More on Toward the Gleam
- I had made an observation some time ago, that there seems to be a growing synergy between the readership of the MythSoc Yahoo list and MYTHPRINT. And so, I'm going to take advantage of that in this rather long post. I hope you all with be patient with the length, and that Doug in particular will take my responses as the congenial disagreement it is, not an intention for battle. :D
In the July issue of MYTHPRINT, in his reaction to my review of TOWARD THE GLEAM, Doug Kane said:
"But unlike Sarah, I thought it presented a very nuanced and compelling picture of Tolkien. And it is Tolkien; the `John Hill' that the book refers to is the alter-ego that he adapts in his quest to discover the source of the mysterious manuscript he has discovered (the author specifically states that this was inspired by the hero in the manuscript adopting the name `Underhill' when he left his home). At one point fairly early in the book a student representing an unidentified movement says to him (in the course of a discussion about a devotional picture which Tolkien makes clear he believes is more than just art), `You aren't an easy man to label.' I think that is an apt description of both Tolkien and his art, both of which evade easy classification."
I should make it clear that I fully understood that the character was using the name "John Hill" as a subterfuge, and that it is intended to be "really" Tolkien. But Doran nowhere makes the identification explicitly, and on top of that at the very beginning of the book, when the professor is bringing the box and book to the monastery he uses the name "John Hill" when there is no conceivable reason for him to LIE to the PRIEST.
The fact that Doran begins the book by having Tolkien lying to a priest made me feel that Doran was missing a key element in understanding Tolkien the man.
Doug then goes on to state: "Sarah's biggest complaint seems to be that he does not cite scripture in the course of the philosophical debates that form the core of the book. Nonetheless, it is quite clear to me what `side' he is on, and I found it refreshing to have that presented without scriptural citation just as I find the religious connotations of Tolkien's own work more compelling than Lewis's, because they are presented in a much more subtle matter, without the heavy-handed allegory that weighs down much of Lewis's work."
This is a misperception of what I actually said. Nowhere do I ask that Tolkien be quoting scripture. I said that we are given no indication of the BASIS for the beliefs that Doran's "Tolkien" apparently holds to. There are NO references to a man struggling with his faith in his deity over these issues, no considerations of his choices in the light of the tenents of his faith. Instead we are pretty much shown "Tolkien" only considering the negative consequences of agreeing with his adversaries. (I called them "Bad Guys" because I found nothing subtle in their presentation.)
Regarding my claim that the "solution" of the story was rather "deus ex machina", Doug says: " I thought it was interesting that she dismisses the `deus ex machina in the defeat of the Bad Guy'; whereas I thought that that the denouement cleverly paralleled that of The Lord of the Rings, in which providence takes a hand in rescuing the situation from certain disaster."
But this is where I credit the real Tolkien with a greater understanding of the workings of Providence than Doran has. In LOTR, the destruction of the Ring occurs "providentially" BECAUSE of previous active choices on the part of various characters: Bilbo is merciful to Gollum, Aragorn and the elves are merciful to Gollum when he is captured, Frodo is merciful to Gollum, even Sam is so; plus, Frodo exercising the authority of Ring over Gollum tells Gollum that if he should touch Frodo ever again, he shall cast himself into the Cracks of Doom. All these are worked together to make the final action Gollum taking the ring and then falling into the Cracks of Doom almost inevitable. We have been told at least a couple of times that Gollum would have an important part to play in the destruction of the Ring, and being a guide was too small for that importance. Doran, on the other hand, shows a "Providence" that has nothing to do with active choices. One person wraps all the poisoned candy, without knowing it is poisoned, for no other reason than his own fastidiousness. The candy sits in the office, forgotten and neglected. And then by MERE CHANCE the primary adversary eats the poisoned candy. That is "deus ex machina" in the classic sense: no active choice from the main character has led to this moment which is VERY unlike LOTR.
Doug again: "I also found it surprising that she did not understand why it was that "John" felt it so necessary to keep the information out of the hands of chief adversary of the book (the "Bad Guy" as she puts it, though Doran is never so unsubtle); whereas I thought it was crystal clear that the manuscript contained information that would allow this brilliant but morally bankrupt man to devise and wield an instrument of great power, the danger of which is self-evident (just as it is self-evident, for instance, why it would have been disastrous for Saruman to have obtained the Ring)."
Well, actually I DID understand why "John" labored to keep the book out of the hands of his adversary. Because he was blatantly a Bad Guy (I did not find the portrayal all that subtle). But unlike Sauron's One Ring, which is inherently deadly and evil, there is no indication that the information in the book is problematic in and of itself. It just needs to be kept from the hands of this one man. So I could understand why "John" might be willing to die to keep it from that man. But the way Doran writes it, John is willing to die to PROTECT THE BOOK, which is a different proposition altogether. Why is he so willing? Because whatever the contents are, he never really shares them with the world.
The original version of my review was longer, and in editing it down, Jason and I discussed options, one of which was to post on the Yahoo list the full original text of the review. But this discussion from Doug makes reposting most of it unnecessary. However, here is the key chunk that I deleted from the printed review, mainly because it was less about the book as written and more about my reaction to some authorial choices.
Other nibbling distractions pulled at me. If one is going to use the Inklings as figures in one's story, wouldn't it be a good idea to get some important dates correct? Reference is made in the story to the night JRRT and Dyson talked with Lewis about Myth and Christ. The date of that event was September 19, 1931. However, Doran indirectly places it perhaps a year earlier: "Jack" references the discussion as being some time previous during a gathering Doran dates as March 31, 1931. If one is not going to name the Inklings (and others)specifically, why use them? The indirections seem odd.
I am not sure what is gained having this distance put into the story. "John." "Jack." "Owen." John meets with "Gilbert" (or "G.K."). "Dorothy" (a mystery writer) is mentioned. "Agatha," married to archeologist "Max", is encountered. A cigar chomping political personage, currently out of power who gathers information about European events, appears and self-declares his name as "Drake" (for reasons of subterfuge). But if you know anything about English history, you know who he is. I suppose there might be some legal considerations that would keep the author from using the full real names of the real people.
But if that were the case, then why not give all the real people entirely fictional names without the coy winking to the audience of "it's a subterfuge"? I keep circling back to what bothered me throughout reading the book: why use this particular writer if you are not going to have one of the most crucial aspects of his personality his faith key to your presentation of him?
In any case, there are aspects of TOWARD THE GLEAM that merit discussion, but I don't think it's a particularly durable book. I find it more interesting in the issues it raises for me than in its story, and by my standard, that does not rank it very high in storytelling.
>I hope ... that Doug in particular will take my responses as the
> congenial disagreement it is, not an intention for battle.
No battle flags here. On the contrary, I'm glad you took the time to provide your additional thoughts on the matter.