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Re: [mythsoc] a matter of life and death

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  • Vincent Ferre
    Good evening, I’ve been reading all your messages for quite some time, and I wanted to ask a question about critics on Tolkien. When I read (mostly in
    Message 1 of 3 , May 30 9:58 AM
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      Good evening,

      I�ve been reading all your messages for quite some time, and I wanted
      to ask a question about critics on Tolkien.

      When I read (mostly in England, for there�s hardly a book on him in
      France, even at the Biblioth�que Nationale) many English and American
      critics for an essay on Tolkien, I was surprised to see that most of them
      work on sources, on the question of power, fantasy, etc. but that death and
      immortality, the core of the Lord of the Rings (and not only because Tolkien
      said so !), are often alluded to, but not really examined.

      Am I mistaken ? do you know interesting analysis on that point ?

      Thanks a lot !

      Vincent

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    • Michael Martinez
      ... I read a lot of Tolkien criticism when I was in college, but I find most of it to be rather boring and repetitive nowadays. There are only so many ways to
      Message 2 of 3 , Jun 1, 2001
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        --- In mythsoc@y..., "Vincent Ferre" <ferretolk@h...> wrote:
        > When I read (mostly in England, for there's hardly a book
        > on him in France, even at the Bibliothèque Nationale) many English
        > and American critics for an essay on Tolkien, I was surprised to
        > see that most of them work on sources, on the question of power,
        > fantasy, etc. but that death and immortality, the core of the Lord
        > of the Rings (and not only because Tolkien said so !), are often
        > alluded to, but not really examined.
        >
        > Am I mistaken ? do you know interesting analysis on that point ?

        I read a lot of Tolkien criticism when I was in college, but I find
        most of it to be rather boring and repetitive nowadays. There are
        only so many ways to mangle the story line so as to present some half-
        cocked theory on what Tolkien was really trying to say (that is
        intended to be a light-hearted jab at what can often be a rather
        stuffy process of which Tolkien himself was sometimes critical).

        Of course, before one can delve into Tolkien's fascination with death
        and the search for deathlessness, one really has to study Tolkien's
        own essays on how the Elves viewed mortality and immortality. Of
        course, a lot of people point to "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" but I
        think they overlook valuable material (or undervalue it) in "Laws and
        Customs among the Eldar". Both works were published by Christopher
        Tolkien in MORGOTH'S RING.

        I don't pursue traditional literary criticism myself. I think the
        author knew best what he wanted to say, and I'm much more interested
        in looking at the ramifications of what he actually said. That point
        of view brings me into conflict with many people (mostly of the "Uzi-
        toting Orc" variety, that is, people who feel that if Tolkien didn't
        specifically deny something was in Middle-earth then it must have
        been there -- hence, there had to be Orcs carrying Uzis in every
        scene, since Tolkien never said there weren't any).

        If I may be a little self-promoting here, I've looked at some of the
        issues raised by Tolkien in my Suite101 column. One essay, "Middle-
        earth Connections: Lore of the Rings" (styled on the
        PBS "Connections" series format), examines how the Rings of Power
        worked and Elvish motivations for making and, later (after the One
        Ring was forged), using them. Tolkien provided us with quite a bit
        of information on the subjects.

        http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/43808

        "What Can We Expect From the Upcoming Movies?" (written in September,
        1999) looks at Elvish perspectives on death and immortality.

        http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/25112

        I got a lot of email over that article, and ended up posting some
        followup information in the discussion section:

        http://www.suite101.com/discussion.cfm/tolkien/25272

        I revisted Elvish motivations in "Gil-galad was an Elven-king..."
        (August 2000).

        http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/44954

        But I think I covered some of the most interesting aspects of
        Tolkien's Elves and their search for deathlessness in "Shhh! It's a
        secret Ring!" (January 2001).

        http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/tolkien/58090

        People don't like to think of Tolkien's Elves as suffering
        from "death". They die in their own ways. Their greatest fear, and
        the reason they made the Rings of Power, was that they would fade and
        become wraiths, or be driven to sail over Sea. They were trying to
        hang on to their lives in Middle-earth as tenaciously (or more so) as
        any Men tried to hang on to their lives, except for the rebellious
        Numenoreans who invaded Aman.

        Now, issues that I haven't pursued include the more traditional
        themes that you would find in typical literary criticism: other
        writers who have explored similar perspectives; epic traditions about
        immortals' quest for immortality (oddly, Hercules: The Legendary
        Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess introduced a new twist on this
        theme with their multi-season exploration of the deaths of various
        pantheons of gods -- Renaissance Pictures gets too little credit for
        being creative and innovative); the burden of guilt which can weigh
        upon immortals; etc.

        Some of these themes might be compared to the Biblical fall of
        angels. The Elves were not angels (Tolkien compares the Valar and
        Maiar to the angels), but they were not entirely human, either. The
        Elves were something like the apocryphal angels who rebelled against
        God and married the daughters of men (I think there were two hundred
        of them). They wanted to return to a state of grace, IIRC, but were
        unable to disassociate themselves from their worldly lives. It's
        been many years since I read that story, so I may have mangled it
        badly.

        Tolkien only speaks of one true "fall" for the Eldar, specifically
        the rebellion of Feanor, but he does point out that the creation of
        the Rings of Power was a challenge to the natural order of things.
        In Eregion, Tolkien notes, the Elves came the closest to succumbing
        to the "machine".

        I think the "machine" is another issue that gets overlooked,
        undervalued, or misrepresented a great deal. People hear about
        Tolkien's aversion to industrialization and his complaints about
        the "machine" and they conclude he was an anti-technologist. I
        didn't know the man, but I wouldn't call him that any more than I
        would call him an environmentalist. These are late 20th century
        terms, as we use them, and they describe political and almost
        religious viewpoints.

        Technology is the puppet of the "machine", but the Noldor (according
        to Tolkien) were "technologists". Were they therefore inherently
        bad? No more so than we, and perhaps less so. It's not the
        technology itself that is the problem, but the perverse applications
        of it which destroy or repress the natural order. Tolkien created
        Ents because the trees had no champions of their own. Ents are in a
        sense the defenders of the free expression of trees. It was free
        expression that Tolkien returned to time and again in his letters.
        And the great threat that the One Ring posed to all of Middle-earth
        was the loss of free expression. Sauron would have dominated
        everyone and everything had he regained the One Ring.

        The Elves had to struggle with the consequences of their choices, and
        they elected to deny the natural order when they made the Rings of
        Power. Such themes are certainly to be found in older literature
        which was available to Tolkien. He was well read in many bodies of
        literature and certainly made more than one reference to classical
        literature. I certainly doubt he would have been asked to
        participate in the Jerusalem Bible project if he were underqualified
        to do so.

        You know, it's becoming fashionable to associate the Silmarils with
        the Sampo of Finnish myth, but I think they had more to do with life
        and death than they did with "an attempt to solve the mysterious
        riddle", as Tom Shippey puts it. The cornerstone of Tolkien's myths
        is always tragedy: what happens when someone makes a choice? The
        consequences of choice were explored endlessly by the Greek poets.
        Without choice, Achilles would never have crept back to his lonely
        tent, heartbroken and jealous over a slave girl. Without choice,
        Priam would have ruled Troy forever, and Helen would have been
        forgotten as just another wife of some little-known Greek king.

        If there are few happy endings in Greek literature, there seem to be
        even fewer in Tolkien. Is it really a happy ending for Tuor and
        Idril to go sailing off with Voronwe, or just a convenient exit of
        three characters who are no longer needed for the main play, which is
        about to introduce the third Kinslaying?

        If a more modern writer were to take up the subject of what happens
        when an immortal elects to alter the natural balance (by tampering
        with nature or killing another immortal), the story would almost
        certainly turn upon the disruptions nature would experience. But
        when Tolkien explores these themes, the story turns upon the
        disruptions which individuals experience. Feanor sets the stage for
        a long and difficult journey and then he dies. His death has no real
        consequence. It's his choices in life that visit tragedy upon his
        people and others.

        Where is the fun in having massive upheavals, if they are not the
        emtional upheavals experienced by men and women? One of the greatest
        questions to come out of the Silmarillion mythology is whether Turin
        is really responsible for his own fate. Are his choices as important
        as, say, the choices of his father (who defied Morgoth and so drew
        down a curse upon his family), of the Eldar (who brought their war
        with Morgoth to Middle-earth), or his ancestors (who joined that war)?

        "Narn i Chin Hurin" is a very complete story, if told only
        incompletely in two separate volumes. It has a beginning and an end.
        It doesn't end happily, even though there should be cause for great
        celebration (the death of the dragon, an end to Turin's nightmarish
        leadership, and the reaffirmation of the natural through the
        punishment of Turin for his sins). Even "Beren and Luthien" ends
        unhappily. They get to live together, but they are cut off from all
        whom they love, except one another. The Greeks had happier myths (on
        occasion). The Greeks might have had Beren and Luthien turn into two
        new trees in Valinor, using the light of their Silmaril to rekindle
        the light which once was. But Tolkien seemed to feel that history
        compelled itself to move forward. The apparent repetitions were not
        really repetitions.

        There were two Dark Lords and both had to be overthrown. But without
        Morgoth there could be no Sauron. Sauron's tenure as Dark Lord was a
        direct consequence of Morgoth's own career. In a way, Sauron, too,
        seemed to be looking for a way to cheat death. Morgoth had been
        executed, after all, and rendered so weak as to be made impotent. At
        least by investing a great part of his power in the One Ring, Sauron
        was able to endure two deaths which otherwise he might not have
        returned from.

        So, what does it mean when an immortal being not only seeks to alter
        the natural order, but so fears death that he seeks to cheat it? A
        lot of good ink could certainly be thrown on paper over that
        question. It's a pity, I think, that so little thought has been
        given to the primary theme in LoTR.

        But perhaps the real reason people don't get into all that stuff is
        that it just doesn't interest them. So, you'll have to wait until
        someone comes along who develops a fascination for studying how
        literature deals with the themes of death and the search for
        deathlessness, as well as facing the consequences of disturbing the
        natural order.
      • Trudy Shaw
        ... From: Michael Martinez To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Sent: Friday, June 01, 2001 6:12 PM Subject: [mythsoc] Re: a matter of life and death The cornerstone of
        Message 3 of 3 , Jun 2, 2001
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          ----- Original Message -----
          From: Michael Martinez
          To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
          Sent: Friday, June 01, 2001 6:12 PM
          Subject: [mythsoc] Re: a matter of life and death


          The cornerstone of Tolkien's myths
          is always tragedy: what happens when someone makes a choice? The
          consequences of choice were explored endlessly by the Greek poets.
          Without choice, Achilles would never have crept back to his lonely
          tent, heartbroken and jealous over a slave girl. Without choice,
          Priam would have ruled Troy forever, and Helen would have been
          forgotten as just another wife of some little-known Greek king.

          If a more modern writer were to take up the subject of what happens
          when an immortal elects to alter the natural balance (by tampering
          with nature or killing another immortal), the story would almost
          certainly turn upon the disruptions nature would experience. But
          when Tolkien explores these themes, the story turns upon the
          disruptions which individuals experience.



          First, a disclaimer: I am *in no way* any kind of a literary scholar. In college I had a double major in biology and chemistry and took one English class. But, once in awhile I hear something that makes some sense out of things and I try to remember it.

          One of these is a pair of definitions that I'm sure isn't technically correct in many ways, but seems to fit in a lot of circumstances: Comedy is extraordinary people doing ordinary things and drama (or tragedy) is ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

          A broad example of the first might be Lucy Riccardo putting up a Christmas tree--or the night watchman (whose name I don't know) just doing his job in (I think??) _Much Ado About Nothing_. (See, I told you I wasn't a literary scholar--but Michael Keaton did a great interpretation in the Kenneth Branaugh movie.)

          But it's the second definition that has struck me more often with its truth. In providing the world with hobbits--especially those hobbits who do "extraordinary things"-- Tolkien gave us a pretty obvious example of it. Now Michael's post has added a new dimension to the "truth" I find in this definition: At the personal level, *everyone* is ordinary. Napolean is a guy besotted with a woman who isn't in love with him but who stays around because of the perks. If you scratched just below the surface of many world leaders, you'd certainly find a boy who's trying to please his father. Michael's example of Achilles would also fit.

          Applying these thoughts to the definition of tragedy, the two paragraphs (above) which I pulled out of different parts of Michael's post would really go together. Perhaps one reason Tolkien's stories seem to have tragedy at their core is that he *does* tell his stories at the individual level--even when they involve the "high and mighty." In order for the human soul to *feel* tragedy, there has to be some kind of empathy with the tragic figure. Even if that person's very different from us, we need to find some point of connection. By bringing even nature-disrupting events to the personal level, Tolkien provides us with that connection to his characters.

          -- Trudy Shaw





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