Tag Archives: lord of the rings

So About Tom Bombadil

In the vast universe of Tolkien fandom, there is perhaps no figure more polarizing than Tom Bombadil (though perhaps Peter Jackson is up there, too). Some Tolkien fans swear by this character, while others loath him. When it quickly became clear that he was not going to make an appearance in Jackson’s films, there was a similarly divided response. Some felt that this was a deep betrayal of an essential component of Tolkien’s vision, while others breathed a welcome sigh of relief. I was of the latter mind.

I’ll be the first to admit that for a long time I was decidedly not a fan of Mr. Bombadil. He was too foolish and silly, too full of sing-song and rhyme, to be pleasing to me. He just seemed so out-of-step with the other parts of the novel that I personally found infinitely more interesting. Try as I might, I just could not find the charm in the ridiculous. I read through these sections, but they always felt like a tedious hurdle to jump over, the one separating the quaint and enjoyable sections dealing with the Shire from when things got good starting with the incidents at Bree.

Through the years, though, I’ve come to really appreciate this interlude of the novel. Sure, it doesn’t have the soaring height of operatic grandeur that we see in the sequences, but it does have some truly sinister bits. Who does not feel a faint thrill of terror at the power of Old Man Willow, whose heart is rotten but whose sway over the Old Forest is unparalleled? Who doesn’t feel a faint chill upon seeing the barrows rearing above Tom’s house, knowing that there are wights living there?

On this most recent reading of the novel, however, it is the passages detailing the homely virtues of Tom’s house that provided me the most pleasure as a reader. Tolkien was an absolute master of creating atmosphere, of showing us how particular spaces and places were more than just settings. Places like the House of Tom Bombadil represent an entire way of life, an ethos that saturates every aspect of it. In this case, it is an oasis in a world grown increasingly chaotic. However, it is an oasis that is itself dangerous, a place that operates according to its own rules.

And it is precisely those own rules, which Tom alone seems to have mastered, that really sets this part of the novel apart. Bombadil remains an enigma to even the most devout and meticulous of Tolkien fans, and I for one think it’s better that we remain in the dark about whether he is one of the Maiar, or whether he is something else altogether. To some extent, Bombadil seems to exist outside of history. The events of the world outside–that have such dramatic, larger-scale historical consequences–don’t really seem to affect him in any meaningful way (recall that the Ring has no effect on him).

This is not to say that this sequence isn’t important in terms of history; far from it. After all, this does include the sequence in which Tom relates to the gathered hobbits the glimmers of the history of the North that the Hobbits, in their blissful ignorance, have largely forgotten. Though the reader doesn’t know it at this point, these are the rival kingdoms that emerged after the splintering of Arnor, as well as the rise of the Witch-king. There is something hauntingly beautiful about these tales, rendered all the more so by their inscrutability. They are part of the vast skein that underlies this particular thread in the pattern of Tolkien’s world.

And, of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the fair Goldberry. Unlike the other two prominent women in this universe–Galadriel and Éowyn–we don’t really learn much about her. She does, however, fit nicely into the way that Tolkien tended to view women, with her golden hair and her inscrutability. One gets the sense, though, that there is a great power that she, like Tom, keeps carefully concealed. Again, though, I see this as one of the things that makes her such a compelling character, and I am grateful that Tolkien doesn’t tell us more than he absolutely needs to.

So, I have to admit, I’ve become quite fond of Tom Bombadil. Comforting and enigmatic, powerful yet aloof, he remains one of Tolkien’s most fascinating creations.

And that is saying quite a lot, indeed.

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Reading Tolkien in the Time of Trump

Now that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month here at Queerly Different, I thought I’d begin this year’s month with a post about the Sauron of the 21st Century, the President-Elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Now, I know what some of you are no doubt thinking. Isn’t that hyperbolic? Isn’t it dangerous to conflate the doings of a mythological tyrant in a fantasy novel (no matter how popular and seemingly timeless) with the doings of an elected world leader in 21st Century America? Besides, what can a fantasy novel of any kind tell us about the workings and dangers of politics and tyrants in the real world?

Perhaps these are sound and reasonable questions, but as I was re-rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring with my students, and as I’ve begun my annual re-read of Tolkien’s work, it occurs to me that not only are there a lot of similarities between the Third Age of Middle-earth and our contemporary political; there are also a number of things that Tolkien’s magnum opus can tell us about how we relate to the world around us and how we can make sense of a world in which the forces of darkness and oppression seem to have been given a new form of life.

Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that that political treatises and other straightforwardly nonfiction pieces are not the only works that help to shed light on the perilous world in which we live. Tolkien’s work, like the best works of fiction (including and especially those in the fantasy genre) help to hold up a mirror to our own world, to help us critically think about how we engage with the world around us.

As always, I was particularly struck by Frodo’s lament very early in the book that he wishes that he had not come into possession of the Ring and all of the trouble that it brings with it. His desire is an understandable one, as it is always difficult to live in a time where the things we’ve taken for granted–the peace, the stability, the steady movement toward a better world–seem abruptly under siege by a seemingly overpowering tide. It is, in these times, easy to give in to the temptation to be self-pitying and despairing.

Yet, as Gandalf sternly reprimands him, that is a sentiment expressed by all who live to see such times. However, it is not up to them to decide when they are born and in which they live; all that they can do is decide what to do with the time that is given to them. To me, this is an important reminder of what we can do now that all that we on the Left see everything that we cared for threatened with obliteration. It is not up to us to decide what happened now that it has past; it is, however, up to us to continue the fight, to continue working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

In the wake of the election, and faced with the reports of hate crimes spiking in its aftermath, I’m reminded of Theoden’s most despairing line in the film version of The Two Towers:  “What can men do against such reckless hate?” It’s a powerful question precisely because it crystallizes so many of the narrative concerns of the novel as well. What, indeed, can individual men do against the forces that are so much greater than they? Is there any agency to be found in such a world? Sometimes, it seems that the answer to Theoden’s question is a simple, fatigued, utterly despairing, “nothing.”

Yet this also reminds me of Aragorn’s climactic speech, when he pronounces that the day when the strength of men fails is not the day that they face. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they will continue to fight, knowing that their strength alone may not be enough to save them. Just so, we on the Left must continue to fight, even know that we may not always succeed, even knowing that evil may yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, may yet again flee into some dark place and take a new shape. We must continue fighting, for to do anything else would be the worst sort of abrogation, the abandonment of the principles that we hold most dear.

Of course, it is also worth noting that the rise of Sauron  in the Third Age is due to a number of factors, but among them is the decline of the realm of Gondor and a growing sense of complacency. Even Gandalf, certainly one of the wisest figures left in that age of the world. For Gandalf at least it was, at least in a way, easier to believe the honeyed lies of Saruman regarding the fate of the Ring than it was to do what was necessary. As such, this incident is a cautionary tale on the dangers of complacency, of a willingness to ignore the gut warnings that we have about the very real dangers that exist in the world.

Thus, despite the darkness of spirit that seems to have fallen over many in the American Left (including yours truly), reading and watching The Lord of the Rings gives me hope that there is always hope, even it is just a fool’s hope. Tolkien’s work helps us to understand that we always have a moral and ethical responsibility to keep fighting the good fight, even when it appears in the immediate moment that we will be beaten down by the forces that are so much stronger than we are. We have an obligation to reach out to those who are weaker than we are, to show the spirit of compassion and mercy.

And if you need to still take a little more time to process your grief, to weep in frustration at the evils of the world, feel free to do that, too.

After all, as Gandalf poignantly reminds us, “I will not say do not weep. For not all tears are an evil.”

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “Prologue”

It’s that time of year again, Tolkien Appreciation Month! This year, I’ve decided to post periodically as I make my way through my annual reading of Tolkien’s masterpiece.  I can’t guarantee that I’ll post on every chapter (and I will still be posting other stuff, such as film reviews and whatnot), but there will definitely be several posts on The Lord of the Rings.

To inaugurate this year’s Tolkien Appreciation Month, I wanted to talk about the Prologue.  This has, perhaps somewhat strangely, always been one of my favourite parts of the novel.  It retains just a bit of the playful tone so notable in The Hobbit, while also gesturing toward the larger scale that always hovers outside the frame.  We learn, for example, that Celeborn went to Rivendell to spend his remaining time in Middle-earth, and that with him resided much of the lore of the Elder Days that might have otherwise been lost.  While we don’t know when he at last departed from the Grey Havens, the fact that the novel mentions it at all evokes that profound sadness that will remain a key part of The Lord of the Rings as a whole.

What always strikes me when I read this prologue is the extent to which it displays all of the things that make LotR as a whole such an immense pleasure to read.   It’s more than just providing a sense of a fully-realized world (though that is certainly part of it).  It’s also that our access to this world, if we buy into the fiction, is filtered through texts.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we learn, are in reality part of the larger Red Book of Westmarch.  What’s more, we learn that the original was not even preserved, and that the account we are about to read, indeed the one we are reading at that very moment, are already filtered through many layers of interpretation from subsequent generations.  Even at this early stage, one can sense Tolkien’s philologist glee in constructing this world from scratch, right down to the texts.

What is perhaps most compelling, however, is what this part of the book doesn’t tell us.  It alludes to the Authorities, for example, who apparently have some ability to adjudicate whether Gollum should have fulfilled his promise to Bilbo and showed him out of the cave.  We don’t learn any more about these Authorities, however.  Who are they?  Were they akin to the Wise?  In what historic moment were they located?  The novel refuses to answer these questions.  Nor do we learn much more about the scribe in Gondor who made some additions and corrections to the Red Book.  This is one of the few glimpses we get of the world of the Fourth Age, and it is so tantalizing and compelling precisely because it is so tiny.

One tiny note.  I was struck upon this reading by the note that the hobbits were divided into different “breeds.”  This seems like a rather odd choice, given that this opening section goes out of its way to point out that hobbits are more closely related to humans than to the other races of Middle-earth.  Further, given that Tolkien, perhaps more than any other author, was notorious for his attention to detail in language, we can’t avoid the fact that this is no doubt deliberate.  What it means, however, still manages to elude me.

There’s something to be said for savouring this early part of the novel, as it contains a glimmer of the immense depth, richness, and texture that have long stood as the hallmarks of Tolkien’s mythic writing.  It is perhaps tempting to rush right through it to get to the “good stuff,” but I would exhort even experienced Tolkien readers to take another look at this opening section.  You might be surprised at the new things you’ll uncover.

Teaching Tolkien: Biographical, Textual, and Historical Approaches

Though I have not yet had the chance to teach an entire course on Tolkien, his works, and his legacy, I have still given a lot of thought to the numerous ways in which I might do so, as well as what aspects would be most fruitful pedagogically. As it happens, his is an immensely rich ouvre, and there are numerous ways one can use his work to address a wide variety of reading and interpretive practices key to the study of various aspects of literature and culture.

One could, of course, teach a course on Tolkien as an author. I’m thinking here not just of a biographical study (though Humphrey Carpenter and Michael White have both written compelling biographies of Tolkien), but also of a nuanced and careful consideration of those things that most influenced his writing.  Tom Shippey has made a compelling case for reading Tolkien in the context of his scholarship and academic works (in both Tolkien:  Author of the Century and, to a greater extent, in his very learned The Road to Middle-earth).  Indeed, one of the richest courses I took on Tolkien in undergrad was titled “Tolkien in Context.”   Such a course, I think, would almost certainly have to include Tolkien’s noteworthy translations, and we are very fortunate that Christopher Tolkien has provided us at last with his father’s translation of Beowulf, as well as the already in-print collection of Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Pearl.  However, I would also include such works as The Elder Edda in a course such as this, and I might even consider throwing in some of the work by other Inklings such as C.S. Lewis (though probably not The Chronicles of Narnia, both because I think it is far inferior to LoTR and because Tolkien was known to have hated it).  This course would,  I think, enable students to get a really nuanced and complex sense of who Tolkien was an author, as well as the various contexts and frames within which he wrote as both an author of fiction and a well-respected academic.

Likewise, I would also love to teach a course on the textual history on Tolkien’s work.  Shippey has shed a great deal of light on the ways in which Tolkien often used his fiction to fill in gaps in various Old English works, and it would be fascinating to do a literary archaeology of Tolkien.  Again, Christopher has done a great service by publishing the magisterial History of Middle-earth (and John D. Rateliff has done the same for The Hobbit), and it would be a really compelling class to look through both the works themselves and their respective histories.

More interesting, perhaps, would be a course on Tolkien’s cultural influence, the ways in which his works, including but not limited to The Hobbit and LoTR, have had an effect on 20th and 21st Century culture. One could have units devoted to fandom, film adaptations, and appropriation by the meme culture of the Internet (it’s hard to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and not chuckle at either “One does not simply walk into Mordor” or “You shall not pass!)  This could, of course, be part of a larger course discussion on the adaptation of beloved literary works to film (and the hotly debated status of Jackson’s The Hobbit films would make for some very fiery class discussions), as well as the ways in which fans can exert a measure of ownership over their chosen text (which is one of the ways in which I have used Tolkien in my own courses on popular culture and popular appropriation).  Or, one could even have an entire course devoted to his (substantial) influence on the fantasy genre, looking at authors such as Terry Brooks and even George R.R. Martin (seeing A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, as a sort of commentary/homage to Tolkien).

Of course, some of these ideas would probably never make it to the light of day in the standard English curriculum, but they do show how rewarding and compelling teaching Tolkien can be.  What’s more, I think a lot of these ideas could be adapted to appeal to a more general audience, one that does not necessarily have the investment in Tolkien that an avowed fan might have.  That, for me, is one of the most compelling things about bringing Tolkien into the classroom; his works, with all of their density and richness, provide a number of ways to think about fantasy literature and its relevance and inclusion in the larger field of literary study.  Hopefully, Tolkien’s literary reputation will continue to grow and many more generations can come to appreciate the beauty of his works, while also learning the invaluable skills associated with critical and thoughtful engagement and critique of texts.

Who Owns Tolkien?

In case you missed it, Peter Jackson recently announced that, unless the Tolkien Estate grants permission to utilize any of Tolkien’s published works (other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), there will no more Tolkien films made in the foreseeable future.  This should come as no surprise to any of us who have kept up with the Tolkien family’s responses to Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R.’s work.  Christopher Tolkien, his father’s appointed literary executor and hagiographer, has been very vocal about his disdain for Jackson’s films, as well as what he views as the ultimately destructive force of his father’s popularity.

The deep ambivalence, and often outright hostility, expressed by the Tolkien Estate, and Christopher Tolkien in particular, reveals the vexed status that Tolkien’s original works represent in the world of literature and literary study.  Almost from the moment that The Lord of the Rings was published it ignited a firestorm of debate among literary critics, with some defending it as a work of literary genius and others (unsurprisingly) dismissing it as exactly the opposite.  Indeed, it is largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Christopher Tolkien that we have as much as we do of Tolkien’s voluminous unpublished work, both that associated with Middle-earth, such as The Silmarillion and the more recent The Children of Hurin–as well as his translation work, such as the newly released Beowulf.  We likewise have him to thank for the many volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which chronicles the laborious process by which his father brought his miraculous world to such detailed and exquisite life.

Small wonder, then, that Christopher expresses such vexation at what he perceives as the banal nature of the appropriations of his father’s work and the subsequent sullying of his literary reputation (and the Estate’s resultant efforts to solidify and protect Tolkien’s legacy).  While I sympathize with the desire to render Tolkien a respectable and accepted figure of literary study–there is something validating, after all, in having one’s favourite author finally accepted into the canon–I also worry that much is being lost, and overlooked, by these attempts to assert ownership over Tolkien’s work and legacy.  For one thing, it buys into the very ideological system that sets up an artificial, and ultimately stultifying, distinction between the popular and the literary, between the vulgar pleasures of the masses and the loftier intellectual pursuits of the intelligentsia.  After all, just because a text is popular does not mean that it cannot be literary (whatever the hell that means) and have something significant and meaningful to say about the world.  For another, this denies the agency, the pleasure, and the complexity of various types of fan production, of which Jackson’s films stand as one of the foremost exemplars (say what you will about Jackson, there is no doubt that he is a Tolkien fan and that his films are made for fans).

The desire to lift Tolkien’s fantasy works above the allegedly vulgarizing tendencies of the masses (of whom Jackson is seemingly the exemplar par excellance), permeates not only responses to the films, but also the ways in which Tolkien critics and scholars have tended to view the enthusiasm of the legions of fans who have sought to claim Tolkien’s work as their own.  Indeed, the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has proven to be a double-edged sword, for it is precisely their popularity with the masses (often referred to with the usual round of derogatory labels associated with fandom) that has made them so susceptible to the charges of non-seriousness and mere escapism that have long haunted it (as well as the fantasy genre more generally).  Even Neil D. Isaacs, one of the foremost Tolkien critics and an important founding figure of Tolkien Studies, somewhat dismissively referred to the climate of fandom as “faddism and fannism, cultism and clubbism,” a not uncommon set of pejoratives for those who dare to engage to enthusiastically with their chosen text of reference (as Henry Jenkins has often pointed out in his scholarly defense of fandom).  Fan devotion, in this schema, interferes with and may actually undermine an attempt to engage with genuine criticism.  Seemingly, neither fans nor filmmakers have the true right to an appreciation of Tolkien’s work; that honour apparently belongs to the Tolkien Estate and to the lofty efforts of those trained in literary criticism.

So, to return to the question that titles this blog post:  who owns Tolkien?  Or, putting it perhaps somewhat differently, who should own Tolkien?  While I do not want to dismiss the value of Christopher Tolkien’s work (nor that of the Tolkien Estate more generally), nor that of the many literary critics who have done much to show the philosophical and philological depths of Tolkien’s work, I would like to suggest that the legions of fans of Tolkien’s work also have a stake in their beloved fan object (whether that be Tolkien himself or any of his works).  Acknowledging the meaningfulness of their modes of engagement–whether or not you agree with the types of pleasures they take or in the meanings they produce–will not, I think, take away from the grandeur and the genius of Tolkien’s creation, nor will it sully his literary reputation.  In fact, I would argue that it will do exactly the opposite.  Granting fans (including Peter Jackson!) their due as producers of culture, meaning, and value, I suggest, would do much to enhance Tolkien’s reputation.  After all, he wanted to produce a legendarium, a mythology, for his beloved England.  What better way to pay homage to that majestic vision and purpose than by allowing those who devote much of their time and their mental and intellectual energies to delving into Tolkien’s work–whether in the form of fan-fiction, fan videos, or work of amateur or scholarly criticism–a greater stake in Tolkien’s legacy?  I can think of no better tribute to this “Author of the Century” (as Tom Shippey calls him), than allowing everyone to have their own piece of that inheritance.

Why Blog About Tolkien?

When I first decided to devote the entire month of December (and, obviously, the latter part of November) to posting strictly about Tolkien, my first thought was:  What do I have to offer that hasn’t already been said?  Why should anyone read anything that I post about the venerable Tolkien and his voluminous corpus?  After a while, however, I finally decided that my decades-old fandom of Tolkien gave me enough credentials to talk about my favourite elements of his work, and so here I present the inaugural entry in what I hope will be an annual event:  Tolkien Appreciation Month, here on Queerly Different.

My love affair with Tolkien began when I was somewhere between 8 and 9 years old, when my Mom gave me a very old and battered copy of The Hobbit.  It was something of a rite of passage, as she had been waiting to share her love of Tolkien with me (her only child) for quite some time.  I quickly devoured that book and moved into The Lord of the Rings.  Since that fateful reading, I have since revisited Middle-earth countless times in both the written and film form, ranging from Tolkien’s works themselves to works of criticism, from Jackson’s films (all of which I have seen in the theater 3 times each) to message boards devoted to picking apart those films.  I have even had the privilege of both taking and teaching courses on Tolkien’s material.

Every time the Tolkien bug bites me, I can literally think of little else than that magical world that so enchanted me all those years ago (and my numerous copies of the films and the books tells you how often that bug bites me).  While my original love of Tolkien stemmed from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I have subsequently gained a richer and deeper understanding of not only Tolkien’s literary genius, but also his incredible devotion and intense affection for his created world, its peoples (especially the Elves), and its languages (especially the various strands of Elvish).  More than that, however, I have also come to appreciate Tolkien’s academic works, such as his magisterial essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” as well as his lesser-known fictional works such as Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles of Ham.  

Imagine my excitement when, in 2001 (my senior year of high school) I discovered that a film version of my beloved novels was at last being brought to complete fruition.  Like many others, my only cinematic Tolkien experiences had been with the dreadful Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and the slightly better The Return of the King, as well as Ralph Bakshi’s compelling but flawed The Lord of the Rings.  When I saw Jackson’s Fellowship, I was immediately smitten, and I have remained so ever since.  While I do have some misgivings about a few of Jackson’s choices, as a whole I think he has done a wonderful job translating Tolkien’s work into his own particular vision.

As I got older and made my way through my undergraduate years, my understanding and appreciation for Tolkien’s genius only grew, as I took courses that deepened and enriched my understanding of Tolkien and the context out of which he sprang.  Though I have yet to teach a full course devoted to Tolkien, I frequently incorporate the fandom of his work into my course on popular culture, in order to show how sophisticated his work is, as well as how complex and nuanced fan production can be.

Now that I’ve had a chance to teach my own students the joys of Tolkien (or at least a very small part of it), I now realize there is so much more I could do (pedagogically) with him.  Though my own scholarship (as some of you may know) focuses on representations of history and issues of gender and sexuality, there is much in Tolkien’s legendarium that fits well with those interests.  Indeed, so rich is the vast web of Tolkien’s creation that one can find something there for any interpretive lens to investigate.  Though the broader fields of literary criticism and film studies still possess some reluctance into admitting either the work of Jackson or of Tolkien into the canon of significant works, I think there is definitely a case to be made for an interdisciplinary area known as Tolkien Studies.  After all, his influence upon the 20th and 21st Century has been vast, so why not reward that influence by giving him his own field of study?  If Shakespeare has one, why not Tolkien?

There is, then, much still to blog about when it comes to Tolkien, far more than even an entire month’s worth of blog posts can accommodate.  Nevertheless, I still feel the compulsion to share my love and my reflections on Tolkien and his work with the world.  I don’t really have a plan as of yet, but I hope to share my thoughts on The Hobbit (which I am re-reading in anticipation of the upcoming release of the final film, The Battle of the Five Armies), as well as on the various pieces of Tolkien criticism that I find enjoyable (I particularly love Tom Shippey’s two magisterial works, Tolkien:  Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth).  However, I’ll also probably make some notes about The Hobbit film trilogy (including a review of the last film), as well as some thoughts about the workings of history as revealed through The Lord of the Rings.  As you all know by now, my mind is voracious and roving, so it’s really hard to say what all might appear (all of this is to say that I have blog ADD).

Though much has been written about Tolkien, his work, and his fans, I am of the opinion that there is still much more to explore and much more to be appreciated about the ways in which his works continue to posses relevance for many types of audiences.  What’s more, Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien’s work, as well as the numerous critical pieces devoted to both Tolkien and Jackson, provide even more rich fodder for delving into the increasingly complex web of texts surrounding Tolkien’s work.  So, for the next month, I will be blogging about various Tolkien-related things.  I truly and sincerely hope that you will share your own thoughts and experiences with his work in the comments section, as I greatly look forward to engaging with others, whether to agree or disagree.  Here’s to a month of Tolkien!