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Inheriting Tolkien pt. 1: introduction

October 25, 2011

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 [1]. 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).

[1]: 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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 7:27 am

    I hadn’t thought of Tolkien that way at all – and certainly not with any view to abandonment, as I reread him regularly. Partly, for me, was the extended links that discovering Tolkien gave me – I must have been 10 or so when I first read The Hobbit, and then the Lord of the Rings, and have reread LOTR each year since then. But it was Tolkien who led me to non-Narnia Lewis, to Sayers, to Williams, to Barfield, to – well, I tried to read all the Inklings. Then MacDonald and Morris and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and… as much of the extant Old and Middle English texts I could lay my hands on (or at least be guided though – much easier to study Middle English at university than to try to muddle through by yourself) (except the Ancrene Wisse, which I still want to read and own the Tolkien version of someday). All that then led to Auden, and so on and on.
    The other part is that I’m not convinced that modernity is what’s at issue here. Is that what some of my friends mean when they say they find all the description in LOTR hard to wade through – that Tolkien sounds old-fashioned? I suppose that’s a style preference, then, as I’m not overly fond of the short sentences and clipped words many writers have used since about the 1980s.
    By condemnation do you mean that he hasn’t become part of the canon yet? That excerpts aren’t included in the Norton anthologies, for instance?
    Those anthologies have their place, certainly, but… if they must include him, I’d rather they include a few stand-alone poems and have done. Nothing like losing the flavour of the books than to have to sit through an excerpt in a high school English class as the teacher asks questions like “and why, exactly, do you think Frodo put the ring on at the end?”!

  2. October 28, 2011 11:14 pm

    It’s not so much that they’re not included in anthologies, it’s that they’re hard to take serious academically at all. Tolkien’s work isn’t just not in anthologies, it’s completely different from what’s in anthologies, not just stylistically (whatever “just” stylistically means) but because it conceives of what it’s doing as fundamentally different from what modern literature conceives of itself as doing. It doesn’t engage any of the same questions, and for the most part it wasn’t read by major 20th century writers and he didn’t read major 20th century writers. It’s completely Other. So if academic canonization places you in a certain tradition of “serious” literature–a tradition I want to consider myself heir to–which Tolkien is not a member of, then what is it to be also heir to Tolkien?

    Put differently: It doesn’t bother me that Tolkien isn’t included in anthologies. It does bother me that the suggestion of doing so wouldn’t fill most literary scholars with disapproval or disgust–it would fill them with INCOMPREHENSION.

  3. October 30, 2011 2:47 pm

    Good point. An argument could be made, I suppose, for including his poetry, slipped in between Walter de la Mare and Auden. But for snippets of his actual work, yes he hasn’t been considered ‘serious’ enough, to date. Is it the orcs and elves? Yet HG Wells or Shelley or Bram Stoker are placed in anthologies. Maybe it’s just one of those things that will take another decade or so – when enough time has passed to give him a ‘serious’ veneer.

  4. October 31, 2011 6:00 am

    I still haven’t been able to devote as much thought to this as I’d like, but here’s my attempt at formulating the many pieces of partial answers knocking around in my head.

    First off, it’s interesting that you bring this up when you do, because I had first begun to consciously notice how far I’d moved from the original focus of my blog only about two months ago. Accordingly, the updated “look” of the site dropped the Tolkien photo, which seemed a bit out of keeping with the content, and replaced it with a completely non-author specific photo: just a bunch of bookshelves from the tiny used bookstore in my hometown. Even place where that photo was taken reflects my shift in focus…you mention T.S. Eliot as having supplanted Tolkien in my consciousness, which in a literary-critical sense is true, but even my initially-strictly New Critical focus on literature has expanded to be more like cultural criticism than anything else. Not that I like the way most cultural criticism is done, but I was getting rather sick of thinking about literature in a vacuum.

    Questions about literature in my blog have been overshadowed by questions about the relationship between geographical places, their history, the culture of the people there, and in turn the relationship between the sum of those aspects and the sum of those found in completely different geographical areas. I’m beginning–and this is kind of natural, given that I’m over here studying “Belgian” literature and finding that the first question that needs to be asked is “IS there a Belgian literature?” Or even, “Is there any such thing, REALLY, as a Belgian?”

    When considering this shift, I don’t know if it’s as much a permanent one, or one that is simply a stage informed by my previous ideas about literature. But in either case, whether it’s a permanent shift or a temporary stage, the fact that it’s “informed” by my earlier ideas is unquestionable. Which brings me back to Tolkien.

    I, like you, was introduced to Tolkien at an early age: my dad read us the Hobbit when I was five; I had finished the trilogy by the time I was about eight. And I’m indebted to him on several levels. For one thing, finishing the trilogy taught me that I could read “grown-up” literature. Without having crossed that threshold chez Tolkien, I wouldn’t have read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, or Bleak House, or Crime and Punishment, or any of the other classics I devoured well before high school. So in a sense, reading “serious literature” had its roots in Tolkien, though even that far back it was fairly obvious that Tolkien wasn’t “serious” in the sense that a lot of that other literature was. I did consider him an important literary figure, but that was more for his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain, his linguistic skills, and his encouragement of Nordic mythology–one reason I’d object to what Wolfe says is that I think Tolkien considered himself an “heir” of Dante only in the sense that he was Catholic–aesthetically, it was always the Beowulf-type story that attracted him.

    But honestly, I’m not entirely ready to put Tolkien on trial to see whether his work can be called “great literature”. I always conceived of it as doing something very *consciously* different than the mainstream of literature, and I don’t mind that. He wasn’t a writer, primarily; not friends with Hemingway or Woolf or any of those. He was just a linguist who could tell a darn good story. Whatever literary *critics* will make of Tolkien, the fact remains that he is much more widely and passionately read than Woolf or Faulkner or Hemingway. As great and innovative as all of them are, they are difficult to read. Maybe not for an English major, who’s accustomed to reading difficult things, but honestly, for the average person, Faulkner or Woolf are not going to be fun, rewarding reads. Now, I know that Eliot can be accused of this excessive difficulty as well (and the accusation is true to an extent), but I’m 100% in agreement with his essays calling for a literature that’s more accessible to the public (“Marie Lloyd” is one I can think of off the top of my head).

    Tolkien is accessible to the public. Tolkien tells a good story. Tolkien also in my view, for what it’s worth, is not so much trying to return to the Middle Ages as he is using the setting to make his emphasis on heroism, sacrifice, and redemptive suffering seem natural. He was aware enough of his time to understand that after WWI, a turn to fantasy was the only way to make “discredited” heroic virtue real again. That might not get him into the anthologies, but that hardly discredits his work as juvenile, in my opinion.

    Regarding Tolkien’s influence on me. I would say that he’s neither been relegated to the children’s bookshelf, for the reasons above, nor do I find it necessary to map his solutions more closely to modernity than I’ve already done. He’s not offering a “modern” point of view; he’s offering a timeless solution to some of the deepest questions plaguing modern man…and if he doesn’t treat the modernist question of “well, how can we tell what’s real anyway”….well, he’s careful enough to make it all fiction, which actually makes it much more realistic than presenting the same ideas in a realist medium. (Although, it would admittedly be interesting to look more closely at the use of mythical models by Eliot, Joyce, Northrop Frye, etc, though that’s not the most fashionable thing to do in lit crit just now.)

    What I’ve taken from Tolkien is a very basic framework for understanding what literature is and what sorts of problems the post-enlightenment, post-world wars world is facing. Sure, it’s a framework that’s not purely Tolkienian, given how often its been modified by other writers, and the fact that Tolkien certainly was not all I read when I started my blog at seventeen. But here are some of its most important points:

    A.) Mythical resonances make great literature. You don’t need everything to be fantasy or theology, talking about gods or God, to find these. Look at the lighthouse in Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”; the symbol of the “accursed family” in Faulkner; the return to Greek mythology around WWII in France. You need things in literature that resonate with meaning for more than just the author. Successful literature can’t be wholly subjective; it’s got to call on images and master-plots and characters that the audience can identify with. The difference between fantasy and “realism” is actually rather blurred here: in some ways, fantasy seems to be different mostly in its willingness to forefront the symbol or master-plot (and then jettison “realism” altogether to make that move more palatable to the modern audience) while the realists seek to camouflage the same things so that they do not strike us as unrealistic.

    B.) Culture matters. Friendship matters. Two things to which our society pays extravagant lip-service, but which it really doesn’t understand. What does it mean to be “rooted” in a place? What does it mean to be a friend? Those are questions of which I first became aware through Tolkien’s work, and they are still very explicitly at the center of my writing, both on the blog and off.

    C.) Good literature is a good story. The biggest reason that the contemporary lit crit circles put me in such a state of ennui just now is simply that they all seem to have forgotten this. And since growing up on Tolkien (and Dickens and Austen, and the Brontes and Lewis and so forth) I can’t forget it. It’s why, even now, I hold myself to the rule of “no criticism on the first reading” unless it’s a school text and I’m forced to do so. I see absolutely no reason why one should go on about the aesthetic merits of a text unless one has first shown that the story is excellent. And if the story is excellent, the text is worth something, in my opinion. Maybe it’s not the most innovative of books; maybe the characters (as in Dickens) are stock figures; maybe the line of reasoning behind some of the Bronte’s plots is occasionally fragile. But they’re all darn good stories. You can figure out that the modernists are good storytellers after you’ve read a lot of their work and understand the type of story they’re trying to tell. Appreciation of their aesthetic innovations, comes however, for me at least, only after I appreciate the story. The reason Tolkien is so much more popular than the modernists is evident though: he tells a fantastic story that does not rely so heavily on the reader’s capacity to sit down, struggle through 200 difficult pages, go back, read it again, and then finally appreciate it. Aesthetically innovative or not, excessively “fantastical” or not, his books are admirable in that respect at least.

  5. October 31, 2011 7:24 pm

    Good response. I wish I could agree with most of it. I think there are a few reasons I can’t, though.

    First, regarding your recent shift of focus; I’d say that even that is more Eliotic than you imply. Eliot’s not just his poetry or just New Criticism, after all. He also wrote a lot on culture in general. So from where I’m sitting, even if not from where you’re sitting, what you’re doing still seems in the vein of Eliot.

    (Perhaps what I mean by this will become clearer if I say that, while I often write on this blog about science and technology, that’s not a departure from Melville/Hopkins/Tolkien. I would argue that all of them are interested, in a way not all poets are, in objective and precise descriptions of both nature and artifice. Consider Melville on the science of whales and whaling, or Hopkins’ letters to science magazines about sunsets, or Tolkien’s concern with keeping straight the phases of the moon in LotR, or the interest shared by all of these figures in linguistics. So when I talk about science, I’m doing so “in the spirit of” these three writers, as opposed to the spirit of, say, Eliot, who is not as interested in these things.) (There’s a post in here somewhere. Maybe some day I’ll extract it.)

    But my main objection has to do with what strikes me as a denial of Tolkien’s ambition. Perhaps he wasn’t keeping company with people like Hemingway and Woolf, but I don’t think it’s because he saw what he was doing as “just” an unimportant hobby. I read his biography and collected letters years ago, and while I can’t pull any exact quotes from memory, I came away with the following impression of how Tolkien saw his endeavor: He was aware that from the outside it appeared eccentric, even foolish, so he took pains to make clear that he thought of it only as a personal hobby. But at the same time he had large ambitions for it, ambitions he knew were grandiose and impossible to achieve, but which he could never entirely reject; e.g. at one point he wrote that he wanted to create a new mythology for England. He also had what I see as a fairly sophisticated Catholic/neo-Romantic understanding of writing as a “subcreation” augmenting the wonder of Creation, and consistently thought of his work in those terms. It is this extreme ambition and this desire to make artistic creation into an act of worship, as much as his excellence at storytelling, that I admire about him (perhaps I’m wrong in this?). For that reason I don’t like looking at Tolkien as simply a good storyteller; it seems dishonest, if not to the work, then to the man, who definitely wanted his work to be taken seriously (though not in the perverse way so many fanatics of fantasy literature take it seriously).

    And finally: while it’s true that Tolkien didn’t keep company with the likes of Hemingway and Woolf, that’s not simply because he was doing something different. It’s also because he detested what they were doing. Part of my concern, I think, is with the question of what it is to approve of the writing of both of two people who disapproved of each others’ writing. Clearly it means one cannot swallow either of their aesthetic theories whole. But it does not, I think, mean that an aesthetic relativism is desirable (or even permissible). In other words: I’m not comfortable with just saying “well, Eliot was good, and Tolkien was good too, and they did different things that accomplished different things.” What I want instead is to achieve an understanding of “literature in general” that allows me to criticize the weaknesses of both and at the same time articulate what is good about both. Of course putting it like that, it sounds a mite ambitious, no?

    All that said, I agree, I think, with your A, B, & C; but when I say that, I immediately become suspicious, because I’m not sure how compatible they really are with my other aesthetic commitments…

  6. Fatchops permalink
    October 31, 2011 10:25 pm

    I believe time will prove Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to be a great work of literature. The three qualities that will designate it as such are truth, beauty, and goodness. Tolkien also manages to avoid any corruption or distortion of these qualities. (A rare thing when looking at modern literature) A task I felt Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun fails at. The Book of the New Sun was much harder to read and required more thinking on the part of the reader. I can admire the book for requiring the reader to think but whatever good to be found in the book, was overshadowed by a corruption of that good. Black and white were mixed together into a pool of grey. That pool of grey was considered to be the good in a black world. Perhaps I misunderstood it but that was the impression I was given. Lord of the Rings does not force the reader to think at the same level but there is far less subjectivism and murkiness. I consider that a good thing, but I am sure there are many who would disagree.

  7. November 2, 2011 9:15 am

    “It is this extreme ambition and this desire to make artistic creation into an act of worship, as much as his excellence at storytelling, that I admire about him (perhaps I’m wrong in this?)” – I don’t see how that can be wrong, for surely that’s the highest ideal a subcreator can have.


  1. Inheriting Tolkien pt. 2: Gene Wolfe « Ironical Coincidings

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