The problem with J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring sitting on a shelf
So great, and so unopened.

Tolkien is the single most influential fantasy writer in history, but I’m struggling with my re-read of Lord of the Rings

Few authors are as impressive as J.R.R. Tolkien, and few literary feats are as influential as The Lord of the Rings and its extensive legendarium. In the first half of the 20th century, Tolkien built a cohesive, powerful lore that would determine the shape of fantasy writing for decades. Fantasy without Tolkien is like astronomy without the solar system. There are other stars, like Dunsany, the Brothers Grimm, and the Arabian Nights, but the foundation and vantage point of modern fantasy would be annihilated. That being said, there are definite problems in LOTR that are keeping me from completing a successful reread.

Hobbits and MacGuffins

First off, everything in LOTR is subjugated to the Quest, to taking a MacGuffin of Power to a Place of Significance (credit for that phrasing to N.K. Jemisin). It’s a great quest, a beautiful quest. No quest greater. The problem is, once the ultimate outcome of the singular driving force of the books is known (they melt the One Ring, hooray!), a lot of the page-turning juice evaporates from the story. As Frodo evades Nazgûl, orcs, and barrow-wights, the certainty of his mission’s ultimate success makes the prospect of him becoming an abrupt damp spot somewhere in Eregion much less concerning, especially when I can remember every betrayal and obstacle along the way. No future readthrough of LOTR will ever be as exciting as the journey I took in 7th grade.

Right, Wrong, and Nothing in Between

Also, the morality of the world is so stark it’s barren. The characters range from demonic malefactor to angelic savior. Anyone between those two extremes is either an upstanding and respectable servant of good or a servile and contemptible thrall to evil — no one has complex motivations. For comparison, Voldemort is one of the most cartoonishly villainous antagonists in the history of the written word, but even Harry Potter had people like Snape and Draco. The first repents and becomes a double agent, and the second is just a particularly virulent bully who gets in way over his head. Neither is a gleeful servant of evil. LOTR’s absence of moral nuance leads to an empathic flatness — it’s hard to gain purchase on anything emotionally interesting. Not to mention this all-or-nothing black-or-white approach to right and wrong facilitates orcing, the problematic classification of a race as less-than-human and deserving of genocide. N.K. Jemisin discusses it succinctly here (she is the current apex fantasy writer, and fingers crossed that The Stone Sky wins her a third Hugo in a row). The presence of an entire underclass that deserves to be murdered in LOTR sours the whole narrative.

Who Run the World?

Finally, there are almost no women of significance. Margaret Atwood sums up the third problem well:

In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all, only two, but three if you count the spider, which I do. With a name like Shelob you really can’t miss it.

If your first impulse is to say “But there are four women — you’re forgetting Éowyn!” you’re missing the point. The principal cast of characters is overwhelmingly male, so much so that their quest becomes kind of a stag party, which leaves the book with all the interpersonal depth of Hot Tub Time Machine. One of the major beauties of literature is how it explores the struggles and complexities of being human, and that’s hard to access fully if the main narrative is basically a bunch of dudes on a camping trip.

The good outweighs the bad, but not for me, not right now

Lord of the Rings is glorious, and always will be. I can still see, clear and entire, Fangorn Forest, the Mines of Moria, and the white towers of Gondor. I can smell the ale spilled on the floor of the Green Dragon at Bree and feel the bite of the cold wind on Weathertop. Middle-earth has been paying rent in my brain since I was in middle school. It smashed its way in through the sheer weight of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, the thick, heavy bones that support everything he wrote. Tolkien’s masterpiece is a wonder. It is irreplaceable and irreplicable, but the MacGuffin-based plot, the simplistic morality, and the lack of interpersonal texture are all making my 3rd readthrough difficult.

 

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