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|Posted: Sat Dec 03, 2011 1:53 pm Post subject: Tolkien's influence
|There is a piece in The New Yorker about Paolini's Eragon series, but it is as much about Tolkien's influence on the genre.
|THE DRAGON’S EGG
High fantasy for young adults.
by Adam Gopnik
DECEMBER 5, 2011
The Eragon books offer the enchantment of an alternative world fully entered.
At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”
It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry. Beginning with Terry Brooks’s mid-seventies “The Sword of Shannara”—which is almost a straight retelling, with the objects altered—fantasy fiction, of the sword-and-sorcery kind, has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination. A vaguely medieval world populated by dwarfs, elves, trolls; an evil lord out to enslave the good creatures; and, almost always, a weird magic thing that will let him do it, if the hero doesn’t find or destroy it first—that is the Tolkien formula. Each element certainly has an earlier template and a source, but they enter the bookstore, and the best-seller list, through Tolkien’s peculiar treatment of them. Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
What did Tolkien do to this stale stuff to make it so potent? Another British don, Christopher Ricks, once dismissed Tolkien as “our Ossian,” referring to a third-century Irish bard, supposed to be the author of “Fingal” and other Gaelic epics, and wildly popular in the eighteenth century, whose works were actually written by his supposed “translator,” James Macpherson. Dr. Johnson knew it was a fraud, and when asked if any modern man could possibly have written such poetry replied, “Many men, many women, and many children.” Ricks meant the comparison to Ossian as a putdown—that there is something fraudulent and faddish about Tolkien’s ginned-up medievalism…[break]
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, “I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.” Nor does any Mordor general stop to reflect, as even many German officers did, on the tension between duty and morality: there are no Hectors, bad guys we come to admire, or Agamemnons, good guys we come to deplore. (Comic-book moralities, despite their reputation, are craftier; the “X-Men” series is powerful partly because it’s clear that, if you and I were mutants, we would quite possibly side with the evil Magneto.)
What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—Númenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it. (There is also, in Tolkien, the complete elimination of lust as a normal motive in daily life. The wicked Wormtongue lusts for Éowyn at the court of Rohan, but this is thought to be very creepy.)
Summing up on Tolkien, Paolini, et al:
|One might mock—one does mock—the mastery of what is, after all, mere mock history. But the fantasy readers’ learned habit of thinking historically is an acquisition as profound in its way as the old novelistic training in thinking about life as a series of moral lessons. Becoming an adult means learning a huge body of lore as much as it means learning to know right from wrong. We mostly learn that lore in the form of conventions: how you hold the knife, where you put it, that John was the witty Beatle, Paul the winning one, that the North once fought the South. Learning in symbolic form that the past can be mastered is as important as learning in dramatic form that your choices resonate; being brought up to speed is as important as being brought up to grade. Fantasy fiction tells you that history is available, that the past counts. As the boring old professor knew, the backstory is the biggest one of all. That’s why he was scribbling old words on the blackboard, if only for his eyes alone. |
But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. ~ Carl Sagan