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

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  • Sara Ciborski
    ... 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
    Message 1 of 14 , 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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    • Beth Russell
      There is a very good essay in the new Tolkien Studies about Tolkien and empire, showing a relationship between Rome and Gondor. (Book is at home and I don t
      Message 2 of 14 , May 28, 2005
        There is a very good essay in the new "Tolkien Studies" about Tolkien
        and empire, showing a relationship between Rome and Gondor. (Book is at
        home and I don't remember title or author.)

        Tolkien may have preferred the simple government of the Shire -- but the
        Shire had to be protected by the last remnant of the Northern Kingdom.
        As Butterbur said, when the Rangers went away all kinds of baddies came
        in quick.

        I felt the Smith essay to be an expression of the self-loathing
        fashionable in the West for too many years. The categories were
        interesting, but the basic premise is worn out. Pax Romana. Pax
        Brittanica. Pax Americana. Those empires were not ideal. But the
        alternative is even less desirable. I lived through the final decay of
        the British Empire in Africa. Ugly. Very many parallels to early
        medieval times.

        Sigh . . .

        Beth





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      • David Bratman
        ... Responding to you rather than to Smyth (since I don t follow her arguments) - there s a serious danger of confusion here between Tolkien s real-life
        Message 3 of 14 , May 28, 2005
          At 04:43 PM 5/27/2005 -0500, Croft, Janet B. wrote:

          >Anyway, I don't think Smyth was totally off in seeing something of an
          >ambivalent nostalgia for "empire" in Tolkien's work, though in his
          >letters he seemed to feel the ideal government to live under would be
          >that of the Shire -- close to anarchy in the "minimal or no government"
          >rather than chaotic sense

          Responding to you rather than to Smyth (since I don't follow her arguments)
          - there's a serious danger of confusion here between Tolkien's real-life
          political beliefs and what he expresses in his fiction. In Middle-earth
          there is a True King. In the primary world there isn't. That makes all
          the difference. It is furthermore jumping to precarious conclusions to
          assume that the ramifications of the set-up in Middle-earth are those
          Tolkien would have liked in the primary world even though he acknowledged
          them to be impossible.

          What Tolkien said in his letter to Christopher (29/11/43) was that he
          preferred minimalist anarchy or "unconstitutional" monarchy. What he's
          opposing both of these to is what he calls "Theyocracy," the assumption of
          power by large bureaucratic party-oriented governments, which is pretty
          much required in any empire that's not a pure personal rule of an emperor.
          In many other places he denounces the rising power of the state: in these
          respects he was an old-fashioned conservative. (What he would have thought
          of an emperor is probably well contained in an interview comment that
          [quasi-quote] "tipping your hat to squire may be damn bad for squire but
          it's damn good for you.")

          None of this really fits in with a nostalgia for the British Empire, and in
          every respect Tolkien was a small-England man. In his next letter to
          Christopher (9/12/43), he writes, "I love England (not Great Britain and
          certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))". Commonwealth was still a
          very new term then, and he says nothing about empire. But the rest of the
          letter is a denunciation of the growing uniformity of the world from a man
          who always thought individual places should be as distinct as possible -
          that's the point of there being different places.

          That belief is certainly reflected all through his fiction. And if it's to
          be seen in Fourth Age politics, it's in Elessar leaving his realms to
          govern themselves as much as possible. His predecessors had actually ceded
          Rohan; it was a separate country bound by treaty (not merely by friendship)
          with Gondor. His grant of total autonomy to the Shire is recognition of
          the situation that had held since the North-kingdom ended a thousand years
          earlier.

          >But 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.

          It's about major pitched war, yes, and tightly-held kingdoms, but there are
          no empires except Morgoth's. Fingolfin and Fingon as High Kings of the
          Noldor lead by example and persuasion, not by imperial power, and kings
          like Turgon and Thingol, and even Finrod, not to mention the sons of
          Feanor, have their own, often conflicting, agendas. As Sara writes, "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 last part is not strictly true, but
          it's close enough.

          She also mentions the Numenorean empire, which Tolkien didn't even invent
          until the mid 1930s, and didn't fully explore until the 1950s, and about
          which he had in any case highly ambiguous feelings: see "Aldarion and Erendis."

          Sara also writes:

          > Yes, the reductionism is what I get incensed about. ...
          > 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.

          What incenses me in this area is the point of view expressed by John West
          and Peter Kreeft in _Celebrating Middle-earth_ (a book from the same people
          who brought us _Untangling Tolkien_). They take the view that the moral
          lesson of LOTR is that evil is real and must be fought. It seems to me
          that Tolkien takes that for granted: propitiating evil is rejected out of
          hand and appeasing it is never even considered; the weakness of the good is
          faitheartedness (it is this which Denethor and, initially, Theoden, suffer
          from).

          No, the real moral lesson of LOTR is to avoid the arrogance of power. Take
          care that you do not become evil in your eagerness to fight it. This is
          what Boromir fails to grasp; this is the test that Galadriel passes. Even
          Saruman, the prime propitiator, is really suffering from arrogance.

          For this reason, I conclude that the moral application of LOTR to the
          current world situation is pretty much the opposite of what West and Kreeft
          think it is.

          David Bratman
        • saraciborski
          I am resending this--it s an exact repeat--because I see that my earlier post doesn t have the little quote marks on the margins that enable a reader to
          Message 4 of 14 , May 29, 2005
            I am resending this--it's an exact repeat--because I see that my
            earlier post doesn't have the little quote marks on the margins that
            enable a reader to distinguish between what's being quoted from
            someone else's message and what is being said anew. {Maybe because I
            sent it from within my e-mail program???) Anyway I resend it properly
            now only so it's in the archive in a readable form--responses have
            already been made.

            --- In mythsoc@yahoogroups.com, "Croft, Janet B." <jbcroft@o...>
            wrote:
            > 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.

            > But 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
          • Beth Russell
            Two articles in the new Vol II of Tolkien Studies is relevant to the whole issue of empire and colonization: Ford, Judy Ann. The White City: The Lord of
            Message 5 of 14 , May 31, 2005
              Two articles in the new Vol II of "Tolkien Studies" is relevant to the
              whole issue of empire and colonization:

              Ford, Judy Ann. "The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early
              Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire." 2: 53-73.

              Hoiem, Elizabeth Massa. "World Creation as Colonization: British
              Imperialism in "Aldarion and Erendis." 2: 75-92.

              Cheers,

              Beth
            • saraciborski
              ... What is and where does one find Tolkien Studies ? I recall seeing something about this (a new journal?) among the posts I scanned before I recently
              Message 6 of 14 , May 31, 2005
                --- In mythsoc@yahoogroups.com, "Beth Russell" <russells@s...> wrote:
                >
                > Two articles in the new Vol II of "Tolkien Studies" is relevant to the
                > whole issue of empire and colonization:
                >
                > Ford, Judy Ann. "The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early
                > Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire." 2: 53-73.
                >
                > Hoiem, Elizabeth Massa. "World Creation as Colonization: British
                > Imperialism in "Aldarion and Erendis." 2: 75-92.
                >
                > Cheers,
                >
                > Beth

                What is and where does one find "Tolkien Studies"? I recall seeing
                something about this (a new journal?) among the posts I scanned before
                I recently joined. If someone has a quick answer--I'd be grateful.
                Otherwise I'll look it up on the web.
                Thanks,
                Sara Ciborski
              • David Bratman
                Tolkien Studies is an annual journal/review whose second issue has just appeared. If you click on , that should take you through to
                Message 7 of 14 , May 31, 2005
                  Tolkien Studies is an annual journal/review whose second issue has just
                  appeared. If you click on <http://tolkienstudies.org>, that should take
                  you through to the page for the new issue on the website of the publisher
                  (West Virginia University Press). As a hardcover annual scholarly journal,
                  it is alas rather expensive, but those of us who have something to do with
                  it hope that readers will find the material interesting.


                  At 12:15 AM 6/1/2005 +0000, Sara Ciborski wrote:
                  >What is and where does one find "Tolkien Studies"? I recall seeing
                  >something about this (a new journal?) among the posts I scanned before
                  >I recently joined. If someone has a quick answer--I'd be grateful.
                • Croft, Janet B.
                  Sara, if you re connected to a university or college library that gets the database Project Muse, you can get Tolkien Studies online. Janet Brennan Croft ...
                  Message 8 of 14 , Jun 1, 2005
                    Sara, if you're connected to a university or college library that gets
                    the database Project Muse, you can get Tolkien Studies online.


                    Janet Brennan Croft

                    -----Original Message-----
                    From: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com [mailto:mythsoc@yahoogroups.com] On Behalf
                    Of saraciborski
                    Sent: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 7:15 PM
                    To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
                    Subject: [mythsoc] Re: empire, etc. and "Tolkien Studies"

                    --- In mythsoc@yahoogroups.com, "Beth Russell" <russells@s...> wrote:
                    >
                    > Two articles in the new Vol II of "Tolkien Studies" is relevant to the

                    > whole issue of empire and colonization:
                    >
                    > Ford, Judy Ann. "The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early
                    > Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire." 2: 53-73.
                    >
                    > Hoiem, Elizabeth Massa. "World Creation as Colonization: British
                    > Imperialism in "Aldarion and Erendis." 2: 75-92.
                    >
                    > Cheers,
                    >
                    > Beth

                    What is and where does one find "Tolkien Studies"? I recall seeing
                    something about this (a new journal?) among the posts I scanned before I
                    recently joined. If someone has a quick answer--I'd be grateful.
                    Otherwise I'll look it up on the web.
                    Thanks,
                    Sara Ciborski





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                    Links
                  • saraciborski
                    ... just ... take ... publisher ... journal, ... do with ... before
                    Message 9 of 14 , Jun 1, 2005
                      --- Thank you!


                      In mythsoc@yahoogroups.com, David Bratman <dbratman@e...> wrote:
                      > Tolkien Studies is an annual journal/review whose second issue has
                      just
                      > appeared. If you click on <http://tolkienstudies.org>, that should
                      take
                      > you through to the page for the new issue on the website of the
                      publisher
                      > (West Virginia University Press). As a hardcover annual scholarly
                      journal,
                      > it is alas rather expensive, but those of us who have something to
                      do with
                      > it hope that readers will find the material interesting.
                      >
                      >
                      > At 12:15 AM 6/1/2005 +0000, Sara Ciborski wrote:
                      > >What is and where does one find "Tolkien Studies"? I recall seeing
                      > >something about this (a new journal?) among the posts I scanned
                      before
                      > >I recently joined. If someone has a quick answer--I'd be grateful.
                    • saraciborski
                      ... university--I ll see if she can do something for me. Thanks. ... gets ... ~-- ... ~-
                      Message 10 of 14 , Jun 1, 2005
                        --- I'm not, currently, but my daughter is a librarian at a
                        university--I'll see if she can do something for me. Thanks.



                        In mythsoc@yahoogroups.com, "Croft, Janet B." <jbcroft@o...> wrote:
                        > Sara, if you're connected to a university or college library that
                        gets
                        > the database Project Muse, you can get Tolkien Studies online.
                        >
                        >
                        > Janet Brennan Croft
                        >
                        > ------------------------ Yahoo! Groups Sponsor --------------------
                        ~-->
                        > What would our lives be like without music, dance, and theater?
                        > Donate or volunteer in the arts today at Network for Good!
                        > http://us.click.yahoo.com/pkgkPB/SOnJAA/Zx0JAA/DtIolB/TM
                        > --------------------------------------------------------------------
                        ~->
                        >
                        > The Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org Yahoo! Groups
                        > Links
                      • Mike Foster
                        I recall reading a C.S. Lewis remark/quote to the effect that one benefit of a career as a teacher is that it gave him so many friends who were younger than he
                        Message 11 of 14 , Jun 1, 2005
                          I recall reading a C.S. Lewis remark/quote to the effect that one
                          benefit of a career as a teacher is that it gave him so many friends who
                          were younger than he was.

                          Please, can anyone place this quote with a cite? I thought it was in
                          Jack but if it, so far it's been elusive.

                          Thanks for any help,
                          Mike

                          David Bratman wrote:

                          >Tolkien Studies is an annual journal/review whose second issue has just
                          >appeared. If you click on <http://tolkienstudies.org>, that should take
                          >you through to the page for the new issue on the website of the publisher
                          >(West Virginia University Press). As a hardcover annual scholarly journal,
                          >it is alas rather expensive, but those of us who have something to do with
                          >it hope that readers will find the material interesting.
                          >
                          >
                          >At 12:15 AM 6/1/2005 +0000, Sara Ciborski wrote:
                          >
                          >
                          >>What is and where does one find "Tolkien Studies"? I recall seeing
                          >>something about this (a new journal?) among the posts I scanned before
                          >>I recently joined. If someone has a quick answer--I'd be grateful.
                          >>
                          >>
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >The Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org
                          >Yahoo! Groups Links
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >
                          >


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