Tolkien in One Dimension

J.R.R. Tolkien at HomeI don’t yet have a blog at Tolkien Studies on the Web (Dixie) but this would not be an appropriate entry for it anyway.  (Update: We now have a blog for Tolkien Studies on the Web.)

I just finished reading an interesting blog entry titled To Survive, We Must Kill Our Father: The Wretchedness of Tolkien. Tolkien lovers should not read this blog with any hope of persuading the writer to change his mind. I say that because he is very right about one thing: Tolkien’s heroes tend to be one-dimensional. They have to be so, or else the quality of the heroic epic fails.

Fantasy writers today, while emulating Tolkien stereotypes in every way possible, try to depart from Tolkien’s path by creating flawed, angst-ridden characters. Frodo may have been a self-sacrificing monologuer, but he was not riddled with angst, self-doubt, or pretentious teenage flaws stemming back to his father-hating childhood.

There is no child abuse in Tolkien. There is almost no sexual abuse in Tolkien (and people debate what exactly the nature of the torment that Elrond’s wife suffered at the hands of the Orcs may have been, but I feel confident it was intended to be sexual). Tolkien’s characters don’t come with any of the corny flaws that permeate modern fantasy fiction.

And TheFerrett is right about another thing: many die-hard Tolkien fans do not know Tolkien’s work very well. Most people gloss through portions of the book that they don’t find to be very interesting. After 300 reads of The Lord of the Rings, I was still finding details I hadn’t noticed before. Just how riveting can a story be if you have to read it 300 times to realize that Tolkien described over a dozen types of flowers in one scene where characters pass through a landscape the reader never sees again?

I nitpick many so-called Tolkien experts to death because they miss the gravest details with ease. It’s a mistake everyone makes, it’s a flaw we all share. Tolkien in his deepest depths is not well-suited to the average reader.

So why do millions of people enjoy reading The Lord of the Rings over and over again? I think, in part, it’s because the book is so overwhelming that the human mind simply cannot encompass it all at once. People who are into sensual experience more than intellectual experience may be turned off by the length and detail. Sensual people can be every bit as intelligent and intellectual as non-sensual people, so it’s not that Tolkien appeals to an elitist snobbish subset of society. Rather, it’s that Tolkien appeals more to people who feel with their imaginations than to people who feel with their senses.

There is a balance we all strike in our self-contained worlds, and some people feel more with their thoughts than with their actions, and some people think more with their actions than with their thoughts. Both types of people lead society forward in different ways. One cannot be both a thinker and a doer of equal capacity. One develops a tendency to favor one capacity over the other.

The level of balance we achieve for ourselves affects our likes and dislikes a great deal. Hence, there are people who dote on the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings more than on, say, the high-falutin’ courtly language. Frankly, I couldn’t stand to read Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor for many years. I forced myself to do it but I think it’s one of the most boring passages in the book, perhaps in modern fiction.

Nonetheless, I probably know that section of the story as well as anyone now if only because of all the arguments I’ve had over tedious little details such as the Ring’s speaking on Mount Doom (there are still people who unreasonably argue that it must be Frodo speaking — so all my arguing may be for nought, and I’ve paid my penance by rereading some very boring prose).

Why is the prose boring? Because it’s an endless gluttony of suffering. Quite frankly, I don’t like suffering prose. You can have it. Me, I like the uplifting stuff, and there is nothing uplifting about the journey through Mordor, not even when Sam looks up into the sky and sees the star of Earendil and starts talking about how he and Frodo are in the same story that began thousands of years before. It’s an extremely depressing storyline and it has no real happy conclusion. I would not want to be in Frodo’s shoes for anything in the world.

People don’t have to like Tolkien. He doesn’t expect everyone to enjoy the kinds of stories he writes. Tolkien noted that he didn’t necessarily enjoy the drivel his detractors praised. It cuts both ways.

But regardless of how boring or exciting people may feel Tolkien is, one fact inarguably stands out from all the rest: he moves people to express their thoughts. He inspires some sort of feeling in his audience. TheFerret has been affected by the Ring and he may not like the fact that he has been affected, but he has to live with it. He cannot erase that chapter of his life.

That is the power of Art. Art moves the audience.

Anyone can write a fantasy novel. Many people have. Most fantasy stories never generate the kind of drama that Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Harry Potter, and even Jordan’s endless Wheel of Time books have drawn. That is why Terry Pratchett will forever be knocking Tolkien and claiming to be the better writer — because people don’t dwell on the Discworld books the way they dwell on Tolkien, Rowling, and Jordan.

It doesn’t matter who finds the works boring. What matters is that they find them worth commenting on, one way or another.

So Tolkien wins. In fact, we all win. Otherwise, what a boring society we would have, if we didn’t have something to disagree over. We need Yin and Yang, up and down, right and wrong. We don’t need to know that Frodo’s favorite food was sausage-on-a-stick, or that he might have had sexual fantasies about some Hobbit-girl who broke his heart. Leave that drivel for the lesser writers, the ones whose books we don’t argue over.