TT: Tolkien Whine

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and offer your thoughts on just how much is too much when writing “autobiographical” fiction.  Then come and join me as I whine about Tolkien and Alan responds.

JANE: Well, Alan, I promised you my Tolkien whine.  Here goes…

Tolkien Wine

One of the underlying themes of the three Lord of the Rings novels is that a time of change is at hand for Middle Earth.  I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to “give away” that, at the end of The Return of the King, the elves have pretty much all left, so have the wizards, and the dwarves are becoming more reclusive.  There is a new age coming: The Age of Men.

However, in reality, there actually isn’t much change.  Aragorn is not-quite human.  He’s incredibly long-lived, somewhat magical, educated by elves and wizards, and his long life has made him wise beyond what most poor humans can ever dream.

He’s married to Arwen the Elf  so, presumably, their children will be half-elven.  Even if they’re somehow not (because Mama chose a mortal life), they’re going to have the advantage of a super long-lived elven guardian mom to give them the advantage of her knowledge and traditions.

Even Faramir, who takes over Minas Tirith, isn’t completely normal.  He’s Gandalf’s pupil and, so it is hinted, a potential wizard.

So much for the departure of the magical races.  So much for the Age of Men.  The more times I read the books, the more it seems to me that what has really happened is that the older races have gone on holiday, but left what you might call a “caretaker government” in charge.

ALAN: You make a good argument – but I’m not sure I agree. Tolkien made it very clear that he was writing about the Matter of Britain.

JANE: Whoa!  “Matter of Britain”?

ALAN: The Matter of Britain (as opposed to the Matter of France and the Matter of Rome) refers to the traditions of medieval literature and legend and their relationship to the present. The Matter of Britain is largely Arthurian. The Matter of France is largely derived from stories of Charlemagne and the Matter of Rome from Classical mythology. While the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France are seen as semi-historical literary explanations of how both nations came to be, they both lack the firm mythological roots that underlie the more classical Matter of Rome.

JANE: Okay.  I don’t think that term is commonly used here in the U.S.  Thanks!

ALAN: Tolkien wanted to give Britain (or, more specifically, England) a historical mythology of its own. It is  quite clear that today we are living in what Tolkien referred to as the Age of Men and it is equally clear that we ourselves are degenerate descendants of the Men who were living in Middle Earth at the end of  The Return Of The King.  And just as they themselves looked back at a fabled golden age and felt themselves to be much weakened, so we too are meant to look back on their age with envy.

It’s no secret that Tolkien was firmly in favour of the divine right of kings, and consequently our British Kings, Queens and aristocrats are uniquely privileged people, descended as they are from Aragorn, Arwen,  and Faramir. Even though the blood of elves and wizards runs very thin in their veins today (for remember we live in a degenerate age) it justifies their position in society and their sense of entitlement.

JANE: The English prof in me always balks at “obviously” and “clearly” statements about an author’s intent.

In my latter life as a writer, I balk at this, too. You won’t believe the number of people who, when I was writing the Firekeeper series, wrote to Tell Me (not Ask Me) what I would be doing next. Often I would have already written the next book and it went in a completely different direction.

So, can you support your claims about Tolkien’s intent?

ALAN: I don’t want to turn this into an academic discussion complete with notes on its feet – but Tolkien’s attempt to write a mythology for England is well documented. John Clute talks about it in his entry on Tolkien in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.  And Humphrey Carpenter, in his biography of Tolkien,  quotes Tolkien directly:

“…I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend ranging from the large and cosmogenic to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.”

I admit that the rest of what I said is speculation, but it is not completely uninformed. Given that we are living in the Age of Men (you can’t deny that), I think that the rest follows on.

JANE: Uh…  As a female, could take off on a whole new Tangent about this being an “Age of Men,” but I’ll spare you.  <grin>

ALAN: Whew! It’s a good job you know me so well…

Anyway, my own Tolkien whine takes a rather different tack from yours.

All the races of Middle Earth seem to have the same form of government. Kings, Queens, and aristocrats of various descriptions rule the lands and the people (even the Dark Lord organises his people this way). Tolkien seemed to think it was the natural order of things. And since he grew up in a country with a Royal family and an aristocratic class, it’s not surprising that he felt that way. He was a member of a generation that took these things very seriously.

JANE: Can you think of other governments he might have reasonably used for the cultures he developed?

ALAN: I doubt that Tolkien himself would have been open to considering any other forms. Given his age and his beliefs I suspect that he would have considered monarchy to be the natural order of things and, since he would have lived through the socialist revolutions of the early twentieth century, he would probably have regarded such things with horror.

JANE: I agree with you.  Tolkien might have stretched to a non-monarchical democracy of some sort – maybe the Riders of Rohan could have voted or something – but I agree with you that he was hoping for order and right.

I really want to continue exploring the ways SF/F has used various forms of government for good or ill, but duty calls me elsewhere.  How about next time?

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4 Responses to “TT: Tolkien Whine”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Hm, I choked a bit on that one. Maybe it’s more in the Silmarillion, but I see a strong strain of Catholic Christianity in Tolkien’s work too. Instead of angels and archangels (and their infernal equivalents), he had elves and wizards (and their infernal equivalents, orcs, Sauron, the Balrog, and so forth). In the Silmarillion, he lays out this whole long decline story of a world made perfect and then corrupted, with the first being generally the best or worst and then things getting progressively more mediocre and boring from there on out as the celebrities moved on.

    The only thing he didn’t do was to have the place redeemed by the Son of Man. And no, that wasn’t Frodo.

    To me, this is what you get when someone who was Catholic becomes a scholar of early European literature. It’s equally possible to read his love of royalty (for everyone except the hobbits and the ents, please note) as about that being where his head and heart were as a scholar. That was the world he wanted to live in, and gosh darn it, he created it.

    I’d put Tolkein in the same camp as Richard Schultes, the renowned Harvard botanist who specialized in psychotropic plants (and defended many students against drug busts in the 60s and 70s, using a fairly esoteric defense based on the botanical difference between hemp and cannabis, and the way the drug laws were written to prosecute hemp possession). Dr. Schultes always wrote in a vote for Queen Elizabeth on ballots. Go figure.

    • janelindskold Says:

      As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, but this time I need a little help.

      I’m not saying I don’t see your point, but am curious as to why you “choked.”

      It seems to me you’re offering an explanation that agrees with my point… That the status quo, not change to a new age, is what is maintained.

  2. Thomas P Says:

    You might be interested in visiting the Marion E Wade Center if you are ever in the Chicago area with half a day to kill for a trip out to the suburbs. It’s a serious research collection on Tolkien, CS Lewis and 5 other British Authors at Wheaton College. http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter

    Besides the large collection of original manuscripts, correspondence, and books written about the authors and their works they have some fun artifacts in the museum portion of the building. Both Tolkien’s and Lewis’s desks where they composed most of their famous works. The original painting by Pauline Baynes of the Narnia Map. And The Wardrobe (The richly carved wardrobe built by Lewis’s grandfather, that Lewis was known to climb into as a kid and tell stories, and which he later moved to the Kilns…) complete with warning sign “Warning! Enter at your own risk. The Wade Center assumes no responsibility for persons who disappear or are lost in the wardrobe.”

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