January 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien

Born on this day in 1892.


And allow me to take this blatant blegging opportunity to refer readers to my "Tolkien Geek" site. Enjoy.

Yips! from Robbo: How timely. I just polished off the LOTR cycle again for the umpteenth time. And after all these years it suddenly dawned on me: I think I read Tolkien much more figuratively and much less literally than many other people.

Perhaps it is because I grew up under the influence of Mom, who dismisses all fantasy and scifi lit as "little green men" books, but whenever I do read such stuff (which, aside from Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, is virtually never), I try to horn as much of it into a "real world" frame of reference as I can. So, for example, when Tolkien writes of one character's s eyes flashing or of another's suddenly seeming to grow larger or smaller, or (to give a specific example) of Theoden suddenly seeming to grow younger under the counseling of Gandalf, I read it in the same sense as I would read such a passage as written by a non-fantasy novelist such as (say) Dickens, Trollope or Conrad. I don't look for an actual flash of light or change in size or reverse aging process. This is not to say that I don't accept the larger fantasy elements - the power of the various Rings, for example, or the parallel spirit world inhabited to one extent or another by the different folk of Middle Earth - just that where there is what one might call a Real World explanation, I go for it first.

Perhaps I'm blinkered in my approach. Perhaps Tolkien meant all of these things to be taken quite literally. I dunno. But there it is. Doesn't mean I don't enjoy the books.

Happy Birthday anyway!

Posted by Gary at January 3, 2008 09:24 AM | TrackBack

Well, I think Tolkien presents it as a "feigned history", in many respects, but I think it is in keeping with the medieval spirit and worldview. If you read something like the Golden Legend, which was widely read in the Middle Ages, and its world is in many respects closer to Tolkien's than ours -- nevertheless, people in the Middle Ages took it quite seriously. When St. George slays a dragon, he slays a dragon -- and the dragon is understood to be both real and spiritual -- a physical dragon, and a demonic being. The medieval reader assumed the reality of both; where we assume the reality of neither.

We might go so far as to say it was something like a Komodo Dragon, and therefore buy half the story, but are in no way inclined to accept the demon.

I think we have been conditioned to look always for the physical explanation first because science seems so triumphant. But I think when we become purely reductionist, and look only to physical explanations, we lose a lot of other things along the way. I worry about the spiritual baby we might be throwing out with the physical bathwater.

Not that I think you're doing that, Robbo -- I think you're right to read Tolkien with an eye to the material realities first, and I think he does a good job of keeping the physical world in front of us first, without resorting to Deus Ex Machina, or too much tortured reasoning. Unlike some other (cough) J.K. Rowling (cough) authors I could name.

Posted by: The Abbot at January 3, 2008 10:49 AM