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17124Re: [mythsoc] Anyone want to read and / or comment on my new 7 page intro to MA thesis on T?

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  • Walter Padgett
    Oct 30 4:52 PM
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      OK. Here goes.

      Section 1 – Introduction
      The present inquiry into the relations of myth and ideology, and the
      relevance of the set of concepts arising from such an inquiry to the
      significance of J. R. R. Tolkien's scholarly and literary oeuvre
      originated in the very infancy of my own intellectual birth.
      Tolkien's first popular work of literature, The Hobbit, was required
      reading in my twelfth-grade high school English class. Our classroom
      viewing of the animated movie adaptation, which was first released in
      1978 and which employed the entrancing voice of John Huston as
      Gandalf, was a remarkable event. As post-adolescents about to
      graduate from the security of high school life and embark on a journey
      into the world of responsibility, the idea of spending two days of our
      college-prep English class watching a cartoon surely seemed a bit
      juvenile to us. But, as I remember, a silence uncharacteristic of
      self-absorbed seventeen-year-olds permeated as the rapt attention we
      gave to Tolkien's story unfolding on the screen folded us together in
      a synchronously meaningful experience. Perhaps the journey of the
      hobbit-hero questing out of his comfortable home into a wide and
      dangerous world provided a metaphor for our own sense of adventure,
      whether we desired adventure or not.
      I cannot speak for all of the members of that class, still less for
      all readers of Tolkien's works or viewers of the movies his literary
      works have inspired and generated, but a review of the cultural
      response to those works readily bears witness to the emergence of an
      intensely inspirational experience for readers of them, on many
      levels, the scholarly and academic no less than the popular. By the
      time I first participated in those classroom discussions of The
      Hobbit, my fascination with Tolkien's novels had already been well
      cultivated. Like many other true Tolkien aficionados, I began reading
      and re-reading The Lord of the Rings on a regular basis, annually,
      usually around Christmas.
      I loved it. It meant everything to me. As a specific example, I
      think my growing acquaintance with Tolkien began teaching me what it
      means to heroically face human weakness as a domestically comfortable
      yet quietly desperate modern by relating the soul-transforming
      experience of Frodo's sacrifice and struggle to surrender the
      all-empowering ring to destruction. Perhaps more importantly, Tolkien
      communicated his sensibilities about the nature of friendship and
      truly selfless service in the example of Sam's loving relationship to
      Frodo, his master.
      It was not without much hesitancy and circumspection that I undertook
      the task of reading The Silmarillion, Tolkien's background history of
      the imaginary world he created as a setting for the events that occur
      in his most popular books. Since The Silmarillion is full of
      unfamiliar names and words from the languages Tolkien invented, its
      difficulty usually alienates all but the most passionate enthusiasts
      of his writing. But I read The Silmarillion over and over again until
      I became completely familiar with it, and I continued to regularly
      re-read it into my late thirties.
      By the time I became an undergraduate at Denison University, I had
      related just about all of the value-orienting experiences in my life
      to some aspect of the lessons Tolkien teaches us– lessons about what
      it means to be a small and rather unimportant human being in a big
      wide world full of greatness. Studying Philosophy there in the
      undergraduate mode was, for me, an identity-building process of
      developing a personal philosophy. I became at first most interested
      in answers to the fundamental questions posed by the French
      existentialists, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The ensuing
      rigorous critical examination of my own beliefs about the existence of
      God turned to the most basic identifications of what is, ontologically
      speaking, and what is not.
      Introducing in his Myth of Sisyphyus "the philosophy of the absurd,
      which is named after the general notion aroused by man's confrontation
      with the 'inhuman', and which holds that our lives are meaningless and
      have no values other than those we create," Camus asks, "given such a
      futile world, what is the alternative to suicide?" (Camus wiki). If
      this question, as Camus argues, must be the intellectual's very first
      philosophical question, his or her answer to this question amounts to
      nothing less than that individual's expression of the meaning of life.
      Yet how could one encapsulate in a single answer to this question all
      the ideas, values and sensibilities which come into play in the
      determination of an ever-changing and dynamic worldview? Intellectual
      growth can be painful, and intellectual identity often emerges only
      after the conflict of resolving the contradictions within which one
      lives has ceased. It is within this context that the influence of
      Tolkien's writings can be viewed as significant to the central
      concerns of this paper. For my ideas about these values and
      sensibilities were deeply influenced by my reading of The Lord of the
      Rings, and the depth of my ontological perspective on the personal
      importance of every human experience began to grow as I became more
      familiar with the larger historical context of the events chronicled
      in The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien provided in The Silmarillion.
      Deducing here, one might conclude that the very capacity, in my case,
      for what the poet William Blake considered the all-important
      experience of imaginative sympathy became realized through the efforts
      of Tolkien's myth-making.
      In the preparation of my culminating research paper during my last
      year as an undergraduate at Denison, I found that ideology subjects
      the individual to an illusory system of ideas that determine a
      fundamental framework for understanding reality, and that these
      systems of ideas arise out of the conditions determined by
      historically competing interests in a society's economy and culture.
      Academically, I had used the theoretical propositions of thinkers like
      Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault, to formulate an
      explanation of how the human individual understands and responds to
      the reality of the human condition– economic man struggling to justify
      his self-image within seamless webs of power. But I had not really
      left much room for the human in my explanation of this concept of
      reality because I had ignored the rather potent personal influence a
      writer, or perhaps even the structure of a work of literature, can
      have on the development and affirmation of individual values.
      As a post-graduate, I wanted to explore how Tolkien's The Silmarillion
      informed my sense of values. Somehow, whenever the question of values
      rose up in my burgeoning intellect I always referenced in a general
      way my recollections of Tolkien's world, as if my moral sensibilities
      about right and wrong somehow resided there. I have sought to explain
      this experience according to a conception of ideology, thinking that
      Tolkien's myth somehow "interpellated" a set of ideas in my mind which
      were used to structure my sense of reality. In this context, my
      concern about how ideology determines our values and goals eventually
      merged with a growing realization that most of my existential values,
      as well as many of my own philosophical and theological sensibilities,
      could be traced to the influence of Tolkien's literary works. What
      makes this inquiry worthwhile is the fact that I am not alone. The
      cultural phenomenon manifesting around Tolkien's works has been
      well-documented in both scholarly and popular discourse.
      Thinking of Tolkien's influence on the development of values that give
      life meaning for the culture of his readers makes more sense after a
      brief consideration of the function of myth. In Myth and Meaning,
      Myth and Order, Stephen Ausband states that "Myths are tales which
      demonstrate the order that a man or a society perceives in natural
      phenomena. It is the role of mythology to make the world coherent and
      meaningful by demonstrating or imposing order on it" (Ausband 2).
      I do not mean to argue that my total sense of reality is made coherent
      and meaningful because Tolkien's mythology has imposed a sense of
      order upon my mental perceptions of the world. I have never felt that
      I was "programmed" by Tolkien. But it is my contention that because
      of my deep interest in and knowledge of Tolkien's literary creations,
      my perceptions of the world have somehow been infused with a peculiar
      sensibility which relates directly to what I have learned from my
      reading of Tolkien's writings, regardless of his authorial intentions.
      There is nothing too astonishing in this observation. "[L]iterature
      necessarily posits values," Daphne Patai explains clearly in Myth and
      Ideology in Brazilian Fiction, "of which the writer may or may not be
      explicitly aware," and like her "I wanted to discover what these are
      and how they are communicated to the reader" (Patai 1).
      I can say, for example, (and really mean it) that my personal sense of
      identity is profoundly informed by an ontological understanding of
      man's relation to God, others and the outside world which derives from
      Tolkien's theological and philosophical sensibilities, laid out in his
      cosmology at the beginning of The Silmarillion. And when you are
      talking about literature positing values, that is really something
      My thesis is that Tolkien's writings perpetuate mythological themes
      that impose order, both in terms of the communication of moral or
      ethical values to their reader, and also in terms of giving meaning to
      the complex natural and psychological phenomena made sensible by those
      mythological themes, structuring the ideological mindset of his
      readers in a collective way, resulting in the existence of a common
      understanding and worldview among participants in the cultural
      phenomenon connected to Tolkien's works.
      Since this claim rests on a set of concepts that emerge from the
      present inquiry into the relations of myth and ideology, these terms
      need to be critically analyzed and assessed. Many of the concepts
      with which this thesis is concerned have arisen in the "formal" study
      of literature throughout the last century, "wherein scholars try to
      study at close range the actual form literature takes and how it
      works" (Davis 19). The editors of a current educational text on this
      subject, Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, provide an overview of
      some of the basic issues in literary studies and literary theory that
      give rise to the immediate concerns about the status of myth and
      ideology. Since "literary criticism defines its objects of study [as]
      literature and culture," ground for the present inquiry into the
      nature of the Tolkien phenomenon can be established through a
      selective appraisal of myth and ideology within the discourse of
      critical scholarship represented in Davis and Schleifer's analysis.
      Scholars and critics who have written chiefly from a central concern
      about Tolkien's works make many more interesting and relevant
      observations about the significance of Tolkien's literary endowment,
      especially in terms of its evocation of the mythic. Books and
      articles selected from among their contributions to the growing body
      of Tolkien scholarship offer a number of valuable insights into the
      structure of Tolkien's works, the mythological sources of his stories,
      the relation of his invented languages to his mythology, and perhaps
      most importantly, the influence of Tolkien's strongly held religious
      convictions on the works as a mythology.
      To clarify my pursuit in order to delineate more specific criteria to
      bound for my purpose evaluations of relevance in the body of
      scholarship and criticism surrounding Tolkien's works,
      [I need to analyze the conclusions of my thesis better before
      concluding this introductory section.]
      This part should also address the "explanation of the methodology"
      area of concern. Although, to my way of thinking, it only amounts to
      something like "critical analysis of existing scholarship on the
      subject," I can state my review of published works of criticism and
      scholarship on Tolkien's work, studies on myth and ideology as
      separate concepts, and other works that deal with them comparatively.
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