Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Unnecessarily long and disjointed thoughts on Tolkien (part 1)

(I cannot guarantee that I will subscribe entirely to this post tomorrow)

China Mieville on Omnivoracious provides us with some Perhaps In Some Cases Somewhat Insufficiently Stressed Reasons We Should All Be Terribly Grateful To Tolkien:

For some of us, there's always been something about this tradition--and it's hard to put your finger on--vaguely flattened out, somehow; too clean, maybe; overburdened with precision. Alan Garner, perhaps the most brilliant sufferer from this disaffection, once put it thus: to him, the Greek and Roman myths were 'as cold as their marble'.

Compare the knotty, autumnal, blooded contingency of the Norse tales, with their anti-moralistic evasive intricacies, their pointlessly and fascinatingly various tiers of Godhead, their heart-meltingly bizarre nomenclature: Ginnungagap; Yggdrasil; Ratatosk. This is the tradition that Tolkien mines and glorifies--Middle Earth, after all, being not-so-subtly a translation of Midgard.
(Unrelated: Mieville is a Garner fan. *squee*)

A few months ago, Richard Morgan wrote this post about Tolkien's work (well. Lord of the Rings) and said some interesting things. And he's right up to a point - that line from Gorbag opens up a whole new set of possibilities. I want that story, I want to know what life is like in inner city Mordor, I want to know what it means to be an orc, and ugly, and evil (but not with free will, or presumably some orcs would choose not to be evil - and if you don't have free will can you be evil?). Tolkien chooses not to tell it.

There are other stories he chooses not to tell. The blue wizards, Alatar and Pallando - I could have done with a bit more about them. The East in general. What was happening to the less-Caucasian men while the Numenoreans were busy enacting the Atlantis myth. Haleth (who is kickass). Maybe some more actual soldiers in the war - that dead guy from Harad who Sam feels sorry for for a few minutes. He did actually start writing one story I wanted to read - "Tal-elmar", set in Middle-earth when the Numenoreans begin to return. It is quite possible that if he'd gone on with it he'd have screwed it up and been hopelessly racist (more than the story already is, I mean) and I'd be very annoyed. It's unfinished, though, and so certain possibilities are left open.

I actually subscribe to most criticisms of Tolkien. Including this one, also by Mieville. And bits of this one by Moorcock. And of course I did not know the man personally, have no real access to his mind, and cannot know what he was aiming for when he wrote what he wrote.

But more and more I find myself seeing him as a man who was really into structure. The Silmarillion is an obvious example of this. It's not the history of a race, it's a mythology. It is told in exactly the way such a mythology would be told. The minute you come to that conclusion, you're asking who the "teller" of the Silmarillion is. And it's no longer how Tolkien envisioned the history of the elves, it's how Tolkien thinks the elves would tell their own history. This is probably obvious to many of you, but it took me about 10 years to figure out.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Morgan says, about "the ponderous epic tones of Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good (oh - and guess who wins)" (and at the risk of being attracting his contempt I'm willing to admit that I find that stirring and often moving) because that's the sort of text it is. That's the structure it's modelling itself upon. Very rarely do I feel any deep interest in all these noble people, because it's not really about them. And things like realworld racial issues, realworld gender issues, realworld class issues; those things that affect so many actual people may have no place in this grand Good vs Evil narrative, and black and white as colours for your characters can be Archetypes if you're willing to not think about their implications for actual people of colour. So when he leaves out the stuff that's actually happening in the world he's living in, I'm not sure if it's because he's "in full, panic-stricken flight from it". You could criticise Tolkien's choice of this form - it's probably easier to choose a literary form that allows you to ignore this stuff if you're a white dude in Britain. But having chosen it, you would hardly expect the books to offer any deep insight into the human condition.

What interests me is actually how much he allows to slip through the cracks.

Take the battle in The Two Towers, between the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings. Saruman has fired up the Dunlendings by reminding them that the Rohirrim took their land centuries ago (The movie version shows this bit rather well, incidentally). Tolkien never addresses this or tries to prove that the Rohirrim were justified, or that Gondor had a perfect right to take land from one group of people and give it to another. Now you could assume that this is because it's self-evident within the text that Gondor and Rohan have a right to do whatever they like (also the Dunlendings are kind of swarthy). But it's open; an accusation has been made and not disproved, the Rohirrim are no longer unstained, and the Dunlendings might actually have a point.* That's pretty big.

And there's that bit Morgan points to, where the Orcs turn human, just for a moment. And (however much he may fail at women in general) Gandalf explaining to Eomer that Eowyn's life was actually not that much fun. And the deliberate use of Merry and Pippin who, when they're not being the comic relief, are the most human things about the text. It's not enough, but that it's there at all frequently fascinates me.

Which would probably be a good reason for me (an adult) to read "something like that" even if it didn't move me as much as it so often does.

(Part 2 will follow, containing my own list of things to love Tolkien for and insightful insights into the trouble with literary criticism about the man! Eventually.)

* I'm not going to talk about Tolkien and colonialism here. Mainly because I recently wrote a 7000 word paper on it, and anything less than 7000 words would seem simplistic and not really what I want to say. But I do recommend that you read (if you can) Elizabeth Massa Hoiem's "World Creation as Colonization: British Imperialism in "Aldarion and Erendis"" in Tolkien Studies Vol.2. It's rather excellent.


Vishal said...

Nods appreciatively (while resolving for the umpteenth time to give that LotR book thing a read sometime).

So I come to this being primarily a fan of the first movie, and I was reading through the Mieville article when I came across this:

"The set pieces and special effects are superb, again because of Jackson's unusual approach. Computers are a means to an end, not the end itself, and they are used more sparingly than is fashionable - to much better effect."

Oh, circa 2002 China, if only you knew the dull, stilted, badly composited horrors that lay ahead...

roswitha said...

I think my biggest problem with Tolkien AND with Tolkien criticism is the limited ability he and we seem to have of separating the race and gender issues of the text with it's overall contrary religious philosophies of power. To me, the overall message is one that trumps the problems in its details; that allows me to love Tolkien even in spite of my discomfort with aspects of the latter half of the story. I can understand why it may seem insurmountable to his critics, though.

Aadisht said...

Well the interesting thing about Tolkien's mythology is that it is all created BY Tolkien. Which makes it a stupendous effort and one can appreciate the man purely for that - toiling away at creating a complete and self-contained mythology that still works.

But the sustainable mythologies are usually not created by person or by committee (*cough* He-Man *cough* Virgin Comics *cough*) but grow organically. And so the Mahabharat starts off (presumably) as a ballad about a minor skirmish, evolves into a cataclysm about good and evil, swallows both classical poetry and folktales in doing so, and eventually gets reinterpreted many times over to be told from the views of Bhima or Draupadi or indeed anybody else. Further west, the utterly whacked out Norse myths get readapted all over the place, ending up as Wicca on one end and Norse white supremacy propaganda on the other.

So Tolkien's determined effort to canonise and formalise the whole Eldar mythology is what works against it. It ends up being unable to grow.

Fëanor said...

@Aishwarya: wasn't there some detail about Orcs and their organisation in one of the Appendices dealing with the wars with the Dwarves?

@Aadisht: it was at one time Tolkien's hope that others would be able to extend the mythology and embellish and fill in the missing details, and, indeed, you can find that sort of stuff in various Tolkien societies' publications. Of course, copyright issues pretty much stymied that desire of his as far as published stories were concerned.

Aishwarya said...

Vishal - *grin*. And I think you'd probably like that book.

Roswitha - I...think I'm with you there. I've loved the book far too long for my race and gender (&c.&c.) issues to spoil it for me. And honestly, studying it as a grown up has increased my respect for it and him, even where I think they're both hopelessly wrong.

Aadisht - Disagree on some of this, but that's going to be part of the next Tolkien post.

Feanor - I think so, yeah. But if I remember it right, even that wasn't particularly about the Orcs-as-characters, was it?

Vedang said...

I have to say I agree whole-heartedly with aadisht. The reason why I love/revere the Mahabharata, is that you can read it from absolutely any character's point of view, and come away feeling that that particular character was justified in his/her choices. And this sort of complexity is near impossible to achieve if only one person is going to be telling the story.