Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 20, 2011

Some common myths about JRR Tolkien

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:27 pm

There are a couple of immutable truths about any discussion of fantasy subgenres. Someone will talk about “rewriting the Lord of the Rings”; and someone will completely misunderstand what Tolkien was writing about. So I’ve listed a few common myths about his work, with refutations. This shouldn’t need saying, but it does: I’m talking only about the books here. The films are good in their own way, but they are not the same artistic entity and not aimed in the same direction.

Myth #1: The Lord of the Rings is purely consolatory fantasy. Everything gets better in the end.

This is arrant nonsense. The book has four endings, because it needs them; the message is that winning is hard, and protracted, and there are more battles to fight beyond the final push, the secret weapon, the big resolution. And that there will always be scars. Some things just don’t get better. Frodo and Sam are genuinely resigned to death after Mount Doom, before the sheer kitschy wonder of Iluvatar’s own SAR squadron coming down out of the north; while we were off destroying one evil abroad, another evil was destroying and corrupting our home; and when we’ve beaten that, despite all the rejoicing and celebration, some people don’t recover. Lobelia is frail and humbled; Will Whitfoot is starved thin; the Gaffer’s own home is demolished; and Frodo’s wound never quite heals. And in the fourth ending, the Ringbearers go over the Sea to Valinor, but that’s hardly an unmixed blessing. Deathlessness is not given to mortals unless they really, really need it—Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam need to spend time there to rest and heal.

It extends to a larger scale, too. The Elves are sailing westwards, taking the Rings of Power with them, and the Wizards too. Magic is going out of the world. (That may or may not be a Bad Thing; personally, I think it isn’t, and that it’s a necessary development. I also like to think that the Professor agreed with me.)

Myth #2: The main plotline of The Lord of the Rings is the battle against Sauron, and his destruction.

Sauron is a sideshow, really. He doesn’t do anything himself during the course of the entire book; his entire MO is to corrupt others and to make them do his work, even when they oppose him. (Denethor, for instance.) So it’s not as though destroying him would do very much to prevent the current apocalyptically bad spread of evil.

Instead, the quest is to destroy the Ring, into which Sauron placed the essence of his corrupting power and control—it’s a reified metaphor, and the heroes refuse to be mastered by the glamour of evil. (Incidentally, that’s a truly dreadful stealth pun. I love the Professor for so many reasons.)

Myth #3: All the good guys are Aryan.

The Rohirrim are certainly tall and blonde (since they’re Anglo-Saxon Cossacks), but the descendants of the Númenoreans are generally fair-skinned, dark-haired and grey-eyed. In Letter 211, Tolkien actually described the Gondorians as Egyptianate—that would certainly explain the tall stepped architecture. (Tolkien’s Middle-earth doesn’t look like Medieval Europe – Michael Martinez) I don’t think we can entirely get away from picturing the Men of Gondor as white people, but they’re certainly a mongrel race of some sort; nine ships full of colonists, in one wave, are not going to make a country without significant intermarriage.

Tolkien’s Dwarves are well-known to be influenced by Semitic cultures—in fact, they’re quite a blatant Jewish stereotype, progressive for its time but still problematic. Clannish, conservative, and magnificently bearded, the men keep their women to themselves and love gold and beautiful things. They do not serve the Enemy in themselves, but can in extremis be corrupted through their greed. They’re ferocious (The OMT is “doughty”) warriors; Israelite—and Israeli—armies had a fearsome reputation for a very good reason. And the Dwarves are very definitely, implacably on the side of Good.

Myth #4: Tolkien’s aesthetics are clear; beauty is good, and evil is ugly.

Denethor loses none of his grandeur and nobility in his despair, and Saruman’s voice is still utterly beautiful. The Silmarils, the most beautiful pieces of craftwork ever made, turned kin against kin, race against race, and set off tragedy after tragedy. Fëanor so loved his work that he doomed the world to live forevermore without the light of the Trees.

As for Good, nobody ever describes Dwarves as pretty—or Hobbits, for that matter! Strider, when he first appears in the Prancing Pony, is never described as handsome or even clean, and the hobbits take against him for his looks; he describes himself as having “rather a rascally look”; and even says, “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.

Myth #5: The countless imitators are somehow accurate representations of Tolkien’s work.

Like whom? The ones most often cited are Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. Brooks & Goodkind have no similarity beyond swords-and-horses, cool-stuff-happening-in-secondary-worlds superficialities. Eddings was very specifically a Campbellian formula writer; Jordan’s entire fantasy oeuvre is an unnecessarily extended artistic response to Eddings; and Martin is not discernably descended from Tolkien at all, but rather from Shakespeare’s versions of the Wars of the Roses. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is in some ways similar, but it’s a portal-quest trilogy, bringing in 20th century Americans; the idea of modern people ever being able to interact with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is just bizarre. It would be like transporting Sir Orfeo and Ysbaddaden Chief Giant to Deptford.

Fundamentally, if anyone ever mentions Tolkien on the cover of someone else’s book, it’s marketing fluff. Ignore it.

Myth #7: The Lord of the Rings is wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It’s not written in a boulomaic modality (ie. “things are not this way; they should be”) at all; it’s an elegiac might-have been, an alternate distant past that might have led to this future. Also, and this is vitally important: it is a text, not a world. The epistemic modality we’re given is not that of the events of the story, or the people; instead, we are asked only to pretend that this book exists, that there is a history called the Red Book of Westmarch, and to treat it in the same light as we do Herodotus’s Histories or the History of the Kings of Britain.

Fantasy readers are almost universally extremely bad at that. We have the ingrained reflex of trust, of epistemic acceptance (suspension of disbelief)—we take it merely as a convention that these things did not happen, never happened, could not happen, but are nevertheless written about. It is hard for us to see the text for the story, the telling for the tale. To preempt a sadly obvious quibble—this is, of course, not to say that SF readers are any better. We don’t see the text any more than we look through a window and see the glass. But in the final analysis, a book is not a window, any more than it is a world.

6 Comments »

  1. I agree with basically everything you write here, but it’s also true that it takes a close reading to understand the book. Reading the Silmarillion helps enormously as well (suddenly those beautiful Elves don’t look so saintly). I think it’s a fair criticism to say that much of the popular base of Lord of the Rings do indeed interpret it as consolatory and wish-fulfillment. Most of the imitators you mentioned, for instance, missed the point entirely, and their works were still popular.

    Comment by Matt Hilliard — February 25, 2011 @ 1:21 am

  2. Oh, absolutely! I think that’s one of the biggest markers for Lord of the Rings being Unusually Literary Fantasy—so much of the field, including nearly all the imitators, won’t support any kind of close reading at all.

    I don’t have a problem with the imitators’ popularity on their own terms, but it still galls me that they’re spoken of as essentially similar to Tolkien…

    Comment by Sam — February 25, 2011 @ 1:39 am

  3. “the idea of modern people ever being able to interact with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is just bizarre”

    I agree with this, but Tolkien did originally plan to use the concept. The original Book of Lost Tales had a mariner from ‘our’ world discovering Tol Eressea and learning of the events of the War of the Jewels there, whilst The Lost Road had modern people time-travelling back to Numenor. Both conceptions were later abandoned in the actual Silmarillion, but certainly Tolkien appears to have been considering the idea.

    Comment by Adam Whitehead — February 25, 2011 @ 9:01 pm

  4. I like to think of the Red Book as being more like a form of Middle Earth Mabinogion.

    Comment by Arkady Rose — February 25, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

  5. Adam – hm, yes, good point, I’d forgotten about that one! I think that as Tolkien originally thought of it, it’s more of a framing device as employed by Burroughs or Eddison, isn’t it? That is, someone to be a proxy for the reader, rather than taking an active part in the story like Kay’s travellers to Fionavar.

    Arkady – Ah, yes, you’re right. Much more complex and disputed origins & authorship than either of the two examples I cited.

    Comment by Sam — February 26, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  6. Brooks to me looked like he tore up The Lord of the Rings and used the pieces to make his own story, and I had a strong sense that it wasn’t as good. He admits a strong influence.

    Even closer to copying Tolkien, also admitted?, is:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Iron_Tower

    Comment by Robert Carnegie — December 2, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

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