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Re: _Reading The Lord of the Rings_

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  • 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 1 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 2 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 3 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 4 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 5 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 6 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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