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Inheriting Tolkien pt. 3: W. H. Auden

November 9, 2011

[See this post for introduction to series.]

Perhaps not everyone who likes the poetry of W. H. Auden knows that he was a strong supporter of Tolkien’s work. Perhaps even less know that he had Tolkien as a professor at Oxford, and at one point wrote a letter to his former professor saying, “I don’t think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.” That perhaps conveys the tenor of their relationship. In any case, here are links to two pieces on Tolkien that Auden wrote for the New York Times back in the ’50s: his reviews of The Fellowship of the Rings and The Return of the King (someone else did The Two Towers). The review of The Return of the King contains a more explicit defense of Tolkien’s endeavor, so I’ll focus my attention on it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Auden’s defense is fairly characteristic of the defenses I’ve heard from various people, primarily Catholics, who don’t have any strong attachment to fantasy as a genre but who love Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; so if the Gene Wolfe post addressed the “science fiction” attempt at inheritance, this post can represent the “Catholic culture” attempt.

Auden begins his review by noting that some people object to Tolkien’s work, both on aesthetic grounds, and on charges that it is merely “escapist” fantasy. To counter this, he asks the question, what is it for a work of literature to be realistic? He then describes the what he sees as the difference between subjective and objective reality, writing, in excerpt #1 (from ¶2-¶5):

The difficulty in presenting a complete picture of reality lies in the gulf between the subjectively real, a man’s experience of his own existence, and the objectively real, his experience of the lives of others and the world about him. Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives […] For objectifying this experience, the natural image is that of a journey with a purpose, beset by dangerous hazards and obstacles, some merely difficult, others actively hostile. But when I observe my fellow-men, such an image seems false. […] I observe, all too often, men in conflict with each other, wars and hatreds, but seldom, if ever, a clear-cut issue between Good on the one side and Evil on the other, though I also observe that both sides usually describe it as such. If then, I try to describe what I see as if I were an impersonal camera, I shall produce not a Quest, but a “naturalistic” document. […] Both extremes, of course, falsify life.

He proceeds to quote from Auerbach’s Mimesis, an excellent book, incidentally, and gives some examples from both extremes. He then writes, #2 (from ¶8-¶9):

If, as I believe, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded more completely than any previous writer in this genre in using the traditional properties of the Quest, the heroic journey, the Numinous Object, the conflict between Good and Evil while at the same time satisfying our sense of historical and social reality, it should be possible to show how he has succeeded. To begin with, no previous writer has, to my knowledge, created an imaginary world and a feigned history in such detail. By the time the reader has finished the trilogy, including the appendices to this last volume, he knows as much about Tolkien’s Middle Earth, its landscape, its fauna and flora, its peoples, their languages, their history, their cultural habits, as, outside his special field, he knows about the actual world. […] Mr. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own […] But it is a world of intelligible law, not mere wish; the reader’s sense of the credible is never violated.

He proceeds to defend the seeming moralism of Tolkiens work, writing, #3 (from ¶11-¶12):

To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.The battles in the Apocalypse and “Paradise Lost,” for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.

He sums up the trilogy’s “moral of the story” as follows, #4 (from ¶13):

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself.

* * *

Auden’s defense of Tolkien comes down, as I read it, to two points. One, contra those who say he is not addressing reality, he actually is, in a way better than realistic fiction. Two, contra those who say he is morally shallow, he in fact is more deep than Milton, in one way at least. Now, I find a lot to like in Auden’s reviews, but I’m going to phrase my criticisms as harshly possible to emphasize the places I find him unsatisfactory. So:

The first point, regarding realism, comes out in excerpts #1 & #2. Auden claims Tolkien is not taking a flight from reality; rather, he’s using mythological tropes to represent both subjective and objective reality at the same time. (Therese responded to pt. 1 of this series with a similar suggestion, here.) Now, this may be what he’s doing, but his procedure is in some ways exactly the opposite of the “mythic method” of Joyce and early Eliot: The Waste Land (and Ulysses, from what I hear) use allusions to traditional mythology to build an objective formal structure which will contain very subjective content about the experience of modernity. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, creates a mythology out of its author’s subjective experience of modernity and infuses it with a traditional objective morality. Both merge subjective and objective, but in different ways.

Fine. I can agree that both ways are better than, say, soulless naturalistic novels or morally vacuous escapist fantasy (both of which Auden gestures at). But it bothers me that Auden says Tolkien accounts for subjectivity because, well, he uses a quest narrative, and accounts for objectivity because, well, he includes accurate descriptions of flora and fauna. This doesn’t seem like what he meant earlier, when he said subjectivity had to do with the sense each of us has that we are on a quest and objectivity with the sense that objective morality is difficult to determine. What gives? Why can’t Auden give an actual defense of what Tolkien is doing, rather than this bait-and-switch?

Or consider Auden’s second point, regarding Tolkien’s moral depth (see excerpts #3 & #4). Auden finds the trilogy’s moral value to lie in two moral “points” that he sees it as making regarding the conflict between good and evil: (1) it has good win without appearing tyrannical; (2) it shows evil as unable to imagine good. I find both points somewhat odd, but neither particularly objectionable. My real problem with Auden’s analysis is what it leaves out, which is, the question of moral doubt. The trilogy does, of course, include scenes of temptation, and scenes of confusion, but the main characters almost never doubt what they ought to do; they only doubt how they ought to do it, and whether they have the strength to persevere. And again, I don’t see this as necessarily a flaw, but I’d like to have it explained to me why it’s not a flaw, not to just have it elided over.

In short: I find it unsatisfying for Auden to say that Tolkien achieves both subjective and objective realism, and to imply that this means realism of psychology and society, but to have it turn out to mean realism of morality and nature. It seems a tricksy way to make the work palatable to sophisticated literary critics by making it seem less unlike the works they consider “great” that it at first seems, while at the same time allowing Auden to present Tolkien as a didactic moralist along the lines of, well, Auden himself. I love Auden’s poetry, and I mean it no disrespect in calling it didactic, but Tolkien’s primary intention was not, I don’t think, to teach his readers morality.

Moreover, I have a strong feeling that a defense of Tolkien’s mimetic approach is at least possible, and that Auden’s approach is unhelpful because it obfuscates the issue more than it clarifies it. I realize it may seem like I’m just looking at every attempted defense of Tolkien and saying it’s somehow not good enough, but I’m not simply unwilling to be pleased. What I want is this: a description of Tolkien’s work that defends him not just as a “good read,” or as morally instructive, but which takes seriously his approach to fiction-making, his particular brand of mythopoeia. I have a strong interest in questions of fiction-making, mimesis, and literary representation, and a strong sense that Tolkien is doing something interesting with the art of fiction that has not been done before, or since, but I’m not sure whether he was ultimately successful or not. I also have a strong sense that Tolkien’s fictional approach was not focused on “realism,” and that any description of his work that tries to subsume it under a model of literature as good primarily insofar as it is “realistic” is fundamentally misguided.

But I’m not sure what other model we might offer. In a way, my complaints with every interpretation of Tolkien I’ve read have to do with the inadequacies I sense in every attempt I’ve read to justify the value of literature. One might then interpret this series as an attack on each prominent aesthetic approach, as applied to Tolkien. First I attacked Wolfe’s attempt to make Tolkien a realist, then Auden’s attempt to make him a moralist; next up must be an interpretation focused on the value of the art-object itself, and then one focused on the work as a medium for the author’s personal expression. To that end, I plan to look next at an interpretation of Tolkien’s love of language and his claim that his entire mythology was created so that there was a world in which Elvish could be spoken.

* * *

As an aside, I find it interesting to note that Auden ends his review the following way:

From the appendices readers will get tantalizing glimpses of the First and Second Ages. The legends of these are, I understand, already written and I hope that, as soon as the publishers have seen “The Lord of the Rings” into a paper-back edition, they will not keep Mr. Tolkien’s growing army of fans waiting too long.

Of course Tolkien never published The Silmarillion during his lifetime. I’ve always treated that as simply inevitable; it was just too big a project for Tolkien, perfectionist that he was, to ever finish. It’s strange to think that in his day it would have been perceived as somewhat similar to the exasperating delays fantasy writers like Robert Jordan and G. R. R. Martin inflict on their fans.

And incidentally, The New York Times archives also include a number of other Tolkien-related articles I found amusing, including his obituary and an interview with him interspersed with descriptions of the ’60’s Tolkien craze. It’s quite good of them to make all of this available online for free.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2011 6:15 pm

    I can’t believe no one’s commented on this yet. That said, I’ve got to print it and read it with a finer eye than can be devoted to scanning on a computer screen. Will be back…

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