J.R.R. Tolkien: Why?

The much-anticipated movie treatment of The Fellowship of the Ring has caused a surge in both the availability and the popularity of JRR Tolkien’s work. Occasionally I would see odd sorts reading LOTR on the subway or in the park, and perhaps I would even exchange knowing glances with them.

That book is badass.

To which I would get a winked reply:

Hell yeah!

Now I’m catching ordinary men, women, and children from all walks of life reading Tolkien’s work just about everywhere, many to prepare for the cinematic event. Many of them likely have no prior exposure either to Tolkien or to the genre of “fantasy.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the corporate stiffs reading LOTR on the subway haven’t heard the word Beowulf since sixth grade English.

Thus the surge of visibility is usually met with frenetic excitement by fans and with shrugging and confusion by those who either don’t care for Tolkien or who simply don’t understand what the big fuss is all about.

For the fans: if you’ve done your homework, you can probably skip this thread entirely. I’ll see you on line in TWO WEEKS!

For those who want to see what the fuss is about, well, this thread is for you. I certainly don’t want to try to convince anyone to like LOTR, but I would like to try to communicate what I (and 150 million others who bought Tolkien’s books in the past 50 years) find so special.

My remarks are largely unoriginal. They are informed especially by four books: The Letters of JRR Tolkien, recently republished after years of being out of print; the biography of JRR Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter, The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, and Tolkien: Author of the Century, also by Tom Shippey. I cite especially Shippey throughout.

First, a brief disclosure about myself and my relationship to Tolkien and his works. I am something of a student of medieval literature, and I hope to be accepted as a PhD candidate this spring. This by no means makes me uniquely qualified to discuss his works. I mention it only to demonstrate the depth that JRRT has influenced my academic interests, the way I spend my time, and the career I desperately hope for. I first became interested in medieval literature after reading LOTR when I was a kid, and I haven’t let go since.

Please read this essay before deciding whether I am a geek or a scholar. :smiley:

A Brief Bio

Tolkien’s life defies biography, largely because most of it was so “boring.” He lived at home, taught his classes, remained faithful to his wife, and lived like a celebrity in no way whatsoever. When he was made the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon in 1925, his “exciting” life rather ended.

He was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, of English parents, who moved when he was a child to the area around Birmingham. His father died when he was four, and at 12, his mother converted to Roman Catholicism. Tolkien remained devout for his entire life. At 16 he met his future wife, but was forbidded by the family priest to see her until he was 21. On the eve of his 21st birthday, he wrote her a letter proposing marriage. They were married while he was studying at Oxford.

But upon graduation he enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers and went to war. He saw his two best friends die on the Somme, where he fought from July to October 1916, and only escaped the war due to a nearly mortal case of trench fever.

After he recovered, he worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, received a Readership and then a Chair at Leeds, and finally assumed the Chair at Oxford in 1925. He worked, wrote, and remained a devout Catholic until his death in 1975, two years after his wife.

It is not his outer life but his inner life that so fascinates.

His Job

Tolkien was a philologist: someone who studies the historical and dialectical forms of a language and related languages while working within literary texts. In his letter of application to the Oxford Chair, he argues cogently that linguistic and literary study are inextricably linked.

Unfortunately, this was neither a popular academic view now nor was it in 1925.

His central field of study was Old and Middle English (roughly AD 700 - AD 1100, and AD 1100- AD 1500). His greatest academic accomplishments are in the field of Old English, particularly lyric and epic poetry.

There is really no doubt in the academic OE community that Tolkien is the greatest scholar of Old English who ever lived. His only published essay on the subject, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics surpassed all previous works on the poem, and single-handedly wrenched OE studies out of stagnation. It has yet to be equaled. Many scholars even mourn the fact that Tolkien was so interested in writing fiction that he failed to produce more scholarly works. I believe that this view is misguided. Tolkien also found the production of scholarly work quite dreary and boring, and I can’t say that I blame him.

Continued in Next Post…

[Edited by Ukulele Ike on 11-26-2001 at 10:16 AM]

If a mod could fix my code…:wink:

Tolkien and Language

Few concepts held JRRT so obsessed as language. His theories of language infuse nearly every aspect of LOTR. In a 1955 letter to his American publishers, Tolkien says:

Tolkien’s emphasis, not mine. (Letters, 219.)

Tolkien had some rather personal, often “heretical,” and always well-reasoned ideas about language. He believed that people have an instinctive ability to detect linguistic “strata” (to use Shippey’s phrase) without the relevant linguistic skills. For example, I grew up in an area whose place-names are largely dominated by old Dutch and American Indian words. Often the Indian words even have Dutch or English spellings. I don’t know two words of Dutch, and even less Iroquois. Yet I can always tell the origins of the place names with a fair amount of accuracy. Verplanck is Dutch, Taconic is Iroquois. But I couldn’t tell you why.

I agree with JRRT that people can feel “linguistic style” in words, and that this style evokes a tremendous range of thought and feeling. Tolkien used these evocations masterfully on LOTR, and it is this sensitivity to words that is the core of Tolkien’s genius.

The intellectual foundation for LOTR is Tolkien’s belief that comparative philology can take you back even farther than the ancient texts you study. He believed it is possible, as Shippey says, “to fel one’s way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which have long since vanished.” My emphasis.

LOTR is thus a masterful philological exercise. Tolkien sees the word alf in Old Norse, German, and Icelandic, and reaches back into our shared mythological tradition and drew forth a world of concepts that he believed actually existed. Sometimes he reconciled contradictions in the sources, sometimes he drew on modern experience, and sometimes he just made stuff up out of the blue, like hobbits.

Tolkien’s Literary Tradition

The 19th century saw the rise of nationalism in both politics and literature. Political upheaval in the northern world produced rapid militarization, rapid wars, citizen rioting, and magnificent literary production in Northern Europe. Artists of northern countries, whose languages were long subjugated by the international languages of Europe, like Latin and French, began to take an interest in their own linguistic and mythological pasts.

In the 1830s Elias Lonnrot produced the Kalevala, a compendium of Finnish myth, partly transmitted, partly interpolated, and partly made up.

Jakob And Wilhelm Grimm compiled a German grammar, a German dictionary, a German compendium of mythology, a German cycle of heroic legends, and of course a book of German fairy tales at the same time as Lonnrot worked.

Nikolai Gruntvig of Denmark assumed the role of the construction of the Danish national identity in literature, who paid particular attention to the saga and epic literature of the Middle Ages.

Iceland also reached back into its literary heritage and produced marvelous 19th century Romantic literature, which drew heavily from its mythic past.

England had no such production. English poetry of the 19th century looked back on a misrepresentation of the “gothic” which Tolkien likely hated and on the traditions and literature of Greece and Rome, which left Tolkien quite underwhelmed.

Tolkien, in effect, created the national myth of England, which he saw as culturaly closer to the north than to the south. He hoped to create a “body of more or less connected legend.” (Letters, 144)

But what he really did is reach deep into the shared cultural viscera of the West, tore it out, shaped it, and gave us one of the greatest cultural monuments of the 20th century.

Continued in Next Post…

Getting a leg up on your dissertation? :wink:

Uh, next time thru should I rad the poems/songs?

Maeg, you know I love you like a brother, but you’re knowingly omitting the … less savory … aspects of Tolkien’s life.

Much like Samuel Taylor Coleridge depended on a rather strong dose of opium to gain the inspiration for Kubla Khan, Tolkien was also into … shall we say … recreational chemicals.

I offer as one proof a cite from The Two Towers. Unfortunately I do not have my copy on hand, so I cannot give a page reference, but I am sure you can recognize the passage.

Tolkien was a stoner.

Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to excise some of the more blatant references to illegal narcotics. A passage from one of the Letters is as follows. Apparently it was meant to follow the passage from Two Towers referenced above:

I’m just saying we need to look at the ENTIRETY of Tolkien’s life, and not just the high points.
[sub]Please don’t hit me. Well, you can hit me for the ‘high points’ pun, if you want.[/sub]

Other Than the Culture Thing, What’s the Big Deal?

I appreciate your skepticism. So you don’t believe me when I say that LOTR embodies a thousand years of western vernacular tradition and shapes it in a way appropriate for our time.

I have two responses, I suppose.

The first would be to read Beowulf. Read it again. Then come back to me. :slight_smile:

You are right to think that the above is a jerkoff answer. And it’s probably the one you were expecting.

I believe that Tolkien’s work is so great that one does not have to spend years in the library in order to prepare for reading it. So the following is what someone who doesn’t give Grendel’s arm about literary history can sink his teeth into. My remarks in this category fall into two categories, technical and thematic. I’ll hit the technical stuff first.

Interlaced Narrative

In another thread someone contended that Tolkien’s narrative is “linear.” I would thus like to pay special attention to the sheer non-linearity of Tolkien’s divisions of time.

The idea of an “interlaced” narrative was not new to Tolkien, and he probably didn’t like it. It was imported into Old English studies from the study of medieval French prose romance. But JRRT was aware that the Icelandic word for a short story is a þáttr, or thread. Several of these threads make a saga. Gandalf says to Théoden, “There are children in your land who, out of the twisted threads of story, could pick the answer to your question.” (Thanks to Shippey for pointing this out).

JRRT twists together several threads of story and creates moments of extreme drama and pathos at their intersection. This entrelacement gives the feeling both of a large, sweeping reality in which all of the characters are battered individually by fate and harship. But when the threads come together at certain nodes, as it were, it reveals a masterful pattern.

I would cite Shippey once more as he points out one of the more brilliant strokes of interlacement. At the very end of Fellowship, Frodo struggles with the Ring atop Amon Hen. He hears a voice which cries out to him, “Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off!”

Some critics and most readers assume that it is the voice of Frodo’s conscience, perhaps echoing the wisdom of his betters. Perhaps he hears Gandalf’s voice in his mind’s ear.

But it really is Gandalf speaking, Gandalf whom everyone assumes is dead. In Towers book 5 Gandalf says, “I sat in a high place, and I strove with the Dark Tower; and the Shadow passed.”

The people he is speaking to have no idea what he is talking about, and nor do most readers. Until it dawns on some of them, usually much later, that the battle between Gandalf and the Tower took place in Frodo’s mind, for Gandalf was in captivity watching from the roof of Orthanc when the clash of wills atop Amon Hen took place.

Middle Earth is a confusing a bewildering place. The characters bumble around in the wilderness, making mistakes more often than acting correctly. Tolkien captures this frustration by switching threads of the story, often when readers least desire him to.

Come on, fans, the first time you read LOTR, how many of you read only the Aragorn chapters? Or only the Frodo chapters? When you were kids, was it easy to handle the abject frustration and misery of Middle Earth?

At any rate, Tolkien weaves the threads of the narrative in and out: a trail of orc troops discovered by some characters in passing is a pivotal event for others, the “old, bent man leaning on a staff” outside Fangorn, Legolas’ recollection in book 3 chapter 5 that he saw a great Eagle overhead in book 3 chapter 2 only to be explained much later by Gandalf.

Middle Earth is full of confusing details whose roles are only explained later, often much later in LOTR.

To my mind, there is nothing linear whatsoever about the Lord of the Rings.

Ordinarily I would discuss the finest moments of Tolkien’s prose, but I think that’s rife with too many problems of subjectivity and personal taste. So I would then turn to his “argument” or “ideology,” words which Tolkien himself likely hated.

To Be Continued in Next Post…

lno, that was absolutely brilliant. No joke. I should not be reading that stuff at work.

Dinsdale, I believe that the poems and the stories are necessary for my enjoyment of LOTR. Even the untranslated ones, which JRRT left untranslated on purpose, convey a unique sense of history, sadness for a lost past, and the value of culture in the words alone. If you can feel it, read 'em. If it’s not your bag, enjoy other things. :wink:


Um, I have enjoyed the books several times - without the benefit of this type of back story.

JRR must have been a genius if the wonderful story I’ve read and re-read (and thrilled when my 11-year old son read them last summer) can also inspire the type of psuedo-intellectual blathering you are in the process of spilling out here.

I have often thought that one thing that is so effective about TLotR is that it can be read and enjoyed on so many different levels. Personally, I enjoy it as a terribly engaging and well told story. You (apparently) believe it is best experienced as something else. In contrast, I believe it is less easy to enjoy a work like Ulysses as a light-hearted romp.

I wonder if such diverse avenues/layers of enjoyment/interpretation will be possible in the TLotR movies?

I believe there is nothing wrong with someone picking up the books, reading them, saying “What a neat story” and then enjoying the heck out of the film. Don’t believe your type of analysis would necessarily enhance the process for most folks.
Yeah, the poetry/song line was a bit of a joke. Poetry is generally not my bag. I’ve read them at some point. Now, when I re-read the books, I generally skim those parts. Was torture when I was reading the trilogy out loud to my kids (using voices, making up melodies, and all).

Just curious - how many posts do you anticipate your primary thesis requiring at this point?

In short, despite my ignorance, count me among the 150 million. (Probably more than once cause I bought more than one collections.) And I have read no book more often than these. But I think it is somewhat inaccurate for you to suggest that the type of analysis you are offering is in any way necessary to enjoy the works. In fact, I’ll suggest that your message might turn off as many folk as it convinces.

Of course, I didn’t care for the Silmarillion. (Was that an audible gasp of “heretic” I just heard?)

What’s that I see in the future? Why, it is a group of people dressed up like trolls, and hobbits, and all manner of fantasy-based creatures. They’re assembled at the local convention center for a screening of the out-takes of LOTR and a symposium on Tolkien’s use of feet as a metaphor for repressed sexuality among the Orcs.

Star Trek (and all the variants thereof), Star Wars, etc. etc. etc.

To quote William Shatner on Saturday Night Live:


I’m not sure why you feel you have to be so nasty, Dinsdale. I’m also not sure what you find to be “pseudo-intellectual blather.” Maybe you could point to specific examples. I mean, JRRT himself talked about all of this stuff and was pretty specific about the things that informed his work. So maybe you can tell me where I am going wrong.

You and me both. Did you read the part where I said that it wasn’t necessary to enjoyment of the books? Why are you so hostile?

Please do not presume to tell me how I enjoy something, as it is a little presumptuous. I certainly do enjoy it as a damned good, exciting, page-turning story. I wouldn’t have gotten so interested in it in the first place if it weren’t.

So what if I think it’s something more? There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy something. I am just filling in some of the detail that I think a lot of people will find interesting.

Look, I’l hold off on the rest until later. If there is common agreement that I am out of line and that Dinsdale speaks for the majority, I will spare you all my blather.

Perhaps you could show me where I indicated that I believe that. I did say that it might help people who don’t care for the books appreciate what some people find so special about them in addition to being a great story…which isn’t really relevent to people who don’t like the books.

Dinsdale, I know you are trying to peg me as some assholish, removed-from-the-masses academic. Fine, do as you will. I read what I want because I like it. Don’t disparrage me from enjoying it more with a little reflection and research, and don’t disparrage me from trying to share it with others of like mind. It’s a lousy thing to do.

Like I said, I’ll stop right now. What is keeping you reading it? Does it make you angry?

I said this exactly where? I specifically said in my first post that I do not wish to convince.

I dunno…you said it, not me.



I just wanted to post and say, I enjoyed reading the thread, maybe that makes me an assholish, removed-from-the-masses academic so be it :slight_smile:

I have read TLOTRs twice now, but not got as far as the Simerilian, some of what you are posting is new to me, some is not but it is interesting either way.

Keep on posting.


Sorry I misinterpreted these portions of your initial post as suggesting that “fans” of the books would have necessarily “done homework” along the lines of your posts/research/analysis.

Also suggesting that the reason you “communicate” for finding these books “so sprcial” is somehow necessarily shared by everyone who has bought the books over the past 50 years.

And, AFAIAC, “the fuss” about the books (and I suspect, the movie) does not necessarily have anything to do with the stuff you write here.

Finally, how is it presumptious for me to I express how your view “appears” to me?

Sorry I came off as hostile. I really found your posts amusing. I’m kinda new here myself, but I can’t remember anyone else starting a post quite in quite the manner as you are here. Kinda made me wonder what’s the point? Whatever it is, you seemed to be in no hurry to get there.

And no, I certainly don’t presume to speak for the majority. Would be quite surprised to find that I did.

Please don’t let me stop you while you are on a roll.

Dinsdale, I still think I am mistaking your tone. It still sounds rather on the sarcastic and hostile side.

I was actually being completely and utterly facetious. Liking books, to my mind, requires no further justification. I was also kinda banking on the irony that such great works as LOTR are virtually never taught in schools, hence the idea of “homework” is ludicrous.

You are probably not the only one who interpreted my remarks as an attempt to be authoritative. For that I certainly apologize.

Also true. Not shared by everyone, perhaps by some of them.


are a little on the patronizing side. I think you’re a good guy and all, but I don’t value your amusement so much that I would spend a lot of time posting some of the more important things in my life for you to use as fodder. You may not think much of what I like and what I do. Hell, neither does 99% of the rest of the world. But it would be great if you didn’t patronize it.

I’m not on a roll.

Thanks for the kind words, Gartog. Believe me, I appreciate them.

*Originally posted by Maeglin *
Did you read the part where I said that it wasn’t necessary to enjoyment of the books?


Musta missed it the first time through (and upon re-reading.) Thought you mighta hinted at it in your second (or was it the 2d) post. I personally would have preferred it a little more prominent and closer to the front for us non-intellekshuals, but hey, this is your rant/soapbox.)

To respond in your own words:

**Please do not presume to tell me how I enjoy something, as it is a little presumptuous. **

As far as the assholish part is concerned, tho I hope I wouldn’t use those words outside of the Pit,

I dunno…you said it, not me. :wink:

I say keep up the excellent work Maeglin. This is really interesting. This is what Cafe Society in specific and SDMB in general are all about.

I also have no idea why Dinsdale is taking such offense. Pipe down will ya? Those of us in the cheap seats can’t hear.

Damn, do I ever feel sheepish. Got any Guinness for me to wash down my foot? :wink:

Another vote for this topic’s continuation…and perhaps I’ll post a long, windy diatribe on Tolkien’s brilliant use of sequent occupation.

F*** that. Post away! :slight_smile:

Please accept my apologies for the tone of my prior posts.

I actually initially intended to present my view (which I did not fully discern from your posts) that such an intellectual examination was in no way necessary to enjoy these books. I also believe it is in some ways, um, counterproductive for Tolkein fans to speak as you do. What I’m getting at here is that such an approach will not necessarily convince “non-believers” to agree as to the depth of the work. Might even turn some folk off. And thereby prevent them from just enjoying the story.

And I may have been a little frustrated because I think these could both be decent bases for discussion. But your initial post was no long, I didn’t see how or where the discussion would begin.

Also, I was somewhat bemused by the lenghth, which was IME unprecedented for these boards.

But, please do not let my assholyness/assholishiness/assholishness stop you from your initial intentions. Like I said, if I indeed spoke for the majority here, it would be a first. Can’t recall it ever happening before other than when I was alone in a room.

Good luck, Maeglin. I actually enjoy reading about the sub-creation as much as the actual tales. I haven’t read Shippey yet, and I look forward to it. ananta úva táre fárea, ufárea!

If I may be permitted, that is.

Maeglin, do you know of any scholarly articles or analyses which explore the similarities between the story of Deagol and Smeagol and that of Cain and Abel?

I’m well aware that Tolkien employed mythical archetypes freely, but it’s interesting to me that this particulary story was lifted so obviously out of Genesis, instead of Celtic or Norse mythology.

In particular, the parallels as I see them are:

[li]The beginning of the story is set in the dim past, in a paradisical land which is more innocent than the present.[/li][li]Motivated by jealousy, one brother murders the other.[/li][li]The crime is punished by banishment.[/li][li]In each story, the offender carries a “mark,” which serves as protection. Surely Tolien was aware of the Judeo-Christian myth of Cain’s immortality. Although I have no support for this assertion, I feel as though Smeagol’s greatly extended lifespan and misery could be more than a coincidence.[/li][/ul]

I think we are all on the same page. Dinsdale is absolutely right that I evidently did not communicate what exactly I mean. So here are a few propositions. Said as plainly as possible. :wink: I guess they are justifications for my long-winded project here. That and an unwillingness to work in the office after an exhausting weekend.

Many fans, myself included, say:

Some people who have read LOTR say:

Some others who like LOTR and the fantasy genre say:

I think all of these are fair points of view taken by at least a fair number of people.

I would reply to each with my own propositions.

No, it is not necessary to examine LOTR with an academic magnifying glass. Some of us like to do it. Don’t let us interfere with your enjoyment.

If you don’t like the story or the writing, then that’s fine. To each his own. I do. I can’t simply shake people who don’t like LOTR and beat them over the head with, “it’s a great story! great writing! how could you NOT like it?”

That doesn’t really cut it. So I am trying here to explain a bit about it and why it’s great from an “intellectual” point of view, for lack of a better term. I can’t convice them to like the story, as I’m not about to argue over taste. But what I can do is outline why LOTR is so great whether you enjoy it or not. I detest Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. It’s still “great,” even if I think it sucks raw. [sub]…which I made the mistake of telling a girl I was considering asking out…ugh[/sub]

The same answer applies to the people who already like LOTR but don’t believe that anything significant separates it from the rest of the genre. To a certain extent they are correct: I believe that Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin have explored and mastered their art and continue to produce works of outstanding quality.

However, I believe that what separates Tolkien, Wolfe, Martin, perhaps Donaldson, and a handful of other real masters from the rest is the fact that their books stand up to academic and critical rigor, and that new insights can even be gained from the activity.

They all tell great stories and tell them damned well. That is the first and most important test. The ones that impress me most entertain, enlighten, and have depth that only reflection (not necessarily academic reflection, but any kind of real thought) brings out.

My point is that Tolkien bears up to real criticism. His works have guts. You may not like LOTR. You may not be interested in it. Hell, you may not even be impressed by the guts. I’m just trying to share my thoughts with people who don’t think that LOTR is such a great story so that perhaps they can appreciate it even if they don’t like it.

Does this sound fair?