Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Monday, February 18, 2002

I want to return to a (much) lighter note, and discuss the most favored of geek authors, J.R.R. Tolkien (disclosure, I am a big geek who has read all of his books, in the case of LOTR many, many times). Many critics have dismissed his works, but they have clearly stood the test of time, and remain popular to this day. Tolkien was a conservative, in the old school British sense, but many American conservatives have claimed him as one of their own, and many liberals have castigated a perceived bigotry (anti-women, racist, classist, etc) which seems to me ridiculous. Here is the big problem with all of this lit. criticism; ITS A FAERIE TALE!! It is mythology, fantasy, NOT REAL!!! In all mythology, the characters are "one-dimensional;" the bad guy is pure evil, the good guy is pure good, the powerful token of ancient, long lost strength and vitality is dangerous to its bearer, the morals are fairly easy to identify (sometimes they are actually spelled out). In this case, what grips me is the incredible attention to detail in the work. Every line of the dialogue has meaning, every phrasing carries weight. The end of LOTR contains many appendices, which contain the details of the calendar, the languages, the histories of the various kings of each of the peoples of Middle Eartha, etc. Now, clearly Tolkien had a bias against modernization, wishing to preserve the pastoral English countryside against the onslaught of industrialization. But I think those who take great moral lessons out of LOTR are really missing the point. The moral lesson of the quest is secondary to the story, which is about the personal growth of the 4 hobbits during their travels, and how leaving the Shire and venturing into the world made them better. This is most evident in the end of the trilogy, when they go back to the Shire, and "scour" it clean of the foul influence of Saruman, raising the hobbits against the "ruffians" who have taken up residence and been oppressing their fellows. The stay at home Shirefolk did not know they had it in themselves to do this, and needed the mature, "grown-up" hobbits returning from their quest to show them the way. Of course, Tolkien himself said that the stories were an excuse to use the Anglo-Saxon derived languages he had invented, so maybe my interpretation is bunk too, but I don't think that there is much American conservatism in this story, and deriving significant political messages from it seems a big waste of time.