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Re: [mythsoc] Tolkien versus the lit crits

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  • David S. Bratman
    Wendell - You speak much wisdom here. No need to comment on most of it (though I d happily natter if there were more time), though there is one point I m in
    Message 1 of 3 , Jun 11, 2001
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      Wendell -

      You speak much wisdom here. No need to comment on most of it (though I'd
      happily natter if there were more time), though there is one point I'm in
      disagreement on. You write, "My contention has always been that _The Lord
      of the Rings_ is a great work of literature by any consistent standard of
      literary quality, and I'll be happy to defend it to any adherent of any
      literary theory who can explain their theory to me in a comprehensible

      How would you apply that to Burton Raffel's article in _Tolkien and the
      Critics_? His argument is that LOTR may be good, but that by the accepted
      literary standards it is not literature. Brian Attebery in _Strategies of
      Fantasy_ (a brilliant critical work I'd recommend to all) says, "Raffel is
      convincing. We must either redefine literature or exclude Tolkien - and
      with him much of modern fantasy. ... Spinning wonderful stories is the
      rarest and most difficult of literature skills ... we need a new definition
      of narrative literature, and such a theory must be able to account for the
      felicities as well as the obvious failings of a work like LOTR." And he
      proceeds to erect such a theory. Elsewhere in the book he creates the most
      effective and convincing definition of fantasy I've ever seen (actually,
      definitions, because noting that "fantasy" means different things in
      different contexts is part of his insight).

      This ties in to the allusions I've been making to the reasons that the
      anti-Tolkienists seem to resent him so. They are wedded to the definition
      that Raffel uses, and object to the kind of redefinitions that would
      include Tolkien. This is not pure stick-in-the-mud-ism but a genuine
      difference as to what literature is and is for.

      A couple further notes on my last post addressed to Michael Martinez -

      An important part of the point about that Hovhaness anecdote, which I
      didn't spell out but should have, is that nobody would talk like that about
      Dmitri Shostakovich, despite the fact that Shostakovich is, and has been
      for ten years, the subject of the most vehement and personal arguments in
      all of classical musicology. That kind of argument is completely different
      from the situation with Hovhaness (or Tolkien). Nobody's denying
      Shostakovich's (or Faulkner's, or Joyce's) importance, though in the heat
      of argument one side may accuse the other of a covert agenda to do so. But
      with Hovhaness (or Tolkien), the disparagers just ignore him when possible,
      or make dismissive noises when they have to say something. I remember the
      comment about Sergei Rachmaninoff in Grove 5: "As a pianist Rachmaninoff
      was the finest of his time; as a composer he was hardly of his time at
      all." [quote from memory] What a stunning remark! He was of his time by
      definition; it is the critics' definition of that time which is too
      narrow. And so it is with Tolkien: definitions of 20th century literature
      which restrict it to, say, psychological realism and similar genres - these
      definitions willfully ignore the deep significance of fantasy to the 20th
      century. And that significance bothers some people.

      I'm using music as an example because I actually know more about modern
      classical musicology than about modern non-fantasy literary study, and
      because I'd just read the quote about Hovhaness and it was such a perfect
      illustration. I could have dug up similar remarks about Tolkien, but it
      didn't seem necessary. Shippey discusses the Germaine Greers and Philip
      Toynbees pretty thoroughly in his new book, and Harold Bloom (quoted by
      Mooney) speaks for himself. (LOTR like The Book of Mormon, indeed! I bet
      he's never really read either: I've read both.) Besides Shippey, I have in
      mind (but have not secured permission to quote, and am not going to bother
      doing so) the personal testimony of one tenured English professor, and one
      other Ph.D. in English, both from respectable but not prestigious
      universities, that the dismissive attitude towards Tolkien is real,
      different from other kinds of academic disputes, largely prevalent
      especially in more prestigious institutions (though obviously not
      universal), and that a liking for and interest in writing about Tolkien can
      actually hurt your career. You can't say that about Shakespeare.

      David Bratman
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