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The Lord of the Rings: A Personal Reading, Part Three

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Return of the KingThis is the third of three posts on The Lord of the Rings, prompted by a recent re-reading of the book. You can find the first post, looking at Tolkien’s sense of character, here; the second post, about Tolkien’s use of landscape, is here. This week I’m going to write about structure, irony, and postmodernism.

Which means that I need to start with some definitions. I’ll get to what I mean by ‘postmodernism’ later. I want to start with ‘irony,’ a vexed word that means a number of things which aren’t really much like each other. The general description of irony I have in mind is ‘what happens when a text says the opposite of what is meant.’ On perhaps the simplest level, that’s sarcasm. But there are other ironies. ‘Dramatic irony,’ for example, is what happens when, without realising it, a character acts in a way opposite to his wishes, or unintentionally foreshadows some future event; the sort of thing that happens, for example, when an oracle gives a misleading answer to a question. Supposedly Croesus appealed to the Delphic oracle before leading his army against the Persians, and was told that if he went to war he would destroy a great empire — so he did, and the empire he destroyed was his own.

One thinks of Elrond warning Boromir, as when leaving Rivendell Boromir sounds a great blast on his horn, that “Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir, until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you.” Or perhaps the explicit irony in the devastating ending to Chapter VI of Book II, “Lothlórien:”

“Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,” he said, “and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!” And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.

Tess of the D'UrbervillesBut one may also refer to ‘cosmic irony.’ M.H. Abrams’ useful Glossary of Literary Terms defines cosmic irony as being “used in literary works in which God, or destiny, or the process of the universe, is represented as though deliberately manipulating events so as to lead the protagonist to false hopes, only to frustrate and mock them.” Abrams quotes Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (spoiler warning for Tess!) : “The President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.”

Tolkien uses this sort of irony constantly, but in the opposite manner than Hardy; in The Lord of the Rings characters are tempted to despair, only to eventually find that matters are not as hopeless as they had expected. “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” Gandalf says at the Council of Elrond. “We do not. It is wisdom to recognise necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.”

Frodo’s final failure at Mount Doom, only to have Gollum unintentionally complete the ring’s destruction, is an obvious example of this sort of irony, and one that’s foreshadowed quite heavily, starting with Gandalf’s observation in Book I that Gollum survives only out of Bilbo’s pity (and it is pity, Frodo’s pity and Sam’s as well, that keeps Gollum alive and puts him in position to play his part in the climax). But you can find the same thing in many parts of the book: “Time flows on to a spring of little hope,” says Aragorn, but in the end it’s a spring that sees the defeat of Sauron. Gollum fuses dramatic and cosmic irony when he swears “on the Precious” to help Frodo; without knowing it, he’s swearing on the Ring to help destroy the Ring: “Sméagol will swear never, never to let Him have it. Never! Sméagol will save it.”

I think that Tolkien’s use of irony, or what Tom Shippey (in his excellent J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century) calls ‘anti-irony,’ is, like much of his writing, more complex than is often acknowledged. I note that Abrams observes in the Glossary that:

Sometimes the use of irony by Pope and other masters is very complex; the meaning and evaluations may be subtly qualified rather than simply reversed, and the clues to the ironic counter-meaning under the surface statement may be indirect and unobtrusive. That is why recourse to irony by an author carries an implicit compliment to the intelligence of readers, who are invited to associate themselves with the author and the knowing minority who are not taken in by the ostensible meaning. That is also why many ironists are misinterpreted and sometimes (like Defoe and Swift) get into serious trouble with the obtuse authorities. Following the intricate and shifting maneuvers of great ironists like Plato, Swift, Austen, or Henry James is an ultimate test in skill in reading between the lines.

Alexander PopeWhile I don’t think Tolkien’s irony is used in quite the same way as the writers Abrams mentions — his writing is as distinctive in this way as it is in others — I do think it has the kind of complexity Abrams describes. Where I think it’s different (at least to the extent that Abrams accurately characterises the use of irony in the writers he mentions) is that I don’t see that Tolkien invites readers to associate themselves with him or with any “knowing minority.” Instead I think Tolkien uses his irony without comment, and you might notice it or not; the story is there, at any rate, only the meaning and weight of it may be seen to change — just as any myth may vary with any reading and the applicability a different reader will find in it.

I gave an example of what I’m talking about in the first essay, when I described the complex irony by which Denethor, in trying to commit suicide at least in part over the collapse of his family line due to decisions he had made, ended up uniting Faramir and Eowyn, thus ensuring that his line would in fact continue. You can find another example here, in which a group discussion of Tolkien uncovered a complex irony in Gimli’s gift from Galadriel (run a search on that page for ‘Gimli’). That irony, like much of Tolkien’s irony, must have been intended for the author’s satisfaction alone; at the time, the mass of legendry that the image refers to hadn’t been published. It wasn’t something meant for any knowing minority of readers. It’s simply there, part of the story.

Milton's SatanConversely, Sauron’s efforts to regain the Ring, and his own inability to imagine anyone doing anything with it but seeking power, lead to its destruction. “Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the enemy!” says Gandalf at the Council of Elrond. “For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it.” And so it proves; because Sauron imagines Aragorn will take the Ring and try to destroy him, Frodo and Sam can infiltrate Mordor. One almost imagines Sauron, like Milton’s Satan, as a fatally flawed tragic hero, great in power but with a blind spot that brings about his ruin.

I’ll come back to irony, and Tolkien’s use of same. For the moment I want to go back to another vexed word, ‘postmodern.’ It can mean many things. I’m going to put forward here a baggy set of definitions which at least will describe how I’m going to use the word in this post. ‘Traditional’ literature and art, in this context, is work based out of Western traditions from before the First World War. ‘Modernism’ is what followed the shock of the War; work that questioned the structures and assumptions of traditional art, using an array of new techniques. It was usually characterised by fragmented or polyphonic forms, a focus on the particular, and an extensive use of irony. ‘Postmodernism,’ or for the purposes of this discussion, ‘false postmodernism,’ came about after the Second World War, and represents an extension of the philosophies and techniques of modernism to question the idea of the work of art and of ‘meaning’ in general. What you might call ‘true postmodernism’ is work that takes modernism as one phase among many phases in the history of art, seeing it and its revolt against tradition as itself part of the history of art. This kind of postmodernism often revisits traditional forms, usually in a knowing but not necessarily ironic way.

It’s in that sense that I feel Tolkien’s work to be effectively postmodern, though I can’t imagine Tolkien himself using the term. But as I’ve said in the earlier posts in this series, the book seems to me to be a largely successful attempt to recreate the style and structure of early medieval literature, adapted by Tolkien’s own interests and concerns.

I think there are further aspects of the book which, let’s say, harmonise interestingly with other postmodern works. Postmodernism in one form or another is frequently concerned with the text’s status as a text, as a creation of language. Abrams again, writing about what I’ve called “false” postmodernism: “In recent developments in linguistic and literary theory, there is an effort to subvert the foundations of language itself, so as to show that its seeming meaningfulness dissipates, for an unillusioned inquirer, into a play of unresolvable though conflicting indeterminacies.” Tolkien, a “true” postmodernist, was doing the opposite of this; he was generating languages of his own, and then interrogating them to develop myth and story.

LaviniaBut a postmodern text may also be both aware of its status as a text (a metafiction), and as a text that is related to other texts (intertextuality). Look at something like A.S. Byatt’s Possession, for example; a book about books, about the relationship of two Victorian poets as uncovered by contemporary researchers, with texts written by those poets interspersed within the main body of the work — which Byatt specifically identifies as a “Romance” rather than a novel; which is to say that she’s concerned with form. Look at the way Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Lavinia, has her title character meet the shade of Vergil, the Roman epic poet who will write about her (briefly) in The Aeneid — and then has Vergil get confused about whether a trip through the underworld happens in his poem, or is something that will happen to him, thus reminding us that Vergil himself is also a character in yet another great text.

Just like Byatt’s romance, Tolkien’s romance is inset with poetry. Byatt’s re-creating the later gothic tale; Tolkien’s re-creating Egil’s Saga, a story that includes several pieces of verse written by the title character. You can look at Egil’s Saga, and The Lord of the Rings, as anthologies of a sort — just as many of Egil’s famous poems only survived by their inclusion in the saga, so the poems of hobbits and elves have ‘survived’ by being included in The Lord of the Rings.

So The Lord of the Rings contains many texts within itself. It can be viewed as an anthology in another way, too. I noted that Denethor’s story comes to us only in glimpses, enough so that we can reconstruct it and what it would look like if it were written as a tale in itself. You can say the same about a lot of characters. Arwen’s another obvious example, whose story exists in an appendix to the book proper. But most of the characters seem to have stories of their own, and have wandered into The Lord of the Rings because, like the stories of the Trojan War or of Camelot, it’s the sort of tale that’s so big it pulls in unrelated tales and makes them a part of itself. A better example, given Tolkien’s preferences, would be Beowulf or the Nibelungenlied, which include mentions of characters who turn up in other sagas; as in The Lord of the Rings, knowledge of the whole corpus creates a sense of a continuity, of interlinked stories, which cannot be wholly reconstructed because not enough matter has survived. Unlike Troy, or Camelot, or Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings is not a traditional saga; it’s a conscious literary creation that in some way mimics the earlier stories.

BeowulfBut to return to the idea of ‘intextuality:’ the word was, as I understand it, meant originally to refer to the ways in which a reading of a text is shaped by the experience of other texts, either by direct reference or by being part of a genre or tradition. Tolkien positions his fiction, though, in relation to other fictional texts (as Byatt does); that is, as being generated by a fictional text, The Red Book of Westmarch, and as having a shape determined by other fictions within the fictional world: “Then through all the years that followed [the forging of the Ring, Elrond] traced the Ring; but since that history is elsewhere recounted, even as Elrond set it down in his books of lore, it is not here recalled.”

So Tolkien’s text is also aware of its own status as a text. As I’ve noted, Tolkien tells us in a prologue that The Lord of the Rings, along with The Hobbit, is a translation from a text called The Red Book of Westmarch. He goes into some detail about the history of the book, and how the translation’s been corrected by consultation with variant copies. As the book unfolds, we have mentions now and again of Bilbo’s diary, which he took with him to Rivendell; we have Bilbo urging Frodo to write out all his adventures for him when they’re done; and at the end we have Frodo giving the Red Book to Sam, so that the story becomes a metatextual orouboros, describing its own creation.

(Here’s a question. We’re told in the last chapter of the book that Frodo gives Sam what becomes the Red Book, and “it was divided into chapters, but Chapter 80 was unfinished, and after that were some blank leaves.” Frodo then tells Sam “the last pages are for you.” Now, if you add up all the chapters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you get … 81. So where did the extra chapter come from? It’s possible, I suppose, that Sam tied up chapter 80 and then wrote chapter 81, “The Grey Havens,” in which he is given the book. My girlfriend’s theory, which I prefer, is that Sam went back and interpolated the last chapter of Book IV, which begins with Frodo paralysed by Shelob and ends with him being taken by Orcs. That chapter’s entirely about Sam, and, as I mentioned in the first post, tells us what he feels in a way that’s unusual for the book. Which would mean that Sam isn’t just treated as a novelistic character, but actually writes himself that way. It’s also, incidentally, the chapter that follows right after Frodo imagines a future child reading the story and saying “I want to hear more about Sam, dad.”)

The TengwarWhat are the effects of using the frame of The Red Book? To begin with, it allows the text itself to be called into question; in some of his letters Tolkien explains an ‘inaccuracy’ in the transcription of Elvish as the result of an error on the part of Frodo. The names of the characters, we find, are not what we thought they were. The physical text is not what we thought, being written in a different alphabet.

I think there’s an implicit irony in this kind of metafiction. But Tolkien uses that irony in his characteristic understated anti-ironic way. So Merry knows something about the Ring not only because he’s spied on Bilbo, but also because he’s read his diary, and this leads him into the conspiracy to help Frodo; which is to say that Merry becomes involved in the story of The Lord of the Rings in part because he’s read the text that becomes The Lord of the Rings.

The History of the Kings of BritainThe metafiction also gives the book a provenance, a source text. That resonates in an interesting way with medieval texts and medieval thinking; the middle ages was a time of appealing to authority, when something was more true because it was written down in a book. Some medieval writers may in fact have made up the existence of a previous book to give their own texts more authority; it’s presumed that’s the case for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, for example.

And, as well, the device of The Red Book of Westmarch, as I noted last week, establishes the text as a creation of hobbits. I suggested then that this accounted for the presence of landscape in the book. I wonder if it also could also be seen to account for the absence many readers are struck by; the absence of sexuality.

(In honesty, I should note that I self-identify as asexual. So I’ve never had a problem with the lack of sexual emotion in the story; but many readers, even readers who like the book, have noted it. A.S. Byatt, for example, singled out the lack of sexuality as “restful.” I suspect the absence of sex in the book is the main reason it’s still sometimes considered a children’s book. I also suspect that from Tolkien’s perspective the lack of sex and near-absence of romance derives mainly from the fact that he’s emulating stories written before courtly love was developed and romance became a major theme in fiction. At any rate, I can’t help but read the story from a perspective shaped by who I am, and it may be worth noting that before going on to the next couple of paragraphs.)

Hobbits aren’t human beings, though they’re created in the same general way — presumably from Tolkien’s perspective one would say that they’re fallen creatures in a fallen world. But there are obvious psychological differences. They don’t kill each other the way human beings do, and they don’t seem to need external authority as humans do. We know that they’re made of different material from humans; quite aside from, say, Merry and Pippin putting their capture by orcs in Book III behind them with surprising speed, the ability of Frodo and Bilbo to resist the pull of the Ring is literally what sets the story in motion.

South ParkI don’t think it’s possible to consistently view the Ring as a symbol of sexuality (though it has to be said South Park got a fine episode out of it). Certainly as a mythic symbol, different meanings can be read into the Ring in many different ways at different times, but I don’t see how it could coherently be viewed as a sexual symbol throughout the whole book. If you were to say, for example, that Boromir’s attempt to seize the Ring was an attempted rape, I don’t see how you can extend that reading to Frodo putting the Ring on to get away from him, leading to a spiritual struggle against Sauron in which Frodo’s aided by the disembodied voice of Gandalf. The Ring’s tendency to move from owner to owner seems difficult to parse in this sense as well.

It is true that the further we get from Tolkien’s society, and from the society which he knew as a young man and may have coloured the book, the easier it becomes to read some of the relations of the hobbits — especially Frodo and Sam — as having a sexual undercurrent. Personally, I don’t see this reading as materially deepening the texture of the book, or providing a greater understanding of Tolkien’s themes or of his characters. This may well be my bias, and I’d be interested to see somebody arguing the value of finding sexual undercurrents in the book. But I do find it gently ironic that Tolkien’s hobbits are farmers, creatures with “a close friendship with the earth,” but have no part of the sexual dimension of traditional fertility spirits.

But there is a more interesting absence of sexuality, if you like, in the story. This is a book supposedly written by Frodo, who was at one point wholly taken over by the evil of the Ring; he ought to know better than anyone, then, what that evil was. And indeed in the story evil is fairly consistent. It acts through causing betrayal, dissension and distrust among those of good will, and above in inspiring the desire for power. Not, however, in sexual desire. For (what seems like) one of the few times in the history of Western Literature, evil is in no way sexualised.

Merry, Pippin, and the OrcsI want to switch here from talking about hobbits and the Red Book to talking about evil; and I think in talking about evil in The Lord of the Rings I think one has to return to irony. There’s a parodic element to evil in Tolkien; it is uncreative: “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs: it only ruined them and twisted them.” So you can look at the orcs that capture Merry and Pippin as an extended parody of the Fellowship of the Ring: they’re heading north not south, they’re manipulated by Saruman and not led by Gandalf, they only think they have the ring instead of actually escorting it, they’re riven with conflict instead of being a united band, the dissolution is marked by an attack from the Rohirrim instead of orcs, and Grishnákh is deliberately tricked by the mention of the ring where Boromir is tempted into attempting to take it.

You could say that evil even parodies itself, or makes creatures that choose evil into parodies. Saruman fancies himself a rival of Sauron, being of the same class of being. But he’s no match for Sauron, and much as he tries to turn Orthanc into a copy of Barad-dûr, he only creates a kind of scale copy. He ends at the hands of his own imitation, Wormtongue, who has an echo of Saruman’s own ability to charm hearers with his voice. It’s “the very last stroke” of the war, and is a sad, pathetic thing.

But true evil, or the true definition of evil, is the will to power (as Tolkien observed in a letter to a potential publisher). If the Ring is consistently a symbol of anything, it’s that. The Ring tempts people by suggesting that their fantasies of power will become real. Those who have no desire for power, like Tom Bombadil or Faramir, are not affected by it. And if those the Ring corrupts desire power, and the Ring itself symbolises the will to power, then the Ring is an image of desire for itself; an appropriately circular image.

Discussing the nature of power in the book, one must discuss the images of kingship, which have troubled many democratically-minded readers. I’m not sure why. I think the image of kingship is inherently magical; in describing Rohan and Gondor Tolkien’s not putting forward a serious suggestion of how society should be organised, any more than he is in describing the bucolic anarchism of the Shire.

The Return of the KingIn fact, the book is better read as an anarchist parable than as a call for monarchy. Evil, the Ring, is defined as the will to power; and the characters struggling against Sauron explicitly state that they’re not trying to set up a replacement, or increase their own power — it is in fact perhaps the bitterest irony of the book that the destruction of the One Ring will lead to the destruction of the Three Elven Rings, and the ending of some of the great wonders that the Fellowship encounter. Gandalf observes in Book III that Sauron “is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind.”

The best characters are most likely to shun power. Faramir wants to restore Minas Anor “again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves.” For Sam, when pressed by the Ring, “the one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

Now when it comes to describing the good kings, Tolkien associates them with magical or near-magical powers. As I pointed out last week, Théoden is renewed by his bond with his land. Aragorn, the Dúnedan, has magical healing powers, commands the spirits of the dead, and lives to the age of 210. What they have in common besides kingship is a lack of desire for kingship. Aragorn’s perfectly content to live as a Ranger in the North until the War of the Ring is about to break out; it’s only that threat that calls him back to lead his people. Théoden, on the other hand, comes back to life only to lead his people in a desperate war he doesn’t particularly expect to win. In other words, they’re not looking to kingship as a chance to exercise power; indeed the thought of power doesn’t seem to enter their considerations. It seems to me that for them it’s not that ‘great power comes with great responsibility,’ so much as ‘great power is annihilated by great responsibility.’

The Healing of EowynThere’s a fine essay here that talks about Tolkien’s use of the image of the good king, how it’s associated with the healing of the land, and how the roots of his notion of kingship can be traced back to Aristotle. I think that Tolkien’s image of kingship also derives from medieval literature. I think his kings are deliberately idealised, and I think the metaphysical powers they exercise are symbols of that idealisation. To me, then, what Tolkien’s saying is: if you can find a man who is so wise, good, and just as to be recognised by the land, and who can heal with a touch, then you will have somebody who probably ought to be king. Barring that, I don’t see him as saying much about kingship. It is probably fair to say that, in good medieval fashion, Tolkien’s using the image of kings to represent a sense of natural hierarchy in the world. But it seems to me this hierarchy is more to do with faith than political systems, and certainly than power. This is the irony of kingship: that their apparent power is lost among their responsibilities.

(It may be worth pointing out here that the identification of power with evil isn’t limited to political power. Mechanisation and indeed even often magical power are both treated as either sinister or dangerous, if not outright tainted. As something taboo, in the fullest sense of the word. David Brin had an essay a little while ago about fantasy and science fiction which I thought was wrong on very many fronts; possibly the wrongest part of his piece was his suggestion that the inability to mass-produce Palantírs and create a magical internet represented a failing — of imagination or morality — on the part of Gandalf and Aragorn. In fact, as the book makes clear, the Palantírs are dangerous. They open a user up to domination by more powerful forces. Magics natural to a given people, Elves or Maiar, are potentially good; but to seek to extend one’s ability to dominate the world is evil, and will lead one to a bad end.)

It may seem odd that a book steeped in the early middle ages, using medieval symbols and medieval structural elements, should become so popular and cherished in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But in fact it would be a mistake to think that the medieval aspects of the book distance it from readers. Those structural elements were used in the middle ages because they work; then and now. It’s a very different experience from the stories that have come along since, because it consciously tries to avoid many of the developments of Western prose from the past five hundred years (at least). It reads as very new, because it avoids some of the artifices that we accept as natural. Perhaps that is in fact why children and the young have always responded to the book; because they don’t have the preconceptions about story and story structure that their elders have come too often to assume.

Shelob versus SamAt any rate, my point was that in The Lord of the Rings good kings do not have to do with power; power is associated with evil, and evil is ironic, a mockery, not creative. Thinks Sam after Shelob attacks, when the orcs come to take Frodo: “I wonder if any song will ever mention it: How Samwise fell in the high Pass and made a wall of bodies around his master. No, no song. Of course not, for the Ring’ll be found, and there’ll be no more songs.” Songs are opposed by and to evil. Songs are only sung by the free peoples of Middle Earth, not by orcs; they are emotion passing into memory, a sign of meaning, of creation and sub-creation.

Now at this point it’s worth returning to the idea of The Red Book of Westmarch. The Red Book starts to seem not only like a record of the defeat of Sauron, but an emblem of that defeat; it contains, is a record of, songs. But what I want to establish is that it also is the mechanism which embodies the book’s greatest anti-irony.

Sam’s fear about the end of songs looks back to a discussion he’d had about stories with Frodo a little while before (a discussion which itself comes not long after the Ring almost overrode Frodo’s will and forced him to put it on while he watched “as if he looked on some old story far away”). It’s a long back-and-forth in which Sam talks about the difference between reading a story and being actually in the middle of one; you could call it an ironic reflection on fictions, or another nod towards metafiction. But mainly what he and Frodo talk about is endings. You can look at it as an acknowledgement that both characters have accepted that their story will likely come to an end in Mordor. But it’s also a way for them to look to a future beyond their own end.

Sam mentions that Beren wasn’t expecting to succeed in wresting the Silmaril from the Iron Crown, and then realises that the light of the Silmaril is in the phial Galadriel gave to Frodo. “Why, to think of it,” he says, “we’re in the same tale still. It’s going on.” They are still within the story, still within the song sung by Aragorn back in Book I. Sam in fact soon finds he’s within his own story; after Shelob attacks Frodo, he realises he’s living the scene he saw in the Mirror of Galadriel. “You know well enough now,” Gandalf reminds Bilbo at the Council of Elrond, “that starting is too great a claim for any, and that only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero.”

The story plays about with perspectives on story. With where a story begins, and how it ends. In Book II Éomer is startled to encounter the heir of Elendil asking about halflings; “Do we walk in legends or in the green earth in the daylight?” he wonders. His answer:

“A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

Sam wonders in conversation with Frodo whether their tale would ever be told as a proper story. After the Ring is destroyed in Book VI, he wonders this again, and says “I wish I could hear it told!” as well as “I wonder how it will go on after our part.” As it turns out, he gets to hear the song he dreams of. He does not get to find out how it goes on after his part. But you and I know; we are what comes next.

Beren and LuthienWhat the device of The Red Book establishes is that Sam’s story is part of our own. It’s history, in an Age of the world we no longer remember, except in the form of a tale. Implicitly, though, that tale is our own. We’re caught up in it just as Sam is caught up in Beren’s. The great heroism of the War of the Ring results in us, our everyday world.

“I have seen three ages in the West of the world,” says Elrond, “and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.” The Lord of the Rings is a heroic tale, but is nevertheless fully conscious of fruitless victories. Was the War of the Ring one such? The great triumph over Sauron left us free, left the new Age for Men to make as they wished. And what they made, what we made, is what we see all around us.

That can be viewed as tragic and ironic. Or it can be viewed as the reverse of ironic; an ennobling of our own realities, a reminder that we each have some connection to the great tales of the past. We are still in that story. It never really ended. The Red Book of Westmarch has made it to our time. It has affected us. The text includes our reality.

The replacement of Lórien and Rivendell by our mundane world is tragic; but the ability to tell the tale of those days past ironises the tragedy. As we tell the tale, as we sing the songs, they return to us. And for us it is just as it was for Sam Gamgee, when he and all the men of Gondor first heard the lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

8 Comments »

  1. Absolutely brilliant essay! Seriously, I dug this, it’s insightful as hell.

    I’ve been thinking about Tolkien and irony lately in the context of World War I – it seems to me that in a lot of ways Lord of the Rings is strongly influenced by that war, and it certainly shares many themes with the war literature that emerged out of it (I think especially in Frodo’s quest, as opposed to the paths of the other Hobbits or of Aragorn, Gimli, and Frodo). The striking difference between LotR and most of that literature, though, is irony. Most of those writing about WWI were deeply cynical about it in their writings, and an ironic mode of reflection was really the most common way of reacting to the war. War poets point out the terrible contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the carnage of war, between the vitality of youth and the grimness of death, and point out the absurdity which so often governed the conduct of the war. It became, I think, really hard to be sincere in responding to World War I. But Tolkien (despite dealing with a lot of similar themes) isn’t deeply ironic. He still wants to assert that there is some possibility of good. It’s really interesting to me that Tolkien seems responds to World War I in a mythological way, not in an ironic way. And it’s interesting also to look at where irony DOES take place.

    Thinking about this, in combination with the intertextuality and mythological character of the work and Tolkien’s opposition (which you point out) to mechanisation, organization, and the will to power – it’s really fascinating to think about Tolkien, perhaps, as attempting to use Northern and English folklore as part of a reaction to modernity and the Great War, as part of an attempt to reclaim that which has been lost. By going back to the Lord of the Rings, and heroism, and kingship, and magic, we can live in a world which is again comprehensible in which human life, beauty, song, heroism are possible. That’s certainly too far of a stretch, but it’s fascinating to think about Tolkien’s project in these terms. I would be curious to hear what you think about this, given what you say about the tragedy of the modern world. I’m not quite sure that I’d say that being able to tell the tale ironises it.

    Also, in passing, I think the best justification for the importance of homosexual themes in Lord of the Rings comes again from World War I – for the relationship between Frodo and Sam is strikingly reminiscent of the relationship between officers and enlisted men in that war. And these relationships were (or were frequently portrayed in literature as being) strongly homo-erotic… I don’t think it’s a matter of the first importance; you can read it either way. But I think it’s interesting to read the Frodo-Sam relationship as being that sort of English relationship, and I think it’s natural to go from there to reading it as sexual.

    Again, a really phenomenal, thought-provoking essay.

    Comment by Doug R - May 23, 2011 12:33 am

  2. Hmm. Tolkien is a little more severe than you: the only character in The Lord of the Rings who does not want power in his eyes is Tom Bombadil. Which is why the Ring has no power over him.

    What differentiates the good guys from the bad guys is that they both regard power as an instrumental good not an end in itself, and seek to use it toward good ends.

    Plus, it helps to have uninflated dreams. All Sam wants is his garden, which is one reason the Ring finds him indigestible; all it can do is present him the vision of a really big garden, which looks kinda silly.

    Comment by Mary - May 23, 2011 10:26 pm

  3. I haven’t read all this yet — my jaw is still swinging from the first five paragraphs. I’ll have to really delve into it when I’m at home and not work. Fabulous!

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - May 24, 2011 4:03 pm

  4. Thank you all for the comments!

    Doug, I think you’re right about Tolkien responding in a more mythic than ironic way to WWI. Actually, in a weird way, it reminds me a bit of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. To me, there’s a sense in that book that he was still trying to find the romantic, chivalric sort of war that seemed to have been promised — that had been the image of war his generation had grown up with.

    I think that Tolkien himself has spoken in his letters about his view of history as “a long defeat.” I don’t know realistically if he thought of his book as resurrecting an earlier world of song and magic, except perhaps for him personally. For me, though, at least on this last read-through, I think part of way the book works is a function of the way it plays about with irony, tragedy, and the implicit contrast of the Third Age and the modern world.

    I think you’ve got a really good point about the homoeroticism in depictions of British officers in WWI inflecting the book. And, as you say, it can be read either way.

    Mary: You’re right Tolkien was harsher than I was. I suspect I was thinking of Shippey’s book, where he mentions that most of the good characters (the Fellowship, minus Boromir but plus Faramir) show little to no interest in the Ring.

    I’m not sure about the good guys looking at power as a means to an end; it seems to me that Tolkien specifically rejects that approach, as both Gandalf and Galadriel reflect that they’d take the Ring out of a desire to do good — and bad things would happen as a result. So why then is the power they do have functionally good? My suspicion is that it’s because it’s natural for them, as kingship is natural for Aragorn.

    Galadriel has a line where she mentions that mortals call Elven wonders “magic,” then questions what that word can mean, if it can describe the works of both Elves and Sauron. To me that would seem to imply that the unnatural abilities Men and hobbits see are simply natural attributes of Elves, as, presumably, casting spells is a natural attribute of Wizards.

    And, yeah, uninflated dreams do help. That’s part of what makes the hobbits as a people so exceptional, I think; they’re very grounded, physically and emotionally.

    Claire: Yeah, I figured I should try and get the heavy stuff out of the way up front. I don’t know if it worked, but there it is; and hopefully it makes the rest of the post smoother, or at least more comprehensible. Hope you like the whole thing!

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - May 24, 2011 11:09 pm

  5. Delicious essay! The metafiction/intertextuality stuff is especially delightful, and your girlfriend’s theory on Sam’s chapter took off the top of my head. Thank you for that link to the discussion of Gimli’s gift from Galadriel. Indeed, if I’d been at that discussion, I’d have gasped, too.

    You might be interested in two of Tyellas’s critical essays here, “What Tolkien Officially Said About Elf Sex” and “Warm Beds Are Good: Sex and Libido in Tolkien’s Writing.”

    Comment by Sarah Avery - May 26, 2011 12:13 am

  6. Thanks, Sarah! (This is Matthew’s girlfriend.) I came up with that theory in high school, about fifteen years ago, and then promptly forgot about it until Matthew telling me about this post brought it to the front of my mind again. There seems to be all kinds of Tolkien-related detritus sloshing around in there.

    Loved the elf sex essay, by the way. This part made me laugh out loud: “The most ravishing elf ever, Lúthien, used enchantment to grow her hair extremely long. This may have been the elves’ erotic equivalent of being able to tie a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue.”

    Comment by Grace Seybold - May 27, 2011 5:45 pm

  7. […] not yet caught up to the artistically and socially radical techniques of Tolkien (as I wrote about here), while in many ways we’ve come closer to Peake; but the two writers don’t seem to me […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Centenary of Mervyn Peake - July 4, 2011 12:03 am

  8. […] and cosmic and dramatic irony (see Matthew David Surridge’s fine piece on this element here on Black Gate for examples of the latter.) It represents the work of a writer with full command of myth-making […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Is The Lord of the Rings Literature? - September 29, 2011 11:16 pm


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