Saturday, January 3, 2009

Some thoughts on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit

Notes on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkein):
This is perhaps the most extensive and vast fantasy ever created. It is certainly the most popular of all time. But its reputation is well deserved. Beautiful, but at the same time remote and sad. As C. S. Lewis said, “good beyond hope”.
Though Tolkein claimed he hated allegory, one could argue (at the risk of provoking his “ring rath”) that it is present in “loose” form. It seems to me to be a sort of Christian story, with the biblical pattern and fragments shuffled around in a kind of collage. At any rate, many Christian principles are evoked, at least seemingly so (to this agnostic). But it is certainly not strict allegory. Tolkein himself stresses its “applicability” to his world view, and criticized the critics for ignoring the theological aspects.
But all of this is really, in a sense, irrelevant. The work stands on its own. To read it, for a LOTR lover, is to seemingly leave this world and step into this unique one, Middle Earth, which to my mind is like no other. It also seems we are stepping into a real history, in the middle somewhere, and there is a sadness that is like nothing I have ever experienced in the elves, but at the same time it is passionately beautiful. A religion could be made out of the experience of reading this book, and I am not so sure that in a way it hasn’t.
There is coziness aplenty, and boy do I love that. There is at times a bitterness that never leaves my mouth--such as when Frodo encounters the creepy shadow king on Weathertop. And Moria contains some of the stuff of nightmares, even without the unbearable battle of Gandalf with the Balrog. And come on now--who can fail to think of the Christian Gospel’s account of Jesus’s resurrection when Gandalf reappears and at first the fellowship fails to recognize his “risen” body.
There is terror, there is implied violence, there is love of nature, love of a journey (especially by foot).
There are notable absences: there is no sex (except indirectly with Goldberry, who does excite my own fantasies of a different sort).
Some may be offended at the rather traditional treatment of women here--there are no warrior women, at least not until a fairly brief scene with E__ in the last book (where she dresses up like a man and slays a Nazgul).
Aragorn appears to be fashioned after King Arthur to some extent. The Hobbits remind me in some ways of the Hebrews, although I think Tolkein also considers himself, presumably of Nordic and/or Anglo-Saxon ancestry, to be akin to these folk.
The Hobbit and LOTR are quite different in tone and in scope, although people often assume, and arguably rightly, that the Hobbit is a sort of prelude to LOTR. Certainly the stories are linked, but The Hobbit seems like it is in the fairy tale tradition, whereas LOTR is epic.
Some friends of mine once quit reading the Hobbit about half way though claiming that it was depressing. I can actually understand that--the strange remoteness of it could easily create a feeling even in me akin to depression. The combination of humor (as when the dwarves show up at Bilbo’s home with Gandalf near the start) and tragedy come close to doing this for me. Similar to Dorothy finding herself among the “cute” munchkins in Oz, when she has been abandoned to the tornado by her Guardian aunt and uncle...
Critics who pick on flaws in Tolkein’s style miss the point. Maybe they are right as far as that goes. I am sure it could be argued he is stylistically imitative in places. But never mind. He takes us to a strange and strongly flavored world, eternally remote form this one while at the same time applicable to it, and no matter that his style is not the standard modern style (of Hemingway, or Henry Miller, or James Joyce.)

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