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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

J. R. R. Tolkien: an appreciation

J. R. R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892. I'd like to muse about Tolkien, who has had an influence on me, and on many other people, including C. S. Lewis. Tolkien's discussion with Lewis was one of the influences that led Lewis to belief in Christianity, and in Christ.

Tolkien was an expert in English, as spoken and written long ago, and the literature written in that language, especially Beowulf. He had a long and solid academic career, and authored books related to it, and also The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These latter were the basis of some immensely successful movies. These books had their foundation in characters, settings, situations, and languages invented by Tolkien. After his death, other books, less accessible, were put together from Tolkien's very extensive writings about this fictional universe.

So why appreciate Tolkien?
1) He was a good writer. His characters, plots and settings ring true, although, as he said, he was merely a sub-creator, not a creator. The books are carefully written, so carefully that it was difficult to get Tolkien to finish them to his own standards, and release them for publication.

2) He was a believer. As the use of the term, sub-creator, indicates, Tolkien believed that God was creator, humans merely subordinate to God.

3) His work influenced much of the fantastic literature published in English in the 20th and 21st centuries, as authors variously used his characters, his situations, his weaponry, and his races of beings, elves and dwarves, generally similar to Tolkien's beings. And, of course, some authors tried to emulate his unsought success. Most sword and sorcery fiction is related to Tolkien's fiction. Some of these authors acknowledge their debt to Tolkien. Most don't. Having good fantastic literature enriches those of us who read it. Ursula K. Le Guin, for one, said so:

That [The Lord of the Rings] is told in the language of fantasy is not an accident, or because Tolkien was an escapist, or because he was writing for children. It is a fantasy because fantasy is the natural, the appropriate, language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle of good and evil in the soul. "The Child and the Shadow," pp. 59-71, in Susan Wood, ed., The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (New York: Putnam, 1979). Quote is from p. 68.

Le Guin, herself, an important writer of fantastic literature, was influenced by Tolkien.
In the mid-1950s, she read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which had an enormous impact on her. But rather than making her want to follow in Tolkien's footsteps, it simply showed her what was possible with the fantasy genre.

4) Tolkien's characters had depth. They weren't cardboard characters. Frodo and Gollum both had conflicts as to what was the right thing to do, and what they wanted to do. So did Sam Gamgee. Boromir sought power for selfish reasons, but redeemed himself at his end. Saruman also sought power for selfish reasons, but didn't redeem himself at his end. Galadriel is, perhaps, Tolkien's most interesting character, although she is not a major character in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. See here for more about her.

Although some of his characters had depth, not all did. Tolkien didn't flesh out Morgoth, Sauron, or any of his orcs.

5) The elves (and the heroic humans) are appealing. Living for thousands of years, in perfect harmony with the natural surroundings, has a certain appeal. And Tolkien's elves didn't seem to grow bored with their long and mostly uneventful lives. And they were willing to hazard all in conflicts with great evil, and many of them lost their lives that way. The hobbits are also appealing. Living simply, not working too hard, eating a lot, not being challenged by changes, living in (mostly) harmony with your extended family sounds good.

6) Tolkien's world portrays the natural world as beautiful, but industrial enterprises as polluting. That, like the idea of very long lives, appeals to many of us.

7) Tolkien's world was not autonomous, and sometimes needed, and got, help from beyond itself. One example of such help was the wizards, Gandalf and Radagast, and probably others, as well as Saruman, before he fell morally. These entities were sent from beyond Middle-Earth, to help the inhabitants. One of them, Gandalf, was even sent back from death. There were more events, and characters, that showed that supernatural powers were interested in Tolkien's world.

8) Tolkien's world included a blessed life beyond death. It also included sacrificial death, such as Gandalf's, and that of Théoden. Death was not necessarily the end of the inhabitants of Tolkien's world.

Did Tolkien get everything right? No. Middle-earth was mostly a male world -- there don't seem to have been any female orcs, and the female ents had vanished from knowledge. There were few female dwarves. The leaders of humans were almost all male. And Tolkien ignored some basic matters. Where did everyone get their food? There's not much to eat in forests, but Elrond, and Galadriel, lived in forests, and weren't supposed to have starved. And the elves of Mirkwood likewise lived in a forest. And how was it possible to feed the denizens of Mordor, who lived in a polluted desert?

But Tolkien's world was not about agriculture. It was about right and wrong, and heroism, and beauty, and supernatural care, and persistence, and friendship.

See here for my main post about The Hobbit, and here, here and here for those on the three books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Thanks for reading. Read Tolkien.


Kaltrop said...

Nice post, but I feel compelled to offer a couple of points that may answer some of your questions.

One, the point about Mordor's food supply is actually answered within the Appendices, and is hinted at in the last bit of the Return of the King. Núrn, the south-easterly plain of Mordor, was in fact relatively fertile and served as the breadbasket of Sauron's empire. It was worked mostly by human slaves, who were given that land as their own by Aragorn after the War of the Ring.

The Elves of Mirkwood and Lorien clearly possess some kind of art that goes beyond the means of Men. For instance, we know that they can make "Lembas", the waybread that can keep a full-grown man (or Hobbit!) stupendously nourished and energised for long periods of time, even with only a small bite. When Gimli eats several wafers at once, he's told that he's eaten more than enough for a long day's march. Given that this is their waybread (aka trail food), it seems likely that they had access to nourishment from some fantastic source. (Not coincidentally, many a Catholic has drawn parallels between Lembas and the Eucharist, though I'm not sure how you feel about that).

As to the male-leadership thing, I don't really see that much of a problem. Tolkien took a traditionalist view of the world, and thus most of the leaders were male, but that doesn't stop him from having respect for women, not to mention the presence of Eowyn, Arwen, and Galadriel in the story.

All the best,

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. I knew about the Lake Núrnen area. But it is hard for me to believe that enough food could have been raised there, and transported quite some distance, to feed enormous numbers of orcs, evil men, and whatever other beings inhabited Mordor. As to lembas, I thought of that, but never considered that it might have some sort of magical high-energy content, and be part of the regular diet of the elves. Perhaps. But it seems to have been used mostly, or entirely, on long journeys.

You are right about Tolkien and male leadership, of course. But my main quibble about sex is that at least two entire species/races apparently had no females at all. Orcs may have been manufactured somehow, I guess.

Thanks so much for reading, and commenting.