Turin and Pridefulness

In the previous post, I listed three reasons various commentators have given in order to absolve God/the Valar of responsibility for the suffering endured by the characters in The Children of Hurin and the Turin tale in general. As I explain there, it has always seemed odd to me that some readers should be so intent on foisting a theological explanation, or overlay, onto the narrative fabric of the story in order to show that it accords with the overall supposed ‘arc of history’ within Tolkien’s universe which is, supposedly, a Christian one. That is, the eucatastrophic element of Tolkien’s fiction is said to be paramount, and any and all events taking place within the historical timeline can be explained, or explained away, only by recourse to this larger, cosmic perspective.

But, as I have previously argued, the eucatastrophe idea functions within Tolkien’s universe as a kind of theodicy. In other words, it is a kind of catch all explanation for suffering which supposedly works on any level. Turin’s life is beset by grief? Well, The Silmarillion ends with a eucatastrophe, and God’s plan is therefore fulfilled. It all works out in the end. Turin’s life is therefore an aberration, or at the very least, a sad and pitiable example of humanity gone wrong. In order to better uphold this explanation, it is necessary, or at the very least desirable, to show that Turin himself is responsible, at least in part, for the maledictions which are brought to bear upon him. One such approach is to argue that Turin is himself a kind of defective character. In particular, the great sin of Pride is often bandied about as an all encompassing  explanation for his bad decision-making. To be sure, this argument would appear to find support in the text, as Turin’s decisions, such as when he deigns to remain at Amon Rudh, are sometimes framed in terms of his prideful nature. This cannot be denied, but as a poster in this thread observes,

Turin’s hopelessness is very much tied in with his own perception of himself as a man of ill fortune. The whole issue of him refusing to return to Doriath, and thus be protected from Morgoth, is related to his pride – but was his pride the result of his ill fortune, or vice versa?

The perception that Turin is prideful is true, but why is he prideful in the first place? In some sense, he is ill fated to be. It is an aspect of his character that he himself cannot appear to escape from. It is not therefore a moral flaw, but merely a flaw in his ‘design’. Moreover, pridefulness is related to a major theme of the Children of Hurin novel (less so the chapter in The Silmarillion): the terrible reality of mortality, especially when contrasted with the immortality of the Eldar. Humans are given to pridefulness because their lives are so short, the novel seems to imply. The Elves can afford to eschew pridefulness (although they often don’t) because their lives work out over millennia. But humans must face a cruel world, somehow, and thrive within it. When the odds are so heinously stacked against you, as they are against Turin, what other response seems reasonable? The Christian reader might object that Turin should have practiced a considered humility, but what would this have gained him? In the world of the Turin saga, there are no answers to the existential question of life after death, even if we as readers “know” the answers contained in The Silmarillion. Our ‘knoweldge’ of the Ainulindale myth, for example, is useless within the space of the Turin story, because the characters themselves are unaware of it (witness the conversation of Sador and Turin. If Sador has heard of it, he doesn’t believe it). The narrative of the Turin story undermines the theodicy of the Ainulindale, which, it must be remembered, is an Elvish myth. It may be objected that this is an example of dramatic irony – if only the characters knew what we do, but that seems unworkable. Presumably, having lived amongst them, the humans of the story would be familiar with the Elvish myths, but even so those stories appear not to have inculcated them with a sense of Christian piety. If the Ainulindale is meant to function as a theodicy (Eru turns evil to his own purpose, etc.) it appears to have garnered only scepticism from Sador and Turin himself.

So, what are we to make of Turin’s pride? Does it absolve Eru, and the Valar? In short, I don’t believe it does, because Turin’s pride is itself a response to the cruelty of the world he inhabits. Interestingly, the book makes no moral judgement upon Turin, and it is this quality that makes his story, for me, so appealing. We are all, like Turin, obliged to face a world which we cannot ourselves exert much control over. What is the correct response this scenario? No one knows, but at the very least assigning blame to Turin because he reacts with pridefulness in the face of his circumstances does not cut it.

Tolkienian Eucatastrophe

Well, it’s been over a year since I last wrote here, probably a rather bad idea if I want to develop a readership. But alas, I am now in a PhD program, and yet paradoxically I will probably have more time to write here. My Honours year is well and truly over, and the strange lull of 2016, filled as it was by a flurry of apparently useless activity, is thankfully over.

In this post, I want to return to a theme I addressed in a previous post: specifically, the notion of eucatastrophe as it is developed by Tolkien in his essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’.

In that post I suggested that the concept of eucatastrophe, or the notion of a sudden joyous turn, as actually inadequate as an explanatory device in the context of Tolkien’s fiction. I want to return to that idea here. Please note, this post assumes a knowledge of the Turin story, and familiarity with Tolkien’s theoretical ideas.

In recent months I’ve been listening to several podcasts which aim to explore Tolkien’s fiction. One of these, the Prancing Pony Podcast, features Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese, both great podcasts hosts, who are currently (as of April 2017) working their way through The Silmarillion. As of this writing, they are in the midst of the Turin chapter, which as I’ve written before tends to have a clarifying effect on the way that readers approach his work.

Without wishing to disparage the hosts of this podcast, which is really wonderful, I think they exemplify the same kind of reading that I was, in a previous set of posts, so critical about in regards to Corey Olsen (aka the ‘Tolkien Professor’. THE Tolkien Professor!). One way or another, the story of Turin invites, indeed it implores, the reader to ask particular questions about Tolkien’s world which are otherwise tangentially present in Tolkien’s other fiction. Questions like, why is there suffering in the world? Or, alternatively, why does God allow suffering if he is apparently so benevolent? The nature of the Turin narrative forces readers to ask these questions because it clashes so starkly with the (apparently) hopeful and consistently ‘eucatastrophic’ message in the rest of Tolkien’s fiction. There are several responses a reader might have to the Turin saga that attempt to square it with the wider eucatastrophic impulse:

  1. This is the most common, and it is answer that the podcasters at the Prancing Pony seem, at least implicitly, to endorse. This thesis proposes that the suffering of Turin is either entirely his own fault, or is primarily his own fault, and therefore cannot be laid at the feet of God, or the Valar. Corey Olsen more or less explicitly endorses this thesis, when, for example, he refers to Turin’s pride. A character flaw like Pride is said to explain Turin’s rash actions, and thus the suffering of the story can be attributed in a more abstract sense to the sin of human pride – a comfortingly Christian explanation.
  2. The second response to Turin is related to the first, but takes a wider, more cosmological view. Like the first response, it seeks (if implicitly) to denude God or the Valar of culpability within the story, and to show how the workings of fate (understood as Iluvatar’s overall design) are in fact benevolent in outcome. Essentially, God works in mysterious ways. All will be well in the end. Such clichés express this view. In light of the suffering narrated through the story, this response seeks to show that such unfortunate events in the story as the death of Turin’s sister, his random and therefore tragic killing of Beleg, or the graphic demise of Finduilas and other such heart rending events are merely ripples in a cosmic drama that will eventually end in a benevolent victory and the overthrow of Evil.
  3. Another view, which is an even ‘harder’ theological response than the first two, considers the Turin story to be a kind of morality tale. The most well known exponent of this view is probably (again) Corey Olsen, although Christian apologists like Ralph Wood also make this argument (see, for example, Ralph Wood’s essay on Turin in the Ring and the Sword essay collection). In this view, Turin’s story is often paralleled with that of Tuor, who is the god (vala) fearing Man we all wish Turin were, if he were only capable of making the right choices. Turin’s story is thus reduced to a cautionary footnight (despite its status as the most fully developed of the Silmarillion tales) in the cosmic drama.

All of these views are related and they all share certain features in common. To begin with, they are all kinds of theodicy, or explanations of suffering. Rather than take the narrative as it is presented, the action of the story, and the implications which flow from it, are made secondary to a philosophical principle. For example, that God has a plan, or that one particular character flaw is capable of explaining away the events in the characters’ lives. Notice that these explanations closely mirror those offered by religious believers in the real world. Like Turin’s story, the lives of almost all individuals in the real world are riven by sufferings of one sort or another. How to explain this? Such theodicies are often suggested as a means of resolved the Platonic dilemma of omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence. But they are also offered as answers in light of personal suffering. A relative dies? God works in mysterious ways. You lose your job? God has a better plan for you. Perhaps this is a caricature, but such explanations always boil down to a simple idea: you are ignorant. You cannot see the bigger picture.

Regardless of Tolkien’s intent, this Turin story obliges readers to confront these questions. Even if you are a Christian reader, and view Tolkien as a kind of prop for faith, the Turin story cannot help but raise questions about the place of God in Middle-earth, or the reasons for suffering, or the injustices of mortal life.

In a future post I want to address the three theodicies above, and hopefully show why each is wrong in the case of the Turin story – or at the very least, why each is a problematic explanation. I also want to show how the idea of eucatastrophe is inadequate, and the reasons for why I think we need to move away from it when discussing Tolkien’s world.


George R.R. Martin’s inane commentary on Tolkien

In a quote directed toward the work of Tolkien George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, has this to say:

There is always this presumption that if you are a good man, you will be a good king. [Like] Tolkien — in Return of the King, Aragorn comes back and becomes king, and then “he ruled wisely for three hundred years.” Okay, fine. It is easy to write that sentence, “He ruled wisely”.

What does that mean, “He ruled wisely?” What were his tax policies? What did he do when two lords were making war on each other? Or barbarians were coming in from the North? What was his immigration policy? What about equal rights for Orcs? I mean did he just pursue a genocidal policy, “Let’s kill all these fucking Orcs who are still left over”? Or did he try to redeem them? You never actually see the nitty-gritty of ruling.

I guess there is an element of fantasy readers that don’t want to see that. I find that fascinating.

Before moving on to my post proper, I want to query the notion that Aragorn is a good king because he is a good man, or that this is a general tendency in Tolkien. Aragorn is a good king because he is essentially ‘fated’ to be my forces that are impersonal. There is never any question that Aragorn would rule justly and righteously; not because of his character so much as because it is his destiny to do so. But this is a mythic, and not a realistic, trope, and highlights the central problem I have with this stupid and annoying critique. It assumes that Realism is some sort of high water mark for literature, an aesthetic goal which should take precedence over all others. As I argue below, this is seriously misguided.

Martin is highly regarded for the “realism” which his book series supposedly displays, showing forth the highs and lows of the human spirit in all its complexity. If that is something that you’re into, fine. Taste is often difficult to discern or justify, to yourself let alone other people.

But Martin seems to think that his formula should stand as some kind of universal value, a position which I cannot fathom, given the literary pretensions which many of his fans seem to hold. Yes, realism was (and still is) a powerful theme in literature, and has been since the ascendancy of the novel in the 18th Century. Nevertheless, even the 20th Century witnessed a profusion of literary genres which cannot be categorized as straight realism. Fantasy itself of course, but also literary modernism, which sought to instantiate the realm of conscious experience within the pages of a novel. Both fantasy and modernism were, at first, experimental genres to some degree, and although they were (and are) very different, both fantasy and modernism sought to do something new and different. Fantasy is not often thought of in such avant-guard terms, but in harking back to older forms of literary production in the modern age it broke from the acceptable literary genre, particularly the social realism of the 1950s (epitomized by Kingley Amis) when The Lord of the Rings was released.

For Martin to therefore argue that fantasy should return to realism is somewhat strange, considering the history of the genre. Fantasy did not originally seek to reflect some notion of the ‘real world’, and nor did the ancient and medieval texts from which fantasy authors drew inspiration. To turn to Martin’s point, inquiring about Aragorn’s tax policies is as inane as inquiring about the methods of tribute extraction practiced by Beowulf when he is made king. Of course, the nature of early medieval kingship is a very important subject of historical inquiry, but Beowulf is not centrally concerned with it. As Beowulf scholarship has frequently emphasised, both the aspects of ‘realism’ and those of the fantastic are central to the poem. It represents a world with complex political realities, but as Tolkien emphasised, the scholarly focus of the poem should be directed toward the Monsters. Indeed, the early scholarship on the poem fell into Martin’s “realism trap”. It sought to mine Beowulf as though it were a trove of historical information, and in doing so those scholars disregarded the universality of the poem. It is not the ‘realism’ of the politics in Beowulf that makes it universal and therefore readable and incredibly moving today, but the Monsters and what they say about community, death, and ‘the long defeat’. Knowing about the tax policies of Beowulf as king, or Aragorn as king, would tell us precisely nothing about the stories, and would not enhance the literary quality of either.

Neither Beowulf nor The Lord of the Rings aspires to realism in the novelistic sense. Although Tolkien’s work contains novelistic elements, it is explicitly constructed within a frame, which is composed of para-texts which situate the Lord of the Rings within a textual tradition. It does not claim to actually “go there” as Tolkien might have put it. Indeed as Michael Drout argues, this tension between the novelistic sense of immediate access to the characters and their situations, and the concomitant distance generated by various textual devices, helps to create the aesthetic sense most central to the reading experience: nostalgia or ‘heimweh’ in the German. Readers are simultaneously present and absent in the text. Naturally, such arguments are lost on Martin, who seems to think that Realism is some sort of home goal. As Drout wonderfully puts it, The Lord of the Rings is mimetic of the literary traditions of the Middle Ages, not ‘real life’ during those times.

Literature can, and frequently does, aspire to aesthetic criteria other than realism. Were we to take Martin’s stupid argument seriously, any number of classics could be “problematized” (to use the absurd jargon so common in Po-Mo literary ‘studies’) because they fail to show some politically inconvenient reality of the era they are depicting. But the Aeneid remains a startling work of literature, even if we know that the history of Augustus’ reign was preceded by obscene violence. The Iliad is central, even now, to the Western canon and remains deeply moving as a reading experience (I’ve gotten more out of it than most novels I’ve ever read. That must mean something), despite its depiction of terrible warfare and violence. Beowulf retains its potency, though we know next to nothing about the titular character’s tax policies. Moby Dick, to take a more modern example, blends the mythic and the realistic without losing a beat. The notion that realism is the most important standard or aspiration for literature is belied by the texts considered central to the Western canon.

Of course, many of these works have broadly political themes or concerns, but so does Tolkien. More often though, these works share a powerful universalism precisely because they transcend the politics of their eras and speak to human beings in vastly different times and places. Perhaps Martin should read some of them.

Tolkien and Hope

Well, having completed my Honours project in 2015, and having taken some much needed time off, I feel like I can finally start writing here again.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of Tolkien and hope again, and I think that Tolkien’s essay ‘On Faery Stories’ has managed to do far more harm than good in Tolkien studies.

Only a minority of Tolkien scholars would agree with such a position. Such luminaries as Dimitra Fimi and Verlyn Flieger attach great scholarly, not to mention literary and imaginative importance to the essay, which they seem to consider a monument to fantasy scholarship in the vein of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.

I am therefore tempting a great deal of admonition when I disagree. This post is not concerned with the essay, primarily, but it is worth discussing briefly. Many have taken it as an explanation of ‘faery-story’, but it seems to be much more than that. Indeed, it is nothing less than a defense of the fantastic in the imagination, broadly construed. Some of Tolkien’s observations, especially those concerned with the role of language in the development of imaginative ‘world-building’ are truly indispensable.  The idea of the ‘green-sun’, much discussed, is a great image, metaphor and symbol all in one, and handily communicates the power of language for invention.

However, the essay tends toward incoherence and rambles around some nebulous central message without ever quite stating it. Is it that language is a versatile tool and that we should be unafraid to use in the service of thinking up imaginative worlds? Or is it that ‘faery-stories’ should provide consolation and ‘escape’ from the ‘primary world’? Or that somehow fairy stories contain the Christian message of cosmic hope, even when we don’t think of it in those terms? Or is it that the Christian myth implausibly actually took place, and therefore demonstrated the power of ‘eucatastrophe’ in history? But why should language be restricted to the service of uplifting fairy tales wherein ‘eucatastrophe’ is always operative at the end of the story? As China Mieville has pointed out, this would undermine Tolkien’s argument that a ‘eucatastrophe’ is unexpected and occurs through the grace of god.

The fundamental problem with the essay, for all of its interest, is therefore its fatal mish-mash of Tolkien’s scholarship and his personal beliefs. Where he makes arguments about language, the essay shines, and where he seeks to implicate his own religious convictions in the efficacy of fairy stories or fantasy, the essay falls flat. Why should fairy stories end happily? Because the Christian story  ends happily? Why should fantasy provide ‘consolation’? What if Christianity is wrong, and there is no final ‘consolation’. The arguments Tolkien makes about escape and ‘recovery’ are better and more interesting, precisely insofar as they diverge from his obsession with the Christian ‘fairy-story’.

Unfortunately, the apparent popularity of the essay among Tolkien scholars has meant that many of these ill thought ideas have in turn shaped the scholarly reception of Tolkien’s fiction. Tolkien has become his most important critic. But as literary scholars have long sought to show, authors are often concerned with manipulating the reception of their works, even when these works have entered the public domain and are no longer accessible to the author’s editorial interventions (unless they decide to publish another edition, which Tolkien of course did). Why should one of Tolkien’s essay, implicated as it is so thoroughly with his religious beliefs, hold such sway over Tolkien scholarship in the 21st Century? It is time to move beyond ‘On-Faery Stories’.

There is much more to say about Tolkien’s treatment of fantasy in the essay, especially with regard to how we talk about the creation of fantasy realms, and his (curiously unquestioned) nomenclature of ‘sub-creation’ (I can’t resist a jab at Corey Olsen, whose every utterance on Tolkien betrays an unthinking fannishness: he uses Tolkien’s terms uncritically all the time, much to my chagrin). However, the single most frustrating concept from the essay must be Tolkien’s coinage ‘eucatastrophe’, mentioned above. At best, it describes a moment of unexpected plot twist, wherein some sense of hope is restored by a ‘joyous turn’. At its worst, it is an undeserved reversal of bad fortune, provided by ‘God’s grace’. Either way, it is implicated in Tolkien’s religion and therefor should be open to philosophical critique, as an idea. At this point it might be objected that Tolkien’s work reflects his Christian ethos as this essay does, and that both are therefore a fit for one another. But it is not at all clear that Tolkien’s fiction is quite so theologically literal as parts of his essay are. There is simply no good a priori reason why Tolkien’s own conceptual edifice should be used to understand and interpret his fiction, especially since it has been enjoyed by so many non Christian. Any interpretive framework or theory should seek to go beyond Tolkien’s Christian belief. Only a kind of fiat by consensus of Christian scholars has produced this reliance on an essentially Christian interpretive reading with ‘eucatastrophe’ a the center.

This is not to say that it is totally unimportant, nor that sudden turns to joy do not occur, especially in The Lord of the Rings. I am arguing, however, that to interpret the whole of Tolkien’s oeuvre though the lens of ‘eucatastrophe’ is to overextend the concept, indeed to be led by it, and not by the text itself. For example, to interpret the War of Wrath episode in The Silmarillion as a kind of ‘eucatastrophe’ is to ignore the tragedy in the chapter. This is a point Drout makes in his “Tolkien and the West” lecture series. Victory against Morgoth is gained, but at tremendous and irrevocable loss. There is no ‘joy’ or ‘grace’ here. The mortal world is laid bare in The Silmarillion: it is a place of loss and memory, perhaps some hope, but certainly not some Christian surety in the grace of God. It might be objected that God is implied, that hope is under the surface, that all will be well in the end. Perhaps Tolkien believed this, but Christian readers must bring this conclusion to the text. God is a character in the work, but unlike the Old Testament The Silmarillion is less about God’s interventionist aspirations as it is about how human memory (or Elvish) makes sense of a broken world where God becomes less and less apparent as history continues and the past recedes relentlessly. The concept of ‘eucatastrophe’ completely fails to capture this nuance, and forces all the narrative through a ‘joy machine’. Like theodicy in the ‘primary world’ the concept reduces all the suffering of Tolkien’s characters to a jot in the history of God’s ‘mysterious ways.’ But the suffering of the characters in The Silmarillion is the narrative center of the whole book. The narrative force of that suffering and the central importance of loss makes any philosophical or theological justification of it meaningless. If Tolkien’s work contains a Christian message, his narrative undermines it.

The Lord of the Rings is less centrally concerned about suffering, per se, but it is certainly concerned with loss and memory. However, given the already absurd length of this post, I’ll save that discussion for another day.

Tolkien scholars need to engage with ‘On Faery Stories’ more critically and with greater rigor. They should not be afraid to point out where Tolkien’s own beliefs are implicated with his scholarship, and why that might cause interpretive problems. Most of all, they should get over ‘eucatastrophe’ and they should stop fetishising Tolkien’s own interpretive apparatus. Think up your own theories.


Is Eru a good god? And why

In his article, ‘God’s Tapestry and the Future of Foresight’,  Jamie at Futile Democracy writes that:

…we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.

I think that a similar set of objections can be raised against the philosophical idea of Eru – Tolkien’s supposedly Christianlike godhead. That Eru is a fictional character (actually, much like ‘God’ himself) does not preclude the discussion of philosophical or logical difficulties that may arise out of the ‘tapestry’ of the story. What is interesting about Eru, however, is the way in which Tolkien attempts to explain or parse these kinds of objections. He does this, I think, by making Eru an ‘artist’ as opposed to a personable god like the Christian Jehovah. The Ainulindale paints Eru as a supreme creator artist, directing his heavenly choir. His most pressing concerns seems to be the generation of beauty and harmony, not necessarily the well-being of his ‘children’. Evil, somehow comes about (and it must necessarily have its source in him) and is allowed to enter into the world on account of the drama it provokes. God sits in the Timeless Halls, watching the play.

This conception of god is, of course, disturbing, and Christian interpreters of Tolkien have long attempted to equate Eru with the Christian god directly, insisting that he is all loving etc. I don’t really see a great deal of evidence for this in the text, however. It is not so much that Eru is deistic (although he seems to be partly deistic) but that his interests are inscrutable. He desires beauty and drama – but why should a ‘perfect’ being desire such things? As with the ‘real’ God, we must as believers insist that the ways of Eru are mysterious. But what kind of a set up is this? Eru is good, but he allows evil and suffering to flourish? It is ‘right’ that he should be ‘worshiped’ or at the very least considered in a beneficent light, but he sees fit to drown islands of defenseless ‘heathens’? As with many aspects of Tolkien’s work, I think the Eru character embodies philosophical difficulties that inhere in Tolkien’s own religion, without coming to any firm conclusion about them. Eru seems to be important to Tolkien, but as an ultimate source of ‘goodness’ his pedigree is alarmingly vacuous.

I think this is why the Lord of the Rings appeals to non religious folks life myself, and why I think Tolkien’s oeuvre is actually best understood through a non religious glass. To insist on a Christian reading – for example, of Eru – and to ignore the ambiguous presentation of his character is to introduce a level of interpretative certitude into the text that is just lacking. Tolkien didn’t consciously set out to deride his own beliefs, of course, but when construing a world of unfolding ‘drama’ wherein evil and suffering are ever present realities, the theology which pertains to the Christian god – a beneficent, all-knowing, personal deity – fails to account for that suffering, as fails to account for the suffering of this world.

Many Christians will appeal to the Free will defense, and argue that Eru explicitly grants this to human beings (and probably Elves too). This is true, but as in regard to the real world, the free will defense cannot explain the prevalence of natural suffering, and nor does it explain why Evil of Suffering should actually come to be in the first place. Many Christians assume that free will entails the existence of morally opposite urges – the drive to do good or evil. But there is no reason to think that god could not have produced a world replete with choice that did not reduce to either causing or refraining to cause suffering. The category of ‘suffering’ need never have been ‘invented’. For Tolkien’s fictional world, these objections may be a little cerebral, but the reality of suffering in that world means that objections like the ‘free will’ defense have little purchase there either. Suffering remains a mystery, and one that informs the narrative without there being a resolution to the problem.

A bizarre and occasionally insightful essay on ISIS (which mentions Tolkien!)

It is not often that I can describe the content and argument of a literary essay published on a ‘high culture’ website like AEON as both ‘bizarre’ and ‘occasionally insightful’, but this essay manages to be both simultaneously. It argues that the appeal of ISIS, the latest band of mass murders currently pillaging ancient sites like Palmyra and distributing beheadings at an ever alarming rate, might be analogous to the appeal of the “Sleeping Hero” mythotype found in Europe, which prophesies the Return of a King at some unspecified time, who will transcend politics, unite the realm and banish evildoers. The analogy to Aragorn is perfectly obvious of course, and I will admit that I’ve always found his story in Tolkien’s novel to be the hardest pill to swallow. The promise of an ultimate political authority, sanctioned by blood and healing power, not to mention 3000 years of ancestry, is indeed profoundly non-modern. It may be hyperbole but I would agree with the author of the piece insofar as following any leader claiming such rights and privileges for himself in this world would indeed be absurd and dangerous.

But naturally, the article demeans Tolkien without actually grasping much else about what makes the Lord of the Rings powerful to readers, and not a power-fantasy dressed up in pretty language. I say ‘naturally’ because almost all allegorical or analogical analyses of these types seem to collapse complexity and nuance to make some sort of overtly political point. In this case I agree with that point, but then, you would have to be a moral monster not to. Where does that leave Tolkien then?

The author makes his ignorance obvious when he writes that “…it is sometimes claimed that that the patently adolescent politics of Tolkien’s Middle Earth (sic) represent a true and valid model for real-world humans.” I’m not sure which version of the “real-world” this author resides in but I have never seen anyone make such a claim. Apart from the fact that Aragorn’s ‘journey’ is not as central to the narrative as the author seems to think it is, there is simply no conceivable reason to think that readers of the book would be drawn in to its ‘adolescent’ politics with such gusto that they should desire something like it be implemented in the Real World, which is of course full of Sophisticated Readers who enjoy the very non-fascist politics of the Modernist Writers, the only True Heirs of English Literature. Ughhhh.

I’ve already made my own reservations about Aragorn above: I think his character is the weakest in the novel (in the sense that we are given insufficient reason to empathize with Aragorn, and he does come across as a power hungry prig at times). Within the cultural space of the novel, his ascent to the throne is ‘legitimized’ by the history of his people and their connection to the Elves, who in turn have carry a spark of the divine. However, I would agree with the writer that such a vision of legitimate power, even in a literary work, can come across as not only uncomfortable but also scary. Aragorn is saved by the fact that his quest is, in essence, a noble one. If there is any analogy to al-Baghdadi in Middle-earth, it is Sauron, who like the former commands a death cult made up of legions of ideologically brainwashed servants (think Mouth of Sauron) who in turn command legions of slaves (the orcs and Haradrim/Easterlings).

This article could have redeemed itself by offering a new and engaging vision of Tolkien in the modern world. I’ve mentioned areas of agreement, but once again it is bedeviled, like so many other articles written about Tolkien, by its insistence that its readers must think, feel or act certain ways (otherwise why would they read it?). Words like ‘adolescent’ conjure images of fetid undergraduate bedrooms and ‘cosplay’ (which the author repeatedly mentions, not by accident). Unserious, against high culture, stunted. These are the readers of Tolkien, apparently. But ask yourselves this. Is the politics of Beowulf “adolescent”? From a certain point of view, of course. Beowulf is not a work that suggests any kind of a social contract is central to the politic functioning of human societies. Beowulf is a here and he becomes the king of his people. He is a kind of Aragorn figure. A hero. Does this mean it is a deranged work of art, dangerous and without merit? If so, all works of art before the modern era are thusly deranged. Indeed, the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves partake in elements of human psychology which are both reprehensible and magnanimous. Are the readers of these works thereby tempted to don bronze armor, neglect the oversight of the State, set up petty kingdoms and declare wars for the love of women? Of course not.

Art transcends political meanings. I truly believe this. Tolkien, therefore, and his various works, while they contain some political sentiments, transcend these. To understand why, I think the work of scholars like Mike Drout is instructive. At the heart of all Tolkien’s fiction is the question of mortality and nostalgia, or more generally, the reality of loss. Even with regard to Aragorn, we see that his ascension to the throne is a temporary reprieve in the passage of time, and political time too. The glory of Aragorn’s reign does not last. To understand this point, one must really read to the very end of the Lord of the Rings, including its Appendices. More and more I’ve come to see these as central to the book, and not mere errata. There, one comes across the ‘Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ which ends not in hope, but in bitterness and sadness. Mortality claims Aragorn at the end. He himself retains the hope of his youth, but Arwen, who has chosen mortality, sees through his hope to the unendurable loss that inheres in the mortal world. At that point, the kingship, the quest, and all the joys that flow from them, are in a sense lost forever. Without this contest one is reduced to arguing that Aragorn’s story is a power fantasy which is analogous to the inspiration that causes someone to behead innocents. I’m not sure whether this is absurd of frightening.

The Children of Hurin – heimweh and suffering encapsulated.

In his often moving essay ‘The tower and the ruin: the past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works’ scholar Michael Drout (185) writes that ‘”Sadness that is yet blessed and without bitterness’ is, I believe, the feeling Tolkien was striving to create in much of his work; ‘joy, joy beyond the circles of the world’, from ‘On Fairy-stories’ has been a bit of a red herring.” I share Drout’s reading, and consider my own responses to reading Tolkien’s fiction much in line with his own: the overwhelming sense of sadness, of people, places and cultures passing on, only to be remembered in the permanence of their ruins. “A ruin…because of its permanence in the landscape…is a tangible marker, an absolute insistence on the pastness of the past, the permanence of the separation from the present experience of the person who views it (Drout, 186; italics original). It is this feeling of ‘nostalgia’, or heimweh – ‘home longing’ which is for Drout, as for this reader, at the bedrock of Tolkien’s creation.

In seeking to explain my own approach to The Children of Hurin in particular, a work on which I have written a few posts of late – I can do no better than to argue that it is perhaps the single most ‘concentrated’ dramatic exploration of loss and heimweh that Tolkien produced. The Lord of the Rings is a work of greater scope and imagination, and perhaps, in places, more poignant, but The Children of Hurin more directly links Tolkien’s overarching theme – the loss that time itself renders – to personal loss and mortal tragedy.

As a singular work of literature it leaves the reader with a distinctive sense of catharsis – the tragic undoing of Turin and Nienor as the culmination of a variety of other tragedies almost as overwhelming in scope. This loss is not tempered by any kind of eucatastrophe (indeed, Drout argues that this concept has been overused in Tolkien studies, and I agree with him) but is instead allowed to remain – ‘a pregnant moment of poise’ as Tolkien might have put it. This is why attempts to explain that loss away – to make it something joyful, in the end, or something that accords with god’s plan – fail. They do not take into account this theme as it is developed in The Lord of the Rings itself, where, despite victory and eucastrophe, heimweh – the loss of home, is by the end of the novel the dominant emotion. It is not ‘alienation’, or some other psychologised malady, but a sense of sadness, captured by Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens and later, Arwen’s (actually somewhat bitter) reaction to Aragorn’s death.

In The Children of Hurin the theme is most narrowly and forcefully explored. The reality of human mortality against Elvish mortality is contrasted, while the sufferings of Men admit of no answer within the story (or indeed, without, but that is another post). While intimations or providence are apparent in The Lord of the Rings, they are here almost entirely absent, a point which John Garth found important enough to speak to in his review of the work in 2007. However, the reality of loss and sadness as it is encapsulated within The Children of Hurin shares this with the way the theme is dealt with in Tolkien’s more famous magnum opus: it is without bitterness. It is awful, frightening even, to be born a mortal in this world, but it is almost as if the acknowledgement of suffering, the standing up to it, is beautiful in itself, and bedevils the urge toward despair. In The Children of Hurin, heimweh is transformed by tragedy into a more immediate sense of desperation, but it does not thereby become bitter and resentful. Where, say, Martin’s works show how the reality of mortal life can drive individuals and characters to evil and suicide, Tolkien, even at his most tragic, maintains not so much a sense of hope or joy, but a sense that the ‘ruin’ itself is a thing of beauty and that sadness is not an emotion or a response to be scorned but, actually, one to be cultivated. As Drout (190) writes, the sadness of being human “…in the inexorable flow of time…” is “…preserved, encapsulated and triggered by the physical ruin, the picture, the image, the memory, which itself could not exist without the achievement , fleeting as it may have been, of the tower, wonderful in itself…”


Drout, M. 2013 ‘The tower and the ruin: the past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work’ in H. Conrad-O’Briain & G. Hynes. Tolkien: The Forest and the City, Four Courts Press.