J.R.R. Tolkein, The Return of the King

I just finished Tolkein, for crying out loud. Enjoyed it, no doubt, but I got to a point after reading the first two that I ran out of steam for a while. Returning to Moorcock’s famous “Epic Pooh” essay, this description of Tolkein’s prose bears quoting:

sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy.

More than anything, I found that contrary to an assertion Moorcock alludes to from unnamed defenders of Tolkein’s prose, that the prose in The Return of the King was more grating than in the previous two books. Maybe I was moodier, maybe the gradual accruing of archaicisms just wore on me. But I put it down despite liking it and being generally interested in the story.  I picked it up a week ago, feeling strongly that I wanted to finish it and that Tolkein deserved better than George R.R. Martin, who in the fifth book of his series has seemingly lost me for good.

Briefly I should say a few potentially contentious things.

  1. Tolkein wrote a great read but by no means is he a Great Writer. Turgenev was a Great Writer. Ishmael Reed is a Great Writer. Octavia Butler was a Great Writer.
  2. Continuing, the entire Lord of The Rings is thoroughly flawed as a work of art, often poorly paced even when taken on its own terms, with, as I’ve written before, astonishingly shallow characterization.
  3. Tolkein’s political blind-spots are near killers for someone who does not share them. In this volume, the portrayal of the “wild men,” the Dunlendings, seemed straight out of Kipling at his worst.

All these, but I read the book, which is not something I always do. So, the pertinent question would be, now that I’ve finished it, “what does Tolkein do well?”

I don’t think the big attraction about the book is Tolkein’s “world-building,” though it’s something often pointed to even by critics as the chief virtue of the book. Certainly, having played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid I appreciated it and found the small allusions to long ago histories throughout completely engaging. But that said, it’s not like Tolkein drew all this up out of nothing. At some level while it’s not the inevitable outcome of an Oxford philologist, specializing in Old English, deciding to come up with a fantasy story and having the whole project snowball into an obsession, it seems certain to be one of the likely outcomes. But this isn’t good or bad, as people don’t generally invent something from nothing, and likely they never do.

Two things really strike me as Tolkein’s interesting and at some level original, at least in the genre, achievements. First, he has an understanding of the working of political power, particularly as it applies to Mordor, that is rare in the genre and valid. Particularly, and I think I’ve made this point before, Sauron is not an all-powerful evil. Maybe it’s the rash of movies in the past few years in which some overwhelming galactic enemy is going to destroy everything everywhere, and which is all-powerful and invulnerable, only to be suddenly defeated five minutes before the film’s close. Tolkein spends much time, generally through Gandalf, pointing out the tenuousness of Sauron’s position. The good guys are not all but doomed nor is their victory inevitable, but rather there is a both formidable and vulnerable enemy. This is a genuinely interesting approach and one which retains some meaning in our actually-existing world.

Second, Tolkein, for all of his flaws, approaches his subject from a fundamentally humane perspective. I have plenty of people in my life with whom I have real political disagreements and whose politics I am certain has bad effects on the world, but who, in their dealings with people in everyday life are generous and humane. I feel like Tolkein was like that. Critical here is his treatment of the orcs. There is an element in the portrayal of the orcs wherein they are evil hordes simply to be slaughtered. Functionally, in the novel, that’s what they are. Yet, particularly in The Return of The King, which in some scenes looks in relatively close detail at orcs’ relationships with each other, we get some detail to support–was it Gandalf’s assertion at some point?–that the orcs weren’t flawed at conception but developed to be so. This is really important and likely undercuts the narrative structure of the book, which is “good triumphs over evil.” At some level I get the feeling that Tolkein the person was more humane than his book.

I’ll close by noting that I picked up Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, and his descriptions of the countryside absolutely demolish Tolkein. There really is no contest.

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