“Fellowship” in Tolkien Studies

Over at Parmar-kenta, Troels writes in his precis of my post about Corey Olsen that scholars of Tolkien should maintain fellowship. Troels seems to ask how it might be best to use criticism without forsaking this supposed fellowship ‘we’ enjoy.

Well, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Troels here. I don’t want ‘fellowship’ in Tolkien studies. I want it to be like any other academic discipline. People should always be personally respectful, but people should never be afraid to criticize, even harshly. A manufactured sense of ‘fellowship’ creates groupthink and whittles away at free speech. We already have enough censorship on internet forums and other such places, and that is why, on this blog, I will absolutely write what I think about whatever I like. That will not change.

Monotheism in Middle-earth

I think when many people ask why there is ‘no religion’ in The Lord of the Rings, they are really asking about monotheism. Why aren’t they characters monotheistic?

The problem with the religion question in Tolkien, to my mind, has always been that The Lord of the Rings is profoundly infused with ‘religious’ sensibilities, just not the ones preferred by the questioner. In order to gain insight into this, we first need to understand how religion first manifested in the real world.

For some time now, psychologists have been aware of the capacity for human beings to attribute intentionality to inanimate objects. We naturally do this, all the time. In most instances, for example if I spill coffee on myself, I will immediately regain composure and it will be apparent that the spill was either my own fault or an accident, and certainly not the will of the cup.

However, for much of human history, human beings (probably) believed that the cup was, in some ways, exerting its will. How else to explain phenomena? Things want to do something, take some action or whatever.

This is the kind of ‘religious’ experience that is imbued throughout Middle-earth. Things – trees, mountains, rings (especially The Ring), even,perhaps, rocks, feel, think, occasionally talk to each other and exhibit intentionality. They have desires (Caradhras, for some reason, is unwilling to allow the Fellowship to cross it) they have regrets (Legolas ascribes regret to the stones of Eregion, although this might be poetic – we cannot know but it would be unwise to rule out a literal reading) and they carry malicious and hurt feelings (the trees of the Old Forest and Fangorn). Middle-earth is a world awash with intentional agents, and this is one of the reasons it is so powerful and interesting a world to enter into.

Although the hobbits might doubt the existence of a walking tree, it never seems to surprise anyone that the Ring, for example, should have some kind of intentionality or will of its own (this is perhaps exaggerated by the films, although it is there in the books as well). Likewise, the characters quickly cotton on to the fact that the Old Forest is intentionally leading them toward the river. No one looks about and says “this is ridiculous, its just a forest. Trees don’t have nervous systems!” The religion inscribed in the book is, in short, a kind of animistic one. The world itself is imbibed with intentional, creative energy. What need is there for monotheism in such a world?

In this world, monotheism didn’t come about until late in human history. As human tribes, nations and city-states become ever larger, and people found that the wealth they created allowed for surplus thinking time, new kinds of religious ideas developed which eventually ‘culminated’ in various kinds of monotheism. No characters in The Lord of the Rings appear to have internalized such an idea – instead they take the intentional powers of the world for granted. The Elves, it is true, celebrate Elbereth, and even ascribe to her creative powers (the Starkindler) but they never invoke any other gods, let alone Eru.

In a letter, Tolkien calls the Rohirrim ‘monotheists’, but there is no evidence for such a stance in the books. They appear to believe in a kind of pre-Christian hero-afterlife, but that’s about it. They do not invoke, let alone worship, a monotheistic deity.

But! The Silmarillion! Eru! Yep, and that deserves a post all its own.

Tolkien, Ishiguro and Genre

I promise, this blog is not devoted to bashing Corey Olsen and his band of fanboys and fangirls. Nevertheless I feel that he deserves a great deal of criticism so if he occasionally appears on this blog I will not be apologizing for that.

But onto other matters. I’ve recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant. Not only did I enjoy it immensely, I also found myself reading the most Tolkienian novel I’ve come across since, well, Tolkien. No “fantasy” work has ever produced this feeling in me, let alone a piece of supposedly ‘literary’ fiction. Indeed, the whole press fracas about whether or not Ishiguro’s novel can be classed as a work of fantasy really underscores for me the blindness ‘literary’ people have when confronted with literature that does not do realism.

I want to say more about Tolkien and Ishiguro specifically in another post, but I briefly want to dwell on the strange phenomenon of modern literary publishing whereby genre has come to be seen as all encompassing. To read some highbrow review of Ishiguro’s novel, one would have though the beleaguered author had committed high treason. For other reviewers, denial was the preferred strategy. To overcome the cognitive dissonance of actually enjoying a “fantasy” novel, some reviewers were compelled to argue that it is an essentially literary work masquerading as fantasy, and should therefore be understood to be of a piece with Ishiguro’s other literary works. But for some reviewers, it just isn’t good enough as literary fiction.

The problem for some reviewers, for example in the New Yorker review linked above, seems to be that the ‘literary’ quality resides in a certain class of qualities that the reviewer finds appealing. For reviewer James Wood, these are especially qualities which arise out of the Flaubert tradition of realism and the Modernist tradition of ‘depicting’ the inner lives of characters. To read James Wood is to understand that these two poles, the real and the inner life, are his literary obsessions. The sometimes strained dialogue between the desire to ‘show forth’ the soul while accounting for the real world forms the basis for Wood’s critical thinking about literature. No wonder fantasy doesn’t rate. It depicts completely unreal worlds through characters who often, for one reason or another, lack a complete or knowable ‘inner life’. In Wood’s book, How Fiction Works, for example, the history of literature is narrated as a progression from the obliqueness and opaqueness of Achilles to the glorious inner lives of characters in 19th and 20th Century literary fiction. As Michael Drout pointed out in his review of The Children of Hurin on his blog, literary theorists seem to have a doctrine of relative literary progress: literature in the past might be suited to its era, but were say the Iliad produced now, it would not count as ‘good writing’ because it fails to engage the great literary styles, tropes and obsessions of the current day. As Drout asks rhetorically, if we suddenly discovered that Beowulf is a Tudor forgery, would that discount its artistry? According to the implicit theorizing of modern critics, apparently it would.

This is precisely the reason, in fact, that Tolkien is still not taken seriously by some in academia, and why writers like Ishiguro are denounced when they produce fantasy. It is seen as a retrograde genre, admitting not only of unreal elements but of styles and depictions of character unsuited to the modern world. This despite the fact that the fantasy of Tolkien, and now Ishiguro, up to something very profound. More in the following post.

Picked up by Parmar-kenta

It is lovely to see that my blog posts about Corey Olsen’s ideas have been picked up on Troels Forchhammer’s blog, Parmar-kenta. I regularly peruse the wonderful Tolkien Transactions and find them an indispensable resource.

With each entry Troels usually provides a little commentary, and this was also the case with his precis of my blog post, ‘The Children of Hurin, God and Pride’. Troels seems to acknowledge that Olsen’s views tend toward the simplistic but also chastises me for failing to expand my own analysis. Troels, I intend to do this at some stage, but those posts really were about responding to Olsen’s views.

Troels then makes a good point about the notion that death is a kind of “gift” in Tolkien’s fiction. He says that we should remember that the gift is one of “freedom” from determinism (exemplified by the Music of the Ainur). Once again I think this is reading Tolkien a little too programmatically, as though he were a philosopher. I still think that the Children of Hurin cannot really be reconciled to the idea that death is a gift in any way, shape or form, but of course I am open to debate.

Lastly I want to say something about my previous post. I want to make it clear that I don’t have some kind of personal dislike of Dr. Olsen – I’m sure he’s a lovely guy. The exasperation that is evident in that post (for which I make no apology) comes from a place of irritation.

Primarily, it is that Olsen’s ideas and perspectives are so rarely criticized. Being an archaeologist, I come from a field where people with clashing points of view are not afraid to voice disagreement, and it frustrates me that Tolkien scholars are just a little too nice sometimes. Good scholars like Nagy and Drout (and I agree with Troels that a great deal of good scholarship has been done on the Turin material) are starting to change the culture, but it is a long time coming. Criticism and conjecture are the essential ingredients of a flowering academic field, whether that field abide in the humanities or science departments.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not going to be talking about Dr. Olsen in every post, his lectures have just been on my mind recently and I felt compelled to air my thoughts.

But yes, I intend to take Troels up on his criticism (which I welcome) and offer my own thoughts of CoH.

Why Corey Olsen harms Tolkien Studies

For some time now, a literature professor called Corey Olsen, who styles himself the “Tolkien Professor” (as though he were the only one deserving of the appellation) has been releasing podcasts and other material related to his work on author JRR Tolkien. Olsen appears to have quite a following these days. He has developed a new online “university” aimed at providing humanities content to fee-paying students, and more recently he has produced the “Riddles in the Dark” podcasts, which examine the Jackson Hobbit films. I was, at first, an admirer of Olsen, but over the last three or so years I have gradually changed my mind.

In the last two posts I examined Olsen’s treatment of the Turin story, and argued that his appreciation thereof is limited by his incessant need to Christianize Tolkien’s work, even in places where Tolkien’s ambiguous moral outlook is most apparent. He omits evidence and seems unaware of the scholarly opinions of others which might be pertinent to the issues he discusses. However, Olsen’s treatment of the Turin tale is merely symptomatic of a wider set of unfortunate trends which should disabuse his listeners of the notion that Olsen is in any way a proper Tolkien ‘scholar’. In this post, I will list several of these trends and discuss each in turn. I argue that Olsen’s sub-scholarly standards give a bad name to Tolkien studies and perpetuate stereotypes about it which are unhelpful. In the meantime, Olsen distracts from the great scholarship that is actually being done by luminaries like Michael Drout and Dimitra Fimi.

1. Failure to cite or discuss other scholarship.

Although Olsen has occasionally hosted podcast discussion with other Tolkien scholars (the aforementioned Mike Drout) his own work shows no signs of critical dialogue with the field. We might forgive this in his early, well produced Hobbit lecture series, but his teaching at Mythgard (I have taken a couple of his classes) leaves much to be desired. He seems stuck in a kind of New Criticism rut, wherein only ‘close reading’ counts as real scholarship. Never in my experience has he cited or discussed the works of other scholars in any detail. He has occasionally mentioned Doug Anderson and the History of the Hobbit by John Rateliff, but these authors are never engaged with seriously in his teaching or scholarly work.

However, Olsen’s greatest sin in this regard was to publish an introductory ‘close reading’ of the Hobbit without ever citing Hobbit scholarship in the text itself, despite it being a very fruitful area of Tolkien studies. Jason Fisher pointed this out in his review of the book in the journal Tolkien Studies, but Olsen was predictably silent on the criticism. When I posted on Fisher’s blog about this, several of Olsen’s fans (for that is what they are) decided to chime in and defend Olsen on the basis of the work’s popular appeal. But no scholarly work, however much it is aimed at the popular audience, should ever ignore the scholars who have come before. The very basis of scholarship is the critical back and forth, debate, discussion, and conversation. But Olsen refuses to have a debate or a discussion in his book.

Why is this important? Because literary scholarship is a part of the liberal arts, which seek to inquire into human art and production, human being and value. The very basis for the liberal arts consist in embracing the critical eye, of turning the scholarly apparatus toward the work in question and the interpretations of others. Olsen presents his own vision as though it were definitive, and seems to believe that the superior scholarship that has come before may be laid aside.

2. Olsen surrounds himself with yes-men

This critique is especially true of the Riddles in the Dark podcast, where his co-hosts, Dave and Trish, regularly defer to Olsen’s frequent monologues. Although the heinous quality of the last Hobbit film finally extracted some criticism from Olsen, the whole philosophical edifice which he sets up in the podcast remains unquestioned. By and large, this consists in his aversion to “crit-fic”. For Olsen, crit-fic involves the manufacture of spurious theories about film making or financial motivations on the part of the script writers or (say) the studios in order to explain some defect in the film. So, for example, Olsen accuses “purists” (he always uses this time in a derogatory manner) of missing the point when they argue that a two film treatment of the Hobbit movies might have been tighter and more focused than the bloated three film monstrosity it became. Instead, says Olsen, we should only look at the films as they are, and use what he calls “analysis” to understand them. In what does this “analysis” consist? Well, close-reading. As in his approach to written text, Olsen’s approach to the films completely omits context and assumes that all speculations based on the film-making choices of the script-writers/directors etc. are founded in ignorance. This is obviously absurd. Films are not produced in vacuums, and not every script-writing decision is based in some sort of careful story consideration. Film making involves a tension between artistic endeavor and other kinds of considerations, all of which are rather well understood by film scholars. It is Olsen who displays ignorance is assuming that this context fails to have any bearing on the outcome of the film.

However, a more sinister and reprehensible motivation appears hide behind “crit-fic”. Frequently in the podcast (see the final episode as an example) the co-hosts will obsequiously apologize for “doing crit-fic” as though Olsen’s word were the last on the topic, and completely unassailable. This is just nonsense. For Olsen, crit-fic is a means of making his own arbitrary interpretive philosophy the only game in town, and thereby to shut down critics and even his co-hosts.

Although I would not accuse Olsen of deliberately fostering an environment of critical complacency, it is clear that, at Mythgard and elsewhere, Olsen has done very little to actually change this culture and introduce voices critical of his own ideas. The whole enterprise rests on the mighty ego of Olsen himself.

3. Fanboyism

It is great to be a fan of franchises or books that are enjoyable and produce satisfaction. However, the ingratiating attitude of fandom is not always the best when approaching a literary work as a scholar. This is not to argue that scholars should always maintain some kind of emotional numbness toward the works that they find pleasure in (look at the the Jane Austen scholarship these days, I bet most of the literature professors studying her loved her work growing up) but rather that the saccharine, shallow attitude fans all too often bring to a ‘legendarium’ should be avoided.

This isn’t as true of Tolkien fandom as it is for other franchises, although even Tolkien scholars have occasionally been infected by the compulsion to ‘raise a glass’ to the Professor and treat him as an unassailable icon of literary brilliance. Unfortunately, this tendency has crept into Olsen’s podcasting and his teaching.

However, the worst of this trend is not directed toward Tolkien, but toward Olsen himself. Just as Olsen is surrounded by yes-men, the culture is made worse by the grovelling fandom that has developed around the podcast and now, Signum “university”. Far from this enterprise being an endeavor in providing quality education to the masses, it is a platform for Olsen to spout his ideas to fawning fans who are predisposed to agree with everything he says. This is not a new open university, a new Coursera, a new venue for critical thinking. Olsen’s online educational endeavours are produced by and for his fans. Once again, Olsen himself is the ego at the centre of everything.

Why this hurts Tolkien Studies

As a young field of scholarship, Tolkien studies is only now beginning to find its feet. The fantastic journal Tolkien Studies regularly produces great scholarship, and more scholars than ever are producing quality monographs engaging with various hard problems in Tolkien’s fiction. Meanwhile, anthologies and reference works have started to appear. This is all great stuff, but Olsen puts the reputation of the whole project in jeopardy by promulgating his oversimplified, fawning, fanboy-wridden version of Tolkien scholarship. At the beginning, during the 60s and 70s Tolkien studies did consist in fan produced “scholarship”, often appearing in zines or other magazines. Now that it has grown into a respectable discipline, it would be unfortunate if the progress that has been achieved in universities and in publishing were hurt by Olsen’s anti-intellectualism.

Although the field has (by and large) embraced Olsen, I think many top scholars like Drout, Shippey and others need to reconsider their support for Olsen’s project. The sycophantic cult that has grown up around the podcast and the Mythgard academy/university system is ugly to behold.  I urge these great scholars to disassociate themselves from Mythgard and continue their great work elsewhere.

Corey Olsen and the notion of death as an “escape” in Tolkien

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to address an argument made by Corey Olsen and one of his students in this podcast. Olsen argues that the Turin story can be understood as an ultimately triumphant story of human escape. In committing suicide and/or dying of exhaustion, Olsen argues that Morwen, Nienor, Turin and Hurin all manage to defy Morgoth’s taunt that he should pursue them by dying and therefore returning to Illuvatar (god). Furthermore, Olsen argues that, given ‘death’ is understood to be a ‘gift’ from god, the death of these characters should somehow be understood as a victory.

In support of this position, Olsen cites the death of Aragorn, which Olsen argues demonstrates the “correct” way for human beings to interact with the idea of death in Tolkien’s story. To begin with, this example highlights a major problem I have with Olsen’s commentary: his tendency to reduce incidence in Tolkien’s stories to either one or another moral dimension and to ignore narrative ambiguity. For example, in the Aragorn example, Aragorn does indeed plead with Arwen, his wife, to await their reunification some time after death. Yet Olsen completely ignores the tragic element of tale which asserts itself at the end of the story. Arwen is not comforted by Aragorn’s words. Instead she despairs and eventually dies, forgotten. Contra Olsen, the story of Aragorn and Arwen is infused with an ambiguous attitude toward death. I would argue that like the tale of the Children of Hurin, the story of Aragorn and Arwen ultimately complicates the neat ‘schema’ Tolkien sets up whereby death can be seen as a gift, an idea which reeks of philosophical special pleading in any case.

As with the Aragorn and Arwen material, Olsen’s treatment of the Turin material overlooks the affects of the narrative and programmatically applies some external idea, thereby “rescuing” the story from ambiguity (and maintaining a sense of Christian hope, which Olsen apparently finds essential, even to the point of twisting Tolkien’s story and thoroughly ignoring its ambiguity). The notion that death is a “gift” does nothing to allay the tragedy of the story. No matter to what extent Olsen may wish to philosophize about Tolkien’s own beliefs, the affect of the narrative is to instantiate pathos and catharsis, not a sense of Christian hope.

The Children of Hurin, God, and Pride

As an initial new post I’d like to write about a book that has been a favorite of mine since it was first released – The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien. Quite why it has become one of my favorites has been a question I’ve been thinking about lately and I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer it in one post, but I’d like to start by saying that I’m not going to be considering it in relation to Tolkien’s other works – not even the Silmarillion. I’d like to be able to consider it as a work of fiction on its own terms, as though it were singular piece of writing unencumbered by the myriad other novels and romances composed by the same author. Only by considering the Children of Hurin in this way do I believe we can actually come to appreciate it. Too often the theological visions encompassed by the Silmarillion, and especially the Lord of the Rings, are considered at the expense of this narrative. Long ago, a poster at the (apparently now defunct) Barrow Downs discussion forum made the cogent point that the novel will inevitably be relegated to second-class status, its moral vision shrouded in the giant shadow cast by better known works of Tolkien. I believe that this has already, sadly occurred. In this post I’d not only like to present a case for reevaluating the Children of Hurin, I’m also interested in exploring the reasons behind its (relatively  speaking) limited appeal to some Tolkien fans.

In his lectures on Tolkien, the literature professor Corey Olsen has often expressed dismay toward the content of the Turin saga, repeatedly emphasizing its “depressing” nature (see, for example, his Silmarillion Seminar discussion series on the Turin story).  Although hardly any reader would contend with this general observation, Olsen’s reasons for expressing his dismay go to the heart of the (as I see it) difference between readers who are inclined to see Tolkien as a ‘Christian’ writer, concerned with expressing that peculiarly Christian concept of joy, in which God unexpectedly intervenes and condescends himself to humanity in spite of their sinful nature, and those who, like Verlyn Flieger in her Splintered Light, see him as a writer of abiding, and indeed unresolved, contradiction. In Olsen’s view, the Turin story, while often enjoyable and not without pathos, fails to engage reader empathy because the character of Turin is unlikable, and therefore unrelatable (once again, see Olsen’s Seminar discussions on Turin). The primary reason for the unlikableness of the character stems, according to Olsen, from the character’s overbearing Pride (that most dreadful of Christian sins). In a discussion during the recent ‘Mythgard’ seminar focused on the Book of Lost Tales II, Olsen argues that the earlier prose iteration of the Turin story (written when Tolkien was about 25) engenders sympathy far more readily because it portrays Turin as a less prideful, far more introspective character. Olsen cites the Doriath episode in Turin’s life as evidence. In the later version, Turin flees after he unwittingly commits manslaughter. Maglung, an Elf of Doriath, confronts him and attempts to reason Turin out of it. “…come back with us, Turin for the King must judge these deeds.” Turin replies haughtily: “‘If the King were just, he would judge me guiltless. But was this one of his counsellors? Why should a just king choose a heart of malice for his friends? I abjure his law and his judgement.” (CoH, 91) Mabling then accuses Turin of pridefulness and and bids Turin learn “wisdom”.  Turin’s character is indeed implicated in this scene, but the scene should not be understood solely in isolation, as Olsen seems to take it. If we have read The Children of Hurin diligently up to this moment, we should be aware that Turin’s character is composed of a rather complex array of temperaments. Already as a child, several traumatic events (all of which are out of his control) disturb his youth and augment his naturally caring nature with a fierce protectiveness toward kin. Not only does his sister die of a disease early in childhood, his father goes to battle and fails to return and his grieving mother copes with her distress through abject silence. It is a hard world, and Morwen knows it. She does not try to comfort Turin.  It is therefore the desire to save his kin, born out of suffering, that is the driving force behind Turin’s character. To call Turin’s actions merely prideful misses the point, but it serves a comforting purpose for the likes of Olsen and the other, as I shall name them, ‘Christian-centric Readers’.

In the CCR view of Tolkien’s work, the moral universe of Middle-earth exhibits Christian, specifically Augustinian, characteristics. There is the Good and the Bad is a perversion of the Good. The Good is that which the ‘good’ characters strive for and Evil consists in the domination of wills by other minds, but God does not create that Evil. While these categories may occasionally be fuzzy, they are never completely opaque. In this worldview, human beings are essentially Fallen by dint of their own imperfect nature. So far, so Lord of the Rings friendly. The problem, however, arises when this worldview is transplanted into a story which depicts such abject suffering. As a child, we see Turin and his family suffer through no fault of their own. Before Morgoth even curses them, we witness a world of material scarcity, disease, and war, and the suffering that these forces cause is consistently emphasised. Like most human beings throughout history, these characters have not chosen the times or places of their births; they are merely surviving and striving in the time that they find themselves inhabiting. This observation is afforded even keener poignancy by the explicit and frequent comparison between the immortal Elves and the moral Men. At one point early in the story, Turin asks his servant-friend if his dead sister will return. The servant replies “She will not come back.”

The CCR/Olsen point of view finds the Turin story distressing not because it exhibits suffering, but because within the confines of that story the suffering is not, and cannot be explained. There could be some higher answer, but for the characters ‘experiencing’ the narrative, it makes no difference. Thus the tension between Tolkien’s expressed theology and the poignancy of his portrayal of suffering is the element that affords the book such power. In my view, the book comes firmly down on the side of the ‘human’ point of view, eschewing cosmic explanations and, like Job, it laments the wretchedness of mortal life. That is why pride is so important to Olsen and CCR’s: by citing Turin’s pride they can blame him for his transgressions and therefore ‘absolving’ God and maintaining their view that human beings are at fault for their own suffering. The problem with this view is that, as The Children of Hurin clearly and heartrendingly shows, human beings are not always responsible for the suffering that they experience.

I shall have more to say about this in later posts. In the meantime, I would welcome feedback.