Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trashing JRR Tolkien

I note in the news that here in the US, a Republican Senator has criticized Republican House members by calling them naïve “hobbits”, and a Republican Representative has riposted by saying he’d rather be a hobbit than a troll. This is just the latest instance of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings being referenced by US politicians, especially Republicans.

Enough, enough of this. I may be alone in saying this, but I suspect that Tolkien would be sick at heart at what his message has become.

It is clear from his published Letters that Tolkien distrusted Americans – which, at that time (1950s and early 1960s), meant American men. He was, for example, very wary of having his books made into movies by Americans – his stated reason was that the books’ words were meant to be mythical, and didn’t sound right when spoken. As it turns out, the makers of the movie found that in many cases the words of the book sounded better than a modern rewrite, so in this case he was unnecessarily modest. Also, a Ballantine version, while popularizing the book in America, infringed his copyright, so that at first he was deprived of badly needed royalties. But there was more than that at work; what else caused him to distrust American men, is not clear.

However, I find increasing evidence since that time that he was right to do so. I first read the books in the early 1960s, so I have watched the phenomenon unfold since the beginning. The divergence began then, I think.

One of the notable features about The Lord of the Rings that I have noted is that it has appealed to an unusual number of women – not only men. This was unusual for its time: fantasy then in America was focused on Robert Howard’s over-muscled superheroes, with the occasional female jock who somehow lacked the basic protective armor except in strategic but minimal places – not the kind of thing that many women then or now find interesting, except as an obvious example of men’s incomprehensible, irritating taste. Moreover, as female norms have changed over here, Tolkien’s focus on men characters would normally seem dated.

The key, I think, lies in a surprising amount of “rethinking” underlying the text. Not that Tolkien was a proto-feminist. However, there is a very interesting story called “Aldarion and Eldaris” set in the same world that he wrote at about that time, that clearly enters into his thinking. In it, he sets out at great length and with some sympathy the objections of the partner whom the hero-king on his quest has left. Moreover, in her own way Eldaris sets up a counter-kingdom excluding men, showing clear leadership qualities. We see traces of this not in Arwen, as the movie would have it, but in Eowyn, who is able to make the switch from killing things to being an equal ruler who grows things.

This, in turn, allows women who read it for the first time to feel connected to the story, and then to appreciate Tolkien’s focus on relationships and beauty. It was noteworthy that when the movie came out, the one scholar who focused on Tolkien’s vision of a nature that was so alive it glowed with an inner light, was the one woman scholar quoted.

However, right from the start, many American men have read these same sections with impatience, even scorn at Tolkien’s style. Early on, Gary Gygax, creator of the Dungeons and Dragons game that was in many ways a straightforward elaboration of Tolkien’s cast of creatures, was quoted as saying that he could write better, because he would go straight to the action. Peter Jackson (yes, I know he’s from New Zealand, but he was clearly tailoring the movie to American tastes) did his very best to keep the sense of dread and action constant, and dropped the much of the first “book” in consequence. Moreover, his experience in horror movies tailored to American tastes, I think, led him to the understandable decision to give a “horror” or “action” tinge to all the scenes, especially the fight scenes. This movie, in turn, reinforced a new generation of American men who may never have read the book in the belief that it’s about plucky little and big superheroes who go out and save the world from evil by winning wars.

This is so far from Tolkien’s apparent thinking that it’s hard to know where to begin. His experience in the trenches of WW I left him with what today might be described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he was reluctant to have his son serve in WW II, because he felt that it was being used by the government to demonize the enemy. Lord of the Rings reflects that thinking: war is a horrible experience (“it was Sam’s first experience of a battle, and he didn’t like it much”), and a last resort, and those who wage it must be very clear-eyed about why it is necessary and how to minimize its effects. The Lord of Gondor, who believes the struggle is all about Gondor and only he can save it, is just as destructive as the counselor in Rohan who betrays the kingdom in order to “get” the woman he lusts after.

The second key point is that the story is about people changing – or not. Above all, it’s a story about Frodo changing. Perhaps the sentence that is most charged with meaning in the entire story is this: “I wanted to save the world, and it was saved – but not for me.” The entire first book is filled with meetings in which Frodo’s (and our) vision of the world is stretched, and stretched again, until he understands much of what is valuable in the world from its beginning until now. Then – and this point cannot be emphasized enough – he sets out to help save that world, and he fails. The result of that failure – the failure to resist the Ring enough to cast it in the Fire – and of his wounds, the equivalent of PTSD, is that he can’t stop missing the Ring, and he can’t enjoy the world that is saved, and especially because many of the things he wanted to save are vanishing anyway. I repeat: this is not a story about superheroes winning wars; it is about people enlarging their vision so they understand what’s at stake, instead of thinking it’s all about them and only they know the right answer. “Even Sauron was not evil in the beginning”; and that was the key mistake Sauron made.

The third key point is that in Tolkien’s world, not only the people are connected parts of an integral whole, but so is nature. The weather, the trees, all affect people’s moods and thinking, and are in turn fostered and destroyed by people. This is no abstract “the hero and his buddies go on a quest” folktale. It is a story in which your success is connected to the success of Brand and Dain halfway around the world, and your failure at Weathertop to the north is connected to the success of the Haradrim at Pelargir in the uttermost south. It is a story in which you would not succeed unless you helped save the trees of Fangorn Forest, and unless the wind from the South dissipated the storm of Mordor. If you lose that connection, the world is “blasted beyond repair, unless the healing hand of the Sea should cover the land in merciful oblivion.”

OK, so back to my quotes. It’s about plucky hobbits and evil trolls and fighting the enemy – yes, that sounds like an American man; and is the opposite of Tolkien. It’s time to cut down the evil government, we know how to do it, and we don’t believe the alarmists who say the cure is worse than the disease – yes, that sounds like an American man; and is the opposite of Tolkien. Let’s cut back on environmental regulation to save money, and drill more oil for our energy needs, as the rich suggest; well, let’s see what Tolkien says: “He started shipping food down south. People didn’t like it, what with winter coming on … But lately, he’s been pouring filth out of that mill for no reason, fouling the water …” When there’s a clear connection between present increases in fossil fuels and future injury of most people’s habitat, Tolkien would very clearly vote for better environmental protection and less drilling. Whether you think he’s right or not, he very likely would regard the US House efforts in this regard as clearly evil.

There’s a wonderful quote I have never been able to track down, that runs something like this: “When a man first commits murder, it is to be expected that he will then pass to assault and battery; he may indeed go on to wanton destruction of personal property, and in some cases from thence to defacement of public property; indeed, as hard as it is to believe, even violation of the Sabbath may not be beyond his reach.” I realize that in the scale of things, compared to risking the full faith and credit of the US government and threatening the global economy, trashing JRR Tolkien’s deep personal beliefs may not be of the same measure. But still, you American men, can you not at least spare those few of us who appreciate the full measure of his work the act of trampling on his grave? At long last, sirs, have you no shame? No shame at all?


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