Monday, December 5, 2011

Tolkien reconstructed

Adam Gopnik is one of those tiresome people who feel conspicuously guilty for liking Tolkien and wish they didn't.  Not surprisingly, then, his article in the December 5 New Yorker comparing Tolkien with his epigone (as the table of contents puts it, with refreshingly honest criticism) Christopher Paolini, is sophomoric, full of insights and clueless ignorance both in full measure.  It deserves a thorough commentary, and here it is.  Brace yourselves; this is going to be long.

1st p., "At Oxford in the 1940s ..."
Nasty of him to cite as proof of Tolkien's and Anglo-Saxon's boringness Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, two highly intelligent men who a) were pure modernists in their thinking, with no empathy with older modes at all, and b) affected a sort of lowbrow common-man ignorant mulishness in their literary judgments.  Ask W.H. Auden or Robert Burchfield about it and you'd get a totally different answer.

2nd p., "It is still one of the finest ..."
Gopnik is out of date if he thinks current fantasy literature is still an annex of Tolkien.  The day of Tolclones like Brooks and Donaldson and Eddings was over decades ago now.  Current top fantasists like George Martin are not trying to replicate Tolkien's spirit at all, well or poorly.  Their work has nothing to do with his beyond a medievalized imaginary-land setting, a world-shattering crisis, and keeping magic in the background rather than in front.  To the extent that Paolini is a Tolclone, he's an atavism today.

3rd-5th p.
Gopnik is absolutely right that the mixture of the homely hobbits and the vast Nordic background is what makes LOTR (and The Hobbit) work.  It's unfortunate that he thinks that the hobbit-less Silmarillion is "dull as dishwater."  For one thing, many readers disagree, especially ones who've come to it since its publication (as opposed to those who spent years expecting its appearance) and who were thus without LOTR-based expectations of its nature.  Gopnik's flat dismissal shows none of the charity that he expresses towards the wretched Paolini.  For another thing, if he'd actually read the Silmarillion, which apparently he hasn't, he wouldn't make some of the LOTR-based generalizations about Tolkien's thought of the next paragraph.

6th p., "Modernist ambiguity ..."
This one needs a lot of unpacking.  First off, Gandalf and Aragorn do express inner doubts, if "inner doubts" can be held to cover despair over whether they have the inner strength to carry on, or the wisdom to choose the best course to advance the cause in which they believe.  What they don't have doubts about is whether they've chosen the right side, but why should they?  I do not recall ever having read of any Allied generals in WW2 expressing inner doubts in the form of wondering if they should be fighting for the Nazis instead.  That was straightforward evil, and they were just not tempted.  Similarly, Gandalf and Aragorn recognize evil when they see it, and have made a conscious decision not to take any action that would lure them down that course.
In the real world, Tolkien was fully aware that the evilness of the Nazis did not make the leaders of the Allies entirely virtuous, or excuse misdeeds by the soldiers on their side.  This is clear from reading his letters.  (Has Gopnik read them?)  There is little of this to be found among the heroes in LOTR, though there are hints of it, in particular undercurrents of mutual hostility among the allied parties.  (One of Tolkien's themes is that goodness is culturally diverse, and thus sometimes mutually uncomprehending.)  But there are three more things to be noted here.  First, that he is always clear that virtue consists of actually being virtuous; it is in no way inherent in the white hats that the heroes wear.  They are the good guys only so long as they actually remain good.  (Denethor and Boromir are there to show what happens if they don't.)  Misdeeds are not excusable, but perilous.  Second, that the purity of the heroes, to the extent that it is unrealistic, comes from the fact that Tolkien is writing a romance, not a realistic novel, a point Gopnik already made earlier.  A large part of LOTR's appeal comes from the craving in our fallen world for a story about real, genuine, unsullied virtue.  We don't have it but we need it, and its presence marks the vast gap separating LOTR from such fantasy series as George Martin's, where nobody is virtuous, or even very nice, and if they try they get killed quickly.  It needs also to be noted in this connection that Gandalf and Aragorn, who in Tolkien's book (but not in Jackson's movies) already went through and survived any crisis of choice before the story started, are not the chief protagonists of LOTR.  LOTR's protagonists are Frodo and Sam - unmentioned as individuals by Gopnik, by the way, which suggests he has no idea where the center of the story lies.  From a character function analysis point of view, the purpose of Gandalf and Aragorn in the story is to serve as models for Frodo and Sam to look up to and try to emulate.  That's where the rubber of the humble hobbits really meets the road of the heroic background; that's what the feature that Gopnik praises is there for: normal folks facing stark challenges of moral virtue, who can see what's at stake.
The third point is that if Gopnik really wants characters who are torn and conflicted, who commit evil deeds in what they consider a noble and righteous cause, and who think their nobility and righteousness excuses them, he ought to read that supposedly dull book the Silmarillion.  Tolkien's least remarked virtue as an author is an absolute genius at showing situations in which no course is righteous, all are flawed and fraught with moral as well as practical peril, and no character is either a straw man of wrongness or a mouthpiece for the author; all have legitimate points and also express blindness towards others' legitimate points.  It's all terribly sad, and terribly real, and - as a work of art - terribly beautiful.  -- And, not incidentally, knowledge of this history is the fuel that feeds the determination of Gandalf and Aragorn, and even more that of Galadriel, who experienced all this personally, to avoid falling into those traps of self-righteous justification in LOTR.  The Elves have been there and done that, and they are chastened by the experience and are not going to do it again.
Now, back to LOTR and Gopnik's points about the morally ambiguous and evil characters.  First off, he has committed the common error of confusing the moral clarity of the situation with the moral status of the characters.  In LOTR it is always clear what is good and what leads to evil.  Characters, however, shift, and it's more than the occasional character as Gopnik says.  Both Saruman and Wormtongue were once virtuous and fell into evil.  (So, we are told, was Sauron, though we never see him as other than evil; there are, however, hints in the Silmarillion as to how he got that way.)  Boromir and Denethor are in the process of falling.  Gopnik doesn't discuss any of these.  He does mention Gollum, who is in the opposite situation of a character already fallen into evil, who is (sometimes) trying to climb out, but fails.  Gopnik is quite misleading in stating that Gollum teeters over self-interest rather than conscience.  Gollum is engaged in a literal argument with himself, his narrow greedy self-interest vs. his enlightened self-interest, that which will help others and save himself, and the latter is his conscience.  As for the generals of Mordor failing to reflect on duty vs. morality, well, we hardly ever see the generals of Mordor close-up doing much of anything.  LOTR is not a story about exploring the depths and nature of evil.  It's a story about the depths and nature of good, a much harder thing to write and accordingly much less often seen.  But though we don't see the reflections of the generals, we do, in a few scenes among the orcs, see the reflections of the evil infantry, and, as Tom Shippey pointed out in a brilliant paper, what we see is the boundless cognitive dissonance of people who can do what's evil by their own moral standards and never notice it.  They're not reflective; they're blind to their own follies; and looking at much of the evil in the world today, that seems a lot more common.

7th p., "What substitutes for psychology ..."
Here again Gopnik expresses well the sense of loss that Tolkien is able to convey to the reader, even the reader who doesn't know the thing that was lost.  He also mentions Tolkien's sense of history, though as I've suggested he doesn't understand it.  He also mentions the almost complete absense of what he calls "lust".  Well, yes, sexual lust is pretty much absent from LOTR; it's all too present in the vast majority of fiction, and it's a relief to take a break.  (Again, if Gopnik wants some of that, he should read the Silmarillion.)  But the guys who cataloged the seven deadly sins will tell you that sexuality is not the only form of lust, and lust for power, for immortality, for sheer personal possession, is all over LOTR.

8th p., "To see the road not taken ..."
Lin Carter was the first genre fantasy critic to state outright that The Once and Future King is a masterpiece where LOTR, whatever its virtues, is not.  But again, not everybody agrees.  OFK, in its final, hastily put together and rewritten form (it's actually very different from its previously published constituent parts), is a misshapen, off-balance book that lacks the courage of its own convictions.  One of the commenters in the MythSoc list discussion of this article calls OFK a desecration and hatchet job on the Arthurian mythos, and criticizes its heartlessness and the anachronisms that both date it and ruin any consistency of subcreation.  I wouldn't criticize it that harshly myself; I think it's a very fine book, but it does have serious flaws and is not a match for LOTR in quality.  What it does well, it does well indeed; but that is not a better thing than what LOTR does well.
At the end of the paragraph, Gopnik delivers himself of the stunning remark that "a Tolkienesque treatment [would focus] on clashes between armies."  That is true only if by "Tolkienesque" he means "characteristic of cheap, ignorant LOTR imitators," not of LOTR itself.  In LOTR, the clashes between armies are actually the sideshow, and if you don't get this, you don't get LOTR.  The real story is the quest of Frodo and Sam, the characters Gopnik never mentions.

10th p., "It is no insult ..."
Again Gopnik fails to note a major difference between Tolkien and Paolini.  Eragon is the hero of Paolini's book, while his equivalent Aragorn is not the hero of Tolkien's.  (Frodo and Sam again.  You see why it's so significant that Gopnik doesn't mention them?)  The other equivalences he mentions are, I trust it's clear, surface features.  Lastly: Tolkien doesn't "practice guilt by phoneme."  Gaah.  The idea that harsh or sibilant consonants are evil in Tolkien fails to consider Dwarvish, and to the extent that it is true, the sounds, like some of the color symbolism, are an aesthetic preference and a marker for the presence of evil, not the evidence of guilt.  It's really moronic to get this backwards.

14th p., "In one moment ..."
Gopnik says that "Tolkien would never have written about 'types of magical traps'."  Well, he did.  The Ring is a magical trap.  Old Man Willow is a magical trap, literally.  The barrow-wight is a magical trap ("They felt as if a trap was closing about them").  Frodo thinks Aragorn may be a trap.  For that matter, Aragorn thinks Frodo may be a trap ("The Enemy has set traps for me before now").  That's just from Book One.  Need I go on?

15th-21st p.
This is the meat of Gopnik's argument, in which he makes the very C.S. Lewis-type argument that, however awfully written Paolini, or Stephenie Meyer for that matter, may be, they're certainly appealing to something in their readers, and it's worth exploring what that something might be.  As they don't appeal to me, I can't judge the quality of Gopnik's answers, but I can wistfully regret that the author of this section of the article didn't communicate his insights to the author of the Tolkien section of the article.  "You don't 'identify' with Sherlock Holmes," he says.  Nor with Aragorn either; that's not what he's there for.  And his admonition that "the spell such works [as the Elder Edda] cast on their audience wasn't diminished by what we find tedious" (emphasis added) is a complete rebuttal to the unsympathetic critic who wrote that the Silmarillion is "dull as dishwater."  Now who was it who said that, again?


  1. Larkin is a particularly poor choice to cite as an arbiter of worth, since he apparently hated everyone and everything (except for Jazz):

  2. Whoops, link was eaten:

  3. Thanks for rebutting that smug, self-satisfied piece.