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15058Re: [mythsoc] Tolkien on Film: critique (long)

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  • Sara Ciborski
    May 28, 2005
      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Croft, Janet B.
      To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
      Sent: Friday, May 27, 2005 5:43 PM
      Subject: RE: [mythsoc] Tolkien on Film: critique (long)

      What I find especially interesting is that a history professor recently
      told me he felt this was the best essay in the book! Maybe it depends
      on your perspective on the idea of Empire -- as someone who's very
      knowledgable about both Alexander the Great and Winston Churchill,
      perhaps his concept of "empire" is different. (Perhaps it's also
      because he DID like the movies.)

      Well, regardless of one's concept of "empire," Smyth's conclusions are untenable (and therefore the essay is not the best in the book) because he bases them on demonstrable misinterpretations, distortions and shifty parallels. For example, he says in his concluding paragraph, "In 1915, as Tolkien lost faith in history, he imagined a great age of imperialism, glorious fallen empires, and rising imperial threats." The content of T's early writings has little to do with imperialism and empires. The presence of the Elves on Middle-earth in the First Age was not an empire but a diaspora; their kingdoms and settlements were autonomous enclaves; there was no central government. The Second Age Numenoreans might possible qualify as imperialistic, but Tolkien didn't conceive and elaborate their history until much, much later than 1915, if I recall correctly from my reading of The History of Middle-Earth. In any case, he portrays it as falling into extreme decadence (i.e. his attitude toward it was not positive).

      Anyway, I don't think Smyth was totally off in seeing something of an
      ambivalent nostalgia for "empire" in Tolkien's work....

      I think that Tolkien's views on empire, whatever they may have been, cannot be deduced from a careful reading of The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. The nostalgia expressed by Elves in LotR is not for empire, but for the diminishing creative power of the three elven rings, for access to Valinor and the former closeness to the Valar (as spiritual sources of all that is good, true and beautiful), for the beauty and freshness of Middle-earth now besmirched by Sauron-wrought evils of various kinds, and so forth.

      ...the older history of Middle-earth, especially as seen in the Silmarillion (which Tolkien
      began writing while he was defending the British empire in the
      trenches), is full of great empires and their rise and fall, their
      inherent strengths and weaknesses.

      As said above, Tolkien's writings on the Second Age came later, not during WWI or its aftermath. The First Age tales...well Gondolin was a kind of small empire, but certainly not an imperialistic one. Likewise Doriath. Both Turgon and Thingol went to great lengths to avoid contact with other peoples. I just don't see how this history can be characterized as a projection of views about imperialism.

      I think Smyth's discussion of the theme of imperial ambivalence in
      British film is fascinating.

      I agree; I did find those parts interesting, though I am not sure I trust his scholarship, given his distortions and misreadings of Tolkien (and of Jackson).

      You talk about the "essence" of the story, but remember,
      Tolkien felt he was writing "feigned history," whatever the underlying
      spiritual themes might be, so we can't entirely discount the surface
      themes dealing with right government. I feel Aragorn can be an
      archetype, a historical figure, and a commentary on (real) historical
      kingship all at the same time -- a work as rich as The Lord of the Rings
      can be read on all these levels. On the other hand, I hate to see The
      Lord of the Rings reduced to a justification for a particular political
      view, though I think it can inform one's own political thinking.

      Yes, the reductionism is what I get incensed about. I am about two thirds through with Matthew Dickerson's wonderful book, "Following Gandalf," and his insights have some relevance to my main point and source of distress with Smyth's essay. LotR is about the power of moral rather than military victory. It speaks to questions of human freedom and creativity, death and loss, free will and responsibility, individual moral choice and moral courage, and the spiritual origins and capacities of the human being.

      In extracting from both book and film some bare facts (that battles are fought, evil overcome, empire ((not really)) established) Smyth obscures, not to say obliterates all this "speaking" of the book. Millions of people from different walks of life, conditions, classes, races, nationalities find this book speaks to them. It isn't and it cannot be because it offers views about western empire as a bulwark against evil.

      I don't mean to rant. It's wonderful to be able to expound one's views this way.

      Sara Ciborski

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