Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Tolkien and Modernity

Tolkien was ahead of his time. And that’s precisely what I object to about him. And you know it’s real. People experience a culture shock when they go look up his forgotten contemporaries that they don’t with his work.

You can see it, too, in where people struggle with him. I tend to like the parts that people complain about the most. And detest things that blow past other people.

Aragorn patrolling dangerous countryside with a broken sword for one thing. How utterly, embarrassingly British. Something as portentous and mythical as that, reduced to a cheap subversion along the lines of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. The anti-Conan did not originate with Michael Moorcock’s Elric– no, it’s right here! And it’s preposterous.

Tom Bombadil, in contrast, has always been my favorite part. It’s Tolkien tipping his hat to the old fantasy he was about to pave over. It’s weird and wondrous. Marvelous and whimsical. Untainted by the coming pain and regret. It’s not fully explained, either. Even better, (and wacky fan theories aside) it plays havoc with the book’s painstakingly crafted mythos.

It’s the first thing to go when anyone tasked with retelling Frodo’s tale for today’s audiences begins the editing process. Because while people today love Tolkien, they hate fantasy. And it’s both his genius and his curse that he could produce a brand of it that is not so offensive to our modern, post-Christian culture.

29 responses to “Tolkien and Modernity

  1. Nathan August 15, 2018 at 8:28 am

    “How utterly, embarrassingly British.”

    Pretty much my complaint about contemporary American fantasy in a nutshell. We went from exploring a wild variety of native folklores and the mystiques of lands across the sea to rehashing British legends, Celtic neopaganism for feminine fantasy, and Norman neopaganism for masculine fantasy.

    • Growling August 16, 2018 at 3:40 pm

      If preferring Vikings and Knights to fucking Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan makes me a Europhilic traitor to the American tradition, you can put me in a green coat and call me a King’s Man.

      • A. Nonymous August 16, 2018 at 11:08 pm

        Amen, Growling. Amen.

      • Nathan August 20, 2018 at 1:28 pm

        The American tradition encompasses Cthulhu and Chinoiserie (the vast stories of all Asia, not just China). It’s Solomon Kane in the Black Forest of Germany as well as the blackest heart of Africa. High seas and Mayan tombs. Indian myth, voodoo magic, and Gothic monsters. It is the ability to make Oklahoma and Italy as exotic as the Dying Earth or the Night Land. How does that reduce down to mere Pecos Bill?

  2. Bill Cameron August 15, 2018 at 8:48 am

    I’m surprised, and not in a good way. You’re usually so accurate in your posts, so flubbing the details about Anduril is quite out of character. Aragorn wasn’t hiking around Middle Earth for decades serving in the armies of Rohan and Gondor with no other weapon than some scraps of steel tucked into a scabbard. The shards of Narsil were held at Rivendell and Anduril was only reforged from them after the Council of Elrond.

    Putting it another way. Aragorn uses the proper tools for the job at hand. It’s only when the threat posed by the Shadow reaches it’s peak that he employs his best tools because revealing those tools too soon entails too much risk.

    As for Bombadil, he serves two purposes. First, he’s fan service. He’s the Dutch doll Tolkien’s children loved so well and, considering the fact that it all began as bedtime stories and Father Christmas letters, fan service is at the tale’s roots.

    Second, Bombadil acts as a literary boundary of sorts within the tales. Before him, the story is one which is already familiar to Tolkien’s readers. The Shire is rural England and the hobbits might as well be rural Englishmen. Sure, there are mentions of dwarfs, dragons, wizards, and the like but the only magic we see are fireworks and smoke rings. Even the Ring and the black riders looking for it don’t seem too odd. Then the hobbits enter the Old Forest and nothing is ever familiar again.

    Bombadil is a sign post. He is the first real example to that 1950s reader that LOTR is not going to be like any of the other fairy tales they’d read before.

    Your point about Tolkien not following the example of “old” fantasy found in Dunsany and others is spot on however. The conceit or “schtick” behind the tales is that they’re a translated saga. As such, they’ll owe more to Beowulf and Snorri and less to Dunsany and Buchan. Tolkien isn’t going for weird and wondrous. He’s emulating something else entirely.

    • jeffro August 15, 2018 at 9:04 am

      >> The shards of Narsil were held at Rivendell and Anduril was only reforged from them after the Council of Elrond.

      Okay, that is much better. Don’t know where that image burned in my head of Strider with the broken sword at Bree came from.

    • jeffro August 15, 2018 at 11:50 pm

      Wait… I just double checked an Strider really does have the broken sword with him in Bree. My point stands, dawg!

      • lewpuls August 16, 2018 at 7:09 am

        No, as long as he had proper tools, if he wants to carry around Narsil because he has the weight of being the promised leader of mankind on his shoulders, and the shards help, so be it.

        Can’t say I understand your dislike of JRRT, Jeffro. Yes, I read Dunsany and so forth, and that’s certainly more mystical; but JRRT is more REAL (and believable). Which is hardly a bad thing in fantasy fiction.

      • Bill Cameron August 17, 2018 at 1:09 pm

        No, it doesn’t. Aragorn is carrying around the Hilt as a form of ID and not as a weapon.

  3. King Richard August 15, 2018 at 8:54 am

    Tom Bombadil; Strider and his broken sword; the wound on Weathertop that never fully heals; Aragron with reforged sword and a white tree with his crown; Gandalf the Gray returning as the White; Saruman gaining a coat of colors and losing his voice.
    All are quintessentially *Catholic*. The fact that some are palatable to these few, others to those few, and so on reflects much more of a High Church/Low Church/No Church worldview, I believe.

    • malcolmthecynic August 15, 2018 at 1:29 pm

      Yes. Jeffro seems to believe that Tolkien was intentionally avoiding the old, classic pulp style because he wanted to make his work more palatable for modern audiences. But what he was actually doing was looking at his story from a deeply Catholic perspective yet through the filter of a mythos he created.from scratch, drawn from a variety of sources much, much older than the pulps.

      He could certainly have made his Christian elements more explicit. The Screwtape Letters was a massive hit after all. He didn’t want to.

  4. Gaming Ballistic August 15, 2018 at 11:51 am

    Bakshi cartoon, perhaps? I looked it up on Wiki and in that version he fights with it.

  5. John E. Boyle August 15, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    “Thoughtful Essayist Jeffro?” What the heck were they thinking?

    Personally, I was hoping for a visit from “Dawg” Jeffro, who seems to find the most interesting photos of attractive women. This IS a family blog, though; perhaps I should stick with the Didact and the Last Redoubt for those.

  6. Ed August 15, 2018 at 5:47 pm

    Hate to be pedantic here, but I believe our host had it right the first time: Aragorn was carrying the shards of Narsil around–at least he had them at Bree. The book is very specific about “Strider” scaring Sam Gamgee by unveiling his sword only for the sword to turn out to be broken. The Peter Jackson movie sensibly changed this into Narsil sitting in a shrine at Rivendell.

    • Bill Cameron August 15, 2018 at 6:53 pm

      You are being pedantic and our host didn’t have it right. While it’s true that Aragorn shows Frodo and Sam a sword with the blade broken off about a foot from the hilt, he does so as a way to prove his bona fides to Frodo. as suggested in Gandalf’s letter In the letter Butterburr forgets to forward to the Shire, Gandalf adds a bit of doggerel concerning Aragorn including a line about a blade that was broken. Aragorn shows them the hilt of Narsil/Anduril in the same manner you show your driver’s license when cashing a check.

      The idea that Aragorn was skipping around Middle Earth, leading armies in Rohan, fleets in Gondor, hunting Gollum, protecting the Shire, and fighting far and wide for decades while carrying ONLY a broken sword is asinine. The Hilt was an heirloom and an “ID card” much like the rings, pendants, and other jewelry he kept about him.

      Malcolm is correct in pointing out that in LOTR Tolkien wasn’t avoiding the “classic pulp style” of Dunsany & Company at all. Tolkien was writing something which he believed to be entirely different; a “national” saga in the manner of Snorri and others with a mythos informed by his deep Catholic faith. The fact that later fantasy writers tried (and failed) to imitate Tolkien’s style rather than Dunsay’s is not something Tolkien either desired or planned on.

      • jeffro August 15, 2018 at 10:12 pm

        I would not describe Dunsany’s style as “classic pulp.” That guy wrote straight up literature.

      • Growling August 16, 2018 at 3:44 pm

        Isn’t your entire creative philosophy and movement driven by your disgust at “conventional high literature/literary-genre fiction”?

  7. Bill Cameron August 15, 2018 at 11:17 pm

    I was referring to Malcolm’s post and the excellent point he made in it, so I used the term he used. However you want to describe Dunsany’s style – and straight up literature more accurate than any other – Tolkien didn’t choose his style to avoid or refute Dunsany’s. Tolkien was writing something very different and so chose a different style.

    Putting it another way, Tolkien isn’t Michael Moorcock to Dunsany’s Tolkien. Tolkien created to create. Moorcock created to refute.

  8. Pingback: Tolkien and Modernity — Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog – BARBARIAN BOOK CLUB

  9. Man of the Atom August 16, 2018 at 9:32 am

    Tolkien could easily be both things claimed here: (1) a new design of the author that blended his Catholic faith with British folklore, fairy tales, and calls back to early fantasy authors, and (2) a more realistic style of tale telling that happened to appeal to those who thought “fantasy” too mundane or childish.

    It is easy enough to see while Tolkien may have operated under the auspices of Option 1, the seed of modern Fantasy Dreck(TM) could have entered the stage due to his efforts under Option 2.

    Re: Aragorn carrying Narsil as his sole weapon–so what? I’ll take Tolkien over Jackson, regardless of the “unreality”. The only real appeal of the Jackson films for me on re-watching is the stunning New Zealand scenery

    • malcolmthecynic August 16, 2018 at 9:42 am

      That’s fine, as long as we all agree that it HAPPENED to appeal to those who thought fantasy too mundane and childish, and Tolkien wasn’t attempting to appear less childish in order to be taken more seriously.

      Since – again – we have no evidence for this. Tolkien’s style of fantasy was entirely different from Dunsany’s because they were trying to do two different things.

      Actually, he was taking a risk making it as serious as he did, because his publishers were expecting another children’s book as a sequel to The Hobbit.

      Everything we know about Tolkien indicates that he was interested in making a specific thing for a specific reason and that the story he published was the story he wanted to write all along.

      There is nothing indicating he was ever truncating his creative palette to be taken more seriously.

      • Man of the Atom August 16, 2018 at 9:54 am

        I concur that we cannot know Tolkien’s mind on the “creative palate” question other than that of which he has written or spoken.

        I *can* easily envision the unimaginative and less intelligent making the following categorization:

        (a) Fantasy is for children
        (b) Tolkien’s brand of Fantasy is for adults

        Most especially true for book publishers.

      • malcolmthecynic August 16, 2018 at 10:05 am

        You’re absolutely right.

        Which is why this whole discussion strikes me as bizarre. Nobody here seems to actually disagree with the major points about fantasy and the pre-Tolkien fantasy authors Jeffro is trying to make.

        It’s just the method of going about it – accusing Tolkien, of all people, of sacrificing internal logic for subversion?!?!? TOLKIEN? – that’s tripping people up. There are lots of ways to make these points besides going after Tolkien for imagined issues.

  10. Robert Eaglestone August 16, 2018 at 9:56 am

    “How utterly, embarrassingly British.”

    Well, duh. Hobbits?

  11. Pingback: Modernity and Tolkien...? - SuperversiveSF

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