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  • John D Rateliff
    A few days ago two new books on Tolkien I hadn t heard about until recently arrived: THE KEYS TO MIDDLE EARTH by Stuart D. Lee & Elizabeth Solopova
    Message 1 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
      A few days ago two new books on Tolkien I hadn't heard about until
      recently arrived: THE KEYS TO MIDDLE EARTH by Stuart D. Lee &
      Elizabeth Solopova (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2005) and READING THE LORD OF
      THE RINGS: NEW WRITINGS ON TOLKIEN'S CLASSIC, ed. Rbt Eaglestone
      (Continuum, 2005). The amazon.com entries on both were extremely
      uninformative, so here's a little about both for anyone who's
      wondering whether to pick them up.

      THE KEYS OF MIDDLE-EARTH is essentially a reader of Tolkien sources &
      analogues from medieval literature, reprinting snippets from the
      Elder Edda, Beowulf, Sir Orfeo, Pearl, Gawain & the Green Knight, &c.
      in the original Old or Middle English with a modern English
      translation on facing pages. Each piece also has an introduction
      setting it in context and is followed by notes on specific points.
      It's a great concept but I can't tell from a quick glance how well
      they do on execution; some things I'd include are missing while I'm
      dubious about the relevancy of some of what they do include. In any
      case it'd be a great starting place for anyone who hasn't already
      looked up a lot of this stuff on his or her own or who has limited
      access to a university library.

      READING THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a collection of twelve essays,
      mostly by British academics, most of whom try to apply modern
      critical theory to Tolkien's work. The only contributor I'd heard of
      before was Michael Drout. I'm a third of the way through this one and
      so far am underwhelmed; it reminds me strongly of Rbt Giddings'
      collection JRRT: THIS FAR LAND (1983). For example, three of these
      essays approvingly cite Brenda Partridge's "No Sex Please, We're
      Hobbits", possibly the single worst essay ever written on Tolkien's
      work, which had appeared in Giddings' book. And the three page
      annotated bibliography devoted to "Further Reading" seems to be a
      random listing of sixteen works the editor happened to come across
      (for example, it omits Carpenter's biography but praises Moseley's
      little chapbook) and can't even be taken as a 'recommended reading'
      list (some of what he includes he describes as "tendentious",
      "meandering", "lack[ing in] . . . critical rigour" , or "crass and
      simplistic").
      There are some insights--enough that I'm going to keep reading--
      but anyone put off by jargon such as "Low High Fantasy" (by which she
      means sword & sorcery) or sentences like "Much of this effect relies
      importantly on Tolkien's modulation of what Mieke Bal . . . terms
      'focalization': the manipulation of the narrative perspective(s) from
      and through which knowledge of the diegesis is brought to the reader"
      or "a practice of interpretation that takes for its telos the
      discovery of what the author really meant by his or her text is
      epistemologically flawed" should steer clear.

      --JDR
    • Carl F. Hostetter
      I too picked this up recently, on the strength of Drout s name being attached to it. I ve only read a bit of it so far, but like John I am so far underwhelmed.
      Message 2 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
        I too picked this up recently, on the strength of Drout's name being
        attached to it. I've only read a bit of it so far, but like John I am
        so far underwhelmed.

        Drout calls for the application of theoretical-critical approaches to
        Tolkien (and vice versa), in the expectation that it will shed light
        on regions that have thus far gone unexplored (and, again, vice
        versa). I must admit to being dubious about both the prospects and
        the proposal itself, since to me the best thing about the best
        Tolkien criticism to date has been its _freedom from_ reliance on
        "theory", or psychoanalysis, or any of the various "isms" that seem
        in effect, if not by intent, always to shed _far more_ heat than
        light on their (putative) subject. Thus one book by a philologist
        like Shippey or a close-reading literary mythologist like Flieger can
        tell us far more about Tolkien's work than a whole library of
        deconstructionist/gender/class/race/orientation/etc. "theorists" have
        or (I expect) ever will.

        Esther Saxey's contribution to this book, "Homoeroticism", is an
        unfortunate case in point. She spends 13 pages forcing and justifying
        a "maybe" answer to the question of whether Sam and Frodo are
        homosexual lovers (and for Saxey, there is no love that is not
        sexual, esp. not between males), ultimately on the grounds that if
        you don't agree with her, it can only be because you are afraid of
        gay people. Whereas of course the answer is unequivocally _no_. 13
        tendentious, posturing pages building to a completely false
        assertion, and that in fact tell us nothing about Tolkien (but
        naturally a great deal about Saxey and her theory "creds"), vs. two
        letters of plain truth. I think I like the non-"theoretical" approach
        better. (But then, I'm a straight white middle-class American
        Christian male, so what do I know?)
      • Carl F. Hostetter
        A P.S., if I might: Saxey makes a great deal of the fact that Sam actually touches Frodo on occasion, including stroking his hand in moments of extreme concern
        Message 3 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
          A P.S., if I might:

          Saxey makes a great deal of the fact that Sam actually touches Frodo
          on occasion, including stroking his hand in moments of extreme
          concern for Frodo. For Saxey, this counts as overwhelming evidence
          that Sam has sexual feelings for Frodo. And so Sam and Frodo might
          indeed be homosexual lovers. Q.E.D.

          An approach to all this that _would_ actually tell us something about
          Tolkien and his work would start with the plain fact that Tolkien
          most certainly did _not_ consider Sam and Frodo to be homosexual
          lovers, and then proceed to the obvious corollary that _he_ did not
          consider touching and concerned hand-stroking among men to be sexual.
          The critic could then proceed to explain to the modern reader (at any
          rate, the modern American reader), who has indeed been conditioned to
          see such touching among men as necessarily sexual, just how it is
          that for Tolkien such gestures could be neither sexual nor unmanly,
          but instead reflect a different time and attitude towards male
          relationships, and a recognition that not all intense feelings of
          affection are sexual. In other words, the thoughtful critic could use
          this as a means to permit the reader a glimpse into a different
          worldview, by using the lens that Tolkien's work provides. Instead,
          we are (as usual in what passes for criticism these days) required by
          Saxey to view Tolkien's work only though the lens that "theory"
          provides, that is, through the postured, eroticized eye of a twenty-
          first-century queer-theorist, and if we don't agree that this lens
          provides an accurate, undistorted view, and judge Tolkien and his
          work according to it, then we must simply be afraid of gay people.

          Yay.
        • David Bratman
          ... My experience with applying packaged theoretical-critical approaches to literature, whether the literature be by Tolkien or anyone else, is that it s like
          Message 4 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
            At 03:27 PM 3/16/2006 -0500, Carl F. Hostetter wrote:

            >Drout calls for the application of theoretical-critical approaches to
            >Tolkien (and vice versa), in the expectation that it will shed light
            >on regions that have thus far gone unexplored (and, again, vice
            >versa).

            My experience with applying packaged theoretical-critical approaches to
            literature, whether the literature be by Tolkien or anyone else, is that
            it's like viewing something through colored glasses. You can see
            interesting things that way, but most of the time you will learn more about
            the color of glasses you're wearing than about the thing you're looking at.

            >I must admit to being dubious about both the prospects and
            >the proposal itself since to me the best thing about the best
            >Tolkien criticism to date has been its _freedom from_ reliance on
            >"theory", or psychoanalysis, or any of the various "isms" that seem
            >in effect, if not by intent, always to shed _far more_ heat than
            >light on their (putative) subject.

            This is because they start with the theory used to study, rather than the
            literature being studied.

            >Thus one book by a philologist
            >like Shippey or a close-reading literary mythologist like Flieger can
            >tell us far more about Tolkien's work than a whole library of
            >deconstructionist/gender/class/race/orientation/etc. "theorists" have
            >or (I expect) ever will.

            A good critic, having examined the work itself, then puts on a pair of
            glasses whose color will bring out new features in the work itself. For
            good literature there will be more than one pair of glasses that do this,
            and they may even conflict (Shippey and Flieger have their disagreements).
            But they are the ones that work for this literature. For other literature,
            other glasses work better.

            I find that good theoretical approaches enrich and enlarge one's
            understanding of a good work of literature. Bad ones reduce the work and
            make it petty. And that is the big difference between great and lousy
            criticism.

            - David Bratman
          • Croft, Janet B.
            If you re old-fashioned, I am too. That s the sort of criticism I like -- something that explains what the author did and why, rather than something that
            Message 5 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
              If you're old-fashioned, I am too. That's the sort of criticism I like
              -- something that explains what the author did and why, rather than
              something that tries to squeeze it into a critical box where it really
              doesn't belong, with odd bits hanging over the edges or chopped off if
              they don't fit. Theory should be a tool that you can pick up to see if
              it works for the job you're doing, and if it doesn't, then you put it
              down and pick up another one. Or to use your metaphor, if one lens gives
              you a distorted and unhelpful picture of what you're examining, you try
              to look through another one. You don't keep using the one that doesn't
              give a clearly focused picture as if it's the only lens available. The
              particular instances you are looking at, for example, might be better
              explored by looking at the balance of traditionally feminine and
              masculine traits in many of Tolkien's characters and what that implies
              (about his sources, his environment, his opinions on women and men,
              etc.; whatever can be supported by internal and external evidence).
              Queer theory is manifestly the wrong tool to figure out what point
              Tolkien was making. (However, it could be appropriately applied to fan
              fiction which _does_ interpret the Frodo/Sam relationship this way. In
              some cases it could then be the appropriate lens for the job.)


              And David Bratman's addition to this discussion, which came in while I
              was typing, says all this and more with greater clarity. Thank you!
              It's like Lewis said in An Experiment in Criticism -- "receive" the work
              first, then start figuring out how to figure it out. Approach it with
              open eyes, not with a pair of lenses already firmly clamped in place.

              Janet Brennan Croft

              -----Original Message-----
              From: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com [mailto:mythsoc@yahoogroups.com] On Behalf
              Of Carl F. Hostetter
              Sent: Thursday, March 16, 2006 2:52 PM
              To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
              Subject: Re: _Reading The Lord of the Rings_ (was Re: [mythsoc] New
              Arrivals)

              A P.S., if I might:

              Saxey makes a great deal of the fact that Sam actually touches Frodo on
              occasion, including stroking his hand in moments of extreme concern for
              Frodo. For Saxey, this counts as overwhelming evidence that Sam has
              sexual feelings for Frodo. And so Sam and Frodo might indeed be
              homosexual lovers. Q.E.D.

              An approach to all this that _would_ actually tell us something about
              Tolkien and his work would start with the plain fact that Tolkien most
              certainly did _not_ consider Sam and Frodo to be homosexual lovers, and
              then proceed to the obvious corollary that _he_ did not consider
              touching and concerned hand-stroking among men to be sexual.
              The critic could then proceed to explain to the modern reader (at any
              rate, the modern American reader), who has indeed been conditioned to
              see such touching among men as necessarily sexual, just how it is that
              for Tolkien such gestures could be neither sexual nor unmanly, but
              instead reflect a different time and attitude towards male
              relationships, and a recognition that not all intense feelings of
              affection are sexual. In other words, the thoughtful critic could use
              this as a means to permit the reader a glimpse into a different
              worldview, by using the lens that Tolkien's work provides. Instead, we
              are (as usual in what passes for criticism these days) required by Saxey
              to view Tolkien's work only though the lens that "theory"
              provides, that is, through the postured, eroticized eye of a twenty-
              first-century queer-theorist, and if we don't agree that this lens
              provides an accurate, undistorted view, and judge Tolkien and his work
              according to it, then we must simply be afraid of gay people.

              Yay.




              The Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org Yahoo! Groups
              Links
            • Carl F. Hostetter
              ... Amen! This is why I always put theory in this sense in scare- quotes. It is tomy mind really rather the _opposite_ of theory, proper, since it forces the
              Message 6 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
                On Mar 16, 2006, at 4:08 PM, David Bratman wrote:

                > This is because they start with the theory used to study, rather
                > than the literature being studied.

                Amen! This is why I always put "theory" in this sense in scare-
                quotes. It is tomy mind really rather the _opposite_ of theory,
                proper, since it forces the available evidence to fit the explanation
                it offers, rather than presenting an explanation of the evidence
                derived from that evidence.
              • Stolzi
                ... From: Carl F. Hostetter ... Seems like she s spelling her name wrong. Diamond Proudbrook
                Message 7 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
                  ----- Original Message -----
                  From: "Carl F. Hostetter" <Aelfwine@...>

                  >
                  > Saxey

                  Seems like she's spelling her name wrong.

                  Diamond Proudbrook
                • Walter Padgett
                  ... Procrustean! [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                  Message 8 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
                    On 3/16/06, Croft, Janet B. <jbcroft@...> wrote:
                    >
                    >
                    > something that tries to squeeze it into a critical box where it really
                    > doesn't belong, with odd bits hanging over the edges or chopped off if
                    > they don't fit.
                    >


                    Procrustean!


                    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                  • David Bratman
                    There are ways in which it can be appropriate to study a work of literature through the lens of a critical theory that doesn t quite fit. One can - instead of
                    Message 9 of 10 , Mar 16, 2006
                      There are ways in which it can be appropriate to study a work of literature through the lens of a critical theory that doesn't quite fit. One can - instead of trying to make the book fit the theory, be engaged in the project of finding out just how far the book fits the theory, and why it doesn't fit any farther than it does, or to see what sort of things arise if you look at it that way, without trying to claim that this is the actual meaning. Or, one can study the theory itself, to see which books do and do not fit it.

                      Some studies of Tolkien roughly meet this description. Randal Helms's Freudian interpretation of The Hobbit, though he takes it more seriously than an ideal enquirer would, is essentially an exercise to see how well a Freudian interpretation fits. And Brian Attebery studies some theories of fantasy that other books fit to see why The Lord of the Rings doesn't - though he's mostly critiquing critics who try to make it fit, and then get cross at Tolkien when it doesn't.

                      David Bratman
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