Tolkien as a Horror Writer
There are scary bits, undoubtedly. Did Tolkien have any coherent horror aesthetic?
Christopher Cervasco, Jeanne Cavelos (m), Douglas Anderson, Ysabeau Wilce, Nicholas Ozment
This got delayed and delayed, so it's very uncertain in spots.
Cavelos: editor, writer, director of writing workshop.
Wilce: "occasionally been horrified by Tolkien's prose style, not sure if that counts".
Cevasco: writer, fan [missed details].
Ozment: Master's thesis on the Inklings, about the aesthetics of Tolkien & Lewis; has an essay in Tolkien and Shakespeare about ethics of magic.
Anderson: did The Annotated Hobbit; an anthology, Tales Before Tolkien; and is co-editor of Tolkien Studies, a yearly collection of critical studies.
Cavelos: starts by reading from "Shelob's Lair" in The Two Towers:
Drawing a deep breath they passed inside. In a few steps they were in utter and impenetrable dark. Not since the lightless passages of Moria had Frodo or Sam known such darkness, and if possible here it was deeper and denser. There, there were airs moving, and echoes, and a sense of space. Here the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.
Asked the panel to start with the top few moments, scenes, characters in Tolkien's work that are the most horrific (in sense of eliciting of horror):
Wilce: Barrow-wight is at the top of her list: not just the underground-ness, but the dead king and cold face—it's the vampiric aspect of human face of horror that gets her more than tentacles or spider. So also the Nazgul and the Mouth of Sauron.
Cervasco: that's also what came to mind first. It seems to permeate most of Tolkien's writing, the idea of losing one's self to temptation and baser instincts: there are so many characters that happens to or who struggle with it, supernatural or otherwise (e.g., Turin with outlaws). [This was a duh/lightbulb moment for me.]
Ozment: when he was young, his first exposure was through Rankin & Bass, so it was the monsters: Gollum, Nazgul, the Orcs as rotoscoped Nazis with ape-faces. When he was older and reading, it was the reality of war, the versimilitude of first-hand experience. Example: Orc armies catapulting heads. [Not sure versimilitude is really the right word, there.]
Anderson: very difficult question because don't really agree with idea of Tolkien as a horror writer or think that the horror aesthetic is a good way to approach. But in a more general sense, the most horrific aspect is . . . the Rankin-Bass Hobbit! In a literary aesthetic sense, in terms of atmosphere: Moria is the only thing that invokes horror as a literary aspect, rather than as a thriller.
Cavelos: on theme, plot: do any common horror ones appear? asks Cevasco about loss of self.
Cevasco: you do see that in more conventional horror too. [Doesn't go into which.] In Tolkien, even in victory, there's lost innocence (hobbits return to Shire).
Cavelos: to Ozment: WWI parallel about irreversible change and loss. Horror stories are often tragedies because evil is defeated, but at a major loss; so how is the ending of LotR compared to tragic horror endings?
[I noted here: Cavelos is working hard, but everyone seems pretty sleepy.]
Ozment: Frodo is "clearly suffering from PTSD".
Cavelos: it's a horrific realization, that everything you loved is lost; long example from The Shining.
Wilce: it wouldn't really be horror if everything turned out okay in the end! Often, there's a supernatural element that humans can't rise above or change—but don't lessen the impact of what's gone before, because that gives it the epic nature, not just personal tragedy (which is something horror does well).
Cevasco: there's corruption of the natural world, as well: see Lovecraft for instance, which is all over LotR.
Ozment: reads passage about coming to Mordor, noting that can be read as ecological or trenches:
Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.
Cavelos: one prominent theme in horror is temptation, starting with Dracula & going forward; what about this?
Wilce: it's a big Judeo-Christian thing [is it really Judeo-?], so there's lots of literature based on that; but when you want to bring in horror with a human element and motivation, temptation is the thing to bring in (unlike with tentacles, which don't need motivation).
Ozment: Anderson pointed out that horror is a very broad term, and they've been talking about different types now: psychological, folkloric ghost tales. The closest to supernatural horror is Moria. Frederick Durbin: an Arkham House author who cites Tolkien & Lovecraft as influences, once challenged on it: hey, horrible things sleeping in Earth's deep places that ought not be disturbed. "What is the Watcher in the Water if not one of the Great Old Ones?"
Cavelos: leads into next question: things invading our world, from another plane or time; the Ring, the Watcher, the Balrog, the Nazgul: does Tolkien develop this in the same or different ways?
Cevasco: fundamentally agrees with Anderson, that Tolkien was not at heart a horror writer, his goals are fantasy worldbuilding ones, putting things in because there are such things in a world, rather than for particular horrific effect; though the effect on readers may be the same.
Anderson: what about the whole idea of what is a horror writer? In 1930s, was there such a thing? The meaning today is kind of loaded when applied retrospectively.
Cavelos: absolutely. One major difference: the power of good. In Tolkien, it's a palpable presence or force as powerful as evil. Often in horror, even religiously oriented horror, it's not as strong & palable. [That's something Stephen King does do, maybe why he has a big audience?]
Ozment: thinks it's key that the camera of the books, as it were, is always centered on the good guys. Evil sometimes intrudes, but mostly off-stage (compare book, movie portrayal of Balrog battle), which was something Moorcock criticized Tolkien for. King would take us to a face-to-face confrontation with Sauron. [Yeah, and he would be a big unsatisfying spider.]
Anderson: Tolkien's portrayal of evil and good is all part of his personal fantasy aesthetic; see "On Fairy Stories". As a devout Catholic, he saw (writing?) as a sub-creation, the light of God refracted through his pen. He was also writing about our real world with an imaginative pre-history; it's a very unusual thing to put an invented world into the historical past and leave the connecting points misty in certain ways (see the Man in the Moon song); it's a whole complex ethos, and if you single out dark or light treatment, you're missing the bigger picture.
Cevasco: in some ways good versus evil is more a fantasy trope than horror; in horror, it's often more that an evil menance needs to feed or is just so other that humans are the irrelevant bug on windshield.
Gene Wolfe from audience: horror is basically evil versus innocence, rather than versus good.
Cavelos: yes, she's thinking of The Exorcist, where even with the priest character, we never feel the power of God or a powerful force for good; it's about good people struggling to survive.
Cavelos: one more panel question: Tolkien's concept of evil? Much has been written about external & internal [lost a noun here] in Tolkien: Morgoth, Sauron, the Ring, and also desire for power etc. within characters; thoughts about psychological aspects, philosophy of evil?
Ozment: there are internal struggles but with clear, strong outward influences: not allegorical or metaphorical, Tolkien really believed that this was going on today. Gandalf as an archangel to give support to "human" characters to do the right thing. As a Roman Catholic, it's not that good & evil are equal, but that it is a real battle with real stakes.
Anderson: Tolkien wrestled with a very medieval concern about free will & destiny. Another way of looking at it: the complexity of Gandalf is not to force the course of events, but to encourage & point people in the right direction if possible. Frodo's failure brings up the other core question when talking about LotR: what is the power of the Ring? Why is it so horrible that Sauron might get it?
[a pause, of the "huh, what?" type]
Cavelos: . . . the power to dominiate all Middle Earth and control everything?
Cevasco: the power to indulge all temptations & one's baser side.
Anderson: that's the use, but what's the power?
Cevasco: a tool for indulging?
Wilce: "It's a literary device."
Anderson: [I'm not sure now whether this is about the Ring specifically or LotR generally] coercion, the will of one dominating over another's. Tolkien hated factories etc., man's will to dominate, changing world & people: at core this is what might generally fall into rubric of horror: losing independent will completely, which is a horrific thought.
Ozment: and the ability to dominate also corrupts good intentions. See Gandalf's comments about what would happen if he took the Ring.
Audience member #1: going back to horror = evil versus innocence: one can make argument that Sam's the most classically heroic character in LotR. So if looked at this way, it does become more of a horror story: an ordinary life, then things go to Hell and have to deal with it; innocence facing evil. Not a tragic character in the way that Frodo is.
Anderson: yes, can see that, but except for one or two places, Sam is not a POV character.
Audience member #1: necessary?
Anderson: labels lead to boxes, in which almost all literature is ill-fitting.
Cavelos: it does seem like the worst thing Sam could imagine is Frodo's experience.
Audience member #2: horror as crucible through which characters can redeem themselves? Frodo, Aragorn, Theoden? [Me: what does Frodo do to redeem himself?]
Cavelos: [something I missed]
Cevasco: it's frightening that there are plenty of characters who don't come out the other side: Denethor, literally.
Ozment: when confronted with horror, how do you respond? Hold your principles, get dragged down, be driven insane? In that sense, is a crucible.
Audience member #3: what's most horrifying is the theme of decay & corruption: Dead Marshes, Moria, Shelob's Lair, Barrow-Wight: everything horrifying is on that theme.
[I was waiting for someone to say: the inexorable descent of the entire world!]
Anderson: Tolkien gave a long interview to the BBC in the 1960s. When asked about the overall theme: "Death. The inevitablity of death." Quotes Tennyson about the old order changing and yielding to the new: decay is vital to the idea of a cycle.
Cevasco: there are very sad reminders of the stakes, of the greatness of the past that has gone away. Refers to 2005 WFC (Madison) panel on ruins in fantasy.
Cavelos: some of the examples are natural decay, some are by Sauron. Goes back to inordinate desire for power and knowledge; cf. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Lovecraft (?).
Ozment: genre-bending: aren't orcs mutants, magically engineered?
Audience member #1: we don't see LotR the way Tolken wanted it to be, within the whole compass of his work; there it's much more of a religious text.
Anderson: absolutely, see "On Fairy Stories"—a very palable tension between what he wants to say and doesn't. (something about) supernatural discussion, pagan beliefs. And now we can put it in context with the posthumous works: the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth [going by phonetic notes and Googling], an Elf-lord & human wisewoman's debate on the nature of souls. But yes, there's a gulf between Tolkien's Catholic orthodoxy and his manuverings & creations.
Audience member #4: comes back to Tolkien as a medieval historian: the debate in poetry and the monsters are very much like. Fight evil to maintain/restore world, then put modern war realism over the structure of medieval war epics.
Anderson: yes, Tolkien was very steeped in medieval thinking; Anglo-Saxons, elves part of the natural world [I'm not sure what this means now]
And then they ran out of time.