October 06, 2003

Leaves in the autumn wind

Posted by Curt at 03:20 PM in Literature | TrackBack

Ever since I learned to read, and at least up until the last couple of years, my favorite book of all, without even any close competition, was unquestionably "The Lord of the Rings." Now it has been a few years since I have read it last, although I think I have read it at least nine times all the way through, and countless times I have dipped into it whenever I need a moment of comfort, like Faulkner with his "Don Quijote." However, the world has changed for me, and I no longer feel as close to the absolutely idyllic (in an imaginative rather than moral sense) world I felt connected to in Middle-Earth, and indeed I have my doubts now as to whether I will ever encounter a place like it in my future life. Indeed, my usual formulation in describing the matter is that as a child Middle-Earth was my private ideal into which I could retreat at any point, but since I have become burdened, with the onset of maturity, by a sense of the loss of private fantasy, I have become very much taken with the work of the proto-existentialists like Kafka and Kierkegaard who I think express this spiritual longing most acutely of any modern intellectuals ("The Hunger-Artist" might be the supreme symbolic evocation of the condition). Yet in reading this archived Salon article I was struck by an observation which had never really struck me consciously before, that in fact Tolkien expresses everywhere in his writings an angst or sadness about the passing of the beautiful and the good out of the world just as poignant and acute as those authors. As much as "The Lord of the Rings" captures for me the world of my longing, it is more than anything a lament for its end. As Andrew O'Hehir says in the article: "Few if any heroic quests have had such a sense of human frailty and weakness...Even the victory wrought by the Ring's destruction is a sad affair, in many respects closer to defeat." Just think of the parting of the company after the victory at the end of the last book, when the immortals and Frodo depart from the world on the grey ships. The tone is almost unbearably mournful, very much in the spirit of those great Middle English poems that Tolkien translated, "Pearl" and "Sir Orfeo." And let us not forget that Frodo does in fact fail in his quest and tries to take the Ring for himself in the end. But Gandalf is wise enough to realize that his mercy in saving Gollum, the most depraved and conflicted character of all, was perhaps the true defining moment, which makes "chance, or divine grace" possible. In any event, I must have been shaped by this sensibility from the start, or else I have always been of a similar disposition and simply responded to the expression of a similar spirit I detected there, just as I was later pulled to the temperament of Kafka and Kierkegaard. I find it at the very least revealing that perhaps the most popular novelist and poet (and, I hope by coincidence, my personal favorites) of the modern age are Tolkien and his kindred spirit, that other great advocate of mythology, W.B. Yeats, both of whom responded to modernity by an absolute spiritual rejection of it.

p.s. My only insatiable cultist quibble with the story itself is that the premise behind the existence of the Ring and its destruction do not, as far as I can tell, make any sense. I have been muddling over that little conundrum since I was eight years old, and I have yet to piece together a coherent explanation for how the Ring is supposed to actually work--I have come to the view that there isn't one. However, while it may be metaphysically inexplicable, there is no question that within the story it is the perfect symbol for corrupting power.