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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

MYTH, NOT ALLEGORY: A TOLKIEN CRITIQUE

The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I was around twelve years old, just old enough for my mother to turn me loose in the public library on my own. I had already read The Hobbit, and wanted to see more like it. The next page after the flyleaf in the edition of The Hobbit I read listed the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings — or at least, I think it did, because Gollum had not been rewritten into the ring-tormented creature he later became yet, at least in that edition. My mother referred to The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit, but I don't remember finding it strange that I had to climb upstairs to the adult fiction stacks to find it. The first volume was out, so instead of starting at the beginning, I started from The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Being a writer today myself, I still feel the second volume is the best of the three, the third being a tedious let down and the first tortured by the condescending authorial voice reflective of Bilbo at the beginning and the awful Tom Bombadil later in the text.

My childhood was unpleasant, and these were wonderful books to read, books you could fall into because the world they are set in is so well drawn. Lewis Carroll had already convinced me of the joys of language, from puns, syntax tricks, and hints of Latin and Greek to the special dangers of interpreting idioms literally.1 It was Tolkien who showed me that people could invent languages, and worlds besides. Being so young at that first reading, I was far from a critical reader, as would be expected. Even now, I have to agree with my younger self: the idea that writers can create secondary worlds and new languages equals mind blown.

In junior high school I reread The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and for the first time had just enough life experience to better appreciate some of the nuances2 of the text. I still enjoyed it, even reading it from its proper beginning in a different, more tattered edition than the new, beige dust-covered one from just a few years before. But I finished the last volume feeling, unsettled. Something seemed wrong, and it was actually at this point that I began tracking down Tolkien's writings about his great opus. His tropes were everywhere, throw a dime into a pile of pre-2010 fantasy novels and your chances of it not falling on a Tolkien derivative are small indeed. Now your chances are far, far better. A pair of related five-book series helped me put my finger, or rather fingers, on the troubles.

Many avid fantasy novel readers will already have guessed which series these two were: the pompously named Belgariad and the less pompously named Malloreon series by David and Leigh Eddings. They are excellent writers, and the character of Polgara the sorceress is worth suffering every wretched page focused on her father in both series. So here again is an example of a readable, absorbing books with accidentally perturbing elements as well as deliberately thought-provoking ones. It takes awhile, but it gradually becomes clear the world of these books is a barely disguised England, Europe, and Middle East, right down to the orientalism, racism, and definition3 of darker skinned people as worshippers of evil and lighter skinned people as those on the side of good. All familiar, not just from Tolkien, but also from the daily news, unfortunately.

In 2002, China Miéville wrote a short piece in The Socialist Review considering The Lord of the Rings.4 He contextualizes it well, and makes a fair point about Tolkien's habit of introducing archaisms into his text; even a language geek like me has to concede they are a type of self-indulgence and are better curbed. Next, Miéville gives a high level overview of specific problems in the text, such as classicism and biological determinism, and closes with a description of what Tolkien did gloriously right, the carefully constructed secondary world. For reasons of space, Miéville doesn't get into much detail, and a more detailed look is worth taking, not least because there is actually a deep irony in what Tolkien did so well, locked hand in hand as it is with what is wrong with The Lord of the Rings.5

If you've read The Lord of the Rings, you can rattle off the dreaded -isms with no trouble. Depending on how much you've read on the science fiction end of the fantasy scale, you may also have picked up on the glorification of feudalism6 and violence Miéville calls out so well. They're pretty easy to substantiate with surface examples: Sam and Frodo, orcs and easterlings, two speaking female characters, orcs again, Rohan, Bullroarer Took. You can pull these out having read the book precisely once. However, the problems I have in mind are more subtle, harder to parse out, because they are still widely acceptable, conventionalized ideas. There are four of them, at least.

  • the Elves, the "noble savages" of Middle Earth, with their counterparts the Woses who are the "good Indians";
  • the Ents, proxy for the environment, who suffer because they don't wake up and fight back until some Hobbits show up to explain the error of their ways;
  • Eowyn, a woman who goes to war because she develops a crush on Aragorn, and is then conveniently reduced to a "proper" woman again;
  • and Arwen, who agrees to become mortal to be with Aragorn, only to have Aragorn opt to die as soon as he begins to feel his age.

The Hobbits are a whole other issue in themselves, being effectively children expected to undergo untold tortures for the sake of adults, especially the adults who have provided them protection. They are outside of the remit of this essay.

"Good Indian" and "noble savage" may sound like synonyms, but although they are closely related, they are not. A "good Indian" is always a male, dying Indian, who usually dies fighting but may also "go off into the good night" to die of starvation or illness in the last bit of wilderness left to him. A "noble savage" may occasionally be female, and paradoxically is a hyper-civilized uncivilized being who conveniently retreats away after giving all the good things they may have away to "white men" including the land and home they live in. Many definitions of the "noble savage" describe this stock character as intended to illustrate how "civilization" makes inherently good people behave evilly. However, in time the figure became just as much an illustration of what was supposed to be "true civilization," also known as "american," versus "false civilization," also known as "european." This usage of the "noble savage" grew in popularity as the term "american" was redefined to mean white, european-descended people in the americas instead of who it had originally: the Indigenous people. The "good Indian" and the "noble savage" alike are always fading away due to the encroachment of morally inferior but presumed physically superior "races."

The plight of the Woses is a sidelight on the bitter fate of the Elves. The Woses are driven from their homes and hunted like animals for being ugly, dark-skinned, and disinclined to wear clothes. The Riders of Rohan treat them as subhuman, until their participation in the War of the Ring revises their status. They help out the good guys, so they must be at least just human after all, even if they do speak in a dialect reminiscent of the worst movie indians, unable to speak of themselves in other than the third person or with even the rudest basics of correct grammar.7 And anyway, they are still dying off without Roahan's help. Meanwhile, the bitter fate of the Elves is their own fault, and they brought doom to "Men" too.

The Elves literally came up out of the ground in Middle Earth, being the First People who are awoken by the light of the stars. The gods decide to call them out of Middle Earth and take them all away to Paradise. Some of the Elves stay behind, and of those who "obey the summons" eventually spurn paradise in order to try to reclaim one of the stolen, and thoroughly cursed, Silmarils. These are jewels, beautiful and strangely flawed creations of the Elf craftsman Fëanor. Tolkien presents them as a type of greed and strife generator because Fëanor loves them excessively and Morgoth, Tolkien's paragon of evil, covets them. Later an Elven king will covet just one of the Silmarils, effectively dooming his kingdom. By then the other Silmarils have been lost, and it is as if the loss in their numbers increases the balefulness of those that remain. When at last Men come out of the ground in Middle Earth, the Elves eventually find them and teach them how to speak and live as civilized beings. The Elves are an elder race who teach Men how to survive comfortably, only to be superseded by their protegés.

The previous paragraph summarizes material that comes from The Silmarillion rather than The Lord of the Rings, yet this material is an omnipresent background — as it was explicitly intended to be. The Elves in The Lord of the Rings are "tarrying", hanging back in Middle Earth when they are still supposed to leave, although now at last they are all leaving, as Elrond comments and Frodo and Sam see on their way out of the Shire. They are covetous, as the Elf-lord Elrond demonstrates by making a near impossible demand of Aragorn before he will allow him to marry his daughter. The Elves helped Men against the evil Sauron, successor of Morgoth before, when they lost all their greatest kings in the worst battles. This time the Elves won't be helping much, having decided to fully obey the command to leave Middle Earth at last. They will leave the land empty, though their former houses may be especially sweet in their ruin. The fate of the Elves isn't just their fault due to sin or failing to see Men as a threat. It is also something ordained. After all, the gods have called them away from Middle Earth, and apparently had arranged for Men to replace them there.

The parallels with the history of Indigenous-european interactions in the americas could not be more clear. The Indigenous are there first, widely recognized by europeans as rising up from the land, at least until the descendants of those europeans wanted to portray themselves as the true Indigenes against all common sense.8 The widely trumpeted (and fictitious) Bering Strait "theory" depicts Indigenous people entering the americas via a landbridge between present-day russia and alaska. A journey, if it had ever been possible,9 that would have been bitterly cold for much of the year. The Elves seeking to reclaim the Silmarils travel across a grim, ice covered land bridge where they encounter Inuit-like people. Later the Elven women occasionally intermarry with mortals, where they become mortal and die while ennobling their descendants (especially the male ones) courtesy of their "blood". (It's funny how apparently having sex with a mortal de-immortalizes Elven-women, isn't it?) As more than one Indigenous scholar has noted, if every euro-descended man who had made a fortune by stealing from indians really was descended from an indian princess as they so often claimed, there wouldn't have been a male indian to be found in most of the americas. These similarities aside, Indigenous people never have obeyed the supposed call to give up everything they have to white people in the americas and fade quietly away. Which, according to many euro-descendants right down to today, makes the continued misery Indigenous peoples in the americas are suffering their own fault for not dying off yet.

Tolkien's love of "unspoiled countryside," a sort of english never-never land, or as China Miéville writes, "a rural idyll that never existed — feudalism lite..." is well-known. It is not uncommon to find Tolkien held up as a sort of proto-environmentalist, taking his depiction of the Ents and Saruman as exhibits B and C after the Shire. If you've watched Peter Jackson's films, the scenes of crouching Orcs throwing beautiful trees down into the fires of Saruman's forges are unforgettable. Something funny happens though, on taking a closer look at the Ents. They are a proxy for the environment in the dictionary sense: they represent the "unspoiled countryside" in their capacity as sentient and speaking beings. The Ents are also part of that "unspoiled countryside," so they are also acting behalf of themselves when they act on behalf of it. The trouble being, they don't act much.

Merry and Pippin learn from Treebeard that the Ents take no interest in the rest of the world because the world is not interested in them. Somehow this disinterest has expanded to include the forest the Ents care for, at least where Saruman and his Orcs have begun tearing it apart. Not only ordinary trees are coming to harm courtesy of Saruman; so are the degenerated Ents called Huorns and even some of the Ents themselves. Even this doesn't persuade Treebeard, who leads the Ents apparently by virtue of his great age, to go and look into what is happening. It takes the arrival of Merry and Pippin and their words to persuade him to check the real effects of Saruman's actions instead of stewing over the rumours and reports he hears. In effect, both the environment and the environment's proxy refuse to face up to what is being done to them, and so suffer destruction and poisoning.10 A proto-environmentalist who depicts the environment as complicit in its own destruction sounds more than contradictory, though it has a sort of self-defeating plausibility. Humans are part of the environment, not separate from it, and currently the net result of human action has been little indeed in the face of anthropogenically driven climate change.

The result is a strange amalgam of blaming "the environment" for letting itself be ruined with the equivalent of a deus ex machina to force the issue to a proper resolution. Tolkien was a devout catholic, so the shades of catholic dogma here are unsurprising. The unsubtle victim-blaming in The Lord of the Rings less so.

To be sure, Tolkien is not known for his ability to write female characters. Galadriel is one of his better efforts, though his writing in the volumes of The Book of Lost Tales periodically suggests she was getting away from him and he found this uncomfortable. In the end, his approach to writing women reduces to reproducing stereotypes, usually of the most passive and objectified kind. In comparison, the feisty "shield-maiden" Eowyn initially seems a breath of fresh air. Nevertheless, readers of norse and german mythology will recognize Eowyn as a reflex of Brunhilda (another reflex is Sleeping Beauty). The Lord of the Rings is an intensely multi-layered work however, and even though Eowyn is an individual compared to the "race" of Elves, the problematics surrounding her are nearly as complex. That she is embedded in a revisioning of vikings as horse-riding semi-nomads who fulfill the wish-fantasy of many euro-descendants in and outside of the americas is a type of bonus.11

To begin with, Tokien's presentation of Eowyn appears sympathetic.12 There is even some dialogue between her and Aragorn including some of the only critical commentary on war and its effects on women and children. However, in no time at all we learn Eowyn is powerless in every possible way. She can't protect her uncle or keep his vile "adviser" Wormtongue away from her. Despite the fact that Eowyn is shown to be fully capable of wielding a sword and a member of the ruling house who has suffered longterm sexual harassment from Wormtongue and knows he is poisoning her uncle, she never acts in her own defence or her uncle's. But in the universe of The Lord of the Rings Eowyn's real problem is her yearning for the sort of glory only men are permitted to desire and win. By the time a reader has made it through the basics of Eowyn's situation, even if they have never heard of Brunhilda, they already know she is doomed to be reduced to tamed domesticity.

Eowyn may want to win glory for her house, but she doesn't disguise herself to go to war until she somehow develops a crush on Aragorn immediately on seeing him. Her key psychological driver is not the longer term drive that is consistent with the way Rohirrim culture is presented. Far from it, because Eowyn is a woman, and for her "Rohirrim" is not who she is but an adjective to show which group of men she belongs to. No doubt people have gone on to do brave and amazing things based on the flimsiest and sometimes most foolish motivations. However, presenting Eowyn as effectively a rebellious adolescent motivated by puppy love is incongruous at best. She can hardly be so young or so unaware of the gravity of the situation at large. When Merry and Pippin join Sam and Frodo, they act naively from a sense of kinship and loyalty. This makes sense because they are genuinely young, and courtesy of the isolation of the Shire, unaware of how dangerous things really are. There Tolkien puts the picture together in a way that makes sense, and his eventual linking of Merry and Eowyn's fates suggests he had the loose parallels between them in mind (Merry and Pippin are both members of upper class hobbit families with some pretence to military prowess). Unfortunately, the picture of Eowyn simply doesn't fit together.

Matters get all the worse once Eowyn finds herself facing the Witch-King of Angmar. Readers who know their Shakespeare basics will have noticed Tolkien knew the Scottish play very well, and two especially striking images stuck with him: Great Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill, and the king who can be killed by no man born of a woman. My critique of Tolkien's Ents aside, his rendition of them marching on the fortress of Saruman is a tour de force.13 With the March of the Ents still in mind, the moment Eowyn stands before the Witch-King and he declares "[n]o living man may hinder me," the reader knows what should be coming next. What should be coming next is Eowyn's defeat of the Witch-King, and so it does, except for one problem: it is tainted. Merry distracts him, then Eowyn manages to destroy him. At the critical moment, Tolkien can't allow Eowyn to actually have the wherewithal to strike down the Witch-King on her own, heedless of the fact she has just withstood a barrage of terrible blows and the Witch-King's personal brand of sickening magic. Thanks to Eowyn's unasked for instruction in resisting psychological terrorism from Wormtongue, her training with sword and shield, and what Tolkien depicts as her unambiguous bravery, all the pieces are there. It is completely plausible for her to strike down the Witch-King on her own. Yet Tolkien can't leave her to it, weakening an otherwise impressive episode. He finishes by reducing her to the wife of Faramir, and the implication is she resigns herself to the cage she originally resisted. Perhaps in Tolkien's view she had glory enough and had been suitably cut down by her encounter with the Witch-King.

It would be easy to set all this aside as simply reflections of poor characterization, however, the issue is deeper than that. No matter what Eowyn does, her agency is poisoned. Nothing she does is proactive or in anyway self-assertive. Even when her actions draw on deeper motivations and real skills, those never stand on their own. Instead there must be some sort of intersession, even if in the form of a hobbit who stands outside of the "living man" definition by a technicality. There are other instances of poisoned agency in The Lord of the Rings, in fact poisoned agency is better labelled a theme of the whole work: the One Ring is an agency poisoner.14 The trouble with Eowyn is that her agency is presented as inherently poisoned; men, hobbits, elves, all suffer poisoning of their agency via objects (the One Ring, the Pallantir) or traitorous people (Saruman, Wormtongue) and they are permitted to overcome it if they are on the right side. Women's agency however, is inherently poisoned.

Arwen is all but a cipher in the main text of The Lord of the Rings, and even the appendices don't tell much more. Her story runs in parallel to Luthien of Tolkien's Lay of Beren and Luthien, one of his many background stories making up the history of Middle Earth. Luthien happens to be one of Tolkien's better female characters, an Elf-woman of strong will and surprising powers. Most readers won't have Luthien and her story in mind, of course. Instead, an acute reader will recognize another fairy-tale trope: the king who will only allow his daughter to marry a suitor who passes an impossible test. Failure to pass the test typically ends in the death of the suitor, originally by the king killing him, later by some element of the test itself. In that case, Arwen is a token, so not much is to be expected of her. There's just one problem, in Tolkien's narrative, a huge thing is expected of her. Arwen is expected to give up immortality and all contact with her own family and people, for love of Aragorn. Contemporary readers could be forgiven for wondering what she did to suffer such a severe punishment; readers with a Feminist or anthropological bent will recognize the punishment for not feeling or choosing according to the wishes of her father. Still, this simply adds to a tragic love story.

The story runs straight from tragedy to farce on reading Tolkien's further notes on the fate of Arwen and Aragorn. When Tolkien begins his description of Aragorn going to his death, it seems he has contracted a mortal illness that will carry him off shortly. This is still tragedy. Except, it turns out Aragorn has no other illness than old age, and he doesn't want to "fall from my high seat unmanned and witless." His son is a grown man, so Aragorn could abdicate and enjoy his twilight years such as they are, yet this is no option in Middle Earth. Which is not to say he can't abdicate, because he does. Then he lays down on a "bed" made up for him in the royal tombs below the city of Gondor where he stays, apparently until he starves to death, Arwen sitting loyally beside him. Aragorn takes this course because he is unwilling to face his old age. This effectively casts Arwen's sacrifice back in her teeth.

No author is perfect, and to demand perfection over the span of a sprawling novel plus hundreds and and hundreds of short stories in varying states of completion is obviously unreasonable. Many of the things I have taken issue with here are consistent with Tolkien's time, place, and social circumstances. The greater surprise would have been if he had transcended all of these. He was a backward looking man, yearning for an idealized medieval era when supposedly europe was the best it had ever been. Yet the failures of characterization are truly ironic when set against a superbly developed secondary world. A reader need never approach an appendix, posthumous publication, or linguistics book to find Tolkien's secondary world a three dimensional one. It has history and complexity even if his characters are at best several layers of cardboard. It also takes imperialism, colonialism, and the removal of Indigenous peoples (including their stories) as givens. What a bitter irony it is then, that Tolkien grieved the lack of "...heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history... my own beloved country... had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands." — seemingly all unaware that the colonialism he valourized in his secondary world was what stripped his "own beloved country"15 and many others, of those very stories.

Epilogue

At the original ending of this essay, I touched on a part of one of Tolkien's appendices to the Lord of the Rings, part of Appendix A subtitled "Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen." Tolkien had intended to do all manner of things in the appendices, some of which he managed to do and some of which he didn't. As Peter Jackson noted in his reflections on adapting the book into the eventual movie trilogy, the appendices included many bits of story that were relevant to the main text but couldn't be inserted without disrupting the narrative. Leaving aside the question of whether Tom Bombadil mightn't have been better relegated to an appendix, where at least Tolkien could have told the reader something more helpful about him, this does make sense. So we can envision Tolkien labouring away to deadline at his desk, trying to put together story bits and something to answer many of the broad categories of questions about genealogies and languages he was getting while not exceeding any page limits. A tough job, it's fair to say. He gets to Appendix E, on "Writing and Spelling," which is quite unfriendly to the non-linguists in the crowd. Then he gets to Appendix F, on "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age." In this Appendix, something peculiar happens, beginning in the very first sentence. "The language represented in this history by English was the Westron or 'Common Speech' of the West-lands of Middle-earth in the Third Age."

This seems an odd thing for Tolkien to write. I think it is fair to say that readers often realize that Lord of the Rings is a translation, as indeed we read at the very beginning in Tolkien's tracing of the origins of the work in his role as historian of the secondary world. A significant aspect of what makes the book so compelling is the layers and layers of implied, but very distant, connections to the world we live in now. Today, courtesy of the twelve volumes of Tolkien's notes and drafts edited and commented on by his son Christopher in The History of Middle Earth, we know that this impression is a true one. Originally, Tolkien had envisioned a secondary world that would merge with our own. This is in line with mythologies he already knew, and it matches the real world, in the sense that words and bits of material culture as well as simple human lineage does persevere far beyond its origins in the deep past. The materials we can read about under the contested labels of "classics," "greek and roman studies," and "ancient history" are the tip of the iceberg. The three-dimensionality of the secondary world is the main event, but that tiny hook into the now and the real, whether intentional or accidental by the end, adds that special bit more. So what's all this about "representation" instead of "translation" at the beginning of this appendix? After all, Tolkien still seems to be in his historian of Middle Earth persona here.

Well, that's all right. Tolkien has a whole section of Appendix F dealing with this, called, as we should expect, "On Translation." There we learn that the "Common Speech" has been "turned into" modern English, and that all of those lovely resonances we have been noticing in the text are wholly artificial. Okay, that's not really a surprise, this book is fiction. What is Tolkien trying to do? A little further on, Tolkien informs us that the proper name of the Shire was in fact Sûza and this is just a hint of the many basic words for places and land features he has replaced with more or less current english vocabulary. He has replaced the personal and place names of "Men in the Vale of Anduin, or in Dale, or in the Mark" with Frankish and Gothic bits. He describes the remaining words specific to the Stoor Hobbits and Bree-men as analogous to Celtic, and so replaced with elements imitative of Celtic languages. He is quite clear that "Hebraic" is not used and greek and latin are covered by the Elvish languages. At which point, I at least began to see that getting any Elvish at all in the books was a bit of luck.

There in less than five pages, despite the bits and pieces of the language "of Men," Adunaic, which so far has been called "the Common Speech," the bubble pops. It turns out that by Lord of the Rings, no potential or teasing connection to this world is intended or implied anymore. This isn't a possible alternative universe that has made echoes somehow into now. No, far from it. All it is is some obscure pile of stuff Tolkien in his historian persona has found and translated, spending endless hours twiddling with different bits of a few indo-european languages to figuratively paste over the otherwise more alien-sounding Adunaic and its dialects. But this is absurd, it doesn't fit. These appendices have a problem which people who have spent time in Wikipedia rabbit holes dealing with pop culture will recognize. They beg the question of whether they are being written "in world" or out.

In the main, the appendices are "in world." They deal with genealogies, extra story bits, geography, and the like. All adding further detail to the secondary world and written from the perspective of someone who is part of that world at least in the sense of translating some incredibly ancient documents preserving even older materials. Appendix F however, is the critical outlier because it presents a somewhat disjointed narrative of in world and outside elements. Sometimes Tolkien is in the persona of Middle Earth historian. More often he forgets, and begins to tell about the linguistic decisions he made and how he carefully put together the elements that create the impression of language depth in the secondary world. It's interesting material, especially if you have a deep interest in languages yourself and maybe if you are a writer trying to understand the features of a well-built secondary world. For the unwary and less experienced reader however, this appendix is a disappointment. I remember wondering in confusion, "Why is he talking about this shit now? Merry's name is actually Kalimac? Sam's is actually Banazîr? What the hell?"

I doubt many people seriously read the appendices, and probably even fewer of those had quite the reaction I did. They probably shrugged their shoulders and if they were really into languages, got to work figuring out more about Adunaic. So Tolkien maybe flubbed a last appendix in a book that is over a thousand pages long that he took years to write and started without so much as a written outline. It doesn't change the story. The History of Middle Earth shows that Tolkien never stopped developing his secondary world, and this means that sometimes incomplete changes are in evidence. So here is evidence of incomplete distancing of the secondary world from this one. The change may not have been a bad idea, especially considering the bits and pieces of "Black Speech" may be based in part on the sound system of "eastern" languages in this world. That edges onto quite dangerous ground, and however much racist and orientalist junk is in Lord of the Rings, that was never where Tolkien meant to go according to what he said about it himself. He was acutely conscious of the sound of language, and was clear that certain sounds were pleasant, others not, and that these should be reflected in the words spoken. Furthermore, according to the structure of his secondary world, language reflects a sort of "race character." Well, there's a problem, though we aren't meant to notice it. And we'll pretend we don't know that what sounds pleasant or not is surprisingly culturally specific except for a very few elements.

But let's face it, whatever Tolkien meant to do, this attempt to dissociate his secondary world from this one isn't fooling anybody. Of course it's associated, or it couldn't make sense to us and it wouldn't still be in print. To date I have encountered one author who nearly managed such a dissociation, and that is Mervyn Peake in the wonderfully strange Gormenghast books, which have not had quite the same life in marketing as Lord of the Rings has. There is a peculiar claustrophobia to the Gormenghast books which is about more than its limited secondary world. I should add that this limitation is more reflective of Peake's tragically short life than any lack of evidence for there being far more beyond the scope of the books themselves. That, and what has always struck me as a method of storytelling more reminiscent of ancient greek tragedy than modernist writing due to its tight cast of narrowly obsessed characters caught inside a sort of locked room created by their own beliefs and ritual acts. Entrapment by one's own beliefs is certainly a theme in Tolkien, but the mental worlds expressed by his characters are not so laser focussed, so the effect is quite different.

To return to the concept of appendices to a fictional work, I should also acknowledge that so far I have not found any other author before Tolkien who included such things. He probably isn't literally the first person to do it, but how to do it was still being worked out. Today authors like J.K. Rowling freely use short stories to add details to their secondary worlds, treating them as such. The conceit of the in world text or guidebook has expanded exponentially, not all of which can be attributed just to marketing and the "tie-in product." It may be that a clear sense of what appendices could mean in this context really had to wait for movies, which have a clear "making of" aspect that is by nature separated from the story being told, even when the movie itself is pretending to be a metanarrative of itself being made. Case in point being of course, the extended cuts and accompanying documentaries of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. The argument about whether most appendices and their reflexes since have been no more than final money spinners is one for another day.

  1. Tolkien doesn't seem to have liked the Alice books much, if Wikipedia is to be believed.
  2. Yes, there really are nuances in the text, but they reside not in the story itself but in its meta-text, meaning both the introductions and appendices to the volumes and the information later made available about why Tolkien chose to write it. And much of that was made available not by the man himself, but his son.
  3. At first I used the word "designation" but it doesn't reflect the truth. These character categories aren't merely named that way, they are defined that way, barring a very few individuals who have somehow been whitened.
  4. Please go read it, it is an excellent essay, marred only by the fact it is so grievously short. My even shorter synopsis doesn't give it true justice.
  5. If it weren't for Tolkien's secondary world, I likely wouldn't have enjoyed the books the first time, let alone still be able to reread them now, though my enjoyment is certainly tempered.
  6. The repeated envisioning of a possible future as an updated medieval europe is one of the most disturbing and persistent trends in science-fiction writing. It is also not an "of the time" implying semi-unconscious thing to do. As Athena Andreadis notes on her blog, "People keep saying 'Oh, Tolkien was 'a man of his time' '. Except that Virginia Woolf, who was ten years older than Tolkien, wrote her incandescent condemnation of fascism, Three Guineas (sixty years before the concept of "intersectionalism" came into fashion), two years after Tolkien wrote... The Hobbit." It is telltale that this willfully regressive story began as a bedtime story for Tolkien's own impressionable children.
  7. This caricature of Indigenous linguistic skills persists in the face of a wide-ranging body of evidence that far from being linguistically crippled, Indigenous persons were and are excellent language learners. It was quite common for Indigenous persons to know one or more languages other than their mother tongue, including a language from a completely different language family with another grammar and vocabulary. It isn't uncommon to read european's complaints about how well "the Natives" speak a european language.
  8. This is the real origin of the so-called "Bering Strait theory," which was developed from some wishful thinking presented as fact by no less than Thomas Jefferson.
  9. See Elaine Dewar's excellent book Bones: Discovering the First Americans. She explicitly states she has no fixed opinion for or against the Bering Strait hypothesis, and through the book explores the evidence for and against in depth. Having read it, I can confirm her scrupulously neutral presentation. It's an excellent read, with copious references.
  10. Arguably "poisoning" is a general theme in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and it turns up repeatedly in the various publications Christopher Tolkien has edited together from his father's notebooks. A more specific aspect of it will be discussed below.
  11. Ironically, many europeans and their descendants in the americas may be related to actual horse-riding semi-nomads, courtesy of the various auxiliary soldiers carted off to the furthest reaches of europe by the romans in hope of preventing them from taking over rome. See From Scythia to Camelot by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor.
  12. Now of course, you may completely disagree with me about how proto-Feminist the portrayal of Eowyn is, and Mariah Huehner's wonderful essay "I am No Man" Doesn't Cut It: The Story of Eowyn argues it is a firmly proto-Feminist portrayal, and carefully draws out what went even more horribly wrong in the movie than what Tolkien came so frustratingly close to right about in the book. One of her early points has relevance here, "It says something to me that a WWI vet from a devout Catholic background wrote about a warrior woman in a book published in 1954 that was more feminist than her modern interpretation ended up being." The movies are not really being discussed here, but this still draws out what really gets to anyone who enjoys Tolkien's work and is not a white male.
  13. Peter Jackson's film rendition is impressive in its own right, skip the parts where Treebeard is walking around (he is animated with incongruously toothpick-like legs when shown full length) and go right to the attack on Isengard.
  14. I should note here that I am far from the first person to take note of "poisoned agency" in the context of women acting in the world. In fact, I probably drew the idea a bit unconsciously from Joanna Russ' wonderful How to Suppress Women's Writing, and her chapter on "pollution of agency." In the context of women writers, she explains:

    "An alternative to denying female agency in art is to pollute the agency — that is, to promulgate the idea that women make themselves ridiculous by creating art, or that writing or painting is immodest... and hence impossible for any decent woman, or that creating art shows a woman up as abnormal, neurotic, unpleasant, and hence unlovable." (p. 25)

    All of the elements discussed in Eowyn's case are there. The agency is poisoned/polluted via depicting her with a ridiculous motivation for carrying out an act abnormal for women as depicted in general. There is also the far from unsubtle implication that Wormtongue has poisoned her mind, so that she is not mentally normal either.

  15. The full quote, which also gives the title of this essay, is: "... But an equally basic passion of mine ab initia was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite... I was from my early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands."
Copyright © C. Osborne 2016
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2017 17:10:48