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5573Seeing Tolkien's world (was Re: Why the middle ages are so popular in fiction)

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  • michael_martinez2
    Mar 12, 2002
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      --- In mythsoc@y..., "Trudy Shaw" <tgshaw@e...> wrote:
      >
      > How I think this supports your idea, Michael, is that at that
      > point there were no such things as imitations of Tolkien, and if
      > there was such a thing as an adult "medieval" fantasy genre (i.e.,
      > outside of books for small children), I and my relatively well-read
      > friends weren't aware of it (I did inhale quite a bit of science
      > fiction at that age). And when my friend asked about the setting
      > of LotR, I _didn't_ say something like, "Oh, you know, kind of
      > medieval." The Shire and Bree affected my thinking about the time
      > setting more than did the Rohirrim and the Elves (and things like
      > the barrow wights on the other end of the timeline), so, if
      > anything, I would have picked 19th century England. And, no, I
      > didn't catch the Egyptian connection at that age, but I do remember
      > thinking Gondor had a pretty weird-looking crown.

      I never knew about the Egyptian influence myself, until I acquired a
      copy of LETTERS. In fact, unless one knows about Tolkien's expertise
      in ancient languages like Greek, Gothic, etc., much less his keen
      interest in many things ancient (he even confessed to studying
      Babylonian mathematics in one letter), one would be hard put to show
      that there are any such classical influences in Tolkien at all. And
      yet, they are there, often pointed to or hinted about by Tolkien
      himself.

      It's much like all the inside jokes he included about philological
      matters. I recognized a few for myself, little ironic plays on the
      meanings of words, but if Tom Shippey's analysis of some of the
      metaphors is correct, Tolkien comes across as almost cackling madly
      at the way he was poking fun at himself and his colleagues in some of
      his stories.

      Tolkien never describes Middle-earth in the terms that would fit any
      single place or time period. About the only aspect of THE LORD OF
      THE RINGS which is almost universally recognized is that the book is
      so very ENGLISH, and yet Americans cannot really explain it. People
      who grew up in the Warwickshire area, and other parts of England
      which influenced the geography and culture of the Hobbits, can point
      to things which are peculiar to their nation. Tolkien complained
      that this was a problem with translations. Some of the things simply
      could not be rendered properly into other languages, because the
      references were not there.

      Sam's Fish'n'Chips, for example, may strike many Americans as a sort
      of fast food reference, but it was certainly nothing of the sort.
      And yet, Tolkien was writing for a mass audience, which included
      Americans (THE HOBBIT had won an award in the US and was a best-
      seller here). So he threw in a few bones for the dogs over Sea, and
      perhaps just to please himself because he liked those things:
      tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, Eskimo-like men in the north (some
      people insist he could just as much have been influenced by the Lapps
      of Scandinavia), etc.

      There is one aspect of American literature which is missing from
      Tolkien's work, and that may be one reason why so many of us
      recognize the story as "English". That is, there is really nothing
      of the hard sell to the story. When I was studying early American
      literature in college, my professor pointed out to the class that so
      much of our literature seeks to make a strong persuasive point in one
      way or another. Tolkien's writing is very reserved. It's rather
      like the English writers who were disposed toward forceful marketing
      all left the homeland and established new literary traditions in the
      various colonies.

      I don't really know how to explain it. But you can pick up almost
      any American novel, in almost any genre, and it is sure to have
      certain qualities which are trying to pitch or sell the story and its
      imagery to the reader. Tolkien just sort of sits down and starts
      telling the story, much like Gandalf introduces himself to Beorn, and
      it builds up from there as new characters arrive every few minutes.
      He doesn't worry about putting everything into its proper place -- or
      he seems not to, though in fact he does build the story with great
      care. I think this is why so many people take a while to get into
      the story -- they have a difficult time with the beginning, which has
      often been described as slow.

      Tolkien wasn't trying to sell the reader anything. He wasn't
      convinced of the superiority of the tale. He didn't feel like his
      failure to win a reader's enthusiasism would spell disaster for the
      Great Plan.

      So, all of his apparent meticulous attention to detail leaves the
      reader with a feeling of completeness, or near completeness -- but in
      fact Tolkien lets the reader finish out the story, filling in details
      whether they are needed or not. You're sort of left dozing by the
      wood-stove, listening to the gaffer to tell his tale, and your mind
      wanders into a realm of imaginary times and places that is really all
      your own.
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