course, the whole point of the Ring itself, as a symbol of the temptation to take shortcuts when using power, to just make people do what you think is right, instead of using one's power to enable them to freely choose for themselves.

And that concept is applicable to the real world, regardless of where one stands on religion and theology. After all, having no objective test for who "rightfully" has power in the real world does not mean nobody has it; and enforcing responsibility when using power is all the more important when you can't dictate any objective rules for who "rightfully" has it. Every politician who wants to shortcut the Constitution to "fix" some pressing social problem, every do-gooder who wants to shortcut the lengthy (and often unsuccessful) process of actually convincing people that taking care of the environment, say, is a good idea, and just pass draconian legislation instead, every Wall Street trader who sees nothing wrong with playing risky zero-sum games with other people's retirement savings simply because they can, is an urgent testimony to the need for some kind of countervailing force. Perhaps Aragorn and Gandalf are not the absolutely best models to look to for people who find themselves in such positions; but those people certainly could do a lot worse, and mostly do. And that is anything but "kid stuff."

Postscript: The Peter Jackson Films

The same author also has a post about the Peter Jackson films of LOTR. Here I have even less to disagree with than in the post about the books proper, above. In fact, in one way I was even less enthused by the movies than this author was, since he admits "to being moved by The Fellowship of the Ring on my first viewing, but that's because I was watching the book, not the movie." I couldn't even get that far; by about 30 minutes into FOTR, I was already telling myself that I just had to accept that this was not the book I knew, that it was a different work, a different story which happened to draw on the material of the book, but which had to be taken on its own merits. So I didn't even get much of a feeling of nostalgia. (I get that by re-reading the books themselves, which I probably do, on average, once every other year or so.)

I could also add other absurdities that aren't mentioned in the review: for example, the fact that so much screen time is spent on cheap stuff (e.g., in FOTR with Saruman creating the orcs, scenes which never appear in the book at all), while many of the actual suspenseful events in the book are omitted or glossed over. Or the fact that the elves, in particular, just seem way too immature compared to Tolkien's originals. All the characters suffer from this to some extent, as the post's author notes, but it was particularly grating, for example, to see Elrond, who is something like 6500 years old at the time of LOTR, acting like an overwhelmed middle-aged father in a TV movie. (I had to wonder if Peter Jackson even bothered to read The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, since his portrayal of that whole subplot bears little if any resemblance to the book.) Only Galadriel in the film gets across any sense of how much history Tolkien's elves had already lived through by the time of LOTR, and how much was riding on the outcome of the War. When she delivers the great line "All shall love me and despair!" you actually do get a sense that something really world-shaking is at stake.

One change from the book that I did not object to was putting Arwen in Glorfindel's role. I understand why Tolkien wouldn't ever have considered doing that, but even in the context of the book, it seems extreme. And we don't even have to look at the obvious contrast with Eowyn to see this. Galadriel clearly wields power and is not just a female appendage of Celeborn, and by simple analogy one would not expect her granddaughter to be just a female appendage either. So I didn't mind that she wasn't in the movie; if nothing else, it makes Aragorn's love for her more believable.

All that said, however, I should make clear that, once I had made the perceptual shift I referred to above, accepting that the movies I was watching were not of the same story as the one in the books, I actually found that, in places, they do capture something of the feeling of the books. One such place I have already referred to above, at the Mirror of Galadriel. Another is the view we get of the charge of the Rohirrim as they arrive at the Pelennor Fields, the great aerial shot of a wave of riders breaking upon the besieging armies. Watching that scene was every bit as moving as reading it was when I first read the trilogy. And Aragorn's speech to his soldiers before the last battle at the Black Gate seemed to me to have some echoes of Henry V's speech before the Battle of Agincourt.

In the end, though, I think the movies are missing a lot of the richness of the books. Some of that is probably unavoidable; Tolkien's books are very, well, bookish, and much that is in them does not translate well into other media. (Tolkien himself knew this quite well, as is made clear in other writings of his, such as his essay "On Fairy-Stories".) But that still leaves a lot that could have been truer to the books, and wasn't. In particular, the movies do not capture at all the key lesson about power, and the right and wrong ways to use it, that I discussed above with reference to the books. The post goes so far as to say that "Jackson, perhaps unwittingly, has produced a work that plays into the hands of the neoconservative paranoiacs in the White House" (it was written in 2007), which seems to me to be laying it on a bit strong. But Tolkien's books, even if you don't agree with the viewpoint they take, at least encounter the issue. The movies don't.

Posted at 18:36   |   Category: opinions   |   Tags: fantasy   |   Permalink
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