Inheriting Tolkien pt. 1: introduction
I have discussed here many types of literature, but have placed at this journal’s aesthetic center a trinity of authors: Herman Melville (whence the title), Gerard Manley Hopkins (whence the subtitle and banner image), and J.R.R. Tolkien (whence the author’s pseudonym). But the last of these has been somewhat unfairly neglected; not that Tolkien’s name has come up the least often, but that I have tended to focus on modernist novels and poems and on formal experimentation, subjects more closely aligned with Melville and Hopkins. When I have mentioned Tolkien, it has often been in the context of Catholicism and technology, not literature. I would thus not blame my regular readers (what few I have) if they thought this was because Tolkien no longer mattered.
One might interpret my silence on Tolkien in this way: my chosen pseudonym was due to a youthful infatuation with Tolkien out of which I have since “grown,” or of which my academic studies of literature have “cured” me, such that I now see him as simply a an important step in my intellectual history, whether for good or ill; at best, a tool for youthful development, at worst, a distraction from the more serious literary achievements of the 20th century . Elements of this, certainly, are correct. Tolkien was a huge influence on my worldview in my early years; I vividly recall reading The Lord of the Rings right before or during third grade–I would have been seven or eight–and the Silmarillion when I was about eleven. I re-read both many times in subsequent years. I read few other writers of “fantasy” literature, and those I did read I found vastly inferior.
But my thoughts on Tolkien were discombobulated long before I began studying literature seriously; first, by my participation in the Wesnoth project and abortive attempts to work out a theory of how non-realistic fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, etc) ought to work (that story merits a post in itself, though I probably am not yet able to tell it accurately); and second, by my attempts to write fiction and subsequent discovery that I could not write as Tolkien did, could not think as he did, in fact, like it or not, thought much more like the modernist writers he despised. It was around this time–not after, but not before, either (and both were gradual processes)–that I decided to study literature.
And more importantly–I do not see Tolkien simply as a step in my intellectual history. He is that, but also more. I still love his work, and have a strong desire to justify him, even while fearing that doing so is impossible; I am unconvinced by any of the proffered justifications I have read. And I remain equally unconvinced by the standard condemnations. And, as much as by how Tolkien differs from the great modern writers, I am fascinated by how much he resembles them–he, as much as them, I sense, was a creature of modernity, however unwillingly so. In part, I think, Tolkien represents a rupture in my aesthetic imagination–an inability to decide for or against modernity. Or, since that is overly simplistic–an inability to articulate what, precisely, it is in modernity that should be embraced, and what should be rejected, to make sense of my love of all three figures, Hopkins, Melville, Tolkien. (Or, if necessary, to justify a rejection of one of them–though that would be a sad day indeed.)
So much for background (yes, that was all background). What I want to do with this series of posts is this: explore the different ways 20th century writers–both “literary” and non–have responded to Tolkien, either embracing or rejecting him, and what I find unsatisfying in each of their arguments; planned thus far are Gene Wolfe, W.H. Auden, and Edmund Wilson. I may also include some writers who have written nothing about Tolkien but whose aesthetics can be fruitfully compared with his–including, possibly, Hopkins and Melville. There is no set number of posts I’ll make on this topic; I will pursue it until I exhaust it (or it exhausts me).
: Incidentally, one might be tempted towards these same conclusions regarding a blog by a former classmate of mine called Inklings. I wonder if Therese shares the confusions outlined above, or if she has resolved them for herself, either by relegating Tolkien to the children’s bookshelf or by mapping his solutions to modernity, as well as his objections, onto those of T.S. Eliot, who seems to have supplanted Tolkien in her consciousness in the same way Melville and Hopkins have in mine.