Tolkien’s Accomplishments and His Place in 20th Century Fiction – An Interview – Mars Hill Audio Journal

by Sep 8, 2001Lord of the Rings (Movies)

This isn’t the normal journalism fluff that so many of us are used to seeing in these days of pop-culture-Tolkien, when unread writers analyze and exegete The Lord of the Rings but often don’t do enough research to justify their views. Here is an interview with a professor at Baylor University, Ralph Wood, who understands the touch that The Lord of the Rings can have on a life, the intangible–but clearly recognizable–power it can have on the reader. Read on for a wonderful, deeper look at Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings!

And many many many thanks to “Harvestar” for actually taking the time to transcribe this entire interview from an audio tape!

Mars Hill Audio Journal. Volume 49. Interviewer: Ken Meyers

Beginning of tape:

JRR Tolkien in his study.
Ralph Wood: “…a quest is just the opposite of an adventure. A quest is something you don’t undertake voluntarily. This is not something you want to do, this is something you are driven to you, you are called to do, you in a deep sense required to do.”

Interviewer: One of the most powerful quest stories in 20th century literature is JRR Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings and although Middle-earth doesn’t seem to have any religions, Ralph Wood sees Christian virtues in Hobbits. Ralph Wood is one my guests on this edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.”

The Interview:

[Audio of trailer:]
One ring to rule them all
One ring to find them
One ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them..

(Carmina Burana type music)
Next Christmas the most extraordinary tale ever told will come to life

Cate Blanchett as Galadriel: Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.

Interviewer: The first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies is due in theatres this Christmas. Some of Tolkien’s most loyal readers are skeptical of the cinematic treatment of his book. And not because they distrust films, per say, but because they know that film, while a powerful medium, is not omnicompetent. We’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, I thought it might be fitting to exploit the rising tide of Middle-earth merchandizing and talk to some people about what the book’s accomplished and about Tolkien’s place in 20th century fiction.

I mentioned this plan to Professor Ralph Wood of Baylor University when we met recently for a meal. And he told me that he had done some writing about Tolkien. He’s also taught the Lord of the Rings for many years to undergraduates and has thus thought a lot about the remarkable interest this unfashionable, pre-modern and _long_ novel continues to command.

Ralph Wood: That interest, of course, is deeply tied to Tolkien’s understanding of heroism, of friendship, of the power of pity and mercy, the true nature of joy and hope. And that students, therefore, often report to me something quite remarkable: that after reading Tolkien, they feel clean. And I think they mean by that, not just that there is no pornography in Tolkien, though certainly that’s true. In fact, no genital sexuality at all. But they mean that they’re in a moral world where, good and evil are not simply defined over against each other and certainly in simplistic terms that you get in so much of so-called Christian fiction and film. They’re deeply ambiguous realities and complex but that the way Tolkien deals with them enables these students to come into a moral and religious realm that they’ve never really encountered before. And that that arrests their imagination, grabs their attention, and makes them life-long addicts of Tolkien. I spoke just last week with a student who read Tolkien with me a decade ago and she has since re-read Tolkien 3 and 4 times for this reason.

Interviewer: Do you remember the first time you read the Lord of the Rings?

Ralph Wood: Yes, it was in the sixties. Of course, that was a faddish time to read Tolkien. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and kept seeing all these grafitti, “Frodo Lives”, “Tolkien is Hobbit forming” and the like. And we had very close New Zealand friends who were reading it at the same time. So my wife and I began to read it and we were bowled over because I had not been a fan of fantasy. That has not been a genre I have been drawn to natively. But this book had a power over me that I couldn’t account for. This was in the.. mid ’60’s, actually late ’60’s, probably ’67, ’68. And then when I began my teaching career, I thought of teaching that book to see if it could have the same effect on my students. This was in now the early ’70’s. And it did and it has since then. We have an entire course here at Baylor called the Oxford Christians. Devoted to CS Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers on the edge of that. It enrolls to capacity everytime.

Interviewer: So the popularity was not confined to the Age of Aquarius?

Ralph Wood: Not at all. Although these really outrageous stories that Tolkien had composed the Ring epic … stoned. [laughs] No, but it wasn’t at all just a 60’s fad it seems to me.

Interviewer: Let’s go back and talk about the virtues that you enumerated that are evident. It’s a book that is a quest story particularly with a heroic figure at the center. How is Frodo Baggins different from other notable heros or how is he similar to other notable heros in literature?

Ralph Wood: Well, first of all, Frodo makes an important distinction about this matter that he’s learned from his master, Bilbo Baggins, who’s taught him to distinguish between the quest and the adventure. Bilbo has said that what he calls an adventure is a “There and Back Again” story, where you set out on a journey because you’re bored with your present existence. You want something more interesting to do. You know where you’re going, you’re off there to find the more exciting life. And then when you have your excitement, you return safely home. What he calls, a “there and back again” story. You go out and then you come back, everything is safe.

Interviewer: And that was the subtitle to the Hobbit?

Ralph Wood: Exactly, the Hobbit is an adventure.

Interviewer: It describes Bilbo’s adventures.

Ralph Wood: Exactly, but in the Ring epic, he deliberately writes a quest story. He says a quest is just the opposite of an adventure. A quest is something you don’t undertake voluntarily. This is not something you want to do, something you are driven to you, you are called to do, you, in a deep sense, required to do. It takes you into a place where you don’t know the outcome at all. You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know what the final result will be. And very often you don’t come back home again… you die. Or else you come back home so wounded and marred by the experience that home can never be quite the same again. It seems
to me the first and most important distinction to understand about what Bilbo [Frodo?] undergoes in LOTR. There he differs quite remarkably from most heros and here Tolkien was doing something quite distinctive to his own work. That is, he’s occupying, creating, a pre-Christian realm where there’s been no incarnation, there’s been no people called Israel. In fact there are no religious practices among the Hobbits. They don’t worship, they don’t say prayers, they don’t worship God, but they have virtues that are not pagan. At least not the classical pagan virtues. Because the standard heroic virtues are those of the strong person, the strong man usually, of course. As you know the word virtue comes from the Latin vir having to do with manliness. These Hobbits and their companions are weaklings, the very name hobbit is also sometimes called halflings. They’re only half size. They’re miniscule creatures almost. And so are those around them. Merry and Pippen are, as they say, the littlest of the hobbits. They’re like newborn chickens, almost, in their vulnerablility.

And yet, out of this company of 9, 4 of whom are hobbits, comes a heroism unlike that in classical pagan literature where there are Greece and Rome on one hand or the Scandinavian myths on the other. And I think this is very much like what we find in the New Testament. Jesus does not attract strong men to himself, he calls out what we would regard as the flotsam and jetsam of 1st century life. Nobodies. and that’s who these are, which the exception perhaps of Gandalf. But these nobodies do something really magnificent. They are bound together by ties of friendship and loyalty and devotion that takes them where no one else can go. Because, for example, when Gandalf is offered custody of the ring, the ring of magical, all-coercive power, he refuses it. Because he says it would be very dangerous for me, a wizard, to have that ring. Because as a wizard I would have great ambition to use it, for the good, but in using coercive power for the good I would obviously do deeply evil things. So these Hobbits, by their very smallness, their modesty, their lack of large world ambition, make them the perfect custodians of this ring. Because they, of course, decide to destroy it rather than make any use of it whatsoever. So it is their weakness that becomes their strength. And that is a
central New Testament paradox of course. And Tolkien knew that. He’s doing very much in that book what he said author of Beowulf was doing. Now Beowulf was a great pagan story that the early Christian monks of Anglo-Saxon england no doubt had had handed down to them, but when they recorded it, they recorded it in such a way as to imbue it with Christian virtues and Christian concerns. I think Tolkien is doing the very same thing in the Lord of the Rings.

Interviewer: You pointed out in the essay you wrote for the Christian Century sometime back that there is a cloud of doom over this book and I wondered whether it’s appropriate to say that there’s a kind of tragic sense about this work or is that not quite right?

Ralph Wood: I think that’s quite fair. I think Tolkien has a deeply tragic vision. It began perhaps, as you know by reading Tolkien’s biography, when his mother died when he was only 12 years old. His father had died when Tolkien was only 3 and he’d never really known him. So he’d lost both parents, he was an orphan as was his brother Hillary, by the time he was 12, and Hillary only 10. And from that moment forward, he never had any assurance that anything would last, that anything was permanent, that all things are radically transient, passing away, evanescent. And then when he read the Scandenavian sagas he found, of course, a very similar vision of life’s darkness, and it’s temporariness, its shortness. And he works that into his fiction, I think, not to contradict the Christian qualities of it, but to complement those. To say, this is the other side of life that we as Christians must candidly acknowledge.

Interviewer: Ralph Wood observes that of all the figures in the LOTR, the humble servant Samwise Gamgee makes the most interesting journey.

Ralph Wood: He undergoes by far the largest and deepest moral and spiritual development of anyone in the entire epic. Frodo is certainly the best of the Hobbits at the beginning, becomes much greater than he was. But Sam starts out as really as kind of bumbling peasant, illiterate. He doesn’t speak correct language. He’s always interfereing where he’s not wanted. He’s clumsy, he’s overweight, he’s somehting of a fool, frankly, at the begining. He has a kind of peasant suspion,
especially of Gollum; very angry that Frodo would let him come along and follow them through this terrible journey. But he undergoes such a magnificent moral and spiritual development that by the end, he is the real hero. He is the one who, after all, bears Frodo’s body up the side of Mt. doom when frodo is now completely too exhausted to make that journey. And had he not done so, of course, the final triumph would not have occurred. And he goes back home, of course, to become the new mayor of Hobbiton. So he is really some ways the most interesting character in the whole book.

Interviewer: The asset that seems to equip him for all of that is a profound sense of wonder at things.

Ralph Wood: Yes, even though that develops. His first desire was to see elves. He had never seen an elf, and, of course, he is absolutely stricken with the wonder of these creatures when he meets them. But he comes to see that the wonder he really is seeking is the wonder of how this quest is going to be completed. The wonder of that company of 9, of being bound together by such deep ties. The wonder of Gollum though he’s the traitor, and the Judas figure, in some sense, is nonetheless essential to the quest. And Sam finally has mercy on Gollum. So he has a wonder that becomes moral as well as natural.

Interviewer: Would it be fair to say that it’s partly the wonder of their escapade becoming a story, becoming a tale?

Ralph Wood: Yes, there’s a wonderful long meditation where he talks about he and Frodo. “I wonder what sort of tale we have fallen into?” where again, for Sam to have that kind of capacity of self-reflection, given how he started, is again quite remarkable. he comes to see that their not knowing the outcome is that makes the tale, their story worth following. If they knew the outcome in advance, either good or evil, it would not be worth undertaking. If on the one hand, they knew that their outcome was ill, they’d of course despair and be completely overwhelmed. If on the other hand, though they knew it was going to turn out well and would end in triumph, they would be filled with such terrible complacency and pride that likewise the quest would be destroyed. So Sam comes to reflect on these matters at the end of book 2 in very profound ways.

Interviewer: Ralph Wood, university professor at Baylor University where he teaches in the departments of Religion and English.

This is a bi-monthly tape series, for more info, call: 1-800-331-6407


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