Tolkien conference this weekend

This weekend, I’m presenting “A Hegelian Reading of the Elves: Synthesizing the Master-Slave Dialectic in The Silmarillion” at Tolkien at the University of Vermont 2009. If you’re in the neighborhood, you should drop by—though I imagine that Vermont’s small population makes the “in the neighborhood” part highly unlikely. In any event, expect posting to resume next week or the week after, thanks to travel, practice, paper changes, etc.

Life: and taking leave of it momentarily

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

—J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

(This appends to The joys of fantasy and Romance. Note too that Paul Graham uses the prison metaphor in his essay about schools, Why Nerds are Unpopular.)

The joys of fantasy and Romance

Patrick Kurp ponders why he doesn’t like fantasy, writing that “[It] feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children.” Maybe: but to my mind, it opens other avenues for looking at the world and goes places realism doesn’t. Good fantasy develops its own codes and limitations; it is different from and reflects our world. In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon says, “Now, games are important. They test us. They teach us comradeship. They’re fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say […] a lesson in civility.” I wouldn’t call fantasy a lesson in civility, but it often imparts, aside from pleasure, lessons in how to lead and organize one’s life. When teaching the LSAT, I often use the journey and confrontation plots in fantasy novels as metaphors. And if fantasy is a cheat, so too is metaphor, which takes one or multiple things and stands them in the place of others, as fantasy does.

It also inevitably returns to confront the ideals and problems of the society that produced it, as Northrop Frye argued in The Secular Scriptures. Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked to the societies that produce them, just as fiction more generally is. The power of fiction and fantasy is their ability to be rooted in those societies while simultaneously being able to transcend them to others. I have no experience in ancient Greece or Rome, but The Iliad and The Aeneid still speak to me. I have never set foot in Middle-earth, but it seems more real to me in some ways than South Ossetia, though I would never argue, obviously, that one is real and the other isn’t.

Still, the question of real and fake gets raised by this question and never satisfactorily answered, as it hasn’t been in literature or philosophy. Patrick writes, “I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.” To my mind, we’re not slumming it in another world, but sharpening our sense of this one through contrast in a subsidiary world, both part of and separate from ours. Fantasy is where the imagination can run wilder than it can in reality, and it is another configuration of reality in the mind, a separate microworld that breaks off from the main world in the mind of its holder. Think of it as an extension of the multiverse or parallel universe theories, only with fantasy itself as another world that mirrors ours. Those mirrors sometimes distort for effect, and if realism is a standard mirror, fantasy is the one that stretches, contorts, and makes us wonder at what we really think of ourselves. The best fantasy novels have rules of their own, some of which can be bent, and others broken, as they say in The Matrix. See our world in fantasy and fantasy in our world. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

And so the Middle Ages have remained, if not profession, my hobby—and a constant temptation: I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.

As said by Burlingame in The Sot-Weed Factor, “I grew so enchanted by the great Manchegan [Don Quixote] and his faithful squire as to lose all track of time and was rebuked by Captain Salmon for reporting late to the cook.” At its best, fantasy has this effect, almost as drugs or sex are wont to do. I think there’s a reason why children and teenagers are often drawn to fantasy, as it offers an relatively safe and accessible outlet for young people who feel powerless and constrained, or feel perceived constraint from parents and society. Another world offers solace and meaning, as it offers others symbolism and power. These sensations go far back in cultural time: some aspect of fantasy or fantastical journeys exist in numerous cultures, as Joseph Campbell argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of them and us are not Don Quixotes, who asks if we have “[…] read the annals and the histories of the England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur […]” The mistaken belief in fantasy as genuine reality is ridiculous, but the belief that we can see aspects of reality in fantasy is not. The prologue to Don Quixote more lays out the case for fantasy, and, more abstractly, literature itself:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.

One could also say, let the adolescent find a way forward and the adult meaning in experience, and let a strong story exist for the literal and subtle metaphors and symbols for the intellectual. Only very good fantasy, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, accomplishes these lofty goals, but only very few works of fiction pass the hundred year test and become that strange beast we call literature.

Defending fantasy and science fiction as literature might be odd given my lament in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters. But I only wrote that post because both cause pain when they fail to live up to literature’s ideals and their own possibility. One of my favorite passages from any book occurs when Tomás and a Martian encounter one another in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?”

Later, a character says, “If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good.” A dream isn’t, but it’s something, and inevitably leads us back toward reality, which leads us back to imagination in an endless circle of blending into different forms and shapes.

Fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, along with their forefather, Romance, are tastes not shared by all. Patrick avoids slamming fantasy to the extent he can given his dislike, and he flees that “ideologically rigid sack of theories.” I’ve tried to give as supple a theory and explanation as I can for the pleasures of fantasy done well, as the genre has long suffered disrespect it shouldn’t. One of the best essays on the subject is still Tolkien’s “On Faerie Stories,” which can be found in the collection The Tolkien Reader. This essay derives and and applies ideas from Tolkien’s work, which is still as complete a defense and analysis of the genre.

EDIT: See an addendum here.

A new feature: papers

On the menu bar, there is now a section called “papers” that contains complete copies of academic papers presented at conferences or submitted for publication. The first entry is for The Paradox of Power and Defining Good and Evil in The Lord of the Rings.

The Wonderful Past

I’ve mentioned Grant Writing Confidential several times recently and will do so once more again, this time because I wrote a post that my father and co-writer there, Isaac Seliger, suggested would be well-suited here as well. He saw the many literary references in The Wonderful Past—to The Name of the Rose, My Name is Red, Plato, and traditional Romance. To be sure, the post focuses on grant writing, but it also illustrates a tendency in literature and culture: idealizing the past or recalling a golden time that may or may not have ever been. Novels like The Name of the Rose wink at this, especially because Adso of Melk lived in 1321 and “wrote” from the perspective of sometime around 1380 – 1400, and the eras he recalled appear ridiculous to modern readers and are distorted by the limits of knowledge then. Nonetheless, this theme is developed seriously in many novels, it’s one that The Lord of the Rings deals with explicitly: the passing of the Elves and their works of great beauty at the end of the Third Age are a time of necessary sorrow. There are many references to fading, passing, and parting, as much of what was fair is subject to one of those fates, but the strength of The Lord of the Rings comes from its mingled sense of hopefulness, necessity, and remembrance, which keep it from becoming morose or sentimental. Its tone is tempered and balanced, with hope present even as the past fades.

Perhaps the most obvious example of an entire book devoted to idealizing the past, especially in comparison to a lessened future, is John Banville in The Sea. I began my commentary on it by noting: “It is not clear what we should take from The Sea.” Almost a year later I’m still not sure what we should take, but its sense of wistfulness over the past is the primary feeling I’ve taken away. As such, I have no good explanation about it, though for a novel that I didn’t love it is often in my thoughts, and I perceive similar themes to lesser or, rarely, greater degrees in so many novels. Yet any explanation I give for it will, I feel, be uncertain or overly speculative at best, but such thoughts about the past remain, and remain noticeable.

Children of Húrin

I tried to read Children of Húrin, the latest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished works and one so bad that it makes The Silmarillion brilliant by comparison. I’ve mentioned my own affection for Lord of the Rings, and after attempting some of the works Tolkien wisely did not show my chief fear is that someone will inadvertently confuse Lord of the Rings with the lesser works published, if you’re an idealist, for historical interests and reasons, or if you’re a cynic, for money, with dreck like Children of Húrin. The story is confused and has no narrative coherence, yet occasional passages shine sufficiently to make one realize that it could have been at least interesting had Tolkien finished it, but in its current state it could have used more of the editorial guidance Christopher Tolkien decided not to provide.

Milan Kundera writes in The Curtain (a portion of which first appeared in The New Yorker, where I read this section):

I am chatting with a friend, a French writer; I urge him to read Gombrowicz. When I run into him sometime later, he is uncomfortable: “I obeyed you, but, honestly, I couldn’t understand your enthusiasm.” “What did you read?” “The Possessed.” “Damn! Why The Possessed?”
The Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch appeared in book form only after Gombrowicz’s death. It is a popular novel that he published as a young man under a pseudonym, as a serial in a prewar Polish magazine. He never made it a book; he never intended to. Toward the end of his life, a long interview with Dominique de Roux was published in a volume called A Kind of Testament. In it Gombrowicz dicusses all of his work. All of it. One book after another. Not one word does he utter about The Possessed!
I tell the fellow, “You’ve got to read Ferdydurke! Or Pornografia!”
He looks at me sorrowfully. “My friend, the life ahead of me is growing short. The time I could spare your author is used up.”

After reading Children of Húrin, I would not fault anyone for disdaining the rest of Tolkien, and it is clear why Tolkien left it unpublished, and were it not for Lord of the Rings it would be utterly unpublishable and without any merit. The Silmarillion at least provides useful back story and a history of Middle-earth and adds to the richness of Lord of the Rings by clarifying some of its stories; Children of Húrin is deficient as a story and provides no useful history. That it remains on the best-seller lists is a testament to the gullibility of people like me who bought it hoping for some hitherto unseen glimpse or insight, but instead are treated to a vista no more attractive than plains Morgoth burned.

I’m not the first person to have noticed the problems with Tolkien’s later works in particular. Stephen King writes in On Writing:

Even after a thousand pages we don’t want to leave the world the writer has made for us, or the make-believe people who live there. You wouldn’t leave after two thousand pages, if there were two thousand. The Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien is a perfect example of this. A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans; even when you add in that clumsy, galumphing dirigible of an epilogue, The Silmarillion, it hasn’t been enough. Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others. The writers of these books are creating the hobbits they still love and pine for; they are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not around to do it for them.

King doesn’t realize The Silmarillion is mostly prequel, or how truly awful Robert Jordan is, but he gets the essence of the issue: Sam and Frodo are not coming back, and Tolkien was sagacious enough to leave them be and leave the unfinished stories unpublished. If only his son would live and let die, rather than stuffing pictures and introductions and appendices to pad a nominal, quarter-done story that would probably embarrass Tolkien were he alive to see it. Instead, I feel embarrassed for Tolkien, and I realize it has no more artistic relation to Tolkien’s great work than the notes of a great novelist have to the finished product of that novelist.

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