This morning my Inbox grabbed
me by my lapels and thrust this urgent message at me:
FINALLY! A comprehensive
look at the millennium’s most influential author and
his magical creations! Own the Most Important Book
of the 20th Century!
Eagerly, eagerly I scrolled
down the leaping lines to see who might this be. Dante?
Shakespeare? Dickens? Proust? Joyce? Kafka? Darwin? Nietzsche?
Freud? Marx? No, silly, it’s that jolly old elf, J.R.R.
Tolkein. The frumpy old fabulator, by God, has beaten
them all out.
Sez who? What deluded
dodo could conceivably declare Tolkien the greatest author
of the last thousand years? I want names! Clearly the
burbling blurber of this infoclaim is no more familiar
with Lord of the Rings than he is with The Inferno.
But he does have statistics. Incredibly enough, Lord
of the Rings was voted "The Book of the Millennium"
by an Amazon.com reader’s poll, and "Most Important
Book of the 20th Century" in a UK National Poll.
All that this proves is
what moronic imbeciles the Amazon.com crowd are. It’s
as if they did the survey at Burger King or something.
And the entire United Kingdom voted Lord of the Rings
most important book of the 20th century? God
The thing about Tolkienism
is that even the great T’s fiercest fans have a hard time
explaining what it is that captivates them. "Even
now I find the book silly and boring and rather noisome
(to use a word from Tolkien’s special vocabulary),"
Jenny Turner writes in her massive article "Reasons
for Liking Tolkien" in a recent London Review
of Books: "[But] it still locks with my psyche
in a most alarming way. There is suction, something fundamental
passes between us, like when a spaceship docks."
At some point while thinking
about things Tolkien, I realized that out of snobbishness
and a reluctance to commit myself to thousands and thousands
of pages of fustian allegory, I hadn’t given the old duffer
a chance. Like other addictions—heroin, stamp-collecting,
cigarettes, and afternoon soaps—I’d assiduously avoided
the Hobbit habit. Had I ever actually read him? How could
you avoid him in the late ’60s? He was on the bedside
reading of the girl dowsed in patchouli, he was in the
bog, he was on the table in your doctor’s office, and
your acid-eating auntie gave it to you for your birthday.
Flight 476 to L.A. Ideal
occasion to take another stab at Tolkien. How unfair I’d
been to the old geezer! Very affable Brit ratty and moley
stuff, a sort of medieval Wind in the Willows.
Right through the appearance of the campy old Gollum who
talks like some music-hall drag queen ("Praps ye
sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss"),
it’s utterly charming.
Had it gone on in this
whimsical all-mimsy-were-the-borograves vein, who could
have had a discouraging word to say about it? The first
half of The Hobbit is a children’s book in the
classic manner of George McDonald, William Morris, J.M.
Barrie (Peter Pan), Kenneth Grahame (Wind in
the Willows), Beatrix Potter, et al. Except that in
Tolkien the characters talk and behave the way the talking
animals usually do in nouveau fairy tales. But—as you
who have pressed on further into the Mountains of Bafflement
well know—it does not stop there. Alas, the book willfully
decides to jump from this lawn-Tennyson whimsy straight
into a Manichean Sturm-und-Drang epic quest for
the Soul of the World.
From old Gollum on, it’s
all about this dopey ring. What is it exactly when it’s
at home? Tolkien tells us the ring contains an evil wizard’s
"cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all
life"—unless, of course, destroyed in the fire Pits
of Mordor. Oh, and we’re expected to just take your word
for this, professor? Tolkien warns us not to take his
books as allegories of anything, but it’s hard
not to. So for what might the ring be a metaphor? Given
Tolkien’s Luddite tendencies (he considered the automobile
a veritable hell on wheels) the most obvious allegory
would be that it represents the whole darn, clangy, ugly,
rapacious mechanized modern world itself. Or the bomb?
Or addiction? Or is the ring (Latin, anus) some
Given Tolkien’s portentous
apocalyptic quest, few have missed the obvious connection
to Wagner. "A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the
Pooh," snorted the poet John Heath-Stubbs. Or—as
Grouchus Magnus Literatus, Edmund Wilson, put it in "Oh
Those Awful Orcs!"—"Hypertrophic... A children’s
book which has somehow got out of hand."
Well I too have a few bones
to pick with the good professor. The principle one being
the book’s endemic tweeness, a sort of self-conscious
cutesy, cloying whimsy. Among the things I find "noisome"
are the queasy archaisms ("fell," "wains,"
and "wights"), the fustian, faux-poetic Prince
Valiant diction ("Vain was Gandalf’s trust in
me" or "Saruman is a wizard… more than that
I cannot say"), the clunking allegory and the papier-mâché
dragons—and what Jenny Turner calls the "don’t-forget-your-galoshes
world" of childbook fantasy.
More serious are
the following sweeping statements: "Silmaril’s three
jewels were made by Fëanor before the destruction
of the Two Trees of Valinor," "Palantíri,
the seven Seeing Stones were brought by Elendil and his
sons from Númenor," "With Manwë
dwells Varda, Lady of the Stars, who knows all the regions
of Eä." Now, wait a minute, these are pretty
darn large claims, mister. Are we to accept all this stuff
just on your say so? I’d like a little corroboration,
if you don’t mind.
And those outlandish names!
Aragorn, Galadriel, Gimli, Elrond, Treebeard, Skinbark,
Quickbeam—thank god they haven’t caught on among parents.
Yet. Which brings us to the subject of our seminar: "Infantilism
and Regression in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien." "It’s
tit in some way," Jenny Turner admits of her T-obsession.
"…it’s an infantile comfort. It’s an infantile comfort
that is also a black pit." To some degree Tolkien
is symptomatic of the Cult of the Child that began with
Blake and Wordsworth, developed into a quasi-philosophical
theme by Dickens and a form of domestic theology with
Dr. Spock and his progeny. The hero of Lord of the
Rings is the childlike Frodo Baggins, a sixty-year-old
child—which in and of itself is significant because of
the inability of many of my generation to become adults.
And, Lord knows, I’m one.
Alison Lurie in a recent
review of the Harry Potter Books in The New York Review
of Books asks why so many of the best-known children’s
books are British or American:
One explanation may
be that in Britain and America more people never grow
up.... Because childhood is seen as a superior condition,
many Americans and Britons are naturally reluctant
to give it up. They tend to think of themselves as
young much longer, and cling to childhood attitudes
and amusements. On vacation, and in the privacy of
their homes, they readily revert to an earlier age:
they wear childish clothes and play childish games
and sometimes read children’s books.
The most notorious instance
of this phenomenon being the sixties: the self-styled
children’s crusade whose hordes elevated The Lord of
the Rings to quasi-religious cult status. The self-mythologizing
of the hippies fused effortlessly with Tolkien’s apocalyptic
vision, his pollyannaish idyll blended with Flower Power,
his simple life in the Shire appealed to the counter-culture’s
rustic fantasies, and his simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys
plot synched with the baby-boom generation’s cartoon theology.
And, of course, a good deal of what I have against Tolkien
comes from a cringing recollection of my own naïve
and fervent subscription to many of these delusions.
Tolkien went to a great
deal of trouble to make his texts sound authentic—incorporating
the names, the mythology, the themes and landscapes of
tribal legends into his books—but they sound nothing like
the savage, mysterious tales of the ancient Celts and
the Norsemen from which he drew his characters and stories.
Take, for example, "Culhwch and Olwen" from
the eleventh century collection of Welsh tales known as
The Mabinogion. Here we see an ancient, enigmatic,
cosmic drama acted out—the bawdy and rowdy King Arthur,
the incandescent Olwen (trefoil lilies grow up where she
treads), her father the fantastic and poignant giant Ysbaddaden
with his mythic list of feats for the suitor Culhwch to
perform: "Get me the harp of Teirtu which plays by
itself… the Birds of Rhiannon, who wake the dead and lull
the living," the monstrous wild boar king Twrch Trywth,
the Interpreter of Tongues who can speak the language
of animals, and the cosmogonic magician Mabon son of Modron.
In comparison to the fabulous creatures in this tale,
the people in The Hobbit seem like repertory actors
in Gilbert and Sullivan, the landscape they roam a pasteboard
set. The Lord of the Rings is self-referential,
a fairy-tale which, lacking the subtexts of genuine folk
tales or the Grimm marchen, becomes a sort of giant
(and empty) confection of Celtic and Norse mythology peopled
with cute and symbolic types who have no substance or
In his rejection of the
modern world, Tolkien ironically replaced its terrifying
realities with just the sort of fangless folk tales that
would become the staple product of Disney and DreamWorks.
In attempting to return to the ur-mythologies of pre-history
he unwittingly meandered into the realm of folksy kitsch.
"[It’s] a sort of anti-book… a work of paraliterature,"
Jenny Turner writes, "the Franklin Mint collectible
of English writing. Look at it as it sits there, massive,
hollow and a little sinister, like one of those hand-tooled
leatherette book-a-likes you can hide your videos in."
According to W.H. Auden (a big fan), the man himself had
no taste. "He lives in a hideous house," Auden
wrote. "I can’t tell you how awful it is—with hideous
pictures on the walls."
The twentieth century was
the era of modernism and one of modernism’s projects was
the invention of original mythologies. Joyce, Pound, Eliot,
Kafka, Proust, Lawrence, Burroughs, Kerouac, all created
new myths. Tolkien’s anti-modernism doomed him to a pantomime
mythology peopled with two-dimensional dwarfs and elves
with no more substance than garden ornaments. He created
fictional languages but failed to see that mythology always
involves transformation and that the true cosmographer
of the age was James Joyce, who transmuted language into
something new and strange and re-imagined mythology into
the universal language of the dream.
One of Tolkien’s more endearing
qualities, it must be said, is his luxuriant eccentricity,
his "matchstick-cathedral labor of madness"
in attempting such a batty thing to begin with, and his
philological nuttiness. As you must know, Tolkien was
a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and ancient Norse languages and
in him the pedantic took a fantastically antic and nutty
turn. Consider this glossary in the back of The Silmarillion:
"Elements in Quenya and Sindarin names for those
who have an interest in Eldarin languges." At this
my hand shot up and I hope yours did too. "Quenya,"
he goes on to explain, is "the ancient tongue, common
to all the Elves, in the form that it took in Valinor;
brought to Middle-earth by the Noldorin exiles, but abandoned
by them as a daily speech, especially after the edict
of King Thingol against its use." Sindarin is described
as: "the Elvish tongue of Belerind derived from common
Elvish speech but greatly changed through long ages from
Quenya of Valinor." This is certifiable pottiness,
an academic quirkiness that at its best—as in the following
entry from the selfsame glossary—approaches the hallucinatory
poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear:
"Star" According to Elvish legend, ele was
the primitive exclamation of the Elves when they first
saw the stars.
This Ring, I Thee Dread