Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

LotR re-read: Lewis, "The Dethronement of Power"

I'm going to ease back into this re-read thing with comments on a short essay by C.S. Lewis, "The Dethronement of Power," which is reprinted in Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, edited by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs.

This very short essay originally appeared in 1955, shortly after RotK was published. Thus, it is a review rather than an advancement of a specific thesis. It makes three points in succession; to my puzzlement, none of them are the dethronement of power.

First, Lewis answers the "false criticism" that "the characters are all either black or white." Lewis quotes the book's statement that "Good and ill have not changed," and says, "I think that some readers, seeing (and disliking) this rigid demarcation of black and white, imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between black and white people." He argues that Boromir, Smeagol, etc., do not bear this out.

Second, Lewis talks about the structure of the work. In particular, he greatly admires splitting of the Fellowship into parallel books in the second and third volumes. He argues that by "never allow[ing]" the reader to forget the connection between the parallel stories—particularly that the smaller-scale events are more important—the structure "adds immensely to the pathos, irony, and grandeur of the tale." In a pre-emptive shot, he stresses the seriousness of the Ring-bearer's quest, charging that books 4 & 6 are "not to be treated in those jocular, whimsical tones now generally used by reviewers of 'juveniles.'" He also speaks highly of books 3 & 5; not only do they necessary relief from the other books, they are excellent in their own right. He cites two particular qualities: first, the realism: "This war has the very quality of the war my generation knew." Second, "no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavor even if they had been irrelevant."

That last statement is my first disagreement with Lewis's statements here. Something may exist in its own right and have great flavor; maybe it should be created, but that doesn't mean it should be included, because that way lies incoherence. Probably Lewis had an implicit qualifier in mind, but it's not on the page.

I am also not sure, and have never been sure, whether the last two volumes wouldn't have worked better interleaved chronologically. This is partly because I am not a good reader of parallel stories; I tend to read one and ignore the other. (I never got past the first volume of Dave Duncan's grammar trilogy for this reason.) I will be thinking about this more in the future, of course.

Third, Lewis responds to charges of allegory in much the same way Tolkien does in the later-written Foreword, and uses this as a springboard to a defense of fantasy generally: "The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by 'the veil of familiarity.'"

He also gives his view of the overall message of the book:

But the text teaches us that Sauron is eternal; the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him. . . . Again and again we shall have good evidence that 'the wind is setting East, and the withering of all woods may be drawing near.' Every time we win we shall know that our victory is impermanent. If we insist on asking for the moral of the story, that is its moral: a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike, to that hard, yet not quite desparate, insight into man's unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived. It is here that the Norse affinity is strongest: hammer-strokes, but with compassion.

I suppose this might be where the "dethronement of power" comes in, but if so it's rather oblique.

More importantly: Does the text teach us this? Gandalf says in RotK, "If [the Ring] is destroyed, then [Sauron] will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again." I'm inclined to think that Lewis's theology is warping his view of the text, since his "moral" above strikes me as essentially theological.

This was of more interest to me as a snapshot of the critical landscape at the time than as a source of new insights.

[ more LotR re-read posts ]

Tags: books, lotr

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