Sunday, September 18, 2022

Why I Am Hugely Looking Forward To The Rings Of Power

Tolkien is not a writer. Tolkien is a brand. Tolkien is a cultural phenomenon. Tolkien is short-hand for a type of literature which many of us like, or used to like, or like the idea of. Tolkien is not reducible to the words which Tolkien actually wrote. No writer is. 

Tolkien didn't create a text. Tolkien created a mass of texts, out of which can be extrapolated a thing called Middle-earth. Middle-earth is the creation; the exercise books filled with notes about the age of elvish puberty and transformations in the Quenya dative are raw materials.

So, in a funny way, is the Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings is a grand folly produced by an off duty lecturer in Anglo Saxon. The Lord of the Rings is the supreme work of pulp fiction, to be placed alongside Bob Howard and HP Lovecraft on hippy bookshelves in editions with (no one knows why) flamingos on the cover. It's a self referential geeky game on almost exactly the same level as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's the place where our deepest most spiritual emotions reside, our true spiritual home. It is a world more real than any other.

It's a collection of archetypes, the exact building blocks from which Western fantasy is built. Wizards with beards, dragons with piles of gold, caves with fiery demons at the bottom of them, forests full of elves, giant spiders, cannibal trolls who turn to stone when the sun comes up, wise eagles, riddling troglodytes, black riders, dark lords, wandering rangers, piggie-nosed orcs, wise talking trees, magic swords, magic rings, magic jewels. 

Some of this stuff was always archetypal: some of it is only archetypal because of what Tolkien did with it. 

So not, in fact, that far, far away from what George Lucas was originally trying to do in Star Wars. Lucas's saga offered us a single narrative space in which cowboy taverns, and World War II fighter pilots, and Lawrence of Arabia deserts and arthurian knights could all happily co-exist. 

I don't believe in the collective unconscious and the power of myth. I don't believe in phallic symbols or the Oedipus complex. But I do believe that Luke Skywalker's lightsaber and Bilbo's sword which glows when there are baddies in the room both came into my life at more or less the same moment. 

I think it was Neil Gaiman who said (in an introduction to the Bone Graphic Novel, which we really should talk about one of these days) that there are two kinds of readers of Moby Dick. Some of us enjoy the story of Ahab and call-me-Ishmael and Queequeg and the great big suicidal fishing expedition and find the inter-chapters a great bore. And some of us really like the mad essays about whales and whaling and think the main story is a bit long-drawn out and melodramatic. I myself shifted camp. The first couple of times I read it I struggled with the whaling material; but then I realised that what Melville is writing is a comedic anti-novel, along the lines of Tristram Shandy, and that the whole point of the inter-chapters is that they are completely barking mad. How I could have missed this when he takes quite so long to tell you that whales are definitely fish, I don't know. "Are you, reader, a loose whale or a fast whale" is one of the cleverest and craziest and most evocative passages of text ever written.

Yes, I am afraid I have read Moby Dick more than twice, but in my defence I have never read Tristram Shandy at all. I think I also preferred the inter-chapters in The Grapes of Wrath, since you asked.

Do you remember that annoying book club advertisement, which used to be on the back-page of every single colour supplement, which said that the English speaking world is divided into those who have read Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read it?

I think, on its own terms, that this is pretty obviously not true. There are at least four kinds of people in the English speaking world: the ones who have read Lord of the Rings, the ones who have read it more than once, the ones who are going to read it someday, and the ones who would not read it for a thousand pounds if it was the only book in the world. 

But the people who have actually read it can be split along the same lines as the people who have actually read Melville. Some of us are mostly in it for the story, and regard the historical passages as distractions or bores; and some of us want to know about Middle-earth and could frankly do without the Hobbits altogether.

It's all C.S Lewis's fault. Tolkien was happily doing his world-building, but Jack insisted on a story.

The Hobbit is story: but the Hobbit is only part of Middle-earth by a serendipitous accident. The absurd film of Tolkien's life which sank without trace a couple of years back envisaged it as the culmination of a life's work, the moment where the troubled Prof finally saw how he could embody his years of thinking into a single great work. (It's the same myth that Stan Lee propagates about himself: literature is dreamed up in a single flash and where the text ends up is always the place the Author intended it would go.)  

In fact, the book started life as not much more than a doodle. He wrote "in a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit" on the back of an envelope and extemporised a narrative from there. You can see, in the first pages of the Hobbit, that he is making stuff up as he went along. Hobbit sounds like Rabbit which suggests Hole, but the Hole turns into a kind of English country residence and the Hobbit into an English country gentleman. Nothing in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit would be different if hobbits lived in houses rather than holes, unless you are a strict enough Freudian to think that hills and round doors are symbolic. 

Tolkien seems to have had a belief that writing was like discovering or uncovering or remembering. He felt as if there was an already-existing story and he had to find out what it was. I doubt that he literally believed that, but it seems to have been how his writing process functioned.

Lots of writers have a tendency to turn all their stories into one big story, whether it is P.G Wodehouse sending friends of Bertie Wooster off to Blandings, or Isaac Asimov deciding that his earth Empire stories, his Foundation stories and his Robot stories should culminate in a book called God Emperor of Foundation and Robots. [Check this. Ed.] When C.S Lewis challenged Tolkien to write a story about time travel, the mythical Atlantis that his astral travellers visited almost inevitably became part of a Second Age of the world he had been imagining since before the Great War. Tolkien, who definitely hated allegory and would never ever have written one, told a story about a little painter named Niggle who kept finding that his smaller paintings were really part of one enormous work of art. So of course the adventures of the funny little hole dwelling Englishman intersected with the legends of Beren and Luthien and Sauron and Earendel and the nauglamir. And of course, that meant that there was suddenly a race of diddymen in his mythology. And that meant that there was a point in imaginary space and imaginary time from whose vantage point the great big mythology could be seen. 

It is a truism that the Lord of the Rings is not a sequel to the Hobbit, but a sequel to the Silmarillion. It's about the aftermath of the defeat of Melkor and the final departure of the Elves. It lets us see Arda from the point of view of the little people, and lets us hear the legends as the little people heard them. You could say that it was a distraction: that the Lord of the Rings prevented Tolkien from completing his life's work. The invention of Hobbits pretty much guaranteed that the Silmarillion would never be anything other than a pile of contradictory notes. Or you could say that if he hadn't wasted his time on excessive world building he might have written five more trilogies, as good or better than Lord of the Rings. It depends which side of the line you are on. 

Essays or chapters? World or story? Text or legendarium? Is your gaze fixed on Middle-earth, or on Bilbo and Frodo and Aragorn and Legolas? And how cross are you with people on the other side of the line? 

I loved the Hobbit because it was a story about Adventure with a capital A. I loved the Lord of the Rings because it was Dungeons & Dragons with two big Ds. (I also loved Dungeons & Dragons because it was like Lord of the Rings: it's complicated.) But as soon as I managed to get to the end of it, my heart was given to the Silmarillion. 

History never comes to an end, whatever Mr Fukuyama may have said. Events continue to happen in Middle-earth after Sam shuts the door and says "We'll I'm back". But Tolkien came to think that was the where the story finished. He started a novel set in Minas Tirith at the time of Aragorn's son, but he never got beyond the first chapter. He wrote an epilogue, which the publishers overruled: I can't decide if they were right or not. The appendices tell us about the deaths of Merry and Pippin and Aragorn and how Sam and Legolas and maybe even Gimli came to the undying lands. And in a way the story carries on down to our age, the Sixth or the Seventh or the Eighth Age. The Red Book survived into modern times. Hobbits still exist, but have dwindled in number and hide from the big people. Elves have diminished; either physically, into little people, or spiritually, so they appear as ethereal ghosts, but they are still around. The ultimate viewpoint of Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale England where spiritual elf-folk and elusive little people can sometimes still be encountered. The original point of the Lost Tales was that Tol Eressea, the Lonely Isle, the place between the Undying Lands and Middle-earth, was named (stop me if you've heard this before) England. There was even going to be a kind of Ragnorak, a very final story in which Turin slays Melkor (who had more cause?) and the Silmarils are returned to Yavana and the Two Trees are restored. 

 Oh, Mr Frodo, Sir, don't the great tales ever end? 

The Silmarillion is a difficult book of course. It is dense and has lots of names in it and you pretty much have to pay attention to the maps and the family tree. But the big problem with the book is that it is history shaped. It may see history itself as a story, but it's a story about the rise and fall of cities and empires and continents, of the sundering of tribes and generational feuds. There are characters, but they blow horns and fight battles and go on quests and kill dragons and inadvertently marry their sisters. They they never stop to skin rabbits or hunt for potatoes or salvage snout from sieges. The tale of Beren is a fine tale, but Beren is not a character. We meet him for a while, and then step back and see where he fits into the great music of history. 

C.S Lewis admired Olaf Stapleton, although he also accused him of devil-worship. I don't know if Tolkien ever read him. There are no characters in Last and First Men: if the book has a plot its the plot of the human race expanding into space and dying out on (if I remember correctly) Pluto. 

Any fantasy story has an implicit history; but it is pretty rare for the shape of that history to be the main object of our aesthetic pleasure. Star Wars has a history: it goes "There was a good republic; it was supplanted by the evil empire, which was in turn defeated by a rebellion." Chosen ones are prophesied and corrupted and babies are fostered with unknowing farmers and many, many wars are fought, but you can't really step backwards and see the shape because there isn't one. The TV universe has taken an interest in weaving the various strands together. It expects us to care that the death Godfather Slug leaves a power vacuum that can be killed by a former bounty hunter; and to think that "who rescued Baby Yoda when Anakin killed the Younglings?" is a good question: but it's still basically a soap opera. It is set in the middle of the story, in an eternal present, asking relentlessly what will happen next. 

The history of Middle-earth is a structure: big enough to get lost in, but small enough to hold in your head. There is more to it than "The Empire Rises; the Empire Falls" but less to it than the real world. It doesn't get caught up in the  infinite, specific, complicated, mass of facts that make up real history.

That may be why people with disgusting political beliefs like it so much. They often believe that history has a simple pattern, a perceptible structure which they can see and you can't. They often think they know the ending. 

We've all heard of Atlantis: but it's just an idea. It was an island. It sank. Possibly it sank because it did a bad thing. I am afraid that for most of us it is a sunken city where Mermaids or King Neptune live. For many of us it's primarily the home of Aquaman or Prince Namor. Tolkien takes the idea and makes it a thing; a node in his grand narrative. We see the fathers of men being given Numenor as a gift from the gods; we see Numenor as a great and beautiful land; we see it becoming corrupt; we see it sinking into the sea. And we see Faramir revering it as part of sacred history. First, Gondolin is a city that will exist in a prophetic future; then it is a hidden city where great events transpire; then it is besieged and destroyed; finally it is the legendary land where Bilbo's glowy sword was forged.

So. A TV series based on the appendices to Lord of the Rings, whose primary audience must necessarily be people who have never read them. A TV series which must necessarily evoke the ambience of Peter Jackson's brilliant flawed sophomoric childish vulgar wonderful self parodic movies. A TV series too expensive to fail. A TV series which tries to capture the fluttery moth of Tolkien's history in the net of soap opera. A TV series which serves up a second helping of Elves and Dragons and Hobbits and Wizards and Lost Cities and Mysterious Forests and Magic Rings and Magic Swords -- the whole Dungeons and Dragons patchwork. 

What can possibly go wrong?


I'm Andrew.

Thanks for reading.

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Scurra said...

Thanks. I feel much the same right now.

I don't know if talking ever read him. I assume this is an autocorrect typo?

NickPheas said...

"Some of us are mostly in it for the story, and regard the historical passages as distractions or bores;"

I think the actual divide is whether people rejoice out skip over the poetry.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I hope you understood what I was Tolkien about,

Anonymous said...

Trisfram, not Tristan, Shandy. And you should really read it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Fixed. Writing marathons are not conducive to accurate poof reading.

I may not have read Tristram Shandy, but I have read the first fifty pages at least five times.

Loke said...

C.S Lewis admired Olaf Stapleton, although he also accused him of devil-worship. I don't know if Tolkien ever read him.

Tolkien mentions Last Men in London in the Notion Club Papers, so he must have read some Stapledon.

There are no characters in Last and First Men: if the book has a plot its the plot of the human race expanding into space and dying out on (if I remember correctly) Pluto.


Thomas said...

Last and First Men was made into a movie recently. You might like it! It's a compilation of memorial sculptures in former Yugoslavia with narration by Tilda Swinton. More a meditation than a movie, really.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I was entirely unaware of that, and will watch it as soon as I am done with Elves and Dwarves. Thanks.