Wednesday, July 18, 2012

a box

I have this little set of cubbyholes, about a foot square each, in structures made of painted particleboard. They form two stacks next to the desk in my home office. (When we moved, I described them to the moving planning guy as "cubicles", and even though I said they were about a foot square each and then showed them to him, he didn't process that and was still looking for those big square portable dividers you see in open plan offices. So I was rather alarmed when he told me I'd have to dismantle them for moving, which in this case would involve removing all the screws that hold the particleboard pieces together. We got that straightened out.)

I use them to keep materials for long-term projects and some other things I need near my desk. One of them has long been devoted to "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies." I accumulate all the photocopies of articles and my own copies of the new books I have to cover, and take them out from there when it's time to write the review, then file the articles and shelve the books elsewhere and start over for the new year.

Since I won't be doing that any more, I just took out all of the material I had in there and repurposed the space for my new job with Tolkien Studies. In there went a box of review copies forwarded to me from the other editor, books not covered in this year's issue which it'll be my responsibility to assign reviews of. So from now on, anything in that cubicle is not my book; it belongs to the journal.

Come to think of it, I can now keep in there the books I've been assigned to review by other journals, because those too still technically belong to the journal until I write the review.

All the TS books in there now are rather ugly utilitarian trade paperbacks from Walking Tree Publishers, a German Tolkien Society-sponsored project that's been pouring out monographs and anthologies about Tolkien at an alarming rate for over a decade now. The books, or more accurately the essays in the anthology volumes, are of disturbingly varying quality, some of them brilliantly incisive and some just dull or clotted, reading like bad translations from the German, which perhaps they are. The best essays they've published have been a detailed historical investigation into Tolkien's undergraduate social life, and a meditation by a scholar looking back on what The Silmarillion meant to him as a lonely child reading it at the age of ten on first publication. But I already knew their authors by name as good scholars before I read the pieces. Reception studies have been a growing part of Tolkien criticism, and what The Silmarillion now means to readers who encounter it as part of Tolkien's established oeuvre is a subject I'd like to see more on, because it must be different than it is to those of us already adults when it was first published, to whom it had been a Legend and a Mystery for long before it became an Actuality.

What do we have now? Two books on Tolkien and Wagner. Two of them. I'd thought that subject was already played out, or hoped it was, because the misunderstandings on the subject are immense, starting with the way everyone quotes a supposed dismissive remark by Tolkien which, if you actually look at it in context, isn't specifically about Wagner at all! But nobody notices that. Then there are the people who claim that Tolkien got everything from Wagner, apparently on the grounds that Wagner came first and they can't think of anywhere else Tolkien could have gotten his ideas from. Then there's the neo-revisionist version of that argument, more subtly claiming that specific points in Tolkien are found in Wagner but not in their common sources. I'm not wholly convinced by that argument, but it's been well-argued.

What they all ignore, but not surprisingly considering the existence of people who actually think the Jackson movies capture Tolkien's spirit, is how totally different the ethos and feel of Tolkien's LotR and Wagner's Ring are. Plot motives are not what make a story; the total atmosphere and direction are more important.

Originally I was antipathetic to Wagner, then I learned to know his work better and appreciate it a little, and now as I know it better still I'm coming to loathe it again. As a student of deeply integrated symphonies like Sibelius's, I am thunderously unimpressed with Wagner's musical structure and his use of leitmotifs, which aren't built into the surrounding music but dredged up abruptly to beat the listener over the head with every time a character mentions something. And I'm getting less tolerant of Wagner's overall sound. His harmonies are coming to sound to me sickly sweet, like fruit that's over-ripe and decayed and just a bit nauseating. And just as the similarities between Tolkien and Jackson, or Tolkien and Wagner, are superficial and miss the deeper meaning, so too the differences between Wagner and Bruckner, the composer usually considered his most faithful disciple, are looming even larger to me now than before.

No comments:

Post a Comment