Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Lord of the Rings (1954)

First of all, thank you all for coming this morning. This is my third time doing this and the first two times, people ran out of here screaming. Particularly last time, when, for the books-to-movies series, I spoke of Washington Irving and then screened Tim Burton's film Sleepy Hollow, a good film, but which had far more gore than I remembered. People having their heads chopped off and whatnot. Just a lovely before-lunch treat.

But this morning I'm here to talk about Professor Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. I'd been threatening to stand up here, without a script, just to see what might fall out of my mouth. This, after all, is a book I first read when I was 11 years old, and have read several times since; any serious reader will understand when I say this is a book I care deeply about. So I had a couple friends who told me that would probably be all right, that I love the book enough, and know enough about it, that I could easily prattle on for an hour or more. But then again, there's always the chance that I might stand here, in front of forty souls, and think of absolutely nothing to say. Does anybody have any questions? Good. So as before, please pardon my script.

And it's a good thing I did sit down beforehand to arrange my thoughts. This is a well-regarded, thousand-page novel with (obviously) a long main narrative, a bunch of characters, and a complicated (to say the least) backstory. Where does one start? I'll start at the beginning, by describing the story.

The Lord of the Rings is set in Middle Earth, an imaginary world with an early-medieval feel. There are city-sized castles and caves, chainmail-clad warriors wielding swords, armies on horseback. There are great tracts of unspoiled plains, living (literally) forests, mountains. Everywhere the land is peppered with monuments and rubble from an even older time, and stories abound regarding that time. The inhabitants of Middle Earth are greatly varied, some fantastic, such as dwarves, hobbits, and the monstrous enemy orcs and trolls; others are more recognizably human -- there are men of varying tribes, carrying their own geopolitical issues, and then there are the mysterious elves and wizards.

Frodo Baggins, a hobbit (which is a sort of genteel gnome-like creature, invented by Tolkien), inherits from his cousin Bilbo a mysterious ring of power. Mainly, it turns the wearer invisible, but this is only a symptomatic effect of the ring. As it turns out, this ring is a Very Bad Thing, created at the dawn of the world by a demonic force named Sauron, and now Sauron, gathering his power again, wants it back so that he can enslave Middle Earth in darkness. His minions are already unleashed, hunting for the ring, and they have a pretty good clue that Frodo has it. So Frodo must take the ring and flee his comfortable home, not to any sanctuary but directly into the heart of danger, to the evil land of Mordor, where Sauron dwells, to the fires where the ring was forged, and the only place where it can be unmade, rendering Middle Earth safe again.

The book is a classic romance, a straight-line narrative quest novel. Its only surface complications are the number of characters: there are about twenty main characters, some of whom do not enter the story until halfway through. In the beginning, Frodo amasses several traveling companions, who safeguard him; this is the Fellowship of the Ring, a group formed during a secret council for the purpose of sneaking Sauron's ring across Middle Earth and into Mordor. There are three other hobbits, first and foremost his trustworthy protector, loyal servant (and former gardener) Sam; two others, Meriadoc (or Merry) and Peregrin (or Pippin) are old friends who basically just end up coming along for the adventure. Then there is Boromir, a captain of men from the last stronghold of the Western Lands, the region of Gondor, facing Mordor. There is Gimli, a dwarf lord of noble heritage, and there is Legolas, an elf prince from the wooded lands of the North. There is Strider, or Aragorn, a mysterious ranger who turns out to be the long-lost heir to the throne of Gondor. And finally there is Gandalf, a wise old wizard of sorts, more like a sort of supernatural back-room broker who does his best to guide everyone along the best possible path.

So this group tracks southward across Middle Earth and the hijinks ensue. But the Fellowship splinters about a third of the way through, and as the narrative trail forks in order to follow them all, so are more characters introduced. There is Galadriel and Elrond, both elf royalty, who guide the Fellowship. There is Theoden, king of the realm of Rohan, land of the horselords, and his kin, nephew Eomer and niece, the noble Eowyn (a precursor of sorts to Xena, Warrior Princess). There is Saruman, evil counterpart to the beneficent Gandalf, and would-be partner to Sauron. There is Faramir, erstwhile brother of Boromir, and their disturbed father Denethor, steward to the throne of Gondor. And finally there is the hapless, feckless Gollum, the previous owner of the Ring, corrupted and distorted nearly beyond recognition by centuries spent in the grip of the Ring's corrosive, absolute power. And to keep things from getting boring, there are myriad other characters as well, who usually pop in for a few pages and then disappear, sometimes for good, sometimes until later in the story when they are suddenly necessary to keep things from becoming disastrous for the principals.

Still with me? Mainly, the story concerns getting the ring to Mordor, and of rallying the troops of men and elves and dwarves against Saruman and Sauron, who are busy massing thousandfold armies of horrible monsters called orcs ... all of these intrigues are only the surface story, which takes Tolkien 1000 pages to wind through.

Beneath this layer of conventional plot lies a backstory, a history and culture for the characters and races, which was Tolkien's main concern. Like The House at Pooh Corner, The Lord of the Rings comes complete with a set of maps detailing every inch of Middle Earth, including numerous locales not explored or even mentioned by the characters. Yet despite every appearance of this being an overlong, complicated, out-of-control children's fable, it is not. There is also a long set of appendices that details the lines of kings dating back 3,000 years, a chronology of the ages of Middle Earth, family trees for the hobbits and, in addition to a well-divided index for characters, places, things, and songs, there is finally a long section devoted to the languages and supposed translation of those languages into the English edition published in our world.

So who was the nutty guy who thought all this stuff up? All right. Professor Tolkien was born in 1892 and died in 1973 and aside from some early and horrible experiences in World War I, spent the bulk of his life in academia, as a philologist. These days, you'd probably call him a linguistic anthropologist, with an uncanny interest in Old English. School was the only stable element in his life, following the early deaths of both his parents, when he was still only a child. He became Professor of English Language at Leeds in the early 1920s, then became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, eventually retiring in 1959. In his day he was acknowledged as the world's leading expert on Beowulf, and on old Norse myth and language. In a letter to his publisher, now reprinted in the current paperback of The Silmarillion, he says "Many children make up, or begin to make up, imaginary languages. I have been at it since I could write."

Genius takes many forms. Some men build rockets, some men write operas, some men clone sheep; Tolkien invented languages and, most importantly, cultural forms for those languages, and that is the true backbone for The Lord of the Rings. Ancient myths and legends being something of a hobby for Tolkien, he set out to create one of his own. More than one account has him lamenting the lack of an overriding mythology, like those enjoyed by Greek or Icelandic cultures, for the English, Anglo-Saxon heritage. Sure, there are the Arthurian legends, and some folktales, but Tolkien wanted to go a step (or a mile, some might say) farther than that. It's known that he was writing from an early age. Even during his service in the trenches in France during WWI, he was jotting in a notebook that bore the title The Book of Lost Tales. Most telling, perhaps, is Tolkien's 1947 short story (one of only a very few he wrote) "Leaf by Niggle." The titular artist paints "the only really beautiful picture in the world" and then gets to step inside it and walk around within it. "As you walked, new distances opened out; so that you now had double, treble and quadruple distances, doubly, trebly and quadruply enchanting. You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden." What better description is there of the joy of falling into and in love with a great piece of fiction?

So that was Tolkien's primary MO -- an obsession with language and with mythology. From his foreword: "I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration, and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues." He charged himself with creating not just a world but also a comprehensive history for that world that could exist beyond the sheen of fiction. Indeed, the fiction was an afterthought. The Lord of the Rings thus has a superstructure allowing for literary self-containment to such an extent that it begins to seem strange, on close examination. It's almost more than a novel -- it's a world unto itself, with deep strata composed of shifting layers, working exactly as continents do, over time. It's a puzzle that comes with its own ciphers. It does not reference our world at all, though one might at certain points feel a kind of magnetic pull, as if it's coming close to something we recognize, this bizarre mishmash of Christian symbolism (almost), Arthurian and Norse legendary (almost) and Shakespearean melodrama (well, okay, that one is pretty much inevitable since Tolkien's tale is couched in English, after all).

And yet, Tolkien adamantly warned against readers looking for allegory and symbolism in his work -- at least those sorts of allegories and symbols that would connect his story directly to our modern world. The mythos of the ancient Greek and Norse cultures don't, after all, find direct interlocking parallel to the events of the 20th or 21st centuries. Tolkien wants you to pretend that the story and mythology of The Lord of the Rings is peculiar to itself. But that's hard for anyone to do. Interpretation is part of human nature.

The main case in point: just as it's easy to see the deep bonds of friendship forged by the possibility of crushing loss among his Lord of the Rings characters finding origin in Tolkien's own wartime experiences ("By 1918," he wrote, "all but one of my close friends were dead"), it's equally easy, and hard to resist, visualizing other 20th Century wartime parallels of the Lord of the Rings narrative. In the second-edition foreword, Tolkien gives a specific timeline for the stop-and-start composition process: 1936 to 1949. Again, admittedly, there are no direct parallels. One cannot correctly say that Sauron equals Hitler any more than one can now say that Aragorn equals Tony Blair. But anyone who writes about a great world-threatening war during the process of a real world-threatening war isn't going to avoid similarities, in tone and intention if not directly in plot and circumstance. And Tolkien, after spending several paragraphs debunking such endeavors, essentially gives in with a slight disclaimer: "Arrangements could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers." The telling phrases here being true or feigned, then varied applicability.

What Tolkien penned is a dramatic tragedy, exemplary in form and on a scale rivaling his predecessor in English literature, Shakespeare. Kings lose their bloodlines and fall prey to wicked advisers; salvation comes in an 11th-hour willingness to heed a call to arms. Greed for power and mastery motivates and corrupts, causing stewards to send their only sons blindly into hopeless battle. Deep friendships form and are honored during a treacherous quest, often providing the only bridge over peril. A wretched creature is torn between aiding a new master in hopes of overcoming the evil deeds of his past, or succumbing to his own dark desires. An heir to the throne, long in self-imposed exile, overcomes his own doubt to claim his legacy and his bride. In the end, as you might expect, Evil is overcome, but things will never be the same as before, as peace comes in an unexpected form.

So, as a singular work, why isn't this thing taken more seriously by critics, and by some potential readers, daunted not just by the size of the book but by its content? Despite its popularity, meaningful consideration of this book is frowned upon during discussions of English literature, just as in the annals of Southern literature, during evocation of Faulkner and O'Connor, Gone With the Wind is summarily dismissed. As if it's too popular to be taken seriously. Or perhaps for some other, gently misguided reasons. Roger Ebert, in his December 17 2003 review of the film The Return of the King, turns out this judgment, which easily applies to the source material as well: "That it falls just a little shy of greatness is perhaps inevitable. The story is just a little too silly to carry the emotional weight of a masterpiece."

Okay, I'll grant you a few things. Certainly the book has its problems. Women are relegated to minor roles. Some critics have cried racism, but Tolkien was after all striving to create an English/Anglo-Saxon mythology, not a global one. His poetry is pretty bad. And his prose, at times, runs purple and dense. For good or ill, the book is an achievement not possible by today's publishing and editing standards: there are too many characters, there are too many diversions from the matter-at-hand, with the plot wandering for chapters at a time. And there are all those long passages in Elvish, which Tolkien doesn't even bother to translate. There isn't much visible psychology in the narrative, maybe none at all. The characters at points seem like wind-up toys that go tottering in the directions of their fates. (Though it would be wrong to say that they don't grow and change.) But here again, Tolkien has given the drama an archaic structure, perfectly suitable to the subject matter. Mythical, legendary figures cannot, by nature, be scheming, ironic anti-heroes.

Largely though, the trepidation comes, I believe, from what I call The Problem of the Elves. How can you, after all, take seriously anything that has elves running around in it? Don't elves live in trees, baking cookies and wearing curly-toed shoes? It's not only elves, of course, but all the fantastic elements at play that challenge suspension of disbelief, beyond what we're used to in "serious" literature. But that belies a tendency to look only at the elements of the story, and not at how those elements function. That, after all, is how the real magic of The Lord of the Rings emerges. But Tolkien saddled himself, early on within the pages of The Hobbit, (before he'd conceived this particular story, though he'd already conceived Middle Earth itself) with traditional terms and creatures long familiar to fairy tales and children's literature, that create a bias against the book being taken seriously.

But as any new reader quickly discovers, Tolkien's elves are not fanciful, squeaky-voiced shoemaker elves or the cookie-making, tree-dwelling elves we normally imagine. The elves of Middle Earth are really sort of creepy, more like an alien race, set apart in the world by their grace and their potential immortality (elves can be killed, but they cannot die under normal conditions unless they choose to do so). Elves are the final remaining race from the First Age of Middle Earth, present at the creation; they bear witness and memory via their immortal lifespans; the elves are the main conduit into the pervasive undercurrent of history in the novel. As characters invoke ancient songs and legends to augment the narrative, as a sort of Greek Chorus, they do so in Elvish. Tolkien deliberately wiped Middle Earth clean of scheduled religious practices and icons. It was his intention that any religion practiced or observed by his characters would be embodied by their acknowledgement of history and their own place in honoring that history -- similar to the traditional beliefs of Native American Indians, which the elves truly more closely resemble. I can't think of a single children's book that contains such a social structure.

Likewise, other elements sublimate Tolkien's more pressing concerns, couched in phantasmagorical terms. There are talking tree-like creatures, the Ents, caretakers of the forests who embody Tolkien's love of the natural world, and hatred of "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic." There are Dwarves, but the only one really featured in the novel, Gimli, never does anything truly dwarfish other than talk about glittering, jewel-encrusted caves every now and then; he spends most of his time behaving like any other guy. There is an army of ghosts, but this too is a symbol of ties to the past, of legacy and obligations that persist throughout, or despite, the passage of time.

Ebert goes on to lament how "the epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns" without considering how malleable contemporary concerns really are. And this besides the most important thing: the best and most moving works of art and music and literature don't tell us how to feel -- they give us room to feel what we will. Tolkien's archetypal narrative and motivational construction allows for varying contemporary interpretations. There will always be wars, and as long as the book remains in print readers will see their current global situation mirrored in Middle Earth; elements (though never the whole) of Lord of the Rings can be applied in turn to World War II, the Cold War, the War on Terrorism. The struggle of the underdog, as seen in the hobbits striving to take an honored place among the other races and cultures, made the novel popular among the counterculture of the 1960s, but the small and oppressed rising triumphant against smothering powers-that-be is something we all can identify with, whether socially or personally in day-to-day life. And the Ring itself has been viewed as a symbol for everything from nuclear weaponry to cocaine addiction.

No one calls Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World silly because they take place in imagined, sci-fi futures; they actually take place in worlds uncomfortably close to our own. No one dismisses To Kill a Mockingbird because Atticus Finch wasn't a real historical figure. If Mary Shelley is allowed to bring a homonculus to articulate life in Frankenstein, to preach the dangers of runaway science; if Dickens can spook Scrooge with three ghosts, to warn us of the dangers of ignoring the love of our fellow man; if Poe can invite the Reaper to a costume party, as a lesson against abdication of responsibility during crisis ... then why not elves? Why not sentient trees and phantom warriors? As fiction bearing at its heart real concerns, what makes The Lord of the Rings any less meaningful to us than Gone with the Wind, or Cold Mountain -- as no one alive now has any direct memory of the Civil War? Are not tales of the colonial times, such as The Scarlet Letter, or of the Inquisition, such as The Name of the Rose, also fables of a sort? There is no reason why the stories that move us be required to remain rooted in the world that we know and touch, or the world that can be researched and not imagined.

The first rule of successful fiction should be to tell a great story and to tell it well. That was pretty much Poe's edict. Tolkien admits, he only wanted to "try [my] hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving." It's a long story, and by the end, most people I know, myself included, still don't want the thing to come to an end. Even those that resist reading the book, at first. It captures everyone. And that's because it's a great story, greatly told, of honor and valor and difficult burdens, and the friendships that will see you through, if only you allow them to. And I'm hard pressed to find anything silly in that. Elves and all.

Originally presented at the Fairhope Public Library Tuesday Book Review and Lecture Series, March 16 2004