Another critical article for the Lord of the Rings re-read: I very nearly stopped reading Jenny Turner's article "Reasons for Liking Tolkien," available from the London Review of Books, when I realized that it was written by someone who did not, actually, like Tolkien's fiction. However, I perserved since I'd already gone to the trouble of printing the thing out.
Here is a list of some of the things you learn about when you read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: LA punk, Jacobean revenge tragedy, early computers, radical politics of the 1960s, the Pony Express. Out your mind darts, searching the world for information. In it comes again, digging back with its goodies into the text. Here are some of the things you learn about while reading The Lord of the Rings: hobbit-lore, the two branches of Elvish, the annals of the Númenórean kings. Spot the difference? That’s right: the second lot is entirely fictional, and doesn’t involve even the shortest trip from your chair. The lore is self-referential, centripetal, an occult system. As astrology is to physics or conspiracy theory to history, so Middle Earth is to literature and learning. It’s a closed space, finite and self-supporting, fixated on its own nostalgia, quietly running down.
There's simply nothing to be said to this. Either you think secondary-world fantasy is a valid art form, or you don't.
Turner does make a couple of secondary points that I can react to, however. First, she offers a reader-reaction that interests me because it is foreign to my own:
In Tolkien’s fiction, one trick in particular is used over and over again. Suddenly, eerily, the world inside the book and the world outside seem momentarily, like planets aligning, to slide together and form a magical new whole. One of these instants comes early in The Hobbit, when it is said that Bullroarer Took invented the game of golf when he knocked a goblin’s head down a hole. There is another in The Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits sing a song that seems to be an earlier, fuller version of the nursery rhyme ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’. When I was young, these moments disconcerted and delighted me beyond expression. I really did believe that the world inside the book had taken over the world outside.
For whatever reason, the conceit that Middle-earth is an earlier stage of our world never grabbed me, and the moments Turner cites thus did nothing for me (and, perhaps relatedly, I don't find them as common as she does). I'm curious how other people reacted to these or to the general conceit.
Turner also points out what Le Guin called rhythmic pattern, but (unsurprisingly) characterizes it less favorably: "To read The Lord of the Rings is to find oneself gently rocked between bleakness and luxury, the sublime and the cosy. Scary, safe again. Scary, safe again. Scary, safe again." She then goes on to argue that even the scary moments aren't, really: "There are some terrible images . . . . But there is very little actual fighting, injury or dying. The horror, the suffering, is done in still-life."
While this also strikes me as mostly a matter of tastes varying, it does remind me that I should particularly examine the book's portrayal of the darker elements when I get to them, and see how it matches my memories of those elements.
Turner also reiterates what Shippey pointed out, that "The real War of the Ring" is "a struggle with despair." She goes on, though, to use this as a critique of LotR's politics:
Depressed people report feelings of powerlessness to be an index of their condition; and just look at how power is distributed on Middle Earth. Aragorn has it, Gandalf has it, Galadriel has it, because of what they are (a king, a wizard, an elf-queen) rather than what they do. . . .
In a politics like this, hobbits are in a subordinate position, always slightly left out. They don’t have any special powers or dispensations, unless they can cadge some from the big guys. . . . In the end, hobbits are small and weak and furry-footed, and Tolkien has given tallness and strength and glinting grey eyes far too much weight in his world for this not to count.
The politics of The Lord of the Rings, in short, comprises a familiar mixture of infatuation with power with an awareness of one’s own helplessness beside it. One’s best hope, really, is to suck up to the big people, in the hope they will see you all right. It’s the perennial fantasy of the powerless. Things would indeed be hopeless were it not for your secret friend the Big Bad Elf-Queen, who will come along when you finally call for her and wreak revenge for you on all the nasty kids at school.
Putting aside Turner's tone as best I can, there are two things I want to say about this. One is simply that calling the hobbits' relationships to other characters "sucking up to the big people" is a vastly different reading of the book than mine, and I have my doubts that it's textually supportable as a matter of the characters' motivations, rather than a subtextual structural argument. (As for the sources of power, it's true that genetics is extremely powerful in Middle-earth; I think virtuous choice is also another source of power, but perhaps not the same kind that Turner is pointing to. That's something else I'd already wanted to look at.)
The other is that the comment is a jumping-off point to reference Lois McMaster Bujold and Jo Walton's recent discussions about SFF and political agency. Bujold argues that
if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. . . . But now that I've noticed the politics in SF, they seem to be everywhere, like packs of little yapping dogs trying to savage your ankles. Not universally, thank heavens -- there are wonderful lyrical books such as The Last Unicorn or other idiosyncratic tales that escape the trend. But certainly in the majority of books, to give the characters significance in the readers' eyes means to give them political actions, with "military" read here as a sub-set of political.
One of the things that reliably distinguishes [SF] from other genres is that in SF the world is a character. In fiction generally, characters have to change during the story. In SF, therefore, if the world is a character, the world has to change. Many of the ways of changing the world are political. If you’re having a story where the world changes, usually your central characters are going to be involved in that in some way. Rather than your characters needing to have political agency to engage the reader, the world is a character and as such needs to change and your story will be engaged with that change—whatever is happening to the other characters. This neatly brings The Last Unicorn back into the fold without it needing to be an exception.
SF is the literature of changing the world.
I can see arguments for putting LotR in either category, based on my memory, and will be interested to see how I experience the re-read with these considerations in mind.