Tolkien, Straw Men, and Gyges

Next week, the first installment of the Hobbit hits the big screen. With “Geek culture” on the rise this set of movies might be even bigger the Lord of the Rings.I actually
prefer the Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, as books. I reserve judgement on the Hobbit movie, however, since Peter Jackson is expanding the story significantly. He said he is
using Tolkien’s notes, but there is a reason much of the thousands upon thousands of pages of notes did not make it into the novels. On the other hand, Tom Bombadil. I’m
certainly not a Tolkien purist, and Mr Jackson has shown tremendous skill and care for the source material as well as knowing what to cut. I am excited. Too bad my sister has
to go back to the sunless North before it comes out. In fact I should get working on being super-successful so I can afford to fly my siblings and their S.Os home for the
final movie…

Where was I?

Tolkien. Much beloved and yet often maligned, Tolkien is a constant topic of discussion in Fantasy circles. He did not invent the genre as certain “critics”, who seem to be
drafted to write the obligatory “Tolkien was influential, but not really good” pieces that show up whenever the series makes news, think. Homer, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The
Faerie Queen, La Morte D’Arthur, and many others can vie for that honour. But not Tolkien. The professor was not trying to invent something new, but rather very consciously
wanted to popularize a much older Genre and tickle the curiosity of modern audiences. His students found his lectures on Beowulf and the Old Angle Saxon heroes boring. This
is often blamed on Tolkien’s notoriously poor teaching habits, but I wonder how much of it is due to the audiences of the day not being primed for that kind of literature.
Seriously, If I was to read Beowulf for a class, it would not matter how boring the prof was: I love it, even in olde form. Imagine what you would put up with in order to be
able to watch and discuss Star Wars, Dune, the Dresden Files, or The Name of the Wind in a class. I know the dullest person alive would not be able to dim that experience for
some of my friends. Tolkien made those old works accessible again. The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit acted as a primer for the interests of millions of readers. Once they
read Tolkien, many of the elements if the older tales became immediately more accessible because of way Tolkien presented those ideas in a solid, compelling tale. For someone
who is into the songs, ancient languages, and histories of middle earth Beowulf isn’t that intimidating, even in its original form. Tolkien made all of that lore more
accessible in a time when people weren’t really that concerned with it and thus set the stage for modern fantasy.

Even so, many Fantasy authors tend to try hard to distance themselves from Tolkien. Some even go so far as to actively attack his venerable works. Some certainly have
legitimate criticisms, but many of Tolkien’s detractors are simply the type of people who edify their own works by trashing others.The worst of these make a straw man out of
Tolkien, not even bothering to read the work or give it serious thought. Im not thinking readers here, who often find Tolkien dry in comparison to more modern works which are
much better tuned to modern sensibilities. I’m writing about serious critics and authors who want to diminish a work of critical importance to the genre, and often fall back
to the same series of overworn arguments which fall flat to me; especially now that I have re-read the books as an adult and written my own novel.

First off, Racism. This is an easy one actually. Occasionally you will see some unlettered tool go after Professor Tolkien for having “evil races” which are obviously allegories for real-world races etc etc. This doesn’t even require a close reading to throw out the window. Orks, for example, are elves that have been tortured and twisted by Morgoth/Sauron. The experience implied is quite disturbing, and bears no resemblance to anything that has happened in history (yet, though see transhumanism).

Secondly, many people criticize Tolkien for not killing off enough characters. They say victory comes too easily and that the whole series is reduced to the level of a child’s story because of this. I say bullshit. Very few authors have written off characters in a way that effects me at all, Tolkien managed two with Boromir and Theoden-King which bring a tear to my eye to this day. The key here is quality, not quantity. If I barely have time to connect with a character then why would I even care if the writer kills them? Frequently I am turned off books when a writer introduces a character just to be killed or kills a character just to show off. Tolkien manages to break my heart by killing characters who I actually care about, and whom you can tell he cared about as well. It is a lesson that I wish more writers would take to heart.

The worst of all are the pithy critics who honour Tolkien as the “father of the genre” but relegate him to the back shelf in modern day, noting that is basically a children’s fable, outclassed by more serious works. These people likely read Tolkien as a child (if at all) or don’t have the philological background required to see the depth of the work. Take power as an example. The theme of power and corruption in Lord of the Rings, and even the Hobbit, flows deep. The catalyst of the book is the one ring, occasionally called the ring of power. Tolkien goes through the history of the ring, how Sauron used it to corrupt the kings of men and dwarves into serving him, how after Sauron’s defeat it corrupts Isuldur, and how eventually it found its way to the hobbit Smeagol, whom it corrupted into Golum. This all happens as backstory. As a child you could be forgiven for glossing over it. Isuldur is probably just a loser anyways, right? And here’s where the ring of Gyges comes in. The ring of Gyges is from a story in Plato’s republic, a famous discussion about the corrupting nature of power. The ring had the ability to turn the wearer invisible. In the republic the positions taken are that a) such a power would corrupt any man and b) that a man who uses the ring becomes a slave to it, while the man who refuses it remains whole and happy. Tolkien was educated in a system that still valued the classics and would have been very familiar with the Ring of Gyges. It is not at all coincidental. It is not even hidden. You can read the entire lord of the ring series as a discussion of what happens when someone is FORCED (by duty) to carry the “ring of power”. It adds a surprising amount of depth to the story. This is just one aspect. Denethor and Wormtongue also bear some serious scrutiny. It is also worth noting that the ring starts corrupting Bilbo, corrupts Boromir, and eventually corrupts even Frodo. No one is immune, and only the very best can even refuse it.

To leave off on a thoughtful note: while the wise did choose Frodo because they thought he could resist the ring for a while, one must also ask if they also chose him because the price of his corruption would be bearable. After all the Third age could probably bear another Golum, but not another Witch King or another Sauron… and I’m fairly certain that a man who considered his world from every angle would see that as well as I do.

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One comment on “Tolkien, Straw Men, and Gyges

  1. judaidan says:

    Excellent! Your best blog post yet. I do think that it is part of the natural order of things that new generations of fantasy writers cast a critical eye and challenge their literary father. Tolkien has had too many pale imitators (cough – Sword of Shannara).

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