31 October, 2011

Tolkien: Does He Matter?

Joseph at Ironical Coincidings published this post the other day, discussing what it means to "Inherit Tolkien". He pointed out that he's moved away in some respects from his youthful affiliation with Tolkien, and mentioned towards the end that I seemed to have done likewise, asking for my input on what I had done with the old, pipe-smoking, armchair-loving linguist. It's a question that I found very interesting; partly because Joseph seemed to be suggesting that the two options for what to do with him are either to relegate him to the children's bookshelf (not something I'd think appropriate) or to interpret him in a way compatible with modernity. This second possibility could be read two ways: either it means finding a justification for Tolkien's work within the aesthetic criteria of literary modernism (in which case, I think one would need to look for a third solution), or showing that Tolkien was in fact responding to concerns of the modern world, though he found it necessary to move into the realm of fantasy to formulate his response. It's that latter possibility that I agree with, to some extent. It does leave out part of the truth: Tolkien started the story primarily as a way to indulge his hobby of language-creation, not so much to "send a message" or "address" anything; that came along naturally when he started to craft the story.

Anyway, the question is pertinent also to this blog in the sense that, as Joseph points out, it was started with Tolkien and his friends as the primary inspiration: just look at its name. So I'm copying the response I posted on his blog and reproducing it here. Despite the fact that it's a bit jumbled at times, it does, I think, give a bit of insight into how Tolkien can still be an "inspiration" years after discussion of his work fell by the wayside.

See Joseph's second post in the series for background for my occasional references to Gene Wolfe.

My attempt at an answer:
It’s interesting that you bring this up when you do, because I had begun to notice how far I’d moved from the original focus of my blog about two months ago. Accordingly, the updated “look” of the site dropped the Tolkien photo, which seemed a bit out of keeping with the content, and replaced it with a non-author specific photo: just a bunch of bookshelves from the tiny used bookstore in my hometown. Even the place where that photo was taken reflects my shift in focus…you mention T.S. Eliot as having supplanted Tolkien in my consciousness, which in a literary-critical sense is true, but even my initially strictly-New-Critical focus on literature has expanded to be more like cultural criticism than anything else. Not that I like the way most cultural criticism is done, but I was getting rather sick of thinking about literature in a vacuum, which (pure) New Criticism would have you do.
Questions about literature in my blog have been overshadowed by questions about the relationship between geographical places, their history, the culture of the people there, and in turn the relationship between the sum of those aspects and the sum of those found in completely different geographical areas. I’m beginning–and this is kind of natural, given that I’m over here studying “Belgian” literature and finding that the first question that needs to be asked is “Is there a Belgian literature?” Or even, “Is there any such thing, really, as a Belgian?”
When considering this shift, I'm not sure myself if it’s permanent, or simply a stage informed by my previous ideas about literature. But whether a permanent shift or a temporary stage, the fact that it’s “informed” by my earlier ideas is unquestionable. Which brings me back to Tolkien.
I, like you, was introduced to Tolkien at an early age: my dad read us the Hobbit when I was five; I had finished the trilogy by the time I was about eight. And I’m indebted to the fellow on several levels. For one thing, finishing the trilogy taught me that I could read “grown-up” literature. Without having crossed that threshold chez Tolkien, I wouldn’t have read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, or Bleak House, or Crime and Punishment, or any of the other classics I devoured well before high school. So in a sense, reading “serious literature” had its roots in Tolkien, though even that far back it was fairly obvious that Tolkien wasn’t “serious” in the sense that a lot of that other literature was. I did consider him an important literary figure, but that was more for his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain, his linguistic skills, and his encouragement of Nordic mythology–one reason I’d object to what Wolfe says is that I think Tolkien considered himself an “heir” of Dante only in the sense that he was Catholic–aesthetically, it was always the Beowulf-type story that attracted him.
But honestly, I’m not entirely ready to put Tolkien on trial to see whether his work can be called “great literature”. I always conceived of it as doing something very consciously different than the mainstream of literature, and I don’t mind that. He wasn’t a writer, primarily; not friends with Hemingway or Woolf or any of those. He was just a linguist who could tell a darn good story. Whatever literary critics will make of Tolkien, the fact remains that he is much more widely and passionately read than Woolf or Faulkner or Hemingway. As great and innovative as all of them are, they are difficult to read. Maybe not for an English major, who’s accustomed to reading difficult things, but honestly, for the average person, Faulkner or Woolf are not going to be fun, rewarding reads. Now, I know that Eliot can be accused of this excessive difficulty as well (and the accusation is true to an extent), but I’m 100% in agreement with his essays calling for a literature that’s more accessible to the public (“Marie Lloyd” is one I can think of off the top of my head).
Tolkien is accessible to the public. Tolkien tells a good story. Tolkien also in my view, for what it’s worth, is not so much trying to return to the Middle Ages, as Gene Wolfe suggests, as he is using the setting to make his emphasis on heroism, sacrifice, and redemptive suffering seem natural. He was aware enough of his time to understand that after WWI, a turn to fantasy was the only way to make “discredited” heroic virtue real again. That might not get him into the anthologies, but that hardly discredits his work as juvenile, in my opinion.
Regarding Tolkien’s influence on me. I would say that he’s neither been relegated to the children’s bookshelf, for the reasons above, nor do I find it necessary to map his solutions more closely to modernity than I’ve already done. He’s not offering a “modern” point of view; he’s offering a timeless solution to some of the deepest questions plaguing modern man…and if he doesn’t treat the modernist question of “well, how can we tell what’s real anyway”….well, he’s careful enough to make it all fiction, which actually makes it much more realistic than presenting the same ideas in a realist medium. (Although, it would admittedly be interesting to look more closely at the use of mythical models by Eliot, Joyce, Northrop Frye, etc, though that’s not the most fashionable thing to do in lit crit just now.)
What I’ve taken from Tolkien is a very basic framework for understanding what literature is and what sorts of problems the post-enlightenment, post-world wars world is facing. Sure, it’s a framework that’s not purely Tolkienian, given how often its been modified by other writers, and the fact that Tolkien certainly was not all I read when I started my blog at seventeen. But here are some of its most important points:
A.) Mythical resonances make great literature. You don’t need everything to be fantasy or theology, talking about gods or God, to find these. Look at the lighthouse in Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”; the symbol of the “accursed family” in Faulkner; the return to Greek mythology around WWII in France. You need things in literature that resonate with meaning for more than just the author. Successful literature can’t be wholly subjective; it’s got to call on images and master-plots and characters that the audience can identify with. The difference between fantasy and “realism” is actually rather blurred here: in some ways, fantasy seems to be different mostly in its willingness to forefront the symbol or master-plot (and then jettison “realism” altogether to make that move more palatable to the modern audience) while the realists seek to camouflage the same things so that they do not strike us as unrealistic.
B.) Culture matters. Friendship matters. Two things to which our society pays extravagant lip-service, but which it really doesn’t understand. What does it mean to be “rooted” in a place? What does it mean to be a friend? Those are questions of which I first became aware through Tolkien’s work, and they are still very explicitly at the center of my writing, both on the blog and off.
C.) Good literature is a good story. The biggest reason that the contemporary lit crit circles put me in such a state of ennui just now is simply that they all seem to have forgotten this. And since growing up on Tolkien (and Dickens and Austen, and the Brontes and Lewis and so forth) I can’t forget it. It’s why, even now, I hold myself to the rule of “no criticism on the first reading” unless it’s a school text and I’m forced to do so. I see absolutely no reason why one should go on about the aesthetic merits of a text unless one has first shown that the story is excellent. And if the story is excellent, the text is worth something, in my opinion. Maybe it’s not the most innovative of books; maybe the characters (as in Dickens) are stock figures; maybe the line of reasoning behind some of the Bronte’s plots is occasionally fragile. But they’re all darn good stories. You can figure out that the modernists are good storytellers after you’ve read a lot of their work and understand the type of story they’re trying to tell. Appreciation of their aesthetic innovations, comes however, for me at least, only after I appreciate the story. The reason Tolkien is so much more popular than the modernists is evident though: he tells a fantastic story that does not rely so heavily on the reader’s capacity to sit down, struggle through 200 difficult pages, go back, read it again, and then finally appreciate it. Aesthetically innovative or not, excessively “fantastical” or not, his books are admirable in that respect at least.


Gentle Gardener said...

I agree with you, Tess. (I am no scholar and perhaps my opinion has little to add to your most excellent observations.) There must first be a good story, for as I continue to read and reread the ancient classics, what grabs me first is the story and how it resonates within the human heart. The more I reread, the more my heart is filled with compassion for the human condition. Let literary criticism have its say,but also let the story speak for itself.

Deniz Bevan said...

"He was just a linguist who could tell a darn good story." - that's true. There's something to be said for considering the author based on what HE said he was attempting to do.
I agree with your A and B - very salient points. So many current authors seem to forget or ignore both those aspects.
C is a given and shouldn't even need debate [g]

Mark Mahaffey said...

If you've not heard Dr. Keller's lecture on Tolkien and the history of his project, it's most worth a listen on some of these issues: http://www.internationalartsmovement.org/podcasts/resources/episodes/693-the-significance-of-jrr-tolkien