Of Tree and Root

Although it seems a little embarassing, as if my childhood has barely ended before I begin indulging in nostalgia for it, I have been re-reading The Hobbit and the The Lord of the Rings, probably the books that meant the most to me when I was a small child but which I have not gone back to in over 12 years, which is to say since I was about nine years old. They hold up surprisingly well even under closer analytical scrutiny, but while Tolkien is justly credited, like the Irish Renaissance writers before him (and more convincingly in my opinion than for example James Joyce), with helping to revive mythology and the epic as suitable subjects for treatment in the modern literary styles (and eventually in film), his reputation seems to have been established on false grounds in certain other respects, two in particular. He is for example accused of encouraging escapism in literature. In the sense that he does not bother with a retailing of the ordinary details of our modern industrialized lives, this is undoubtedly true. But this is as much a moral choice as an aesthetic one, and it seems to me that this is largely the appeal for a child like me when I first discovered the books. It is immediately obvious that as epics they are unmistakeably modern simply because the hobbits start out from a thoroughly domesticated semi-modern existence. They are not bold heroes, and although they mostly accomplish their goals by stealth and cunning they are not the sort of amoral tricksters that usually act in this way in mythological stories, like the Navajo coyote-man or Brer rabbit. They are simply rather indolent innocents, children really who have never had to expand or take on responsiblity until verging on middle age, approximately the age of the writer himself while writing them.

What is crucial is that in order to develop morally, to become wise, mature and unselfish they have to venture out into the wilds of the world, to leave the Shire so to speak. Some writers of the fantastic genre, like the fairly reprehensible Roald Dahl, send a hedonistic message to children, indicating to them that their own selfish little desires and habits of life are more important and worthwhile than the dreary world of adulthood and counselling them to indulge in them no matter how amoral. Those writers I universally found distasteful as a child, but they could not be more different from Tolkien. Tolkien’s epics are tales of initiation or apprentissage, and while the world of innonence is very sweet and charming he is clear that all the finer virtues must be developed with maturity. The protagonists gradually change from diminuitive to grand only with great pain. This is probably what adults forget about childhood, if my own was at all indicative. It is easy to look back on the past, but one always forgets the part of one’s mind and heart at that time that was looking towards the future, both with apprehension and hope. For myself as a child I could think of nothing more important or compelling than to grow up, in the sense of developing from a nothing into someone distinguished in some admirable way, either by heroism or by generosity or by genius. As fantastic as the world of Middle-Earth may be, it is clear that from the Tolkienien point of view it is really us who refuse to venture beyond the staid and comfortable little boundaries of our own little social existences, our own Shires, who are the escapists, in the sense that we, for the sake of comfort and due perhaps to a lack of imagination, do not confront the real dangers of life that challenge us to become great, or at least self-justified.

That misconception should already point to another one, particularly dire in the ’60’s when the books first became popular and very evident in the little preface to my own edition written by someone in 1973 in California. This is the view that Tolkien is some sort of proto-environmentalist and hippy, standing up for the green earth movement before there was such a thing. Tolkien was notoriously unfriendly to allegory, but the obvious emotional and moral component of the characters’ journey into the wilds of Middle-Earth should indicate caution in seeing the books as a simple paeon to nature. For one thing, the nature being spoken of is not “real” nature in the sense that it all occurs in an imagined world (or rather the imagined mythological pre-history of our own world) populated by all kinds of dreamed-up creatures. It’s not the real natural world of the English or any other countryside but the countryside that is produced by and nourishes an active imagination. Secondly, the natural world in the books is by no means universally happy and friendly. It is sometimes malevolent and always dangerous, and the characters do not develop by communion with it but rather agonistically, in conflict with their surroundings. The virtues they develop there are far from the pacifistic or passive ones mistakenly identified by the ’60’s crowd: they become brave, bold, even aggressive in defense of a just cause. The latent violence in Middle-Earth is quite pervasive. It really is the natural world in the sense of a competition among the various species and races, which is one aspect of Tolkien’s vision which I cannot approve of morally. Among the main characters there is always a moral struggle, but whole swaths of Middle-Earth seem blocked-out ethically. Elves, wizards and the High Men of the West are (almost) always good, orcs, trolls, spiders and dragons are always bad, and the murder of one of the members of the bad species never even requires a justification beyond reference to that species. It is well-known (now) that Tolkien was not exactly a fervent opponent of the Nazis, and the geographic and genetic moral segregation in the books is pretty bad and has never been justified satisfactorally that I know of. That by itself should indicate that Tolkien is a different type than he has often been made out to be.

It seems to me that his style, reflected in his language (an element of the success of the books under-appreciated both by readers and by the generally poor writers who followed in his path) among other things, is the opposite of ironic: it builds up rather than undercuts, makes a subject that does not seem intrinsically serious important. I do not know whether Tolkien actually believed in the existence of fantasy-worlds, though his outlook does seem rather pagan (which does not necessarily clash with his vowed Roman Catholicism, it being itself a borderline pantheistic religion), but he does constantly stress the need for belief in the fantastic for the health of the imagination and, in turn, for the hope, the belief in life being played upon a larger stage, which is essential to inspire moral development. It does not brush aside the essentials of life, but rather, just as the parable always suggests a level of meaning beneath that which is apprehended, so the fantasy here constantly pushes to a realm of possibility just a little beyond that which was previously accepted.

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