A Coffeeshop at the End of the Universe
18 March 2018
Conviction is a hell of a thing.
About ten years ago I was desperate to become a writer, or, to put it another way, I was desperate to become a writer who mattered. Most of the books I had written were god-awful novellas that had one or two interesting sentences and then the rest were nothing but rip-off plots taken from Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. My characters tended to be disturbed psychopaths or else gloomy Woody Allen rip-offs who did nothing but complain about not being able to write the amazing books they knew that they could. Whatever else was produced at that time tended to be outright pornography. I could feign some pretense that what I was writing could be classified in the high-class smut designation “erotica”, but I don’t believe in bullshitting my reader. It was porn plain and simple.
I fucked myself up however when I was young because I read and watched a lot about writers who had come before me. People like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway who had their novels published in their early twenties and who immediately achieved dramatic success. People like Orson Welles who, by the time he was twenty-five had produced the War of the Worlds broadcast as well as the film Citizen Cann. Standing in the shadows of these men my own lack of productivity was a sign that I was inferior creatively, but to my credit I did the only real thing that matters: I kept writing despite the poor quality of my work.
One night, while I was working on another wretched piece of wank-off material, I thought about an animated version of The Wind in the Willows I had been watching recently, and a voice came into my head and I wrote the following paragraph:
It occurred one autumn afternoon in a place. Now don’t ask me the name of the place for I don’t know it. That is not to say I don’t know where I am, I know full well where I am and where it is I am telling this story, what I mean is I do not know the name of the place of which this story, not story, more of a situation I happen to know occurred on an autumn day in a study of a house where Mr. Tiger and Mr. Walrus sat, as they usually did on a Monday, drinking their drinks and discussing matters of importance that are only really important to those who have time to consider such matters.
I weren’t back to my other work for a few minutes, but I knew I wouldn’t stay there for long. I’v e read enough testimony of other writers to know that this “the moment” which, if I’m being honest, is not an intellectual exercise at all. It’s a gut feeling akin to feeling the tug of a fishing line, or speaking to that guy or girl at the coffee shop: you just feel that it’s right. Ballyhoo appeared then, when it’s narrator interrupted my usual work, and after just three months I had a rough draft.
The book itself however, has languished in Word Processors, zip drives, an actual floppy disc at one point, and near constant frustration as no publisher would ever go near it. Much like Swanky Lanky before it, I just this book out. Even more so given recent events. Having lost a friend to suicide recently mortality and work left undone are no longer abstract concepts. I’ve wanted Ballyhoo to be out of my computer, to be real, to be read.
Ballyhoo was the first manuscript I produced where I felt like I had done something. Something that wasn’t just indebted to other artists, something that wasn’t just a homage to other works, something that was clearly from my own heart, and, most importantly, it was rather difficult to masturbate to it (not that I tried). It’s taken close to a decade, but the book that I wrote at 19, when I was looking to discover who and what I actually was and whether or not the word Writer might be something I could call myself, is finally complete.
And so dear reader I hope you will take the time to read it. The 19 year old boy, who is not a 29 year old boy, will appreciate it tremendously.
Thank you for your time, and thank you for reading.
“It’s Mr. Rhino, He intends on Departing!” It’s been close to seven decades since a rhino stood up on its hind legs, donned a suit and cap, and began to read, write, walk, and talk. This feet would have been impressive enough, were it not for the fact that following this event, animals all over the world began to follow suit and become members of society. That is why on an Autumn afternoon when Mr. Rhino announces to the world that he
intends on departing, the world around him begins to unravel. Taking place over the course of a single day, Ballyhoo follows the actions and thoughts of Mr. Bear, Mr. Orangutan, Mr and Mrs. Tiger, Mr. Cheetah, Mr. Walrus, Mr. Elephant, and Mr. Rhino as they come to grips with their lives, the loves they pursued, and the meanings they tried to find in their brief existence. Whether it’s discussion over tea and cookies, a tree covered with belching fish, a little girl possessed by a monstrous creature, of a loathsome person named Mr. Hyena who lives in the fireplace, Ballyhoo is a story unlike any other that tries only to answer one question: how does a person come to grips with the end of a life. And is it ever really an end?
The cover of this book is “Ballyhoo” care of my sister M.E. Smith. Thanks again for the cover Emers, you fucking rock.
Art, Bisexuality, gender, glasses, Joshua Jammer Smith, Literature, mechanical pencils, Novel, original photograph, Science, Sexuality, still life, tea, tea strainer, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vintage Science Fiction Paperbacks were the FUCKING BEST
A Tolkien Bestiary, Balrog, Book Review, David Day, deep time, Durin's Bane, Evil, Evil is abscence, fantasy, Fire Demons, Gandalf, Good and Evil, J.R.R. Tolkien, light, Light vs Dark, Literature, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, Maiar, Melkor, Morgoth, Moria, mythology, Novel, Philosophy, Sean Bean is a Fucking BadAss, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, The Nature of Evil, Valaraukar
Sean Bean once sewed a hole in his flesh with his bare hands after a female friend of his was harassed by some random douche in a dive bar where they were drinking. Bean apparently didn’t like it, told the man to shut the fuck up, and a fight ensued in which he was stabbed in the chest. After the police arrived, and the man who had started the fight was taken away, Bean asked the bartender if he had a needle and thread, and apparently he sewed up his chest wound right then and there before returning to drinking. For obvious reasons then, I consider this story Sean Bean’s contribution to the zeitgeist greater than his “One does not simply…” meme. It’s also for this reason that I decided to go against my original impulse when approaching my review of Book II of The Lord of the Rings.
The Council of Elrond is a fascinating chapter in the entire saga of the Lord of the Rings, simply for the fact that, while it is diplomacy, the language of each party reveals a wonderful deliberation on Tolkien’s part. Each character manages to enhance the history of the world of Middle Earth, and each character manages to reveal something about the complicated diplomacy that exists within this fantasy realm. Tolkien also manages to further explore his idea of the ring, and the terrible influence it has upon the people of his universe.
The only problem I really had with writing about the Council of Elrond was that my heart wasn’t in it. My heart was in the Balrog because, ever since I was a teenager sitting in the movie theater watching Gandalf fall through Khazad Dum and fighting the Balrog I’ve been obsessed with the creature and it’s role in the Tolkien Universe. It also doesn’t exactly help that my best friend Kevin and I spent literally an entire year arguing with a friend of ours about the proper way to pronounce Balrog (he was obsessed with calling it Balronko). Now obviously the fight scene I’m describing was in the second film The Two Towers, but even when I had watched The Fellowship of the Ring with my Dad on that rented VHS tape I had never seen anything like the Balrog in any movie. It was a creature that seemed like it should have been in a medieval passion play rather than a feature film, but I became enthralled.
My obsession with the Balrog was probably because I was a teenager. Young men typically, if I can quote a friend, gravitate towards power icons when they’re younger because they tend to live a life where most of their decisions are not entirely their own. Because they aren’t in control in their life, and because testosterone tends to leave one aggressive, it’s common for boys to gravitate to, or if you were like me, draw images such as guns, planes, swords, and of course monsters.
I anticipate an early reaction from my reader. In the entire second half of The Fellowship of the Ring, the Balrog is the only thing you can focus on? Why not tackle the realm of Lothlorien? Why not analyze the behavior of Boromir? Why not even try to tackle the early instances of Gollum and see how his character is beginning to manifest? There’s so many deep and inspiring elements to The Fellowship, the Balrog is just a monster and its appearance is so brief.
As usual my reader has great points, and also as usual I completely agree with several of them. There is so much to The Fellowship that I could tackle in these pages. However looking at the appearance of the Balrog in Book II, I nevertheless am still fascinated because, much like Gandalf’s brief supernatural reveal in the first book, the existence of the Balrog is a chance to see how Tolkien is building the history and mythos of Middle Earth, and always creating this feeling in the text that something more is ever-present in this universe than what the reader is allowed, or even able to see.
Before I go to the passage in the Fellowship however, it’s important to understand what a Balrog actually is because, if the reader only has the films to base their judgement on, they’re sure to be confused or else ill-informed of the actual content of the monster. When I was checking out every book by or about Tolkien from the library, I managed to find one large tome by David Day entitled A Tolkien Bestiary. The book is nothing but an encyclopedia about every beast, race, creature, and organism that appears in the Lord of the Rings, and taking up two pages along with a hauntingly epic illustration, Day provides the reader with an explanation:
Balrogs, the most terrible if the Maiar spirits who became the servants of Melkor, the Dark Enemy, were those who were transformed into demons. In the High Elven Tongue they were named the Valaraukar, but in Middle-Earth were called Balrogs, the “demons of might.”
Of all Melkor’s creatures, only Dragons were greater in power. Huge and hulking, the Balrogs were Man-like demons with streaming manes of fire and nostrils that breathed flame. They seemed to move within the clouds of black shadows and their limbs had the coiling powers of serpents. The chief weapon of the Balrog was the many-thronged whip of fire, and, though as well they carried the mace, the axe and the flaming sword, it was the whip of fire that their enemies feared most. This weapon was so terrible that the vast evil of Ungoliant, the Great Spider that even the Valar could not destroy, was driven from Melkor’s realm by the fiery lashes of the Balrog demons.
In each of Melkor’s risings and in each of his battles, the Balrogs were among his foremost champions, and so, when the holocaust of the War of Wrath ended Melkor’s reign for ever, it largely ended the Balrogs as a race.
It is said that some fled that last battle and buried themselves deep in the roots of the mountains, but after many thousands of years nothing more was heard of these evil beings and most people believed the demons had gone from the Earth for ever. (26-7)
I’m tempted by the teenager in my brain, to add a “Cool Whip” reference here, but for once I’ll defer and keep to the topic on hand.
A Balrog then is more-or-less a giant demon that at one time constituted a supreme race of beings that pre-dated mankind and possessed powers and abilities that border on a Lovecraftian tentacle monster level. This kind of power would at first not seem to have much literary relevance since most literary scholars or even common people don’t give a shit about fictional monsters. And in fact if the Balrog were nothing but a monster in a fantasy universe there really wouldn’t be much point in taking time to write about it, but as I’ve noted Tolkien’s ability as a writer is to create a wondrous sense of place and time that has yet to be replicated or matched. It’s his ability to write a moment into existence when people who are living in their present time become caught up in the supernatural events of an incredible past that they cannot possibly comprehend that leaves the reader spellbound, or else that they are witnessing something incredible.
The entrance of the Balrog is something incredible because of it’s subtlety.
[Legolas] gave a cry of dismay and fear. Two great tools appeared; they bore great slabs of of stone, and flung them down the serve as gangways over the fire. But it was not the trolls which had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and black smoke smirked in the air. Its steaming man kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left hand it held a whip of many thongs.
‘Ai! Ai!’ Wailed Legolas. ‘A Balrog! A Balrog has come!’
Gimli stared with wide eyes. ‘Durin’s Bane! He cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.
‘A Balrog,’ muttered Gandalf. ‘Now I understand.” He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’ (321).
I will admit that I find the reactions to the Balrog a little corny. Throughout my reading of The Lord of the Rings I find myself regularly twisting a little in discomfort because Tolkien’s dialogue can, to a postmodern reader’s sensibilities, come across as a little drama-qeenesque. Or else it feels like the bad ad-libbing of half-assed LARPing. It’s not that it doesn’t feel real to the characters, but the language of the characters can at times feel like something that should have been left in the attic. It feels like it’s of a different time, which is not a weakness persay, but it can get a little tiring.
Yet despite this initial reaction to the dialogue, the words of each character are important because the appearance of this creature has it’s own implications for each character. For Legolas, being an Elf, the appearance of the Balrog would something of a nightmare because the elves would surely remember through records and oral tradition what kind of a monster the Balrog would be. Gimli being a dwarf who has just observed the desecration of his race’s hall and temple by orcs is already emotional, but the appearance of the Balrog is proof that his people’s greed brought about the reawakening of this creature. If the dwarves had not been greedy and dug so deep into the earth his cousin Balin might still be alive along with the rest of the people of Moria. Gandalf’s reaction is unique because it has been steadily established that Gandalf’s role in Middle Earth is something beyond most people’s comprehension and that he is being guided by some supernatural entity, order, or compulsion.
Reading over this passage again I was struck by these reactions to this monster, not just because of what it’s appearance meant for the plot, but because this reaction showed that these characters are participating with a history and a culture. And this reaction reveals a depth in the universe.
It’s common in fantasy for characters to encounter a creature of incredible power and to experience fear, rage, confusion, or terror. And while there are surely some notable examples where these emotions feel real and powerful and relevant to the reader, The Lord of the Rings being the text that it is it the reactions of Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf isn’t just an empty reaction that precede a passage in which the heroes are able to overcome. The appearance of the Balrog is the sign of a real defeat because this is a being which is beyond them, something Gandalf remarks immediately as Aragorn and Boromir try to stand their ground.
Even after Gandfal makes his stand the reader is left with a sense of the impending power of the Balrog, and just how old its power derives. After Gandalf makes his now iconic “You cannot pass!” Tolkien manages to convey the power of the creature and the seaming futility of Gandalf:
The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm. (322).
It’s not unfair to note that Tolkien tends to gravitate to trees as the predominant aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings, but in it’s own way this passage seems one of the most powerful moments in the entire trilogy not simply because Gandalf is a powerful wizard and the Balrog is a just fire monster. There’s something lasting in this image, and it has to do with negative versus positive power.
A previous quote reveals something important, not only about the Balrog, but also about the way that Tolkien is creating his ideas about evil and good. Darkness in The Lord of the Rings is not just a physical attribute of wickedness and wicked creatures, in fact it is their defining quality. This actually has some relevance when one considers the actual color spectrum because black is not in fact a color; black is the absence of color. Virtually every character in The Lord of the Rings which embodies wickedness or evil is often defined by their darkness, either physical or symbolic, and this darkness ultimately becomes an indication of absence. If a being or character in Middle Earth is wicked it is because there is something empty or absent in them, and I’ll hopefully get into this more when I get to the character Gollum, but for now it’s important to observe Gandalf standing against the Balrog because it becomes more than just a wizard fighting a fire-demon. For Tolkien this small moment is a summation of his entire creative philosophy about the nature of good and evil.
Evil is absence incarnate and will always try to destroy the light because the light stands opposed to darkness. Light will always try to fill up the darkness with creation, with living things that create more, and so the only thing darkness can do to survive is to destroy. To burn and kill and erase what is alive in the light.
Tolkien provides on clear demonstration of this after the monster appears:
The dark figure streaming with fire raced towards them. The orcs yelled and poured over the stone gangway. Then Boromir raised his horn and blew. Loud the challenge rang and bellowed, like the shout of many throats under the cavernous roof. For a moment the orcs quailed and the fiery shadow halted. Then the echoes died as suddenly as a flame blown out by a dark wind, and the enemy advanced again. (321).
This passage seems to be everything then in further demonstrating the idea that Tolkien is using the Balrog to really hone his idea of evil. Throughout the Lord of the Rings Tolkien equates evil with an absence of self, will, power, or personal agency. When Boromir blows his horn it is n essence a strong demonstration of the self. Music is one of the purest means of expressing the self, and the Balrog being a creature who’s very existence is based upon destruction is actually taken aback by it. It may not be a Sonata by Beethoven or Shostakovich, but the horn is a form of creation and therefore a form of light, and therefore a form of goodness.
The Balrog remains my favorite element of the Lord of the Rings, largely because its a big awesome fire monster that uses a whip as a primary weapon and it provided me plenty of chances in high school to draw something cool instead of paying attention in Algebra. But my adolescence aside, the Balrog remains truly fascinating to be because it affords Tolkien to create a figure that has entered the popular consciousness, and beneath all of the fire and horns and weapons there is a real meditation about what evil actually is.
The true monsters in this life are not the colorful characters that are crafted in television shows and gritty thrillers; they’re real people who have a severe absence of something. Whether it’s an absence of love, personal ambition, or even something as real as chemical imbalance, it’s these weakness of absence that eventually contribute to the evil that exists in this world.
A terrorist or a serial murderer might not have horns or a mane made of fire, but much like the Balrog, his existence is almost certainly founded on some kind of emptiness.
All quotes taken from Book II of the Lord of the Rings, found within the Mariner paperback edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Allright fine, I just have to. Please forgive me:
While I was writing this essay I managed to find an actual video of the fight scene between Gandalf and the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s been plenty of films which have come out since then which have utilized Computer Graphic Imaging however this scene, unlike many of these latter instances, still manages to have a power I haven’t completely forgotten. It might just be nostalgia on my part, but I also think it has as much to do with the fact that Peter Jackson directed (in the original trilogy) a damn fine film, and managed to just capture Middle Earth. Please enjoy what is still one of the most epic fantasy moments of all time.
I’ve included below several links to websites which provide overviews of the Balrog, what they are, what are their powers, whether a Balrog would win in a fight against Smaug (I think it would personally but I’m biased), and then just some general Lord of the Rings facts and information. Hope this helps.
Stephen Colbert discussing Lord of the Rings…nuff said.
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Peregin Took may indeed have been a fool when he twisted the arrow on the dead dwarf, thus alerting the orcs of Moria to the Fellowship’s presence, but honestly sitting down to writing this essay I feel like I am the greater fool. It’s no secret that the fan base of the Lord of the Rings are a power unto themselves, some of whom have brought about changes in society that stirred revolutions and altered the world as we know it. Computer programmers, hardware specialists, table-top game developers, video game designers, and even authors themselves have been inspired by the “Old Professor” and have taken this inspiration and created products and arts that have inspired the next generation of innovators. While Tolkien himself tended to be harsh to this fan base during his lifetime, going so far as to call them the “deplorable cultus,” the generation of stoners and dreamers took a great work and made it something important to the culture and zeitgeist, and thus I return to my foolishness.
I didn’t warm up to The Lord of the Rings at first. In fact to be perfectly honest I actually thought the whole book series were a real bore. With the exception of The Hobbit, reading the The Lord of the Rings as a teenager seemed the equivalent of an attending insurance seminar or else sitting through an “abstinence-only” based rap battle. This is hyperbole, but only so much. The only reason I had actually begun reading the books, specifically my dad’s original paperback copies from the seventies which made Gandalf look like a pimp and Legolas as the protagonist in Logan’s Run, was the fact that Peter Jackson’s films had just been released and those Ring Wraiths looked bad ass.
The films came and went, and while I never completely abandoned Tolkien, I do admit that I moved on to Stephen King and Christopher Hitchens leaving my copies of The Lord of the Rings to the dust that always seems to gravitate to books. It’s not that the Lord of the Rings ever disappeared, it’s just that, much like my early fascination with Playboy magazine and my LEGO blocks, I looked at them as something that I had outgrown or, and maybe this is more fair, something I had left behind. But much like Playboy and LEGOs I did eventually return to it. My regular reader may dimly remember that I began an audio-lecture series sponsored by Barnes & Noble titled Of Sorcerer’s and Men. This series, which was masterfully delivered by the professor Michael D.C. Drout, was incredible and reminded me of everything that I originally loved about The Lord of the Rings.
I dusted off my old copies and hopped back into the series, dedicated this time to actually finish the entire works.
But as for reviewing this series I hit a block, because after all, according to the will (not legal will, just individual sense of self) of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings was one entire book unto itself putting into such magnificent tomes as Ulysses, Moby Dick, Anna Karena, Doom Patrol, Don Quixote, Infinite Jest, and David Copperfield. While it’s possible to write about those book in parts, tackling an entire 1000 page novel with one review is like trying to eat The Old 96er from The Great Outdoors. Those who try will wind up crying like John Candy before wrenching the whole thing back up. Fortunately for me Tolkien broke his series into six “books” letting each larger book contained of two small books themselves. The Fellowship then consists of Books 1 and 2 and it seems far healthier to tackle the series that way than attempting one large reflection.
This also provides me a wonderful opportunity to explore Book 1 as an independent work because, while the remainder of the series pushes into the mythic realm that is Middle Earth, it’s in this first volume that Tolkien is able to play with his own natural world.
Book One starts with a “Long Expected Party” allowing Tolkien to play with his previous work, The Hobbit. Some critics and scholars have noted that while this is Tolkien building the world of Middle Earth, many have observed that the territory of The Shire, as well as the people who live comfortably within it’s borders, resemble greatly the England that Tolkien lived in and loved so well. Just looking at the first paragraphs one gets a sense of this:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End, was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And it that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigor to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. […]. There was some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
“It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’ (21).
While it isn’t Frodo being chased by Nazgul to the ford that marks the entrance to Rivendel, this opening is still, to my mind, one of the best means of opening the great epic that is The Lord of the Rings. While Listening to Drout’s lectures, what was frequently noted was how the strength of the series was not so much because the hobbits were symbolic of any religious or spiritual significance, but because they were decent common folk.
This is a point that I believe is often missed in public discussions of The Lord of the Rings, because often the person speaking is far more concerned with pushing allegory. I’ve written before as to why I feel that’s a woefully inadequate means of interpreting these books, so I won’t delve too deep into that angle. Looking at the Hobbits of Middle Earth, along with the four hobbits of the Fellowship (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin), their role in the story is often to be the reader. Hobbits, because they scorn the world of the “Big Folk” and their “queer” habits, give the reader something to identify with. On an average day most people do not worry about raids from Orcs, the ancient evils of creatures like Balrogs, they are concerned with the meddling of wizards, and they have nothing to do with the problems of the Great Kings and their complicated diplomacy. Many “normal” people, tend to be concerned far more with their families, whether their neighbors are a decent sort of people, whether they have enough to eat, and whether or not they are attending parties.
The Great celebration of Bilbo’s birthday is an event of “Special magnificence,” and in the same paragraph that establishes this, Tolkien notes Bilbo’s social standing as if that matters to the reader. It matters a great deal to Hobbits and so reading this book it becomes clear that The Lord of the Rings, from beginning to end, is centered in this idea that hobbits are not only important to this great world and it’s history, they are vital to it.
Hobbits are not great warriors such as Beowulf or Gilgamesh but that’s by design.
Before the book opens Tolkien provides a prologue in which he offers some basic facts and history of Hobbits:
As for the Hobbits of the Shire, with whom these tales are concerned, in the days of their peace and prosperity they were a merry folk. They dressed in bright colours, being notably fond of yellow and green; but they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown. Thus, the only craft little practiced among them was shoe-making; but they had long and skillful fingers and could make many other useful and comely things. Their faces were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eye, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking. And laugh they did, and eat, and drink, often and heartily, being fond of simple jests at all times, and of six meals a day (when they could get them). They were hospitable and delighted in parties, and in presents, which they gave away freely and eagerly accepted. (2).
At this point I need address my regular contester who is surely incredibly annoyed with me. What do I care about the sensibilities of Hobbits? It’s The Lord of the Rings, I came here for Aragorn and Gandalf and Sauron and Orcs. Where’s the exciting stuff? Or at least the fantastic elements that make The Lord the Rings so cool?
I understand my readers frustration because I feel the same way approaching this essay. I would love to sit and discuss some of the fantastic elements that make this book so impressive, and I do intend to. The conflict is that fantastic elements by themselves don’t provide much opportunity for reflection. One of the consistent charges against the Triology is that the books have no relevance to average people. Part of this is the unfortunate, lingering elitism that plagues the fantasy genres which is absolute bullshit. But the other charge, that it’s style doesn’t fit the age in which it was written feels a little more fair. Most of the non-hobbit characters speak like they were taken from epics of
the ancient world making it impossible to identify with them.
It’s in Hobbits that the world assumes the power that it does, because when Hobbits are pitted against the antiquity and supernatural elements of Middle Earth the reader is able to find the “realness” of the place. This is best demonstrated after the party.
The first takes place in Bag End, not long after Bilbo has disappeared from the party using the ring. Gandalf has crept back to the manor house on the hill to confront Bilbo about his antics, but also to see the man off as the two have an arrangement. Gandalf is to help Bilbo settle his affairs so that the man can go back onto the road, and while the scene progresses as if nothing is wrong, when the topic of the ring comes up Bilbo at once becomes possessive bordering on violent. There is a confrontation, and all at once Tolkien allows his reader to see past, if I can borrow Shakepeare for a moment without sounding overly-pompous, “this mortal veil.”
‘Well if you want my ring yourself, say so!” Cried Bilbo. ‘But you won’t get it. I won’t give my precious away, I tell you.’ His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.
Gandalf’s eyes flashed. ‘It will be my turn to get angry soon,’ he said. ‘If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.’ He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow fill the room.
Bilbo backed away to the wall, breathing hard, his hand clutching at his pocket. They stood for a while facing one another, and the air of the room tingled. Gandalf’s eyes remained bent on the hobbit. Slowly his hands relaxed, and he began to tremble.
‘I don’t know what has come over you, Gandalf,” he said. ‘You have never been like this before. What is it all about? It is mine isn’t it? I found it, and Gollum would have killed me, if I hadn’t kept it. I’m not a thief, whatever he said.’
‘I have never called you one,’ Gandalf answered. ‘And I am not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.’ He turned away, and the shadow passed. He seemed to dwindle again to an old grey man, bent and untroubled. (33-4).
Now obviously, this scene takes me back to Peter Jackson’s film, when Sir Ian McKellan began to fill the room, the world became dark, and the voice that usually inspires envy turned a teenage boy to panic. Whatever the reader’s opinions about the film, it’s important to recognize that Jackson did this scene right and because he did this passage stood out to me. But looking past the film, this scene in one in a long series of moments that Gandalf offers that hint at his true “nature” or “form.” Gandalf is, if I can move into the neck-beard nerd territory, something called a Maiar, a being who precede most of the “time” of Middle Earth, and actually proceeded the making of the world. I won’t bore the reader with the complex mythos of Tolkien’s world (that’s for when I review the Silmarillion) but this background info provides the context of what makes Gandalf important in the first book.
Gandalf is an old being, one who is existing on a plane of reality that even old Bilbo could not appreciate because his mortality is nothing compared to Gandalf. While this doesn’t at first appear to have much relevance to people in the “real world” there’s actually a real relevance for the reader. The concept of “deep time” was one that began during the Victorian era when geologists began to argue that the world is actually older than we once thought. Where before the world was only a few thousand years old (according to sources like The Bible), by looking at the actual layers of sediment in the earth, and discovering fossils or organisms long exitinct, human beings were able to determine that our time on this earth was only relatively recent and that we were merely one example in a long lifetime of the planet.
The reader may by now though be getting frustrated and wanting to know when I’ll make my case, or else they’re waiting for me to talk about cool stuff like Ring Wraiths. I’m terribly sorry to disappoint my reader, but I won’t be doing that. At least not in this essay.
The Fellowship of the Ring, as far as Book 1 is concerned, is an important read because it begins the Trilogy, but more importantly it establishes the foundation of the world. The world of Hobbiton is one that the reader can certainly recognize because it’s a world that directly mirrors our own. There’s neighborhoods of people who worry about parties and gardens and harvests. There’s sheriffs and mail-men and pubs where people gather to
drink and gossip. Hobbiton is the world as far as most reader’s would recognize it, and as such when “queer” folks like Gandalf appear, and bits and pieces of their true form begin to manifest, the reader is left feeling, much like Bilbo, that the world is actually deeper and far more complex than they’ve been lead to believe.
I was tempted when I started this essay, to explore every facet of the strange and weird and wonderful, but the conflict with that is there’s mountains of books about The Lord of the Rings that do just that. Looking at Book 1, what feels most important, or at least what I initially came away with is how the Hobbits of this book begin to react to the size and depth and complexity of the world. That reaction feels important because often it’s easy to forget how complex the world actually is.
Book 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t just about getting Frodo of Rivendell, it’s Tolkien’s chance to build his mythos while also reminding his reader even the real world is old and full of people and creatures and landscapes that are an important reminder about mortality and ego. A man may be 111 years old, and he might be a fine and respectable hobbit, but even he too will die, and his existence is not only not significant, it’s just one small part in a narrative that has been going on for centuries.
All quotes taken from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings were taken from the Mariner paperback edition.
On one side note, I have a point earlier about the Nazgul being “badass.” This remains true, however their badassery is somewhat lessened when you try to find a sick-as-hell image of them and you get a behind the scenes picture of the lot of them holding umbrellas before shooting. The only thing missing is a plate of tea and cookies over a discussion of how Asia’s economy is heading. THAT, or else the whole lot of them are going to do an AMAZING rendition of Gene Kelly’s Singing in the rain. I don’t know. Look at those parasols. What do YOU think?
"How Did They Ever Make a Movie Out of Lolita?", Camp Climax, Christopher Hitchens, Claire Quilty, Film, film review, Humbert Humbert, James Mason, Literature, Lolita, Lolita Garden Scene, Novel, pedophilia, Peter Sellers, Psycho, Robert Osbourne, sex, Sexual Perversion, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Sexualization of Girls, Shelley Winters, Stanley Kubrick, Sue Lyon, TCM, Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita
“How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” is a sentence I despise, largely because I didn’t think of it first. I know it’s petty, but being a writer and being likeable is difficult enough, that’s why I suspect most of us try and begin our essays and novels with catching, opening lines that invite our reader to give a shit. And so when one of us comes up with a catchy line that nobody can forget it tends to leave us bitter and grumbling in front of our word processors.
My regular reader will no doubt have observed that I’ve been going through a dedicated Lolita phase. After finishing the novel again recently I’ve decided to sit down and really dig into the material of the book, of the writer Nabokov, and of the various books and art products that have emerged since the publication of the book. Having written now about the novel, and the novella precursor, it seemed only appropriate to tackle the 1962 film by Stanley Kubrick given the fact that it’s this film which has partly helped the Lolita phenomenon become what it was and is.
I honestly can’t remember what my earliest experience with the film actually was, though I’m almost positive that it had to be TCM. My parents were good to me in the fact that they almost always had either TCM or TV Land playing on the television, that is when I wasn’t being a little tyrant and demanding the right to watch Freakazoid and Loony Tunes. I consider Robert Osbourne a kind of third parent because he introduced me to people such as Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Sydney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and of course John Wayne. This education of yester-year’s cinema eventually became a boon to me as I could relate and communicate with older people who had grown up watching such movies and programming, and it taught me the language of films and film history as well. My first impression of Lolita then, was one of the “commercials” that ran between the films and Osborne’s intros, and of course it began with that line that I both despise and adore.
It wasn’t long thereafter that I eventually saw the film, though I did make sure that I had read the novel first. I’d like to say that the film’s content made a distinct impression on me and that I became aware of the brilliance of the film, and of course of it’s director Stanley Kubrick, but I was a teenage boy. I was far more interested in memorizing every episode of Family Guy and every line of Pulp Fiction.
I recently bought Lolita on Blue-ray and watched it again and my impression of the film has changed dramatically because, much like the novel, Stanley Kubrick’s movie is one long fascination with a disturbing idea which Christopher Hitchens noted in his essay Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita:
The most unsettling suggestion of all must be the latent idea that nymphetomania is, as well as a form of sex, a form of love. (76).
This observation is absolutely everything when approaching Lolita, whether it’s the novel or the film, though it’s especially important when tackling the film because the way Kubrick directs the picture is as a traditional Hollywood love story. Throughout the film Lolita and Humbert Humbert interact, not as a young girl and a fully grown man, but almost as emotional equals.
Throughout the film Delores Haze, who is oddly enough never referred to as Delores but always as Lolita, is presented a precocious teenager girl, but also as a mature individual with her own will and idea of who and what she is. When Humbert and Lolita arrive at the hotel where the first rape actually takes place, Kubrick plays the dynamic of the two not as a hungry, perverted man lusting after a child, but as Lolita seducing Humbert:
Lolita Haze: Why don’t we play a game?
Humbert Humbert: A game? Come on. No, you get on to room service at once.
Lolita Haze: No, really. I learned some real good games in camp. One in “particularly” was fun.
Humbert Humbert: Well, why don’t you describe this one in “particularly” good game?
Lolita Haze: Well, I played it with Charlie.
Humbert Humbert: Charlie? Who’s he?
Lolita Haze: Charlie? He’s that guy you met in the office.
Humbert Humbert: You mean that boy? You and he?
Lolita Haze: Yeah. You sure you can’t guess what game I’m talking about?
Humbert Humbert: I’m not a very good guesser.
Lolita Haze: [whispers in his ear and giggles]
Humbert Humbert: I don’t know what game you played.
Lolita Haze: [whispers in his ear again] You mean you never played that game when you were a kid?
Humbert Humbert: No.
Lolita Haze: Alrighty then…
There’s also an earlier scene shortly after Humbert picks Lolita up from the summer camp, brilliantly called “Camp Climax for Girls.” As they’re driving Humbert attempts small talk and Lolita speaks with him seductively.
Humbert Humbert: You know, I’ve missed you terribly.
Lolita Haze: I haven’t missed you. In fact, I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you.
Humbert Humbert: Oh?
Lolita Haze: But it doesn’t matter a bit, because you’ve stopped caring anyway.
Humbert Humbert: What makes you say I’ve stopped caring for you?
Lolita Haze: Well, you haven’t even kissed me yet, have you?
And looking near the end of the picture when Lolita is pregnant and living with a sweet but simple man named Dick, she offers Humbert a kind of apology for her “roaming” from him physically.
Lolita Haze: [Trying to console Humbert] I’m really sorry that I cheated so much. But I guess that’s just the way things are.
If the reader is somewhat sickened by these passages it’s just a sign that they recognize how bizarre, and in fact how disturbing this presentation actually is. It’s not uncommon for young women to develop crushes on older men during puberty, but this has more to do with emotional and sexual development. Such crushes and infatuations are early attempts to understand attraction and to experiment and play with it so that, when they are more mature, they can actually act on their feelings.
Kubrick might be faulted or criticized for presenting Lolita as an emotionally mature young woman who openly and freely engages in a relationship with an older man who’s clearly using her, but as I watched the film again I realized that in fact, much like Nabokov himself who manipulated his reader through prose, Kubrick is using the language of cinema to imply perversion without ever outright showing it.
Because the film premiered in 1962, Kubrick was still working with the censorships and sensibilities of film companies at that time. This can be fun for the reader intellectually if they pay attention because in one scene Charlotte Haze, while showing Humbert about the house, actually flushes a toilet. When the reader remembers that, until the movie Psycho premiered just two years before this film, a director could neither flush nor even show a toilet on camera. There’s a feeling while watching such a small act that Kubrick is beginning the small subversions that would eventually allow film makers more freedom. But of course past the toilet flush there is the now iconic garden scene in which Humbert Humbert actually sees Lolita out and about and sun bathing.
I remarked to my sister how well this scene is done while we were watching it, because Kubrick is smart enough to leave Lolita, played by a then sixteen year old Sue Lyon as the center of the everything. The viewer first sees Lolita from the back, sunbathing and wearing nothing but a large feathery hat, dark sunglasses, and a pink bikini (the film is black and white but some color photographs exist revealing the outfits actual color). The shot shifts from behind Lolita to Humbert’s shocked and obviously aroused expression before going back to Lolita and from there Kubrick works his ability as a director. Charlotte Haze describes the garden while the viewer is left to “gaze” upon Lolita. Lolita herself looks up from her book, stares at the viewer, slowly removes her sunglasses, and offers up a look that hints at curiosity and mild erotic interest, meanwhile she never steps out of her pose. The scene lingers and the viewer becomes aware that they are not looking at a young girl who is beginning to, if I can borrow the botanical term, “blossom” into womanhood. In fact they are looking at Humbert’s desire, for the lingering shot and her entire suggested sexuality is entirely Humbert’s imagining. And so the so the viewer is invited to participate in Humbert’s erotic fascination with Lolita, looking at her body and wondering to themselves if this gaze that is centered on her isn’t just implied, but something that is actually erotic.
Naturally, when you’re a teenage boy the same age as Sue Lyons was when she made the movie, the eroticism doesn’t feel weird at all because you’re the same age. It’s just crush. As I age however, I notice more and more that whatever initial erotic feelings I had at this image feels creepier and creepier. It’s now at a point where I can remember being young and attracted to girls that age, but I refuse to acknowledge any kind of erotic fascination with the image. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying that when I watched Lolita again I felt absolutely repulsed at the erotic suggestion.
But that recognition was enough for me to recognize that Kubrick was purposefully playing up that angle.
Much like the actual novel Lolita, Kubrick tries to make the story feel like a love story to show that, beneath the surface of a supposed love story there is in fact nothing but sexual corruption. This is easily apparent in the various little moments of the story, and one of the best elements is the afore mentioned “Camp Climax for Girls.” The reader actually gets a moment when Humbert is surrounded by young women, many of them wearing swim-suits, and the viewer is left watching the image of all these young girls displaying their bodies. The shot works because the viewer is invited to consider the sexual nature of all these girls, but at the same time is reminded that, because of Humbert’s presence that this erotic display really isn’t one. It’s just girls being girls. Likewise later on in the film Delores Haze participates in a play by the corrupt playwright Clare Quilty. The “play,” when the viewer actually sees it, is in fact a kind of fertility display and this lets the reader observe the sexual undercurrent running throughout.
But Quilty himself needs to be addressed because he is arguably the most incredible part of the movie, largely because he is played by the chameleon Peter Sellers. Sellers presents Quilty as this aloof yet wacky man who is sexually corrupt and, if I can borrow an old expression, “queer as a three dollar bill.”
As a queer man I should probably be offended by the implied idea that Quilty is queer, but if the reader actually observes Quilty it becomes clear that the man isn’t part of the LGBT community. Quilty is just a sexual pervert. Before Humbert and Lolita arrive at the hotel the reader is given a small scene in which Quilty and his partner, a largely silent asian woman, are conversing with a bellhop named Swine:
Clare Quilty: She’s a yellow belt. I’m a green belt. That’s the way nature made it. What happens is, she throws me all over the place.
Swine: She throws you all over the place?
Clare Quilty: Yes. What she does, she gets me in a, sort of, thing called a sweeping ankle throw. She sweeps my ankles away from under me. I go down with one helluva bang.
Swine: Doesn’t it hurt?
Clare Quilty: Well, I sort of lay there in pain, but I love it. I really love it. I lay there hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness. It’s really the greatest.
This would be strange enough were it not a later scene when Quilty so obviously attempts to get Humbert to let him see Lolita.
Humbert Humbert: Well, it’s nothing, but… she had an accident.
Clare Quilty: Oh gee, she had an accident? That’s really terrible, I mean, fancy a fellow’s wife having… a normal guy having… his wife having an accident like that. W-what happened to her?
Humbert Humbert: Er, she was hit by a car.
Clare Quilty: Gee, no wonder she’s not here. Gee, you must feel pretty bad about it. W-w-w-w-when uh eh w-what’s happening, is she coming out later or something?
Humbert Humbert: Well, that was the understanding.
Clare Quilty: What, in an ambulance? Hahahaha! Gee, I’m sorry, I-I-I-shouldn’t say that; I get sorta carried away, you know, being so normal and everything.
It’s easy to read this passage and observe that Quilty is a strange man, but it’s in Seller’s performance of Quilty as a bumbling, queer sort of man that the viewer is able to really feel the corrupt sexual nature. Sellers is the key to the movie Lolita, because while James Mason plays Humbert as a dominating, sexual deviant, Kubrick plays him up as a man in love, while Quilty is simply a sexual predator. In this way the suggestion of Nymphetomania as a form of love is progressed because Humbert becomes not a corrupt man, but just a man who loses his love to a man “more” perverted than himself. Lolita herself acknowledges and confirms this for the reader during the final scene in which Humbert discusses with her how she left him:
Humbert Humbert: [Referring to Quilty] What happened to this Oriental-minded genius? When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita Haze: To New Mexico.
Humbert Humbert: Whereabouts in New Mexico?
Lolita Haze: To a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there.
Humbert Humbert: What kind of “weird” friends?
Lolita Haze: Weird! Painters, nudists, writers, weightlifters… But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks.
This final reveal is a bit of strange experience because, when Lolita finally divulges this, many of the suspicions are confirmed and Quilty becomes the monster of the film, rather than Humbert himself. At least that is the perception that I ended the film with after watching it again. And of course, that reaction troubled me immensely because it neglects the reality that Humbert Humbert is a pedophile who seduced Lolita’s mother so that he could get closer to Lolita so that he could ultimately rape her.
I’ve addressed in my previous Lolita essays that Humbert Humbert writes the entire narrative of Lolita, leaving the poor Delores Haze in a position where her story is told without her consent or input. The film offers something different than this vision, and while Lolita does seem to have some kind of agency in the film, it’s important to remember that Kubrick, as a director, was always concerned about the narrative structure of films and how the images crafted his visions.
At first glance Lolita appears to be a love story, but a closer examination reveals a troublesome story about a man manipulating a young woman who is still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. Lolita is never given any kind of freedom to determine who she is, and while on the surface she seems to be inviting Humbert and Quilty to engage with her sexually, this still is undercut by the reality that she’s a young teenage girl who’s barely figured out her sexuality, let alone her actual personality.
Lolita is a story about the troublesome surface and reality of sexuality in America during the early 1960s. And Kubrick is successful in constantly pointing out that sexuality was always hiding beneath the surface of everything. Under the veneer of the gardens and suburban homes there was a lurking sexuality that was at times troublesome and even corrosive. Children were vulnerable to predators, and because the narrative of sex was something that was still taboo, even when it was out in plain sight, what was obvious couldn’t be actually said aloud.
Lolita as a film is a story about the constant suggestion and implication that is hidden beneath what is actually said and done. In this way the film offers a beautiful way of storytelling because, unlike prose, more viewers will recognize the leering gaze as Lolita Haze lays in the backyard. They’ll recognize what’s being suggested is the idea that Lolita is a sexual object, and, hopefully, they’ll recognize that it isn’t their suggestion but in fact the suggestion of a corrupt man who’s writing her story right out of her control.
All quotes taken from the film Lolita were provided by IMDb.
It’s actually pretty difficult to find ANY video bloggers who have attempted to analyze to explore the film. However I did find two people on YouTube who seemed up to the challenge. If the reader would like they can follow the link below to the videos:
I’ve also found a brief video that is a three minute interview with Suellyn Lyon, the main star of the film, about the actual movie:
The life story of Sue Lyon is not particularly pleasant, and Kubrick’s film is largely the reason for it. I suppose that’s why I wanted to end on a positive note, and so I found two pictures of Lyon and Kubrick rehearsing lines and seeming to enjoy themselves. A lovely reminder that beneath the “sexual icon,” there was a young woman wanting to become an actress and working with one of the greatest directors of all time.
"House Metaphor", Adventure Fiction, Books by Jammer, Creative Writing, Genre, Horror Fiction, Humor, Indie Fiction, Jammer's Books, Joshua Jammer Smith, LGBTQ Fiction, Literary Fiction, Literature, Mystery Fiction, Novel, Prime Numbers, Satire, Sexuality, Swanky Panky, Swanky Panky's Crazy Wisdom $3.95, Ta-Nehisi Coates, This is How the White Man Won, We Were Eight Years in Power, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Writing
Don’t think you’re having all the fun
You know me I hate everyone
—Wish, Nine Inch Nails
While I was reading the first chapter of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, I was struck by a passage. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, in fact every one of the books in my home bear little pencil marked circles and stars where I’ve found a paragraph or sentence that feels important. For whatever reason this passage though hit my gut and I had to write something about it. He was introducing an article he had written for The Atlantic, This is How the White Man Won, and discussing the idea of black discourse and because I lack his ability with words I’ll just quote him directly:
The tradition of black writing is necessarily dyspeptic, necessarily resilient. The tradition was the house in which I wanted to live, and if my residency must be fixed to a certain point in time, I suppose fixing it here, with the publication of this piece, is as good as anywhere. I characterize this as an “attempt” because I felt myself trying to write a feeling, something dreamlike and intangible that lived on my head, and in my head is where at least half of it remained. And there were other challenges, more tangible, that were not met. (11).
This idea of writers creating a “house,” or inhabiting one that is defined by their writing, is a fascinating one to me, though I note immediately that it’s not terribly novel. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as a house establishing his “Hall metaphor,” and I often heard professors and lecturers describe the halls of academia as “houses.” The “House metaphor” in fact is a cultural cliche in some respect, but I’ll give Coates a pass on this because I like the man. I love his writing because even in cliches he manages to make them feel new and dynamic. His words aren’t just empty shapes designed to take up space and fill a writing queue, rather their honest expressions of his his heart, what he’s feeling and thinking, and trying to communicate his experience honestly to other people. This is why I his words always hit me the way they do.
I also partly want to be him, or at least have some modicum of the level of success he enjoys. Not the fame. Fuck fame. I’ll take the money though.
I’m stuck on the house metaphor because having recently published a novel (self-published, but hey I got something) I wonder what kind of “House” would take me in. Writers are part of the society and culture that they publish in, and thus they are stuck in the company they keep. This is not that far from real life. If a man spends his days surrounded by drunks and losers it’s likely society will look at him, even if he’s the CEO of a Fortune Five Hundred company, as a bum. Likewise if a man is wearing a suit and surrounded by stock brokers he’s likely to be thought of as a Wall Street Executive, even if he’s just some dude who wanted to dress nicely that day on the way to the bridge where he blows homeless people for money. As my wife is fond of reminding me every time I tell her I want to get a Cookie Monster tattoo, we live in a superficial society that only looks at exterior details.
I look back to the idea of the “writer’s house” and again ask the question: What kind of house would let me in?
Horror, Adventure, Romance, Mystery, Literary Fiction, Indie, Experimental, LGBTQ, all of these I believe would reject me outright because my novel Swanky Panky’s Crazy Wisdom $3.95, while it contains some facet of every one of these genres, does not conform to any of them. There are plenty of horrific elements in the book ranging from the death of children to outright sexual assault, and while these elements exist they do not act in the traditional mode of horror. Whatever grotesque or horrifying elements my readers will find it is usually employed to be funny in some sort of sick or twisted way. Black humor involving dead babies, I realize, is not everyone’s cup of tea, but some dead baby jokes are just wretched and therefore worth a pity laugh. I’m not trying to frighten or depress my reader, and so horror slams it’s doors shut.
The novel is about a young man named Elvis who is waiting on a date and so maybe Adventure and romance could be a way to classify it. But there a problem appears because his date arrives late and by the time she does he’s already found somebody new, a black male boxer named Atlas. A date, and discovering one’s sexuality is technically an adventure, however the regular reader of adventure writers such as Clive Custler are sure to be disappointed and would immediately want a refund.
Mystery is a bust because nobody dies, and Swanky Panky being the character that he is he would probably just inform my reader who did the murder and how and why in the first five pages before offering them a half-assed blow-job and a pirated copy of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. The only mystery that wold exist is how he managed to get them to buy a book that is so obviously a copy of the Pickwick Papers Porn Parody. So Mystery’s out.
Literary Fiction is tricky territory because that’s the one I aspired to. I purposefully wrote my book thinking, hoping, someone would find my work literary, whatever that term actually means, and in the tradition of someone like Joseph Heller, Voltaire, or Pynchon…even though I’ve never actually read any Pynchon. The “Literary” genre is the only one I could ever actually use to describe my work which I recognize is a problem because my novel contains a passage in which Dostoyevsky is described as “The Greatest Hater in the World” and then dies beside a nameless river in Russia (Google was broken that day apparently) in a cardboard box eating cheese. Literary feels right. But much like my desire to have a threesome with Anderson Cooper and Michael Fassbender, my dreams are not meant to be. The “Literary” class of writers would look at my grammar and spacing errors and laugh me right out the door.
Now as for LGBTQ I might have a solid case here. I’m bisexual, I prefer the term Queer personally, so this shouldn’t be a problem. The main character Elvis discovers, by the end of the book, that he is bisexual and the entire creative locus of the book tends to be sexuality. However a problem emerges quickly as I’m sure the reader who’s actually read my book (and hopefully paid for it) will recognize. Everyone in my book is a slut. This would not appear to be much of a problem at first, however it’s important to recognize that the queer community at large has struggled with the inward and outward perception that they are nothing but promiscuous hump-bots designed only to fuck and suck and hump and fuck until the day they die. I’ve written a novel that ends with a four page (I wrote it so I should know) interracial same-sex sex scene, and spends the previous 200 page span sporadically exploring a wide-variety of sexual appetites.
This leads me to conclude that I’m a slut and that he LGBTQ community is sure to ask me for my gun and my badge.
The final “Houses” would be the Indie and Experimental genre, however before I could knock on the door, the community at large informed me that the genre had decided I wasn’t a right fit and decided that they would instead write 1000 page novels about alienation and sexual exploration with their sisters complete with footnotes written only in barcodes that have to be interpreted with an app that’s only available through Android. They also found out that I like Apple products and have therefore dubbed me a MacFreak, as if that’s some sort of insult, and have listed me as a, to quote the kid’s these days, “Poseur.”
Swanky Panky’s Crazy Wisdom, $3.95 leaves me, upon reflection, seemingly without a house. At first. After a careful analysis of my situation I’ve discovered that I have established a house of my own creation. And of course because I’m a writer I have to describe my house as is judged by my body of work. I hope the reader enjoys:
My House is a house that’s falling apart and stained with piss and it’s name is Mudd. A writer jerks off into his hand before wiping his ass with said hand and sticking his butt cheeks together. It’s a house with water damage that smells like rotting balls and slow death. People fuck beside corpses and what’s worse they don’t bother to push aside the pizza boxes that are crawling with maggots. A lunatic with a Traumatic Brain Injury tells me he smells the dragon’s farts before eating the first ten pages of his manuscript. It’s a shame. It was the best work he’d accomplished or would accomplish in his short carear. The few women in the place are either nymphomaniacs, which, apparently discredits them though I don’t know why, or else they are transgender lesbians who write acoustic power ballads about their growing breasts before they eat the strings of their guitars. Dildos are a common sight. I would prefer them to be blue because there’s something about blue dildoes that is inspiring, but these are just purple like all the others. Boring, veiny rods designed only to push and stretch pussies wide and apart and leave you feeling hollow and almost all of them are spoken for. They have name tags attached reading: Mary, Jessica, Issa, Breanna, Brittany, Derek, and Jo. Jo’s the slut, but her poetry is electric sex-fantastic so everyone gives her a pass. There’s a hole in the floor. Something’s living in it. It has two eyes on one side of it’s face and it’s skin is scaly and light brown, almost egg-shell. We toss it bits of meat from time to time, otherwise it roams the house sucking our blood at night through the underside of our knee-caps. Everyday bills come threatening foreclosure but we know that nobody’s coming. The house reeks of too much shit. No bank would dare send someone to collect our bills lest they lose a valuable employee or an expendable asset. So the bills stack high, stained first with the various first lines of novels that no one will read. Then these too disappear until there’s
nothing left but dirty smudges and green mushrooms that dig through the masses of letters and we have to try and ignore another smell. Everyone sleeps on a single mattress, but there’s no sex. No orgies or casual circle-jerk sessions with obligatory yet awkward eye-contact. Everybody just lies butt to crotch to butt to crotch hoping somebody would die or get a publishing deal so that there would be a little less stale, homoerotic tension and we could get some goddamn sleep. There’s some sort of green molds that grows in our mouths. We’re not sure what it is but it moves if you try to rip it out. Eric has discovered that the only way to actually kill the mold, which yes is parasitic and occasionally catches radio transmissions from the CIA Frank Sinatra A capella group, is to go ass-to-mouth. The sensation of tasting your partner’s asshole is not a pleasant sensation, but the mold dies quickly and one is left to enjoy one’s oral freedom before the taste of ass attacks with a vengeance. There’s a toilet…I don’t want to say anymore. There’s a pool in the backyard. It’s filled with piss and baking powder and there’s something living inside of it. It has scales, but then it also has these massive blue lobster claws and orange eyes that follow you. We don’t swim anymore. When we tried the piss turned out to be acidic and turned our skin purple before the thing, whatever the fuck it is, started tickling our feet with it’s tentacle mouth-appendages. We found out later that that’s how it sucks blood from us. So, like I said, we don’t swim. On the wall someone’s smeared the words, “why?” in feces. We’re not sure why, we just, we’re just…not sure. Everyone discusses their novels. They discuss what inspired them. Where they wrote it. What type of computer they use for their writing. How much weed they smoked, or didn’t, during the original drafting, but no one can answer a simple question: why did they write in the first place? Anyone who dares open an honest dialogue about creativity is forced to sleep with Stephanie the lesbian vampire who lives in the attic and insists on sharing cute pictures of her cats until the body eventually shuts itself down out of a feeling of self-preservation. On my way out to work a scorpion stings my foot and for the rest of the day I have to drain the puss into a waste basket. And when I come home, another floor has imploded and no one has bothered to fix it.
My house is a house that no one would really want to spend time in, because it’s a house that nobody knows or understands or comprehends or appreciates. It’s a house that demands apathy for self-preservation.
Yet as I write, my book has at least one review on Amazon and GoodReads, and I’m having an actual book signing at a library. And I’m already working on my next novel.
My house is a house that smells like ass and is falling apart. But it’s mine damn it, and it’s home.
If the reader is interested in reading my book, they can follow the links found under the “Books by Jammer” link at the top of the page, or else they can follow the links I’ve provided here in this bottom of this essay.
Self promotion isn’t my strong suit, but hey, if you’ve got something then don’t hide it. Thanks for reading:
"Bah Humbug", "Orwellian Nightmare", "War on Christmas", 1984, A Christmas Carol, And Yet..., Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Bind Crosby, Christmas, Christmas Songs, Christopher Hitchens, Cultural Compulsion, culture, Danny Kaye, dystopia, Essay, George Orwell, Grinch, Holidays, Individual Will, Literature, North Korea, Novel, Over Commercialization of Christmas, Politics, Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney is a Goddess Supreme, Satire, Scrooge, Totalitarianism, Two-Minute Hate, White Christmas, Why do I never get a well built underwear model for Christmas?, Winston Smith
Bing Crosby does not at first summon up images of North Korea. At least not for me. He summons up images of Rosemary Clooney because, ever since my family started watching White Christmas at least three times a week every week during the Christmas holidays, I’ve discovered that I have an ceaseless and unashamed crush on the woman. I think it’s her smile, honestly, but before I become superficial to my regular reader, it’s important to remember that I fell in love with her voice first. Still despite my never-ending adoration of Clooney and Crosby, and especially Danny Kay, I have a conflict because it’s very quickly returning to the most dreaded holiday of the year.
I truly hate Christmas. The only upside to the holiday is that I get to listen to my Seth McFarlane Christmas Album and watch White Christmas, which, as I addressed before, I really only enjoy because of Rosemary Clooney. Apart from these small pleasures the entire holiday can go eat a bag of dicks.
Before the reader assumes anything, no, I never had a bad Christmas and that’s why I wrote this article, though I will admit, I never do seem to get exactly what I want for Christmas.
I’m sure the reader has their response aimed and ready though. But what about the giving and receiving of presents? What about all the wonderful amazing food that you get to eat? What about spending time with your family? And what about getting a few paid days off from work when you get to do nothing but sit around, read books, watch movies, play video games, and get sick on chocloate? To this last counter-argument I don’t really have a solid defense because who doesn’t love a day off from work?
Regardless of these points, I still really despise Christmas, because the holiday does something to people that is at times frustrating to the point of being irredeemably monstrous. The roads become congested with grumpy, frivolous people who forget how stop-lights work, the stores become crowded with people who are driven purely to buy and consume objects and be dicks to people who work in retail. And of course one has to listen to bloated gases that pass themselves off as human beings who complain about the so-called “war on Christmas.” Beneath all of this however is this compulsion to “create” Christmas as an idea, an atmosphere, and an ideology unto itself and there’s something about this collective, cultural “push” that is unnerving.
It’s for this reason that I look to Christopher Hitchens.
As of late my reading habits have shifted and so along with at least one novel, one graphic novel, one work of non-fiction, and at least one 1000 page tome, I’ve tried to add one collection of works to my reading list. This can include collections of poetry or essays, and a few months back I decided to splurge on myself and buy Hitchens’s book And Yet…. The book appears to be the last collection of essays Hitchens wrote before he died, and I’m steadily buying up every book, pamphlet, and biography the man wrote so that I can have a Hitchens library. I read the essays, one a day, and near the start there was one that leapt at me because the title was simply Bah, Humbug. Hitchens reminded me why he was my hero by just reading the opening lines:
I used to harbor the quiet but fierce ambition to write just one definitive, annihilating anti-Christmas column and then find and editor significantly indulgent to run it every December. My model was the Thanksgiving pastiche knocked off by Art Buchwald several decades ago and recycled annually in a serious ongoing test of reader tolerance. But I have slowly come to appreciate that this hope was in vain. The thing must be done annually and afresh. (87).
I had a similar intention once, back when I believed my writing was good enough to get syndicated in a periodical of note, that maybe I would write one “fuck Christmas” essay that would be great enough, or insightful enough, or at the very least funny enough to be published year by year. I’ve slept since then and recognized that few people will ever give enough of a shred of a shit about me or my work, and so even if I could write such an essay, it will have to be written here. Looking at Hitchens’s opening though I recognize a similar feeling of defeat because Christmas is very much like a Hydra: even if one does manage to sever one head, two or three more will burst from the stump. The endless call to gaiety, selflessness, and rampant greedy consumerism simply has a better PR firm than I do and so I recognize that, even I did manage to write something great about how much Christmas sucks there is too much cultural capital behind it to permanently quash it.
I secretly suspect that I am a hipster because I find myself hating much more than I love but that’s getting off point.
Hitchens’s small article (916 words, I counted) is like reading my own thoughts at times, because along with the criticism of the supposed “religious” aspects of Christmas, Bah Humbug is really a stern criticism of the compulsion towards merriness and cheer. There is a collected push against individuals during the Christmas season to be happy, to see in all the rush to buy and spend and receive a terrific sense of merriment and happiness. This of course belies the very point that when someone else is telling you to be happy that’s almost certain to do anything but make you happy. And in fact, if this isn’t too much of a push, the entire rhetoric of Christmas borders on some sort of sick consumerism based totalitarianism.
Hitchens notes this as he further decries the holiday:
This was a useful demonstration of what I have always hated about the month of December: the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endlesss invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public placer, from train stations to department stores, an instant din of identical propaganda and identical music. The collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy. Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools. Vapid ecumenical messages from the president, who has more pressing things to do and who is constitutionally required to avoid any religious endorsements. (88).
It was about not long after this passage that I realized that Hitchens was leading up to something, something that he did not push, likely because he knew it was a stretch and thought experiments can be rather dreadful to read. Christopher Hitchens was not one to hold anything back, in fact his reputation as a writer was built on the idea that nothing was sacred, in the most literal sense. Still, after reading the essay I couldn’t shake off the idea that Christmas had a smacking of something totalitarian and of course Hitchens makes this point beautifully:
And yet none of this party-line unanimity is enough for the party’s true hard-liners. The slogans must be exactly right. No “Happy Holidays” or even “Cool Yule” or a cheery Dickensian “Compliments of the season.” No, all banners and chants must be specifically designated in honor of the birth of the Dear Leader and the authority of the Great Leader. By chance, the New York Times on December 19 ran a story about the difficulties encountered by Christian missionaries working among North Korean defectors, including a certain Mr. Park. On missionary was quoted as saying ruefully that “he knew he had now won over Mr. Park. He knew that Christianity reminded Mr. Park, as well as other defectors, of ‘North Korean ideology.” An interesting admission, if a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that the birth of the Dear Leader is indeed celebrated as a miraculous one—accompanied, among other things, by heavy portents and by birds singing in Korean—and that compulsory worship and compulsory adoration can indeed become a touch wearying to the spirit. (88-9).
I can anticipate my reader’s reaction before I can continue. Are you seriously about to suggest that the Christmas celebration that takes place in the United States is anything remotely akin to the political dictatorship of North Korea?
Sure. Why the fuck not?
Now obviously the actual physical atrocities, torture, rape, and persistent abuse is nothing akin to the institution of Christmas, that would be, as Hitch pointed out, a bit of a stretch. My effort then is not to compare the compulsion to celebrate Christmas the same thing as the compulsion to respect the authority of Kim Jong-Un, rather it’s my concern to just try a thought experiment about whether Christmas has some level of totalitarian sentiment to it. The purpose of these essays was to explore my thoughts about various works of literature and cultural achievements and public rhetoric, and as of this writing I can’t shake a question that, until recently I haven’t had the language for: Is Christmas the Orwellian nightmare?
The Orwellian Nightmare is a concept that I suspect most people would recognize but would probably be unable to accurately describe it. It is a condition in which the government exudes inexorable powers over the individuals and citizens of the state. It is a power structure however that surpasses the mere outward political landscape and digs deeper, sinking into the meat and bones of a person’s consciousness until a person is aware of the government at all times, especially in the home. An individual living in the Orwellian nightmare is surrounded by propaganda manifesting in the form of advertisements, music, television, radio, films, and public demonstrations which not only promote the party in power, but in fact uses these mediums as extensions of the state to propel the idea that the state is the ultimate benevolent and necessary force. The individual is compelled to celebrate the dominant party, and is encouraged and often culled into the habit of accepting their own dominations, eventually buying into the suggestion that welcoming and empowering the dominant power is not only personally advantageous, it’s their own idea. The state becomes this ever-present reality that brings one comfort, even when it is leaving one emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually dominated.
The Orwellian nightmare is a direct reference to one of my favorite writers, who also just happens to be the favorite writer of Christopher Hitchens the one who got me started on this train of thought in the first place, George Orwell. In life George Orwell did not achieve a tremendous literary fame, and despite the popular understanding the man in fact wrote several novels and essays that are still regarded as literarily significant. However it was his novels Animal Farm and 1984 which helped Orwell in the popular consciousness, and even before John Hurt played Winston Smith, the latter novel had effectively established Dystopia as, not just a literary genre that would eventually get subsumed and then corrupted to the point of irrelevance by bad YA writers, a creative outlet that had lasting relevance to human society.
Looking at one passage in particular of 1984 I’m sure of my hypothesis that Christmas is some kind of Orwellian Nightmare, because I just observe too many parallels. If the reader has never read the novel, the book takes place in the distant future of 1984 (funny how the future’s always several years in the past) where England has become a totalitarian dictatorship headed by a shadowy leader known only ever as Big Brother. The citizens of England are required in their places of work to attend something referred to as a “Two Minute Hate.” After that I’ll have to allow an unfortunately long quote by Orwell to speak for itself:
In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed sh. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. e dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off ; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge- hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of Goldstein seemed to him to be true. At those moments his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness, and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilization. (100-101).
The Two Minute hate is the only real evidence I really need here because anyone who has been forced to go Christmas Shopping during late December recognizing this exact level of torment. There is never a parking space at the mall, and if there is it is ultimately a handicapped space and one finds oneself hating the handicapped for having that sticker in the first place and it doesn’t matter anyway because there’s always an able-bodied person who parks there anyway. The crowds of the open markets and the endless lines that one is forced to slog through are filled with individual people who have been brought to these retail outlets by the promises that “giving is the real Christmas gift,” and so brought by the prospect of a moment on Christmas morning in which their loved ones will enjoy their gifts they endure a sea of grumpy angry people who often look like they just smelled the inside of a homeless man’s boxer shorts. This agony is punctuated by this year’s female “country” pop-star’s rendition of “White Christmas” which again, let’s be real here, Rosemary Clooney rocked decades ago, why are we microwaving a turd when there’s gold recorded already?
But the sensation of Christmas shopping has been better documented by countless writers before me. In fact it’s almost become kitsche to be the person who says they hate Christmas, which is fucked in its own way, because then the people who love Christmas have their “Grinch” or “Scrooge” in which to further develop their mythos.
There’s nothing original about looking at the capitalism and the discomfort of Christmas and the violence it brings out in people. There is something however to the idea that people actually like this tradition of pain and dissatisfaction. People like, in fact they love, the stress and torture and annoyance and atmospheric pressure that is the Christmas holidays because it’s a chance to surrender their will.
By the end of 1984 Winston Smith has been psychologically broken by the torture of the state, and the closing lines, “He loved Big Brother”(370) reveal a man who is absolutely broken by the system which has infected every level of his consciousness.
At work I have a co-worker who comes in, sits down, works on the December Events handouts, and begins to hum Christmas jingles like Jingle Bells, Noel, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Hearing the melodies my mind summoned the songs and before I knew it I was singing along under my breath, and not but a few moments later I began singing the song out loud infecting another co-worker who became exasperated with me for “putting that song in her head.” There was a small joy in recognizing that I had passed along my compulsion to her, that I could share in someone else’s joyous misery. I love that sensation the way I love having the song “Sisters” and “Snow” stuck in my head.
Big Brother may be a jolly, bearded man wearing a red suit, but at the end of the day they both have an incredible PR team.
All quotes taken from Bah, Humbug came from the hardback first edition Simon & Schuster And Yet…: Essays. All quotes taken from 1984 were taken from the Hardback Houghton Mifflin Harcourt copy of Animal Farm and 1984.
If the reader is at all interested in reading the essay Bah, Humbug I’ve provided a link below to the original article.
While writing this essay I listened to Rosemary Clooney sing Christmas songs to try and “put me in the mood.” While it was somewhat successful I fear I may have pushed myself a little too far in order to get in the necessary frame of mind to write this peice. Still, the essay is done and I got the chance to remember why I love Rosemary Clooney’s voice. If the reader would like to have some background music as they follow the relentless beat of Big Brother’s Capitalistit enterprise, or if they just want a great Christmas record to put on I would definitely recommend this link. Enjoy:
For the record there are plenty, PLENTY, of great YA writers. They just don’t either get the press they deserve, or else you simply fade out when your friend tries to tell you that they finished a beautiful YA novel. You might have taken the time to at least give the book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz but instead you politely nodded and thought that your friend was a loser even though she actually had a point and you missed the opportunity to read a beautiful story about two young men falling in love, while one struggles with his individual personal identity and perception of his masculinity. Instead you got drunk and binge watched Riverdale which is just a cheap knock off of Twin Peaks. You judgmental tool…Merry Christmas.
****Writer’s Note To the Reader Who Doesn’t Appreciate the Writer’s Morbid Sense of Humor****
It’s satire for fucks sake. Get the joke or fuck off.
"Deplorable Cultus", "The Old Professor", Academic Book, Allegory, Amon Hen, Book Review, Edmund Wilson, Elves, Essay, Harold Bloom, Hastings, Hobbits, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Language of Lord of the Rings, Libraries, Literary Criticism, literary education, Literary Theory, Literature, myth, Nazgul, Novel, Oo Those Awful Orcs, Orcs, T.A. Shippey, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The QPB Companion to The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, The Staring Eye, The Two Towers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Writers
I have a friend at the library who enjoys checking me out. She loves it largely because it affords her an opportunity to make fun of me, while also envying the amount of reading I get done.
It’s not secret to the reader that I have started working at the Tyler Public Library, and in fact it’s getting close on being one year in total working there. Already the staff have welcomed me into the odd little family and some have even noted that it wouldn’t be any fun at the library if I ever left. I honestly don’t believe that at all, but it’s nice feeling like you belong somewhere. Apart from the wonderful social environment that’s steadily building up my sense-of-self day-by-day, working at the library is also a chance to check out enormous stacks of books. There isn’t a day I’ve worked where I haven’t come home with at least one book, and even on days when I return three or four I’m sure to leave with five more. Sometimes these books are ones I’ve simply checked out, other times it’s one that I have bought in the ongoing library sale.
Whatever the case this constant bibliophilia has exposed me to many wonderful books that I never would have found on my own, which is the reason why it’s so surprising that the most recent development has been my rediscovery of Tolkien.
Like many people of my generation I was coming into puberty about the time the Harry Potter series were being published, but in 2001 my world changed when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released. Hastings was still around at the time, and so video rentals, a.k.a. VHS rentals were still a viable means of seeing films. My dad checked the movie out and actually had to convince me that the movie was worth my time. I remember groaning and sighing, and in fact while watching the film I bemoaned the time length of the movie right before the battle at Amon Hen.
The credits rolled and I was done. I knew that I had to learn more about this universe.
I’d like to say that this meant reading the trilogy, The Hobbit again, and then the numerous companion mythologies and etymologies that Tolkien had spent a lifetime working on, but in fact I largely just consumed the movies and met my best friend Kevin who did nothing but talk about the films which was fine with me.
I did get around to reading Tolkien’s books, but in fact I only got as far as Book III, which is the end of the first half of the second book The Two Towers. I had expected the books to be like the films which were beautiful character studies balanced by great action sequences. What I got instead were long passages of scenery, references to a history and mythology I had no reference for, and an extensive study of linguistics as characters observed words, spoke in different tongues, and related the origin of such language. Obviously I was disappointed, but I still loved this world and began to memorize the territories even starting a fantasy universe of my own with my friend Kevin that went nowhere. Maps and charts were constructed, characters were created, and an evil villain was established. Kevin and I had created an entire universe which was obviously nothing more than a Tolkien reboot.
I don’t regret the time that was spent creating this world, I only wish I had actually written some of it down. There might be a multi-million-dollar fantasy franchise stuffed in a cardboard box in my parent’s attic and I need to find it before Kevin realizes the same thing and screws me out of my share.
Tolkien has returned to me lately because I began an audio-lecture series after finishing Douglas Brinkley’s Cronkite, and my world has shifted dramatically. Michael D.C. Drout’s lecture Of Sorcerer’s and Men: The Roots of Modern Fantasy Literature was a revelation to me because it not only altered my perception of the Lord of the Rings, but much like Poe is the previous year, I was remembered why I loved the man’s work in the first place. Drout explored every facet of The Lord of the Rings and showed me that there was real literary merit to the series and the universe. He argued that rather than just an allegory about war and industry and World War II, The Lord of the Rings was a book about language and the decency of common people.
This brings me back to my original point which is that my co-worker at the library, a lovely woman named Tinkerbelle, enjoys checking me out. After I finished Drout’s lecture series and moved onto Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, I was a man possessed. In-between the various patron needs and printing out another in a long line of classic art statues with the library’s 3-D Printer, I looked up every book available that was either about the life of Tolkien or else written about the man directly. This led me, as soon as my shift ended, into an hour-long search as I scoured the library clean of every book. I lumbered to the circulation desk with a stack that reached my chin and my friend Tink simply laughed before she oohed and awed at the long list of books.
Before I could even get to this stack however, the next day she found in the book sale a small paperback tome entitled The QPB Companion to The Lord of the Rings. With yet another in a long line of giggles she handed me the book and let me disappear into the collection.
What’s fascinating about this book is the fact that so many of the authors who contributed to it seemed to have very little clue about what was the best way to critically approach The Lord of the Rings. Whether it was Ursula LeGuin, Issac Asimov, Harold Bloom, Janet Smith, or Edmund Wilson none of the critics in this small book could ever come to a firm conclusion about what Tolkien was actually trying to accomplish. Many are left puzzled to the man’s lack of modernity in his prose, and some are even more baffled still by the final conclusions of The Lord of the Rings.
I should clarify though before I continue because not everyone is so perplexed. In fact Edmund Wilson in his famous essay Oo, Those Awful Orcs makes his critical assessment of the books quite clear:
It is indeed the tale of a quest, but, to the reviewer, an extremely unrewarding one. The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by few problems. What we get is a simple confrontation—in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama—of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote alien villain with the plucky little home-grown hero. There are streaks of imagination: the ancient tree-spirits, the Ents, wth their deep eyes, twiggy beards, rumbly voices; the Elves, whose nobility and beauty is elusive and not quite human. But even these are rather clumsily handled. There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same thing. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. (40).
Wilson finally cuts the bull and lays out his honest opinion in the final paragraphs saying:
The answer is, I believe, that certain people—especially, perhaps, in Britain, have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. (42).
Besides these words in my little paperback book are written in pencil, “Thems fightin’ words bub!” Perhaps I grew up with too much Loony Tunes, but had anyone spoken so contemptuously about Tolkien or Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager I probably would have screamed at them with the same implication. Still despite the tone Edmund Wilson’s essay does have a point. And I begrudgingly acknowledge most of the criticism.
The Lord of the Rings is many things, but complex in the way a novel by Nabakov is complex is most certainly not the case. Half the time I can’t tell the difference between Merry and Pippin, and in fact Sam and Frodo are at times near indistinguishable. There are long passages about the beauty of Middle Earth but it never feels like the characters are becoming deeper as individuals. They simply are and react to their world, never pausing much for introspection.
Wilson’s critique is severe, perhaps legendary in Tolkien criticism, but I found that Harold Bloom offered much the same sentiment, though in softened tones.
[Roger] Sale accurately observes that the trilogy purports to be a quest but actually is a descent into hell. Whether a visionary descent into hell can be rendered persuasively in language that is acutely self-conscious, even arch, seems to me a hard question. I am fond of The Hobbit, which is rarely pretentious, but The Lord of the Rings seems to me inflated, over-written, tendentious, and moralistic in the extreme. Is it not a giant Period Piece? (53).
I didn’t expect Bloom to respect the novel series given his reputation. Shakespeare is god in the Bloom universe, and despite near ravenous appreciation of Tolkien even I have to admit that compared to the Bard the “Old Professor” (Tolkien Fans charming nick-name for the author) simply doesn’t match up. At least, dear reader, in terms of prose. What I’ll hold against Bloom is that he doesn’t even try to critique Tolkien in any kind of meaningful way and even he acknowledges it citing a passage “pretty much at random” (54). The small two page critique that Bloom offers reveals a great apathy on the man’s part and so the conviction of his criticism is weak.
Then again he’s Harold Bloom and I’m some dude with a blog and a self-published book so perhaps the scales will tip in his favor.
The tone of contempt for Tolkien almost made me drop The QPB Companion for fear that the book would be nothing but people offering fault, and at first Ursula K. LeGuin seemed to offer the same. Anyone who has never heard of this author has cheated themselves for Le Guin, much like George R.R. Martin, manages to be a kind of successor to Tolkien in terms of building the Fantasy and Science fiction genre into the power house that it is. For my own part I prefer LeGuin as an essayist and in her contribution to the collection, The Staring Eye, she manages to convey the lasting importance of Tolkien’s work.
She begins by describing how the books came into her life and why she initially distrusted them. She notes later after remarking that reading the books aloud to her children is her third time with the series that she’s recognized the power of the Eye that was staring at her on the cover.
Yet I believe that my hesitation, my instructive distrust of those three volumes in the university Library, was well founded. To put it in the book’s own terms: something of great inherent power, even if wholly good in itself, may work destruction if used in ignorance, or at the wrong time time. One must be ready; one must be strong enough. (44).
This is most certainly the case and most likely why I didn’t finish the trilogy and had to bear, as Hamlet put it, the “whips and scorns” of my friends who actually had. It’s not that the Trilogy is impossible to read, in fact compared to books like Ulysses and Absalom, Absalom the book is practically Curious George. What I suspect LeGuin is trying to communicate to her reader is that the enormity of Tolkien’s works can be daunting to one individual reader and some may not have the courage or strength of will to complete it.
This has become largely apparent to me as I’ve begun to dig deeper into the meat of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien himself because what is constantly being reminded to me is that Tolkien was a linguist and a philologist. Unfortunately the nature of this beautiful profession has changed and so it’s important to realize that by Philologist I mean someone who studies the history and nature of language. Absolutely everything in The Lord of the Rings goes back to language, and while I plan to write about this at length at a later date, I think it’s important for the reader to understand just how layered everything in The Lord of the Rings is in terms of Linguistics.
In the aforementioned stack of books that I checked out from the library is a book entitled J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by T.A. Shippey. This book is one of the many canonical books concerning Tolkien and his universe, so much so that even people like Harold Bloom have to acknowledge it’s critical significance to Tolkien Studies. While reading through it, and waiting for an order of tacos at Fuzzys, I happened upon one passage that demonstrates clearly the amount of philology going into just the word Baggins:
Later on, in The Lord of the Rings, it will be disclosed that the road Bilbo’s hole is on is called Bag-End: very appropriate for someone called Baggins, perhaps, but an odd name for a road. And yet in a sense a very familiar one. As part of the ongoing and French-oriented snobbery of English society in Tolkien’s day (and later), municipal councils were (and still are) in the habit of indicating a street with an outlet such as ‘cul-de-sac’. This is French of course, for ‘bag end’, though the French actually call such a thing an impasse, while the native English is ‘dead-end’. ‘Cul-de-sac’ is a silly phrase and it is the Baggin’s Family credit that they will not use it. (10).
It’s no small wonder that if this level of attention was paid simply to a name then of course it would take at least 17 years for Tolkien to finally release The Lord of the Rings. The book series is constantly introducing new characters and territories that each have their own unique names which are born from the mythology which is born in the Philological studies that Tolkien worked on, both creatively and professionally.
Words are the basis of this universe and so critics looking for anything akin to Freudianism and Marxism were doomed to failure. And thus the critics turned to allegory.
Le Guin acknowledges this and notes that this avenue of critics is perhaps most responsible for the revulsion of Tolkien. She writes:
It is no small wonder that so many people are bored by, or detest The Lord of the Rings. For one thing, there was the faddism of a few years ago—Go, Go, Gandalf—enough to turn anybody against it. Judged by any of the Seven Types of Ambiguity that haunt the groves of Academe, it is totally inadequate. For those who seek allegory it must be maddening. (It must be an allegory! Of course Frodo is Christ!—Or is Gollum Christ?) (45).
This last portion is unbearable to read, not because I’m an atheist, but because I grew up in the church and attended a private Christian school. I remember the teachers, priests, coaches, principles, and at times even my own English teachers of whom I had absolute trust, shoveling at me that The Lord of the Rings was one big metaphor for Jesus. I’m not arguing that the material isn’t there. Tolkien was a lifelong Catholic, so much so that he was offended when the church dropped the Latin mass. There’s stories of the Old Professor standing up during the English mass and calling out the original Latin much to the pain and embarrassment of his family who had to bear his philological and religious devotion. This old narrative interpretation is painful though because of its predictability. Whenever and wherever there is a sacrifice made Christians attack the body of the work, performing surgery to cut out that ounce of Christian sentiment or interpretation to ensure that they “have always been around.”
The allegory is a great means of criticism, but LeGuin clearly isn’t satisfied by this interpretation and neither am I. The problem with allegory is that it’s simple. A stands for [Symbol 1] and B stands for [Reference 13], and in such a dynamic the critics is not so much a thinker and philosopher, but instead a child connecting dots to the right cultural reference.
Le Guin offers the reader something far more profound at the end of The Staring Eye, as she notes that Tolkien is elusive to critics and that in itself is a kind of artistic legacy:
Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil—which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano? No ideologues, not even religious ones, are going to be happy with Tolkien, unless they manage it by misreading him. For, like all great artists, he escapes ideology by being too quick for its nets, too complex for its grand simplicities, too fantastic for its rationality, too real for its generalizations. They will no more keep Tolkien labeled and pickled in a bottle than they will Beowulf, or the Elder Edda, or The Odyssey. (46).
Despite my training in graduate school, this final absence of solid critical foundation leaves me with some hope. I’ve struggled since I started The Fellowship of the Ring to find any kind of solid critical lens from which to understand Tolkien’s aesthetic. And as I read deeper into the man and his work this absence is not becoming distressing, in fact it’s encouraging. This sense of opportunity is what informs my reading of Tolkien and I see a new range of possibility for the reader of Tolkien.
The QPB Companion is not going to be a book that lasts into the future, but this was never in fact about one single volume. Rather this is about the critics of Tolkien who have, as I’ve read them, misunderstood or simply missed Tolkien’s creative goals. The critics continue to this day to dismiss Tolkien, and while there is some artistic elitism in this behavior, my assessment is that most of the critics of Tolkien are simply caught up in the tradition of theoretical framework.
In literary criticism there is a mode which pushes analysis, and by extension the critic, to write their assessment of a work based upon their training. The problem with Tolkien then is that much of his work escapes most contemporary critics because far too many of them are looking for Post-Modern explanations or else allegory.
Tolkien requires something more. The critics who have mattered then tend to be writers themselves. Tolkien as a writer, and The Lord of the Rings as a series, is an exploration of language and myth, and it is run by rules of behavior that contemporary literature simply doesn’t.
This is not a critical manifesto, nor do I make a grand declaration for a new mode of critical theory. I simply speak as a writer and as a reader. Tolkien’s work attempts to explore a different territory of literature, where word and deed are ends unto themselves, and the depth of character comes from action rather than introspection. This won’t suit many sensibilities, but the continued success of Tolkien has demonstrated that, even if critics snap harshly at Tolkien’s “deplorable cultus,” most of them won’t care anyway.
Hobbit Holes and Nazgul promise endless opportunities for adventure and analysis, and at least one second breakfast with bacon and tomatoes.