A Curiously Great Book – Salon.com

by Jun 5, 2001Books

Although its popularity is unparalleled, intellectuals still question the literary stature of The Lord of the Rings. Now, one scholar defends it as a modern masterpiece.

Here is an excerpt from the second part of Andrew O’Hehir’s article.

J.R.R. Tolkien believed that myth is inherently true and material progress inherently evil. You could call that radical, reactionary or romantic, but it’s a distinctively modern phenomenon. Modernity and the Enlightenment notion of progress have to exist before you can reject them, and once again we see that The Lord of the Rings, for all the magic it employs to repopulate England with its ancient wraiths and spirits, belongs finally to the 20th century.

This is partly made clear by the presence of hobbits, those sensible if small-minded late-Victorian villagers, and partly by the “applicability” (the word Tolkien preferred to “allegory”) of the War of the Ring to various events of the modern age, from the battle against Nazism to the Cold War and the atomic bomb to the Industrial Revolution and the backlash against it. (As I have already suggested, I find this latter parallel the most convincing of the three.) But Tolkien’s modernity lies most clearly in his anti-modernism. To borrow a concept, perhaps outrageously, from German philosopher T.W. Adorno — who might be considered a kindred spirit from a vastly different tradition — Tolkien issued his own Great Refusal to the myth of Enlightenment, preferring the enlightenment of myth.

In a lengthy and inadvertently hilarious screed published in the wake of the Channel 4/Waterstone’s poll (whose result she called a “bad dream”), Germaine Greer defines the central characteristic of Tolkienian literature as “flight from reality.” This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.” Although educated in terms that modernist critics and authors had to respect, Tolkien attracted a readership of millions with a disreputable genre and the message that almost everything valued by the modernists was empty and evil. Dear oh dear indeed.

T.A. Shippey is actually brave enough to compare this quintessentially anti-modern writer to the avatar of literary modernism himself, James Joyce. If Shippey is not quite as solid a literary critic as he is a philologist — his claim that “the dominant literary mode of the 20th century has been the fantastic” is daring, if overstated — here he strikes a telling blow. First there are the coincidences: Joyce and Tolkien were close contemporaries from neighboring nations, had similar class and religious backgrounds and are best known for one work, highly original, immensely influential and encyclopedic in scale (Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings, respectively). Moreover, both labored long and hard over a successor work, written in still more inscrutable language, which proved impenetrable to all but their most devoted fans (Finnegans Wake and The Silmarillion).

There are deeper correspondences, and here Shippey could have gone further and included Vladimir Nabokov as well. All three, you might say, have strong qualities of boyishness; they are precocious and erudite, lost in their own worlds. All are obsessively interested in language and indeed in linguistics. (Joyce, as my father could have told you in considerable detail, was something of an amateur philologist.) Each, in Shippey’s phrase, “engaged in deep negotiation with the ancient genres of epic and romance” (see Ulysses and Lolita). Each was fascinated by puzzles, games and systems of taxonomy, and employed them as matters of both form and content. Yet the differences, says Shippey, are more instructive than the similarities:

Tolkien’s approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used “mythical method” not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the “realist illusion” of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusions … He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment. One might almost say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them.

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