Archive for tolkien

Symmetry and meaning in Lord of the Rings

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, The Generic with tags , , , , , on 25 July 2013 by Ben

Tom Shippey’s overall argument (in JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century)  involves explaining the consistency in Tolkien, against charges by CN Manlove for example (in Modern Fantasy and elsewhere). Manlove argues that Tolkien’s conception of evil is inconsistent, that the Ring does not affect everyone equally nor does it do what it is supposed to do (destroy Frodo’s mind, for example). Shippey notes that Tolkien began Fellowship with little sense of the overall story and that, as a result (he discovers after studying drafts of the text in The History of Middle Earth), often in the first book certain things are less than they come to be. For example, he notes that the Black Riders are not nearly so frightening, and that they do not appear powerful as they move through the Shire. Manlove also notes this inconsistency. (I thought this was partially explained by the fact that Sauron had not yet refound much power and that the Riders therefore were lacking at this point; however, it is strange that they did not use a bit more force as capturing the ring would have solved the problem of a lack of power.) In any case, Shippey notes this inconsistency and, while not exactly excusing it, makes clear that it might be a result of the writing process Tolkien went through.

However, in the overall argument Shippey seems to do too much to make everything in LotR explained and explainable. Whereas Manlove goes too far demanding explanations he thinks are impossible to find, Shippey goes too far I think in finding them. This is not to say that either is wrong. Manlove is operating under assumptions of “literature”, namely the realist novel. Shippey is operating from a position of deep knowledge  (that Manlove would not have had access to in 1976, even if he would have wanted it, which is unclear): that knowledge provided him by the publication of the History of Middle Earth and seemingly having know Tolkien. Shippey also “benefits” from his training in philology, and therefore his attention to the languages of Middle Earth. In both cases, however, the question of explanation is problematic if we want the text to do something other than what literature does.

For, it seems, that Manlove is content to exclude Tolkien from literature (and indeed most if not all fantasy, even if some, such as Peake, is better than others–he says Tolkien is the worst in Modern Fantasy). And, it seems, Shippey desires to place Tolkien in an expanded field of literature, one not guarded by critics such as Manlove, but one dedicated to the complexity of the individual work and the voice of public opinion. But, again, to do more the work of fantasy cannot rest on the commonplace, cannot be for or against literature, but must be other than it, must refute the Generic not directly, as in historical conflict, but by existing either beyond its horizon or by escaping (forever escaping, never escaped) over that horizon even as the world turns and meridians pass under our feet and thereby we include ever more within the known.

Attebery on Tolkien, or Lord of the Rings as the returning king

Posted in The Generic with tags , , , , , , , on 28 June 2013 by Ben

Brian Attebery, in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, writes: “J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, compared to others, is an achievement of such magnitude and assurance that it seems to reshape all definitions of fantasy to fit itself. Indeed, no important work of fantasy written After [sic] Tolkien is free of his influence, and many are merely halting imitations of his style and substance.” Later, in a chapter entitled “After Tolkien,” Attebery continues this line of thought, stating how the publication of LotR

changed the position of fantasy in this country. Even before it became a bestseller and the object of a cult, Tolkien’s story was noted by critics sympathetic to the genre as the workd they had been waiting for, the first extensive exploration of the possibilities of modern fantasy. It seemed on the one hand to sum up the whole Western tradition of the marvelous, with its echoes of Homer, Dantae, and Wagner and its outright borrowings from the Kalevala, the Scandinavian Eddas, Beowulf, the Mabinogion, George MacDonald, and William Morris. On the other hand, the trilogy was an integrated story with a perception and a point of view that many readers found appropriate to the contemporary world: that is, it was not only a culminating work but also a seminal one, a challenge to the reader to go out and create something equally grand and equally magical.

Attebury writes here without irony and without any apparent thought with regard to the way that the reception of Tolkien in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) mirrors the very conventions of the quest fantasy that Lord of the Rings more established singlehandedly. That is,insanely enough, the reception of LotR, as a sort of prophecied chosen one, fits with the quest narrative that it establishes: the “return” of the king who promises a new reign of justice and peace (but who cannot, perhaps given the merely generic nature of what follows [looking at you Terry Brooks], of course, live forever and sets the stage for the disappointment that is his offspring). I don’t mean to fault Attebery here, as he is working on a much different issue than what I am thinking about. I just find it interesting.

Fall 13 Course: Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 March 2013 by Ben

This description for this class is nearly identical (with some minor edits) to the description for my spring 2012 class on fantasy. However, that course was called “Fantasy after Tolkien” and this one is “Fantasy beyond Tolkien.” The last one did focus a good deal on reconceptualizations of the genre, but also dealt with generic fantasy. Thus it dealt with the “after” in the double sense of “appearing later” and “following from.” This class more or less exclusively deals with fantasy literature that departs from Tolkien in significant ways, whether its Peake’s world largely (entirely?) un-influenced by Tolkien, Le Guin’s non-epic, Delaney’s deconstruction, or Mieville’s explicit critique of the Tolkien-esque quest. M. John Harrison too.

I would have loved to include any number of other texts here, including a Terry Pratchett novel, Anderson’s The Broken Sword, some of Howard’s Conan stories, more Moorcock, some Fritz Leiber, Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and Gaiman’s Sandman. The problem with fantasy literature, especially Clarke here: so fucking long. Which novel of a trilogy to teach? Can you teach just part of a novel? Given that much of this reading is easy (with the very notable exception of Peake, and Delaney, and maybe Harrison), can I ask students to read more on a per class basis?

I guess we will see.

ENGL 3060-012 & -016: Modern and Contemporary Literature

Fantasy Beyond Tolkien

Fantasy literature offers something of a contradiction. On one hand, it is a thoroughly contemporary genre. Yes, the fantastic has a longer history than that provided by the twentieth century, but it was the twentieth century that gave the world fantastic as fantasy, magic that no one believed in, monsters that only existed in the imagination. On the other hand, fantasy implicitly and explicitly continues to allude to moments in the past when our understandings of the world were not quite set by science and rationality. The conflict endemic to a great deal of fantasy literature is that of modernity: the passing away of the supernatural and its replacement by the mundane. Think of Tolkein’s elves leaving Middle Earth or Lewis’ children who grow up and can no longer find Narnia.

Considered in this context, fantasy literature offers up a number of avenues of investigation. What happens to the fantastic in the face of the rational? Why is the fantastic so often portrayed according to the tropes of realism? How do various representations of the fantastic allow us to rethink the history of modernity in the United States and the West? This class will read fantasy literature produced in the wake of and against Tolkien as an evolving set of genre conventions and as a literature committed to experimental considerations of nature and history.


Reading List

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Samuel R. Delaney: Neveryona

M. John Harrison: Viriconium

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea

China Miéville: The Scar

Michael Moorcock: “The Dreaming City”

Mervyn Peake: Gormanghast

JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (excerpts); The Silmarillion (excerpts)