As I write this I’m already a bit into The Return of the King. Despite what seems to be its reputation as the relatively boring middle bit, I thoroughly enjoyed The Two Towers. These books pass the most important test I give to books at this point in my life: I enjoy reading them.
Having said this, and feeling like the whole point of this blog is to say something, I’ll say that there are all kinds of flaws in Tolkein. The reverence with which some people approach his work, and the issuing of every single piece, it seems, of material he wrote to prepare for the trilogy, seems completely unwarranted. I know that there are classes offered in Tolkein as I’ve spoken with people who have taken them. I can imagine devoting a few classes to the work in a larger course, but a full course seems to me a desperate measure by untenured faculty to offer something–anything–which will boost their enrollment. The best use of Tolkein is to read the novels, not to study them.
One of the common praises sung of Tolkein is that he “invented a whole world” and “invented entire languages” that people spoke. These praises are generally presented with an endearing type of fanboy credulousness. But while Tolkein is certainly, in his creation of Middle Earth, hugely inventive, what is actually more interesting to me, reading it, is the extent to which it is visible that he did not invent out of whole cloth. This doesn’t make it less of a creation, but rather gives a sense of what it actually means to create. It’s not that there’s nothing new under the sun, because that’s not true. History doesn’t just repeat itself despite the cliche.
And so what’s interesting is not the extent to which Tolkein doesn’t invent something new. What he was clearly trying to do was to create a novelistic approximation of the type of otherworldliness one encounters in pre-Christian English literature, Beowulf specifically, and also like the various Scandinavian sagas. That literature presents worlds very different from the ones we inhabit. There’s magic, for example. Yet they are written not as fantasy, or not seeming to be as fantasy, but rather as a record of how things were, magic included. Behind the formal execution of those works, the actual words on a page, there is a full conception of a way the world works, or worked we would say from our current vantage point.
So, we should not say that the world of Tolkein’s is actually different than our own. A quick google reveals all kinds of predictable discussion about the underlying racism of Tolkein’s presentation. Predictable in that it’s not hard to see in the reading of it, and predictable how lots of people try to pretend it’s not there. This bit describes the problem well:
Tolkien did not write in a vacuum. Caught up in a generation of global war that profoundly and permanently altered British culture, he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the “clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South, or that the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman are readily identifiable as North African Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”).
I will say that I was shocked but not surprised that at one point Orcs referred to some of the Rohirrim–people from Rohan–as “white skins.” It just made it all clear.
This isn’t about Tolkein as much as it is about how one goes about creating art. Tolkein clearly saw the world in a way that reflected the racism of the British Empire in which he grew up and which he defended. I can get past that. It doesn’t make him a bad writer. God help me if it’s only my worst qualities that count. What’s interesting to me is how generally well Tolkein actually does in presenting his world with an air of versimilitude. It’s only in moments like that use of “white skins” that the fictive nature of the endeavor peeks through. Really, it’s very good.
The same applies to Tolkein’s “invented” languages. Rohirrim, a plural, is a good example. Yes, Tolkein put a lot of effort into inventing an elfish language, etc. But the “-im” plural rang really familiar to me when I read it. It was one of those moments where, despite the best efforts of the author, the fictive nature of the novel becomes visible. It’s like a scene in a movie where you see the overhead mic dip onto the screen. The source for this plural–at least as it reads, which is the real test–would be seraphim & cherubim. My point is not that Tolkein wasn’t inventive, but that what he invented didn’t come out of nowhere.
The big problem in Tolkein, as a read, is the massive contrast between the thoughtfulness of the setting and the shallowness of the characterization. As I start to read The Return of the King, Gandalf is developing some depth as a character. Memory is imperfect, so maybe it was on display in The Two Towers as well. Here’s Gandalf, the wonderful celestial being, who flies off the handle at the slightest inconvenience. Not horribly interesting, but complex in a way that none of the other major characters are. None, except Gollum.
Were I to advance a bold thesis, I’d say that Gollum absolutely ruins The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature, not because he’s poorly characterized but on the contrary because he’s the only figure in the series that is thoroughly well-drawn. I will say that once Gollum fully entered the narrative I had this sense that, for the first time, I had encountered a real person in this book. I thought of Tolstoy–now this is a real writer, I thought, with a real novel. Every tiny character in War and Peace is as well-drawn as Gollum, if through Tolstoy’s complete mastery of the small, telling detail. And those are the tiny characters. I thought, Tolstoy gave us hundreds of these characters, and Tolkein gives us one. I am not so much making a judgement as I am reporting a thought process. What is true is that, as I experienced it, the depth of Gollum only served to make all of the other characters look shallow. This is a real problem.