Friday, February 10, 2012

Tolkien as a Modernist

I may be going on something of a semi-academic rampage lately but I think there are ideas I'd like to get out into public view which, while not merely reviews, I certainly couldn't be bothered putting a complete critical rigour into. The notion I'd like to explore in this article is the correspondence of Tolkien's work, particularly The Lord of the Rings, with the Modernist movement, and his engagement with their concerns. I don't mean to suggest that Tolkien is himself a Modernist; to suggest that he occupies the same literary space as authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce or Eliot would be a very hard sell. However, I think that he shares many of these concerns despite the fact that he articulates them in an entirely different manner.
First of all though I ought to explain Modernism to the non-academic reader. I don't claim to be some kind of expert; my exposure has been to a number of the major works of the movement and lacks depth. Nonetheless I think I can make a passing attempt to familiarise people outside English academia with the concept. At the beginning of the twentieth century the dominant "movement" of English literature at least had been of the Romantic vein. This literature was interested in a retreat from the world, re-engagement with nature, discovering beauty in living things and promoting the value of individual empowerment. As such a lot of the novels and poetry and such of the time were dealing with these kinds of issue and often very concerned with maintaining a sense of beauty and wonder at the world as scientific discoveries steadily eroded their mystery. Realists operated in contrast to this grappling with issues facing an industrialised society, but it wasn't until the Twentieth century and Modernism's appearance that the Romantic movement really started to fade away.
Modernism initially can be seen as another contrast to Romanticism. It perhaps has some relationship to Realism but was more concerned with establishing a sense of "modernity": creating art and literature in new and experimental ways which was a real contrast to these earlier movements not just thematically but also in regards to the actual use of language. The Modernists preferred concise writing to the verbose Romantics. It was a new means of expression for a new century.
The First World War, however, sent Modernism down a course which was not entirely anticipated. The great disaster of the new century which saw war on an industrial scale for the first time and an unprecedented toll in lives created a great deal of disillusionment and cynicism in regards to what Europe and the West in general had, to the Modernists, laughably termed "civilisation". Now Romanticism was not just an outdated literary mode but a culture of irresponsibility and self-delusion which had allowed the world to fall into such a terrible conflict. Modernism was now critical of Western society, viewing it as self-destructive and secretly barbaric under a veneer of sophistication. It eschewed the focus on individual matters and returned to a Classical tradition of casting the literary gaze upon society and humanity at large. So it had separated itself from Romanticism by refusing to be distracted by beauty from ugliness and horror, and even from Realism by using new and unconventional modes of expression. The old world had failed, and Modernism was setting itself well apart. Eliot's The Waste Land argued that Western society was a sterile ruin. Joyce's Ulysses suggested that everyday life and everyday people could be "heroic", not just the mighty deeds of "great men". Across the pond in the United States Fitzgerald perceived  in The Great Gatsby that although the Modernists might have seen the problems afflicting their society, many people had used the aftermath of the disaster of the War as an excuse for irresponsibility and hedonism without values.
The end of the Second World War and the defeat of fascism was perhaps obviously not accompanied by the same cynical attitude regarding the mutual annihilation of the old empires which had occurred after the First and in this way spelled something of an end to the Modernist movement, which had its heyday in the Twenties particularly. The ever-nebulous Postmodernism ensued which was intent on deconstructing everything, even the structures the Modernists had sought to erect. But that's Modernism in a nutshell, and I hope it was clear and concise enough for someone without a background in English academic jargon. If any English academics are reading this I do apologise for any glaring omissions I may have made but I think that will do for my purposes.
So how does Tolkien fit into this? You'd probably thought I'd forgotten him. For a start, Tolkien was of the same generation as a lot of the above-mentioned Modernist authors. What's more, while many of them were heavily involved in scrutinising society after the Great War, a large number of them, especially the most famous and well-regarded, had no participation in the war itself whatsoever. It is from this knowledge, perhaps, that my cynicism about some of the Modernists derives; for all their complaining, many of them were living rather frivolous lifestyles while the war raged elsewhere. Sassoon and to a lesser extent Hemingway are counterexamples to this. I supposed I just find it a little strange that many of the best-known Modernists were not involved in the War at all, even though everyone was obviously affected by it. But perhaps that first hand knowledge resulted in a different attitude and thus different engagement with the literary culture of the time than those who had been on the sidelines. As I say, I'm no expert. My point is that Tolkien was one of those men who was on the front, at the Somme no less. It's around this time that much of The Silmarillion began to take shape. He had direct experience of the war and it wasn't a pleasant one.
Tolkien's first major fictional publication was The Hobbit in the Thirties, my all-time favourite novel and a very influential children's story. The Lord of the Rings, of course, did not begin to take shape until 1938 and much of it was written during the Second World War. Unlike the Modernists, who had been putting their thoughts onto paper in artistic form immediately after the First World War, Tolkien, of the same generation, had a delayed experience. It was in the late Fifties when the book was published and first began to appear in the United States that the hippie movement leapt on it and various others, and it would appear that Tolkien's work was published too late to ever be fully recognised within its own context. Tolkien himself consistently argued that it was the First World War, not the Second, which was an influence on his writing, and that any attempts to allegorise the story in regards to the events of the Second World War were misguided at best. The Lord of the Rings is of course not an allegory at all and its story is not meant to be interpreted nonliterally. The same influences which the Modernists noticed are evident in the story, and this is where my exploration begins.
A critique of war and the downfall of Western society are particularly striking elements of the story. Gondor is obviously the weakened and increasingly weak vestige of a once great civilisation, in this case Númenor. Like many Modernists, Tolkien was rather critical of democracy, or at the very least its manifestations in the early twentieth century, and he was cynical about authority in general, especially what he saw as a rising trend towards government as an end in itself and politics for its own sake. He supported by his own admission a successful anarchic system, as is seemingly evident in the Shire, or absolute monarchy in its best conditions, supported by the depiction of Aragorn's restoration of Gondor's monarchy as an ideal. In this way he is both somewhat unusual and simultaneously conservative, which puts him as an unusual contrast to the Modernists. His writing tends to juxtapose Romantic and Modernist ideals.
This critique extends to the villains. Sauron is the ultimate Modernist foe: once of an angelic race of beings, born of the thought of God, the absolute "civilising" influence, his desire for order and structure is perverted into impatient fury, hatred and violence. War is a tool of domination used by him to fulfil a terrible agenda. His soldiers, the Orcs, are forced by this faceless, unseen master, represented only by the symbol of the Red Eye, to live out lives of brutality and squalor. I've seen arguments suggesting Tolkien somehow glorifies war; this could not be further from the truth. The wholesale destruction of the downtrodden Orcs does not represent an appreciation of violence but rather that the powers that be reduce soldiers to slaves who are denied subjectivity and whose lives are meaningless, and fodder for massacres. What's more, it is not skill in battle which earns the victory for the Free Peoples but the sacrifices made by the small and apparently insignificant, in this case Frodo and Sam, and in a powerful twist, the mercy shown to a wretched creature decades earlier when Bilbo spared Gollum. In an obvious parallel to Joyce, it is the altogether ordinary, middle-aged, middle-class Frodo who is the hero, and traditional "heroes" in a Classical vein such as Aragorn and Gandalf are but supporting characters.
Views that The Lord of the Rings contain elements of Romantic idealism, however, are fairly justified. Tolkien despairs of industry and pollution, and views the best state of affairs as lying in harmony between intelligent beings and the natural world. The Old Forest and the Huorns are one extreme, obviously - wild nature as an amoral destructive force. The industrial desert of Mordor is the other, an ever more hostile landscape. It is in the Shire and in Gondor and Rohan that the future of any kind of harmony is evident. None of this is unambiguous, however. The Shire, for all its rustic beauty, is also naïve and ignorant. Rohan's horses are crucial to its infrastructure but it is struggling in a hostile world, and in Gondor the White Tree is dead. Tolkien does not give us easy answers or straightforward didacticism, another hallmark of Modernism. Straightforward meanings and traditional structure are in decay. He consistently argues in favour of "applicability" and encourages us to draw our own conclusions. It's for these reasons that I despair at the suggestion that The Lord of the Rings is part of some kind of Victorian era Neo-Chivalric pattern of "Muscular Christianity". It's an absurd suggestion. Nothing is straightforward, and as I've stated its the small and insignificant, not the militaristic, who win the day.
I won't deny that The Lord of the Rings has strong Christian elements, although not in the in-your-face C.S. Lewis way. It's a major proponent of the reality of mortal life and the incompatability of immortal elements in the world with the passing of the Elves. It also, obviously, argues in favour of the virtue of self-sacrifice. At the same time, however, it has many key elements of pagan literature. The numerous derivations from Norse mythology are the most obvious example. Here we can find another parallel to Joyce of all things. He was engaging with Classical Greek literature in the form of The Odyssey for his great work. Tolkien's embellishments are involved with a less well-known mythic heritage but one more intrinsically ancestral to the English-speaking world. Again, a Modernist hallmark arises: Tolkien reinvents and adapts the literary heritage of English culture for new purposes.
Of course the use of archaic language and the invented vaguely-medieval setting are obvious contrasts to the Modernists. While they were experimenting with language and using new literary forms, Tolkien was experimenting with "sub-creation", a term of his devising. His experimentation is with the establishment of a fully-functioning and detailed "Secondary World" with a complete geography and populace entirely of the imagination. Obviously its links are to fairy tales and the many worlds of the Norse but this is taken to an entirely new and systematic level and one born not of a culture but of one man's consciousness. Here we see the wider engagement of issues on a social, and in The Lord of the Rings in some ways ultimately a cosmic level. We move from the Romantic isolation of the Shire to the decaying heart of urban and industrial Modernity in the clash of Gondor and Mordor. Again, I'm not trying to suggest that Tolkien is a Modernist, but that he certainly has things in common with the movement. His narrative structure is certainly more conventional than Modernist literature, and his style and tone has much in common with epic, but I think The Lord of the Rings is beyond just a pastiche of epic. Tolkien himself refused to call it a novel, describing it simply as a "book" most of the time and a "Romance" if pressed. Again, the Romantic elements are self-evident. However I think given its ambiguity and resonance with Modernist themes The Lord of the Rings is a work which trascends movements and genres to an extent. Certainly when it existed the Fantasy genre as it is currently understood did not exist and it would hardly fit under the auspices of Science-Fiction. Yet at the same time the element of literary conservatism, and perhaps conservatism in general, is what grants the book the success and mainstream appreciation which works of high intellectuality such as the great literature of Modernism lack outside of the academic community, at least in modern terms.
I don't use the success of The Lord of the Rings to denigrate the Modernists by any means; obviously they've garnered the critical appeal which has sadly eluded Tolkien's great work. I rather make this statement to suggest the difficult position in which the book finds itself in contemporary culture. Academia obviously has a rather limited opinion of it in many circles. Ordinary readers, on the other hand, often find the language style rather dry and the story slow to get moving. There's also the misapprehension that it's a children's book, which it isn't, and it should be no surprise to anyone that a lot of kids can't really get into it. Sometimes I confess myself a little surprised, despite my own personal enthusiasm for the book, that it's had the success it has. The recent film adaptations obviously helped but it was around for nearly fifty years before they came along. In that case maybe my own sense of confusion is a little unjustified. Clearly a lot of people do like it and I've just been talking to the wrong people.

UPDATE in 2016: I would take the next two paragraphs with a grain of salt. I was younger and less well-read than I am now and was clearly feeling a bit defensive. I'll follow this up after the original conclusion.
People like to attack the book for being both racist and sexist. The alleged racism in making the dark-skinned Men of the East and South into Sauron's slaves is far from intentional, I believe. Tolkien's cosmology was always West-focused and as a mythic pre-history for the real world I imagine it just made more sense for him to have these other compass directions equivocal with reality in terms of the appearance of their inhabitants. It's also worth noting that some of the genuinely worst crimes in the Middle-earth stories are committed not by the Haradrim or the Easterlings but by the Númenoreans, who are as white as they come, and that the "lesser men" whose intermarriages with the Men of Gondor resulted in the kin-strife were white Nordic peoples. Indeed the entire kin-strife is depicted as a villainous act using racial prejudice as a scapegoat. While I think you might have a point if you argued that Tolkien wasn't exactly sensitive in his depiction of non-white people I think internally it makes sense to the world he created.
The point of sexism is another interesting one. I assume people who accuse The Lord of the Rings of being sexist haven't read any of the bits containing Galadriel or Éowyn. Yes, the Fellowship are all male. It was written by a conservative male Anglo-Saxon professor and has narrative roots in medieval epic. Yet Galadriel is patently one of the mightiest of the Eldar in Middle-earth. Indeed her power is suggested to be rivalled only by Sauron himself. She holds one of the Three, she's depicted as the true authority in Lothlórien. This is hardly a sexist portrayal. Éowyn is even more prominent. I've read accounts suggesting that she is nothing more than a woman who wants to be a man, and that at the end of the book she abandons this aspiration to settle for a traditional "woman's" role as Faramir's wife. This is to completely miss the point. Éowyn doesn't aspire for a man's role; she aspires to violent irresponsibility and self-destruction due to her own depression and feelings of hopelessness. In the end she realises that there is more value in her being a leader and a healer than a destroyer. She matures from recklessness to responsibility and gets the prestige of killing the Lord of the Nazgûl along the way, a task no man could accomplish. Yes, the number of male characters in the series is greater than the number of females. Does a book have to have an equal distribution of women and men? Does having less women automatically make a book sexist if that's just how the narrative plays out? While Tolkien certainly has less women, they are usually women of character and significance. Suggesting that The Lord of the Rings is somehow sexist is a straw-grasping absurdity. Really in a lot of ways Tolkien isn't nearly as behind the times as I think a lot of people like to depict him.
Anyway my point is that there's more Modernism to Tolkien than we give him credit for. In general there's more thematically and critically to The Lord of the Rings than many people give it credit for. However, I think that it would help anyone interested in understanding the book a little better to scrutinise Tolkien's writings with a bit of a Modernist skew and to consider the influence of the First World War in reading the text.

UPDATE in 2016 Continued:
I somewhat disagree now with the defences I give above. Loath as I am to describe The Lord of the Rings as a racist or sexist text, I actually think that it unavoidably is one. That doesn't mean that I like The Lord of the Rings any less than I used to; I actually think that after reading it and studying it over several years I appreciate it more now. I just think that we shouldn't pretend that the romance is anything other than what it is. I think Sam's contemplation of the dead Man of Harad is an interesting point, for instance, but it's just one point. Galadriel and Éowyn are only two supporting characters. In that respect I would argue for a nuanced view; Tolkien's treatment of women and non-white people is in some respects actually probably better than some, and better than many would give him credit for, but it's also very limited. At the same time, I do think Tolkien's strong criticism of racial discrimination and colonialism should be given more attention; the issue is that it's "white against white" (Elves against Dwarves, Elves against other Elves, Númenóreans against "Lesser Men", Castamir against Eldacar and so on) and thus doesn't necessarily cut to the heart of the issue in some respects. There's also room to discuss the backstory-character Arvedui's admission that the Númenórean tradition of women taking the throne "has not been observed in the lands of exile ever troubled by war" (Appendix A). Did the Dúnedain in Middle-earth forget about Haleth in the First Age, a very strong female leader of Men in wartime? Sometimes I think Tolkien missed a trick or two that he'd set up in his own narrative. Such is the nature of a project of that scale and of his time period and background, I fear.

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