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3549death/immortality, tragedy in Tolkien

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  • Nagy Gergely
    Jun 6, 2001
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      Dear all,
      I am generally a lurker on this list, but now I have a few remarks on the last days' postings Re death and immortality and tragedy in Tolkien (by the way, there was an atricle entitled 'The Gift of Death: Tolkien's Philosophy of Mortality', by I forget whom, in Mythlore some years back).

      (Michael Martinez)
      I don't pursue traditional literary criticism myself. I think the author knew best what he wanted to say, and I'm much more interested in looking at the ramifications of what he actually said. That point of view brings me into conflict with many people
      (Trudy Shaw)
      First, a disclaimer: I am *in no way* any kind of a literary scholar. In college I had a double major in biology and chemistry and took one English class. But, once in awhile I hear something that makes some sense out of things and I try to remember it.
      It is curious to observe how the terms 'literary criticism' and 'literary scholar' seem to have quite ambiguous connotations here. If you think that 'the author knew best what he was trying to say', you are in fact the most traditional of traditionalists, and no wonder you get into conflicts over that. Why would we be interested in 'what the author was trying to say'-- you are right in the next sentence, what he/she actually said is much more interesting, and I would say more readily available than 'what he was trying to say'. I think we are really better off with forgetting that authorial intention altogether (you must have heard and read this many times over,
      I suppose)-- maybe he knew best, but what if he tried and could not say it? What if a work turns out to be better than intended? etc. etc.

      One of these is a pair of definitions that I'm sure isn't technically correct in many ways, but seems to fit in a lot of circumstances: Comedy is extraordinary people doing ordinary things and drama (or tragedy) is ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
      I wonder where you got that def. from; to start with, isn't much of what we call comedy also drama? Further: do you really think that Trygaios in Aristophanes, or any comic hero in Shakespeare, is extraordinary? On the other hand, would you consider Oedipus in Sophocles an 'ordinary man'? Your definitions have a faint colouring of Aristotle, but seem to me to be mangled from the categories in the Poetics (see N.Frye on the classification of heroes along Aristotelian lines), and to be certainly unusable in this form.

      Some of these themes might be compared to the Biblical fall of angels. The Elves were not angels (Tolkien compares the Valar and Maiar to the angels), but they were not entirely human, either. The Elves were something like the apocryphal angels who rebelled against God and married the daughters of men (I think there were two hundred of them). They wanted to return to a state of grace, IIRC, but were unable to disassociate themselves from their worldly lives. It's been many years since I read that story, so I may have mangled it badly.
      I constantly wonder why it comes up so frequently and significantly that Elves are 'not entirely human'. I think that is the very point-- Elves are not human, but then humanity is not the norm in Tolkien. Elves are a normal part of life in Middle-earth, even if they are becoming rare by Frodo's time. Elves with their (=Feanor's) rebellion against the Valar are in the position of the first humans in Eden, with Men as a 'parallel level' of creation (who have their own fall, in the dark days of the race when many of them succumb to Morgoth), not in any way I think inferior to the Elves.

      The cornerstone of Tolkien's myths is always tragedy: what happens when someone makes a choice? The consequences of choice were explored endlessly by the Greek poets. Without choice, Achilles would never have crept back to his lonely tent, heartbroken and jealous over a slave girl. Without choice, Priam would have ruled Troy forever, and Helen would have been forgotten as just another wife of some little-known Greek king.
      See above, on Trudy's def. of tragedy (which was in fact a reply to this part of Michael's post). Aristotle defines character as 'someone who is able to make a choice', and character to be a necessary requirement of tragedy, but it doesn't follow that tragedy is built on choices or that choices are that essential as I think Michael makes them out to be (in fact, there is something of an 'existentialist definition of tragedy' hinted at in his words). You can argue that hamartia and hybris (to stay with the Aristotelian concepts) are results of choice, but I'm not convinced even then: Oedipus surely 'choose' to kill the unknown old man and 'choose' to marry the
      Theban widow queen, but at their making, does he _know_ what choices are he making? Is the choice to kill the unknown old man equivalent with a deliberate murder of his father? Is his choice to investigate Laios' murder equivalent to deliberately prosecuting himself? Surely not. Circumstance is another modifying factor in this game, as the circumstances always modify the choices that heroes make. The tragic effect results from this disparity between the seeming and the real content of choices; it is Aristotle's concept of tragic irony which points to the fact that the audience knows the real content while the hero doesn't.

      "Narn i Chin Hurin" is a very complete story, if told only incompletely in two separate volumes. It has a beginning and an end. It doesn't end happily, even though there should be cause for great celebration (the death of the dragon, an end to Turin's nightmarish leadership, and the reaffirmation of the natural through the punishment of Turin for his sins).
      It's astonishing how Aristotelian concepts (now the notion of stories' having to have a beginning, middle and end) are brought in all the time... but the problem about the Narn is that in the Silmarillion version it is perhaps too compressed, and in the Unfinished Tales version it doesn't really have a middle. I completely subscribe to the contention that the story of Túrin is a tragedy, in the fullest (Greek) sense of the word, but I also think that perhaps there are potentials unrealized in it, precisely because of the lack of a worked out middle. I am in doubt about Túrin's 'nightmarish leadership'-- that period was in fact a period of military successes
      unprecedented in the history of the group in Brethil. It is tragic becuse the leader who leads the people to this height of prowess is the person who ultimately brings catastrophe on them-- but is Túrin fully responsible for that? Túrin is forced to sin, unwittingly, much like Oedipus, by Morgoth or the circumstances (Tom Shippey discusses the shadow imagery of the Túrin story very well, clarifying most of this). Just as Oedipus Rex does not end happily, there is no cause for revel at the end of the Narn (any more than Thebans may celebrate the end of the plague, or indeed the liberation from the Sphinx). The Túrin story is, I think, not wholly representative
      of Tolkien's work, but is an outstanding example of what tragic heights he could attain.

      This much as far as remarks go concerning the postings. I hope I didn't offend anyone; if I did, I apologize, and declare that I had no intention to (again, like Oedipus and Túrin, doing things unwittingly). And I hope I make some sense; I am astonished again and again when I see how applicable Aristotle still is.
      The best to all,
      Gergely Nagy
      PhD student
      Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged
      Szeged, HUNGARY

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