Suite101: The Downfall of the Lore of the Rings – Are literary analysts exploring Tolkien or their own ideals, masked by a veneer of literary exploration?

by Dec 31, 2000Lord of the Rings (Movies)

“The search for human relevance in literature is obviously important to a lot of people, but as I’ve said before I think they miss out on just enjoying the fun of the tale. Sam gets angry when, as Hobbits of the Shire awaken to historical scholarship, they credit three of the four who were responsible for saving them and leave Frodo out in the cold. It was Frodo, in Sam’s opinion, who achieved the most. But the Shire-folk were too concerned with the minutiae close to their own parochial agendae to see the bigger picture.”

In his last Suite101 Tolkien essay of the year, Michael Martinez explores what Tolkien scholarship and criticism have failed to achieved toward sharing an appreciation of The Lord of the Rings.

Here is an excerpt:

Whenever I think of literary criticism I think of my college days. I think of browsing the racks in the old library building looking for journals on English literature which were written in a comprehensible language. I think of sifting through microfilm and card catalogues. I think of the startled look on one professor’s face when he realized I wanted to do a paper on The Lord of the Rings and not The Lord of the Flies.

While doing research for my Lord of the Rings paper I found there had been quite a bit of critical discussion of the book in the 1950s and 1960s. But eventually the critics got tired of saying how right they were and how wrong Tolkien was. Or maybe they just got old and died off. Critics started getting friendlier to Tolkien in the 1970s, and in the 1980s they became almost reverential. Now, as we are about to enter a new millennium, it’s almost unthinkable that anyone should say anything bad about the author of the century.

Early Tolkien critics shared one thing in common: they were noticeably poorly read in Tolkien. The mis-citations and irrelevant analyses were vague foreshadowings of many Internet discussions. Nothing exasperates me more than to see someone post a message somewhere saying, “I haven’t read the book in ten years, but wasn’t Frodo the Christ-figure?” I wasn’t aware there was a Christ-figure in the book. Christ was a teacher (among other things) and he had disciples. Well, never mind. I don’t want to get into all that.

But at least people who haven’t read the book in ten years have read the book. Critics don’t so much read a book as trash or praise it. Reading is not really a part of the process. Skimming is more what they are expected to do. I remember in an American Lit. class we were all supposed to take turns pulling out good phrases from various stories. Each day we were assigned several stories to read. Then someone would have to go through the stories and say, “I think this is a good passage” and “Look at the structure of this sentence”.

We took it all very seriously. Sadly, we were all saddled with other classes whose instructors also believed in homework. Even the Math professors expected us to actually read our textbooks. There were days when I wanted to interrupt Dr. Straley and tell her, “This is a particularly fine example of a quantitative exposition”. I’m sure she would have understood the deeper meaning instantly (she understood all sorts of things — she was a mother as well as a teacher).

One day, while we starving students were hastily underlining text in our Norton anthologies Dr. Hinton (the English Professor) looked up and said, “Y’all need to learn the fine art of skimmin’!” (The dear lady spoke with a thick southern accent — she was great to listen to.) Naturally we were shocked and appalled. Someone worked up the nerve to ask, “You mean we aren’t supposed to read all these stories?” Well, yes, we were expected to read the stories, but the pace she had set for us was intended to give us a little nudge in the right direction. That is, we were supposed to be learning to pick out the highlights of the story.

So, from that day forward, everyone skimmed. And that seems to be the secret to literary criticism. The critics all practice the fine art of skimmin’. Well, when it comes to Tolkien, unless I’m reading “On Fairy-stories” or “Leaf by Niggle”, I’d prefer not to skim, thank you. There is more to a good story than its highlights. There are the details and subtle indications of character growth. One of my favorite quotes which never came from Tolkien was, “Well, Samwise, what do you think of the Elves now?” That’s a paraphrase of a question Frodo asks Sam two times in the story. Would a critic know what the question refers to? I doubt it. Would a critic understand the deeper meaning of the question? I doubt that very much as well.

Follow the link below to read the entire essay.


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