by Matthew Walther and Edmund Waldstein
My dear Pater Edmund,
I have no illusions here about what I am undertaking. Attacking the legacy of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien on the website of a Catholic magazine is an act of supreme folly. Please pray for me.
It has been suggested by some friends that my real problem is not with Tolkien himself but with his admirers, who cannot accept that, so far from being a masterpiece comparable both in scope and achievement to The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost, The Lord of the Rings is simply what Chesterton called a “good bad book,” like She or the Star Wars Junior Jedi Knights series of blessed memory.
There is probably something to this. Tolkien’s style reminds me of Kahlil Gibran:
And in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of Ielool, the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist. Then the gates of his heart were flung open, and his joy flew far over the sea. And he closed his eyes and prayed in the silences of his soul.
But I would be lying if I said that Tolkien’s cardboard diction were my main objection. The truth is that I find his story absurd and lacking in moral force. Despite what some fans insist to the contrary, his debt to Wagner was enormous. The Ring cycle is the story of how an unjust order of things founded upon the renunciation of love for power is overturned by the renunciation of power for love. But unlike Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Frodo could never become lord of the ring (a phrase from Götterdämmerung, as you know); he is not sacrificing anything by giving it up. The plot would make more sense if Aragorn had thrown the cursed object into Mount Doom instead of this Fielding-esque Tory squire. A comic grotesque as the hero of an epic? Aristotle would be appalled.
My prayers you certainly have. But you will not be able to convince me that The Lord of the Rings is a “good bad book” or that Tolkien’s diction is “cardboard.” Certainly, Tolkien had his faults as a writer. He was painfully aware of those faults, and evokes his struggle with them movingly in Leaf by Niggle. It was difficult for him to work the products of his fertile imagination into a well-proportioned whole, with a consistent style. Certainly, The Lord of the Rings lacks the polished gold of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with its magnificently continuous sweep from beginning to end. But Tolkien also has perfections that Milton lacked. There is in Tolkien the quality that he points out in Beowulf: “the constant presence of a sense of many-storied antiquity, together with its natural accompaniment, stern and noble melancholy.” In comparison, poets such as Milton produce a “flatter, if more glittering, surface.” The evocation of a dark and many-layered past in Tolkien is partly an effect of his peculiar linguistic skills. Unlike Kahlil Gibran (to whom you so unfairly compare him) Tolkien was a poeta doctus with a deep understanding and love of language and etymology, and a real skill in using that understanding to evoke mysterious depths.
But the sense of dark antiquity in Tolkien also comes from his understanding of reality. Like Milton, Tolkien wrote about the struggle between angelic and demonic powers. But, unlike Milton, Tolkien does not foreground that struggle. He understands that this middle earth is a visible theater of the invisible war. The principalities and powers of the air are at work in the visible world: moving the stars in the heavens, raising the mountains, and stirring the sap of the trees. And Tolkien understood that the ancient Norse myths of the struggle with the giants and monsters told something really true about mankind constantly under attack from ancient evil. The key to understanding The Lord of the Rings is a lecture that Tolkien gave before his great work was written: “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” He argues there that the poet of Beowulf was a Christian looking back at the heathen past of his fathers, and seeing in it a deep significance: the struggle of “man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned.” To the poet of Beowulf the heathen stories “become more ancient and remote, and in a sense darker.” The monstrous enemies of mankind could be better understood in the light of Christ: “A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world. The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and became inevitably the enemies of the one God.” The Christian reinterpretation of the monsters in Beowulf is not entirely complete: “He was still dealing with the great temporal tragedy, and not yet writing an allegorical homily in verse. Grendel inhabits the visible world and eats the flesh and blood of men; he enters their houses by the doors. The dragon wields a physical fire, and covets gold not souls; he is slain with iron in his belly.” And yet this is what gives such imaginative force to the poem:
[Beowulf’s] author is still concerned primarily with man on earth, rehandling in a new perspective an ancient theme: that man, each man and all men, and all their works shall die. A theme no Christian need despise. Yet this theme plainly would not be so treated, but for the nearness of a pagan time. The shadow of its despair, if only as a mood, as an intense emotion of regret, is still there… The solution of that tragedy is not treated—it does not arise out of the material. We get in fact a poem from a pregnant moment of poise, looking back into the pit, by a man learned in old tales who was struggling, as it were, to get a general view of them all, perceiving their common tragedy of inevitable ruin, and yet feeling this more poetically because he was himself removed from the direct pressure of its despair.
In Tolkien’s own great work, by contrast, the solution to the tragedy of human life is treated. While the dominant mood of The Lord of the Rings is still sadness and regret (the passing of the elves, etc.), there is yet a counter theme of supernatural hope—hope in a power that totally transcends the visible and invisible worlds, and yet whose mysterious providence is at work in the smallest events. You are certainly right, Matthew, that Frodo lacks the sort of heroism that one finds in Siegfried, since he could never himself become the lord of the ring. But Frodo has another kind of heroism, that of the meek Christian saint. He is like the virgin martyrs of Rome, those little girls who conquered the implacable hate of the seven-headed Babylon, not by renouncing a power they could never have wielded, but rather by suffering the worst the pagan gods and emperors could inflict, while keeping their hearts fixed on a hope beyond hope.
Frodo is no epic hero, but then perhaps The Lord of the Rings is not exactly an epic. “Beowulf is not an epic,” Tolkien wrote. “No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit: there is no reason why they should. Though if we must have a term, we should choose rather ‘elegy.’ It is an heroic-elegiac poem.” He could have been writing about his own work.
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