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 reminded 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.