My cat, by instinct, knows when she needs to gnaw on my houseplants to soothe her troubled belly, and sometimes I, in much the same way, know instinctively what I need to read to soothe a troubled soul. Over the holidays I needed rest, and a good story to take my heart on vacation. My hand reached for The Hobbit, despite a tall bedside stack of new books waiting to be read, and I plowed straight onward through the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I’m a different traveler each time I pass through Middle-earth. I pay less attention now to landscape and geography – I’ve already paid my dues to the maps of Mordor and Gondor.
It’s a travel story. The geography is a character, and by golly, to Tolkien at any rate, place details matter. I wonder what percentage of detail of every crag and bluff and outcrop would have been struck by the red pen of modern editors, not to mention the seven different names in three different dialects for each leaf, mound, tower, or Numenorean. But lest we criticize, where would modern fantasy be today without Tolkien in the first place? The landscape, and the language that arises from it, mattered to Tolkien, and not merely intellectually. (He was a noted philologist and linguist.) Desecration of the natural world to feed the maw of progress was one of his chief concerns, as he states clearly in his prologue, and as he illustrates plainly in the penultimate chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.”
The “high” fantasy language, the over-embroidered speech, is both one of the great nostalgic comforts of reading Tolkien, and at times one of its barriers. My older attention span is more fractured, so the language can chafe at times, like a granule in my sock, but not enough to justify removing favorite socks. (That analogy is so reekingly bad, I just have to leave it in.) Language, just like scepters, crowns, and garments of rank, are outward signs and tokens of inner nobility and greatness in Tolkien’s well-ordered world. The series is a love song to a dying hierarchical notion of English society, as reckless industry and unlearned democracy threatened to topple all that was ever sweet and comforting about traditional English life. Or so, I think, did Tolkien feel. And he wasn’t alone. C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, and Kenneth Grahame, and countless other British fantasists sang the same love song in their own tune.
It’s harder now to reconcile myself to Tolkien’s treatment of race/color and gender. Thank heaven for Galadriel and Eowyn who raise the Girl Power Quotient from zero to, er, not-quite-zero. Skin color and purity of bloodline as tokens of greatness … the obvious slant against “swarthy” and even “Black” minions of the Dark Lord must be at least a partial product of Tolkien’s times. Perhaps this is merely the mythology of Middle-earth, with no reference to our world, but I think not; the allusions are too many and too obvious. The racial purity that places Aragorn on the throne feels much like the creed of Voldemort’s Death Eaters now. But it wasn’t meant to be, and Tolkien’s heroes didn’t feed on death nor practice genocide. Mercy, rightful governance, and freedom to live and let live mattered to him. Some of his heroes, hobbits for one, and Wild Men of the woods for another, seem absolute mongrels in contrast to the Elfstone, but they get their moment of heroism too.
Tolkien wrote a story of high heroism, of sacrifice and miracles, of an age when despite desperate odds, hopelessness and terror, a generation mounted up its courage and fought on through dark night to the tide-turning at the dawn. Again and again this happens – at Helm’s Deep, on the fields of Pelennor, in the mines of Moria, even in Bilbo’s encounter with the trolls. Stay defiant in the face of destruction, and hold on until the morning. It’s a tale of triumph, yet also it’s the tale of the dying of the Third Age, when all that was holy and magical in Middle-earth passed away, the good and the bad mingled. To rid the world of Sauron, Gandalf had to leave.
Tolkien’s generation, rightly called The Greatest Generation, has all but passed away, and if a man who fought in WWI and lived through WWII is not entitled to weave such a story as this one, I’d like to know who is. But his age, with its courage, and its fatal misconceptions, is fading away. The Greatest Generation helped stop The Third Reich and interred Japanese Americans. They are our fathers, grandfathers, uncles; our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. They deserve our forgiveness for their sins and errors, just as we will one day need our children’s forgiveness for our blindness and waste and greed. But forgiving does not require us to adopt their prejudices.
I reached for Tolkien because I needed a zap of idealism along with the comfort of a high adventure. I needed to borrow his belief in inner nobility, greatness, and courage, even as I set aside his notions of how such greatness is bred and fostered. And mostly, I think, I needed to be carried away to another world for a good long stretch, such as only Tolkien, with his thousand characters, geological micro-detail, and songs in Elvish could promise.